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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2019: #11- Marriage Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2019: #12- Honeyland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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