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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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2021: #13- Memoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2021: #18- A Hero

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2021: #19- Passing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2021: #20- The Rescue

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2019: #8- The Farewell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2019: #9- The Souvenir

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2019: #11- Marriage Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2019: #12- Honeyland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2019: #13- Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

As I’ve said before, 2019 saw a number of great directors reflecting on their careers, some quite directly (Pedro Almovodovar’s Pain and Glory, practically the story of its own making) and some more obliquely (Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman). These films were an opportunity for some revered auteurs to revisit their pet themes and, in some cases, to author origin retrospective mission statements about themselves. Quentin Tarantino was forged in a stick 1970s theatre featuring kung fu and B movies, but he also had a childhood before that. As a very young child in the 1960s, his formative years would likely have been spent in front of a boxy Zenith television set watching juicy genre serials like Gunsmoke and Hogan’s Heroes. 2019 may have culminated with a certain aforementioned directing legend voicing his distaste for comic book movies, but, funnily enough, this was the year when quite a few directing titans gave us their own personal origin stories. Agnes Varda took us on a gently probing and characteristically whimsical tour of her films. Pedro Almovodova gave us a lovely glimpse of the warm bath of openhearted queer sexuality and Catholicism that birthed him. And Quentin Tarantino, a director who has never shied away from wearing his lurid, grimy influences on his sleeve, got downright personal about the decade when he was born with Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. I’m frankly in the camp that feels Tarantino’s films have a lot more honest emotion than they often credited with, but this is really a horse of a different color for the foul-mouthed enfant terible. It’s a nakedly emotional, achingly fond dream memoir of 1960s Hollywood as it both existed and did not exist. A kaleidoscopic halcyon rendering of Swinging Sixties Los Angeles and a sincere thank you letter from a man who was touched and forever molded by its ambiance and iconography.

Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is the third film in what you might call Quentin Tarantino’s Revisionist History period, along with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. It’s another film that is at least partly about an infamous real-life act of violence, where Tarantino uses his film to imagine a different outcome and a kind of justice for those victimized. The injustice he takes aim at this time is the 1969 Manson Family Tate-LaBianca massacre, which claimed the lives of eight people, including actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child. Thankfully, truly thankfully, Once Upon A Time is not the so-called Charles Manson movie that some may have feared it would be when it was first announced. That is to say that it is not a wallow in the horror of that tragedy, nor is it largely a revenge fantasy directed at Charles Manson. In fact the psychotic cult leader himself appears onscreen for only a span of seconds, very early in the film. More than anything else, the film is the story of two fictitious original characters, macho movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, as great as he’s ever been and now 2-for-2 with Tarantino roles) and his stuntman and personal assistant, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, immensely fun and making megawatt movie star charm look effortless as only he can). Mostly centered around a few days in 60’s Hollywood, it’s the story of two men from the old guard of 1950s and early 1960s entertainment staring down at the waning days of their careers. Once a lead in Westerns, war films, and a Gunsmoke-evoking weekly serial called Bounty Law, Rick shows up to meet with an older producer (Al Pacino, bouncing back nicely after all these years away) at the famous showbiz watering hole, Musso and Frank’s, and receives some bitter truth. His leading man days are done (he’s been increasingly handed small bad guy part where younger stars routinely defeat him) and his last chance to grab a little glory and enough money to comfortably retire on is to relocate to Italy and take some easy paychecks by starring in cheap Italian Westerns. Rick has some time to swallow his pride and consider the offer while he shoots yet another villain part on Lancer (an actual popular Western serial of the era). We spend time with Rick and also learn about Cliff, who has seen his stuntman work dry up after a scandal involving his wife’s demise and some less than professional antics on set. He now lives off Rick’s largesse, though he earns his keep doing housework, chauffeuring Rick, and being a true blue friend and sounding board. The other interesting detail is that Rick’s mansion happens to be on Cielo Drive, in the Hollywood Hills, next door to the home of Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, portrayed enigmatically and almost elliptically in a gracious and touching performance by Margot Robbie. Tate would meet her tragic end at the hands of Manson’s followers in the 1969 massacre. Over the course of a day, Rick shoots what could be his last ever television role, Cliff pays an unplanned visit to the Spahn Western movie ranch where the Manson family squatted, and Sharon Tate runs an errand and makes an impromptu visit to a theater showing one of her first (of sadly very few) major movies. Before we come to the night of the killings, some six months later, we spend most of the film luxuriating in one sunny day in a lost Los Angeles.

The Hollywood of Tarantino’s deeply personal opus is Hollywood as it was and never was, a lavish patchwork of memories and celluloid dreams. For a film marketed right off the bat as a historical fiction piece centered around the Manson murders, Once Upon A Time is unexpectedly a very sweet movie. It is a thing born of deep affection for the whole filmmaking process; for stuntmen and starlets, those ascending and those on their way out and angling for the fabled comeback.Tarantino seems to be in love with the mystery of what makes a star, as evident in his canny casting of golden god Brad Pitt as a humble man behind the scenes. In this universe, a laconic, charming and endlessly charismatic guy like Cliff Booth is barely hanging onto a job. Without this or that circumstance, and that curious variable we call the It Factor, who knows where Brad Pitt himself might be today? On the other hand, a performer who might not look like much can surprise you. We first hear Rick Dalton rehearsing his cameo lines on a pool float, deep into a blender of whiskey sours, struggling to find something to sink his teeth into in his generic baddie dialogue. What we get when the film finally reaches Rick Dalton’s moment of truth on set is something altogether different than what we first hear. Once Upon A Time is partly a salute to the nonsummativity of art; to the almost unexplainable genius of taking the raw components of a production and somehow turning them into something transcendent. Of how a boozy, washed up old relic can flip a switch when he hears “Action!” and find a way to, as the professionals say, pop on camera. Rick needs to have his one last moment of brilliance, even if it’s just in this bit role, and watching him painstakingly work it out is one of the most thrilling moments 2019 put on screen. You may not think you have much in front of you, but great artists are resourceful. The true magic of making movies may be the canny art of simply making it work. Muscling through a low budget or an inexperienced cast or a hammy screenplay and spinning the flax into gold.

It’s the kind of alchemy that Tarantino has made a specialty, though he would absolutely blanche at anyone calling his scruffy, B-movie influences (kung fu, exploitation, grindhouse) cinematic flax. To him, those sleazy and violent films and TV shows had gold inside them all along. It may be more fitting to say that Tarantino’s skill lies in mining the rich opulence from genres that are often looked down upon.  He has a fondness, a respect, and a fierce protectiveness for genres and people who are flatly dismissed. Think of how Pulp Fiction dusted off a scuffed up John Travolta and reminded the world of his talent. Notably, none of the major players in the film are your Marlon Brandos or Audrey Hepburns. The very famous (Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Mama Cass Elliott) are glimpsed only briefly. Our people are a fading star who exclusively made testosterone-fueled genre work about cowboys and war heroes, a comedic ingenue who died long before she ever reached her apex, and that most beat up and slept on of show business professionals, the stuntman. Tarantino loves an underdog, be it a star or a style. Part of what makes Rick Dalton’s unexpected triumph in his small role such a powerful moment is that he manages to find something Shakespearean in just a couple scenes as a vulgar, moustache-twirling heavy. Lancer is your basic unpretentious Western serial (you’d probably catch it on TNT or USA Network if it came out today), but the scenes Rick Dalton shoots with Timothy Olyphant (very good playing real-life Lancer star, James Stacy) are wonderful and fun and juicy and full of conviction. The point being made here by Tarantino is that the idea of high art and low art is utter hogwash. Art is art, and if you can watch Leonardo DiCaprio’s powerhouse work in the Lancer scenes of this movie and not see the beauty and power of it, your definition of what counts as art is probably too rigid. Let great work surprise you wherever you happen to find it! I love Lawrence of Arabia and La Dolce Vita as much as the next cinephile, but the 1960s gave us insight and sharp satire in less obviously high-minded packages too. From Planet of the Apes to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. These are smart, trenchant masterworks that stand tall to this day, but none of them ever competed for major awards or were held in nearly the same esteem as the prestige players of their day. Tarantino’s love letter goes out to an entire departed age of cinema, but, in characteristic fashion, he is an especially passionate champion of anything or anyone deemed lesser. If you ask him, there’s probably an episode of Bonanza out there with a guest performance so great, he’d take it over a thousand Hamlets.

In the film’s most touching and sweetly sad scene, Sharon Tate goes to pick up a book and spots a theatre across the street playing The Wrecking Crew, a Dean Martin spy comedy featuring one of Tate’s first supporting roles. It was also one that allowed her to stretch and show her gifts as a comedic actor. On a whim, she walks over and gets a ticket to see herself up on a big screen with an unwitting audience laughing and reacting around her. It is such a breathtakingly tender moment, joyful with the giddy delight of hearing an audience that likes you and hopeful for what this nimble talent’s future might hold. What it might have held if not for the unspeakable. Once Upon A Time does culminate in some brutal violence, but vengeance and carnage are not foremost on its mind. It is chiefly a director reminiscing on the decade of film and television that birthed him and pining soulfully for what could have been. There is a feeling of paradise lost to the film in keeping with other works about the death of 60’s ideals, like Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and the Maysles Brothers Altamont documentary Gimme Shelter. The movies are a wonderful  and pure thing, even the sleazy, bloody and exploitive ones, because they represent pure expression. Those sickening acts of barbarism in August of 1969 should never have been allowed to touch this creative fairy tale world and Tarantino will not let them taint it here. Of course, as you might expect, Tarantino retcons the Manson family in bloody fashion, just as he previously did for slavemasters and the Third Reich. But this revenge plays differently, feels different. The lingering impact is less about righteous satisfaction. Instead, what lingers is the wish for a world where the Manson clan is an historical footnote. Where nobody short of the most dedicated 1960s historian even knows Charles Manson’s name, and people sometimes get dressed to the nines to go see the latest Sharon Tate film retrospective.

Once Upon A Time is an extraordinarily lively and dynamic movie, filled with an enormous and talented ensemble (hello again Dakota Fanning, getting her own juicy comeback role). The film is eye-popping, quotable, stylish fun. But the paradox at the film’s heart is that it is also steeped in tremendous melancholy, wistful and lonesome and resigned to the unstoppable passage of time Sometimes, when Cliff Booth is driving his 1966 Cadillac DeVille around this bygone Polaroid of Los Angeles, old songs and snippets of radio jingles for old products will burble into the soundscape, and in those moments Once Upon A Time feels like a ghost story; one populated by enchanting, benevolent ghosts. Once Upon A Time may operate like a time machine, tinkering playfully with Hollywood’s past and correcting the calamities that hastened the era’s decline. But the film also knows that it cannot go back. Its very title signals to us that this is a fantasy, a dreamy, prismatic refraction of something beautiful and intoxicating and gone forever. With not a hint of irony or archness, Tarantino unburdens himself and offers an outpouring of sorrow and unguarded affection. For Sharon Tate. For a decade and all its lost style and music and glorious kitsch. I feel he succeeds in flying colors. Los Angeles has rarely looked so beautiful on film. Tarantino is justly celebrated for his pen, but my very favorite moment of Once Upon A Time may be a wordless one. As dusk starts to fall over the city, the neon lights of old theatres and cocktail lounges and Mexican restaurants start to flicker on one by one. Most of these places are now gone, like the people who frequented them, but Tarantino lets us see them again in their own lush, multi-hued light show. The old Hollywood haunts and all their beautiful, bewitching clientele still sparkle back to life in Quentin Tarantino’s dreams.

Top 20 Films of 2019: #14- Midsommar

Horror has long been associated with the night. The boogey man hiding in the shadows. The creeping threats that come out after dark. Horror protagonists hunker down and try to make it until dawn. when the vampires can no longer pursue you. For that reason, one of the most wonderfully fiendish horror tricks to my mind is the realization that simple daylight cannot protect us. True horror cannot be slowed down by ultraviolet rays. I remember seeing the great Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches at eight years old and being shaken by the notion of a threat that can follow you anywhere. The child hero escapes the hall full of witches and bursts out into the piercing sunlight. But it doesn’t matter. The witches chase him wherever he flees. They chase him right into the room where his grandmother is sleeping. They catch him and cast their wicked spell upon him and no amount of sunshine can do a thing to save him. More recently, I think of Olivier Assayas’ arty ghost story Personal Shopper, where a haunted Kristein Stewart flees an overcast Paris for the sands of Morocco, hoping that the apparition she keeps seeing will dissipate like a wisp of fog in the desert sun. It does not work. How very disturbing is the idea of fears that will not leave us no matter where we go. In Ari Aster’s masterful follow-up to his equally masterful horror debut, a young woman suffers an unspeakably horrific family tragedy and tries to ease her trauma by taking a summer vacation in Sweden. The fear and anguish follow her there and she realizes that there are demons we can’t truly escape. The worst horror will not be kept at bay by a jolly holiday. It will go along with us to the happiest beachside resort or the most idyllic mountain chalets. If you are to prevail over the ghost of crushing trauma, you will have to eventually stop retreating and face it.

To be clear, Midsommar is not in any way a supernatural horror film. There are no spirits, no witches, and no curses to be seen. The horror is strictly of the psychological kind. In an almost indecently ominous opening, set in a dark and wintry patch of Utah, an unanswered phone rings in the bedroom of an older couple. The person trying desperately to reach them is Dani (Florence Pugh, a subtle and powerful marvel here, just as she was in her Oscar-nominated work in Little Women), a young psychology graduate student living in New York. She has just received a disturbing Facebook message from her manic depressive sister and is now unable to get a hold of anyone in her family. With no one picking up the phone, Dani has no one to turn to but her unattentive boyfriend of four years, Christian (Jack Reynor, the very picture of handsome male entitlement), who is currently out having drinks with male friends and telling them for the hundredth time about how he wants to dump her. He answers the phone reluctantly and tries to calm his panicking girlfriend, though this mostly amounts to downplaying the urgency of the situation and putting Dani down for always acquiescing to her sister’s episodes. In the end, Christian’s half-hearted consolations amount to nothing, because the very worst thing happens and Dani finds herself with no family outside of the self-centered, gaslighting shlub she is still somehow attached to. Attached is an understatement. Dani puts up with no end of thoughtlessness from Christian, who can barely disguise the apathy he feels for his grieving partner. In his latest bit of inconsiderate behavior, he has failed to tell Dani about a boys trip to the Swedish countryside that is taking place only two weeks later. He offers her the facile excuse that he had not officially decided to go until this minute, but the sullenly annoyed expressions on his friends’ faces tell us all we need to know. Christian’s friends clearly regard Dani as something of a burden, which is a belief Christian does nothing to disabuse them of. Christian’s hope is that, given her bereaved state, Dani will not want to come to Sweden with them, but she chooses to come along. Lost in a thick fog of numb trauma, punctuated by regular bursts of howling anguish, Danie doesn’t know what else to do with herself, and maybe the sunny, pastoral change of scenery will be of some comfort. As it happens, one of Christian’s friends is bringing them to the bucolic, rural commune that raised him as a child and their visit happens to be at the same time as a grand nine-day rebirth festival that the small community observes once every ninety years. This being a horror movie, it goes without saying there is more to this festival than meets the eye. I won’t spoil the Wicker Man of it all or what the significance of the commune’s rituals are, but what I can say is that what Dani finds in the tiny Swedish village of Horge is both viscerally upsetting and improbably valuable. Midsommar is a sly, grisly tweak on that old college rite of passage: going abroad.

In its own foreboding, psychologically unhinged way, Midsommar builds to a finale of overpowering catharsis. The consequences of that catharsis are destructive and demented, but the feeling is also strangely sublime, even bitterly euphoric. Midsommar is a film full of shocking, bloody events, but the tone of its gorgeous, orgiastically colorful conclusion also feels tender in a diabolical way. What it boils down to is that Ari Aster is a master of establishing the most gutting kind of tone. Even as downright evil things start happening, what we care most about isn’t the rising body count, but Dani’s journey to find some release, from her trauma and from the circle of callous louts that pass for her support system. As he showed in Hereditary , Aster has an ability to tap into what trauma and grief and relational dysfunction feel like at their most intense. He can render familial tragedy the way Hieronymous Bosch painted the underworld, with both ellish specificity and skin-crawling inscrutability. His films fairly hum with menace even when we’re just watching a couple family members talk to one another. Midsommar drops us without warning into what is arguably 3029’s greatest opening; ten of the most rivetingly anxious minutes of filmmaking any horror film has featured. And then we linger in that trauma the whole film, but things sort of get better, lighter if only by comparison. I think the idea is to capture how, when you’ve gone through something ineffably terrible, healing is a messy and confusing process and the things that help ease you through that pain might not always be completely healthy. Sometimes you deal with it by drinking too much. Sometimes you find relief in the bosom of an insidious commune of Swedish pagans. I guess you can’t judge a person too harshly for how they choose to move forward from a place of lonesome, unimaginable grief.

Midsommar is also a great entry in the canon of women trying to free themselves from unfulfilling, suffocating relationships. Christian isn’t your standard issue domestic abuser, but he represents a subtler and probably more pervasive kind of toxicity; a more virulent strain of misogyny. He waves away her concerns, makes her feel like a weight around his neck, and undermines her already precarious sense of emotional support. He is the kind of self-serving boor too oblivious to even recognize his own priggishness. Dani is painfully dependent on him, desperate for any scrap of affection or reassurance he might idly toss her way. The tone of Midsommar is unmistakably that of feverish horror, but it’s possible to see it as almost a Grand Guignol kind of comedy. Like American Psycho, the content is bloody and disturbing, but there’s understated humor in the context. The idea that it takes a devilish cult to make a bright young woman rediscover her self-worth and maybe finally leave her sullen shlub of a boyfriend is kind of a dryly funny idea. It’s also rather a moving one, which gets us back to the trickiness of trauma. In the end, Dani leaving this negging, unsympathetic manchild for a psychotic Swedish commune is just trading one evil for a different one, but it feels strangely like progress, certainly to Dani. Midsommar contemplates what is worse: unhealthy support or no support at all. The friend who invites them to Sweden comforts Dani on having to endure a crushing tragedy without anyone to step in and ease her pain. Growing up in this collectivist subculture, he had people there for him when he lost his parents at an early age. “I have always felt held,” he tells her. Ari Aster’s deep and disorienting horror gem tells the story of a woman caught between the poles of emotional abandonment and a deeply disturbed kind of community. It should not be surprising that she might eventually reject the one who puts her down and run into the open arms of people who want to lift her up.

Midsommar reveals itself to be an unexpectedly feminist film (nothing remotely nice happens to women in Aster’s Hereditary). For all its many vices, the commune of Horge respects its women. They do not feel shame or stigma about sex or the female body. They openly celebrate the time when an adolescent girl comes of age and can play her role in creating new life. The leader of the festival is an older woman and the commune’s men look up to her. They seem to sincerely value the wisdom and counsel of their female colleagues. The village women are kind to Dani, interested in her, attentive to her. Christian ends up cheating on her with a teenage girl. When Dani catches him, she runs to a nearby barn and begins sobbing hysterically. In what may be the film’s most arresting scene, a group of women flock to her side and, without a word, sob in unison with her. This is what female solidarity looks like in Horge. They don’t ignore your grief or flatly rationalize it for you or brush it aside as a nuisance. They take part in it with you until it passes and you can feel whole again. Beneath its nervy, unhinged trappings, Midsommar is kind of like a demonic version of the old girls trip narrative, where a woman shakes off her heartbreak and learns to live again. Think of Midsommar as How Stella Got Her Groove Back, but replace Taye Diggs with a matriarchal pagan cult. Of all the wild genre combinations 2019 came up with, “graphically bloody female empowerment horror” has to rank up there as the wildest of them all.

Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” Just two films in, is there a filmmaker this side of Stanley Kubrick who understands and demonstrates that philosophy better than Ari Aster? In Hereditary, the family unit is treated like the most arcane Medieval torture device; every miscommunication and resentment its own lash. It is about a family that has never really known harmony and never will. The one peacemaker in their clan comes off as a toothless, ineffectual nebbish. If peace among people were possible, Aster’s films cackle, we’d have figured it out a long time ago. Intentionally or unintentionally, through malice or human error, people were designed to torment one another. If people are made for each other, it is only with the most disquieting of connotations. The punchline of Midsommar is that an Aster charcater finally finds something halfway resembling peace, but only by surrendering herself to a throng of ritualistic sociopaths. Ari Aster’s brand of nihilism is undiluted. It is many galaxies away from even the sardonic grimness of a Coen Brothers film. For a lot of people, I could see Aster’s movies being too much, too dark, too abrasive. I’m an empathy-obsessed romantic who loves Singin’ In the Rain and the gentle humanism of Richard Linklater films. By all logic, I should be one of those people turning away in shock. But his blistering, weaponized tone is just too spectacular to be denied. I love his deranged commitment to vicious, cerebral discomfort altogether too much. This is fine, potent stuff. I wouldn’t put on an Aster film idly or every day. I also don’t listen to Norwegian black metal every day, but I respect the Hell out of the craft and putting it on every now and again keeps things interesting. Midsommar is the most divine kind of cinematic misery and I heartily encourage you to subject your senses to it. Don’t be squeamish. A little black coffee is good for the spirit.

Top 20 Films of 2019: #15- A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood

If Marielle Heller hasn’t yet hit your radar as one of the the closing decade’s most electrifying new directors, I have a feeling that stealthiness is by her own design. Don’t get me wrong. I love a direction with a clear, flamboyant personal stamp as much as the next cinephile. Your Scorseses, Kubricks, Altmans, and Hitchcocks. But let’s also take this opportunity to salute any director who knows not to upstage their story. The quiet ones. Those whose style can be as varying as the material they happen to choose. Your Ang Lees, your Jonathan Demmes, and now your Marielle Hellers. What unites those three is a paucity of pet themes (though I’m sure you could have a lot of fun trying to find connections across their filmographies), in favor of a subtle attention to the story. Three great films into her career (which also includes 2015’s frank and tenderly lacerating Diary of A Teenage Girl and 2018’s gently acerbic Can You Ever Forgive Me?), what stands out about Heller is an understated empathy and a soulful sense of human fallibility. SKhe excels with finding the humanity in people who make bad decisions and the complexity in virtuous people. She is also an absolutely tremendous director of actors. Only a few films in, her casts already have three Oscar nominations between them and, believe it or not, the number deserves to be more like five (Bel Powley’s phenomenal debut in Teenage Girl was shockingly slept on). Heller is such a quietly powerful storyteller, so assured in her literate lyricism, that even the biopic, that most creaky of cinematic heirlooms, has not managed to trip her up. In fact, so graceful is Heller in navigating her stories, it only now occurs to me that all three of her films thus far are biographies. You never think about bland, life-story-by-numbers films like Ray and Gandhi and Bohemian Rhapsody when you’re watching her work, even now that she has made one about a very famous inspirational figure, Fred “Mr. Rogers” Rogers. Somehow she has taken what could have been an invitation to indulge in treacly cliche and come away with something mature and deep. She has made what feels like some beautiful, empathetic novelette. A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is a thing of writerly, let’s call it Helleresque, beauty.

Near the last third of the film, our main character’s wife reads the source material that will inspire A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood and says to her husband, “It’s not really about Mr. Rogers.” Also, the woman who says those words is not Joanne Rogers, wife of TV legend and all-around force for good, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks, walking the tightrope between a dimensional human being and the overwhelmingly idealistic legacy he represents). In an opening bookend, Fred Rogers introduces us to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, fantastic and sharp), an investigative journalist at Esquire who was tasked with writing a profile of the revered children’s entertainer in 1998. After this opening, the film then shifts over to Lloyd and, from then on, Marielle Heller’s Mr. Rogers film is firmly and unequivocally the story of Lloyd Vogel, a jaded magazine writer with a wife and child and a knack for finding the most cynical take on every subject he undertakes. We come to learn that Lloyd has a vast well of unresolved rage for the absentee father, Jerry, who he has not heard from in ten years. We pick this up around the time that his father (a very strong Chris Cooper, having a commendable and oh so welcome comeback year between this and Little Women) shows up to Lloyd’s sister’s wedding and Lloyd fistfights the man no more than a few minutes after speaking to him. We will learn more of their history as the film progresses, but the catalyst for Lloyd’s violent outburst is Jerry casually mentioning Lloyd’s late mother. A few days later, a visibly scuffed up Lloyd Vogel is ordered to go to Pittsburgh’s WQED studios, home of the groundbreaking, decades-spanning children’s program, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, to interview its beloved and famously compassionate host for a piece about heroes. In their first of several sit-downs, Mr. Rogers inquires how Lloyd managed to bruise his face so badly. Lloyd’s initial alibi is a softball injury, but the flimsy story falls apart as Lloyd’s kindly subject looks into his eyes. Telling a lie to Mr. Rogers is no easy thing to do, even for someone as surly as Lloyd Vogel. Like the film itself, Lloyd’s first Mr. Rogers interview ends with the cynical journalist dropping some part of his guard, and Rhys makes the reluctant unpacking of his unsentimental sourpuss both hilarious and emotionally disarming. Lloyd’s subsequent meetings with Fred Rogers go similarly, with Fred’s empathetic curiosity leading each exchange to be just as much about Lloyd’s childhood trauma and Anger as it is about the benevolent broadcaster he is profiling. All the while, Lloyd’s aging father is trying to broach a conversation with him, to heal their wound before time runs out, while Lloyd starts to grapple with the effects of his untreated pain.

if A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is not the straightforwardly informative Fred Rogers biography one might have expected (and thank the film gods it’s not!), it is still very much concerned with the unpretentious ideas and basic decency that informed his invaluable work. Asked to sum up the mission statement of his entire television program, Fred Rogers says, “We are trying to give children positive ways of dealing with their feelings.” The first time Lloyd sees Fred, he is trying to get the attention of a terminally ill child who is wildly swinging a plastic sword around in frustration. We watch as he quietly permeates the child’s angry force field, and in the end, the child drops his sword and gives Fred a big hug. Mister Rogers Neighborhood was focused on normalizing anger, sorrow, grief and any other emotion hastily branded as negative, so that developing minds might know how to embrace those feelings rather than fearfully suppress them. The fact that A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood pays a lot more attention to adults than it does to toddlers is a tacit acknowledgment of the truth that, when Fred Rogers spoke of children, he was really addressing all of us. Each of us as insecure, vulnerable and in need of love as we were on the day of our births. When he spoke of children, he saw the frail adults we all become, and when he looked at grownups, Lloyd Vogel among them, he saw the uncertain child reaching out for affection and assurance. A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood turns into the story of a man who still has a wounded, frightened child inside of him. Lloyd has turned that fear into poisonous resentment because that is what men are taught to do with their insecurities. Adults are conditions to be tough and angry rather than openly sad and afraid. That kind of frailty is something too many of us believe we must grow out of. Fred Rogers understood that we remain in thrall to our emotional uncertainties, no matter what the age, and that we can always talk about those feelings with those around us. “There is always something you can do with the mad you feel,” Fred patiently intoned. It was a recognition not only of how we need to be kind to ourselves, but also couched in an understanding of how unchecked hurt can spill out upon those who love us and out into the world around us. How the wrong done to us can be handed along to more innocent parties in an unbroken cycle. Lloyd Vogel is an ideal way to meet Fred Rogers because his struggle with addressing the most hurtful feelings within himself is the very thing Fred Rogers sought to illuminate and destigmatize.

Even having adored Marielle Heller’s first two films, I had my misgivings walking into A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood. The subject matter seemed so nice and noble that I felt it would inevitably be too saccharine. I didn’t foresee Heller making a bad film, but maybe a maudlin one; a cerebral, idiosyncratic director’s first concession to the mainstream and middlebrow. The fact that Heller has made both the year’s most uplifting film and something smart and challenging all in one is Neighborhood‘s biggest coup. Lloyd is our surrogate in skepticism, expecting he will be forced to write a squeaky puff piece about a performatively saintly mensch. After his first encounter with Fred, Lloyd tells his editor, “He’s a lot more complex than I thought.” Like Mike Leigh’s masterpiece Happy Go LuckyA Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood looks at an outwardly chipper optimist and deepens our idea of what it means to be a positive person. Far from viewing Fred Rogers as a cardboard cutout of kindness, the film sees his kind of optimism and goodness as a conscious response to the world’s strife and anger. His kindness was not weakness or some cuddly form of myopia. It was clear-eyed and born of his own righteous indignation at a society that suppresses emotional openness and passes taciturn dysfunction down to its children. Fred Rogers exuded compassion, but it was an intense and focused compassion, one weaponized to do epic battle with the age old dragons of ignorance, hurt, and toxicity. “He has a temper,” Joanne Rogers says of her husband, and we sometimes catch Hanks’ Fred Rogers wrestling with his own urges to lash out. He was a man who knew that every reaction was a choice. He knew better than anyone what to do with the mad he felt; how to neither spray it out onto those he loved nor let it poison him inside. The legacy of Fred Rogers is the idea that optimism, empathy, kindness, sadness, and frustrations are all part of us and are ours to do with as we wish. They are all reminders that we are complicated, living, growing human beings. Mr. Rogers Neighborhood taught a planet of children to see the beauty in that.

This is my third year giving out my annual Damp Face Award (we still can’t afford trophies and last year’s winner, Paddington Brown, had to decline our invitation to attend on account of being a fictional bear). The award goes to the film that leaves me with teary eyes for the highest percentage of its runtime. It doesn’t matter if the tears are from laughter or sadness. It really favors films with a lot of open emotion. Despite very stiff competition from The Farewell and Little WomenA Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood won this year’s prize in a walk. It is funny, warm, generous and more downright cathartic than just about any film in recent memory. Its humor is observational and sweet, with just enough of the sharp dryness that Heller excels at.  A lot of its humor comes out of the pitch-perfect dynamic between sardonic, untrusting Lloyd Vogel and the gentle open book that was Fred Rogers. The way Lloyd says “Mister Rogers” through his teeth with curmudgeonly embarrassment, when he first calls from his office to schedule an interview, drew one of the biggest laughs I heard in a theater all year. And the moment where Fred has Lloyd observe sixty seconds of silence for everyone who ever loved him (in the middle of a crowded Chinese restaurant) made a sniffling, dewy-eyed hush fall over my audience. In parsing the complex legacy of a man who saw the frightened five-year old in all of us and coaxed every young person to feel their emotions and love themselves, Marielle Heller has surely made the movie Fred Rogers would want to see made about him. And, maybe more importantly, the kind of movie Fred Rogers would want the world to have. A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is a cinematic balm, a fond smile, a hand on our trembling backs. In a time of colossal fear and rage, it looks in our eyes and speaks in soft, ingratiating tones: there is always something you can do with the fear you feel.

“It’s not really about Mr. Rogers,” Lloyd’s wife (a lovely and subtle Susan Kelechi Watson) says when she proofreads his article. The same is true of the film, except that of course it’s about Mr. Rogers. Marielle Heller ingeniously concludes that Fred Rogers cannot be the main focus of a Mr. Rogers, and in so doing she finds the very soul of the man. If you want more granular detail about Fred Rogers’ childhood, his time in a seminary, how he got his start in children’s broadcasting, and how he revolutionized television for the better half of the 20th century, watch 2018’s perfectly good documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. It is a film I wholeheartedly recommend, full of soul and curiosity and reverence for a great man. It is also a Wikipedia entry next to A Beautiful Day In the Neighorhood. Heller’s film is a small, perfect poem about Fred Rogers. It is better and more informative than any biography could be because it is after his essence. That essence was to want to meet people and know them and love them and listen to them. Imagine the folly of a Mr. Rogers movie that spent even half its runtime going on about Fred Rogers! If he had been alive to meet Marielle Heller during the making of her gracious, divinely good-hearted film, he would have asked her about herself. He would have expressed great admiration for her first two films and told her how exciting it was to have a voice as inquisitive and empathetic as hers out there in the world. They would have gotten to talking about any number of things before they got to the subject of television icon, Fred Rogers. And before a single self-regarding word escaped from the good man’s lips, the time would have gotten away from them.

Top 20 Films of 2019: #16- Booksmart

Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s sprightly, compassionate, and unyieldingly hilarious teenage comedy is all about cutting through our one-dimensional, ossified perceptions of each other to find the messier human depths underneath. In honor of the year’s best (and most surprisingly deep) pure comedy, I’ll start us off. I have done Olivia Wilde a disservice. The first time I was ever introduced (not in person to the actress-turned-dynamite-debut-director, I was very unfair to her. She was making what would be her big splash in 2010’s well-scored but dramatically inert Tron: Legacy and I was unimpressed by the performance, as I was grumpily unimpressed by just about every non-Daft Punk element of that film (my spouse even made a sketch commemorating my fabled cantankerousness at that screening). As Olivia Wilde quickly reached It Girl status and became a regular fixture in the world’s magazine racks, I shrugged. “The woman who played the algorithm?,” I mumbled to myself. I just couldn’t see it. I was, to put it bluntly, a total dingus to Olivia Wilde (not in person, we have not been introduced). My stance on Wilde would soften a few years later when I saw her give five beautiful, nuanced minutes of screen-acting in Spike Jonze’s 2013 masterpiece, Her. Even still, I was unprepared for the depths that lay in Olivia Wilde. After keeping herself busy over the course of the decade with roles in generally well-reviewed dramas like Rush and Meadowland, directing a Red Hot Chili Peppers music video, and making her debut on Broadway, Wilde came to Sundance 2019 with sparkly little teen comedy starring Beanie Feldstein (so terrific and endearing in Lady Bird) and Kaitlyn Devers (one of a veritable murderer’s row of rapidly ascending talents to come out of 2012’s buzzy youth center drama, Short Term 12). Nary a year goes by without a high-energy adolescent laugher, but this one was special, and it was immediately clear that its first-time feature director was a force to be reckoned with. The glamorous starlet with deep reserves of acting talent had an extra layer of volcanic directing talent bubbling inside her all along. Shame on us all for not recognizing it!

Booksmart begins with a character who has her own very rigid sense of herself, to go along with a pretty stratified perception of the world around her. Molly (Beanie Feldstein, shifting out of her pitch-perfect meekness in Lady Bird and blossoming into a comedic supernova before our eyes) is a Los Angeles high school senior with perfect grades, her class presidency, an offer to attend Yale in the Fall, and a very guarded view of her fellow classmates. Despite the respect she commands in her school, she feels the other students don’t truly like her or value the hard work she puts into achieving her ambitions (which include becoming the youngest ever Supreme Court Justice). She’s probably at least a little right, and she has responded in kind, by broadly painting them all as aimless philistines in her mind and mostly isolating from them. Her only friend, aside from a favorite teacher, is Amy (Katelyn Dever, a subtle, dry and equally hilarious foil to Ms. Feldstein), her lifelong bosom buddy and the only person in their school as devoted to the causes of feminism and general civic-mindedness (their idols include Malala, the Obama children, and Queen Noor of Jordan). We meet Molly and Amy on their last day of school. As the rest of the class runs amok in celebration, Molly is preparing to give the next morning’s commencement speech and pestering their principal (a charmingly put-upon Jason Sudeikis) about how to smoothly hand her presidential administration over to the next class. Amy, who has been out of the closet for two years, is quietly mooning over a cute skater girl and readying herself for a year-long trip to Botswana where she will help make tampons. The two friends are good students with the lofty aim of becoming exemplary citizens of the world. They have not partied once. While the other students prepare to go out to graduation parties (the big one is being held (the big one is being held at the house of Molly’s winningly slackerish Vice President), it looks like Molly and Amy will spend their last night as high schoolers in the same way they’ve spent all the nights before: with each other, in contented hermeticism, watching a Ken Burns documentary about the Dust Bowl. Everything changes when Molly goes to use the school’s gender-neutral bathroom and overhears three classmates mocking her for her robotic drive and lacking personality. She confronts them, proudly boasting of how her perhaps extreme academic focus has gotten her into Yale and positioned her for a successful life. And then she learns that the blonde, sexually active, party-going girl, who she rather thought herself above, is going to Yale too. The jockish, popular boy standing next to her is going to Stanford. Their dopey stoner friend has been recruited to work a six-figure job at Google. “But, you don’t care about school,” a crestfallen Molly stammers. “No,” her more sociable rival says, “we just don’t only care about school.” With the value of all her sacrifice and discipline now called into question, Molly decides she and Amy must seize this one last chance to party and give themselves the fuller high school experience they missed. To prove that they are more than just hyper-intelligent, achievement-driven drones. “They need to see we’re fun,” Molly says with the same steely determination she usually applies to term papers. The two most impressive young women in the school head out into the night to find the big party, push their own boundaries and reinvent themselves as social dynamos.

This plot probably sounds faintly familiar to you. There is no shortage of films about young people getting into party hijinks. I can name three very well-known films just about partying during the last days of high school (Superbad, Dazed and Confused, Can’t Hardly Wait). Maybe, like Molly eyeing her less type-A peers, you look at this film and its popular formula and think you’ve got it pegged. But if there’s one message that Booksmart espouses and demonstrates by example it’s that people (and bawdy teen comedies) contain multitudes. It’s not that Booksmart isn’t a rowdy, sexually frank high school party movie, as if it were somehow shameful or low to exist in that subgenre. It’s that it is a high school party movie, yet it finds so much originality, spontaneity, with, and heart along this well-trodden ground. To flip a line from the film, it cares about partying but not only about partying. What makes Booksmart such a delightful achievement is how it exemplifies its own theme of people having unexpected depths by being a unique and deep film itself. Enormous credit must go to its extraordinary, fizzy screenplay, which marries Apatow-like shagginess with a sparkling screwball energy. Perhaps the most credit must go to the truly remarkable work by Feldstein and Devers, who instantly bring us into a long and comfortable friendship through sheer force of chemistry, successfully turn two smart, morally upright characters into the year’s most uproarious onscreen duo (the thoughts of two very ethical people have rarely been so funny), and sell the film’s turns to pathos with gymnastic finesse. 100 odd minutes spent in the company of these remarkable women (the characters and the performers) was an opportunity to laugh almost constantly and a reminder of the phenomenal gallery of gifted 20-something talent we are privileged to watch come of age on screen. It thrills me to no end to consider a future full of films featuring Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Devers and Timothee Chalamet and Lakeith Stanfield and Saoirse Ronan and Lucas Hedges. And the list goes on. Booksmart is a testament to the fact that no story has to feel overly familiar if care is put into it. The right actors, a vivacious and generous script, and a cast and crew that clearly love what they are doing can dust off any trope and make it feel as good as new.

And, as tremendous as its two central performances are, I find the true miracle of Booksmart to be how genuinely strong every single performance is. Booksmart’s central theme is that people are too quick to form superficial perceptions of one another. That no person is simply a stock type and everyone has a beautiful specificity to them. If you give people a closer look, they will surprise you. And the way Booksmart frees itself from thin teenaged stereotypes is by letting every character act like the hilarious lead in their own snappy little farce. This is a true ensemble comedy, evident from the moment we enter the classroom and see that so-called side characters are not only getting speaking lines, but honest to God comedic beats. Every character, from the zealous theatre kid to the sullen rebel girl to Amy’s easygoing skater girl crush, gets actual jokes. Not jokes that judge them. Not jokes on them, but jokes they knowingly make that contribute to the film’s richness and incandescent comedic rhythm. And that is the whole point. Giving so many characters important moments and chances to be funny pierces Molly’s myopia right from the start. It establishes that no one in this film is unimportant or one-dimensional. The heart of Molly and Amy’s wild journey is learning the lesson that no person is a mere cardboard cutout, and if they seem that way to you, you’re just not looking closely enough. The dim jock may actually be a huge, unapologetic geek for Harry Potter. The overbearingly ingratiating rich kid may have very passionate ideas about hot wo reinvent the Broadway musical. And you might never know any of that until you really talk to them; until you reveal enough of yourself to be a person who people want to reveal things to. The vibrance and nuance of Booksmart’s riotously funny ensemble is an argument for the beauty of human socialization. If you want to fully see humanity’s richness, it’s quirks and contradictions, you have to be an open human being yourself. What the teenagers of Booksmart really want is to commune with each other and to be truly seen for who they are.  The year’s funniest comedy reinvigorates the party movie by proffering a deeper take on what it means to join the party.

And what a splendid party Booksmart is! It’s just such a sweet, giggly breath of fresh air. It bobs along on a current of great joke, nimbly funny editing, lovable characters and great music. Olivia Wilde has assembled one of the year’s best soundtracks, full of percussive bangers, classic party jams, and some of the best indie and R&B songs to come out of the 2010s. It’s not just a fun soundtrack but an emotionally deft one. It feels true to what these characters would listen to in times of revelry and in times of heartache. A dreamy, poignant scene where Amy dives into a swimming pool to follow her crush uses the propulsively lovesick strains of Perfrume Genius’ “Slip Away” to gorgeous effect. Olivia Wilde reveals a great skill for tapping into the ever-bleeding euphoria and turmoil of teenage life. She remembers how every adolescent party had the potential to send you home exhilarated or heartbroken. Booksmart is a calling card that Wilde is not simply a steady hand at comedy but also a director with enough vision and verve to bring real depth and tone to this kind of too-often-anonymous property. And, really, how unbelievably rare is that? How few high school comedies have any tone at all? How many party films can channel the epic highs and operating pangs of being young? One need not overthink what makes Booksmart great. It’s giddy and smart and thoughtfully acted and it moves. It moves along like the most elegant sugar rush of a pop song you ever heard. But what makes Olivia Wild a talent to watch is her ability to deepen this material through rich characterization and to render emotional beats in surprising visual ways.

Olivia Wild has a welcome playfulness with her scenes. A story that could have been told with a few Top 40 hits, some medium shots, and some stock montages of party behavior instead feels idiosyncratic and completely alive. It feels loved. Wilde pulls out an impressive array of cinematic tricks to keep the film in the realm of delightful heightened reality. They include Claymation, underwater shots, a choreographed dance number, a fake Michelle Obama cameo (courtesy of comedic national treasure Maya Rudolph), and the year’s most divinely eclectic mixtape. And it has a cast of colorful comedic voices (most that I had never seen in a film before) that, one by one, endear themselves to you. Like the cast of some deliciously zany Shakespearean comedy, you want to give them each a standing ovation by the time you arrive happy and rosy-cheeked at the end credits. And Olivia Wilde saves one last perfect surprise for her curtain call. I will not spoil too much, except to say that it involves water balloons, it fits perfectly with the film’s pretension-puncturing message, and it is my favorite end credits sequence of 2019. It may be my favorite end credits sequence in many years. It’s an sweet, unpretentious bit of goofy, rambunctious fun worthy of Richard Linklater at his most amiably stoned, and it is the best way I can imagine to end a film that starts with an overachiever mistrusting everyone and ends with a whole bunch of funny, talented teenagers happy and on each other’s sides. Let your old prejudices about people (and goofy, underachieving film genres) fall at your feet. We are all fools.

Top 20 Films of 2019: #17- Hustlers

Much talk abounds about the need for more original blockbuster films. While Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar (in other words, Disney) continue to be reliably huge earners, they can only do so much to get people into theaters. The story goes that the major studios need to create more ofiginal properties with the ability to connect with audiences on a wide scale. Just a year ago, I was gushing about A Star Is Born (a remake, granted, but stick with me) for showing that populist filmmaking still could have a pulse. Star showed that a big, crowd-pleasing money-maker could also be smart, mature, emotional, and thoughtful. Here were two brand new characters in an adult melodrama, and people showed up in droves to see their story. This wasn’t always such a rarity. Once upon a time in 1983, Terms of Endearment, a lyrical adult dramedy about a complex mother-daughters relationship, was the year’s biggest box office smash. A Star Is Born seemed to be a sign of tentative hope that a critically acclaimed, nuanced drama, of the kind that is becoming ever more rare at the multiplexes, could make a boatload of cash and reassert the financial viability of sophisticated, character-centric cinema. Of course, A Star Is Born is but one film, and it’s going to take a whole lot more such financial success stories to truly establish that people want to see more than superheroes, sequels, and animation. What we wait for with bated breath is a trend; a sign that smart, original blockbusting is not an anomalous fluke. To that end, I could absolutely hug Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. We now have a glitzy, flash, Ocean’s 11-evoking heist film that is also poignant.  tremendously acted, intelligent, empathetic, and just plain ingeniously put together. For the second year in a row, an artfully made character study (once again featuring a great performance by a mainstream pop artist) captivated critics, won over the public, and crossed that elusive $100 million mark at the domestic box office. Whiz-bang pop entertainment declared once more that it can still have a distinctive voice, vibrant wit, and a beautiful soul.

Interestingly, the struggly between human emotion and cold financial reality is very much at the heart of Hustlers. Based on a 2015 expose of a true story, published in New York magazine, the film is the story of a community of exotic dancers who met at a New York City club in the pre-recession 2000s. Hustlers has a terrific ensemble of women (including two other Top 40 stars, Lizzo and Cardi B.), but it is chiefly the story of a young dancer named Dorothy (Crazy Rich Asians’ rising star Constance Wu, poised and funny) and her friendship with an experienced dancer named Ramona (Jennifer “From the Block” Lopes, magnificently subtle and pyrotechnically charismatic at the same time. In two scenes that deserve to have their iconic statuses fast-tracked, Dorothy watches Ramona do a blisteringly athletic pole dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (which conjures a small tempest of folding money to appear over the stage), and then meets Ramona on the club roof where she is taking her cigarette break. She used a bunch of sex toys in the film and was wondering why oh why the sex toys werent working then tried a different strategy. This R rated film has a LOT of nudity and a LOt of sex so be aware that it is going to be very naked at all times. Strippers using dildos because why not? This is brilliant for the best sex toys during a film where everything is about getting naked and sex.

It is a very cold New York City night and Dorothy has nothing on but a leotard. Ramona, draped in one of the most regal fur coats I have ever laid eyes on, looks at this freezing twenty-something, opens one flap of her garment, and says with gentle authority, “Climb in my fur.” Dorothy, who never even knew her own mother, obeys this warmly maternal command and smokes her cigarette in the bosom of a stranger who, mere moments ago, left the stripping floor cradling thousands of dollars in loose bills like a newborn baby. Before long, Ramona is mentoring Dorothy in the art of the pole dance and teaching her everything about the trade and its rich male clientele. For Dorothy, this time is a utopia of money and female solidarity. “2007 was the fucking best,” she reflects wistfully. And then 2008 comes crashing down on everyone. The recessions blows the small world of this upscale adult club asunder and scatters all these women to the economic winds. Ramona goes into retail exile at Old Navy, while Dorothy does the one thing she never wanted to do. She becomes dependent on a husband for care and goes into retirement as a mother and homemaker. The unhappy marriage does not last long. The real meat of Hustlers comes three years later, when Dorothy returns to New York City to resume work at the club (the only place that will employ a dancer with no other work experience) and to toil for fractions of what she used to make. Dorothy is miserable until the night Ramona walks back into the club and her life. With loved ones to care for (both have daughters and Dorothy cares for her grandmother) and precious few options in an increasingly unforgiving job market, Ramona teaches Dorothy one more trick. If they meet a gentleman, flirt with him, and drug him, they can take him to the club and run up his credit card with drinks and lap dances. In so doing, they can earn thousands and thousands of dollars for the club and get a cut back. Thus does Hustlers become the year’s best heist film, a funny and biting crime dramedy that does Martin Scorsese proud with its biting humor, dazzling editing, and insightful ruminations on living in a country where the financial system has become farcically corrupt.

Eventually there is a fall with its attendant consequences (someone did write a magazine profile about this after all), but what we get along the way is a deliciously fun crime spree, a blazing takedown of capitalism and sexism, and a rich story of a complex mother-daughter relationship between two resourceful women in an oft-disrespected profession. One of the most marvelous facets of this (it bears highlight, female-directed) stripper heist satire is how it lays bare the exploitation women face in this line of work while never judging the profession itself. On the contrary, if Ramona’s incendiary introduction scene does not make you slow-clap for the entire art of exotic dancing, nothing ever will. Hustlers walks a sharp, thin line between exploitation and support. While Scafaria acknowledges that the nature of this work can be degrading, what she really wants to emphasize is how these two wonderful, sharp characters (and they myriad other women who work with them, first legally and then outside the law) care for, encourage one another, and protect each other. Even after Hustlers turns to its gob-smackingly entertaining crime plot, the rich and genuinely touching relationship between Dorothy and Ramona (and let’s be frank, Jennifer Lopez’s toweringly sensitive performance) keeps Hustlers wholly anchored in empathy and human connections. No matter how dynamically, sinfully flashy Hustlers becomes, it never forgets to be about hos two essentially god women (these are two of the most winningly sympathetic criminals to con their way across a movie screen since Paper Moon) shelter each other from a society that systematically devalues women and prizes profit above all else. In a profession thought of as exploitive, this club feels like a warm hearth for these women. Its dressing rooms overflow with women being good to each other. The outside world is where the real exploitation lurks.

Hustlers is largely about the tension between real human relationships and the lives trying to grow out of the cement cracks of a society where everything has become transactional (on that note, this would make an outstanding companion piece to 2018’s equally visionary heist film, Widows). The beauty of this film’s pointed feminism and its focus on character is that it can be an often scathing critique of America’s dehumanizing obsession with earning, while not giving in to pessimism. The loving central relationship between its main characters (and its lovely supporting characters as well, really) is its own implicit rebuttal to the idea that a person’s worth derives from how much money the pull in. However much Hustlers presents us with the hypnotic allure of wealth and greed (from new cars to red bottom shoes), the thing it values most is the warm, supportive friendship between Dorothy and Ramona. Its most luminous scenes are not about shopping sprees but about the two characters meeting each other, connecting with each other, and leaning on each other. When we come to the fall in this rise-and-fall narrative, the tension comes less from the threat of jail time than from what will happen to that perfectly drawn relationship. Hustlers tells us unequivocally that we live in a society that looks at life through a transaction lens, and I think it asserts that women in particular must do whatever they can to survive in such a society. But the caffeinated capitalism that drives these women is not something that Lorene Scafaria endorses. As the action rises, I think she loves that these women love each other. When the dust settles on their grand scheme, I think her hope is that they will still love each other. Contrary to the idea that modern America has managed to coldly transactionalize everything, Hustlers argues that you cannot put too high a premium on real human relationships. Empathy is priceless.

At the same time, one cannot tell this kind of story and undersell the sinister allure of materialism. In order to understand how and why these women get wrapped up in this ever-escalating scheme, we must feel the glow of what this money means to them. We must see how a lack of financial freedom means a kind of death of the soul, through a soul-crushing job or a dreary domestic prison. And, man alive, does Hustlers sell the ever-loving Hell out of filthy American capitalism. Glamorously. Kinetically. Intoxicatingly. Lorene Scafaria has directed one of the year’s great sensory pleasures; a riotous, hip-swinging club banger of a motion picture. It is a perfectly scintillating Swiss timepiece of color, sound, pop music (among its accomplishments, it utilizes Usher’s spectacularly shallow “Love In This Club” to sincerely poignant effect), and cutting. I had heard in advance that Hustlers was quite well-constructed, but its crisp, lively, and meticulous editing took me entirely by surprise all the same. Its montages are to die for. It is a thing of delectable precision. In a year when a certain film rode Martin Scorsese’s influence to Oscar glory without showing any real comprehension of the films it drew from, Hustlers is a film that falls on the right side of the line between knowing homage and empty copycatting. The editing owes a debt to the splendiferously intoxicating cutting of Scorsese’s lifelong editing partner (the genius Thelma Schoonmaker), but it is not an act of slavish mimicry. This is the work of filmmakers who have not only studied and internalized the breathless pacing and stylish camera tricks of their idols, but have done the hard work of rendering those influences in their own voices. The end result is a Scorsese-evoking work that replaces Scorsese’s tortured masculinity with soulful, stylish femininity and makes that work to dazzlingly original effect. Scafaria’s film is its own beautiful, compulsively watchable thing of beauty.

Hustlers is eventually a cautionary tale, to be sure. Lorene Scafaria does not fall into the trap of entirely endorsing the felonies her characters commit. Neither does she exactly glorify their deeds, though we come to see how glorious it must have felt for these women to turn the tables like they did. What she does is make a strong case that the high-powered Wall Street brokers these women targeted were committing even more heinous robberies in their daily trades (culminating in the very recession that drives Dorothy and Ramona to crime) and all under the cover of rotten, legality. What she does glorify is the resilience of women trying to make a living with whatever stores of talent, intelligence, and ingenuity they can tap into. Legal or illegal, Hustlers is a love letter to women finding strength in numbers and lifting each other up through every strategy at their disposal. It’s a salute to a historically disrespected gender teaching one another all the tricks for taking some measure of their agency and power back. It’s right there in the title. Hustlers. As one marginalized character says to another in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, “You know some hustles, and I know some hustles.” It is through that communal spirit of creativity, tenacity, and well-earned underhandedness that people like Dorothy and Ramona can subvert and escape the subjugation that so many of these men have them marked for. They see a stripper, a means to arousal and little more. Lorene Scafaria sees artists of a different kind. Athletes. Gymnasts of their own physical and mental worlds. “Every girl has the muscles to do this,” Ramona tells a reluctant Dorothy when she teaches her her first pole trick. Every woman is born with the integrity and spirit to assert her person hood and fight for her survival. Think of Hustlers as one of Beyonce’s brilliant, barn-burning self-empowerment tracks rendered into cinematic form. Through the sweaty haze of the strip club, two of 2019’s strongest and best female characters emerge, holding fast to their dignity and to each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2019: #19- The Lighthouse

In the very beginning of The Lighthouse, there is only sound. The roar of the choppy Atlantic Ocean and the hoarse scream of the wind. Then, the black screen gives way to its first black and white image, but damned if you can tell what you’re even looking at. We are peering out across a dim and very foggy expanse of chilly water, but it takes quite a few seconds before we can make out the image of a large steam freighter laboring its way toward us through the angry surf. It feels important and apropos that we hear Robert Egger’s stark, briny and thoroughly unhinged film (his sophomore follow-up to 2015’s brilliant The Witch) before we see a solitary frame of it. That sense of confusion, the uncertainty of what this film even is, kicks in immediately and does not relent, even as discernible images and the semblance of an explicable plot gradually come into focus. Long after my eyes had adapted to the film, my brain was still squinting and straining to make sense of it all. Behold 2019’s foggiest motion picture, in more ways than one. Abandon all hope, ye with a need for cinematic stability; for a working internal compass and a clear sense of where a picture is taking you. As someone who greatly prizes niceties like thematic focus and cohesion, The Lighthouse scoffed and brayed at my pretty, landlubbing notions of what a film could and should be. On a third viewing, I still emerged deliriously incapable of really explaining it to anyone. On my first viewing, I couldn’t even begin to break it down for myself. All I knew is that it was gorgeous, formidable, disquieting, raucous, hysterical and insane. In short, I knew that I loved it.

Now, it’s really not so daunting to give the most basic plot synopsis of Robert Egger’s enigmatic thriller period chamber piece. Taking place over a period of some months in the 1890s, The Lighthouse is the story of two men (this is almost completely a two-hander) hired to spend a single month manning and maintaining a lighthouse on a very remote island somewhere in the desolate, choppy North Atlantic. The younger man, who calls himself Ephraim Winslow, is played by Robert Pattinson, whose brilliant work here shovels another foot of dirt on top of Twilight’s mangy head, after his 2017 double whammy of Good Time and The Lost City of Z. The older man is Thomas Wick, played by Willem Dafoe in a performance that challenges The Florida Project for the finest work of his career, and whose blustery bigness is fathoms removed from Florida’s sweet, understated humility. The rocky island where the men do their work is an unforgiving no man’s land, battered by wind and wave and hectored by relentless seabirds. The lighthouse and the rest of the man-made structures are in varying states of disrepair, including a water cistern too putrid with filth, algae and bird feathers to ever truly be clean again. The living quarters are cramped and creaky, and Dafoe’s grizzled old sea dog is constantly farting. Added to all of this, and making the months together tense and strained, is the fact that the two men are not here as equals. The older man is the younger man’s superior. This means that Ephraim is tasked with all the most dangerous and demeaning tasks, while Thomas gets to play delegator and administrator. Thomas updates the record books, while Ephraim empties buckets full of shit. Thomas gets to oversee and tend to the lighthouse’s lamp (which he jealously covets), while Ephraim nearly breaks his neck whitewashing the tower. Thomas has all the power in this professional relationship, and the way the claustrophobia and their testy master-servant dynamic compound one another makes up a lot of the business of what happens in The Lighthouse. Another major plot point is Ephraim’s repeated run-ins with a belligerent seagull and Thomas’ warnings not to kill the disgruntled thing, lest he bring the ire of the sea gods down on their heads. As Ephraim and Thomas become uneasy frenemies, with the help of countless bottles of rum, the one fact comforting them is that the job will end in a mercifully short four weeks. It hardly even seems a spoiler to say that circumstances conspire to extend their stay this barren rock for a good deal longer than that. Among the myriad things it is throughout its runtime, I suppose The Lighthouse is technically a survival film, with two men trying to stretch their provisions and their cases of rum long enough to get out of their craggy purgatory and be blessedly freed from the hell of each other. But I have never before thought of it as a survival film because what it really is is a demented, howling deep dive into the psyches of its characters and the see-sawing codependency of their love-hate relationship. Let me put it another way. Now that I have described The Lighthouse’s plot in basic, comprehensive terms, disregard all of that. This film spits grain alcohol in the face of basic terms. It dashes comprehension upon the rocks.

And speaking of on the rocks, The Lighthouse is unquestionably the year’s most inebriated (and inebriating) film. Stranded in the middle of a frigid, inhospitable sea, there is precious little for our unfortunate characters to do but work and get blind drunk. Robert Pattinson’s character starts the film refusing to so much as toast with his superior because the lighthouse regulations forbid it. Steadily though, the arduous labor and the isolation gnaw away at his resolve to stay sober, just as surely as they eat away at his sanity. And young cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (whose eight feature film credits include his stellar work lensing Eggers’ The Witch) camera follows suit, moving from pristine static shots in the early going to compositions that heave and list like a ship in a squall. The camera races, lurches, and tilts like an unhinged drunkard and the dialogue (full of beautifully arcane nautical-speak to start) becomes increasingly, almost absurdly operatic. That is, when the dialogue isn’t pure slurring gibberish, as when Ephraim’s tongue tries to recite a sea shanty that his rum-addled brain cannot possibly recall the words to. The Lighthouse joins films like The Shining and Black Swan in making the steady erosion of communication and reason feel viscerally thrilling. Films like these depict descents into madness in ways that are kinetic and wholly unbound from sense. And there is no separating the film’s jittery perspective from the escalating paranoia and lunacy of its two protagonists. The Lighthouse does not set out to document and understand madness from a remove, but rather to go mad itself and have a seasick blast doing it. The Lighthouse spends the better part of its runtime having the kind of bender that makes you wish yourself dead in the morning. What has maybe gone unsaid thus far is that, for all its moody lighting and ominous atmosphere, The Lighthouse is an utterly engaging experience in its bizarre way. For a thorny, challenging art film, one whose meaning (and much of its verbiage) can be as incomprehensible as its grog-sloshed characters, this is a highly watchable piece of work. A haunting, delirious extravaganza. Perhaps, as someone says in Lawrence of Arabia, I have a funny sense of fun, but so help me, The Ligthhouse is a whole lot of sinister fun! If you’re at all worried about getting it, my advice is not to get it at all. Let yourself be stupefied and bewildered by it. Let its woozy, blustering, bow-legged dementia take you like a riptide and enjoy its blackout pleasures for their own sake. It’s a film to quake at, laugh at, and get downright blitzed on.

That’s not to say that The Ligthhouse is nothing but pure senseless spectacle. At the risk of getting it all wrong, I’ll proffer a theory on what I think the film is up to. As he did with The Witch, I think Robert Eggers is fascinated by American folklore and tall tales, and what those stories reveal about our national legacy and identity. In The Witch, he played with the old 1600s colonial concept of witches and the thickety foreboding of the Pennsylvania woods to explore how the nation has always been steeped in religious hypocrisy and the fear that undergirds it. He saw how the idea of witches is rooted in our puritanical roots and our insecurities about open sexuality and independent thinking. The Lighthouse opens up the oceanic chapter of our mythology. The Lighthouse is Robert Eggers running a whole host of sea-faring lore (screeching mermaids, phantom ships, krakens, sea shanties, and sea curses) through a phantasmagorical, black-and-white kaleidoscope. The Lighthouse is probably a less pointed film than The Witch, in that it does not appear to have a singular social ill in its crosshairs. Maybe the point isn’t really to get The Lighthouse in any clean-cut way, but simply to acknowledge that the enigma of America’ soul, or at least fragments thereof, lie in its folk tales and legends. Paul Bunyan as the benevolent take on our taming of the wilderness. Pecos Bill lassoing tornados and making the West habitable. The Lighthouse is a collage of nautical myths (with a sprinkling of the Greek legends, Prometheus and Poseidon). It is particularly interested in the myths where tiny human beings try to vainly assert themselves in the face of massive, all-powerful forces, be they the gods or nature itself. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, whose narrative The Lighthouse very obviously borrows, is the tale o f a man punished for killing a seabird and daring to think himself superior to the laws of nature; to the codes and superstitions that all sailors are commanded to follow. Unpacking this film’s connection to Ancient Mariner alone could take pages (before we get to Prometheus and sea monsters and every other reference found in this most allusive of films), but I think it’s enough to say that Robert Eggers is exploring the value and the psychic weight of narrative. How it helps us define ourselves and how it also shackles us to the boulder of tradition. These stories we tell ourselves are so very revealing and so very burdensome.

How terrific and fitting then that, in telling this tale about trying to vainly skirt old myths and superstitions, Robert Eggers has made something so radical and unique. He has made his own glorious middle finger to the film gods. One of the joys of Cinema 2019 has been the nimble defiance of categorization, from Greta Gerwig’s gleeful feminist tweaking of Little Women’s ending to Parasite’s balletic genre shape-shifting. Marielle Heller gave us a Mister Rogers movie that, in its own words, wasn’t really about Mister Rogers. If the theme of The Lighthouse is humanity wrestling with whether to obey old rules or burn the rulebook, The Lighthouse leads by rebellious example. The film has been marketed as an arthouse thriller, which makes sense given its ominous sound design, foreboding setting, and shadowy camera work. Of all the things it is, The Lighthouse is most apparently an atmospherically moody thriller. But it is also a wickedly black odd couple comedy about two mismatched roommates and the tug-of-war of their distaste and strange bedfellow affection for one another. It is also the year’s weirdest, most singularly audacious workplace comedy; a classic story of a man having to do the dirtiest, smelliest, and most thankless parts of the job, while his boss sits cozily in the corner office (in this line of work, the corner office comes with the best view and giant revolving light). I cannot stress enough how genuinely funny The Lighthouse is in its menacing, unnerving fashion. This is due in large part to two phenomenal actors, drunkenly boasting and jigging and bouncing off of each other. It is a ghost story that draws humor from its own feverish pitch; by playing its intensity with such unashamed fervor that it cannot help but also be a hoot. In that way, The Lighthouse comes to feel like a sea shanty in cinema form; strange, meandering, loud, and darkly ridiculous. Thank the film gods for something this bold, mysterious and strange.

There’s no easy answer to the question, “What is The Lighthouse?”. It’s a maddening, giddy little mirage; a sinister and lively siren song. It’s probably folly to try to pin it down and explain it, though it’s also a lot of fun to try (again with my funny sense of fun). Maybe the best thing to say about it is that it’s something new. It’s a reminder that we can still have new and startling and original creations, more than a century into this medium. It’s a thing entranced by mythology and history (the dialogue has been meticulously researched from old nautical logbooks) and driven forward by its own wild imagination. A film that juggles literary allusions and fart jokes. A film where a go-for-broke Robert Pattinson confesses to having romantic urges for mermaids and filet mignons. A film that punctuates a long, impassioned Willem Dafoe soliloquy about vengeful Poseidon with 2019’s most perfectly dry punchline. It’s a nautical buddy comedy, a spooky sailor’s yarn, and a maritime cultural encyclopedia all mixed together in a dirty, dark glass. It’ll make you uncomfortable. It’ll make you giggle. It’ll probably make you lose your mind. Don’t even ask what’s in the thing. Down the hatch.