Top 20 Films of 2021: #13- Memoria

My favorite poet is Edward Arlington Robinson. Most of his works, such as “Eros Turranos” and the very famous, Paul Simon-inspiring “Richard Corey” seem to take place in turn-of-the-century (19th that is) smalltown New England, but he has a great one that takes place in actual England. In this poem, “Ben Jonson Entertains A Man From Stratford”, Robinson imagines the titular 16th century playwright and Shakespeare contemporary meeting one of Shakespeare’s hometown friends in a pub and regaling him with musings about the Bard. One line I’ve always loved is when Jonson speaks of Shakespeare’s testy literary relationship with time and its mysterious, nebulous, inexorable passing. He refers to it as “his monster Time” It’s an observation that has always resonated with me. I also have a kind of rambunctious frenemy relationship with the copet. The very idea of Time feels both fascinating and disquieting, inspiring and harrowing. Time is a thing to be wrestled with and reckoned with and many of my favorite artists have been those who have their own Time monsters to spar with. Linklater stretching time out in Boyhood and the Before trilogy while also weighing the idea that everything might be just one simultaneous instant. Brilliant documentaries like Manakamana and Time (go figure) grappling with how Time moves and is experienced. Tarantino chopping up the temporal order of events in Pulp Fiction for maximum emotional and thematic oomph. Some artists regard it with awe and mystery and some just send Marty McFly whizzing back to the 1950s, turn time into a child’s playtoy and leave the metaphysical debates for the philosophers to figure out. After all, nobody ever said you had to take Time seriously. Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (he prefers the name Joe) is one of those deeply philosophical types, a man who beholds the mysteries of Time with a respectful humbled hush. His films, like his great Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives often exist in a magical realist realm where all things, from ghosts to royal animal spirits to a man who dies every time he goes sleep, feel possible. The nature of existence suddenly unfurls to reveal a world unbeholden to the restraints of our rational senses. His explorations of Time take place in the present moment, from which we observe Time passing, but also hum with the energy of all the Time that passed through this space before we ever got here. In Memoria, we briefly hear a university professor talk about how wood absorbs everything that touches it, and Weerasethakul seems to be positing that maybe all present existence retains the energy of the histories that came before. His latest opus is another bewitching, at times deliberately inexplicable tone poem of history, life, death, sleep and magic.’

Weerasethakul’s films take place somewhere between the real world, the land of myth, and our dreams all at once. Their sense of reality is as nebulous as a fog bank and he encourages the viewer to loosen their thinking accordingly. In Memoria, he has found the ideal museum guide to take us through his latest placidly heady maze, that magnificent, statuesque extraterrestrial known to most by her Earth name, Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays Jessica, a Scottish woman living in the Colombian capital of Bogota where she is a flower vendor. We meet her on the morning she is visiting her sister, who has been sick in the hospital. On that morning, Jessica begins to sporadically hear a strange cacophonous sound. Her description of the noise is of very large concrete balls being dropped down a metallic well surrounded by sea water. She seems to be the only person able to hear it. Her sister’s anthropologist husband (Zama‘s Daniel Gimenez Cacho) puts her in touch with Hernan, a young music student who helps her to recreate, or at least approximate, the sound through recording technology. They begin a friendship until one day he disappears and nobody in his university music program seems aware he ever existed. Jessica eventually takes a trip into the rural mountains to look at an archeological site uncovered during a tunnel construction project and ends up meeting a villager also named Hernan, only some decades older. He could very well be the same Hernan, or some version of him. How much sense you can make of a revelation like this (and Weerasethakul never says you need to make sense of it all) feels like the key to how you experience his films. Have you ever had a dream where a character suddenly changed into someone else, but you also understood automatically that they still were that same person? I think it’s kind of like that, though I would never presume that my take is right with this man’s filmography. If you thought I was guiding you knowledgably through Memoria, I am delighted to inform you that we are actually both hopelessly and irretrievably lost. The new Hernan has an enigmatic relationship to Time and death and he has a memory that holds not only his thoughts but the collective experiences and traumas of everyone who ever lived in his village. He is also that same man who temporarily dies any time he takes a nap. All of this ties somehow to Jessica’s mystery noise, Colombia’s history, Jessica’s status as a white foreigner learning about an ancient non-white land, and just maybe the totality of what it means to live and die as a human being. It has the briefest of plots or the fullest of plots depending on how you look at it. It is very quietly, very unhurriedly about a great many things. Like Jessica’s own journey, the experience of watching Memoria is filled with both serenity and discombobulation of a gentle kind. We spend long minutes on static shots that linger on hospital wings, Bogotan cafe courtyards and Colombian river towns. And then, every now and again, that percussive sound jars us out of our trance again.

Memoria is a film about being unsettled and in that respect it’s the best such film I can name since Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. What scant conventional narrative there is pales in comparison to the visual and sonic world that Weerasethakul conjures around us. It is a film deeply in tune with sonic texture. The bustle of pedestrian traffic or the low din of a restaurant crowd or the trickle of a Colombian mountain creek may seem banal, but Weerasethakul lets us spend enough time with them that they become entrancing. The film has explicit ideas and themes, but its focus is really about the enormity and bewilderment of existing in this big, mysterious world of ours. The way we do the best we can to process it with the starter pack of senses we are born with and how outmatched those faculties are in the face of everything. I think the times when our senses can barely make sense of things is where the magic lives for Weerasethakul. He means to very gently and lovingly short-circuit our brains. There’s a lovely and unnerving scene early on that focuses on nothing more than a parking lot full of cars at dawn. Then one of their alarms goes off and then other cars join in until they are all crowing their different sirens together. Then, one by one, they stop. Until there is finally silence again. No living thing is there in that parking lot and we do not hear anything before they go off, but something must have caused this chain reaction. Is it Jessica’s phantom noise that we can no longer hear when we aren’t sharing her point of view? Or is it some other force vibrating on some undetectable level? Our senses can’t process it in any direct way, yet the chorus of alarms testifies that something must be there, just beneath the feeble radars of our perceptions. And if our five main senses can be given the slip in this way, are things like reason and understanding not similarly susceptible? A Weerasethakul film aims to shake up our rigid notions of certainty about this world that holds us. He wants us to make room in our rational, scientific brains for the eerie, unexplainable and confounding. And while the result is meant to be disorienting and haunting, I think there is also a touch of something wonderful and sweet in the way he disorients us. His films feel as if they are possessed by friendly ghosts.
Memoria is fascinated by the nexus between the corporeal world and dreaming and it fittingly resembles nothing so much as the act of trying to describe a dream upon waking. There is that wonderful, patient scene where Jessica goes to the sound recording booth and she and Hernan try, step by step, to pinpoint the sound she keeps hearing. It’s a mesmerizing dance between our fantasies and all the tools of science, as Jessica and Hernan take the stuff of feverish imagination and run it through the sorting machine of logic and technology. The beautifully futile attempt to give language to the ineffable majesty of existing. In a Weerasethakul film, unlike most actual dreams, there isn’t really a moment where the strange power of the dreaming dissipates or loses its grip to the real and the rational. If anything, the film has us wake from what felt like real life into a dream. Dreams are real here. Memoria starts with what could be just a hallucination, watches Jessica hold it up to the light of day, and then slowly metamorphosizes into a rumination on how much wonder and bizarre phenomena are right there in front of us. It is a blurring of the lines between life and death, sleeping and waking, until they are one and the same. While waiting in a hospital hallway, a scientist opens up a doorway in front of Jessica. She informs her it is essentially a morgue, a place where bones and remains are being kept and puzzled over. A space for death. “Want to come have a look,” she asks with cheery politeness. Jessica does want to have a look and follows her in. And Joe Weerasethakul is similarly beckoning us in and inviting us to meditate, without any sense of fear or negativity, on life’s natural endpoint. Or maybe endpoints, for some. When the older Hernan awakes from his very long death siesta and looks up at Jessica, she inquires very matter-of-factly what temporarily dying is like. “Not bad,” he casually replies. “I just stopped.” Again, as much as Memoria is the story of Jessica being unsettled by a sensation she cannot explain, its attitude toward the unknown is one of peaceful curiosity and even hushed excitement. What a wonder to be in this beautiful place and to still have so very much to know about it. With as much death as I have felt surrounded by in the last few years, watching Weerasethakul muse on it with such wisdom, calm and childlike wonder felt like a thing I needed. It made for one of 2021’s most soothing cinematic odysseys.
Memoria is a notable example of a film that teaches you to watch it (and using that buzzy film phrase allows me to mark another square on my Cinema Bingo card). You might find parallels to it in the hushed meditations on nature in Terrence Malick’s films of in the long static shots of Malaysian filmmaker Tsai Ming Liang. But Joe Weerasethakul has long developed a rhythm all his own. As he does in that car alarm scene, his hypnotic patient takes suggest a world just under the surface of what we can see and feel. We all (sigh, most of us) believe in things like microscopic bacteria, sound waves that only certain creatures can pick up on, and even a part of our own brains that is virtually inaccessible to our conscious minds most of the time. Weeraethakul’s films whisper tome that if I can believe in those wondrous, hidden phenomena, who knows what else could be happening just beyond the fumbling grasp of my human senses. His films are an invitation to be quite and still but also alert, anticipating what might happen next. It feels like stretching a muscle one rarely uses, and it feels downright subversive in a cultural landscape with no shortage of frenetic entertainments. There is, to use an old cliche, nothing quite like it. If you have the urge to expand your definition of what an adventure film can be, Memoria is a transcendental trek into the wildernesses of Time, life, death, and the human self. And of course, if you ever feel confused or dumbfounded by what this unique cinematic object is up to, you can just look into the paradoxically open and inscrutable face of the incomparable Tilda Swinton. Behold the mixture of awe and disorientation that dances across her eyes. Her expression will tell you that you are entirely right in being puzzled and lost here in Weerasethakul’s haunting Colombian trance state. It will also tell you that it can be bracing fun to not always know where you are going.
Memoria has a lot to say about letting fo and allowing one’s self to be taken on a journey into someone else’s world. It is partly, I think, about the value of opening up to others’ stories. Weerasethakul has certainly done that by crossing the Pacific Ocean to Colombia and making his first film outside of the Asian continent. Tilda Swinton has left the Scottish Quarter of the Milky Way and acted in a film where at least half of the dialogue is in Spanish. And Swinton’s character within the film undertakes a trip outside of her own comfort zone through Bogota, out into the Colombian mountains and beyond in order to catch some part of a story that is much larger than her and older than her and also crucially not really about her. It’s a beautiful and necessary thing to let yourself be touched by stories that are not really about you. It’s as good for warding off narcissism and myopia as oranges are for scurvy. I cannot overstate how vital and soul-expanding it is to fill your life with stories that are not your own. Memoria also quietly and implicitly critiques the way white people, well meaning or not, can plunder non-white experiences for their own benefit in an exploitive way. Jessica’s sister speaks of a tribe her anthropology crew is researching that does not wish to open themselves up, mentally and culturally, for the world to probe. We are blessed to have the chance to take in a multitude of stories and perspectives, but we are also not entitled to every last one of them. Some of the world’s mysteries should be allowed to stay mysteries. It is just one more way that Joe Weerasethakul is teaching his audience to be still, curious, and respectfully receptive to the overlapping buzz of narratives all around us. That is the nature of cinema’s empathy-invoking power. You walk into a dark space and an artist introduces you to some people you’ve never met. Some are real and some are fictions conjured by actors. Either way, you sit quietly and you learn about them, while maybe learning a bit more about yourself too. Sometimes the intent of the story is to inform you and educate you. To shed light on some important subject or to illuminate an idea, so you can walk into the theater lobby with a firmer grasp on existence. Films to bolster our understanding and give us newfound clarity. I appreciate films like that. Still I’m very thankful they are not all like that.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #14- C’mon C’mon

I’ll stand on my soapbox for a minute and say that, as an uncle many times over, I feel that uncles still feel underrepresented in cinema.  It feels particularly tough to find good films about uncles. My people cry out for more stories. I say this as someone who never cared for John Hughes’ comedy Uncle Buck growing up and who had the pleasure of agreeing with his childhood self wholeheartedly after a recent rewatch. And, as I’m one of those snobs who can’t stand Napoleon Dynamite, I have little use for that desperate goofus Uncle Rico as well. I’m very much behind Mary Poppins‘ Uncle Albert and his laughing-on-the-ceiling shenanigans, but that’s a bit role and it’s unclear whose uncle he’s even supposed to be. It’s possible he might just have been bestowed with an honorary Uncle title, which obviously doesn’t really count. We have some very compelling uncles in The Lion King‘s Uncle Scar and Hamlet‘s Uncle Claudius (Scar’s non-lion equivalent), but those are some real unsavory uncles. Certainly not the kind of uncles anyone lucky enough to assume the title of uncle should aspire to become. The same goes for Harry Potter’s miserable Uncle Dursley. And of course, no matter how often he is reincarnated and reimagined, things don’t go ever all that well for Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. That poor man has died a lot. So where does that leave you ifyou’re looking for an uncle in a major role, who isn’t palpably evil, whose film doesn’t suck, and who isn’t frequently dying on a sidewalk in the name of increased pathos? I feel like I’m currently looking at Uncle Fester (who, to be clear, is not dead even if he would love it if you thought of him that way) standing in a room all by himself. And we love Fester, but that is just not a satisfactory state of avuncular affairs for more than a century of cinema. That’s why Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon hit me on such a personal level and filled me with teary joy for all the uncles out there like me. We’ve waited for this, gentlemen! Behold, a great film that not only has a really good, fully realized uncle as a leading character, but is also very much about the joys of having a nephew or niece. An arty, sweet little dedication to the bond between children and their parents’ brothers. It may seem a small thing for a film to be about, but there’s not such thing as a small thing when a filmmaker approaches it with this much clear-eyed thoughtfulness.

Also, being the latest film from the literate, referential and effervescently digressive Mike Mills (who last directed Annette Bening to her career zenith in his masterpiece 20th Century Women), C’mon C’mon is about a whole lot more than just nephews and uncles. Like its lead uncle Johnny (a spectacularly moving and impressively human-scaled Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist and interviewer, Mike Mills has a way of letting things unfold naturally, of letting the subject reveal itself. He has long been animated by a curiosity about human beings of all ages and how they grow and change. And he is gifted at allowing incredible actors to capture people at new crossroads in their lives. He has an eye for where pain, poignance, and rich humor overlap. C’mon C’mon begins with the first of many telephone conversation between Johnny and his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman, in one of the year’s best supporting performances). The two grew up close, but have hardly spoken to each other over the past year due to a couple of draining, highly charged famiy ordeals. Their mother died recently of dementia and there was heated disagreement over how to handle her passing. This also unearthed years of resentment over their starkly different relationships with her. There was also a great deal of discord over how Viv should handle her relationship with her husband Paul, a man possibly suffering from bipolar disorder. Paul has recently separated from Viv and relocated to Oakland away from his wife and their 9-year old son Jessie (Woody Norman, in a performance as full of humor, sadness, and exquisite grace notes as any I’ve seen in some time). Paul is having trouble adjusting to a new life in a new city and Viv feels a moral duty to go help him get settled and find treatment. This gives Johnny the perfect opportunity to reconnect with his beloved sister and nephew by offering to look after him while his mother is away. It may have only been a year since they last saw each other but, as Viv reminds Johnny, a year is a mighty long time for someone who has yet to live their first decade. Johnny lets Jessie borrow his tape recorder and microphone to capture sounds and conversations as they walk around Jessie’s Los Angeles home. Eventually, Johnny convinces Viv to let him bring Jessie to New York City and later New Orleans as part of his work.  It is clear from the start that Johnny and Jessie have a very strong emotional bond. It is also clear that their easy chemistry cannot entirely smooth over the fact that much does not feel right in Jessie’s life. He is anxious about his father’s departure and the reasons for it, and there is also general hyperactive ennui that comes with being nine years old. Mike Mills’ film is full of harmony and just as often punctuated with misunderstandings. It lives in the space between loving connection and missed communications, as Mills patiently and tenderly watches two good, wounded souls talk and get to understand each other. I don’t want to undersell the small traumas that all these characters are enduring and trying to make sense of, but the magic of C’mon C’mon lies in how it never feels burned out or defeated. It is a story that believes in love and healing, even if does not pretend that they are always easy to come by. The trials of these characters, from tending to an aging parent to divorce to watching a loved one admit they need psychological help, are all recognizable and relatable to a vast number of people. Mills does not minimize them but there is something soothing in how matter-of-factly he confronts them. He has made a tremendous film about acceptance and change and the power of talking it out with people who care about you. His characters’ struggles color them but they do not consume them. Big, life-altering ordeals share time with quiet moments of playful banter. Just like his interviewer protagonist, what Mike Mills wants to do most is just to listen and find some kind of peace in the free-wheeling rhythms of the dialogue.
Listening with a sense of humor and curiosity is key to Mike Mills’ approach with C’mon C’mon because that is such a vital part of communicating with children. More than just uncles and nephews, it is a film about the importance of speaking with and listening to the very young. If there is one superlative C’mon C’mon earns, it is that it may be the most astute film I’ve ever seen when it comes to presenting a truly honest view on pre-adolescent kids. It does not try to turn children into tiny, impossibly precocious adults and it does not make the other mistake of underestimating their awareness. It grasps the paradox of childhood, when one suddenly wakes up with a whole host of new ideas but still doesn’t quite have the discipline to organize all of them. As Viv puts it to her brother, his nephew is “a whole little person”, a phrase which crystallizes the full complexity of children and carries an implicit critique for how superficially and glibly the adult world often perceives them. Sadly, some of those very adults go on to make movies for and about children. C’mon C’mon isn’t just one of the least pandering glimpses into a 9-year old’s mind ever (it is the best such film since Spike Jonze’s underrated Where the Wild Things Are). It is a shot across the bow to anyone who would render child characters in a way that is cheap or lazy. It makes not pandering to children its mission statement and it features an adult character who understands and respects how important every interaction with this particular child is. Early on, when Jessie asks Johnny a serious question about why he has not married, Johnny fires out some quick, sassy, fun uncle response, but finds himself regretting it later. “I turned it into a dumb joke,” he confesses to his tape recorder. “Why did I do that?” Mike Mills understands that we should not assume we have children so easily pegged. One of the film’s most lovely and often funny decisions is just to let Jessie be genuinely weird sometimes. Because, in all honest, I’ve met precious few whole little persons who aren’t genuinely weird, in the best and most human of ways. Viv tells Johnny the night before she leaves Jessie in his care that her son will frequently play a game he made up called The Orphan. He will pretend to be a child who has escaped from an orphanage and shown up on her doorstep asking to spend the night in her house. And (here’s the gloriously macabre kicker), he offers to take the place of her dead children. Johnny greets this revealing look into this nephew’s psyche with a perfectly deadpan, “That’s fucked up.” And Mills’ perspective seems to be that, yes, it is a little fucked up and also the kind of strange little thing that happens with kids all around the world. As with so much of the character details in this film, he shrugs his shoulders with a smile and makes note of it. The joy of C’mon C’mon is that it is unafraid to be a little fucked up, and that is what makes it entirely wondrous. The beauty of Mike Mills’ look at Jessie (and children as a whole) is that he allows him to be both a disarmingly articulate little future adult and a specifically bizarre little boy, and it immediately makes this character (one of 2021’s absolute best characters) a real, breathing human being and not some cute abstraction. Mills’ film goes so much deeper than the realm of adult-kid bonding you see in a film like Kramer vs. Kramer. What we have here is a true two-hander between an adult and a child that could not feel more honest and alive. C’mon C’mon‘s dazzling magic trick is the subtle unfolding of Jessie’s foibles and nuances, so that, in no time at all, you know that Viv is right about him, This is a whole person. A fully dimensional, flawed, funny, free-thinking person.
C’mon C’mon is also quietly political in how it critiques an adult world that often reduces kids to abstractions, causes, victims, or problems to be solved. The  framing device of the film’s many poignant child interviews (all of them featuring real children discussing their hopes and fears for the future) allows the film to reinforce its thesis that children are real, autonomous beings. That we should question them more and talk at them less. The film is also political in its honest insights on the burdens and patriarchal hurdles that surround motherhood. While those child interviews are giving us conversation after conversation from the perspective of youth, Johnny is also having regular phone conversations with his sister on how to be a better communicator with his nephew. He is listening, as all men should, to a mother’s wisdom no how to not only raise and instruct a child but to nurture and one. And he is allowing Viv to tell her own story to someone who will listen; someone other than her sweet-natured but often manic child. Without underlining the point too boldly, Mills is positing that our would would be vastly improved by emotional attentiveness, by having conversations with women and children where we act more as student than as teacher, and by an understanding of where we can make life less difficult for the women tasked with raising the next wave of small adults. We owe it to them and to ourselves to lean in closely and bear witness to anyone who is helping to make the world’s little persons whole. Mike Mills follows Johnny empathetic curiosity with some of his own by occasionally coloring his film with excerpts from female scholars. C’mon C’mon is a story about throwing out rigid and very masculinized notions of strength and control when it comes to how we speak to children. Part of Jessie’s journey is that he must learn that his mother is a full person deserving of love and respect, and that his father’s psychological difficulties do not make him weak or unloving. The film is a gorgeous, lyrical reverie (and a luminous travelogue of Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City and New Orleans) about the power of conversation to compassionately counter ignorance and misinformation. It is one of 2021’s most emotionally intelligent films, and it is almost certainly the year’s most beautiful essay on the value of teaching emotional intelligence.
So much of the joy and warm humor of C’mon C’mon come from the rambunctiously sweet rhythms of his stellar screenplay, as a man with no children of his own does a kind of merry play battle with the sharp wits of this marvelously dimensional child. The sweetness of Johnny’s journey comes from watching him figure it out one interaction at a time. It is a film about the challenge of meeting children on their level, but it beams with the knowledge that we all get better at it with practice. Most of the time, Johnny’s talks with Jessie go pretty well. And then, sometimes, he oversteps his bounds or raises his voice too much, and then he has to fall back and rethink his approach. He has to be human enough to continually question what he thought he knew. Even a career spent interviewing children cannot prepare him for every scenarios and I think coming to understand that is the crux of his arc. What he gradually sees is that communicating with a child, and really with any human being, should be an act of enthusiastic inquisitiveness. We may enter a conversation with certain set ideas, but great conversations take place when we let ourselves become spontaneous, curious, and reactive to the moment. One could have imagined C’mon C’mon as a kind of uncle out of water tale; a story about an uncle who learns he’s utterly out of his depth when it comes to looking after a child and maybe eventually learns a lesson or two. It’s blessedly a looser and more complex tale than that. Johnny learns that, yes, he does have a lot more to learn about how to engage with young people. But he also finds himself enjoying the process immensely and he finds that his instincts as a journalist and an open-minded student of life give him some natural advantages. Maybe most importantly, he finds himself genuinely enlivened, tickled and edified by the chaotic adventure of trying to understand the budding someday adult in front of him. Mike Mills has made a wise and witty love letter to the blessing of having children in your life, but it is also a more general ode to the joys of starting up a dialogue with another human being.
For all its intellectual rigors and progressive ideas, I love C’mon C’mon because it is an unpretentious feast for the heart and soul. There is plenty interesting to unpack in its deep conversations but, as with the works of Richard Linklater or Eric Rohmer, it is really just about the joy of having the conversation. One does not need to be a scholar of any sort to tap into the joy of Johnny and Jessie sparring and joking and connecting with each other. In its heart of hearts, C’mon C’mon is a lush and lovely poem about how nice it is to get to know someone, child or otherwise. The juice that makes the story go is one common to a great man of the best narratives. Two characters begin a story not knowing one another that well, or maybe just knowing each other on a surface level. And then they spend the next hour-plus breaking through first impressions and awkwardness; jettisoning all the tics, postures, and bullshit that separate them from each other. It’s an extremely basic sort of character journey that I will never ever grow tired of. When it’s done right (as in films like The Station AgentAlice In the CitiesLost In Translation and Andrew Haigh’s 2011 Weekend to name just a handful), I remember that it is the cinematic meal I want most often. It is the filet mignon of humanistic cinema, the purest essence of character-based storytelling. And all Mike Mills needs to get it right is one scintillating, patient, funny, tear-jerking jewel of a screenplay and a few absolutely faultless performances.  After all the beautiful and wonderful advances in storytelling and cinema, there’s still a simple fundamental core to why we treasure narrative. Sit us down by the glow, tell us a tale. Tell us about some people. They may not be people we know at first. But by the end, we’re sure to see some of ourselves in them.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #15- West Side Story

I adore Stephen Sondheim and revere him, as one should do with genre-busting, influential creative geniuses. I know his contributions to musical theater and movie musicals over some five decades are immeasurable and that he is probably the overwhelming consensus choice for greatest musical lyricist and composer of the 20th century. One cannot discuss Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story without talking first and foremost about the man integral to building the beautifully sturdy original structure; without looking at Sondheim’s lusly witty book of lyrics, surely among the most staggeringly assured debut works for an artist in any medium. If this is your first time learning that little factoid, take a moment to let it linger. One of the most enduring and brilliant songbooks in history was merely the opening salvo to the man’s long career. And that long career brings us to the problem that I am still utterly unqualified to give you any kind of satisfactory primer on the genius of Stephen Sondheim, short of remarking that his genius is evident in virtually every work of his I’ve seen (a number that is still far too low). It’s a genius evident in the sumptuous and sardonic melancholy of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and in the thinking person’s fairtyale puncturing of Into the Woods. Even select pieces I’ve heard divorced from the larger works, such as certain numbers from Company and Merrily We Roll Along, have struck me and have been the centerpieces for great scenes in brilliant films like Ladybird and Marriage Story. The godfather of musical theater passed away just this year and a host of moving essays have been written about the man, all worth reading and all suffused with a lot more lovely context than this relative Sondheim neophyte can provide. The best this review can muster is to send in one uninformed clown to urge you to visit, or revisit, his deep and prolific work. I know that is what I will be doing in the near future. The wild thing about West Side Story isn’t just that it’s Stephen Sondheim’s debut, but that it’s actually him operating at only half of his powers, which is to say only as a lyricist. Sondheim would quickly join Cole Porter and Irving Berlin in the rarefied air of musical theater artists who wrote both their own music and lyrics. For his maiden voyage to the Great White Way, however, Sondheim would write to music by the legendary Leonard Bernstein (soon to be played by Bradley Cooper). Those lyrics are still confoundingly great and are, to my mind, the biggest reason why a fairly faithful remake of Robert Wise’s 1961 masterpiece can still feel revelatory and necessary. From the sardonic teen rebel snark of “Officer Kruepke” to the delicately devastating poignance of “Somewhere” to the still-timely critique of “America”, Sondheim’s words are a thing of piercingly astute Technicolor rapture. Capable of leaping effortlessly from humor to yearning to sorrow (this is the Romeo and Juliet musical after all), Sondheim’s first little masterpiece springs and swoons with a verbal dexterity to match the gymnastic finesse of its dancers. Before Steven Spielberg adds his own vibrant visual brushstrokes to the canvas, it only takes a few lines from “When You’re A Jet” to set aside any misgivings about redundancy. This is Stephen Sondheim’s “West Side Story”, one of the most incandescently alive songbooks there is. There is certainly a place for it, for multiple imaginings of it. And it’s going to be great!

The new film begins, like the 1961 version does, in 1950s New York City, with two street gangs, alike in immaturity. But perhaps not completely alike, for one gang, The Jets, seems to exist solely for the purpose of making life miserable for all the non-white gangs in the city. In particular, they live to terrorize and vandalize the neighborhoods of the local Puerto Rican immigrant community. They’re a band of uneducated, nationalistic, young Bill the Butchers still clinging fast to the xenophobia of yesteryear and (as Tony Kushner’s nimbly updated screenplay is not shy to remind us) of our present American moment. The local Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, exists to oppose the Jets and to protect their neighbors, though it seems that neither gang really has anything to offer its melting pot city but more and more cyclical (albeit balletic and meticulously choreographed) violence. The police officers, who tellingly harass the white gang with noticeably more almost-affectionate frustration than they do with the Puerto Ricans, shake their heads at the futility and the sad class blindness of the two sides’ squabbling. All the territory they are brawling and bleeding over will soon be dismantled to make room for Lincoln Center and for luxury condominiums that not a single character in this narrative will ever be allowed to set foot inside. That feeling of senseless brutality doesn’t seem entirely lost on the fatalistic leaders of the gangs, Bernardo (a very strong David Alvarez) and Riff (a best in show revelation named Mike Faist), but neither are about to stop the show or cede any ground to the other. On the contrary, Riff wants to escalate the tensions even further with a once-and-for-all fight to determine control of the territories. He’s planning to have this final brawl in the next 24 hours and he is counting on his ace in the hole and best friend, Tony (Ansel Elgort, handsome) to be the deciding factor in this climactic duel. Tony was the Jets’ most feared fighter some years back before he was sent to prison for nearly beating the member of another gang to death. He is now working and rooming in the general store of a local Puerto Rican widow (the wonderful Rita Moreno, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Anita in the Best Picture-winning 1961 version) and making a concerted effort to turn away from criminality. Riff insists on Tony accompanying the Jets to that night’s youth dance, where members of both Jets and Sharks will be present. Tony ends up going with the caveat that he won’t be doing anything to jeopardize his parole, but ends up finding a different form of trouble when he and Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler, tremendous dramatically and vocally) meet behind the gymnasium bleachers and fall instantly in love. The next 24 hours are a fraught and luscious whirlwind of romance, beauty and bloodshed as only Shakespeare’s most emo-infused play (give or take a Hamlet) can offer. Anyone who’s seen Romeo and Juliet or the first West Side Story knows where this goes, but it’s really all about how kinetically, kaleidoscopically and heart-tuggingly it goes there. And after a production period as long as COVID itself and filled with enough hype to fill a skyscraper, it is somewhat unreal what a miraculous success Spielberg’s remake is. As a pure parade of colored lights, beautiful faces, and wooning sounds, there is really nothing from 2021 to equal it.
It’s always a good sign when you can split opinion up every which way about whose contribution is most crucial to the greatness of a film, and I could happily spend the length of two reviews throwing bouquets at every person involved in this opulent production. To start, you would not be wrong to focus your highest praises on Spielberg’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The man who made Schindler’s List‘s ghettos look almost indecently striking, who filled the Congressional hallways of Lincoln with shafts of holy historical light, and gave Saving Private Ryan its transcendentally hellish Omaha Beach charge. Set loose in a metropolitan dreamscape vision of the 1950s, Kaminski produces an ecstatic barrage of vivid color and gravity-defying motion so transporting that the word I most want to use to describe it is just musical. In some effable way, it just looks like melody, like the passionate strains of a song. His compositions glow and sizzle and radiate like the movements in a bombastic, gospel-tinged symphony. To use the words of an old turn-of-the-century ditty, Kaminski casts a light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York, and in just about every alleyway, apartment and warehouse too. There is a shot of Tony simply standing in a puddle, surrounded by the reflected glow of street lamps, which looks like something Van Gogh might have imagined or wished he’d lived to see. And, just as important as his painterly eye, is the fact that Kaminski is a giddy, athletic collaborator with Justin Peck’s blistering choreography (and vice versa, as the two worked in tandem along with Spielberg to conceptualize each thrilling setpiece). When you see Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita (a magnesium-hot bolt of starpower named Ariana de Bose) twirling and gyrating with scores of other dancers through the daytime streets of Harlem, you can feel Kaminski and Peck both jockeying jovially with each other to see who can captivate you more. What comes closer to touching the face of God: the carousel twirl of Anita’s bright yellow dress until it rises to reveal the blood red slip underneath, or the way Kaminski stages it against a sea of similarly color-coded men and women so it feels like we are watching a flowerbed get its wish to turn human for a few minutes? One other reason you need not fear this West Side Story feeling old hat is that Kaminski and a team of aesthetic wizards in various crafty disciplines ensure that the film would be a perfect sensory experience even if it had no story at all.
And then, there’s also just that magical way Steven Spielberg has with casting. I imagine it might be one of the tertiary things most people credit the storied director with. After his technical wizardry, his blockbuster showman instincts, and maybe even after all those wonderful John Williams scores his films have given us. But, almost from the beginning, Spielberg has had a keen knack not just for working with great actors but for finding them too. His Empire of the Sun (a supremely underrated Spielberg masterpiece in this critic’s opinion) not only spotlighted a very young Christian Bale but allowed him to start his career with a performance that still stands among his best work. The whiz kid (now entering into his sixth decade behind the camera) knows when to cast megastars as his leads (Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise) and when to give big roles to terrific character actors like Laura Dern, Mark Rylance, and Ralph Fiennes. And if you are thinking that some those “character actors” are stars too, consider the role Spielberg’s films have played in deservedly elevating their statures in the public consciousness. For purposes of this review, Spielberg has a particularly acute eye for casting new or relatively untested talent. In Saving Private Ryan, he paired the then-biggest Oscar magnet in the world, Tom Hanks, with a group of young men who were all practically unheard of at the time. They were Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi. Every single one of them has gone on to have some measure of success, critically or financially or both. It would surprise me to no end if West Side Story‘s electric young cast did not repeat or even surpass that feat. After seeing Ariana de Bose sizzle or Rachel Zegler gently tuck your heart in her pocket or David Alvarez hold the screen with his commanding gaze, I could not wait to see what all of them did next. It would be lunacy if we did not get to watch them again and watch them a lot. And most of all, I just don’t think it’s possible to watch Mike Faist turn the reasonably good role of Riff into the year’s most unexpectedly transfixing screen performance and not feel in your bones that Spielberg has just introduced us to a generational talent. The undercurrent of pathos and knowingly doomed stubbornness he brings to the Jets’ leader steals the story away with every appearance. Moreover, it makes you believe the idea of Tony’s eventually fatal loyalty to the gang in a way that Ansel Elgort is just not capable of doing. Faist pitches the idea, just for a scattered handful of moments, that West Side Story should actually be the tale of a charismatically ignorant, racist, self-defeating shitkicker with a Newsies accent and John Mulaney’s bone structure. But are we all so sure that it shouldn’t be? Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story are both about photogenic, young bodies clashing up against each other and throwing their lives away for no good reason, except for two of them who at least end up throwing their lives away for some kind of reason. The senseless tragedy of it all becames bearable and even guttingly irresistible only by making horny, stupid, impetuous youth feel as hypnotically, alluringly alive as possible. It only works with actors that can dazzle both your mind and your eyes. To have found a cast this up to the hot-stepping, lens-popping task is the kind of thing few outside of Spielberg could pull off. And full credit to all these superb actors of course. But let’s also raise a toast to the wily old bastard who, all these years later, still knows how to put together a team!
Spielberg has obviously had a number of partnerships I would love to see the next chapter of, from the poignant gravitas and effortless charm he’s gotten three times out of Tom Hanks (we do not acknowledge The Terminal‘s existence) to a wealth of collaborations with masters of their craft like John Williams and Janusz Kaminski. But, when we look to Spielberg’s work in the 21st century, it’s hard to find a partner more harmoniously beneficial to the veteran director’s process than celebrated Angels In America playwright-turned-dynamo-screenwriter, Tony Kushner. The man has written screenplays for only four completed films to date, but every one of them has been a Best Picture nominee. It’s a Stephen Sondheim-like run of immediate early success and the streak seems unlikely to change with his work on Spielberg’s coming of age autobiography The Fablemans later this year. The genius scribe, a subtle dramaturge who punctuates patient scenes (Lincoln, about trying to secure enough votes to pass the Emancipation Proclamation, is literally nothing but patient scenes) with bursts of flowery poetry, has performed a minor miracle with West Side Story. He has taken a property seven decades old based on a play centuries older, and he has cut right to its modern heart. He has supplemented Ernest Lehman’s 1961 screenplay with small grace notes that bring West Side Story into modern age. The age of immigrants fighting for their place in the American narrative. And the age of infantile, emasculated white men who view diversity as an existential threat while pig-headedly failing to see the true adversary of greed and capitalistic indifference right in front of their noses. Kushner’s words allow us to feel some pity for these foolish young men marginalized by their nation’s rampant classism, while never cleansing them of the sin of their hateful racism. He allows the Jets to be captivating and human and even funny but, as Doc (the Rita Moreno character’s late white husband) said in the 1961 film, all the Jets are really doing, with their sburron pride and mistrust of anyone who doesn’t look like them, is making the world lousy. There is so much that could better, but prejudice continually rears its head and reduces everything to ashes. Riff bemoans the rubble of his life and the dust covering everything, but he and his men are too slow to see how much of that is of their own making.
At the heart of West Side Story lies the idea that these characters, so many of them sympathetic fools, could be doing more joyful things with their time. Dancing and singing and falling in love. Before the brawl, one young Jet proposes they just go smoke weed at the zoo instead and he’s absolutely right! How much less devastating a film this would be if most of these characters chose any other path than the violent one that they opt for. The one that pulls everyone, hateful or not, into its merciless eddy. Of course, the young stoner’s wisdom is ignored and the plot proceeds along its tragic course; the course that Tony and Maria briefly thought they might break away from. It’s the reason that, of all Sondheim’s glorious words, the ones that still prick the most may be the simplest. “There’s a place for us.” The dream of making things just a little bit better, and how hard one must fight to find a little bit of good somewhere in the world’s angry free-for-all. It’s the sadly timely wisdom that Kushner sees in this story. There are so many ways that America has decided to give into the inertia of selfishness and exclusivity rather than enjoying what we have and letting others feel some of that joy as well. Somewhere along the way we’ve decided that people will need to suffer and die instead, and for no other reason than that it is the status quo. The tragedy of Shakespeare’s play, Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, and now Kushner’s beautifully perceptive adaptation is that habit and a lack of empathy doom us. Our leads find something nice among the carnage and rubble of their lives and those who care about them all have their chances to learn by their example; to brush away the fog of long-festering grievances and help their families, their friends, and themselves. And then everyone is just a little too dumb, stuck, hurt, trampled upon and mixed up to break free. And that’s the old story. The tidal forces of toxic history and rotten tradition are currents too powerful for these aimless kids to overcome. Kushner, Spielberg, Shakespeare, Sondheim, and the rest of us can only watch and know that this will all be writ again. The lights come up. And we go hence to have more talk of these sad things.