Top 20 Films of 2019: #19- The Lighthouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2019: #20- Her Smell

If 2019 had one defining theme for me, it was peace. Or rather it was the lack of peace; the insatiable thirst for it. If there’s a reason that selfish, foolhardy and downright grating characters like Her Smell’s Becky Something and Uncut Gems’ Howard Ratner  struck such powerful chords with cinephiles, a reason we sat transfixed as they flailed and ranted in their own self-created tempests, I think it’s that there was something universal and relatable in their Sisyphean, woefully wrongheaded efforts to find some shelter from their storms.  Even if they were the cause of most of their own problems, the quest to find some harmony was an undeniably resonant thing in a year like this. Harmony felt short on the ground in 2019; for myself, for many of my friends, and for the world at large. I saw loved ones weather great and minor ordeals, confront mortality, and fret about how to survive another day in a country where wages have long-since stopped keeping up with the cost of living. It was a year with its share of tears, both joyful and sorrowful. On the happy end of the spectrum, I married the love of my life, but anyone who thinks planning the happiest day of my life was a peaceful process has somehow managed to avoid every single piece of media made about throwing a wedding. Less than two months before the beleaguered year began, a government study revealed dismaying, altogether apocalyptic findings about our rapidly rising climate. And while we fretted, the floodwaters of brackish acrimony continued to rise unimpeded around the cultural discourse. It was quite simply the most anxiety-ridden year of my life. This probably sounds pessimistic, but I actually write these words with enormous gratitude. The scarcity of peace over those twelve months made me cherish it in ways I never had before. It helped me locate calm within myself and taught me to foster kindness in any small way I could. The hope that everyone finds some kind of tranquility and positivity in these trying times is why I adore Alex Ross Perry’s loud, caustic, and often very nasty musician character study, Her Smell. The year’s most disorientingly toxic whirlwind (give or take an uncut gem) was vicariously cathartic for how it plunged me into another person’s screaming dysfunction while also doubling as a cautiously hopeful prayer for even the worst of us to find something good on the other side of our dark nights.

I will say, right off the bat, that Her Smell is probably the most challenging film to make my top 20 this year. Challenging for its fly-on-the-wall-of-a-tilt-a-whirl cinematography, challenging for its brilliantly discordant feedback squeal of a sound design (so thoroughly fitting for the 90s riot grrrl music scene the film captures), and most of challenging of all for how it attaches itself to one of the year’s most abrasive, repellent characters. Told in five chapters that span from the early 1990s to the present day, Her Smell is the chronicle of an all-female, Hole-evoking alternative rock band called Something She, and its talented, megalomaniacal trainwreck of a frontwoman. Her name is Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss, reliably great and too transcendent here to even discuss in parentheses) and we first get to see her onstage, where she is wholly in her punk element and where her band’s terrific music does most of the talking for her. But then the curtain falls and, much like Llewyn Davis, we see that this great artist might be something of a horrific human being. Having finished one show and walked backstage, Becky immediately begins the even louder performance she regularly puts on for her family and friends. She cackles, screams, and roars like a demented carnival barker. She is both the star of her neverending life story and her very own hype-woman. She guzzles booze and snorts cocaine in front of her 2-year old daughter, and belittles the ex-husband who has clearly only showed up to make sure there is at least one parent present. Her two bandmates, Ali (Gayle Ranking, the picture of selfless humility) and Marielle (Sunset Song’s Agyness Deyn, subtly tremendous as the last line of sanity and sense in Becky’s traveling horror show), love her and fear her in ways that have long since melded together. Becky Something is a self-destructive force of nature, but self-destruction and regular destruction look awfully similar when your livelihood is tied to the destroyer. She torpedoes a fellow artists’ offer to have her semi-struggling band open for her. It seems Becky Something has never met an olive branch she couldn’t turn into kindling. In the film’s second act, we find a drunken Becky and her mortified band mired in a disastrous recording session that is months and months past its deadline and is threatening to drive their put-upon indie label boss (a great and wholly welcome Eric Stoltz) out of business. When a younger band of teenaged girls, who grew up and idolize Something She, show up to the studio for their own session, Becky hijacks them into recording tracks for her instead. By the third act, Becky is showing up hours late to open for the younger group, black-out drunk and with a reality show camera crew in tow. She is cruelly demeaning to her meekly supportive single mother, to her bandmates, to her most devoted acolytes, and to herself. She hits rock bottom in loud, bloody fashion. And then, for the last two chapters of Perry’s film things get a little better, if only because there are few ways they could get worse, short of overdose or suicide. As he showed with his masterful Listen Up Philip (which followed a cruel young asshole’s rise through the world of literary fiction), Alex Ross Perry has a knack for capturing gallingly mean-spirited human beings in a way that is somehow fundamentally humane and empathetic. Perry protagonists are always knocking the wind out of the people who treat them best, but Perry neither wants glorify their clever pettiness nor bury them for their vindictiveness. His films seek grace, for the characters that deserve it and for the ones maybe don’t. Her Smell spends over half its runtime hurtling into the center of a black hole, but what lingers about it is how hopefully, and almost sweetly, it walks back from the precipice of Becky Something’s ruin. Her Smell is a real test of compassion and I don’t know that the average viewer will be able to go all the way with it; to forgive Becky for all her thoughtless cruelty. But that’s rather the point of this film, and maybe of Perry films in general. How much can you forgive someone for their toxicity and selfishness? Welcome to Advanced Empathy Studies. Look at the student to the left and right of you. Only one of you will be here at the end of the semester.

When it comes to plumbing the depths of human pettiness while still maintaining a generous sense of the good in people, Alex Ross Perry has his ideal muse in Elisabeth Moss. Who has now featured in major roles in three of the young director’s last four films. Few things thrill me more than a creative partnership between collaborators that not only work well together, but understand one another intimately. The great acting muses have a deep understanding of their director’s secret sauce; the special ingredient that makes the whole thing work. De Niro understood Scorsese’s nervy, emasculated angst. Marcello Mastroianni understood the thin line between moody genius and egotistical malaise in the films he made with Fellini. And Elisabeth Moss understands that an Alex Ross Perry means walking the knife’s edge of intelligence and insufferable arrogance with humor, finesse, and just the right amount of sympathy for very trying characters. Becky Something is arguably the screen performance of the year, a five-course meal of wit, cruelty, pathos, and deeply-felt regret. Only some five years removed from her stellar work in Mad Men (a role that would canonize her talent if she never acted in another solitary thing), Elisabeth Moss already ahs at least three performances that would have richly merited Oscar nominations (this, her glorious work in Listen Up Philip, and her gleefully unhinged wine mom in 2019’s Us). Very few performers have her capacity for sharp-tongued intelligence and for laying a character’s fundamental insecurity bare with a small facial expression. As much as I have made Becky Something sound like an utter monster in this review, make no mistake that she is utterly, relatably human. This film simply does not work if you do not see the terrified desperation in Becky Something; the frightened adolescent still posturing all these years later under all that running mascara and noxious punk attitude. Even if you turn Her Smell off wishing to never hear Becky Something’s name again, as I imagine quite a few of you will, the towering achievement of Elisabeth Moss’ symphony in contradictions cannot be denied. And if you can manage to look away from her banshee-like tour de force (it’s very much in the nature of this character to never cede the spotlight for more than a moment at a time), you realize that the entire cast is marvelous too. From Agyness Deyn’s listing pillar of big sisterly patience, to Gayle Rankin’s self-deprecating violet, to Virignia Madsen’s quiet mortification as a mother who fears for what is left of her daughter’s humanity. All of these performances are rendered with depth and beautiful specificity and all of them are gasping for some trace of air amidst the tar-black smoke of the Becky Something dumpster fire.

And that, really is what keeps the film anchored in empathy during those first few scenes, when the film is at full demonic tilt and Becky Something is still one-upping her own skill for emotional terrorism. Those scenes thrive amongst the dread and dysfunction because such abundant love and care is put into rendering the small community of people Becky so thoughtlessly brushes past and stampedes over. It is about them too. And it is about them in the way that Beck so relentlessly refuses to let it bea bout them for any extended period of time. In the third act, we get a paradoxical blend of tension and relief in Becky’s tardiness. The one-woman riot grrrl tornado is nowhere to be found, which is obviously not a good thing, as it threatens to sabotage a very big night for a group of thoughtful, talented young women. On the other hand, no Becky means that other characters get to speak. Other characters can let their guards down and talk semi-freely and breathe. And then Becky with her own camera crew and takes her film back from them. What makes Alex Ross Perry’s stories of talented, egomaniacal pricks grounded and humane is that he uses the cruel leads to throw the basic decency of the other characters into bolder relief. If we view his films in a certain way, I think we are being invited to consider ways to be in the world. We can think about others and be good to those around us, and seeing characters like Becky Something or Philip from Listen Up Philip abuse others and make everything about themselves should a wake-up call to return to our own better angels. Long before Her Smell finds some glimmer of hope for Becky, I already cared about those other characters and wanted the best for them. I wanted peace for them before Alex Ross Perry introduced the idea that there could be some small, hard-earned peace for a turbulent, wounded soul like Becky Something.

And, for as much as an Alex Ross Perry film can initially seem like a descend into the most horribly abusive kinds of human behavior, I always leave them wanting some kind of redemption even for its meanest characters. I want them to transcend their smallness of spirit, to find depths in themselves that are equal to the depths of their artistic genius. And if that cannot happen, then what about the art itself? Like Inside Llewyn Davis and Perry’s own Listen Up Philip, Her Smell is interested in the gulf between artist and human being. Art carries a sense of aspiration that we sometimes forget to apply to being a person. Can a vindictive, small-minded human being be reconciled with a transcendent artistic genius? Does a person’s viciousness and meanness diminish the value of their art or make it that much more precious? If a persons’ only true virtue lies in what they are able to create, on stage or on the page, does that make it all the more precious, the one thing capable of preserving some trace of their humanity in the harsh light of their failings as people? Alex Ross Perry doesn’t present easy answers to these questions, but he allows the tension between them to play out bitterly and beautifully. And he creates rich, meticulously observed worlds to explore them in. Her Smell is as vivid and tactile a portrait of the grunge clubs and recording studios of the alternative music subculture as Listen Up Philip was for the publishing houses, cover shoots, and bookstore signings of the literary world. Both films end with credit sequences, composed of lovingly designed fake covers for albums and novels, respectively. They are films that adore art, and which go about the hard business of trying to adore fallible human beings in the same way. In the end, by juxtaposing talent and toxicity, genius and callousness, Perry’s films capture the very best and worst of what human beings can do and be.

And so I left Alex Ross Perry’s dirty, bratty, frequently unpleasant riot grrrl character study on an anxious but altogether rewarding high. I came out on the other side of Becky Something’s foul odyssey, both acutely aware of my own vices and wanting to be a better person; kinder, less brusque and self-involved, more tuned in to all the people struggling around me. And the fact that I was able to get this, not from an umpteenth viewing of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but from a snotty, snarling, claustrophobic film about an obnoxious, self-regarding Courtney Love surrogate really is a small miracle. This film is drenched in blood, sweat, and vodka, but its eyes are looking at the stars. It is an epic redemption story shot through a filthy, hazy DIY lens. It is a redemption story, whether or not you think Becky Something really deserves that redemption or not. I certainly do. But if one can’t entirely forgive a tortured, antagonistic soul like Becky Something, can we at least find it in ourselves to hope they find some small amount of grace for themselves? That they can come to forgive themselves and find some warm center inside free of turmoil, fear, and self-hatred? For all the strife, sorrow, and spite that fills so much of Her Smell, I left it dearly wishing for peace. For myself. For my family and friends. For people I don’t much care for. For anyone in pain, whatever the cause. And for prickly assholes of every stripe.