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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2018: #12- Eighth Grade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2018: #13- Hereditary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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