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Top 20 Films of 2022: #16- Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Unlike my review last year for Peter Jackson’s Get Back, it  would not be quite right to say that lovable Mexican cinema demigod Guillermo del Toto (the same man Peter Jackson replaced on those unfortunate Hobbit films) “came back” in 2022. For one thing, the man is only five years removed from his Best Picture and Director Oscars for Shape of Water, an admirably spirited and well-made film. Some of his other work over the last fifteen years may have fallen short of unqualified home run status and into the realm of beautifully crafted curios (Nightmare Alley, Crimson Peak), but let’s just be clear that those funky little baubles still display a sense of love and imagination that put ninety-nine percent of cinema’s visual stylists to shame. So no, Guillermo del Toro hasn’t been lost in the woods the way Peter Jackson had been until recently. At worst, he’s just been over there in the next room, always following his muse and pouring his jolly film nerd soul into whatever struck his fancy (when he’s not generously and vociferously shouting out his fellow filmmakers). Let’s be frank. If I’ve had slight hesitations about del Toro’s 2010’s and early 2020’s output, it’s only been because I’ve seen him strike genius before. In 2006, I went to a theater in Los Angeles with my law school roommates to watch Pan’s Labyrinth, his ravishing Spanish fairytale about fascism, rebellion and imagination. My first viewing was a top twenty theatrical experience, a crowd oscillating in unison between tearful hush, enchanted delight and audible tension. I’ve been to a lot of down-the-middle crowdpleasers, but I may never hear a crowd erupt more cathartically than the moment Maribel Verdu’s courageous housekeeper narrowly escapes torture at the hands of Sergi Lopez’s vile Captain Vidal, using her switchblade to carve a permanent sneer into his hateful face. And one should not not hold a director’s masterpiece against their other very good works. But, in truth, I have waited for Guillermo del Toro to make something like that again; that soulfully coherent and powerful. My wait came to an end in 2022 in the unlikely form of the man’s first animated film (along with his animator co-director Mark Gustafson), Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. His now-Oscar-winning stop motion marvel finds the humble, spirited creative clearing his throat and drawing in his breath to bellow out another classic. With his sweet bookworm demeanor and giddy enthusiasm for movie-watching, del Toro is always a delight to hear from and read about. But this latest gem feels fiery and personal in a way that even Shape of Water‘s most impassioned harangues against conformist bigotry didn’t for me. The gothic maestro is at the height of his powers again and ready to hold us rapt with attention once more.


The original seed for Pinocchio is not an old fairytale but an 1880s Italian novel by Italian author Carlo Collodi. Its most famous (and still best by my estimation) screen treatment is Walt Disney’s surprisingly unnerving and painterly animated masterpiece from 1940. In spite of its bracing darkness, the Disney version does not match the sheer Grimms Brothers-evoking macabreness of the novel, if only because Disney’s Pinocchio never bites a cartoon cat’s paw off nor later has that same cat try to hang him to death. It’s a high, fucked-up bar. Guillermo del Toro’s superb new spin on the tale as seen through the lens of 1930s fascist Italy is also a little less grisly than Collodi’s text though arguably no less morbid. The man who made fairy tale magic so spooky and tragic in Pan’s Labyrinth has made another tale suffused with death and tormented by human cruelty. Death strikes no more than fifteen minutes in when kindly village woodcarver Geppetto (a truly special voice performance by British national treasure David Bradley) loses his beloved 8-year old son Carlo (I choose to see this as Del Toro literally killing the story’s author) to an accidentally-dropped bomb. The devastated old man spends years in a spiral of grief. The crucifix he was carving in the local church hangs unfinished, a reminder to the whole village of his absence. The village buzzes with judgmental gossip. Geppetto falls into a drunken haze. One night, in the throes of a debilitating bender, he chops down a pine tree (one that Carlo had planted prior to his death) and crudely carves the titular puppet out of it. This display of anguish earns the attention of a cricket named Sebastian, who has just moved into  a hole in the tree’s trunk when it is suddenly, rudely chopped down. Geppetto’s loud sobs also earn the sympathy of some forest spirits, who take a peculiar kind of pity on the bereaved father by bringing his alarmingly rough, alcohol-inspired artwork to life. Unlike Disney’s Geppetto, this version doesn’t wake up grateful and moved to find a son he never had. This one awakens mortified to find a piney abomination clumsily breaking objects, singing loudly and calling him Papa. “I’m not your Papa!,” the old man yells with revulsion. The villagers are even more up in arms when the unruly, possessed plaything claiming to be a young boy storms into the church, causes a supernatural commotion and tries to pose like the wooden colleague on the cross above him. 2022 was a great year for wild plot twists and Geppetto’s initial gobsmacked reluctance to having a relationship with his ersatz son is only the beginning of the twists del Toro applies to this oft-told tale. The local fascists, notably the village priest and the leader of the local fascist party (voiced by del Toro regular Ron Perlman) quickly abandon the idea of drumming Pinocchio out of town and instead try to rein him into conformity with their own norms and plans. Pinocchio is ordered to attend school and become an upstanding citizen. And when, as in the Disney version, he is lured into a seedy life of show business by a traveling puppeteer (an effective Christoph Waltz, though I think Paul Giamatti  would have eaten this role alive), the next course proposed is that he join Mussolini’s youth army (certainly not in the Disney version or in Colucci’s novel). This idea becomes especially intriguing to the local fascist hood when Pinocchio is run over by a truck and comes back to life no more than an hour later. If there’s one thing a Nazi loves more than a naive young mind, it’s a naive young mind that is impervious to death. It’s so nice to have Guillermo del Toro back in anti-fascist fairy tale mode. It’s a micro-genre that has sorely missed him while he was away.


On the strength of Pinocchio and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s understanding of fascism could not be more sharp and multi-hued. It is not merely the violence and debasement at its core that he grasps. He is not simply out to snipe at its oppressive vileness. As brilliant an avatar of spiteful evil as Captain Vidal was in Pan’s Labyrinth, he was only authoritarianism’s most dominant face. One of the ingenious twists of that film was how its heroine had to do more than thwart this obviously fascistic villain. When the seemingly benevolent Faun whose instructions she has been dutifully obeying (in the name of disobeying an evil man of course) asks for a drop of her infant brother’s blood as the final step in her quest, she realizes she cannot heed this demand, even if it is nominally in pursuit of a virtuous goal. She must see at last that fascism wears many masks, with the Captain being just one among them Fascism is not simply a barking demon. It can also take the form of arrogant buffoons, ineffectual stooges and even a friend who pressures us to turn a deaf ear to our own consciences. It can even take the form of a family member. The fascism of Pinocchio’s village is only partially a militaristic kind. It is just as much comprised of fearful citizens, dogmatic priests, judgmental bureaucrats and even disappointed fathers. There are systems of control that have no need for barbed wire and boots. In Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, the lovable auteur wrestles with the burden of both being a father and having a father, with the voice in our heads that whispers there are some people we should obey reflexively. Maybe that voice comes from a good place and maybe we’re right to listen to it, but what about when the voice is wrong? Del Toro leaves the issue of how much obedience a child owes their parent bracingly unresolved. He simply observes that there is something very scoldingly parental in the nature of fascism. Fascist governments are like toxically stern parents who reduce their subjects to the status of perpetually grounded children. A fascist nation abuses its people and then metes out guilt-ridden punishment if they dare to question that abuse. Mussolini and Hitler did not refer to their kingdoms as Fatherlands for nothing.

The middle sections of this Pinocchio are about the young puppet learning the right kind of loyalty, the right kind of selflessness. Not the sort rigidly demanded of us by some authority figure but the kind our consciences (which are sometimes harried, aspiring novelist crickets) compel us towards. The beginning and conclusion of del Toro’s film are lovely, wise bookends about grief and mortality. The prologue that leads up to Pinocchio’s grief-addled creation was not part of Collodi’s novel. Geppetto’ s tragic loss is a conceit added whole cloth by Guillermo del Toro and it considerably deepens this story of a being that can only dream of being a flesh and blood human being. This version of the story posits dying (read: staying dead) as the most human thing of all. Before he becomes an anti-fascist icon, we first meet Pinocchio as a hysterically unholy torment to his creator. A motormouthed mockery of an old man’s grief and a cutting reminder of the folly of trying to outmaneuver death. In that sense, this Pinocchio’s off-putting roughness is both wryly funny and poignant. As if to remind Geppetto how very much this is not his dead son, Pinocchio looks less like a wooden little boy and more like something you would see in a child-friendly version of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Pinocchio’s entrance and early scenes are so sharply discomfiting that I momentarily questioned if this version of the character would even have any kind of redemptive or life-affirming arc.  For a matter of minutes, Guillermo del Toro feints toward this being a story about how alcohol and the spirit world conspire to rub the inevitability and permanence of loss in a kindly woodcarver’s face. Those early scenes of Pinocchio as an uncomprehending little terror are also hands down the funniest that del Toro has ever written. And while this epilogue and coda may seem mostly separate from the film’s ruminations on fascism, I think all of these themes speak to our messy humanity. How our fear and our ignorance and our sadness and our powerlessness over death are all primal forces that we are swept along by. They are the things that lead us by the nose more often than not and that is a very relatably human thing. I don’t think Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio offers a bright line moral here, so much as it offers a prayer for our emotional endurance. A hope that, while we cannot be free of that complicated, vulnerable swirl inside of us, we can find a way to be more than the unthinking product of it. From time to time at least. Finding your courage and yourself in the maelstrom is what makes you a real boy or girl.

With all there is to love about del Toro’s remarkable first foray into animation (from the stunning detail of its stop motion work to its potent voice performances), I’m maybe most impressed by what a singular and personal work of adaptation it is. If the directors of 2022 were contestants on an old season of American Idol, Guillermo del Toro would be the director most likely to have Paula Abdul gushing, “You made it your own!” There’s nothing wrong with adapting a source material faithfully and subtly, but del Toro’s dramatic deviations are almost all perfectly judged (I don’t know that this absolutely needed to be a musical but I think most of its songs are perfectly good). The airlift form the 1880’s to 1930’s Italy sets up its fascist themes and gives the animators a wealth of beautiful period detail to play with. The addition of Carlo and his tragic death gives a broad children’s fable character dpeth and specificity in a way that never interferes with the story’s fairy tale tone. And the details involving Pinocchio’s multiple not-quite-deaths and his repeated journeys through a hilariously bureaucratic underworld (del Toro bemusedly suggests that maybe humans don’t have a copyright on tedious protocol) are delightfully sardonic. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is what happens when a creator is inspired by a work of art but not bound to it. It’s a testament to the value of not simply memorizing your source but really understanding it. Guillermo del Toro sees what has made Pinocchio endure and then, like any great artist taking a crack at a frequently covered chestnut, he offers some insights of his own that you might not have considered before. Sometimes he plays along with Collodi’s already-eccentric story and sometimes he runs away from it and around it in circles like a giggly schoolboy. IN a film about defiance as the very best human trait, del Toro leads by example. He clearly has the greatest of respect and affection for the old tale he is adapting. But he loves it because of what it makes him think of, and he’s too vivacious and uninhibited a filmmaker to stay in its shadow. To truly honor someone you respect, be it a father or a fellow artist, you need to have the courage to be yourself.

Is Guillermo del Toro funny? I said it before but it bears repeating that his Pinocchio is genuinely a very funny film. I was surprised by its humor, though maybe it was unfair of me to assume that it wouldn’t have that. Guillermo del Toro does have the two Hellboy films, which rely a lot on jokes. Then again, I found Shape of Water‘s attempts at being funny to be somewhat off. Not in an entirely ineffectualy way, but clumsy enough to make me wonder why this movie was trying to make me laugh. Whimsy fit Shape of Water very well, as it fits del Toro himself, but the jokes (about weird repressed 1950’s sex and Chiclets and generals yelling “unfuck this mess”) felt more shoehorned in. But I laughed heartily at Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, enough so that I feel I owe the ticklishly sweet man more credit as a humorist. Jokes may not be what I come to his films for, but what I do come for is to bear witness to his exuberant id. and if Guillermo del Toro needs some jokes to really put the finishing touches on his latest Chex mix of eeriness, sentiment, rebel attitude and note-perfect effects, then that’s what he needs. Artists as wildly imaginative as him are always going to be given to wild indulgences and it’s a given that not all of them will connect with me. But Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a blessed reminder of why the man is such an undeniable force for good in filmdom. Because, when all of his flourishes and flights of fancy lock into place, there’s just nobody on the planet (don’t you even think about saying Tim Burton to me) like him. And when not everything is gelling seamlessly, there’s still nobody on the planet like him (not even Tim Burton). He’s a man so endearingly, irrepressibly himself that his film about fish sex and red scare politics cruised to Oscar glory and just about everyone was tickled to watch it happen. So not, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Guillermo del Toro came back in 2022. If anything, I came back to him. Like a prodigal son coming home to cinema’s most gregarious, free-wheeling and generous father.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #17- Armageddon Time

James Gray is a director of eclectic sensibilities. So even though his latest gem is set in the 1980s and mostly makes use of golden age hip hop and Clash-style punk for its soundtrack, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me busting out a little 90’s skate punk as a jumping off point for digging into his film. I enjoy the band NOFX quite a bit, in all their goofy, major chord glory. I am particularly fond of their 23-minute opus “The Decline”, a fiery, tonally diverse suite song that calls out the evils of everything from gun violence to anti-intellectualism to draconian marijuana laws. But its central thesis critiques a certain kind of myopic selfishness that feeds on fear. It’s the kind of frightened covetousness that turns garden variety self-interest into an all-consuming blaze of egomaniacal survivalism. One which transforms “my family comes first” into “my family comes only”. The idea that we only have the resources to care for our own, regardless of the consequences of that mindset. In the song’s rousingly cynical closing act, the learned emeritus Fat Mike roars out, “Fellow members, Club We’ve Got Ours. I’d like to introduce you to our host. He’s got his. And I’ve got mine. Meet the Decline.” This sprawling punk anthem came back to me as I watched James Gray’s autobiographical account of liberal New York Jewish family negotiating and painfully compromising their principles at the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Gray’s story is one of 2022’s most intellectually rigorous and deeply disquieting films because the people it most strongly takes to task are basically decent. The powerful advocates of classism and racism are mostly tucked away in the shadows and unseen. Gray alludes to the unscrupulous and the powerful intermittently (particularly by using the 1980 Presidential election as a loose framing device), but Armageddon Time is really the story of people who want to do the right thing. It is about people who want to be seen as compassionate but find themselves tripped up by the hurdles of prejudice, opportunism, generational trauma and moral cowardice. It is a potent and dismaying look at how American society prioritizes some people while stigmatizing others, and how even the well-meaning can be separated from their morals by the strong paternal hand of that society.

It’s the autumn of 1980 in New York City and a good-hearted but headstrong young Jewish boy named Paul Graff has just begun the sixth grade. Paul dreams of being an artist but his talent gets him sent to the blackboard on the first day when he draws a (quite good) rendering of his balding teacher. He doesn’t have to suffer his punishment alone for long, however, because another student all but volunteers to be punished with him. The teacher calls out the name of a young black boy, Johnny Davis. “The name’s Bond. James Bond”, the charismatic youngster suavely replies. They win their classmates’ laughter together and lose the right to participate in gym exercises for the day. Paul walks Johnny to his bus (Johnny lives in a poor neighborhood with only his grandmother) and they chat. They talk about Johnny’s dream of being an astronaut and the upcoming class trip to the Guggenheim Museum. Paul promises to pinch a 20-dollar bill from his mother’s purse so Johnny can afford to go on the outing. Paul lives a comfortable life, though his father (Jeremy Strong, strong) labors as a working class repairman. His maternal grandparents are wealthy enough to help the family. His older brother attends a rich private school downtown. His mother (Anne Hathaway, as great as I’ve seen her in quite some time) is a driven woman with plans to run for head of the District School Board. They live in a well-kept townhouse. Paul is especially close with his British-Ukrainian grandfather on his mother’s side, Aaron (an endearing and superb Anthony Hopkins giving one of the year’s truly great supporting performances). Aaron is a noble and doting man, always giving the Graff sons gifts and encouragement. He represents the very best angels of the Graff family, but even he has a somewhat stifling sense of familial tightness. He has known scarcity and hardship and a certain greedy fearfulness vibrates just below his genteel surface. His own Ukrainian mother saw her parents murdered by anti-Semitic hooligans. That was when she moved the family away from the Ukraine to Liverpool and from there across the ocean to New York City. The Graffs have had to fight prejudice and hate to become the modestly successful American family they are and they live with the uneasy feeling that it all could be taken away from them in an instant. That is why, when Paul’s blossoming friendship with Johnny lands him a suspension (they are both caught smoking pot in the stalls), even kindly Aaron supports the decision to pull him out of public school and send him to the lofty, elite school his older brother attends. Paul is being pulled in two directions by his close bond with a nice, misunderstood black boy and by the many forces that want to groom him into the thing that Johnny will never be allowed to be: a powerful, accepted cog in society’s upper echelons. The private school does not settle the war for Paul’s soul, it only starts it. It does not conclude the matter of Paul’s affluent future as his family hopes. Instead, the whole ordeal and especially his painful separation form Johnny opens Paul’s eyes to ugly and systemically violent truths about the American Dream and which people are handpicked to take part in it. Moreover, it sets in motion a tragedy that irrevocably changes these characters and alters the destiny of the man directing this film.

James Gray is much too eclectic of an auteur to be hemmed in by the kinds of stories he tells. He’s one of the last directors you could ever pigeonhole. He has been back to the turn of the century (The Immigrant and his masterpiece The Lost City of Z), into the future (Ad Astra) and occasionally to the present (Little Odessa and Two Lovers). His films have gone to Edwardian England, the remote Amazon, the far reaches of outer space and frequently returned home to his native New York City. If there’s a germ of a consistent theme to be found in his work, I think it’s the heavy yoke of family and expectations. In Ad Astra, Brad Pitt’s astronaut sets out to find a father whose approval he has always craved, while that same father has suddenly cast off a lifetime of societal expectations by going rogue. The Lost City of Z‘s Percy Fawcett starts as a social striver trying to clear his tainted family name before a chance to make good by mapping the Amazon points him down a path that is his alone. But while he loses himself in his beloved rainforest, the question that looms is whether he is doing right by his family back in England. Family and society are primal forces to either surrender to or rebel against but, no matter what, you can never entirely get away from them. Not even light years away from Earth. They are fundamental fields of gravity that govern life as James Gray sees it and all of us define ourselves, rebel and conformist alike, by how we respond to them. In Armageddon Time, Gray renders the vision of his own family with fairness and empathy but also with merciless honesty. Family can be an unflattering thing; poison and antidote in one bottle. He shows the Graffs’ fearful selfishness, their blind entitlement, their internalized racism, their years of suffering anti-Jewish bigotry now unthinkingly projected out at the next marginalized group. He captures a brutal beating at the hands of his stern, emotionally repressed father. If Avatar: The Way of Water posits that family is a fortress, Armageddon Time adds that it can be a fortress under siege with us trapped inside of it. Family can protect us but it also has the power to suffocate and drive us mad. The entire institution of family carries with it the uncomfortable notion that our empathy is already partly spoken for, that we reserve a larger portion of our kindness and care for this one group of people that shares our genes. Armageddon Time is James Gray’s gently harrowing account of learning that opportunity and dignity are not apportioned equally in America. The brilliance of Gray’s film is in how he sees family as a snapshot of that harsh societal truth in miniature.

Armageddon Time is about as insightful a film about white privilege as I have ever laid eyes on. What makes it so biting is how it sees racism and privilege as the result of both deliberate cruelty and unconscious self-obsession. I was reminded of something Brad Dourif’s doctor from Deadwood says: “I see as much misery out of them moving to justify their selves as them that set out to do harm.” A society of racial injustice and unequal opportunity is built a brick at a time by the justifications of individuals afraid for their own position; by those who fear that they only have enough capacity (of money, of time, of emotional energy) to see to themselves and their own circle. The gravitational pull of self-interest is hard to resist. Fat Mike has it right. He’s got his and I’ve got mine. The Graffs are basically well-meaning people. They do not espouse hateful rhetoric, even if they do fall right into prejudiced line the second one black boy’s existence poses some vague threat to their child’s future. There is an unspoken theme in Armageddon Time about how people act out their own past oppression against other exploited groups, passing their victimization along like a hot potato. The Graff family is vocally against Ronald Reagan but they are blithe participants in the society that is about to welcome Reaganism’s self-serving myopia with open arms. They may be registered as Democrats but they eagerly push Paul into a school and career track populated by the sons of the greedy, powerful and unprincipled. Many, this critic included, are perfectly willing to attack a system solely interested in securing prosperity and safety for a privileged handful of whites, but it takes a different sort of courage to disavow the benefits we receive from that system. To refuse what you are given and let your advantage go unused. Armageddon Time understands how hard it is for ostensibly progressive white people to refuse the money, so to speak, even when we know it has been stolen from the disadvantaged. We can critique the unjust enrichment of white over black all day long, but there is a tendency to do so in a very generalized way; a way that leaves our own selves out of the problem. The Graffs know things shouldn’t be the way they are, but they also feel they could really use any leg up that America is offering them. Even the noble and tolerant grandfather Aaron won’t say no to this arbitrary fortune. He accepts special treatment and remembers how recently the shoe was on the other foot. How not very long ago it would have been a Cossack’s boot breaking down their door. “The system is rigged and unfair,” we cry out and then discreetly drop the tainted coins into our pockets.

Armageddon Time is an intimately observed coming of age story for James Gray but it also has the foreboding of a slowly unfurling horror movie. The slasher waiting in the bushes is nothing less than the American 80s, and nobody’s ideals or best liberal intentions are safe. Gray’s wise, sober little tale has the clammy panic of a waking nightmare. The more Paul watches all of society degrade and devalue Johnny (from uncaring teachers who write him off to the police to even other black adolescents), the more incensed Paul becomes. That’s when the world starts to take on truly chilling undertones. Because he learns that all his righteous indignation, disgust and sorrow can’t give him the courage to really do anything about this injustice. The Armageddon in question is the total paralysis of human empathy and social action; the failure of our own convictions when we have to make a choice that might threaten our own interests. Meanwhile, Johnny Davis knows where his story is headed from the beginning. His resigned, worn out face tells us everything we need to know. He is heartbreakingly aware that no future has been set aside for him. When Paul worries about his teacher punishing them for ditching a field trip, Johnny chuckles knowingly and says, “Nothing’s gonna happen to you, man.” Johnny has Paul’s back with a tender ferocity. He doesn’t have a chance against this depraved system, but it hurts him to see it grind down his friend. Paul sadly finds himself tongue-tied when two rich classmates at his new school ask him if he ever went to school with blacks (but of course they don’t use the word “blacks”). The Graffs watch a Reagan interview where the incoming President warns that this generation might be the one to usher in Armageddon. His Armageddon is a rhetorical weapon, a fear cudgel that he will soon use to help herd America into a notoriously conformist chapter of its history. The true Armageddon isn’t what Reagan says it is but, in getting the American populace to buy into the idea, it does become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The real cataclysm is the wilting of the American soul in the face of manufactured fear. The compromising of Americans’ principles as more of them prioritize their financial security and make peace with the limits of their power to help the stigmatized, brutalized and neglected.  Sometimes that racist abuse takes the form of plain old neglect. When Paul is sent to the principal’s office, the principal doesn’t know what to do with him and sends him right back to class. The message is actually crueler than mere punishment. Society has repeatedly let Paul know that it doesn’t much care where he goes or what happens to him, just that there’s no real place for him. He simply doesn’t matter. I have heard and digested the criticisms of Armageddon Time as being just another exercise in white guilt. But I find James Gray’s self-immolating autobiography so clear-eyed and scorching that it avoids navel-gazing. It never feels like an act of indulgent self-flagellation or pat forgiveness. Certainly not forgiveness of any kind. It sees the human beings at the center of this story in all their dimensions, but it never lets a one of them off the hook. Under its muted, autumnal visual palette, Armageddon Time breathes a rebuking fire that consumes Gray’s loved ones and himself.

The problem Armageddon Time sees is how the future is forever being held back by the past. The way that, even if you were to assemble enough people who genuinely want to create a more equal and equitable world, they would need to sacrifice personally.  They would need to agree to break with traditions that have protected and enriched them. Real justice would require drastic change, and whoever created the system as it currently stands was cunning enough to entangle a lot of white Americans in it; to make sure that each of them has enough of a piddling token stake in the status quo that they feel they would suffer some detriment from altering it. In the way it sees the morass of self-interest and complacency as the enemy of progress, Armageddon Time reminded me of The Wire, David Simon’s revelatory show about law, crime and city politics in Baltimore. Various characters in that show envision and try to implement better, fairer ways of governing and policing. Better ways of being as a society. And the stark brick wall reality that they always butt up against is that it’s very difficult to get people to change an unjust system that they own shares in. If only half the people in that system didn’t want to be judges and higher-ups, The Wire‘s unorthodox Detective McNulty laments. “But no, everybody stays friends. Everybody gets paid. And everybody has a fucking future.” It’s just what Paul Graff’s family is doing when they place him in that private academy full of future judges, politicians and CEOs. They are buying him into that safe future that is so very beholden to the craven past. In what could have been too on the nose, the first person Paul runs into on his first day at rich school is Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump. He is there with his daughter Maryanne Trump Barry, an Assistant United States Attorney. She has come to the school’s assembly to tell this auditorium full of privileged white boys the unvarnished truth. The future has been prepared specially in advance for them. It has been paid for and gift wrapped to be given to them on a day not so far from today, in a year not so distant from 1980. It is of course expected that they will one day reciprocate for their own kind, ensuring that the right to peace and prosperity is handed down to the chosen people who will gather in this same stately hall decades from now. Armageddon Time does not actually get its title from that Reagan interview. It’s instead a reference to “Armagideon Time”, a 1970s reggae song by a black Jamaican named Willie Williams. It was later covered by a white British band  called The Clash. The song is about poverty and inequality and fighting back against systemic evils. There is not much hope in Armageddon Time outside of a small moment of symbolic victory for Paul. But there may be a nugget of hope in the lyrics of “Armagideon Time”, a reminder of what needs to be done. “A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight,” Williams sings. “Remember to kick it over.”

Top 20 Films of 2022: #15- Avatar: The Way of Water

The major reason Ratatouille‘s Anton Ego is so many critics’ favorite depiction of a critic (other than the dream of having a velvety Peter O’Toole voice) is that he shows how much we all want to love the things we take in. Beneath his imposing veneer lies the soft heart of a man who wants to be completely bowled over by a piece of art. It may not always work out that way, but no self-respecting critic wants to find a piece of art mediocre or bad. Lovers of art want to have a reason to love even more art and, even if we feel reasonably certain that a given film is going to disappoint us, we still hold to the hope that maybe it won’t. True film critics start every film hoping, praying to be surprised. And when that happens, there are precious few experiences more rejuvenating and magical. I never disliked James Cameron’s 2009 world-beater Avatar. Not by a long shot. I always though it was pretty good and I still basically feel that way. Its environmentalist message is definitely earnest and cheesy (even if pitched entirely to my viewpoint), but earnestness has never been the Cameron trait that bothers me. Obviously the visuals were and are staggering. But the visionary director’s nakedly sentimental action extravaganza never hit me with the emotional intensity of Cameron masterworks like Terminator 2: Judgement DayAliens or Titanic. It wasn’t that Avatar was dopey, because of course it was. It’s not like Cameron has ever been particularly script-focused to begin with. His plots and characters deserve a lot of praise, but he’s the furthest thing from writerly or subtle. Maybe it was just that the 2009 Avatar‘s New-Agey ideas felt too borrowed and obvious, even for someone as broad as Cameron. It was as if he had just registered for Facebook and stumbled on a cache of well-meaning but hackneyed climate change memes that he couldn’t wait to share. Avatar was far too committed and sincere for me to ever call it phoned in. It clearly came from a place of great conviction on Cameron’s part. But maybe its ham-handed message and those well-worn tropes so many made fun of it for (the comparisons to Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas) pointed toward something just a little less personal about it. Even True Lies feels more suffused with Big Jim Cameron’s heart and personality, what with its goofy divorced guy energy. I like Avatar fine in a way where I was content to never talk about it or even watch it again. Unlike so much of the movie-watching world, I did not have a pressing need to “return to Pandora”. So. all of that to say, Avatar: The Way of Water being even pretty good would have been a splendid surprise for this one-time Navi agnostic. But what I ended up getting from the second Avatar was well above and beyond anything I could have hoped for. And I could break it all down into a numerical grade and put caveats and qualifiers on my praise but, to tell you the truth, I don’t feel like it. A film as elating as this leaves a critic too satisfied for hedging or hair-splitting. After a three-hour bath in Cameron’s aquamarine wonderland, quibbling is the furthest thing from my mind. I am surprised and delighted to tell you that I unabashedly loved Avatar: The Way of Water.


Avatar: The Way of Water picks up some 16 years after the first one. After fending off his own military from decimating the forests of Pandora for precious metals, former paraplegic Earth Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, shaking off the stiffness of his first outing with Cameron and giving what I can happily call a tremendously good performance) is now living in domestic bliss with his Navi warrior wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, as reliably strong here as she always is) and their four children. This includes their two teenaged songs, responsible eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and their second eldest, the more impetuous and eager Loak (Britain Dalton). They also have an adopted teenage daughter named Kiri. Kiri (marvelously played with a Winona Ryder-like blend of quirky innocence and rebelliousness by 71-year James Cameron muse Sigourney Weaver) was birthed by Earth scientist Grace (played briefly by Weaver without the use of mo-cap technology), who fell into a coma after one of the first movie’s battles. Kiri’s father remains unknown, though giddy speculation runs high among her siblings. The youngest Sully child is their 7-year old daughter Tuk (Trinity Bliss, adorable). The loving Sully clan has been enjoying a relatively uneventful decade-plus. Their season in the Sun ends when Earth ships suddenly arrive in a fiery blast, carrying a new wave of Sky People, as the Navi term the Earth interlopers. Cameron cuts to a year later with Jake, Neytiri and the rest of the Navi (including the Sully sons) fighting to stop the Earth forces from encroaching into their sacred forest. They are doing quite a good job of it too, which is why the military presence on Pandora has called for an upgrade to their forces. In an effort to help neutralize chosen warrior Jake Sully, the corporate and military interests of Earth have essentially brought back the first film’s villain, Colonel Quaritch (a very strong Steven Lang), nothwithstanding the fact that he expired with two arrows through the chest at the conclusion of the first Avatar. The film repeatedly reminds us, however, that this is not actually the same Colonel Quaritch but a kind of copy containing all of his data. In other words, Quaritch’s superiors shrewdly preserved his memories on a zip drive and have uploaded them into a nine-foot tall Navi body. The new Quaritch wants a chance for revenge against the turncoat Jake and against the Navi woman who violently dispatched the human Quaritch. The Earth forces on Pandora hope this personal vendetta (and the aid of Quaritch’s elite team of Marines, also brought back to life in avatar form) will turn the tides in their favor and give them the added push they need to neutralize the Forest Navi resistance. And, in the jam-packed first thirty minutes of Cameron’s three-hour epic, Quaritch and his grunts come close to succeeding, after they catch the Sully children snooping around the site of the first film’s final battle. Jake and Neytiri arrive just in time to rescue their kids and the whole Sully family escapes by the blue skin of their teeth. But Quaritch does take one prisoner: his own 16-year old son, Spider. Spider was only two at the time the Earthlings retreated all those years ago, and was too much of an infant to travel with them. As a result, he has become close with the Navi and fashioned himself as one of them, much like Jake once did but without being placed into a Navi avatar. The Sullys have all but adopted Spider. He is particularly close with thier actual adopted child Kiri. After their close call, the Sullys know the enemy is building its strength up again and that Jake’s hunted status could put their forest loved ones in mortal danger. Over the tearful protestations of his family, the regimented and disciplined Jake pressures them to leave their home. They must mount their dragon-like Ikran (let’s be honest, they’re dragons in all but name) and fly somewhere where they can hide from their would-be captors. And so ends 2022’s most gloriously stuffed and thrilling Act One. But the real business of Avatar: The Way of Water truly begins when the Sullys reach the film’s central destination: the turquoise waters of the far-off coastal islands. The lands that are home to an entirely distinct tribe called the Metkayina.


As Jake and his family are reluctantly taken in by the Metkayina leaders, Tonowari (a strong Cliff Curtis) and his pregnant warrior queen Ronal (Kate Winslet, giving just enough to make me excited to see her do more in the franchise’s next entry), something miraculous happens to the film. James Cameron, the dominant elder statesman of blockbusting action, creates something that feels different and new. If you’re coming to this review from my review on The Woman King, you may recognize a trend taking shape for 2022. The streak of unique action hybrids stays alive. Cameron has created what feels like history’s first true action hangout movie, certainly for an action movie of this enormous scope and budget. While the film is packed with some of the most exciting and blisteringly inventive action setpieces this side of Mad Max: Fury Road (or 2022’s own RRR, of course) Cameron also finds room for moments of beatific calm. I love almost every minute of The Way of Water, but my eyes lit up when I realized what its transcendent second act was doing. James Cameron has created an astoundingly beautiful underwater world for us to gaze at in childlike awe, and he’ll be damned if any action movie rules are going to get in the way of us taking it in. “You’ll get to spend the whole last hour with your heart in your trachea,” he says, “But I didn’t transport us all this way to an intergalactic tropical paradise to not have any downtime.” And by taking it all in, I mean really stopping to look at it and see how the characters themselves (especially starry-eyed budding naturalist Kiri) are moved by it. The first Avatar had lovely scenery but Cameron’s superior-on-every-level sequel goes further to give the natural beauty an emotional connection.  It’s a small, perfectly judged decision. There’s an old cineaste’s proverb that says a great film teaches you how to watch it in its first moments. Cameron’s Metkayina villagers teach us how to watch the film roughly an hour in when they teach the Sully children how to hold their breath for longer underwater. “You must slow down your heartbeat,” the tribe leaders’ daughter Tsireya tells Loak. And the same applies to us. Exhilarating and brilliantly blocked scenes of combat and survival are coming soon in Avatar‘s glorious third act, but Cameron also wants his devoted, action-loving viewers to tune into the joys of his slow scenes. Not only because they are fantastic, but because those moments of serenity are going to make those deliriously smart action scenes leap off the screen more vividly when they arrive. The enraptured smiles on Kriki and Tuk’s faces should match our own and we should feel just as blown away by the film’s meditative wonder as by how kinetic it is.  “Your heart is fast,” Tsireya softly admonishes her new pupils. When you allow yourself to experience both the film’s transcendent, gently euphoric lulls and its breathlessly paced, emotionally charged action highs in the way Cameron wants you to, the full experience of Avatar: The Way of Water becomes almost impossibly rich: fun, silly, sincere, empathetic, tense and heart-swelling. James Cameron put my heart and all my brain’s pleasure receptors in a delightful centrifuge and whirled them around until they surrendered to the sheer majestic glee.


Avatar: The Way of Water is also maybe the most thematically potent film James Cameron has made since Terminator 2: Judgement Day some thirty years ago. Like its predecessor, this Avatar is very much about respect for nature and environmental stewardship. Cameron is once again unembarrassed to bare his whole conservationist heart (and, unlike Adam McKay, he has nothing to be embarrassed about). In this film, Earth’s goal is no longer mining for precious metals but turning Pandora into a full-scale replacement Earth. Environmentalism is the core message but the film’s strongest theme is actually the power and complexity of the family unit. “Family is a fortress,” Jake Sully tells his loved ones. It may not outwardly seem like the most complex organizing idea for a film (then again, it is the major theme of Cameron’s two game-changing masterpieces, T2 and Aliens). The weaker Fast & Furious films are a reminder that having a character say the word “family” a lot does not automatically turn your action movie into interesting cinema. But Cameron threads the idea of family through his lushly heartfelt movie with disarming conviction. And with so much to love about the visuals, lovable characters (even agro-heel Quaritch gets a fresh new coat of humanism this time around), patient sense of tone and smart action directing, Cameron’s unfussy use of the family theme becomes one more beautiful, enriching element. It does something I did not expect after the first Avatar. It makes thee big goofy blue alien film feel genuinely sumptuous and even, dare I say, sophisticated. Maybe sophistication isn’t something you need from a blockbuster actioner like this, but it sent my appreciation through the roof and out past the Earth’s atmosphere. As in Titanic (with its themes of classism), Cameron is using theme in a very practical way. The pattern of families and duty to one’s own and how fathers and their children build trust is not deployed for any lofty cerebral purpose but simply to add depth to its characters and its plot stakes.  It’s the way Cameron connects that theme very plainly and directly to every one of these characters, from the Sullys to Quaritch and Spider. It’s even tied to the space whales (I do apologize for taking so long to mention that there are kick-ass, hyper-intelligent whales in this beautiful gem). This is theme done in the unpretentious, no-bullshit James Cameron house style and I was unprepared for just how masterfully it would work on me.

Avatar: The Way of Water can also sit proudly with recent masterpieces like Once Upon A Time In HollywoodThe Fabelmans and The Irishman as films that are in conversation with their director’s soul and body of work. Just as surely as Martin Scorsese is drawn to crime and faith or Quentin Tarantino loves old B-movie theaters, James Cameron loves water. The old joke in the early Aughts was that he loved the sea so damned much we might just lose him to underwater documentaries forever. Water features heavily in Titanic and The Abyss, but even T2 introduces a villain who can essentially liquefy himself. It is that undulating watery power that makes the T1000 so terrifying (okay, he’s also indecently fast) and it is also only through melting that he can eventually be defeated. There’s a sort of impassive quality to water that can be both sword and shield and I think Cameron finds something beautiful and humbling about that. It is both karmic and frighteningly impartial. In Titanic, human greed may take sides but the icy waters of the North Atlantic do not. “Oh sure,” James Cameron might say to all my high-minded theorizing. “That’s partly it. But it also just looks incredible.” And he would be absolutely right on the money (he lives on the money). The third act of Avatar: The Way of Water, involving hostages and a giant whaling vessel, is astonishing and innovative and it is where James Cameron lets the titular H2O of his film fully out of its cage. It is where Cameron’s irresistibly rousing watery id rushes through every nook and cranny of his meticulously designed film. And, for as much as I adore the decision to have a meditative and peaceful second act, this technically more traditional action finale is what makes me fall completely in love with the film. A massive, action-heavy third act may seem more been-there-done-that, but James Cameron action finales are never standard and are never ever phoned in. What makes the film soar from start to finish is its unabashed emotionalism and I cannot name an action finale this side of RRR that feels more tied into emotion and character. I want to go watch that last hour again, this very instant. I hollered, laughed, and felt water welling up behind my eyes. Whatever remaining tolerance I had for the flat, dingy sky battles of so many modern action movies has been entirely rinsed out of my system. James Cameron has flushed them all down the drain in a whitewater torrent of tears and serotonin.

If I haven’t emphasized it properly, James Cameron has also made a very well-acted film here. The first Avatar didn’t attract too many performance hosannas outside of Zoe Saldana’s potent ferocity as Neytiri, but The Way of Water is filled with strong, fully dimensional acting. Sam Worthington’s work as Jake Sully is an extremely pleasant surprise. He has improved dramatically since his agreeably wooden work in the first Avatar (I think the more ensemble-y nature of Way of Water is good for his intermittently frustrating but generally sympathetic character). Saldana continues to be the franchise’s reliable heavyweight, a powder keg of feeling who can lend subtlety to big moments. The Sully sons are completely solid at worst, even if the eldest does verge on being an afterthought. Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet lend gravitas to their Metkayina leaders. I think character actors’ character actor Steven Lang is doing superlative work as the film’s heavy, finding notes of humor, introspection and even self-doubt in the cocksure force of nature that is Quaritch. It’s also just nice to see that character get more to do than bark, seethe and glower. On second viewing, I have firmly decided that I actually like dread-headed white teenager Spider, the film’s most polarizing character for reasons that require no further explanation. But if I have to give out best in show, it absolutely belongs to septuagenarian and longtime Cameron collaborator Sigourney Weaver, whose wonderfully soulful work as the moony teenager Kiri is like some great Winona Ryder character discovered decades later. Cameron and Weaver broke boundaries back in 1988 when her commandingly brilliant work in Aliens became the first action performance ever nominated for an acting Oscar. And here they both are three decades later, still standing at the cutting edge of what action cinema can be. That two titans of the genre are here in this banner year with one of the very best films of the year is fitting and refreshing, if not the least bit surprising. If they do not have the literal best action film of 2022, that’s of no great concern. They are 2022’s action keynote speakers all the same.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #18- The Woman King

Maybe it’s residual annoyance at her Oscar snub but I feel like starting this review with a nice, buttery hot take. I think I just might consider General Nanisca in The Woman King to be EGOT-winner Viola Davis’ best screen performance. Perhaps some Davis performances have loftier literary credentials (DoubtFencesMa Rainey’s Black Bottom). If her trademark volcanic intensity is what does it for you, maybe there have been times where she has quaked with more turmoil, when her hurricane force tears (and other more nasal-adjacent fluids) have rained down with more ferocity. Or times where she’s gotten more creative at applying her versatility to pulpy trash (Suicide Squad or, ahem, The Help). But Viola Davis’ work in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s lusciously mainstream African period piece is the one that I could wolf down a whole bowl of any time. I feel similarly about her work as Nanisca as I do about Russell Crowe’s irresistibly fun work as Ben Wade in 3:10 To Yuma. I feel about Viola Davis the way I feel about my favorite actor Paul Newman in many of his roles. In cases like these, the subtle character actor is unafraid to become a dynamic, show-stopping entertainer, and they manage to do it without sacrificing an ounce of their potent subtlety. It’s fun to watch actors this perfectly dialed in get saucy, fun roles like these because you can trust them to not go too big (a fact that puts this Davis performance full leagues above her work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). Performances like this are arguments for how we might build a better star system. I don’t mean to glibly wave away the fears that movie stars are going away; that the nature of mega-stardom is changing or losing some of its draw with audiences. But I just cannot watch any ten minutes of The Woman King and not feel a little puzzled at the idea of the big, dynamic movie star being a dying breed. Here is a 57-year old woman playing a dramatic action role and utterly igniting the screen. While playing a character you have probably never heard of, no less. Yes, the nature of who can anchor a popular blockbuster film may be in flux. But 2022 made one thing abundantly clear to me. Viola Davis is a big old movie star.

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Top 20 Films of 2022: #19- Decision To Leave

Rumors of the visual motif’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. If 2022 is anything to go off of, we can hopefully expect to see the explosive resurgence of symbolic visual patterns that bring added meaning to a film’s themes and just give directors more fun imagery to play with. It may be rare that a motif absolutely makes a film but, like extra containers of parmesan and red pepper with your pizza, who would ever claim a film is better off without them? The past year gave us a couple of great visual motifs, both of which made use of elemental imagery. In S.S. Rajamouli’s game-changing RRR, the exciting Indian director used the contrasting elements of fire and water to represent two characters’ opposition and testy bond and, of course, to produce some absolutely astounding cinematic imagery. The year’s other great elemental motif came from South Korean gonzo maestro Park Chan-wook’s Decision To Leave. The Handmaiden director’s latest stylistically audacious, overwhelmingly romantic extravaganza’s spellbinding denouement features a dazzling and suspenseful motif of earth and water that does everything a visual motif should do. It speaks to the film’s themes. It burrows into the frenzied, lovelorn psyches of its leads. And it gives Park Chan-wook a way of ending on a profoundly unshakable crescendo of pure visual splendor. A poorly thought-out motif can occasionally feel amateurish or like its compensating for a lack of theme (okay, I promise to go a full ten reviews without critiquing The Revenant again), but great motifs take theme and harmonize over it in ineffably stirring ways. They make ideas more cinematic and some would say that is the most important thing a film can do. In the case of Decision To Leave, a film I found not simplistic but ideologically stripped down, the use of a diverse array of visual, elemental signifiers is part of what truly makes the film vibrate on its own singularly powerful wavelength. They should have sent an opera lover to write this review. It’s not that I don’t think Decision To Leave is a gorgeous, juicy piece of writing. It really is. But it’s a film that hits emotional highs and lows that are much better felt and seen than carefully corralled into words. Park Chan-wook’s latest disorienting feast is a deliriously rapturous and pained ode to the kind of love and obsession that turns us into sub-verbal animal versions of ourselves. Its terrific literate murder mystery is really just setting the table for a baser, more elemental mystery about human emotion. It’s a detective story about feelings so deep within our guts that words can’t even hope to reach them.

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Top 20 Films of 2022: #20- Nope



I would like to start my first review of the spellbinding 2022 cinema crop with a very heartfelt apology to estimable octogenarian Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski and the six very talented donkeys who starred in his lovely, wise and animal-loving late career triumph EO. I had it sitting at number 20 with my list seemingly finalized. I was eager to watch the film again and offer up my thoughts on that astonishing, relatively wordless gem. But I’m afraid that, at the absolute 11th hour, the fates came sprinting down the hall with a  last minute fax from top brass (quite the lively, Aaron Sorkian office this cinema-addled brain is!). Top 20 placement for EO was to be a reluctant, well, nope. While showing a close friend the latest David Ehrlich film countdown video, we turned to the subject of Jordan Peele’s Nope, which he had recently seen. In explaining why I had increasingly come to love it the more I sat with it, I began going into its teeming ideas and how they all mingled together or maybe didn’t. And as we parsed through them, I had a sudden epiphany about the fearsome sky predator that stalks our main cast throughout the film and how much dread Jordan Peele milks out of its nebulous shape. And that’s before we even see its shape. At first it’s just a blur, obscured by night or by cloud cover. “It’s scary how hard the creature is to pin down and describe,” my friend noted. “Right,” I replied before it suddenly hit me. “But then the Haywood siblings do find a way to describe him. They name him. He’s Jean Jacket.” I realized that, among Peele’s many insights on what scares us, he had subtly made a comment on how giving a name to something that feels beyond description and comprehension helps us reduce our fear of it. Sure, the creature is still an enormously terrifying threat, capable of eating a bleacher’s worth of people in barely an instant. But it also looks a lot like an unfolded denim jacket at one point (when it’s not looking like a big cowboy hat). And we can now laugh at the thing that frightens us. This was the moment I knew Nope had to be included in this countdown. A film so chock full of rich psychological ideas that it was still spitting new ones out at me all these months later just could not be denied. At this point, I’ll assume I’ve barely scratched the surface and that the next time I watch it a few more insights will tumble out of it. Like forgotten quarters out of an old jean jacket.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #1- Drive My Car

If there’s been a message I’ve picked up over the last couple years, it’s been that movies are a life raft in rough seas and that movies are utterly powerless to intercede in concrete matters. In Woody Allen’s masterpiece The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow’s character learns that cinema can make a drab life worth living and that art (and, fittingly for a Woody Allen, artists) will not hesitate to let you down. That art can be an emotional balm but that there are limits to its power. If there’s a frustration in treacly love letter to the movies like Empire of LightThe Majestic, and even the very popular Cinema Paradiso, it’s that they do not really see the power of art as being complicated or compromised. Part of paying tribute to the power of art, I think, lies in recognizing the ways it can frustrate us and fall short. 2022’s The Fabelmans (a surefire entry on next year’s list) does well to find the nuance in its assessment of movie-making and how it can bring psychic turmoil as well as joy and relief. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s staggering 2021 gem Drive My Car, has a similarly complicated view of art, namely of the theatre. As its devastated play director marks the second anniversary of his wife’s very untimely death, there’s no sense that the play he is directing will be the thing to help him salvage something out of the tragedy. To paraphrase a lyric from acclaimed alternative band Superchunk, art cannot bring people back to this Earth. Producing a successful play cannot undo this man’s heartbreak. Putting on a show does not hold some miraculous power to banish sorrow and pen a new, happier chapter in his life. And it certainly does not hold any easy answers to his loss and how to cope with it. And yet, the three perfect hours of Drive My Car are marvelously healing in the end. Art does not really save the day in the film and one could argue that the directing of the play adds some strife and stress of its own, as the artistic process can often do. Maybe it’s just simply that grief gets shaped and sanded down by time and creating art is something one can do to fill that time. Art, like so much of what is good in life, cannot erase greif. What it can do is distract us and take our minds elsewhere for intermittent moments. As a character says in “Uncle Vanya”, the classic Chekov play our protagonist is directing, we must endure our share of sorrows and live our lives with the hope that we might one day look back on old pain with something like tenderness. We trudge on to a place where trauma does not go away, but simply hurts less. When I saw Hamaguchi’s film back in early 2022, the film’s notion of wrestling with anguish in a tender, almost optimistic way resonated with me a great deal. 2021 had not been easy, and even the return to my beloved movie palace could only do so much to counter that fact. And now at the end of a blistering 2022, with loved ones lost and new ordeals accumulated, the film’s gently walloping power has grown exponentially.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #2- The Worst Person In the World

Mickey Rooney’s screamingly racist Japanese landlord makes up close to 100% of the flak against the 1961 romcom classic Breakfast At Tiffany’s and with entirely good reason. I’m not here to make the hot take that any other element of the Truman Capote-penned, Audrey Hep-burn enshrining charmer is as single-handedly damaging to its legacy. But I’ve long had a grip with the film of a more insidious nature. For as much as the film invites the viewer to be delighted and wholly won over by the idiosyncratic and free-spirited Holly Golightly, there can also be little argument that the film judges its bewitchingly flawed heroine within an inch of her life. For not being tied down yet. For being flighty in matters of love. For having the gall to wait until the film’s last minutes to fall into the arms of George Peppard’s dopey, dull beefcake. It’s Holly’s film and yet the choice to have it be about her long walk to settling down with Peppard kind of turns it into his story. Its climax is a floridly written guilt trip delivered by the Peppard character and it reads like an oddly literate chapter of “The Game”.  The film cannot help but turn into the story of an entitled, enamored man who patiently (and finally impatiently) waits for the liberated woman next to him to surrender to his love and eventually wears her down. How dismaying that a turn of phrase like “wear her down” is still part of our culture’s romantic lexicon. Holly’s untethered spirit is the juice that animates Breakfast At Tiffany’s (a film solely about George Peppard trying to make it in the Big Apple would be insufferable) but the film’s journey is really about the tamping down of the very spirit that makes the movie. Watching an effortlessly charismatic and witty woman live according to her own rules is a giddy thrill, but we cannot countenance too much of that frivolity. She must make her choice at last. A real choice and not simply taking each day as it comes. Her male handlers (her perseverant suitor, her director, and her screenwriter) must corral her toward what constitutes a real life choice. And real life choices for female characters, even iconically self-possessed ones, have a stubborn way of funneling them toward men. By the end of Breakfast At Tiffany’s sparkling runtime, there is an obligation to be met. Holly has painted the town red and now there is a moral bar tab to be paid. The woman has the right to chose who she ends up with but she owes someone – some male someone – an answer. I like Breakfast At Tiffany’s a whole lot, but the stifling, entitled inevitability of that ending always feels like it denies something of Holly. As hard as Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” swells like its namesake and for as fervently as Blake Edwards’ direction plucks my heartstrings, it always feels like a bummer. Joachim Trier’s energetic and masterful romantic dramedy The Worst Person In the World is stuffed with a great many interesting ideas, but the most quietly revelatory thing about it might be how it acts as an antidote to so many romantic stories about taming an indecisive woman. In Trier’s beautifully sprawling and digressive gem, the year’s most sharply written female character, Julie, is allowed to be fickle, unsatisfied and unsure without ever being judged or losing the audience’s empathy. Unlike Holly Golightly, Julie’s rainbow’s end stretches on past the borders of the story we are watching. It is an ending beholden to neither a romantic partner nor an audience’s expectations. It belongs to her.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #3- Petite Maman

I’ll never forget seeing Avengers: Endgame in a packed theater and listening to the crowd response. I’m someone who likes the Marvel films perfectly well enough on balance, but I knew that some of the people around me were going through something cinematically evangelical. I was surrounded by people who felt a profound and powerful connection to the saga of these heroes and their final chapter as a whole unit. Some of them felt an almost religious zeal for Tony Stark and his superpowered friends and they were watching the decade-long culmination of their tale with a rapt attention that felt positively electric. It didn’t matter if my very energized enjoyment fell somewhere considerably below theirs. I felt strangely moved to be in its presence all the same. I really appreciated getting to bear witness to it. Everyone should have some piece of art (and hopefully many more than one) that sets their soul alight and makes them sit all the way up in their seat. For some, in fact many, the return of the dead Marvel heroes and Tony Stark’s noble sacrifice at the end of Endgame provided that kind of thrilling, undeniable catharsis that we go to the movies in search of. It’s what I seek in movies too. I’m just built a little differently, so my 2021 version of Endgame was an adorable little French girl who feels sad she didn’t properly say goodbye to her recently departed grandma getting to go back in time and have a more satisfying farewell. You see, American populace? We’re not so different you and I. And I am truly not kidding around here. When Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman finally gave me the tender moment it had set up just forty-five minutes ago, I was that ecstatic Marvel audience contained within the body of one sensitive man. I pumped my fist. I shed happy tears. I shook my spouse by the shoulders, incandescent with joy. Whether it’s twenty heroes you thought were dead walking out of a portal to save the day or a lovable French child walking back in time to help ease her grief, every film-lover deserves the life-affirming pleasure of a perfect payoff moment. This was mine, and it had all been delivered to me in a perfect, unbelievably tight 72-minute package. Tender emotions, love for one’s family, and sweet-natured whimsy. What can I say? This kind of thing never fails to quicken my pulse, awaken my soul, and get me completely fucking amped! “This is why we go to the damn movies!,” I bellow as a sweet French child warmly hugs her mother about the neck.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #4- The Souvenir: Part II

Films, they say, are made in the editing room. With due respect to all the crafts, the editor has the most comprehensively vital and perhaps difficult role of them all. The editor is the shortstop of the cinema world and all of the action has a way of inevitably going right through (and hopefully not past) them. When all the actors and craftspeople and even the director herself have done their jobs, it is the editor who sits in a little room with all the raw material that will become the film and painstakingly trims and assembles it until it is at last a finished motion picture. When they do it well (like pretty much any film edited by Martin Scorsese’s lifelong secret weapon, Thelma Schoonmaker) they can single-handedly make a film work. When they do it badly, you end up with Bohemian Rhapsody. In one scene from Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir: Part II, her marvelous sequel to her masterful 2019 addiction drama, she gives a splendid, subtle salute to the value of the editor. Our heroine, Julie, is deeply mired in grief over the recent overdose of her toxic beau and she is just as bogged down in the ordeal of turning that traumatic relationship into a film for her graduate thesis. Things are going far from swimmingly. Her actors find the characters (based on Julie and her late junkie boyfriend Anthony) confusing and psychologically opaque. Her cinematographer keeps taking her to task in front of everyone for not providing a coherent enough shooting schedule. Her professors have little faith in her project and openly express doubts that she will even graduate on time. And then the handsome, suavely modest editor enters the picture and some small bit of gloom (though by no means all of it) dissipates. Enough for Julie to maybe see a path forward. He sweetly gives Julie new confidence in the movie she is making. He raises a beer with her and reminds her that there is something here after all, even if nobody can quite see it yet. The fog of filmmaking may be think but you just have to believe it will all come together. And “It’ll all come together” is engraved somewhere on the crest of every editor ever. Of all the small, two-scene performances in her film, what a sweet stroke of genius for Hogg to make this editor the most soothing, affable presence of all. Because that’s exactly the kind of calming, centering effect a great editor has for a filmmaker (and in this case, a human being in mourning as well). Even when you feel completely lost as a filmmaker and everything feels like it’s bearing down on you, the editor calms your nerves and assures you that it’s all going to be okay in the end. If there’s a film somewhere in all of this footage, they will find it for you. No wonder Julie tries to make a pass at the charismatic bloke. Who doesn’t go a little weak at the knees for an editor? Thelma Swoon-maker, am I right?

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #5- Licorice Pizza

Every now and again, it feels like the critical community will assemble a quorum and make a motion to retire some turn of phrase that has been ground down to the nub. The most recent phrase to become cliched is saying that a film’s place is like an actual character in the film. New York City has been called a character so many times, it’s actually low-key scandalous that all five boroughs have never been nominated for an acting Oscar. I get the need to scale this tired metaphor back due to overuse. It also presents a challenge for me in writing a review of Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film by my count to be immersed in his childhood stomping grounds, the San Fernando Valley. So, true to my word, I will not say that the Valley (Los Angeles’ sprawling, adult film-friendly neighbor to the north) is a character in Anderson’s latest home run. First, because it’s a lazy way of shortcutting what is better to fully describe. The early 1970’s Valley of Licorice Pizza is a richly shot, intricately specific (it feels instantly familiar even for someone like myself who has spent very little time there), entirely lived in part of the world. Its fast food drive ins, sushi bars, grubby convention centers, suburbs, fine dining establishments, high schools, dumpy mattress retailers and municipal golf courses all feel vibrant and down to earth at the same time. They are all the fine-tuned product of an artist who has spent a lifetime feeling both love and boredom for these old places. The Valley is not a character but a place in Licorice Pizza, and Anderson just has the visual flair and conceptual imagination to give that place fundamental importance; to render it like its details matter. Secondly, Licorice Pizza has no need of the Valley as a character because, as with any Anderson film, it is already uncommonly rich with actual characters, from its two fantastic leads down to a murderer’s row of phenomenal one-to-two scene roles. Anderson regular John C. Reilly plays Fred “Herman Munster” Gwynne for a literal instant, handily earning himself the honor of 2021’s best 10-second performance. The characters in Licorice Pizza are like characters and the Valley is like (like) a place, and both of those elements have been brought to the screen by one of the seminal talents of the last thirty years. I hope this brief foray into place as character, character as place, and each thing as itself hasn’t been too disorienting. But if it has been, I hope you’ll forgive it in this case, seeing as blissful disorientation is one of Licorice Pizza‘s prominent virtues.

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

The Green Knight Movie Poster — Wild Tales Illustration

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

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #10- Red Rocket

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

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

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


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

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

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #13- Memoria

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2021: #16- Spencer

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

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

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


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Top 20 Films of 2021: #18- A Hero

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

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #19- Passing

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

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #20- The Rescue

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


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Top 20 Films of 2019: #8- The Farewell

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

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Top 20 Films of 2019: #9- The Souvenir

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

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

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

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Top 20 Films of 2019: #11- Marriage Story

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

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