Top 20 Films of 2022: #3- The Rehearsal

The Rehearsal (TV Series 2022– ) - IMDb


Anyone who says a true artist never repeats themselves isn’t paying attention to film history. So many of the great ones love to recycle (and recontextualize past elements of their work. Fellini and Scorsese love their religious imagery, especially when contrasted with the vulgar (or violent in Scorsese’s case), the sacred and profane. Michael Mann loves men at work. John Woo loves to punctuate an action scene with doves. Beyond themes and visual motifs, there are a great many filmmakers who love to bring back actors over and over throughout their careers. Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman. James Cameron and Bill Paxton. Both Wes Anderson and Christopher Guest have spent their careers regularly calling back whole softball teams’ worth of the same character actors like the theatre troupes of old. All of this is to say that deadpan comedian and new god of the televised medium, Nathan Fielder (his recent cringe satire with Emma Stone and Benny Safdie, The Curse, is now blowing minds and generating chatter), is in good company. Since his brilliant reality TV piss-take, Nathan For You, Fielder has loved to run it back, whether than meant a running theme (frequently his own inability to connect in the modern world) or a bit (Nathan For You‘s vignettes had a way of steadily stacking upon one another). More than anything, he loves bringing back the strange real-life characters he finds and using them in new scenarios far outside of how he originally found them. And he mines those repeat appearances not just for humor but surprising pathos. In Nathan For You‘s hour-long finale, he brought back a bizarre, distinctly untalented Bill Gates impersonator not for cheap mockery but for a strange and quietly heartbreaking journey into one eccentric old man’s romantic past. Nathan Fielder’s love for repetition takes him to some side-splittingly funny places, but what makes his repetitions so exciting and artful is his spontaneity. He’s not plugging these singular reality TV characters into the same old scheme. He’s letting the same personages walk into new situations and letting new realities play out.

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He’s not just lampooning reality television; he’s curious about how reality (televised or not) is constructed and who does the constructing. It’s not just cool and funny and wildly entertaining. It’s literally the same way that a lot of great directors create the most organically natural films (I wonder how the great Mike Leigh would feel about getting mentioned next to Comedy Central’s own Nathan Fielder)). His miraculously strange and singular six -episode reality miniseries, The Rehearsal, is a natural yet completely unforeseeable culmination of Fielder’s fixations. It’s a masterwork that not only marshals the power of obsessive repetition but asks questions about why we repeat ourselves.

Describing the plot is consistently my least favorite part of film criticism, so luckily for me The Rehearsal doesn’t have the kind of structure one describes in detail. It has an opening premise, the kid of idea that could be repeated episode by episode like so many of the reality television programs that Nathan For You sent up and spoofed. The germ of an idea here is that Fielder will find people dreading some fateful, looming conversation with a friend or loved one and he will help them rehearse for it. And, because this is Nathan Fielder, rehearsing doesn’t just mean running through what the person has to say but running through a dense spiderweb of reactions the other side of the conversation might have; any conceivable thing they might say or do. Nathan Fielder doesn’t so much help them create a script as bring an entire flowchart to life. It means hiring extras and building sets all in service of rehearsing an elaborate tree of possible realities. The idea is that this will help the nervous, conflict-phobic beneficiary feel more comfortable not only with having a talk but with every version of reality they can imagine. And when I say “reality”, I mean not just the conversation but the physical details of where the talk will take place. It means constructing elaborate facsimiles of houses and restaurants. It means conducting detailed research on the person his latest subject will be talking to. What Fielder, a man long curious about artificial realities, is attempting to simulate is nothing short of reality itself. In the first episode, a socially awkward pub trivia nerd has to confess to his teammate that he has been lying for years about having his Master’s Degree and is fearful the admission of his deceit will terminate their friendship. Nathan builds the pub. A working bar full of actors playing patrons. A bar with its own fake staff and fake working kitchen full of people pretending to cook food. It’s funny, absurd and fascinating. And then, in episode 2, the show’s premise completely changes, when Fielder helps a single Christian woman rehearse having a child by letting her live for weeks with a fake baby (actors playing the baby at different ages, that is) in a fake house run by Fielder from a control room with children ranging from infants to 15-year olds playing her fake child as it rapidly grow up. By episode 3, The Rehearsal‘s concept has expanded and mutated to the point of being unrecognizable and the snowballing social experiment has completely overtaken Nathan Fielder (he always is the true butt of his jokes), turning him from his own show’s director and architect into a full-time participant. The mad scientist sucked into his own demented machine.

I can’t say I predicted virtuoso of awkwardness Nathan Fielder capturing the trippy, meta-textual Charlie Kaufmann spirit better than anybody not named Charlie Kaufmann. Maybe I should have. The signs were always faintly visible. In Nathan For You, the simple objective of helping a small business market themselves mutated into convoluted Rube Goldberg plots; outrageous examples of the tail wagging the dog. That show always had a touch of the Ouroboros to it. Fielder would seize upon a dumb idea for a local business to attract customers, but executing his idea would always require him to hatch infinitely dumber and more outlandish ideas (like when he paid a stranger to change his name to Michael Richards, just so a cafe could act like Kramer once dined there). The Rehearsal is Fielder doing what he’s always done on a vast, HBO-funded canvas. If Nathan For You saw him mocking reality TV artifice by daftly twisting truth to meet his ends, The Rehearsal is him inventing fake real worlds out of whole cloth. It’s very fitting that he’s not only subverting the reality TV format again, but this time making a bonafide single-concept (at least for a moment) reality TV program. They say you have to love what you parody, and The Rehearsal is Fielder’s renewed vow of devotion to the reality format. Loving it honestly means loving it in his own special Nathan Fielder way: larking about, gently teasing it and reflecting televised reality (that great oxymoron) back at itself through a dozen different funhouse mirrors. The Charlie Kaufmann of it all is how The Rehearsal churns actual reality and TV reality, truth and fantasy, together until his show becomes a true paradox of fake-real. With one magician’s hand, he unnerves and confuses us and with the other he pulls threads of genuine insigne and poignant truth from his sleeve. The distorted mirror he creates for that Christian woman is so dizzyingly strange that she eventually bails on the project and leaves Nathan as the one remaining constant; the man pulling the strings performing his bizarre magic act for nobody but himself (and us, of course). He conjures an entire dreamworld to help these entrants, but like children in Willy Wonka’s factory (one man compares Nathan to the magically disquieting chocolatier), they fall away. We realize the story is less about what the subjects hope to achieve by participating in Fielder’s show, and more about why Fielder felt compelled to create it in the first place.

I hope I am not being overly vague in describing what happens in this hilariously bewildering mindfuck of a miniseries. Partly, it’s that it feels too hazy and surreal to just deconstruct, as if that would undo its wondrous spell. Go describe a magic trick! It’s also tough to describe a show that feels designed to be slippery and erratically shifting. A basic account of what happens and who shows up does nothing to capture its essence. Suffice to say though, the people who populate these four hours of heady delirium might be the major secret to its brilliance. It’s another talent that Fielder has brought over from his work on Nathan For You and sharpened to razor perfection. The man has the knack for finding the most unforgettably idiosyncratic and authentically funny people on Earth. Have you ever met a truly unique person and told friends, “You wouldn’t believe this guy. He’s a total character.”? I don’t know if Nathan Fielder just wanders through life constantly running into the most elite oddballs, like one of those pigs who sniffs out gourmet truffles. But he certainly knows them when he sees them, and not a one of them feels stock or stereotypical. If you hear me mention a single Christian aspiring mother and have an image in your head, let me inform you that you probably only have about 10% of it. Fielder has a smidgeon of sharp meanness in his comedy, but sweetness and real curiosity always win out with him. He only judges a tiny bit, but he also graciously cedes the spotlight to them and lets their beautiful, ineffable weirdness take center stage. He is obviously the most (only) famous person in The Rehearsal, but he knows the subjects he finds are the stars. Much of the reality TV I’ve seen does come off as grotesque (sorry, Nathan), a parade of shrill caricatures for the viewer to look down on. But Fielder’s people feel full and complex (even the shrill ones). You won’t soon forget any of them, and I’ll wager you’ll remember them in more three-dimensional, human terms than the people you watch on Discovery and Bravo. For all the snarky irony in Fielder’s lampooning of reality TV, for all the fun he has showing human frailty and insecurity, I don’t think he ever sets out to simply mock these people. I think he’d sooner we look at them and recognize something similarly weird in ourselves that we can chuckle at and maybe embrace.

But Fielder is not content to simply find fascinating screen presences. He has decided he would like to make some from scratch, or more specifically find people who can make them. As ever, the genesis for Nathan Fielder’s idea starts out simple. It’s born out of basic necessity.  He’ll need to find extras to populate these artificial worlds he creates. But, because perfecting each social experim

\ent (each rehearsal) means making his fake worlds as authentic as possible, he finds himself demanding increasingly more authenticity from his extras. What he needs aren’t just bodies to fill these spaces. He needs actors. Every concept in The Rehearsal is like the monst

er from John Carpenter’s The Thing. It may start out as a dog: Nathan needs actors to fill out his meticulously rendered rehearsals. But what it ends up as is a tentacle monster: Nathan Fielder has to start an acting conservatory in Los Angeles to steadily pump out more actors for his endless scenarios. And the patented Fielder Method taught at Nathan’s conservatory is one that Daniel Day-Lewis might say is a little much. I misspoke when I said that The Rehearsal turns into Fielder alone in his dream factory. What it more accurately turns into is Fielder in his dream factory surrounded by people playing the roles of other people that Fielder has trained and hired them to play for the benefit of a subject who is no longer there. Fielder the artist becomes Fielder the subject interacting on multiple levels with his actors. Actors who, once again, he has trained to help act out realistic, detailed scenarios of what could be real life. But with his participants gone, the actors still stay on to do their jobs, but with the grand objective increasingly unclear. Unclear to no one so much as Fielder himself (his talent for tuning the job on himself really is the key to his genius). Werner Herzog’s Aguirre the Wrath of God ends with an obsessive maniac lost in the wilderness and surrounded by monkeys. The Rehearsal ends the same way, if you replace “monkeys” with “actors”. The fact that the original concept for The Rehearsal falls apart and gets sucked into a Kaufmannesque meta-hole is very funny. The fact that the disciples of the Fielder Method turn out to be legitimately great at acting is the funniest joke of 2022. The Rehearsal may come up short in its search for reality and authenticity, but it does take us into a ruefully witty World of Pure Imagination.

Various insightful pieces have been written about how The Rehearsal speaks to people on the Autism Spectrum. And, as someone who lives somewhere along that street, I’ll say I wholeheartedly agree that it speaks to us. I think it also speaks to the general struggle to understand in a time marked by confusion; to understand what is real and to separate the authentic from the fake. And, if I didn’t already muse on it in a different top 10 review (Marcel the Shell With Shoes On), I could probably devote a paragraph to how it speaks to COVID-era loneliness and social anxiety; how we’ve all had to gradually rebuild our social muscles in the last few years. The Rehearsal is a work of artistic genius because it speaks to a lot in the human condition. But every autistic person has probably thought about how they might become a little more normal through practice. What Fielder sets out to do here is reduce enough of the chaos and unpredictability in life to have some control over the outcome. But as he does so, he also worries if all that constructing of reality isn’t making reality less real. If you have to rehearse reality to manage it, how authentic does that make you as a person? If you have to analyze human behavior and emotions under a magnifying glass to better understand them, does that draw you further from authentically feeling and having those emotions? Does looking hard at reality though a magnifying glass actually warp it and make it harder to really grasp? People on the Autism Spectrum understand the paradoxical tug-of-war between practicing behavior and effortlessly grasping behavior. The other community that understands that struggle is actors. An actor must study hard and internalize their scene up to a point. And then, they must simply embody that knowledge without apparent effort. They must study enough to create the appearance of being unstudied. It’s a heady, funny idea that Fielder mines to deadpan delirious effect. It’s also a very relatable rabbit hole to go down. From time to time, we all feel not quite ourselves.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #4- The Banshees of Inisherin

I don’t entirely know what changed between 2017, the year of Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-courting Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and 2022, the year of his perfect black dramedy, The Banshees of Inisherin. I can say that America’s leadership turned over, even if a lot of the rancor of the Trump years barely feels like it’s abated. Three Billboards, a film about forgiveness and redemption, specifically set within red state America, debuted into a culture that was vociferously and publicly trying to exorcise its racist demons. As many of us were calling out the hypocrisy of patiently abiding bigotry, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri wandered into the fray and posited a facile question: what if a violent, ignorant racist were also a good person just trying their best (Jojo Rabbit would pose the same question about Nazis a year later)? I still find McDonagh’s 2017 film fundamentally wrong-headed, the cinematic cousin to the myriad New York Times op-eds about the wholesome, domestic lives of white supremacists. Useless and obtuse at best; insidiously accommodating to hatred at worst. The major reason The Banshees of Inisherin works so beautifully where Billboards faltered is not just the new-but-not-that-new political moment it arrived in but its decision to not try to speak directly to the moment. And, in such a way, to speak inestimably more eloquently to the moment (its isolation and loneliness, its acrimony, the sputtering struggle to connect with one another) than Three Billboards’ America-targeting hot takes ever could. It is a film that hits more pointedly for aiming at a larger target. The setting this time is McDonagh’s own native Ireland. And, while I can only speculate whether the more familiar environs has helped to ground him, the results are hard to argue with. He has made the most emotionally grounded, eloquent film of his career. And, McDonagh enthusiasts will be pleased to note, he has grounded himself without losing so much as a dram of the puckish, fanciful, anarchic liquor that runs through his veins. He is still the same clever imp making dark, uncomfortable jokes and holding very little sacred. But that impishness has a glorious soulfulnesss here that surpasses even the most poignant moments of his feature debut and former high watermark, In Bruges. Both artistically and geographically, cinema’s hyperliterate enfant terible feels more at home than ever.

Home is McDonagh’s green Ireland, though a somewhat fictionalized version. The remote island of Inisherin is a made-up place, barely touched by the realities of the film’s 1920s setting. The Irish Civil War is grinding to a close on the mainland and only exists to our isolated characters in the odd far-off gunshot or in rumors told by the contemptible local constable. In this verdant backwater lives an endearing dimwit named Padraic (an astonishingly funny and moving Colin Farrell) and his older friend, a surly, frustrated intellectual named Colm (the great Brendan Gleeson, who handles this scintillatingly sharp dialogue so well that some have given him the backhanded compliment of being “effortless”). On a day exactly like every other day in these beautiful boondocks, Padraic walks the old country road from his tiny farmhouse down to Colm’s seaside cottage to pursue their daily tradition: an early afternoon round at the village pub. When he raps on his friend’s window, he sees Colm inside stoically staring at the wall and not responding. Puzzled by Colm’s silence, Padraic walks up to the bar alone and the barkeeps are surprised to see him without his usual company. They wonder if the two chums might be having a fight and Padraic’s sharp-tongued spinster sister Siobhan (a revelatory Kerry Condon) wonders the same. When Colm finally turns up at the pub (alone but for his dog), Padraic gives him a blanket apology for whatever he’s done to wrong his friend. But Colm tells him there’s nothing to forgive. “I just don’t like you anymore, ” Colm flatly explains. “But you liked me yesterday,” Padraic stammers back in dismay. Colm has become keenly aware of the passing years and feels he has little to show for his time on this desolate corner of the planet. He wants to think and write music to leave to the future generations, but his scant time is being rapidly siphoned away by the banal rituals and mundane conversations he shares with his dull friend, who he bluntly calls “a limited man”. Colm simply does not want to associate with Padraic anymore, and he is unmoved by the reminders from Siobhan and the local priest that cutting a friend off just for being a little boring isn’t very nice. Padraic doesn’t take this rejection well and their ensuing fallout takes a McDonagh-worthy turn for the blackly comic when Colm backs up his antisocial request with a grisly ultimatum. Every time Padraic ignores his wish for silence and solitude, Colm will cut off a finger; from his fiddle-playing hand first. McDonagh’s film is a vicious and bleakly lyrical parable about social niceties, civil obligations and estrangement that drags the mores of an entire Irish town down into a peat bog.

As a child of largely Irish ancestry, my first exposure to my ancestral land came through media that depicted the Irish as kind of amiably prone to squabbling. McDonagh’s is certainly not the first film to depict two Irish men bickering. It’s a romantic cliche that endures in films like The Quiet Man and Darby O’Gill and the Little People. The Irish are portrayed as rowdy, drink-loving fighters. Insults and barbs are their love language (and their hate language). Bar fights and fisticuffs are seen as almost whimsical and at the very least spirited. That cliche can be fun, but McDonagh is here to take the ever-fecking piss out of Hollywood-friendly Irish whimsy. His film starts not unlike Kenneth Branagh’s milquetoast Irish autobiography, Belfast, with shots worthy of an Irish tourism commercial. Lush green pastures, narrow lanes choked with sheep, rugged coasts and bracing sea foam. By design, he is situating us in the Ireland of Tinseltown’s reductive dreams. He is placing us in the same charmingly folksy Ireland of films like Waking Ned Devine, only so he can torch it all by the end. He knows audiences will coo at the quaint greenery and colorful locals and he hopes they do. It just makes it all the funnier by the film’s finale, when Martin McDonagh informs us with a wry chuckle that this little emerald paradise may as well be Hell on Earth. The painterly vistas and rolling hills are the kind of scenery that prepares us for romance, wit and wonder (the wit is here in droves), but McDonagh delights in having those landscapes play host to a tale of wounded pride and wicked human pettiness. Of all the jokes in this riotously funny tragicomedy, its charming, rural mise en scene may well be the funniest of them all. Idealize the Emerald Isle all you want as far as McDonagh is concerned. And sure, it does look nice. But there is no place in the world too awe-inspiring or magically picturesque to be sullied by the very basest and most childishly stunted of human behavior. And there’s something in that universally mean notion that is oddly kind of beautiful.

McDonagh gets a lot of mileage out of his quaint, pastoral setting. One of the chief criticisms of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was that McDonagh was training his sardonic crosshairs on rural America when he had never set so much as a foot there. His barbs lacked specificity and accuracy because he only had the most generalized idea of the place he was sending up. Coming home to his native Ireland seems to have focused him and rejuvenated his peculiar knack for marrying the poignant to the mercilessly cutting. He also mines the Irish Civil War backdrop well without making too much out of it. Quite to the contrary, these characters are so isolated and cut off (from Ireland and from each other) that the Irish Civil War hardly exists to them in any real sense. It’s as much an abstract idea to them as it is to McDonagh’s screenplay. The Civil War exists for McDonagh as metaphor and as a larger story playing out in tandem with the film’s very small story. All shapes and sizes. The War is the epic macro version of Banshees’ microscopic feud, and McDonagh is suggesting a world full of meanness, stubborn pride and childish squabbling. Siobhan begs her brother to leave Inisherin’s lonely gloom, but it is not simply this desolate place that traps Padraic and his fellow villagers. It is the human condition and everything small and self-defeating inside of us. What I love about McDonagh’s laceratingly funny parable is that, while the Irish setting is important and personal to the writer-director, Banshees of Inisherin is a story that could be set anywhere and at any time in human history. It could have been the tale of two ancient Greeks or two lords in Orwellian England or two hunter gatherers on the Serengeti in the 1800s. It could be one year ago or one thousand In the distant, dystopian future or at the dawn of mankind. Feuding and pouting and shutting people out are subjects for any era. Falling out with a friend is forever.

More than anything, after growing a little weary of McDonagh’s bratty stylings after 2017, I am over the moon to be a full-fledged fan again. I think there’s something in this breed of precociously hyper-literate writer-director that can slip easily into lazy, self-satisfied territory. Aaron Sorkin spends half his time being one of the sharpest, funniest writers of his generation and the other half being exasperatingly pleased with his own, ahem, liberal talents. David Mamet started out with one of the best ears for insightful, rhythmic dialogue imaginable and a rapier wit for skewering masculinity, but later devolved into a tiresome conservative Zionist. Even Quentin Tarantino, a writer who has been a passionate cinema advocate and hardly ever written anything less than great, occasionally becomes over-exposed and lapses into self-parody. We like our artists to be humble and sensitive but writers like Martin McDonagh thrive on provocation and snark and dynamic writerly flourishes. A fair bit of brazen braggadocio is just part of the sauce for guys like that. Screenplays with that kind of kinetic, show-off style can be thrilling but they can also tip into being smug, self-consciously overcooked and grating. AS much as provocateurs like to pride themselves on pushing people’s buttons, there is an actual artistry to good provocation. You can’t just ruffle feathers and automatically label their discomfort as your success. Banshees of Inisherin is a roaring success because it attacks social norms in a way that doesn’t feel superior to its characters or its audience. This is classic firebrand Martin McDonagh operating with real empathy. It’s a film about human frailty that does actually like people. Nobody is being looked down upon, not even the local creep Dominic (an astonishing Barry Keoghan). Banshees does drag humanity through the muck, but if you look right behind you, you’ll see Martin McDonagh is there, just as caked in filth as the rest of us.

Banshees of Inisherin represents a huge step forward for just about everyone involved. The only exception is the towering Brendan Gleeson, an actor so consistently brilliant that I have heard some accuse his performance of being effortless. My only response to that is that highwire Martin McDonagh dialogue doesn’t get to feel effortless unless the actor speaking it has an impeccable grasp of the material. THere is very little that Gleeson can’t make look easy. Everyone else in the film is raising their career zeniths. Martin McDonagh, usually thought of as a writer first and a director second, creates a gorgeously subtle tone and even creates some rich and memorable shots. Kerry Condon is a sweet, sardonic delight. My only exposure to her before this was Better Call Saul, a great show that gave her its most thankless and uninteresting role. Her performance as Siobhan is so soulful, sad and sharply funny that it should immediately establish her as a star. She should never have to play a blandly supportive girlfriend or daughter-in-law again. Barry Keoghan gives not only his best performance, but one that acts like a proof of concept for the whole singularly strange Barry Keoghan Experience. His Dominic walks a tightrope of characterization. He balances notes of daffy humor, creepiness, pitiable weirdness and sweetness in such a way that the character shapeshifts before our very eyes. McDonagh loves to peel back the layers of his characters so that we check our initial impressions of them, and Dominic may be his best character rug pull yet. And finally, it is such a pleasure to watch Colin Farrell bloom into his full masterful potential. Farrell broke through in the early Aughts in films like Minority Report, but he spent the next decade being repeatedly mishandled by studios who could only conceive of him as the latest leading heartthrob. He was in danger of turning into Ireland’s Val Kilmer: an endlessly gifted character actor doomed to mediocre parts by his own handsomeness. It was Martin McDonagh who finally unlocked Farrell’s true depth with In Bruges. His knack for quick comedic banter and underselling a dark joke.  His wonderfully dopey soulfulness. In Bruges showed Hollywood that it had been using Farrell all wrong, that he was so much more than UK-exported beefcake. Banshees of Inisherin soars because it seamlessly blends the wildly funny and the deeply sad. In other words, it’s what a Colin Farrell film should have been all along.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #5- TÁR

During the Will Smith slap fiasco at the 2022 Academy Awards, a handful of people offered a perspective that differed from the standard tones of mortified shock and flabbergasted schadenfreude. A small number, without excusing Smith’s battery of Chris Rock, felt sorrow for Smith; not embarrassment, but genuine pity. Smith,

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Errors in testing procedures
Interference from medications or dietary supplements

wherever you might stand on his gold-winning King Richard performance, had trekked a long road to reach that momentous night and that glittery stage. It had twisted from his days as a wholesome rapper and a winning television presence through several action touchstones and a few flirtations with tony prestige (AliThe Pursuit of Happyness). And, for a number of years, he stood atop the highest peak in moviedom: the most famous, highly paid movie star in all of Hollywood. He had been loved as an icon and mocked as a one-time Scientologist and dabbled in a variety of genres without ever truly souring his reputation. It had been a long, long journey and he was minutes away from an already-guaranteed rendezvous with acting’s highest honor. And then something just snapped in him or came over him. If only temporarily, a man known for wielding an iron grip over his own unobjectionable image lost the cool, easy control that was the defining quality of his star persona. There have been scandals less egregious and scandals far, far worse than Smith’s violent tantrum, but it is undeniably tragic for Smith to have walked a movie star tight rope for decades and then topple  at his exact moment of triumph. In his stunningly assured TÁR, Todd Field seems to have a bedrock of sympathy for anyone who finds themselves suddenly unable to keep it together. For anyone who strives for perfection but falls into pieces. His third film and second masterpiece (a whopping two decades after his Best Picture-nominated debut In the Bedroom) is an account of a hard-working, marginalized person (a lesbian composer) who is white knuckling it toward their own moment of triumph just as the wheels start to come off of their meticulously constructed victory wagon. It is a story of bad behavior and horrendous judgment conspiring to undo a celebrated artist’s big day. It’s important to note Field’s empathy about how painful professional ruin and the loss of control can be, but Field is also clear-eyed about this kind of thing. The unfortunateness of an artist’s self-sabotage cannot negate the karma of a person becoming the architect of their own misfortune.

Field’s brilliant follow-up to 2006’s shaggy but worthy Little Children is maybe the year’s most cerebral film; a nuanced examination of art, success and the upward striving American Dream. But at its most surface level (a surface deeper than a great many Oscar vehicles ever reach), it is a sumptuously detailed dive into a fascinating subculture: the sophisticated, relentlessly competitive world of symphony orchestras. We meet genius conductor Lydia Tar as she is being interviewed at the prestigious New Yorker Festival and she already holds this entire cloistered classical music world in the palm of her hand. In so many ways, she has already won. She is a Leonard Bernstein protege with a prestigious position at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, numerous acclaimed works, the fabled EGOT (winning an Emmy, Oscar Grammy and Tony, the artist’s Triple Crown), a progressive non-profit for aspiring female conductors like she once was, and a hotly anticipated book on the way. And, in a matter of weeks, she will officially have conducted full cycle of works by Gustav Mahler, an honor no woman in her profession has achieved. We learn all of this in a masterfully acted scene in which Lydia Tar asserts herself as nothing less than a master of time itself. Like the sections in an orchestra, the various pieces of Tar’s life attend the movement of her precise hand and bow to her artistic command. She quickly emerges as one of the most controlling and composed (no pun intended) characters in all of cinema history. Daniel Plainview would probably find her a little intense (though when has he liked anyone?). And then, as so often happens to characters with the hubris to believe they are in full control of their fates, the tight-fisted power Lydia asserts begins to slip, gradually at first and then with increasing speed. TÁR is a piece of work that begins with an assured rhythm and then morphs and devolves into a breathtakingly discordant wall of sound. It is a tale of vanity and ego told with shattering depth and subtly rich humor. And the more Lydia Tar loses her balance, the more Cate Blanchett’s towering, instantly iconic performance takes on the perfect poise and discipline of a great wirewalker. While she lost the Oscar to the great Michelle Yeoh, Lydia Tar’s story of ruin is Cate Blanchett’s latest and greatest moment of triumph. Field’s masterpiece places Blanchett atop the same pedestal that her Lydia Tar falls from.

What we come to learn of Lydia is that she is what we would typically refer to as a “monster”, even though Field’s entire approach is to challenge the idea of categorizing people in that way. He lets us see Tar’s stature as a woman who has risen through the boys club of orchestral music. He introduces us to her as a queer woman, as a person with a devoted partner, as an adoptive mother and as a passionate (albeit brazenly arrogant) instructor of an art form that she clearly loves. In crafting a film about cancel culture, Field does a remarkably deft job of not forgiving professional abuses of power. This is blessedly not a screed about how moral censure threatens great art or how the effort to hold powerful figures accountable has become too prevalent. TÁR is not excusing the Lydia Tars of the world, nor is it apologizing on their behalf. It recognizes with serene detachment that power and success can enable cruelty and exploitation and it lays out the evidence of what is really goin on with Lydia in a way that becomes more alarmingly apparent as the film goes on. Field’s masterstroke is to humanize a mortifying, cancellable person without rationalizing their choices. In a way, Field has accomplished what Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri could not, in trying to find something human in a very immoral person. But, where McDonagh patly tried to excuse a violent racist with a single good deed, Field isn’t trying to rescue Lydia. He is asking his audience what a person’s sins look like in the full context of their lives and whatever good they have done. And he is asking complex questions about our empathy for people who do harm to others. Do we save some small amount of it depending on the viciousness of their transgression? What does it mean, in a world full of toxicity and abuse, to see the abuser as human?

In assessing the value of art in relation to problematic artists, TÁR is in dialogue with a moment from another one of 2022’s best films, The Banshees of Inisherin (hello again, Martin McDonagh!) In a pivotal scene, one character scoffs at the value of being a nice, good person weighed against the value of creating a work of enduring artistic genius. TÁR asks its audience how much the character and integrity of the artist should matter when assessing their work. Lydia Tar feels strongly that the identity of the artist shouldn’t matter one iota. She reminds a colleague that the great composer Schoenbrun once threw a woman down a flight of stairs, but that never kept him from being seen as a great man in his field. When a student bristles at covering Bach (one more dead, white male composer) when so many great musicians from black and queer communities continue to go unheard, Lydia rudely bristles right back at him. The great artists, to her thinking, do not need to pour their struggles and personal idiosyncrasies into their work. Instead, an artist’s core self should be utterly immaterial to the work. The work represents something greater and purer than the artist’s mere identity.  She insists the artist must actually subsume their identity. The ensuing two hours are a reminder to Lydia Tar that, however noble the idea of art transcending its creator might be, we do not live in a world that holds the two separate. The public does no omit the artist’s identity when they judge the work, especially not for artists that commit heinous deeds. I still consider Woody Allen’s Manhattan to be a humane masterpiece, but it is impossible to rewatch the middle-aged lead (played by Allen himself) romance a 17-year old and not think of the acts of pedophilia the director has been accused of. A lot of great art doesn’t even attempt to hide the nature of the artist. What is auteur theory if not an acknowledgment that the great artists like to pour some of themselves into their work? To paraphrase something the writer JD Amato once said about film, every piece of art is in some way about its creator. In the end, Lydia Tar’s wish to have art cleanly separated from the artist may just be naivete. It could also be an unconscious fear that her abuses of power will catch up to her ; and not only to her but to her innocent creations. That the art will be made to pay for the sins of its parent. And she is not wrong to fear that outcome, even if she wrong in so many other ways. Subsuming your identity may sound high-minded and profound, but it’s also a hypocritical expectation. When an artistic genius feels entitled to indulge their every appetite regardless of who it hurts, that starts to sound like the very antithesis of subsuming yourself. Perhaps it is unrealistic to ask that your art be considered in a vacuum when so much outside of your art is about satisfying your own immoral ego.

To say that a film about a composer has a musical quality is an unspeakable cliche. It is also impossible to touch on TÁR’s bracing, disorienting style without noting that it feels like a piece of music. It is an astonishing work of rhythm and tone, from its confident editing to its subtly bold camera work. But it is not simply put together in a musical way. It has a musical sense of structure and story that it marries to its style. In the film’s opening scene, Lydia Tar waxes poetic on the importance of time in music and she humbly appoints herself the Lord Emperor of Time, at least in any piece she is conducting (Time itself may still be on the table though). Like his character, Todd Field directs with meticulous precision and control. He is not only matching Lydia’s formal perfection as a conductor but the precision with which she conducts her stainless life and the people who occupy it. Her students, her fawning peers, her wife and daughter are all instruments to be commanded. TÁR hums with the pitch perfect timing of a great symphony. And then, in a way that is no less technically assured, it turns into a great atonal symphony, its coolly controlled strains turning discordant, jarring and syncopated. It is, after all, not really about an artist maintaining perfect control but losing it. Field has written a cinematic piece of music to capture the feeling of a life spinning out of balance. A musical odyssey from the highest halls of power through a gauntlet of scandal and down into the back alleys of tarnished anonymity. In some ways, it feels like a film the Safdie Brothers would make if you replaced their gritty, DIY mise en scene with tight, Kubrickian polish. It’s both harrowing and sharply humorous. Just beneath the sober subjects of abuse, bullying and entitlement is a vein of black comedy. It’s the unnerving tickle that only schadenfreude can provide. You chuckle grimly because it’s not happening to you. But the joke is also on us. After we’ve borne witness to Lydia’s calamitous fall from grace, we might realize that her rock bottom is still a life that most of us have to crane our necks to gaze up at. Her hellish torment is to be exiled to a life where she might have to interact with the average person slightly more. Hell for Lydia Tar is having to rub elbows with the people watching Todd Field’s TÁR.

At the same time that Field complicates the nature of a toxic artist, he is also placing some blame back on the people who enable them. One of the most ingenious structural aspects of TÁR is the gradual way Field makes Lydia’s brazen abuse more and more apparent. He doesn’t do it in glaringly obvious ways, Though Lydia’s flirtations with an attractive young cellist who she personally hires over a more deserving musician paints a clear picture of how she uses her high position to extort favor. But, in a way that makes me think of 2023’s The Zone of Interest, Field is really interested in the kinds of crimes that are just concealed enough for people to turn their gaze away from. He brilliantly hints at what kind of person Lydia is in fragmented ways. Nina Hoss’ remarkable performance as Tar’s wife tells us a lot just with a pained gaze. There is a sense that she knows that Lydia is probably sometimes unfaithful, entitled and hedonistic in the way some rich celebrities can be. What’s more enigmatic is how much she suspects about the very young girls that Lydia is being unfaithful with. It’s possible that she has shielded herself from knowing. It is also possible that her patiently pained expression is the look of someone who is on the verge of really seeing what’s going on and can’t bear to take that final step into certainty. The same feels true of Tar’s attentive assistant, her mentor and other member of the symphony. They might all be holding themselves back from looking behind Lydia’s curtain. They know she is an arrogant hedonist, a person unafraid to take what she wants, but that doesn’t necessarily reach the realm of criminality. But to know, to let themselves know with certainty what is going on would be to tear down their own world. Field suggests maybe there is more to a cancellable monster than just the sum of their misdeeds. But he also says there is more behind a cancellable monster than just themselves. There are people with reasons not to want to see them fall. And maybe that’s also why, when people like that do fall, their plummet can oftentimes feel short and inadequate.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #6- The Fabelmans

Among the many qualities of Steven Spielberg’s basically autobiographical masterpiece The Fabelmans, the most surprising (especially if you’ve only watched its misleadingly tony trailer) is its humor. The latest brilliant collaboration between Spielberg and god-tier playwright-turned-screenwriter Tony Kushner is more than just surprisingly ticklish and light on its feet. It is often legitimately funny, as if to deliberately blow the dust off the acclaimed veteran director’s prestigious reputation. One of the funniest things about it is that its conceit relies on a truckload of braggadocio from the populist master. The Fabelmans goes well past the point of a humble brag and veers into bragging full-stop. Its thesis calls for one iro-clad premise: Steven Spielberg is, and probably always has been since his birth, an utter genius at every single aspect of making films. It’s a boast that he is using to engage in some very pointed self-deprecation and self-criticism, which feels like a particularly trusty kind of Jewish humor. There is something dryly funny in someone laying all their faults and neuroses bare by very directly stating that they’re kind of inarguably a genius. The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s most personally confessional and painful film, an analysis of the inner darkness that fuels his art and how much his wondrous filmmaking is actually an outlet for trauma, guilt and unexorcised demons. The genius, he explains to us with a wry smile threatening to break across his face, is actually not entirely a good thing. It’s the byproduct of his masochistic drive to dredge up old pain and his own unresolved emotional issues. He’s telling us that there’s a can of icky worms behind every spell-binding, magical movie he’s ever assembled. A primal scream behind the wonder and technical wizardry. The Fabelmans is rich with honest-to-God jokes. And the best joke of all might be that the greatest popular director of his generation makes a movie about puncturing his own genius that also sends the audience out with another reminder of that same genius. The man has never been more nakedly revealing nor more warmly hilarious.


The Fabelmans picks up at a New Jersey movie palace in 1952, where a six-year old Sammy Fabelman (charmingly played by Mateo Zorya for the first quarter of the film and by an electrifyingly confident Gabrielle LaBelle for the remainder) is about to watch his first genuine motion picture. The feature presentation is Cecil B. De Mille’s polarizing, bloated extravaganza The Greatest Show On Earth (mainstay on the lower half of ranked Best Picture lists). His two very distinct parents, genius engineer Burt (a wonderfully sweet and sad Paul Dano) and spirited art lover Mitzi (a terrific and poignant Michelle Williams) are trying in their own ways to ease Sammy’s nerves about the spectacle to come. Burt is using science to rationalize away his little boy’s trepidation about watching 20-foot tall people on screen, hoping that explaining how movies work might make them less intimidating. Mitzi is gushing about the dream-like magiv of movies. It’s a classic set-up for a cliched “power of the movies” coming of age scene, but what plays out subverts that. This will not be Spielberg’s CInema Paradiso. The movie scene that burns itself into Sammy’s brain is not some feel-good slice of enchantment but a grandly violent train crash complete with screeching metal and one horrifying death. The Fabelmans will follow through on its premise as the autobiography of Steven Spielberg’s lifelong love affair with the movies, but the journey will be exceedingly more complicated than you can imagine, borne more out of fear, dysfunction and heartache than childlike whimsy and schmaltz. It is the story of Sammy’s life with his Jewish family,. which consists of his diametrically opposite parent, two younger sisters, and a surrogate uncle figure named Benny (Seth Rogen, relishing the chance to add a completely different kind of film to his resume) who works with his father and shows up to every holiday and vacation. It’s an observant, intimately scaled domestic drama (one Spielberg had wanted to make for many years) shot through with the kind of majesty, invention and dewy emotion that only our finest blockbuster director can provide. It winds from New Jersey through Arizona and ends in the place you would expect the story of young Steve Spielberg to wrap up: Hollywood. And yet, nothing about hos this lovely, empathetic story unfolds feels expected or cliched. It is one of the most delicate, natural and spontaneously alive of Spielberg’s career and it is also the kind of breathtakingly confident, engaging entertainment you make when you are at the height of your powers. Spielberg tells an insular little yarn about a hard thing he and his family went through when he was a kid and somehow brings down the house once more.

From its opening scene, Spielberg is trying to  get at the nature of who he is as an artist and push back against the idea that he is only driven by wonder and childish innocence. He cagily locates himself at the nexus of vivid, often dreamlike imagination and precise whiz kid technique. He is a man of magic and science and The Fabelmans is his endlessly shrewd unpacking of how one sphere of his talent has always butted heads with and simultaneously relied upon the other. When a teenaged Sammy Ingeniously figures out how to create the illusion of gunfire in his first Western film by poking pinholes in the film that allow light to shine through, his dry father’s face lights up with childlike amazement. But, in the next scene, Burt asks his son why he isn’t devoting his prodigious talent for engineering to more practical, useful matters. Most engineers use their knowledge to design and invent practical things. Engines and bridges. Sammy’s inventions are cinematic dreams, cobbled together with economic proble-solving. His scientific discipline cannot be separated from the sense of magic he gets from his mother. The left and right brains of his two parents enrich each other and spar with each other. The Fabelmans is very much about the uneasy, if always loving, marriage of his diametrically opposed parents. But the core of his parents’ story is also the seed of Spielberg’s own cinematic identity. His films have always been a place where practical ingenuity and cinematic wonder coexist. , where one is impossible without the other (it’s what made him such an ideal mentor to Robert Zemeckis, another effects geek with romance in his soul). With his unique blend of practical know-how and starry-eyed enchantment, Spielberg is perhaps like the version of silent director Georges Melies that we see in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo: a crafty toymaker. Steven Spielberg may have become a great engineer like his father, but he clearly had a different notion of the word “useful”. Instead of applying his rigorous craftmanship to cars or computers, he saved it for the beautiful dreams so cherished by his mother. And in that way, if only that way, he managed to keep his two beloved influences in harmony and in conversation with one another.

There is a deeper truth to science and awe in this movie than just how it relates to Spielberg’s folks. The Fabelmans is the story of Steven Spielberg’s most painful childhood memory and it is about how all of his art, sometimes misunderstood as sentimental and saccharine, is suffused with the hurt and fear he felt as a child. Even at their most seemingly crowd-pleasing, Spielberg is saying his movies are an outlet for wrestling with what troubles him and frightens him. His first theater experience, sold to him as a wondrous extravaganza, also greatly disturbs him. He is unsettled by the cinema at the same time he is captivated and inspired by it. The Fabel mans is a reminder that Spielberg’s films are not mere wonder delivery systems; there is always some degree of horror mixed into the recipe. His world-beating Jaws, a film so fun that it literally invented the summer blockbuster, is also a bloody horror mov ie where an almost imperceptible menace lays waste to a small town’s Americana facade. ET, a sublimely magical piece of coming-of-age science fiction, also has one of the most viscerally upsetting death scenes; in any film, let alone a studio family blockbuster. His Hook, a film oft-malighted for its cheesy artifice, only takes us to Never Neverland after an unsparingly ominous kidnapping scene. In one of the setpieces from The Fabelmans‘ second half (an hour-plus cavalcade of perfect scenes that sent me out of the theater giddy), se see Sammy invent the fabled Spielberg Face, where an actor looks offscreen in a close-up that focuses on their awe-struck wonderment. Bu the source of the “wonder” in this scene is a carnage-strewn battlefield and the subtest if the crumbling of Sammy’s home life. The Fabelmans recontextualizes even the most plainly feel-good instance of Spielbergian wonder as an act of trying to shine a light into the gloom. The magic is real, but there is always some amount of pain and torment behind it. Spielberg has made a masterpiece about how the things that delight us and the things that terrify us are maybe one and the same. They are part of the great tapestry that Spielberg has spent his life mastering. One great  and terrible quilt of enchantment and dread.

One poignant and funny truth that Spielberg arrives at is that what scares him most might be himself. After watching that brutally explosive train crash in his first trip to the movies, the initial fear gradually fades to reveal an even more alarming truth: he loves the fear. Exciting or unsettling, Sammy only knows that he is helplessly drawn to it. In The Fabelmans, cinema is not some magical, sweet fairy brightening Spielberg’s young life with uncomplicated mirth and pixie dust. Cinema is more like a Nosferatu, a vampire with murky intentions that takes little Sammy by surprise, bites him and mutates him forever. That first viewing of The Greatest Show On Earth didn’t just rattle young Spielberg. It imbued him with an insatiable hunger, a bottomless obsession. From the outside The Fabelmans may look like it’s going to be one more love letter to the movies, but it’s actually about a fearsome addiction to them. Of course, this being our maestro of wonder and spectacle, the film’s account of that debilitating addiction cannot help but be dynamic, compelling, moving and ticklishly funny. The great joke of the film is Spielberg trying to point to the darkness in himself and having sparks and confetti shoot out of his fingers. His incurable curse is the world’s gain. By the end, Spielberg seems to almost lose his own argument, as he and his audience are washed away in a tsunami of sharp humor, visual wizardry and richly humane vibes. Sammy’s elderly, prodigal uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, doing more with ten minutes of screentime than should be humanly possible) warns him that art is no game. Once it has its hooks in you, if you are a true artist, you will be helpless prey to it. It will infest you and command you. It will fill your soul with poetry but it is a spout that cannot be turned off. We get plenty of romantic films about the siren song of art, but Spielberg may have made the only film of this kind to really contemplate how the artist can be dashed against the rocks of their own divine calling.

Spielberg’s effervescently great West Side Story cracked my top twenty films of 2021. In that review, I noted a couple Spielberg qualities that The Fabelmans also runs with. First is Spielberg’s most vital collaborator over the last two-plus decades: genius playwright Tony Kushner. John Williams is regularly and rightly discussed as maybe Spielberg’s top collaborator on the basis of decades of iconic, brilliant scores. But, since 2004, Spielberg and Kushner have had a four-film spotless miracle run together: Munich, Lincoln, West Side Story, and now The Fabelmans. It’s a partnership as  fruitful as it is impossible to pigeon-holeThe eloquent mournfulness of Munich gave little sign as to how the two men would make the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation both lively and subtly humorous in Lincoln. And Lincoln is distinct in its greatness from what they would do to bring a well-worn 1950s musical into the 21st century with sharp topicality and vibrant immediacy. The common thread of their stunning collaborations is just a sparkling attentiveness and an irrepressible sense for how to make material dazzle and sing. The other compliment I paid Spielberg in my West Side Story review is his incredible eye for discovering up and coming talents. After directing a virtually unknown Ariana Debose to an Academy Awards two years ago and discovering new star Rachel Zegler, Spielberg has found a tremendously exciting young actor in Gabriel Labelle, his teeenaged avatar in the film. Labelle’s tapdance between fizzy comedy and wrenching drama is simply a stunner. Like the director who has raised his profile, he seems to have a grasp of the places where joy and tragedy exist together. The kind of dark rainbow of oil and water that Spielberg only gets better and better at blending together.