Top 20 Films of 2018: #9- Wildlife

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2018: #10- Free Solo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2018: #12- Eighth Grade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2018: #13- Hereditary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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