Top 20 Films of 2021: #16- Spencer

I try my best to be a purist when it comes to reviewing films and when it comes to choosing the worthy group to make my annual top twenty list. By that I mean, I tend to avoid choosing a film just to be novel or omitting a film just because it’s already been listed by a plethora of other critics. My list is meant to commemorate (for my own forgetful future self as much as anyone) what most impacted me that year and I like it to stand as a reliable barometer of that first and foremost. To be frank, I don’t go out of my way looking for controversy in my choices. I often find myself in line with much of the critical consensus and I’m perfectly okay being in that line as long as it reflects my honest impressions about the film year. That said, left field picks and passion picks do end up on my lists semi-occasionally and I won’t deny that I feel a little swell of pride when they do. It’s nice to stand up for films that deserve more love. Critic or not, having personal choices you can fight for is one of the great joys of being a movie lover. In the case of Pablo Larrain’s Princess Diana film Spencer, I may need to walk the word “personal pick” back a bit, for it’s not as if I’m by myself in adoring it. There is a nice, reasonably sized group of us up here on this weird little Kubrickian hilltop. Spencer was by and large a well-reviewed film, even taking home the lion’s share of Best Actress critics prizes for Kristen Stewart. But, despite some good ink, Spencer has still felt like the most unfairly picked on great movie of 2021. General audiences seemed to absolutely loathe it (the same ones that presumably cheered on a dysfunctional carbon copy biopic like Bohemian Rhapsody to earth-shattering box office) and, even among the critical community, it felt just a wee bit polarizing. I am incensed on Spencer‘s behalf that it is not unanimously beloved, but this does give me the thrilling opportunity to defend its honor; to leap onto my white steed and mount a spirited defense on behalf of Pablo Larrain’s inventive, cerebral, and emotional fable (as an opening title informs us) about the late Princess of Wales’ uncomfortable tour of duty as an in-law of England’s Royal Family. It’s a joy to be able to champion its many virtues because a second viewing of Spencer only made it more clear what a special, singular and even playful ode it is to Diana Spencer and what her trials as both a Royal and as arguable the world’s most public figure have to say about modern celebrity worship and how a media-infused society treats the women it purports to idolize.

Being a Pablo Larrain film, Spencer is a vivid rumination on the full gamut of what it means to be a politician, celebrity, or often both. It is what it means to be someone with a place reserved in our history books. The one thing the film is not, to the dismay of many a viewer, is a straightforward, completely factual biopic. While it takes inspiration from a specific Christmas holiday Diana and her sons (William and Harry, who you may have also heard of) spent with the Royal Family, the word “fable” clues us in from the start that Larrain has something more surreal in store. It is what I would call an impressionistic rendering of its subject. Cinematographer Claire Mahon shoots Sandringham House and the surrounding verdant countryside like it’s all trapped inside a haunted Faberge egg. And the sense of regal pomp and circumstance inside these airy spaces add a sense of something eerie and spectral to this winter palace. We start the film with not a soul in sight. Then a cavalcade of armored trucks roll past a dead pheasant on a lonely private road. Nameless soldiers exit the lorries and march into the palatial estate with wooden crates that look like they might contain rifles. But, instead of containing weaponry, we see that they are filled with meats, produce and cheeses for the three days of terribly tasteful Christmas festivities. Then a large company of chefs march in to the darkened kitchens, entering the palace as the soldiers retreat from it. And only after all that ceremony do we finally glimpse our titular princess, driving in her convertible and seen from behind. Her festive plaid sweater feels like the first genuinely warm splash of color after those bracingly chilly opening moments. She has gotten herself lost, almost certainly on purpose, on the way to her antiseptically majestic lodgings. The first time we see the face of Diana Spencer (a spellbinding Kristen Stewart, using all her talents as both an A-list and an endlessly undersung character actor) is in a rural roadside cafe asking directions from a gaggle of working class folk who are all stunned speechless to see her. Once all the royals have arrived at the palatial grounds, we learn why Diana was keen to take her time getting there. She is scrutinized for having the gall to be the subject of tabloid fixation. A taciturn lurker of an ex-soldier (Timothy Spall, terrific as a man so quiet and intensely off-putting that he almost comes off as comical) has been retained by the Queen to both keep an eye on Diana and watch out for anyone who might want to spy on her. A centuries-old tradition calls for guests to weigh themselves on arrival and departure, nominally in the name of fun. And, while she knows her distant husband Prince Charles is having an affair (he presents her with the same pearl necklace he gave to his mistress and Diana is expected to wear them to the Christmas Eve supper), all the gossip about attention-seeking behavior and impropriety swirls about her. Even sequestered away with the people who despise her for attracting flash bulbs, she is still the one who is gawked at. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and disorienting, though her beloved sons are there to lighten the mood and provide her with listening ears and real love. But, sadly for Diana, most of the ears at Sandringham are the ones she feels leaning in to catch the next unorthodox thing she says. And, if it were all not enough to make Christmas tense, she starts imagining that the ghost of Anne Boleyn (another disrespected and martyred British royal) is walking the grounds and speaking to her.

Now, while the average viewer just eager to watch a little bit of down–the-middle lifestyle porn was probably already feeling uncomfortable with the constrictive, frigid Kubrickian atmosphere of Spencer, I have to believe the moment Larrain turned it into an actual ghost story is the moment that basic audience mentally (and in some cases physically) hurried for the exits. In losing a certain kind of general audience, Spencer freed itself up (just as Princess Diana eventually broke free from stifling royal customs) to be a much more rewarding film. For my part, I love how Pablo Larrain makes history feel a little haunted. Films like Spencer and his superb Jackie burrow deep into the recesses of their heroines’ psyches and delve into the subjective experience of being a public figure. And, far from being some arbitrary flourish, what the Anne Boleyn ghost connection drives home is that, for a certain kind of famous woman, being placed in a high position can actually be a terrifying and powerless thing. Even the Queen herself breaks her stony composure for a few almost gentle moments to remind Diana that they all exist as fodder for the public’s consumption. each of them typecast into whatever civic image can best serve the people’s expectations of them. “The only picture that really matters is the one of you they put on the ten-pound note,” Her Royal Majesty confides to her estranged, press-hounded daughter-in-law. “When they take that one you understand that all you are, my dear, is currency.” Poor, doomed women like Anne Boleyn were used and abused by their powerful husbands, disposed of and mistreated, and then fed the popular imagination for centuries afterwards. But what of their inner lives, and what of the stories they would have wanted told? Diana spent her adult years trapped in royal finery and boxed in by photographers, but the one happy thing we know of her story is that, before her death, she was able to free herself from her handlers. Before her road ended in that Paris tunnel, she was able to experience real love and a life of her choosing for a short while. And so, criticizing Spencer for not being a standard issue prestige film about the finer points of life as a Royal feels cruelly ironic to me. The film seems to argue that Diana Spencer fought to leave that lonely place. She took great, courageous pains to thwart convention and escape that repressive and sterile way of life, and in doing so she authored her own story as something more than just popular currency. She earned the right to have her story be more than just some coffee table book of behind-the-scenes palace intrigue. However one may feel about Spencer‘s wildest liberties and flights of fancy, from ghost Queens to pearl-eating to Polanski-evoking fever dream outbursts, this subjective, impressionistic take sure feels more like the story Diana deserves.

 

This also is a major reason that Kristen Stewart is such a perfect choice for the role, before we even touch the perfect blend of enigmatic exteriority and outspoken grace she brings to the banquet table. Stewart comes to this role with a metatextual understanding about what it means to be an object for the popular culture; a precious stone to be handled, praised, ogled, valued and devalued. She has all those years of being under her own kind of microscope, from child star to rising indie actor to disrespected Twilight ingenue to vilified other woman to brilliant character actor finally penning her own cinematic legacy. Stewart became the first American to win the Cesar (France’s answer to the Oscar) some years back for her revelatory work in Olivier Assayas’ The Clouds of Sils Maria. The big American awards body shunned her from even getting a nomination, as they did for her similarly great Assayas follow-up Personal Shopper. American audiences have placed Kristen Stewart on some of the highest pedestals and just as often pelted her with rotten fruit while she was up there. She surely knows something of not just the trappings of fame, but the powerlessness and disrespect that can come with it. She secured her first-ever Academy Awards nomination not two months ago for Spencer, and it certainly seemed like she had to fight tooth and nail to even have the Oscars notice that. None of Spencer‘s other great performers (Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins’ lovely work as her dresser and childhood friend), its splendid crafts (Claire Mahon’s icy kaleidoscope camerawork; Jonny Greenwood’s majestically ghostly score; Jacqueline Durran’s elegantly arresting costumes), or Pablo Larrain’s beautifully controlled direction were considered worthy. Stewart is perfect for the part because Spencer is a film all about what it feels like to be somehow both idolized and demeaned at the same time. To have the eyes of the masses utterly consume you for pleasure and then insult you afterwards. And she brings to the role both psychological realism and a haute couture model’s sense of the persona Diana projected. She has a dancer’s knack for rendering grand, glossy emotions in subtle, physical ways. I think of how difficult it must have been to completely let us into the headspace of this person while also nailing all the iconic exterior pop of the most photographed individual in the world. It demanded an actor with a character actor’s emotional complexity and an Angelina Jolie-level sense of how to captivate the camera one still image at a time. Off the top of my head, I can name maybe three current actors capable of doing both those jobs at the very highest levels. They are Marion Cotillard, Charlize Theron, and the great Kristen Stewart.

 

Like those performers, Spencer‘s perfection lies in being beautiful and iconic and also upsetting the expectations that come with wearing that heavy icon’s crown. It’s a pet theme for Pablo Larrain too, investigating the double-edged word of image and of historical scrutiny; how the broader society looks at its idols and how those idols respond to the knowledge that society is trying to make sense of them and define them. Jackie argues that Jacqueline Kennedy very shrewdly used the public fascination with her and with the assassination of her husband and spun it to the nation’s advantage by giving them a moving moment of historical pageantry. Spencer‘s Diana is different. She does not want to dance with history, but to dance with herself. She knows she will forever be under the microscope of the popular eye, but she refuses to accept it quietly, much to the ongoing consternation and embarrassment of her controlling, stiff upper lip in-laws. She is thwarted at every turn by the ever-seeing gaze of her new family and the Paparazzi (the former stitch up Diana’s bedroom curtains for fear of the latter) and she is corralled in by the nagging feeling that anything she says or does will be framed as either an acquiescence to the Royals’ arbitrary customs or as further proof that she really is an attention-seeking exhibitionist. And what Diana wanted, the film poses, was to feel something like freedom. I’m not trying to argue that one cannot take Spencer to task for being indulgent, wildly fictionalized, and sometimes even campy (to its great benefit in my opinion). But all of that is what makes Spencer feel like such a liberating, melancholically heartfelt dedication to Diana and to her her legacy as a person who chafed at the societal corsets that tried to hem her in. Larrain’s “fable of a true tragedy” is an ode to Diana as the wild English colt that no paddock could contain. There’s a montage of wordless moments in the last third of Spencer that consist of Diana dancing. Posing. Prancing, Pirouetting and twirling through finely furnished sitting rooms and marbled halls. Puckishly swatting at lacey curtains and merrily thumbing her nose at stately decorum. It is the most indulgent and purely interpretive scene in the film and it is also quite easily one of my favorite cinematic moments of 2021. In all its bratty, fed- up glory, it is the perfect affront to the Royal Family and mainstream audiences alike. Don’t let the ornate vases and velvet cushions fool you. Spencer is a silly, raucous punk song ringing through the prim halls of power and rattling all the tea trays. And it’s okay if it is not entirely to your personal taste. With all due respect, sir or madam, this one is not, strictly speaking, for you. It’s for Diana.

 

Of course, who really knows what the Princess of Wales would have made of Pablo Larrain’s beautiful, befuddling paradox of a film? I think he’d be the first to admit that it’s not so much an attempt to photorealistically render Diana Spencer. Photographs and tell-all exposes were probably the things she was most sick of, outside of her coldly philandering husband. If anything, the film is a rebuke to the idea that anyone could knows Diana better than Diana herself. For all the voyeurism she endured, her thoughts were her own, and yet history still needs to have its say on the matter. It always does. And so, in addition to being a raucous salute to Diana’s flight from rigid customs and a loveless family situation, Pablo Larrain is also using Spencer to punk history itself. He is critiquing the idea that we can cleanly tell anyone’s story no matter how much time they might spend in the public eye. In a late scene, Diana muses on how many British rulers are memorialized with a single word (William the Conqueror and such) to try to succinctly convey a sense of them. All of a person’s traits and faults and contradictions and personality boiled down into one last pudding for the easy consumption of future generations. The past melted down into one currency. And, as silly as condensing a living human being into a single adjective obviously is, I’ll play along for a moment. If Diana is to be commemorated with a word, what is it? Based on Larrain’s fault, I propose Diana the Defiant. Diana who would not be hemmed in by a pearl necklace or by a miserable marriage. Diana who, when the time came for them to compose her portrait, would not sit still. In her honor, Pablo Larrain has created one characteristically uninhibited work of art to hang in History’s stuffy sitting room. A spirited feminist whoop, from its ghostly freakouts to its flippantly discordant pop song ending. In a hall of solemn biopic busts, it’s a treat to have one with color in its cheeks and a self-winking sneer in its lip.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2021: #18- A Hero

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2021: #19- Passing

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

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

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

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

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

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