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Top 20 Films of 2017: #7- A Quiet Passion

Solace is a concept I think about a lot. I think 2017 was an emotional thunderstorm for a lot of people. The idea of finding some way to soothe oneself or, failing that, just distract oneself from whatever pain, fear, or anxiety they are enduring probably feels pretty topical right now. It is topical, but it’s also been a perennial fixation for me for a lot of years. I think about solace in the bad times and the good times as well. I consider myself an optimist, a sentimentalist, and a general lover of life. Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my heart lives a beaming, bounding, insufferably happy-go-lucky Roberto Benigni spirit. I let him pay his rent in cured meats and baguettes, with the understanding that he will only publicly embarrass me on rare occasions. I am anything but a miserablist, but dear God do I give a lot of thought to the idea of needing solace. Not because life is bad or because I am any kind of tortured soul, but simply because life is a lot. Regardless of what your personal, physical, medical, relational, or economic circumstances are, I hold to empathy for anyone who is, or has ever been, alive and breathing on this planet. Because, in all its rapture and agony, existence and consciousness are just an awful lot to experience, process, and bear. And for that reason, the idea of finding some piece of solace, some small comfort, to see you through this thing, be it a masterpiece of art or the world’s most effervescently disposable beach read (and, really, I hope we are all getting a healthy helping of both, and everything in between) strikes a huge chord with me. Very few movies better captured the value of finding some measure of comfort in the art one loves than Terence Davies’ beautiful, intimate, bracingly honest Emily Dickinson biography, A Quiet Passion. No 2017 film better conveyed life as an avalanche of joy and woe, never entirely free of strife yet never completely bereft of humor and happiness; as an alternatingly sweet and gutting rush. A swift, sometimes frightening current that sweeps us along, in which we simply do our best to cling to what is beautiful and heartening. In telling the simple story of one poet’s life,  Davies’ film deftly evokes the full emotional gamut of being, while delivering two of the year’s most luminous and subtle performances and serving up one of the year’s most deliciously eloquent screenplays. A Quiet Passion emerges as the rare biographical film that shakes off the dust of history, crackles with real energy, and seamlessly attunes itself to the lifeforce of its subject.


A Quiet Passion opens with a terrific scene that concisely and memorably captures the gently defiant soul of its great American poet subject. The year is 1848 and it is the last day of the second semester at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. A terse, sharp headmistress is giving a closing lecture on Christianity to a room full of adolescent women. She demands that any girl who wants to come to the Lord and find salvation move to the right side of the room. Then she instructs all the girls who hope attain Christian salvation one day to step over to the left side of the room. When all the feet have stopped shuffling, only one young woman is left standing in the center of the hall: a self-possessed, coolly confident redhead of eighteen years of age named Emily. The seminary instructor scowls at this immovable object of a girl and curls her lip in disgust. She reprimands her for her impertinence and then asks her, “Are you in the Ark of Safety?” Emily calmly and bluntly replies, “I fear that I am not.” The Emily Dickinson we meet and come to know is indefatigably resistant to a society intent on foisting its dogmas and mores upon her, particularly those of the Christian church. On this day in 1848, Emily is taking her leave of Mount Holyoke and waiting for her family to whisk her back to the warmth of their family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her rescue party consists of her warm, slightly domineering attorney father, Edward (Keith Carradine, very good), her eldest brother Austin (played in youth by Benjamin Wainwright and as an adult by Duncan Duff), and her demurely good-humored little sister Vinnie (Rose Williams in youth, and as an adult by the great Jennifer Ehle, in a performance of beautiful subtlety and compassion). Before returning to Amherst, the Dickinsons make a stop in Boston to pick up their Aunt Elizabeth, a devoutly religious older woman with an excitably conservative temperament. The Dickinson children seem to delight in making Aunt Elizabeth clutch her pearls. As the family agnostic, Emily feels a particular duty to stand firm in the face of Aunt Elizabeth’s pious judgment. While Emily is a proud free-thinker, however, we also gather that she is not challenging her aunt merely for the sake of puckish provocation. There is an unspoken sense that she sees an intellectual foil in this family member. Emily is a young woman who thinks often of death and despairs of the knowledge that she will one day lose people close to her; even this fussy, prickly aunt whose beliefs are so very different from her own. Before Aunt Elizabeth leaves the family, likely for the last time, Emily earnestly gushes, “I hope you live for a hundred years!” Aunt Elizabeth looks flummoxed. “What a repellent idea!,” she gasps. “I am not afraid to die, Emily, and neither should you be.” In the next scene, the Dickinson family poses to have their photographs taken and we watch their faces rapidly age on camera. Some fifteen years hurtle by in an instant. A Quiet Passion is the story of a woman who, even at a tender age, felt there was precious little time. She was a brilliant poet, a witty iconoclast, and also a fairly modest, self-effacing woman. Emily Dickinson quietly defied the traditional values of her time, but she also cherished the small comforts of a life spent at home. She would live all her days within the walls of the family house in Amherst until her death from kidney disease at the age of fifty-five. Outside of the deaths of the Dickinson parents and the sudden, rude interruption of the Civil War, A Quiet Passion is not a film of seismic plot developments, which is rather the point. It is about the Emily Dickinson and itthe people who formed the main cast of her uneventful but spirited life. Chief among those characters is Vryling Buffham, a frank, sardonic woman with a knack for tartly skewering the antiquated social norms and arbitrary fender rules her New England peers so cautiously tiptoe around. This makes her a fast friend to Emily. A Quiet Passion is about being an independent thinker and a woman during America’s first century, and how one woman’s intelligence, morbidity and scintillating wit made that experience more vibrant while also making the repressiveness harder to stomach. Terence Davies’ film is a beautiful, rich, and witty character study, and it is also in many ways a phenomenally sad one. It is the story of a woman who lived a seemingly slight existence, but it carries a mighty undertow of feeling. A Quiet Passion throbs with the full emotional spectrum of life. It visits a very mannered time and place and finds a messy cornucopia of colors there. It is a biography and a period piece that digs under the surfaces of its genres to find deep truth, lovely human connection, and sharp humor.


The biographical picture is a notoriously tricky genre to pull off with any real artfulness. Too often, even truly skilled directors get sucked into the trap of being rotely informative to the point where they neglect to evoke the true spirit of their subject. One of the great modern examples of how to get at a biographical subject’s essence is Todd Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There, which portrays the famously enigmatic and opaque Dylan as five different characters with different names, one played by Cate Blanchett. That highly stylized, subjective approach was well-suited to an elusive self-stylist like Bob Dylan. What impresses me about Terence Davies’ work on A Quiet Passion is that Emily Dickinson is a significantly less flashy figure. Davies and his brilliant leading performer have taken on the challenge of capturing a dazzling mind that lay humbly in the package of a modest, self-critical woman; an assertive woman, but one with little outward vanity. This was a person whose renown as a poet would not arrive until decades after her death. A Quiet Passion is an astonishingly assured portrait of Emily Dickinson as a woman of unfussy, unadorned integrity, and rendering that kind of person in a way that feels cinematic is about as difficult a feat as I can imagine. Davies makes his highly verbal film just as visually distinct as it needs to be. The memorable images are subtle but strikingly effective. He establishes young Emily as a fearless guardian of her principles by introducing her as the lone figure facing down a room full of authoritarian zealots. A beautiful circular pan around the Dickinson’s dimly lit family room, containing every member of the family, wordlessly captures how much Emily treasures her loved ones and how overcome she is by the ache that she will one day lose them. A haunting sequence shows the older, reclusive Emily sitting alone in her dark bedroom as a dapper male silhouette ascends the stairs. This man that she patiently waits for could be the elusive, noble man who could love her and still respect her agency. It could be the God she has doubted throughout her life at last revealing Himself and easing her mortal fears. Or it could be Death, the phantom figure that constantly occupied her thoughts and became one of the great muses of her poetry. Of the three suitors, the third was the only one she was certain would one day visit her. A Quiet Passion is a film whose time, place, and subject matter promise poise and restraint. But while this is often a very restrained film, it is remarkable how completely alive it is, from its lovely, fallible characters to its expressive dialogue. Rather than feeling suffocating, the traditional period setting only makes Emily Dickinson and those in her orbit feel even more vibrant in contrast.


That said, while I deeply admire how visually dynamic A Quiet Passion is, the film is certainly most satisfying as a decadent smorgasbord of words. The dialogue in the film is insightful, poignant, acerbic, funny, and sometimes devastating. As he did with 2016’s Sunset Song, Terence Davies has made a film that feels both lushly cinematic and utterly literary. Emily Dickinson found solace from the heartache of her short, spartan life in the written word: poetry, rigorous philosophical discussion, and spirited games of sparkling wordplay. Some of my favorite moments in cinema this year were just watching Emily and Vryling Buffham trade quips and droll observations about religion, art, and society, as Vinnie listened with a bemused smile, delighted to watch the game and uncertain if she should jump in. As an aside, I could honestly write a full paragraph or more on how much I love the characterization of Emily’s winningly smart, quietly supportive, and ineffably sympathetic little sister. As a thing of pure writerly beauty, A Quiet Passion is unquestionably one of 2017’s great scripts. It is both biting and graciously humane. In sum, it possesses that quality that Emily Dickinson herself strove for throughout her life: spirited, unflinching honesty. Emily Dickinson was a poet with a voracious appetite for language, a love of the world’s beauty, and an unshakable fixation with her own mortality. She saw the world in lovely, rich hues, but she also saw those hues fading away into oblivion before her eyes. In its snippets of poetry, its dryly sophisticated banter, and its heart-rending, masterfully acted scenes of sorrow and loss, Terrence Davies has bottled the pure essence of what I feel when I read an Emily Dickinson poem. The feeling of a soul too taken with the vivacity of life to be classified as simply morbid, yet too conscious of life’s impermanence not to glimpse it in the background of the sunniest day. A Quiet Passion is a film as lovely, invigorating, and briskly chilling as a gust of New England wind. It takes what could have been a stuffy biography and infuses it with so much depth and bruising emotion that it becomes impossible to think of it in the same ossified category as films like Gandhi or Ray. This is no Emily Dickinson biopic, but a visual poem about the power and limitation of words. Their ability to shine a light into the darkness of existence and their powerlessness to repel death. A Quiet Passion is a rumination on life as something wonderful, heady, painful, and brief, dedicated to a literary talent who saw the world in all those lights.


I am by no means an Emily Dickinson scholar, but there is a subtle, soft-spoken kind of dynamism to A Quiet Passion that feels utterly in keeping with the works of hers that I have read. It is a film with an appetite for life and a feeling of hushed awe for death. The sense one gets from the film and Nixon’s staggeringly great performance is of a woman who had a lot of uncertainty about what waits after death, but who felt it was more important to hold true to her own moral and intellectual compass than to betray it out of fear for her soul. Her defiance was not so much a denial of that fear as it was a resolve to endure in the face of it. This is a film about defiance as a beautiful act of self-expression. The film itself is not trying to prove or disprove the existence of God or resolve any other grand cosmic questions. It is simply a salute to a woman who felt she had no answers to such questions and refused to be coerced into avowing what she did not know. A Quiet Passion has a deep admiration for Emily Dickinson as a woman who felt it was right to guard a private space in your mind and soul, and to stand firm in that place. Whatever we believe is part of the wonderful freedom given to us as human beings, and the only sure wrong choice we can make is to not decide for ourselves. When Emily resists kneeling in Christian fealty, her father sternly admonishes her, “Your soul is no trivial matter.” Emily responds, “I agree. That is why I am so meticulous in guarding its independence.” The Emily Dickinson of this film is a stubborn soul, but her defiance is not snide or petulant. It is the humble, thoughtful steadiness of a spirit that hopes to be moved, but refuses to be pushed. A Quiet Passion is a tender, clear-eyed love letter to a graciously unyielding kind of rebel. It is an alternatingly warm and unsparing portrait of an artist who faced the slings and arrows of sexism and theological dogma and, with scarcely a hint of acrimony, would not cede ground to them. This is a beautiful reminder that, while society needs its fiery iconoclasts and brazen punks, rebellion can also be a quiet and personal act. Firebrands come in many shape and sizes and A Quiet Passion shows us a great American firebrand whose flame was no less incendiary for burning surely and steadily. The glorious smile of flickering in Cynthia Nixon’s eyes as her Emily prepares to once again eloquently defend the battlements of her spirit is simply a marvelous, inspiring thing to watch for any free-thinker. With due respect to Mildred Hayes’ fine, profanity-laden tirades in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I consider Emily Dickinson to be the bold, uncompromising heroine that 2017 deserves.


While Emily Dickinson found her solace in poetry, I left the film feeling that she also found it within herself. Or perhaps finding solace in a piece of art is fundamentally the same thing as locating it in your own soul. We can take in a poem or a book or a film and have it resonate with us, but I think that resonance only occurs once we have internalized those words or images, repeating them within ourselves. A Quiet Passion is about facing down a sometimes harsh world and doing what you can to take sustenance from what is around you; pulling from the best parts of life and using those bits of beauty and humor and maybe even sadness to stoke a fire within yourself. And I think the film is also about the limits of solace. Emily Dickinson lived a very modest life. She found no romantic companionship. She met with the derision of those who found her too eccentric, too crassly forward, or lacking in the submissive demureness expected of women in her time. She listened on as condescending voices dismiss the great women writers of the day as maudlin or gloomy. She watched works of genius be waved away with the tired, sexist cliche that female authors were too stridently emotional. She died at an early age with precious few works published and no sign of recognition from the world around her. She waited for some hint of the posterity she deserved, but the unaccountable cur never came calling. She would not live to see her own vindication. And all of that hardship and pain and downright unfairness cannot be simply washed clean by solace; by saying that Emily found some beauty in the world as if that could somehow undo the strife she weathered. It puts me in a familiar, conflicted place as a self-professed optimist. It feels cheap to pretend like solace amounts to much in the grand scheme. But it also feels cynical to say that it means nothing. And I think that might be the place where A Quiet Passion intends to leave the viewer. Life is a brief and overwhelming cacophony of love, anger, joy, loss, and woe. If it all feels a little arbitrary, confusing and cruel sometimes, I guess that’s because it is. It’s lovely and rapturous too, for whatever that is worth. And if it seems hard to reconcile the poles of happiness and hardship, maybe it is because they are not meant to be reconciled. A Quiet Passion is about a great mind who fretted over the unanswerable questions of life, created beautiful art out of the ambiguity surrounding death, and probably left just as mytified as when she came in. For my part, I do not know what solace is really worth when weighed against the inscrutable enormity of it all. But I do hope each and every one of you finds as much of it as you could need, in whatever form you find it. For the time being.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #8- The Lost City of Z

I still write film reviews the way I used to write term papers as a pimply thirteen year-old.  I put a line paper notepad on my desk or my table or Taco Bell’s table and I hang my head over it. I lean over it and scribble and furrow my brow, and I try to come up with the film’s main subjects. I outline like my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Marocchi, first taught me to do. These outlines can actually be a very handy barometer for how I feel about a film’s quality. With a poor or mediocre film, the outline topics tend to be pretty superficial, less subjects than general elements one expects to find within a film. Acting. Writing. In a pinch, I might do a paragraph on how bored or entertained I was. With great films though, I can find themes or motifs or ideas. I can delve into the various ways the work made me feel and find a paragraph for each emotion. I would never want to reduce Film to a point system, as if a film’s quality hung on how many bullet points I could come up with for it. Movies are not wrestlers or Lincoln-Douglas debaters. Still, it is a good sign when a film gives me too much rich substance, too many paragraphs, to fit into a single review. For example, it’s a very good thing that, instead of using my opening paragraph to come up with some relevant anecdote or thesis to tie the whole film together (this brief explanation notwithstanding), I am going to use my introduction to state that James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (pronounced “Zed” in the film) is some of the most luscious, grand, classically sumptuous adventure film-making I have seen in some time. The level of sheer craft on display in James Gray’s soulful and stirring biography of 1900s Amazonian explorer Percy Fawcett is so beautiful, painterly and rousing in the best old-fashioned way that it could be the focus of discussion in a review of some other very good film. Alas, there are just so many rich ideas and themes in The Lost City of Z that I have no choice but to squeeze in its lovely lensing, hypnotically lavish tone, subtly mesmerizing score, and the breathtaking immediacy with which it captures its moment in history right here at the start. The film’s surface pleasures alone could take up an entire review if this were a more modest piece of work. But The Lost City of Z is one of the year’s great works of art, and so I have to place them here like little footnotes. James Gray’s film is so sharp, thoughtful, and magnificently poignant that its status as the year’s most perfectly composed period piece is really just the beautiful, gold-trimmed leather binding on a great, thick work of literature. The Lost City of Z is a true story with the sweep and emotional scope of an old classic novel; the kind of classic that, when you are finished, you may just pick back up to flip through the pages, smelling the yellowing paper and running your fingers over the odd illustration inside.


The story begins in Ireland in 1905, where a British corporal in his mid-30s named Percy Fawcett (Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam, one of several 2017 heartthrobs giving performances that fervently demand we reconsider their potential) is stationed at the English barracks there. The soldiers are all preparing to take part in a British military tradition: a stag hunt. We see Percy’s vigor and ambition almost immediately, as he captures the day’s prize. With the stag comes a chance to meet higher ranking officers at that evening’s banquet. The chance, however, never materializes for Percy. In whispers, one man of high rank explains to another man of higher rank that Percy Fawcett comes from a disgraced family, and both take their leave before the enterprising man can approach them. We come to see much of what drives Percy Fawcett is a desperation to establish a legacy and to restore some luster to a family name that his late father tarnished through drunkenness and gambling. Percy Fawcett is not the only character important to this story. We also meet his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller in a splendid, subtly observant performance), a vivacious, confidently enlightened, and resolute woman, who does not hesitate to call out the sexist hypocrisies and injustices that are a regular part of life in Edwardian England. Percy and Nina, who Percy lovingly calls Cheeky, have a young son and they seem to hold a wistful affection for their modest, happy life, while also knowing that it is beneath someone of Percy’s military experience and accomplishment. Percy’s fate seems to be to forever labor under his father’s long, tarnished shadow. Then one day he receives the fateful order to report to London. He learns the Royal Geographical Society needs someone to mediate (and also help exploit) the border tensions in the rubber-rich tropical forests between Bolivia and Brazil, by helping to map the heretofore uncharted region. The Brazilians and Bolivians will have an allegedly neutral party to draw their border lines, Britain will be able to look into some lucrative resources, and humble Percy Fawcett will have an opportunity to lead a mission whose success could restore some piece of his family’s reputation. He will also have to leave behind his wife and young son, and will miss the birth of his second child.  In the name of improving his family’s life, Percy will spend more than two years in the dense, perilous Amazon undergrowth. Along the way, Percy procures the services of Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, as fantastically subtle and understated here as he was fantastically livewire and unhinged in this year’s Good Time), a dryly soft-spoken ex-corporal who Percy first encounters drunk a full week into their Atlantic steamship voyage, but who quickly proves himself to be a level-headed and immensely resourceful companion. They travel to Fazenda Jacobina, a rubber outpost that represents the last and furthest reaches of Western civilization into the Amazon, including an outdoor opera house all but engulfed by tropical flora. There they pick up a small crew of British men and one indigenous guide who is brought to them in chains. Percy’s first journey to map parts of the Amazon is an expectedly harrowing, grueling ordeal, complete with spear attacks, piranhas, a mutiny attempt, panthers, heatstroke, and maddening deprivation. What is less expected is that Percy comes to find ancient pottery in the jungle, possible evidence of an advanced civilization, which makes him a sudden exploratory pioneer and the talk of London when he returns. What is also unexpected, at least to anyone who has never seen a Werner Herzog film, is that this punishing land of intense heat constant danger exacts a powerful pull on Percy. He comes to fall in love with it and dreams of immediately returning in the hopes of discovering an entire lost city in the Amazon. In no time at all, having scarcely met his infant son, he is rushing back to Bolivia with Costin and another trusted crew member. He also brings along a rich donor (Braveheart’s Angus McFadyen, in a brief, brilliant portrait of pompous incompetence), who aids the mission with his social clout and woefully jeopardizes it by being weak-willed and ill-equipped for jungle hardships. Percy finds even more evidence to support his theory of advanced Amazon cultures, though the lost city remains tantalizingly out of his grasp. He returns to England to rejoin his family and then goes off to fight in World War I, but Percy Fawcett’s thoughts never stray far from the jungle, a place where he has found his life’s work and where the pretentious mutterings of British society are lost under the babble of river water and the buzz of insects. Like Timothy Treadwell, famously captured in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Percy Fawcett is a man who both finds and loses himself in a wild, dangerous place. And The Lost City of Z is a film that empathizes with his need to escape while remaining clear-eyed about the toll that obsession took on a family he left behind for so many years. James Gray’s film is by turns an impeccable turn of the century period piece, a rousing adventure story, and a gently hypnotic hymn to the siren song of the unexplored and unknown. It sees the call of discovery as something softly beautiful in its lure; less a fever dream than a hazy, warmly soothing trance.


I have already mentioned how gorgeous The Lost City of Z’s images of jungle exploration are, but there is something deeper than beautiful surfaces here. In a very classical, sweeping way, James Gray captures the rhythms of insatiable wanderlust. The editing choice that best demonstrates this is my favorite single shot in the film and leads to what is quite possibly my favorite cut in all of 2017 cinema. Percy Fawcett has just met Costin and is firmly chiding him for being intoxicated. Costin dutifully and apologetically hands over his flask of whiskey and Percy pours its last remnants into the sink. In a very tight closeup, we see a long stream of brown fluid running toward the drain. Then we cut from that stream inching forward to a steam train pushing its way into the Bolivian jungle. It’s a relatively simple, two-shot edit and I’d have to say it’s about as formally tricky as The Lost City of Z gets. But there is a tremendous power in that moment. We feel the thrill of venturing into new, uncharted places, perhaps even before Percy himself has fully felt it. The Lost City of Z is more than just a simple adventure film, and James Gray finds space to question the harms of Percy’s obsession and the wider Western world’s fixation on interloping into places it finds exotic. But Gray knows it is important that we feel the giddy intoxication of pure, uninhibited travel. He wants us to see the dazzling mirage of exploration that Percy sees and feel the breathless rush in his heart. I cannot remember when I last read one of the classic adventure books, but from the moment this film opened, with the enigmatic image of bowls full of fire flickering in the dark night above the Amazon, I recalled what it felt like to read Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island. The implications and consequences of Percy’s Amazon adventures are complex, but it is crucial to Gray that we feel the enthusiastic, almost boyish spirit of discovery that Percy feels in his soul, even in moments where his life is in great danger. The Lost City of Z is an utterly empathetic film. It does not doubt that we may judge Percy Fawcett for his single-minded obsession with finding Z, but it does ask that we let ourselves get swept up in his daydream first. More than asking us, the film positively whisks us away to that place until we cannot help but share his awe-struck curiosity.


And if falling under the enchantment of an adventurer’s life is the key to understanding and feel for Percy Fawcett, even in his most pig-headedly trying moments, it is equally important that we get a sense of the itchy straitjacket of 1900s British society that he is wriggling out of. Part of what makes Charlie Hunnam such a wonder in this role is that he uses his volatile, rough-hewn charm to suggest a man chafing at a society that routinely dismisses him. I imagine Hunnam, a heretofore mostly unsung actor, can relate to having more potential than most people can immediately see. I confess to having been one of those people. Percy Fawcett is a man of tremendous drive and keen intelligence, but the harsh social pecking order of this time tells him that his fate was sealed decades ago when his father chose to lose the Fawcett name at the bottom of a bottle. Even the Royal Geographical Society’s decision to give Fawcett the Bolivia mission feels like an attempt to foist a dangerous, thankless job on a man the British military sees as a bit of an embarrassing afterthought. At best, Fawcett may come back with some small handful of clout. At best, he may one day die with the black mark finally scrubbed clean. He may dare to dream of breaking even. Both Percy and Cheeky immediately pop against the drab, restrictive landscape of Edwardian values. They are nuanced, sensitively played characters and we quickly grasp that both are blessed and cursed with an awareness of the ridiculous unfairness of the hierarchical system they are sentenced to spend their days in. “I know the medals are ridiculous, Cheeky,” Percy says about his hunger to finally have some brooch pinned on him after years of service. Then he adds, “But they may be our only chance.” Understanding and seeing the unjust whims of one’s society does not mean that one can alter them or be entirely untouched by them. Percy and Cheeky have intelligence, integrity, and a spark of good-natured humor about their circumstances; about this arbitrary thicket of social climbers and family legacies. But all the grace and wisdom in the world really only enables them to sing in their chains. These are multi-faceted, vibrant human beings who pop against the drab backdrop of their rigid society, and I cannot decide whether that makes their plight more or less tragic. The Fawcetts would write an extraordinary story together. Percy’s discoveries in the Amazon would upend the West’s condescending notions about tribal cultures. He would achieve more real acclaim and historical importance than someone in his social position could have dreamt possible. But for all he achieved, Percy could never entirely escape the desire to gain the approval of men who had long ago declared themselves above him. For all that he knew better, their patronizing stares followed him. And for all the boundless freedom he pursued and found in the South American wilds, there was always a sad undercurrent of desperation and inferiority pushing him along. He found as much liberty and joyful escape as any British man living in his day ever could. But, much as Lawrence of Arabia’s T.E. Lawrence learned, there is no such thing as infinite liberty and escape only lasts if we never have to go back where we came from. Like many a great Werner Herzog film, The Lost City of Z finds a potent mixture of elation and melancholy in one man’s attempt to define and find himself outside of society’s strict codes.


For as much pathos as James Gray finds in Percy Fawcett’s bittersweet odyssey to discover some great truth beyond the petty materialism and social strata of Edwardian England, the most sorrowful fact may be that Percy himself is still very much a product of his time and place. It is not just that Percy cannot entirely escape England’s classist mores, but that he cannot fully free his own mind from the ignorance around him. Percy is a thoughtful, rigorous, good-hearted man in ways that many of his snobbier peers are not, yet he reacts in apopleptic disbelief when Cheeky suggests that she might come along with him on his travels. He is a man able to advance theories that enlighten minds about indigenous cultures. He even has the humility to concede to his own arrogance when he learns that some tribes have advanced farming systems. But the hypocrisy of refusing to fully see that a woman could be an explorer escapes him. Even as Cheeky raises their family alone for years at a time and teaches herself celestial navigation and even unearths the key piece of research in Percy’s great anthropological theory, he cannot come to see the full strength of this brilliant, stalwart woman. In some sense, even when we are with Percy in the Amazon, The Lost City of Z is Cheeky’s story. If Percy Fawcett had to voyage a continent away into the perilous jungle to find dignity and some relief from the stifling class realities of 1900s England, he at least had that jungle. But the greatest marvel of fortitude and grace in the film is Cheeky, who had to spend years away from her husband and had to bear that separation while also toiling under the daily humiliation of being a woman in a time when women were thought capable of so very little. This vibrant, observant, dynamic woman surely knew that a more just society was on the way. Perhaps she could sense suffrage and employment and feminism just over the next crest in the hill, but she had to stay where she was. She had to see it in her imagination. In the film’s heart-stoppingly beautiful final shot, we are left to contemplate a woman who hoped to find her own adventures, her own space, but instead had to settle for exploring the uncharted depths of her own unappreciated mind.


The Lost City of Z is a film with a genuine affection for human curiosity and a frank, generous, and clear-eyed understanding of the constraints that compel us to wander and explore. It is a film about both the freedom of open spaces and the harsh authority of borders. Physical borders, societal borders, and mental borders. It is a film about questing for some sense of wondrous freedom within the cages of our realities, and the fact that it is about questing for liberty within our limitations makes it feel fitting that it finds such vivacity, beauty, and real emotion within something as well-worn as the adventure film or the British period piece. Like this year’s Mudbound, The Lost City of Z is a film less interested in reinventing the wheel of old-fashioned epic cinema than embracing its classic design features and smoothing them out to perfection. It is a dramatically enthralling tale of exploration and a sumptuously mounted, splendidly acted look at turn-of-the-century England, and what is most vital is that it shakes every last bit of wax from those old, reliable genres. It finds rich, psychologically complex people under the costumes and poignant, nuanced motivations beneath the derring-do. What James Gray has crafted here is masterful. A film about trying to buck the system that restores the lustrous good name of traditional cinema.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #9- Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk received instantaneous, almost unanimous raves from the moment it screened in early July of 2017. It went on to earn eight Academy Award nominations, eight BAFTA nominations, and an endless list of wins and nominations from both critics and industry guilds. It comes from the creator of critical and popular hits like Memento, The Dark Knight, and Inception, yet it had a host of critics lining up to anoint it as the new apex of his filmography. It vaulted to an astronomically high score of 94 on Metacritic and made more than $500 million in worldwide box office. If you judge a film’s success as being some combination of reviews and the number of sheer eyeballs that watch the thing, then Dunkirk is your unimpeachable 2017 champion. And for all that, I have to posit that it may be the most underrated film of the year. Somehow, most of the conversations I have had about it have carried a sense of being underwhelmed, which is an odd reaction to have to a dynamically directed, feverishly intense, critically adored Oscar player that half of the world paid IMAX money to see. The thing I have found about Dunkirk is that it is so very much its own beast that it vexes a wide spectrum of viewer expectations. The film provokes strong opinions about what it actually is, what it should be, and what it needs more of, and the strangest thing of all is that there is no decisive consensus as to what the film needs more or less of. My family was impressed by the spectacle of it but found it to be a chilly, clinical experience without a lot of human interest. They echoed the feelings that a number of friends have had regarding a paucity of memorable, distinct people to take us through the story. I understand this criticism, yet I find myself on the opposite end of the spectrum. I could have done with even less characters; even less of a conventional human angle. I am a lover of great characters and writing. My top ten of 2017 is overwhelmingly populated by character studies. But in this one case, I wanted even less of it. I found myself wishing Nolan had given me an even drier martini (and that will be the last time the word “dry” comes up when discussing this sopping wet movie), with even less of the olive juice of human interest. There is a moment early in the film when a weary, tense line of British soldiers stands on a dock waiting to board a boat. The rough surf roars up at them. As the waves crash at them, they all duck in unison and just as soon stand back up as a unit. This line of men looks like some kind of human wave, like an extension of the ocean itself. This was my moment of nirvana with Dunkirk and it was the special quality I wanted more of in the film. It was a moment of dynamic, wordless, utterly shot-based cinema, like I might get from a Kubrick or Tarkovsky film. And while I understand wanting more human voices in what is largely a tale of noble human fortitude, I was nonetheless brought back down to earth a bit whenever the film paused to let a character give some speech. And I am not saying that my take is the definitively correct one. What I am saying is that Christopher Nolan has made a film that seems to confound expectations about what makes a great war film. And in a year that was relatively short on the ground for boldly uncompromising works, Dunkirk’s ability to both conquer the box office and still be kind of polarizing is its own intrinsic medal of honor.


What is really exceptional about all this is that Dunkirk never really had to be this idiosyncratic. To be frank, when I heard that Christopher Nolan was making a film about the famous Dunkirk rescue in World War II, I did not anticipate any idiosyncrasy whatsoever. I have loved a number of Nolan’s films in the past and I anticipated a well-made war picture, but I was also sure that this would be his attempt to make something broadly appealing and inspiring. And the thing is Dunkirk is something of an inspiring movie. It just also happens to the year’s most brutally visceral cinema experience. Dunkirk is a terse, relentlessly intense telling of Operation Dynamo, the British mission to rescue over 330,000 Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, France where they faced almost certain capture by the Nazi armies. In history books, Dunkirk often comes up under the heading, “The Miracle at Dunkirk”, emphasizing heroism in the face of adversity and long odds. The Miracle of Dunkirk would see Britain rally to save hundreds of thousands of soldiers, with many British civilians coming to assist with the rescue in private boats. Operation Dynamo unexpectedly thwarted a crushing Nazi victory and very likely saved Great Britain from being coerced into a conditional surrender with Germany. As some Dunkirk detractors have pointed out, there was a lot of nuanced historical context to this situation, including the involvement of non-British forces in the conflict and the complex strategic considerations that led Germany to spend three days pummeling the surrounded troops but not making a decisive strike to defeat them. And of course there was the matter of Winston Churchill, only some 220 miles away in London, advocating for Parliament to send relief to those beaches, which was the substance of 2017’s Darkest Hour and is nowhere to be found in this film. To sum it up, Dunkirk features none of the following: major strategic discussions, speeches to any government body, visible Nazi soldiers, Winston Churchill, and, for the vast majority of its runtime, any place on God’s green earth outside of the shell-pocked beaches and choppy waters of Dunkirk. What Dunkirk does feature is terrified men, a positively demonic symphony of bullet whizzes and engine whines, endless alternating torrents of water and fire, relentless action, and a hypnotically teeth-gritting Hans Zimmer score that would be well over the top in any film where vicarious shellshock was not the raison d’etre. Dunkirk gets one of its few moments of relative calm out of the way in its first minute and it spends that minute acquainting us with our harrowing situation and letting us know that there will be precious little peace in the 100 minutes to come. A small group of soldiers walk through the deserted streets of Dunkirk as a deceptively gentle rain of white leaflets falls down upon their heads. The leaflets show a map of Dunkirk and stark block letters read, “YOU ARE SURROUNDED”. One soldier (Fionn Whitehead, very good as the closest thing the film has to a main protagonist) grabs a handful to use later as toilet paper. No sooner have the men stopped to check their surroundings then an ear-splitting hail of machine gun fire pierces the eerie stillness. The men, who we have not known for much more than thirty seconds, are all gunned down as they flee, with the exception of Whitehead’s character. The lone soldier makes it behind the tentative safety of a cluster of sandbags guarded by French soldiers. Even that safety feels unbearably shaky, however, as the monstrous din of the gunfire seems to follow him even as he runs further behind the French line. The cacophony chases him and us until we reach the dismal dead-end of that beach full of soldiers. The plot of Dunkirk focuses on the desperate struggle to escape from this place while under the constant, faceless threat of German bombs, bullets, and torpedoes. Dunkirk is a historical war piece that exists almost entirely as an enervating action survival film. What makes it unique, apart from Nolan’s decision to strip most of the prestige away in favor of unflagging terror, is its time structure. Nolan and his editor Lee Smith (unquestionably and almost necessarily the most valuable contributor to the film’s success) cut with brisk, hurtling energy between three places and time periods. The first is a week before the evacuation, as Whitehead’s character and a multitude of other soldiers (including British singer and heartthrob Harry Styles) wait at the docks, trying to put men on boats and vainly struggling to dodge the strafing of German planes. The second time period takes place at sea a day before the evacuation, as a British private craft manned by a kindly civilian (reliably well-played by British national treasure Mark Rylance), his son and his young employee sails to Dunkirk. The last period takes place in the air one hour before the evacuation as British pilots (one played by Tom Hardy) fly to provide the evacuation with air cover. Dunkirk is the story of three different groups of men constrained to a limited view of war and all the more terrified for not knowing the bigger picture. Dunkirk is not the first war film about just trying not to die and it is not the first to argue that war is a hard thing to fathom when you’re in the middle of it. But it may be the only film I can name to make the claustrophobic scramble of surviving war feel this chaotic, merciless, and physically draining. Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s most purely sensory work. It is a wildly successful attempt to capture how time must feel within the metallic maelstrom of battle.


An easy way to illustrate the overall effect of Dunkirk would be to say that it extends the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan across an entire film. That’s frankly a little reductive and it ignores the fact that Dunkirk communicates some pretty rich ideas, but one cannot fully compliment the multi-faceted achievement of this film without pointing out that it is some of the most perfect action cinema ever captured. It is an absolutely beautiful, majestically assaultive action film. If Dunkirk were nothing but the most propulsive, maniacally tense, ingeniously crafted action film of the year, I would still feel a strong obligation to write about it and recommend it. One cannot take pure, visceral, heart-pounding cinema like this for granted. As an act of sheer, harrowing spectacle alone, it is one of the year’s most beautiful and intelligent works of art. And I say intelligent because it is not just that Dunkirk looks impressive or that it moves with astonishing power or that the sheer scope of the thing is jaw-dropping. There is also a keen sense of how great action cinema does more than pry open your eyes and assault your ears. Nolan has always had a shrewd understanding of how our fear sensors operate. He relishes not just the explosive moments, but the foreboding lulls right before something catastrophic happens. Before he sinks a carrier ship and sends it to the bottom of the sea, he watches two soldiers push nervously through the crowd to be closer to the door and holds on them anxiously looking at it. We shiver at the possibility that this ship could flood with water long before we see it happen. Before a vast swath of oily ocean goes up in flames, we have a moment to process that a group of shipwrecked soldiers are floating in it. Then a faraway voice screams, “Oil! You’re in oil!” This is action cinema so brutal and unrelenting that it becomes poetic in its fury . Dunkirk values an almost musical sense of pacing. To use an old cliché, this is the quintessential case of a director holding his audience in the palm of his hand. We tremble at coming down from the latest dreadful adrenaline rush because we know the film is only easing our anxiety so we will be vulnerable for the next moment of panic. Putting an experience like Dunkirk into words is futile, but the fact is that no movie made me feel a more elated sense of terror. And that elation does not mean that you don’t feel genuine empathy and compassion for the men going through this ordeal. But Dunkirk is so skillful at hooking an IV drip of adrenaline to your veins that it is impossible not to feel perversely enlivened in a mortified way. Nolan understands that the great heart-pounders need to do more than just throw sound and fury at the audience. You must also be continually setting up new payoffs. You must not neglect the fine art of making your audience wait. In Dunkirk, Nolan demonstrates an impeccable knack for laying down timebombs in one scene that will go off two scenes later.


And if the marvelous craft and precise timing of Dunkirk were not impressive enough, let me also join the chorus praising Nolan for making fruitful new use out of some of his oldest tricks. Dunkirk is not the first Nolan film to play with the concept of time as a kind of prison (Memento) or to place a story within a multi-tiered temporal structure (Inception). But I do not know that he has ever used the tricky, prismatic nature of time to more rigorously suspenseful effect. It is the reason that even those scenes where the gunfire dies down have an unbearable, suffocating dread to them. On a purely surface level, this device imbues the film with an urgency that is immediate and unbelievably bracing. From the moment Hans Zimmer’s timebomb of a score started its first metronomic ticks and two of our soldiers went racing down the beach with a stretcher, a knot formed in my stomach and a strange, nervous half-grin spread across my face. It was terrifying and unbearable and also undeniably exciting. I don’t know that I felt a more primal rush all year than when the gears of Nolan’s unforgiving doomsday clock started to turn and the film made its first rotation through the three tiers of time. Even as a purely superficial thrill ride, Dunkirk has a grimly entertaining sense of purpose. Fortunately, Dunkirk is not simply a dazzling piece of narrative machinery. What Nolan set out to do, by his own admission, is to use the cruel, rigid bars of these time structures to tap into the idea of war as a fickle, arbitrary, and incomprehensible game of survival. The soldiers on that beach do not know that civilian boats are days away from rescuing them or that some small amount of air support will rally to their aid in the nick of time or that a strategic gambit by Hitler and his generals will keep the Nazis from massacring them right where they stand. They only know this terrible moment and this wretched, doomed expanse of sand. Dunkirk takes the World War II story with one of the most famous happy endings and spends most of the film showing how, until that happy deliverance arrived, this place was a violent, forsaken hellscape. Dunkirk shows how time and our limited perspectives play potently off one another and how especially excruciating that must be in the context of war. It is a straightforward but powerful idea, and the devastating marvel of it all is how Nolan uses skillful physical acting, astonishing practical effects, and a tremendously effective plot structure to make you feel a trapped soldier’s dilemma in your bones. It is a simple enough thing to say that one intends to use temporal cross-cutting to convey the heightened fear and uncertainty of battle and quite another thing to pull it off with this level of precision, immersion, and even sneaky emotion. Any number of directors could have conceived of the kind of roaring engine needed to power a movie like this, but only someone with an exceptional grasp of pure, muscular filmmaking could have built it. Only a director with both an impeccable grasp of whiz-bang storytelling and an auteur’s sense of why that story needed to be told in that way could have built something this visually and sonically mesmerizing and quietly rich in ideas. Just as he did with The Dark Knight, Nolan has created a rousing, indecently thrilling popular entertainment that is also brutal, bruising, and exhausting.


And this astonishing onslaught almost never lets up for the entire 100 minutes. We are placed among a mass of men running around the trap of this surrounded beach with no inkling that help is coming and little time to do anything but run, hide, and pray that their next frantic stab at survival doesn’t lead them to a watery grave. And every now and then we return to Mark Rylance on his boat or Tom Hardy in his cockpit, mostly to remember that help is actually coming for these poor souls, and also to remember that those coming to the rescue are in no small amount of danger themselves. For all its relentless menace, Dunkirk does care about these people and about the unlikely triumph of this moment in history, and so we get some small ration of character and dialogue to keep us sated and sane. But, while I cannot begrudge anyone for wanting more humanity in this flurry of death, who these people are is so completely not the point of this film. To hear where the soldiers come from or which of them wants to go to university or to learn that Whitehead’s character wants to open a fish-and-chips shop in Brighton when he gets home would be utterly immaterial. It would be downright counter-intuitive to the film’s desperate, headlong momentum and to the greater points Nolan is making about war and survival. Dunkirk is an elemental film. It is rushing water and blazing fire and air whipping around the wings of fighter planes. It is tons of blackened earth flying high into the sky and crashing down around us. And it is human beings who have no choice but to become elements themselves. There is no choice but to hug the earth and plunge into the cold waters and become one with whatever part of this landscape isn’t exploding. And when our characters are not silently running, crouching and swimming from death, they are quietly moving toward other men in the hopes of finding some safety in small clusters. The men in Dunkirk behave like molecules. We do not find out if any of them have best girls at home because it does not matter, least of all to them in this moment. Nolan’s vision of war is beyond humanity, which maybe makes it sound like there is some truth to the critique that Dunkirk is too cerebral and efficiently  cold for its own good. But I would maintain that the sheer intensity of the thing is actually what makes it more human. It is a vision of how much war strips away from people. Nolan is a good enough director of actors that I never once thought of these men as bland cogs. One can read the bleak dehumanization of this ordeal on their grubby, blanched faces. The fear when the water rushes over their heads. In one of my favorite shots, a soldier narrowly avoids drowning and pops above the water just in time to hear an explosion go off above his head. He plunges immediately back under and throws his hands above his head with the teary frustration of a child. Where does one have to go to not die in war? What does one have to become? Can I just be a fish? Do men have to become waves? I look at this man’s frail, flailing terror and I find the humanity that some say the film lacks. But, if any viewer looks at these quiet, huddled men and cannot entirely make out a fully fleshed human being, that may say a lot on its own.


What makes Dunkirk the year’s most underrated film may be how it seems to exist in between so many polarities. I have heard some wave it away as being too traditional, just one more World War II drama in a cinema landscape full of them. I have heard others complain that this nerve-rattling action extravaganza was too atypical of what they seek in movies about this time and conflict. It did not give them enough of the heart-tugging prestige they expected from what is arguably the Great War’s most touching moment of human fortitude. Dunkirk is the year’s most idiosyncratic traditional film, and the year’s most inspirational art film. For much of the film men become part of an almost faceless tapestry, yet we also find time for weighty speeches about country, duty, and sacrifice. Zimmer’s score screeches and sneers and then gives way to lovely, swelling strings. Dunkirk is a phenomenally exciting blockbuster smash and also might be the most cerebral, austere war film since The Hurt Locker. It is a luscious, grand entertainment full of derring-do and it also watches in frozen horror as a ships full of screaming men sink to the ocean floor like metal tombs. It is pathos and blood-curdling terror, together and in proportions that we do not often see. There are few things more safely respectable than a World War II picture, yet somehow the one thing Dunkirk never becomes is safe. Even its final reading of Churchill’s famous speech feels like something strange and a little unhinged. It feels like both a sincere appreciation of valor and bravery and a haunted, knowing acknowledgment that all this rhetoric is probably stuff and nonsense. Dunkirk is a miraculous hybrid of lofty war drama, peerless action spectacle, and harrowing thriller. It oscillates between the three, perhaps because a tale like Dunkirk is just too messy to told in a single way. The lesson may be that seemingly straightforward stories like this are never as tidy as they are made out to be. Nolan is clearly proud to honor the people who were part of this rescue mission. He knows the value this miracle story holds for Great Britain and for people around the world. But he also knows that narratives come after the fact. It is natural for the living to tell stories of survival, but survival itself has little need of words.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #10- Good Time

Sixteen years ago, I was sitting in an Ethics and Religion class. I had enrolled to complete a few of the theology credits that were mandatory at my Jesuit undergraduate university, even for hopelessly damned Communications majors. I remember spending an afternoon discussing an idea that my professor termed, “The Gleam of Sin”. It could have also been “The Glow of Sin” or “The Allure of Sin”. What I remember is delving into the notion that there is a kind of radiant, sinister beauty in sinning itself that goes past just doing wrong to get something you want. If you were, say, a jewel thief engaged in a heist, the gleam or glow wouldn’t come from the rare diamond in the glass case, but from the stealing. There is an extra, intangible lure in the heist itself. The very act of doing the wrong thing can have its own kind of intoxicating sheen. And if you asked me to render this abstract ethical concept into visual terms, I honestly do not know that I could come up with a better evocation of shiny, eye-catching vice than just about every frame of Good Time. Josh and Benny Safdie’s (known to film enthusiasts as the Safdie Brothers) gritty, neon fever dream about one night in the life of an unrepentant, lowlife bank robber, as he tries to break his brother out of a prison hospital, places us in the front car on a pulse-quickening, nauseating rollercoaster of terrible decision-making. Along the way, it snaps a souvenir photograph of the viewer covering their face in disgusted shock and maybe also to hide the fact that all this ugly, flashy sin is perversely just a little invigorating. That is not to say that Good Time is a remotely pleasant experience in any conventional sense of that word. But, like riding the most horrifyingly rickety ride at a two-bit carnival or popping a ball of wasabi into your mouth on a dare, the film has a canny sense of the sickly thrill of dangerous choices, and it makes us voyeurs to that dark fixation in the human soul. What is most remarkable is that the film achieves this as both a tautly visceral piece of cinema and as a terrific, magnetically queasy character study. Good Time is a litany of self-destructive, wantonly sinful behavior, so it stands to reason that it needs a sinner.


The character arguably most important to Good Time spends the majority of the film offscreen. Nonetheless, his is the first face we see and his fate sets the major arc of the story into motion. He is Nikolas Nikas, a developmentally disabled man who looks to be in his early 30s (and very well played by co-director Benny Safdie, who, it should probably be said, has no mental disabilities in real life). He is sitting in the office of a psychologist who is asking him questions to test his understanding of complex ideas: metaphors, similes, word associations. The psychologist, a kind, somewhat frazzled older gentleman named Peter, asks Nik to explain the axiom, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” Nik does not understand the proverb. He stares for a beat and then mumbles that it just means you shouldn’t count your chickens. We learn that Nik may have had domestic trouble with his grandmother, who appears to be his caretaker. He seems to be a kind-hearted but emotionally turbulent young man. Nik is suspicious of this allegedly helpful man’s intentions and is bashful about his ability to provide sensible answers to the questions he is being asked. In short, he is the kind of person who needs a nurturing environment and it appears his home life has not entirely provided that for him. A patient, trained professional who understands his condition is probably what Nik needs. Unfortunately, this therapy session does not get to proceed very far. Only a few minutes in, the session is interrupted by Nik’s brother, Connie, a fast-talking, belligerent young man with wild eyes, greasy hairy, and an immediately apparent air of feral intensity. Connie scolds his brother for considering therapy, verbally accosts the psychologist for trying to take advantage of his vulnerable brother, and practically drags Nik out of the building. The therapist points to Connie and says, “Shame on you, sir. You are not helping.” As they leave, Connie points to another patient leaning semi-consciously against the wall and asks Nik indignantly if that is how Nik sees himself. Connie tells Nik he loves him and that the only help he really needs is his devoted brother by his side. And then the film immediately jumps to the two siblings clad in latex masks walking into a bank. Connie robs the bank for a small amount of money using only a notepad and the silent threat of Nik’s hulking presence. They make it out of the bank, into an alley to get rid of their disguises, and into the back of a getaway car. All the while, Connie is reassuring his brother, hugging him and praising him for being such a good, helpful accomplice. They sit in the car and then a fateful click sounds from the duffel bag full of money and the entire vehicle fills with a mist of fluorescent pink dye. The car crashes with rosy plumes billowing out of it and Connie and Nik flee on foot, stopping to wash off their faces in the restroom of a very ticked off Pizza Hut manager. They emerge back on to the street and into view of a police officer. Connie tries to play it cool, but Nik does not have his brother’s poise or the street smarts needed to override the alarm bells in his head. He tears off in a sprint with Connie running close behind him. Connie escapes, but Nik crashes through a sliding door and is arrested. He is taken to Rikers Island prison and then unconscious to Elmhurst Hospital when his temper leads him to get into a lopsided prison fight. And all of this comes in the opening 15 minutes of a very fleet-footed, adrenaline-charged 100-minute film. The rest of Good Time is about getting to know our main protagonist and sinner, Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson, in a performance so brilliantly intense and charismatically nasty that it instantly erased whatever reservations I once had about his talents), as he tries to free his brother, first by trying to raise bail and then by breaking him right out of a police-guarded hospital room. Without giving too much away, Good Time is a classic “one dark night of the soul” film, and while the film’s plot is driven by the quest to ostensibly rescue poor, battered, incarcerated Nik Nikas, the tar-black soul we spend this ghoulishly stressful night peering into belongs to Connie. The film is about watching one of the most wily, reckless, foolish, infuriating ne’er-do-wells to ever appear on screen as he attempts to do his version of a good deed. Over the course of one tense, hellacious night, that good deed will involve deception, jailbreak, mistaken identities, battery, impersonation, drug-dealing, breaking and entering and an endless stream of slick double-talk. Good Time moves quickly and in sporadic jerks, which has the virtue of not only making it a masterclass in energetic anxiety, but also an exact reflection of Connie himself. Good Time is about following a character who has an uncanny knack for survival and improvisation and precious few other decent human qualities, apart from a deep love for his brother and an oily charisma that he seems pathologically incapable of using responsibly. At one point, he puts the moves on an underaged girl just so she won’t notice his face on the nightly news. Connie Nikas is quite simply a phenomenal screen creation. He is a shrewd urban coyote of a man. He gives off a bouquet that is equal parts cheap cologne and flop sweat. He is a man forever see-sawing between his impeccable capacity for escaping disaster and the bottomless depths of his selfishness and deplorable decision-making. I am fascinated by this man, but I did not for a second like him. A word like “anti-hero” would probably be a bit too complimentary for Connie. He is not to be liked and he really doesn’t need to be. All that matters is that the fate of Nik Nikas, a wholly sympathetic character, rests entirely on the success of Connie’s galling, destructive, unnervingly shaky song and dance.


And I will reiterate that the thing Good Time does to absolute perfection is to become an unflaggingly propulsive character study. “Propulsive” and “character study” are words not often seen together, but Good Time lives in a beautifully disorienting realm between the two. It is filled with both jagged intensity and a feeling of intimacy for the people on screen. In its headlong rush of stomach-knotting momentum, its nearest 2017 rival is Dunkirk, which is decidedly not a character study. To watch Good Time is to understand what it must feel like to be Connie Nikas, a man perpetually in the midst of a steadily worsening crisis. He is too wily to completely fall down and is always in too deep to ever fully catch himself, and so he exists in a frantic limbo of plotting his next skin-saving tactic while looking over his shoulder to see if the consequences of his last impulsive ploy are catching up to him. Like the character, the film lives on a razor’s edge of disaster delayed and never entirely averted. It is antsy and raw and always stumbling frantically toward its next plot turn, like a doomed con man with no choice but to keep hustling on toward some unforeseeable deliverance. The editing feels breathless and kinetic, even in moments where we are simply watching two characters talk. The brilliant score by electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never is a thing of angular, pulsating beauty. The clashing of shadows and bright colors on screen mixes desperation and a fool’s kind of hope. The neon lights that shine down on Connie and his sinful, violent journey provide some illumination in the darkness, but they are scarcely a relief. The images in Good Time have a wild, insomniac quality to them. The colors are pretty in a harsh way. The lights that flare and flicker through the dank New York City alleys are not the light at the end of any tunnel. They only exist to keep Connie awake, moving, and mindful that he has miles to go before he sleeps. Good Time is, if nothing else, the year’s most abrasive film, from the demonic quality of its nightscapes to the shattering mirror ball of its synth score to its world of worn out people living along the gloomy periphery of a foreboding city. Connie is a relentlessly vulgar man and he is soon joined by a drugdealer (energetically played by Safdie Brothers collaborator Buddy Duress) who matches Connie’s seediness and far surpasses him in raucous bluster. And those characters not howling out loud in strife have a weathered, quietly defeated quality to them. I don’t honestly think the Safdies see the entire world as being this ugly and fatigued, but I think this is what it’s like to live in Connie’s world. It is a world of jaded bail bondsmen, angry mothers, and girlfriends clinging tightly to frail, forsaken dreams. This place is filled with pushers and impoverished tenants and sunken faces halfway through their third consecutive graveyard shift at the hospital. This is a blazingly dynamic, indecently suspenseful, ominously colorful carnival ride along the bleakest track that wee hours New York City can provide


And as thrilling as all that is in a kinetic human trainwreck sort of a way, I would probably hesitate to recommend Good Time so enthusiastically if it was only offering hypnotic despair for its own sake. What gives the film a much needed soulful kick are its fleeting glimpses of humanity’s better angels. I think of a moment early in the film when Connie tries to scrounge some bail money from his girlfriend (played potently in a sharp, two-scene performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh). When her mother’s credit card is declined, she calls up her mother and wails, “I just wanted to do a good thing for someone!”. In that moment, I could see the full human capacity for sin and redemption that runs like a seam through the movie. The pathetic folly of trying to use this parent’s card to bail her shifty boyfriend out of a jam. The fallible sadness of that failed gesture and also the noble desire to do good in this world, butting up against each other in that single moment. Good Time is a great look into the soul of a very lost, sinful man, but it is simultaneously more hopeful and more emotionally bruising because it does not take place in a world devoid of human decency. The New York City of this film is not simply a den of wicked vipers, but a world of frail, painfully recognizable human beings; of people struggling, striving, falling down and every so often helping each other back up. We see a number of people offer small acts of kindness to Connie, even as we suspect some of them may be barely holding themselves together. As this dark, hallucinatory roller coaster careens through the inky night toward its final destination, it does periodically zip past traces of real light. Not the unending neon kind that buzzes artificially in the grimy darkness of Connie’s nocturnal odyssey, but the light of basic humanity. And if there is grace to be found in this frenetic panic attack of a film, it is in the notion of providing some small bit of help to another person, even if that person is a reckless scoundrel.


Of course, the funny thing is that Connie sees himself as one of those helpful people. At the film’s opening, he sabotages a therapy session because he sees his mentally impaired brother as being above that kind of help. “You,” says the mortified therapist, “are not helping.” Instead, Connie takes his brother to rob a bank. And I do believe that Connie truly believes himself when he says that what his brother needs is just him. They may be engaged in a serious crime, but Connie sees that crime as a necessity and at least they’re doing it together as brothers. Being with his doting, wiser brother who loves him whole-heartedly: that is helping. Until it lands Nik in prison and Connie decides to break him out because that is now helping. And if I’ve so far painted Connie as the immovable object of amorality in this story, I will now say that Good Time’s frail, flickering candle of hope for the good in people does extend even to this aggravating, prideful, floundering cur of a man. But I think the key to Connie’s fragile, tentative redemption rests on him becoming honestly aware of the kind of man he is. In a ragged but hopeful ballad over the closing credits, Iggy Pop sings, half in a croon and half in an exhausted croak, “The pure always act from love. The damned always act from love.” The point is that love alone is not necessarily enough to justify our actions. For as rotten and uncouth as he is, Connie’s scenes with Nik leave no doubt that he has a bottomless love for his brother. But if you are an irresponsible, selfish person, the love you give will be in some way a product of those baser traits. Love is not entirely immune from the less savory emotions roiling inside of us, and it is dangerous to pretend that our genuine care for a person will prevent us from ever doing harm to them. Part of Connie’s arc is about trying to figure out how to not only act from love, but to do so in a way that actually produces a loving outcome. And learning to do that can be a complex process, even for those of us who do not knock over banks for a living.


Good Time is a film of inexhaustible, frenzied momentum, but we reach a moment at the film’s end where that falls away. The white hot glare of Connie’s viewpoint finally relents for a moment and the film takes on a quality that is less showy and kinetic. This film that has spent most of its runtime with battery acid coursing through its veins finally feels still. I imagine someone like Connie would find this stillness suffocatingly drab. But after ninety minutes handcuffed to Connie, this sudden lull also feels like a relief. It is like a cool glass of ice water running down our throats after a night of consuming nothing but cigarette smoke and everclear. And I believe it is meant to feel peaceful and maybe just a little bit uncomfortable as well. For someone used to the furious pitch of a fast-paced criminal lifestyle, this must be what that arduous process of going straight feels like. The tedium of beginning to build a healthy life and seek real help with our demons must feel both comforting and frighteningly alien when you have spent years living in the caustic strobelight of a person like Connie Nikas. There is no scintillating sheen to making better daily decisions for ourselves or talking about our issues. “The Allure of Stability” is not a term of art, as far as I know. There are no vibrant neon lights along this path; only crisp, clear daylight, which can seem blinding when you have been ducking through dark alleys for so long. Good Time is a film that runs through a gritty, fetid gauntlet of chaos and vice, and then it emerges out of the night into a sunny dawn that feels disorienting in its own way. Our protagonist stands frozen, timid as a deer and uncertain of where this new road will lead him. And then, finally, he takes a few blessed steps forward and walks warily but hopefully toward a human kind of salvation.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #11- Dawson City: Frozen Time

Dawson City: Frozen Time is a documentary that packs in a lot of raw information, and I would say that conservatively 95% of that information is conveyed through informational title cards. It’s the kind of screen text that you see used at the beginning and end of historical films or used sparingly in your typical documentary. But in Bill Morrison’s hushed, poetic look at the history of a tiny Alaskan town established during the Yukon Gold Rush, informational title cards run throughout the entire two-hour duration. This technique is just one of many unusual facets in what is the most unique documentary fllm to come out in years. The first title card scarcely prepares us for the many directions this singular film will take, but it could well be the film’s mantra. It reads, “Film was born of an explosive.” What follows is a brief account of how the early, extremely combustible nitrate film was developed using gun cotton, the same ingredient used in warheads. Title cards tell us that the only element separating nitrate film from a weaponized explosive device was camphor. As a result, the early days of cinema were often marked by fiery disaster, as film prints could and often would burst into flames at a moment’s notice. One of the earliest film screenings burned down Paris’ Bazar de la Charite and claimed 126 lives. “Film was born of an explosive.” It’s an enigmatic way to open a film about a remote former gold mining town, but Film happens to be where this documentary’s journey begins and ends. Before Dawson City traverses dreamily through the closing decade of the 19th century and the first seven decades of the 1900s, it picks up in 1979. In the small Alaskan tourist town of Dawson, a local pastor and alderman was using a backhoe to assist in a construction project. He was clearing rubble from the site where the town’s athletics facility once stood in order to make way for a new recreation center. Among the debris, he found hundreds of canisters of old nitrate films that had been buried beneath a former swimming pool and hockey rink. These films had survived for decades underground, sealed in a layer of permafrost. Dedicated archivists and curators came to Dawson City and discovered a massive supply of 1900s film reels just sitting there in the cold dirt. They included many lost silent films, old newsreels, and even footage of the infamously thrown Black Sox World Series of 1919. What unfolds in Dawson City: Frozen Time is not only the history of a tiny town between 1893 and 1979, but also a hypnotic vision of American history and early cinematic history, interweaving with each other and almost entirely underscored by a visual collage of moving images from those 533 rescued nitrate films. For as many films as were rescued, however, the greater point is how many more thousands of nitrate films have been lost through the years; to decay, to water damage, and especially to fire, for fire is a relentless, recurring character in Dawson City. Film was born of an explosive. It’s a fact that paints Film itself as a kind of mischievous willing accomplice in its own destruction. From the very start, it was in the nature of Film to go up in flames. To put it another way, Film is an unstable element. Much as we human beings may try to make a record of the past, the materials we use to make that record, be they celluloid, paper, or canvas, are always falling apart. Or, in the case of early nitrate films, exploding into giant, raging infernos. At the heart of Bill Morrison’s passionate, wistful, operatically nostalgic documentary is an elegiac ode to the futility of trying to hold on to the past. It is about the Sisyphean struggle to corral and preserve the past, through Art and through our efforts to group a teeming multitude of divergent stories into some clean form that we can call History.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is the story of how a remote town in Alaska’s Yukon Territory came, though sheer happy accident, to house and shelter a vast, lost library of old films. As a town on the edge of the Alaskan and Canadian wildernesses, Dawson had the fortune or misfortune to be the very last stop on the line of movie distribution, back when studios would send film prints through the country one town at a time. Once those films reached Dawson City, the studios opted just to let them stay there in forgotten exile, unwilling to shoulder the cost of having them shipped back to Los Angeles. The old films began to fill up the basement of Dawson City’s library and the town’s civic leaders were at a loss for what to do with them. Some were floated down the Yukon river and dumped into the frigid waters. Others burned up in various fires that struck the town’s theatres. And a lucky 533 films were buried as landfill under the lot where the town’s amateur athletics building once stood. The unceremonious burial and eventual rescue of those nitrate films is the documentary’s basic genesis and catalyst, but the film soon bursts from that spark into a much more expansive and detailed story. It is frankly too detailed a story to fully tell in this review, but the essence of Dawson City is how Dawson was established when gold was discovered there in 1896, spent a few years as the epicenter of the Yukon Gold Rush, fizzled out a bit when its fortune-seeking population moved on to other claims, and eventually settled in as a small but profitable mining town and site of historical interest. During its boomtown heyday, Dawson City became a vibrant tributary for thousands of travelers, many of whom would go on to become notable successes in business and in the world of art and entertainment. Jack London would base his novels on the experience of traveling to Dawson. Years before becoming a titan of Hollywood, a young Sid Grauman (who would build the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater) sold copies of Seattle newspapers in this frigid, isolated place. Charlie Chaplin was among the group of travelers to Dawson, and he would later base one of his most famous films, The Gold Rush, on his time in the Yukon. Years before they would find fame and riches, film directors, tycoons, and future cinema stars were all here, milling about together in the snowy wilds of Alaska. We even learn that Donald Trump’s family fortune got started when his grandfather set out for Dawson City and set up a successful brothel somewhere along the way. Dawson City: Frozen Time is the story of a tiny frontier town and its overlapping destiny with film history, entertainment history, and American history. Dawson City became known as much for its theatres, casinos, and dancehalls as its gold claims, as many made their fortunes simply by catering to the needs of the town’s prospectors. One man made thousands just by buying a single newspaper and charging crowds to hear news of the Spanish-American War. This makes Dawson City something of an early tidepool for America’s penchant for entertainment. As the dawn of Film arrives, Dawson City becomes a wider story of early 20th century American history. Dawson’s residents came to rely on the stream of movies and newsreels to connect them with a country that was rapidly changing, fighting labor disputes, building fantastic machines, going to war with Germany, and throwing baseball games. The films brought visions of science, exotic places, and explosions of technology to the frozen Yukon wilderness. One beautifully edited montage of rescued footage starts with a group of people racing, then introduces horses, and crescendos into an ecstatic torrent of automobiles, steamships, blimps, and aeroplanes. Dawson City is about History’s rushing rivers and smaller creeks intersecting and diverging. We see footage of large social movements and we follow the smaller events occurring in this little town. The infamous Wall Street bombing happens and Dawson City gets a new library. Bill Morrison’s wondrous, stirring film is about a tiny, snowy town that once saw a river of historical events and persons course through it, went back to being a humble little dot on the map, and eventually made history again for unwittingly preserving an important chunk of the past. The film is about the erratic river of History and the strange, fateful turns that it takes. It is also a film about Film; about how Film is at once a record of time, a product of its particular time, and is at the mercy of Time’s relentless forward motion. Dawson City: Frozen Time is such a unique documentary experience that words will almost certainly fail me. It is simply the most dreamlike time I had viewing a film all year. From the near total absence of human voices, to the alternatingly sweet and sadly plaintive tones of Alex Somers’ delicately powerful score, to the brilliant way Morrison uses archival photos and footage from the preserved films to act as a kind of silent visual narrator, Dawson City is the rare documentary that works on a hypnotic, almost subconscious level. It oscillates between feeling serene and quietly unsettling, and it becomes a strange, mesmerizing hymn to History and memory. It is a lovely lullaby to the past and also a soft dirge for what stays buried there. It looks through the tiny keyhole of a Yukon town and catches glimpses of things as enormous as the birth of modern America and the infancy of Cinema. It feels eternal, yet is chiefly about how very little lasts.

In trying to paint a portrait of modern American history through a dizzy swirl of facts and disparate cinematic snippets, Dawson City says something resonant about the complexity of trying to piece together a narrative. The story of who we are, as a country, as residents of a town, or just as people living in a particular time is a hazy mirage, and what the smoky reverie of a film like Dawson City implies is that no one person’s take on a story is definitive. One of my favorite sequences takes place at the opening of the film. Before we even see our first title card, we get an excerpt of Bill Morrison presenting the discovered footage on High Heat, a baseball-related television program hosted by popular sports broadcaster, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo. Russo, in his excitable, high-pitched New York accent, is gushing about the found footage of the 1917 through 1919 World Series games. And of course he would be, as that footage is a huge historical find for any sports history buff and Russo is the host of a show about baseball. But I think this scene is also an early clue to how we try to grapple with the steering wheel of narrative. Dawson City becomes a movie about the Yukon Gold Rush and Dawson and early 20th century American history and the birth of cinema. But before it becomes any of those things, it appears for a brief moment that this will be a film about the early days of baseball. And a film well could have been made just about the Black Sox footage. The point is that even the simplest of stories, such as the seemingly small tale of some film canisters found in an old Yukon town’s abandoned lot, can be chock full of new narrative directions. Every anecdote, no matter how straightforward, may point the way toward a hundred different anecdotes if we keep following the strand. Every story’s beginning is a river ready to break off into a dizzying number of tributaries. Dawson City toys with this idea again early on, when we learn of the Han-speaking people who used to live on the land and their leader, Chief Isaac. Chief Isaac is one of the first historical personages we meet and his introduction is a feint toward a direction that the film very consciously does not opt to take. Soon after, gold dust is found in Dawson and Chief Isaac and his people are forced off of their land. They are shuffled five miles downriver and fully out of the lens of what had been, for thousands of years leading up this point, their story. Our understanding of the past is thwarted by the erosion of knowledge on one side and by a paradoxical overabundance of knowledge on the other. History is constantly decaying and there is also simply too much to take in. There are so many voices that we absent-mindedly forget to record or callously choose to ignore. And to transition clumsily from marginalized perspectives back to the Great American Pastime, something of History’s erratic, fickle nature can be seen in a segment showing the three World Series. In 1917, a dominant and ascendant Chicago White Sox team won the World Series behind the talent of their beloved superstar “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. In 1917, the White Sox were a celebrated championship team and that was the story. The next year, the White Sox only made it to 6th place because Joe Jackson was serving at a shipyard in World War I. In 1918, the White Sox were a fallen giant, brought back to Earth by the capricious hand of War. The following year saw Joe Jackson return from service and the mighty 1917 White Sox roster was reunited. Baseball fans giddily prepared themselves for a heroic redemption arc. In October of that year, the White Sox would throw the World Series. In 1919, eight White Sox players, including Joe Jackson, would be found guilty of accepting bribes and would be permanently barred from ever playing the game again. From anointed heroes to World War I-era underdogs to reascendant icons to disgraces. History has a course all its own and we can little see where it will be even a year later. There is simply no telling when the river will veer from its present course and leave our tenuous understanding of where it was heading forever altered.


While there is a substantial amount of historical newsreel footage in Dawson City: Frozen Time, the most consistent visual accompaniment is its tapestry of scenes from early 1900s silent films. Working from the idea that factual narratives are not always as straightforwardly trustworthy as they appear, Morrison frees himself to find a great deal of truth in cinematic fiction. It would not be an exaggeration to say that his film relies as much on fictional images to tell the story as on real ones. When the film relates Dawson’s early days as a haven for gamblers, we see a staccato montage of roulette players, card cheats, and blackjack dealers, all pulled from the rescued silent movies. When the film comes to the point where the old films are buried in a landfill, quite possibly never to be seen again, we see old film shots of doleful, despondent, and concerned faces. I think what Dawson City is subtly saying is that our attempts to corral History will inevitably fall short, but we can actually find a lot of truth about ourselves in the fantasies we create. In some ways, our fictional art may hold just as much objective truth as our newsreels and photographs because people put so much of their inner selves into them. Even when we are looking at staged, melodramatic scenes that don’t directly match what is happening in the factual narrative, those images have an honest kind of subjectivity to them. Films reflect our feelings back at us. They spotlight our fundamental desires and zero in on our most visceral fears. Dawson City weaves the real history of this gold mining town together with moments from the films that played there to create a vibrant, kaleidoscopic version of reality. Silent stars throw doors open in rapid succession. Scenes of love ebb into scenes of jealousy and anger. At one point, when silent films first come to Dawson, a series of eager, fictitious audiences gaze back at the viewer. The human need to take things in, in the name of entertainment or in the name of trying to make sense of the world, is so universal that we even put audiences in our movies to watch us watch them. The juxtapositions in Dawson City: Frozen Time are striking, moving and feel all the more honest for their exuberant silent film theatricality. Facts are more fragmented and enigmatic than we like to admit and the grand fabrications of popular art have golden nuggets of pure truth hidden inside of them.


But, for all the ideas flowing through Dawson City, it is most intoxicating as a sonic and visual achievement. It is vibrantly intelligent and rich in ideas, but nothing compares to the powerful pull of its emotional current. It is rare to have a documentary that feels this lusciously, elementally sensory, and the overall sensation of seeing it is one that I cannot put into words. It’s the way Bill Morrison presents the facts, events, and personages of this sprawling story and lays them on top of a fascinating bed of film imagery, without any talking head explaining their significance or how they relate to one another. It’s the way the fictional and the factual work off of one another, sometimes in perfect harmony and sometimes in ambiguous tension. It’s the gentle, steady heartbeat of Alex Somers’ wondrously effective score. It’s the narrative motifs that emerge. Populations ebb and flow like the tides. Historical figures emerge, disappear, and then suddenly pop back up to make their mark on history. Some of the people we meet become icons and others are only vital within the smaller story of Dawson City. In a narrative where Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and Jack London all make appearances, the most important player in this film is probably just a town bank manager, who thought to bury some old film canisters under an abandoned hockey rink and unwittingly ended up preserving a big piece of history. It’s the way all these stories swirl around each other like wisps of smoke. It’s the way the film binds itself to the elements. Images of people, both fictional and real, trekking through the high drifts of snow. It’s fire after fire, as we hear of the many warehouses full of films that have went up in flames over the years. We learn that Dawson itself burned down once a year for the first nine years of its existence. It’s the unflagging fire that has devoured so much fragile human history and, in the case of those 533 films, it’s the ice and earth that preserved a small piece of it. And what emerges from all this sound and imagery is an impressionistic painting of what History itself might look like. Smoldering and water-logged and crackly and slipping away into beautiful, melancholy, discordant entropy. Bill Morrison could have simply made a documentary about film preservation or the Yukon Gold Rush or America in the early 20th century or even baseball, but what he has made instead is a nonsummative masterwork of the non-fiction form. It is a documentary as much about sensing History as it is about learning it. In making a film about how History is too elusive to see with undiminished clarity and too massive to take in all at once, Morrison has also crafted the perfect frosted glass aesthetic for that thesis. What may have started out as a small story about unlikely film preservation in a tiny Yukon tourist town ends up becoming an ocean in a teacup. In peering through a small window in American history, Dawson City manages to become a movie about humanity’s entire vain, gorgeously doomed attempt to rage against the finiteness of things. It is a film about a specific pocket of time but the struggle at its heart is timeless.


That struggle is mainly the attempt to gain some clearer understanding about ourselves and the world we live in. That is something that we look to Art to help us do, whether it is a non-fiction book giving us greater clarity into a chapter of History or a great film helping us glimpse something fundamentally true in the human soul. And, to be clear, I do not believe Dawson City: Frozen Time is roundly dismissing the act of parsing our collective past or saying that it is entirely futile. Any film that renders History in such a thoughtful, visually rich way must have some deep affection for the value of learning about what came before us. But this documentary does remind us that every golden nugget of time is an elusive, multi-faceted thing. The idea is not that humanity can never have any understanding of where it has been or where it is going, but that we would do well to remember that knowledge is a dense, refracting crystal. The truth of things can shift tantalizingly based on what corner of it we hold up to the light. It is not that there is no Truth, but that the nature of Truth is so brilliantly confounding that the process of looking over it is essentially never finished. Film was literally born of an explosive, but Dawson City sees History, Memory, Literature, and Art as being similarly prone to turbulence. All of knowledge is an incendiary, unstable element. Meaning can shift dramatically based on how we look at things and also depending on who is doing the looking. If there is a lesson to be taken, I believe it is that we should welcome a multitude of perspectives and that we should never fool ourselves into thinking we are done learning. But beyond any lesson, I think Dawson City is just reminding us that this is the way things are. To be alive is to both know things and also have that knowledge continually challenged and disrupted. The best thing you can do is to find some beauty in being mystified. If you don’t find yourself frequently confused, bewildered and awestruck, you probably aren’t doing it right.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #12- The Big Sick

The Big Sick is not a Judd Apatow film in the strictest sense. The film’s director is Michael Showalter, a writer, director and performer who came up on the 90’s sketch show The State (MTV’s very funny answer to Kids In the Hall), helped form the well-regarded Stella comedy trio, and has now directed a few features, including the creatively premised but middling romantic comedy The Baxter and 2015’s mildly well-reviewed Sally Fields dramedy Hello My Name Is Doris. The film’s credited screenwriters are two married comedians, Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Emily V. Gordon (a comedy writer and pop culture podcaster), and the story itself is an account of the early days of their relationship. The Big Sick is only an Apatow in the sense that Apatow acted as a mentor when Gordon and Nanjiani were fine-tuning the script and his production company, Apatow Productions, provided the financing. But, while Judd Apatow is probably not even the fourth person I would credit The Big Sick to, I am going to have to begin my review by talking about Judd Apatow. The reason for that is that The Big Sick fits so snugly into the wheelhouse of what the best Apatow films do well. At the risk of coming off like some kind of stunted, nerdy bro, The 40 Year-Old Virgin was a formative comedy experience for me. For context, I was 23 years old and there are few things more quintessentially Apatowian (Apatovian?) than having a formative experience at a stoner sexy comedy when you are old enough to have a spouse and a full-time job. But in all seriousness, the bracing mixture of human warmth and bawdy comedy moved me then and still does. When I was a teenager, the sex comedy was most visibly represented by the mean-spirited hijinks of the American Pie franchise and the copycats it inspired. These movies ostensibly had protagonists that we were mean to root for, but the aim always seemed more to see them go through a gauntlet of dumb humiliations. And I don’t want to be too harsh on dumb comedy here, because I can watch a good Farrelly Brothers (a good one, mind you) any day of the week. But I always felt that the American Pie’s of the world were just had cruel little souls. For all that Jim was the hero of American Pie, I never felt like his own film liked him all that much. Even as an awkward, sexually inexperienced teenager myself, I could not imagine actually identifying with Jim or wanting the best for him. The film’s sneering sense of mockery seemed to discourage anything resembling empathy. Having grown up with those films in the mainstream, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad were like fresh oxygen to this sensitive, humanism-loving movie buff. And now that maybe a little bit of the bloom has fallen from the Apatow rose and we’ve weathered our first patch of Seth Rogen fatigue, I have to defend what films like The 40 Year-Old Virgin meant, and still mean, to me. The idea that uproarious, profane, sexually frank films can be sweet and driven by empathy is a notion worth holding on to. That you can even have a character experience a funny bit of humiliation and still laugh with them because the character is given dignity, intelligence, and an awareness of their own ridiculous situation. Whatever quarrels one might have with the Apatow comedies, I maintain that they are comedies that genuinely like humankind and that matters tremendously to me. It means a lot to me as someone who just likes to see kind, relatable human beings in films. It also means a lot to me as someone who values sex-positivity, because having bawdy sex comedies with generous spirits allows us to laugh about sex in a way that is honest and curious rather than just crass. Most of all, I am in love with any film that can be both uproariously funny about the foibles and misunderstandings of human coupling and still genuinely want the best for those people.


All of that is to say, while giving credit to Showalter and especially Gordon and Nanjiani, that The Big Sick is the best kind of Apatow film. It not only hits comedic highs that are worthy of comparison with the funniest moments of Knocked Up and Superbad, but also manages to hit dramatic depths that are deeper than any of its Apatow predecessors have reached. The Big Sick is the true story of the courtship of Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, who met in 2006 at a Chicago standup comedy club where Nanjiani was performing a five-minute set. Gordon (who was completing her Masters to become a therapist at the time) shouts a supportive “woohoo!”, which gives Nanjiani an excuse to approach her at the bar under the guise of correcting her. He explains that heckles are heckles, even when done with positive intent, and the two are soon engaged in deep conversation about their plans and aspirations. They eventually go back to Kumail’s place to have sex and ignore Night of the Living Dead and they end the night intending to not get too serious. However, after proposing not to see each other again too soon, the two quickly fall into a pattern of spending every waking moment together, and before long they are in love. Soon after, however, their relationship has to withstand two potentially catastrophic obstacles. First, Nanjiani has serious trepidations about telling his strict Pakistani parents (played very well by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff), who insist he marry within a Pakistani woman like his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar in a funny and subdued performance). His mother is particularly insistent, regularly inviting young Pakistani women to “drop by” during family meals so they can meet Kumail and give him their photographs. This leads to disaster when Emily discovers the photographs and consequently learns the even more hurtful fact that Kumail has been hiding their relationship from his parents. As a result, Kumail and Emily end up having a very turbulent breakup and Kumail is resigned to the fact that he will probably never see Emily again. The second obstacle comes shortly thereafter when Kumail receives a call from one of Emily’s grad school classmates alerting him that Emily has come down with what appears to be a very nasty case of influenza and has been placed in the emergency room. Kumail arrives to check on her, only expecting to stay until a friend or family member can take his place. As fate would have it, he ends up being the only person present when the doctors come to a sobering discovery. Emily’s flu has turned into something far more serious, a mysterious infection in her lungs, and she will have to be put into a medically induced coma until they can figure out her ailment. One of Emily’s physicians urges Kumail to say that he is her husband so that they can sign off on the procedure before it is too late. Kumail agrees to sign off, calls Emily’s parents, Terry and Beth, to tell them the news, and then stays until they arrive. When he awakes to find them standing by Emily’s bedside, it is immediately clear that they know this is the young man who broke their daughter’s heart. As Kumail introduces himself, Beth (Holly Hunter, in a performance that juggles fiery anguish, caustic wit, and maternal warmth) tells him tersely, “We know who you are, Kumail.”. Nonetheless, Kumail stays with the Gordons long enough to learn more about Emily’s prognosis, until the genially awkward Terry (a hilarious, utterly revelatory performance by Ray Romano) makes it clear that he can go. Kumail initially does leave, but comes back moved by the feelings he still has for Emily and gripped by a desire to atone for the hurt his dishonesty and cowardice caused. So, after starting as a lovely, sweet, and eventually heartbreaking story of romance found and lost, The Big Sick becomes a different kind of relationship story: the nuanced, overwhelmingly poignant story of a man almost losing his new love to death and going through a harrowing experience with her parents. As that is happening, Kumail is trying to find the strength to come clean with his stern, traditional family about his aspirations to pursue a career in comedy and the fact that he is in love with a white woman. I could say more about the plot, but The Big Sick really is about getting to know these characters (none of them less than very well-acted) and being overwhelmed by the depths of its deeply felt humor and humanity. As with all the great Apatow films, the secret sauce here is a kind of improvised, non-programmatic direction. Scenes don’t simply perform their function and end, but malinger a bit to let the moments and characters breathe. I have personally always liked this loose, shaggy quality , but I do not begrudge anyone who feels the Apatow films could benefit from a bit more economy. That said, if you found Knocked Up too meandering, you will at least be pleased to find that The Big Sick is almost certainly the most focused film to have the Apatow name attached to it, all thanks to its doozy of a central concept. Having an actual matter of life and death at the center of this kind of comedy has a galvanizing effect on the usual loose-limbed, gangly humor. The pathos makes the film feel urgent and immediate even in its most hilariously digressive moments, and the frequent laughs come like sweet, cool breezes of relief in the face of the anxiety and dread that the main characters are coping with. And because this is clearly a film more driven by its plot and its jokes than by anything you could call thematically heady (a Judd Apatow essay film is something we will all just have to keep waiting for), I must proclaim that The Big Sick really is just a terrific story. It has the kind of joyful, unfussy plot that has the good sense not to get in its own way.

Then again, I just wouldn’t be true to my nature if I didn’t point out a theme or two, and The Big Sick wouldn’t be such an unexpectedly moving addition to the romantic comedy genre if it didn’t have some real thoughts on its mind. One way that The Big Sick adds even more resonance to an already powerful plot is by seamlessly folding in one of the most moving, well-observed looks at the experience of being an immigrant in America. Kumail’s identity as the son of Pakistani parents has a tremendous impact on the plot of the film, while also being intrinsically valuable as a lovingly candid window into his culture. Apatow himself has said that he, Nanjiani, Gordon, and Showalter all felt a lot of good would come just from the simple act of placing a Pakistani immigrant family on screen and just letting them be funny and human. The Big Sick touches on what it means to be Middle Eastern in our current American climate, and if it is not a searing indictment of xenophobia, it achieves something powerful just by allowing Kumail Nanjiani (a terrifically funny and gently disarming comedic presence) to tell a story with great, fully developed Pakistani-American characters. It is quite positive enough just to give voice and a moving narrative to a culture we do not often see on screens. But as with everything else in The Big Sick, the moving and the funny are very much in sync. The most heartening fact to me is that we now have a splendid comedy where Pakistani culture plays a pivotal role. The benefit of making a blissfully funny comedy about an underseen culture is that great comedy has a unique capacity to knock down irrational phobias and ignorance. Nanjiani’s approach, both as a comedian and now a screenwriter, is to use his humble, self-effacing, and gently mocking comedic voice to simultaneously zero in on the peculiarities of his cultural back ground and to brush away the mystery and misconceptions surrounding it. I am happy for any film that gives us a view into another culture’s customs and unique social mores, but I am especially glad that this year gave me the chance to learn about a marginalized culture through a comedy this consistently side-splitting and humane. Once you have laughed, not simply at but with characters from a different culture, it becomes all the more difficult to think of them in an otherized way. As with so many Apatowian comedies, I left The Big Sick having gotten to know a whole host of relatable, fallible, spontaneous, funny people, but this time four of those people were lovingly drawn, well-observed characters of Pakistani descent and I cannot overstate the value of that basic act of representation. When it was over, I felt I knew an entire family of idiosyncratic, prickly, unique individuals with distinct personalities and aspirations. And even if you happen to be one of those filmgoers who think that the Apatow comedies meander and spend too much time just hanging out, I hope you will forgive that indulgence in this one case. Hollywood invites people like the Nanjianis to just hang out much too rarely.


The Big Sick is not only an observant look at a Pakistani family, but something of a sweet love letter to family in general. One of my favorite things about the narrative structure of this film is how it spends well over running time not on the dating between the two main characters, but on the interactions between Kumail and Emily’s parents. In a way, one could argue the main romance of the film really is the one that develops between Kumail and the new family he realizes, almost too late, that he wants to be a part of. The interplay between Nanjiani, Hunter, and Romano is a subtle master class of humor, tension, worried fatigue, and guarded hope, all butting up beautifully against one another. While Emily is conscious, Kumail is constantly balking at the prospect of meeting Emily’s parents, worried that he will then have to reveal her to his own family. And you can chalk this up to the fact that it really happened, but it adds a poignant dimension to the film that he ended up finally meeting them in this peculiar way, in these harrowing circumstances. So The Big Sick really is two romances: a sweet love story between a man and a woman and an entirely different kind of love story between that same man and his paramour’s family. It is about coming to love someone more through learning about the people who raised them. And while The Big Sick is too light on its feet to belabor or underline this point, the wide shadow of parents and family is a consistent emotional motif. The film becomes a beautiful meditation on the conflicting emotions that family brings out. The need to love our parents, repay their sacrifice, and also find a way to define ourselves outside of them. And what makes The Big Sick such a smartly plotted film is how the interactions with Emily’s parents, which Kumail conceals from his own family, give him insights in how to think about and interact with his own mother and father. It is through spending time with Beth and Terry that Kumail starts to see his parents with more dimension than he once did. During a night of bonding. as Kumail and Emily’s parents fight off their dread with bottles of wine, Beth explains to him how her North Carolina family hated her now-husband for many years. Kumail doesn’t tell Beth his fear that his own mother will disown him over loving Emily, but he asks her how she got over that familial obstacle. How did she make it work? “Lots of fucked up dinners,” she replies in that perfectly tart, winningly direct Holly Hunter way. This conversation plants the seed of Kumail’s growing courage to own up to his love for Emily. It stokes the grit to rebel against his parents. But the same conversation also makes him reflect on his love for them. As Beth talks about how she and Terry fell in love, Kumail realizes that he never found out what movie his mother and father saw on their first date. It was a question he had somehow never thought to ask them. Kumail starts out nervous and afraid of the Gordons; first fearful to meet them and then ashamed for hurting their daughter. But the lovely arc of the film is his decision to summon some trace amount of courage and stay with them through the ordeal; to own up to the hurt he caused Emily but to also assert himself. In finding the will to speak plainly to the Gordons and to also listen to them, he learns something valuable about parents. They are not crutches to depend on, nor tyrants to grovel before, nor ogres to be feared. Parents are just people and, even when they don’t see eye to eye with you, the right thing to do is to love them, listen to them, and also be yourself. To proceed stalwartly on your own journey, while also having empathy and curiosity for where their journeys have taken them.

And if there’s a third message to be gleaned in this delightfully funny film, I think it’s just about basic courage. And honesty. And standing up for one’s choices. If you group all those ideals together, I think what you end up with is that word so beloved by my late grandfather: gumption. It could scarcely be an Apatowian comedy, if a character didn’t have to stare down his growing pains and make the hard, fruitful decision to grow and change into their own version of an adult. And when I look at this wooly, lovable dramedy through the lens of gumption, it does start to attain its own shaggy kind of thematic coherence. Moving to a new country or a new city, committing to our first serious relationship and forming new bonds with our loved one’s loved ones, and redrawing old boundaries with the people who have known us all our lives. They all require self-determination, self-belief, and the summoning of our will power. They are what you need if you want to build a new life, and I really do think The Big Sick is about the first steps people take toward building a new life for themselves. To do so, we must make ourselves understand and believe that the pains of changing will be outweighed by the rewards to come. And if growth, change, maturity, and committing to a new course are all common tropes in the Apatow canon, I am not sure they have ever felt so thoughtfully reflected in every atom of the narrative as they have here. I must reiterate that The Big Sick is a consistently hilarious comedy before it is any kind of rigorous examination of stasis and transformation. But when I was done laughing until my sides hurt, what kept me warm for days afterwards was recalling how many kind-spirited, generous, and honest lessons this film offers about doing the right thing.


What I love most about The Big Sick probably just comes down to how lovely its tone is. Michael Showalter is not a director of any remarkable pyrotechnic skill. There is nothing remotely flashy in the film’s approach, and if I were judging on direction and editing alone, The Big Sick would not be anywhere near this high on my year-end list. But while it may lack anything formally impressive, The Big Sick is a film with a rather wonderful, understated sense of tone. It is the kind of tone that can have you feeling genuine pangs of sadness and concern for a character at the same time that you are audibly howling at the world’s best 9/11 joke. And for as much as I try to celebrate films that push the needle forward visually, sonically, and ideologically, there are also films that achieve their power through an invisible emotional undercurrent. When you get a film that can combine a wide gamut of emotions and make that blend feel seamless and intuitive, that is something special. To me, it is a skill every bit as worthy of praise as capturing a difficult shot or editing together a perfectly propulsive montage. I turned off The Big Sick with the deepest affection for all of its characters. I had experienced elation, dread, and sorrow. I had learned about a different culture and thought about the bonds of family. I had felt rich laughter rippling around uneasy knots in my stomach. And to me that is a magic trick all the more satisfying confounding for not being easy to visually identify. Like the very best films I saw this year, The Big Sick served me an impeccably mixed cocktail of humor, pathos, cultural insight, and conflict. It was a sweet beverage with subtle bitter notes and it sent me tripping back into the world with a damp, happy face. I stood in the warm, fading sunlight, buzzed, giddy, and ready to fall in love with humanity all over again.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #13- Mudbound

I will start by begging preemptive forgiveness for anything awkward, inelegant, or, God forbid, downright problematic that I might write in this review. As I have said before, in fractious times such as these, I pray for films that stare down injustice, thrust oppressed perspectives into the foreground, and force us to engage with how we can do better by our fellow human beings. And I pray for such films for the very same reason that I often tremble at reviewing them. What often makes films like those brilliant is their ability to shine a floodlight on the comfortable status quo, and the comfortable status quo is certainly what I am. If I am watching a film with righteous power and scathing social insights, there is a very good chance that my own failings are right there in the crosshairs, staring back at me like shifty rodents. My privileged background, my protected skin color, my roundly accepted sexual orientation, and my own complicit cowardice. And if a film like Mudbound were not already eloquent enough at exposing the daily benefits I enjoy, then writing a review of this honest, ravishingly poetic portrait of America’s racial divide will surely finish me off. Allow me to strike the first blow against myself by presenting an inherently problematic idea. Art can be a Trojan Horse for just, humane ideas. It was a thought I remember having when I watched Ryan Coogler’s Creed a few years back. The immensely talented young black filmmaker set out to make the latest entry in the Rocky franchise and, as far as I’m concerned, gave the series its clear best film. I sat and watched the film with an enthralled, mostly white crowd in Danville, California, close to where I grew up. And, to be fair, I had no idea what any of the audience’s thoughts on race were, or their views on any particular social movement, or whether they considered racism to be a pressing modern day crisis. But I thought of Roger Ebert’s theory on movies as empathy machines and I watched a crowd of happy, enthusiastic, damp Caucasian faces leave the theater thoroughly moved by the story of a young black man coming to grips with his familial history and finding a reason to be proud of himself. And, please pardon my cynicism, but I do not think that even a quarter of those people would have been there to meet Adonis Creed and have that positive movie experience if the film was not part of a famous, popular boxing franchise. The Trojan Horse of a rousing, well-reviewed sports movie had smuggled in a sweet, frank, observant black coming-of-age story and slipped it under the guard of people who have likely not shown up just to see a young African-American man learning discipline and self-love as he becomes an adult in a new city. And now I am literally blushing with embarrassment for what I have just suggested. Because I know in my soul that this Trojan Horse theory is (and there is no better word) a fucked-up notion. Black narratives deserve to be told, and not just the ones that are charming and life-affirming, and certainly not just the ones that are agreeably packaged. It goes without saying that we should not need to sneak ideas about the dignity and self-worth of African-Americans in to the mainstream under the disguise of film tropes that are more traditional, palatable, or generally popular. But, with all that said, the bones of old standbys and reliably well-liked genres are there for any filmmaker who wants to use them. To sneak insights and new perspectives past our privileged guards. To get around our blinders and reinvigorate our empathy. To fool us into engaging with our better angels, the same way you might fool an infant into eating its peas. And it’s all very unfortunate that such measures are necessary, but I am glad that such measures exist. I do think this ability to place critical ideas inside a popular form of storytelling is a large part of the genius of Dee Rees’ Mudbound. Rees is an African-American woman and one of a few directors in 2017 to make rigorous, beautiful, compelling films about the experience of being black in America. Rees’ film is very upfront in being about racial disparities, but it dresses itself in the disarming classical finery of the old-fashioned Hollywood epic film. Rees knows that Americans have always had a soft spot for the prestige and massive scope of a big, lush period piece, and she has created the very best big, lush period piece since at least 2016’s Sunset Song.


Based off of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name, Mudbound is the story of two families of sharecroppers tending to the same muddy plot of land in rural 1940s Mississippi. One family is black, the other is white, and we get to know all of their members very well over the course of two hours and fifteen minutes. The black family is the Jacksons, lovingly overseen by its gruff, kind patriarch, Hap (played exquisitely by Rob Morgan). Hap is a man constantly protecting the flame of his dignity from the howling wind of Mississippi bigotry; a man wo has learned to weather the ever-present racism of this corner of the world but has never felt right or easy about the stooping it demands. His wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige, in a quietly lovely, sensitive, Oscar-nominated performance) feels as wounded as Hap does about the sacrifice and soul-sapping compromise of surviving this time and place, but she moves with this treacherous landscape with a kind of understated grace. Florence is a figure of both beautiful strength and sad resignation, focused on the safety and well-being of her family and acutely aware that shepherding them through this cruel country will require a daily denial of herself. The Jacksons have been diligently working their rented patch of land for decades, hoping to one day purchase it, when their white co-tenants, the McAllans, arrive. The head of the household is Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke, doing fine, solid work in what is probably the film’s most thankless role), a stubborn, taciturn company man who has uprooted his wife and infant daughter from their quiet, suburban lives to pursue a dream, or more truthfully a sudden whim, of becoming a farmer. His wife, Laura (a very strong performance that only looks effortless because it’s coming from Carey Mulligan), insists that she never knew anything of her husband’s agrarian aspirations. Their marriage seems to be one built more on material need and mutual companionship than on any real sense of love. It certainly does not seem to be built on communication. Laura is a woman of some sensitivity and culture, which leads her to have a much deeper bond with Henry’s charismatic, university-educated younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, originally of Tron fame). Hedlund here sheds all of his handsome lunkhead persona to give one of this phenomenally acted film’s two best performances. The film’s most poignant and perfectly acted character is the Jackson family’s eldest son, Ronsell (Jason Mitchell, who has already been terrific as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton and seems to only be hitting his stride). Ronsell and Jamie spend at least half of the film separated from their respective families, as both volunteer to fight overseas in World War II, Jamie as a bomber pilot and Ronsell as a tank commander. Finally, there is Henry’s despicable, seething bigot of a father, Pappy (the great Jonathan Banks, of Breaking Bad fame), who Henry has invited to live with them, to the utter dismay and disgust of his wife. Pappy is an irredeemable, unrepentant open sewer of hate and hurt, unflagging in his contempt for any non-white person and incapable of the slightest show of warmth or mild fondness toward his long-suffering family. The main thrust of the film are the parallel, diverging, and dovetailing stories of this large ensemble. The story begins in earnest when Henry shows up at the doorway of a nice single-story house in town, telling the confused owner that he gave a man $200 for an oral agreement to purchase the property. As fate would have it, that man immediately sold the house to the man now standing in the doorway and hastily left town, leaving Henry with no deed, no house, and $200 less to his name. “You got swindled,” Pappy sneers at him. With scan options and very little money, Henry moves his family out to the Jacksons plot to sharecrop there. Henry McAllan makes his introduction by interrupting the Jackson family’s dinner and coercing Hap into helping him unpack in the middle of the night, while a not remotely grateful Pappy glares at him through suspecting eyes. And while there is a great deal of plot that unfolds in dense, rich detail, the film is really just the story of how all these people coexist and drift around each other’s orbit. Mudbound is chiefly the story of these two poor families with different skin colors, eking out a meager existence in the nation’s most racist state in the years during and immediately following the Second World War. Eventually, Jamie and Ronsell come home from battle and rejoin the main narrative, bringing with them an understanding that the fascist battlefields of 1940s Germany are more turbulent and in some ways more hospitable than the farmlands of the 1940s American South. And this very detailed synopsis, or more pointedly the fact that it does not even begin to sum up the film, should give you a sense of what a full-throated, staggeringly epic film Mudbound is. It may sound daunting, and I will concede that I finished both my viewings emotionally spent. But what I want to convey is just how soulful, heartfelt and alive Mudbound is; how filigreed it is with color, sound, dialogue, poetry, and richly observed characters.


I would like to revisit the notion of the artistic Trojan Horse and temper it a bit where Mudbound is concerned. Because it is not quite right to say that Dee Rees is using the historical epic to disguise her interest in racial strife. Anyone who reads that Mudbound involves a family of black sharecroppers in 1940s Mississippi and does not expect to encounter the issue of racism probably needs to refamiliarize themselves with American history, or Mississippi history at the very least. It’s not that the trappings of the big, beautiful historical epic really hides any of the issues that Rees is confronting. It is more accurate to say that the sensory pleasure of watching Mudbound and being transported to its time and place is so exquisitely mounted that it becomes something of a mandatory viewing experience for anyone who just enjoys a lavish, meticulously curated historical drama. Mudbound is not quite the longest film on my year-end list, but it is certainly the one that feels the most overwhelmingly detailed. Like last year’s Sunset Song, its epic Irish cousin, part of Mudbound’s accomplishment is in making the dust and grime of an arduous agrarian lifestyle look so ruggedly beautiful. Moreover, it is an honest kind of beauty. The images of flooded fields and green trees popping against the dark brown landscape and every possible shade of that titular mud are all gorgeous, but in a way that never lets you forget how taxing it must have been to hoe and till and hack at this stubborn land. And the wealth of detail only begins with Rachel Morrison’s (the first woman ever nominated for a Cinematography Oscar) lusciously stark lensing. Those stunning images take place in a vast, unfurling tapestry of a story, populated by no less than six major characters, each of whom stake their claim to being the film’s key protagonist. I am wary of overusing the word “novelistic”, but it is not simply an accurate descriptor for Mudbound; it is the essential adjective. Mudboundis a film to give words like “dense” and “overwhelming” a good name. It is a hearty cinematic meal, to be sure, but it does not feel bloated or stretched thing, the way so many of its historical epic brethren do. It proceeds patiently, but each scene, beat, and frame feels immediate. In rewatching Mudbound, I took so much time noting poetic turns of phrase that I would momentarily forget to not its lovely frames and saturated color palette. Then, when I stopped to feebly try to write something about the grit and grandeur of the images, I would struggle to capture the vividness of its lyrical, powerful screenplay. Very little time passes over Mudbound’s 135 minutes when it is not simultaneously one of the most splendidly composed and sumptuously written films of the year. At a certain point, I had to limit my note-taking and just trust my memory to do its humble best. To fully honor its shots, I would need a giant coffee table photography book. To fully capture its florid, soulful writing, I would essentially have to rewrite its script. The only true way to experience the splendor and immense emotional undertow of Mudbound is to take it in with your own eyes and ears.


All this lovely detail, both visual and verbal, enables me to sincerely applaud Mudbound as the vwery best kind of grand, sprawling, old-fashioned film. It’s the kind of epic they scarcely make anymore and that were rarely made with such vibrant detail when they did make them. But Mudbound is also a thematically rich work, which gives it a kind of cerebral heft that is even more rare in the prestigious historical dramas that are its contemporaries. The themes of Mudbound largely fall into a discourse between the nation that binds us together and the persistent racial prejudice that overpowers that sense of national unity. The idea of unity is represented through the notion of mud, dirt, and land, which are constant motifs throughout the film. Mudbound opens with a scene set late into its narrative, as Henry and Jamie plunging shovels into the thick Mississippi mud. Pappy has died and they are rushing to dig a grave for him before a heavy rainstorm floods the grave. As they dig deeper, Henry finds another body from many decades ago. There are manacles next to the skeleton and the skull has been pierced by a bullet hole. Henry and Jamie have found the old grave of a runaway slave. Henry insists that Pappy would recoil at being buried in the same resting place as a slave, but the old racist is dead and there is no time to start digging anew. So Pappy is laid to rest in the same place as a man who he would have called beneath him. The poignant, acerbic idea of this scene, and of Mudbound in general, is that all the struggle and injustice and bloodshed throughout the centuries, from the beginning of slavery to the present-day, is all tied to the soil of this one single place we call a country. It is an idea that sounds almost too simple, but Rees’ sense for tone and character, and the beautiful prose of her source material tease this idea out thoughtfully until it becomes a thing of elegiac resonance. Rees is not saying something so facile as that all the racial divisions between white and black Americans are smoothed out over the simple sharing of a piece of land, be it a grave or a country. But I believe she is positing that, no matter what happens, being countrymen fates us to share a story. Pappy’s story, in the end, is that for all his hate and his feelings of superiority over anyone who didn’t look like him, he was always fated to die and come to rest in the same mud as the people he despised and tormented. And the land will now keep his final chapter and hold it together with the final chapter of that murdered slave, and if anyone comes digging decades later, they will find that 19th century skeleton in his shackles right next to that spiteful cur who died in the 1940s and that will be fitting. Not because time makes things okay and not because in death they are not so different, but because those two people, and so many other slaves, masters, victims, and aggressors are part of the same blood-soaked book. And now the illusion of time, probably only some 80 years anyway, can be shattered and the constant Earth can hold Pappy and this slave right next to each other where they belong. It can keep the two side by side, one shot and unceremoniously dumped here like an animal and the other laid here in a cheap wood coffin, far better than he deserved but all the better to evidence a blunt truth of this American epic we are penning. That not every dead soul in this country got to be buried by its family, and not every man was afforded the right to die decently. Mudbound has plenty to say about the different path black Americans have had to walk, but it is also saying something poignant, disturbing, and scathing about how Americans of every race are bound together in the same violent, leather-bound tome; the same national narrative.


The other voice in Mudbound’s direct but nuanced conversation is the one that knows a sense of unity has always been something of an American myth. The folly of that myth is there in the repeated motif of the Jackson family’s interrupted dinners. The black family’s sanctuary of peace and loving kinship is repeatedly invaded by the loud knocking of the McAllan patriarch, insisting on some favor or bit of assistance from Hap or Florence. And the mixture of frustration and wounded pride we see wash over Hap’s face lays the truth bare, that even some 80 years after Abolition, Hap and his family are at this insignificant white man’s beck and call. And the possibility that Henry McAllan doesn’t quite register the coercive sway he holds over the Jacksons makes this imbalance all the more insidious, infuriating, and scary. It is present in the way Florence swallows her pride and accepts work caring for the McAllan children, optimistically telling herself the extra money will be good for her family. Still, she reminisces in voiceover about how her own mother spent her daylight hours tending to white babies while her young daughter mostly had to settle for seeing her in the dark. Mudbound is about the sad, aggravating truth of what it has meant, and still means, to be black in this country, and how easy it is for a group of people to brush that truth aside or ignore it when they do not have to live with it day after day. The McAllans and the Jacksons both live hard, dirty lives, but the problem is that this shared hardship makes it too easy for the McAllans to live in ignorance of how much more strenuous this grueling lifestyle is for a black family. Both households go to bed with grubby fingers and throbbing muscles, but the Jacksons also have to tend to a constant ache in their spirits. The McAllan’s myopia even extends to the most enlightened member of the family, Jamie. And it is here where I believe Dee Rees feel the most anguish about the sweet sincere hope for understanding and friendship across the racial divide and how it just cannot be that simple. Not in this country with this history and these sins buried in its soil. The friendship between Jamie McAllan and Ronsell Jackson is the emotional lynchpin of Mudbound, which is quite a feat considering that the two do not meet until 90 minutes into the film and everything that comes before that is beautiful and powerful and completely moving. But those scenes of the two returned soldiers, played with such exquisite empathy by Jason Mitchell and Garret Hedlund, allow Mudbound to be both a prayer for hope and brotherhood and an unflinching account of how hope can also be a scary thing. Ronsell and Jamie’s connection, their shared empathy over the horrors they have seen, and the sudden appreciation each one feels for having found a kindred spirit made me beam and wince all at once. Because even something as intuitive and natural as two good men becoming friends cannot entirely escape the corrosion of the toxic air around it. And the most damning, emotionally gutting thing about their arc together is how even a smart, compassionate man like Jamie cannot quite grasp Ronsell’s reality. He cannot quite see that, even as an educated, benign white man, he poses a danger to his dear black friend. Mudbound is about the experience of being black in American, but it is also a very effective critique of the full gamut of white ignorance: from Pappy’s bilious racism, through Henry’s apathy and Laura’s well-intentioned equivocating, to the naivete of someone like Jamie thinking they can glide over centuries of entrenched bigotry just by being one of the good ones. Through all of this, Mudbound holds on to traces of optimism. Though the story goes to some unspeakably tragic places, it has hope its heart. But if that hope is to mean anything, it must be clear-eyed, and that means recognizing that our problems have never been one and the same. This country’s best hopes won’t be realized until the last of us stops trying to pretending otherwise.


Mudbound plays beautifully as an amazingly well-acted, gorgeously detailed American epic with just a touch more arsenic in its veins. And maybe part of that is using the appealing form of a large ensemble epic to house subversive, trenchant ideas that are not always present in films of this kind. At the same time, I do not feel Rees is attempting a deception here. I think the moral is that, for the 200-plus year American saga, this idea of a land that unites with one hand and divides with the other, has always been in the very text of the story. If it has been more implicit and less pronounced in the past, then perhaps it is time we told the story of this country more candidly. Even Mudbound’s musical score feels like the vibrant, subversive hybrid of something both familiar and radical. The guitar strings and low tones evoke the muck and dusty, hot days of a Mississippi summer, but there are subtle tweaks that make the melodies sound discordant, almost decaying. It sounds like an acoustic blues band sinking slowly into a swamp. Mudbound is an old song sung not necessarily in a modern way, but with an awareness of the present day and how little has really changed in the decades between. Many of the same old stories are being told. But what is blessedly changing, however slowly, is the diverse range of people who are now able to tell those stories. In 2017, I watched an old-style, swelling Southern historical epic. It was not the first time I had seen that kind of movie, but this time a black woman was behind the camera. And that, as it turns out, makes a world of difference.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #14- Personal Shopper

I’m not what you would call a particularly morbid person. Singin’ In the Rain sits high atop my list of the best films ever made, I still become unabashedly jovial during the Christmas season, and I have an unquenchable thirst for the gangly, lyrical humanism of Richard Linklater films. Still, like most people, I have moments where I engage myself in a few too many sips of the world’s darkness. This is always predictably followed by anywhere between a day and a week where I dearly wish I hadn’t done that. I watch too much of the news or read about one tragedy too many, and my spirit essentially becomes inebriated from taking in too much sadness all at once. For lack of a more accurate word, I become haunted. I have come to accept these periodic bouts of melancholy as the natural side effect of staying engaged with and reasonably informed about the world I live in. Falling under sorrow’s hypnotic spell from time to time is just a part of being alive. Feeling unsettled is the inevitable hangover that comes from having too much to think. One of the main problems with that heavy feeling though is that it has a weird way of making the tedium of everyday life, which I might ordinarily breeze through with a chipper attitude and an obliging smile, feel aggravatingly arbitrary and unwelcome. Personal Shopper is the second, consecutive ghost story on my year-end list, and it’s one of the better evocations of what it’s like to feel sad, spooked out, and emotionally unnerved; to move through the tangible world while simultaneously occupying a disconnected realm of one’s own thoughts, terrors, and emotions. I have to believe we all feel a little spectral from time to time, even if we do not believe in ghosts. Personal Shopper is the kind of ghost story where being haunted is both a supernatural phenomenon and an all too human state of mind. And by way of giving you a nice, easy entry point into the year’s most daringly austere and potentially cryptic films, allow me to say that Personal Shopper should have some degree of relatability to anyone who has ever found themselves trudging through the long, uneasy doldrums of a grief-stricken, haunted, or just generally moody time in their life.


With that said, I would not want to misrepresent Personal Shopper as being particularly easy to digest. It would create some detrimental expectations for the viewer if I didn’t say upfront that it is one the year’s most mysterious, chilly and challengingly opaque works of cinema. Moreover, it would do a disservice to the film itself. Olivier Assayas’ (Summer Hours, The Clouds of Sils Maria) strange, preposterously masterful hybrid of spare character study, supernatural mood piece, and psychothriller is a quietly tense, defiantly unsettling film. The film itself is a bit like a stubborn, confrontational ghost. It is a riveting experience in its own strange, moody way but it is the furthest thing from being ingratiating. Personal Shopper is the story of Maureen, a young American woman living in Paris. She is outstandingly played by Kristen Stewart, the first American actor in history to win the Cesar award (France’s answer to the Oscar), and now in full stride as the rare movie star who knows how to anchor a subdued, cerebral art film. Maureen is the titular personal shopper and the film’s protagonist. Her work entails going to high-end fashion galleries and picking out clothes for a vain fashion icon. She has absolutely no enthusiasm for her laughably frivolous day job, but she has her own reason for keeping it. Maureen is a medium. Her twin brother, Lewis, who was also a medium, passed away from a heart attack nine months earlier. As a medium, Lewis was more fervently committed than his sister. He believed wholeheartedly in the existence of a spirit realm, while Maureen always remained skeptical. When Lewis was alive, he and Maureen promised each other that whoever outlived the other would stay around the city where they died long enough to see if the deceased’s spirit would make some kind of spiritual contact. Despite her doubts, Maureen tells her boss’ boyfriend that she owes her dear brother’s soul a chance to prove his own deeply held belief. She spends many nights staying in the empty, palatial house that Lewis once shared with his French girlfriend, wandering around its darkened rooms and hallways. She has recently sensed a spirit in the house, but she is fearful that this ghost might not be her brother. The cause of much of Maureen’s strife and tension is that, in choosing to leave her mind and heart open for her brother to communicate with her, she is giving all her mental energy over to death and the unknown. Personal Shopper is the story of an overwhelmed young woman trying to come to terms with the grief she feels for her lost twin, wrestle her fears that she might die from the same condition, and maintain some semblance of emotional stability, while spending almost every waking moment thinking about ghosts. And of course, those waking moments not taken up with trying to keep her ear cocked toward the netherworld are taken up by the surreal banality of buying boots, dresses and belts for a flighty, temperamental celebrity.


One of the key ideas in Personal Shopper is that feeling one has when they remembers that they are alone on a confusing, chaotic planet, orbiting a single star in a universe filled with countless other stars, unsure of where they fit into it all, and that they have to go get up and edit nondisclosure agreements. Or fix Honda Civics. Or buy overpriced leather pants for someone who models overpriced leather pants for a living. And that’s just the normal kind of workaday ennui we’re talking about. It becomes an entirely different matter when we factor in the juggernauts of grief, depression, and isolation. Olivier Assayas could have had Maureen work in any modern profession, but part of the reason that a personal shopper works so well for this story is that it is such an extraneous, unmistakably modern line of work. The tension Maureen feels is not just that she must spend her days being distracted from the cosmically, weight matters that call out to her, but that she is being called away from that by something so staggeringly unimportant. Paris is a tomb to Maureen. It is the place where she lost the person she clearly loved most in this world. The only reason she is hanging around this dismal town, by her own admission is that she wants to make contact. The wry commentary of the film seems to be that, if Maureen is trying to call out to the inscrutable, ageless heavens, what profession could be less timeless, less universal, and less consequential in the grand scheme than specializing in knowing what garments one famous mortal likes to wear? Maureen laments that tending to her rich boss’ errands is keeping her from matters of real importance and Kristen Stewart subtly conveys how much more aggravating a ridiculous job must seem when you are not only wracked with grief but have also literally glimpsed the spiritual fabric of existence.


The counterpoint to all this is that the obligatory, frivolous, and trite minutiae of life is also an undeniable component of existence. And more importantly, those silly things are part of what it means to be alive. While Maureen is certainly right to feel that designer harnesses and plunging, silver-sequined gowns look superficial next to the grand questions of what happens after we die, the ability to covet shiny baubles and think about fashion is something we only have while we are breathing. Because, in her heart of hearts, Maureen is not just put off by the superficial details of her dayjob. In her bereaved, haunted state, she is really having trouble relating to the living world in general. It is not just the glossy trappings of privileged society that disinterest her, but the entire humdrum experience of being alive. This is the lure of sadness and death-obsession. It makes it harder to willingly go back to living world with all its ridiculous extravagances and absurd rituals. But those silly cotton candy wisps of fashion and pop music and blind dates and dumb day jobs are what life is. Monotonous and superficial as they are, to be alive is to give ourselves over to those things and fool ourselves into thinking they mean much more than they do. Much as we can empathize with Maureen’s gripes about the emptiness of her daily grind, it is also very clear that her investigation into the mysteries of death has led her to cross over into that realm; to carry it in her very bones, even as she seems to occupy the living world. When Lewis’ girlfriend bashfully reveals that she has begun dating again, she explains to Maureen, “I think now I want life.” Personal Shopper is about a woman who cannot convince herself to really want life again. It presents the idea that there are pockets of death floating around within life, and that there is a difference between breathing and actually feeling alive. It is not to say that Maureen is suicidal, that she actually wants death. But in the wake of her twin’s untimely passing, she is perhaps more aware than ever that death is all around us. What makes Personal Shopper such a well-observed portrait of dejection is how it paints depression, loneliness, and bereavement as a kind of underwater limbo. The nagging duties and repetitive interactions of normal life become nuisances repeatedly trying to permeate grief’s bubble. Personal Shopper plays as both an actual ghost story and as a symbolic one, where the spectres of loss and melancholy become phantasms unto themselves. What lingers about the film is how much moody tone it wrings just from watching Maureen process her raw, unsettled mental state. Assayas, whose lovely Summer Hours made the fate of a country house in a mother’s will feel impossibly soulful, is a director with a style that is both artistically rigorous and quite unfussy. He does not need to show us too many shrieking phantoms or levitating objects to make Maureen’s world feel possessed by a spirit of foreboding. He conjures up a thundercloud of disquieting emotion without having to make very much of it visible, and the occasional direct encounters Maureen has with supernatural phenomena feel all the more startling for how sparingly they are shown. The true accomplishment is how spaces that might feel warm or innocuous in a different context feel frigid; the lush, lamplit streets of Paris or the bright-white, modernistic showrooms of haute couture shops. Assayas creates a masterclass in slow-burning tension without really ever relying on jump scares or frightful imagery. Instead, he achieves this beautifully unsettling sense of tone through a tight focus on Stewart’s observant, anxious performance and an elegant sense of composition that helps keep us trapped in the damp mausoleum of her tormented headspace.


And beyond just showing off that Assayas can conjure up a whole lot of mood with barely a flick of his wrist, I do find a greater thematic purpose in his relatively minimalist approach to creating an atmosphere of disquiet. Because Personal Shopper is about the kind of internal shiver that doesn’t just dissipate as soon as we turn all the lights on and fire up the space heater. It is, in many ways, the antithesis of your typical gothic horror film. Apart from the nights she spends in her late brother’s dark house, we spend most of our time watching Maureen in broad daylight, or at least in bright, populated spaces. She rides her scooter through crowded French streets and walks through bright, funky fashion lobbies and rides packed commuter trains. Maureen is frequently not by herself in the dark, but that fact brings no comfort. None of it makes the fearful pallor drop away from her face, and this is what makes Personal Shopper its own unique spin on the ghost story. We so often think of ghosts as something one hears out in the woods or in the creaking floorboards of an old, abandoned building, but Olivier Assayas’ aim is to tell a haunting story under the glaring, neon daylight of our bright, technologically-enhanced 21st century world. The film’s best and most nerve-wracking scene finds Maureen about to board a high-speed train to London with the latest smart phone in her hand. On her way to the train, she receives a sinister, mysterious text message from an unknown number. Whoever this is, they claim to know her and to be watching her at that moment. The phantom text messenger asks her prying questions, prods her about her deepest fears and desires, and angrily chastises her when she waits too long to respond. We see Maureen’s expression go ashen as something as seemingly banal as a text exchange rattles her sense of safety.  Maureen, deeply afraid but also perversely curious, gets pulled into an eerie, sinister dance with her own insecurities. This could be a ghost or maybe just a human being who got her number from someone she works with. Is it a malicious phantasm or just some immature prankster amusing himself at her expense? The truth of the scene is that it doesn’t necessarily matter who this particular messenger is. What does matter is the suggestion that a more fast-paced, glitzy and modern world cannot keep our phantoms at bay. If we can believe in something as fantastic as a spirit realm, it really isn’t such a stretch to believe that those spirits could also learn to use an iPhone. The suggestion is that the ghostly presences that have haunted human beings since time immemorial, be they real or psychological, are not going to stop just because our world has grown more technologically advanced. As far as we advance, we will never invent a gadget to stop the chill that runs down our back when we sense feel ill at ease. These haunted feelings, and the tantalizing, unanswerable questions that come with them, are timeless. The glow of our screens and neon billboards are as powerless to repel our dread as the candles and torches of centuries past.


At one point, Maureen takes a trip to the sun-bleached mountains of Morocco to visit her boyfriend. She can finally stand no more of the bone-chilling cold she feels in her soul, and she hopes all that brilliant, blinding sunlight will scatter away some of the deathly shadows hanging about her. It doesn’t work. But, as the film draws to a close, I believe we are finally seeing a version of Maureen that wants to let go of the spectres of grief and death. Like her brother’s girlfriend, I think Maureen is trying as hard as she can to want life again. Maybe the lesson here is that we don’t always have complete control when it comes to feeling blue and bewitched. Spirits, whether real or just in our heads, seem to have a mind of their own, and sometimes we have to wait for them to leave us in their own good time. I began this week and the early scribblings of this very review in a pretty powerful gloomy spell of my own, though I feel that shadow lifting as I write these last words. Part of what makes Personal Shopper such a beautiful, original piece of work is that I do not believe it is trying to be too didactic about sadness, despondency, grief, or any other ghostly emotion that overtakes us from time to time. It seems content to observe that life is full of light and shadow and sometimes the latter throws its weight around and holds sway over the former. Life is so often a tug-of-war between the warm glow of silly little pleasures and the anxiety of matters that are heavier and less benign. Laughter and sorrow. Top 40 radio and civil wars. First dates and unspeakable tragedies. Finding a new pair of shoes and losing loved ones. It is enough to say that life is mysterious and beautiful and otherworldly powerful in its contrasts. And that is true before one dips so much as a toe into matters of ghosts and spiritual netherworlds. Our emotions and our imaginations have a mystical, elemental power all their own. It is stunning to think how much joy, heartbreak, curiosity, and terror course through us. From time to time, everyone’s head can turn into a haunted house. And so I watch the lights of my own house flicker back on, as they always do. And the heater starts working again and I can breathe easy until the next time the wind starts blowing all the shutters open. What else can be said? I have no interest in putting a period or exclamation mark on this misty question mark of a film. This ethereal, moaning banshee of a movie is about the dark spaces within us that will always feel unsettled, uncivilized, and unresolved. I can stop reviewing the film, but grappling with the feelings it evokes will always be unfinished business.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #15- A Ghost Story

This is clearly a counter-intuitive way to start a review. It was the first idea to cross my mind when I finished my second viewing of the film four days ago, and I told myself right there and then that I could surely come up with a better point of entry for discussing this worthy film. More than that, I could certainly come up with an opening sentence less likely to achieve the exact opposite of its intended effect. Alas, after five days of thinking about it, I have thought of no other way to begin. So I will now open my review by firmly asserting that David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is not a pretentious film. However, I first watched the film with my fiancé, who insisted early and often over the lean 92-minute runtime, that it was in fact a very pretentious film. Now, I have no desire to turn this review into a referendum on my fiance’s excellent taste in cinema. Her reasons that A Ghost Story did not work for her are well-reasoned and valid. I am not here to call out anyone who liked, loved, hated, was confused by, or slept through this heady little piece of art cinema. But I am here to settle an old score with the word “pretentious”. I am tempted to say I loathe the word, but that is not entirely fair. I do not hate “pretentious” when the word applies, but I do hate it for how liberally it is misapplied. To me, pretentious films are films that purport to mean more than they actually do. A pretentious work is that old line about sound and fury signifying nothing; a great commotion of superficial flash or pedigree, disguising an empty, or at least relatively meager, core of meaning. Again, it is well and good to call something pretentious if that is what you actually mean. I will crow for the rest of my days that Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a pretentious film because what I mean to say is that it makes a great fuss without saying much of value. It would be wrong to use that word if all I really meant was that Birdman is a loud, grandiloquent film, or that it sermonizes too sanctimoniously, or that it has makes too many self-consciously idiosyncratic choices. To be fair, those are all quibbles I have with Birdman, but none of them are what makes it pretentious. Yet that seems to be what the word “pretentious” is metastasizing into: a dismissive term to call out a work of art for being too ambitious or arty. And I’m not calling out this misuse just to be a vocabulary fascist. I am not simply annoyed that a word is having its meaning distorted. Specifically, I find this zombie version of pretentiousness to be dangerous and oppressive to what art should be allowed to do. It is a valuable part of artistic discourse to critique a work of art when it takes a bold shot and misses its target. But the tendency I see nowadays is to use “pretentious” as a means of attacking bold shots in general, regardless of whether they actually hit their marks. And that, from where I stand, is death to Art. Art needs to be free to take risks and pursue ridiculous flights of fancy. It needs to be permitted the hubris to attempt new things and wrap its arms around difficult subjects and risk biting off more than it can chew. Artists should be encouraged to make breathtaking, idiosyncratic, indulgent, imaginative works because those strange, overreaching works of art can help us better understand, appreciate, or even change our own reality. And we jeopardize that when we rush to label any work that is surreal or highly stylized or maybe a bit self-regarding as pretentious. In the world of cinema, this word has become a way of superficially fast-tracking judgment of a film based on its aesthetic, when what we should be doing is discussing what the film is trying to do or say.


A Ghost Story is a weird, audacious film, but let me relieve some of the build-up by saying that it is also, at heart, a relatively simple story, at least where plot is concerned. David Lowery’s title prepares us for the fact that we will likely see a ghost, and indeed we do. What it does not prepare us for is the fact that the ghost in question is our main character, and will be the one consistent, visible presence throughout almost the entire film. And, most of all, it does not prepare us for the fact that this ghost will be played by Casey Affleck, completely covered in a plain white sheet with two oval-shaped eyeholes cut out of it. This ghost was once a man living in Dallas in a small, one-story house with his wife (Rooney Mara, in a performance no less terrific for being right in her moody, pensive wheelhouse). The couple is in the process of moving and an early conversation reveals that the man is reluctant to say goodbye to this place and the memories that reside within its walls. One night the couple is woken up by something striking the keys of their piano. They walk into the family room to investigate, but find nothing. Then they go back to bed a little shaken, and try to soothe each other back to sleep. In the next scene, possibly the very next morning, we see the man dead at the wheel of his car, the victim of a small but fatal collision. His wife goes to the morgue to identify him, places the sheet back over his body, and sadly leaves. Then a few beats pass and the man’s shrouded head rises from the table. He is now a ghost, though the exaggerated black eye holes mark him as being closer to what a small child would dress as for Halloween than some menacing horror movie spectre. In his unadorned way, he is quite simply the saddest, most despondent ghost I have ever seen in a film. Covered in his sheet, he trudges uncertainly through the hospital. He goes completely unnoticed. He walks on to the end of a hallway until a kind of glowing, cosmic doorway opens up on one of the walls. He stands in front of the portal, stares at it blankly, but refuses to go through it. Instead, he walks out of the hospital into the cool dawn air and begins walking toward something he knows. He moves silently through the muddy, green Texas fields and over the quiet two-lane highways and back into the small, one-story dwelling he once called home. And then he just stays there. His wife mourns and putters around in a daze and, in perhaps the film’s most instantly iconic scene, eats an entire condolence gift pie in a single, four minute long-take. And the ghost stands about and watches her grieve. Then life begins to pick up speed again. The wife starts to live again and leave the house. She goes back to work. She even starts to seek companionship. We watch her painstakingly move on from her tragedy, while also watching, somewhere in the background of every shot, the restless, pitiable apparition that refuses to move on. Eventually, the wife summons the courage to move out and leave this tomb of memories behind. But this drab, lost ghost refuses to go. Even as a new family moves in. Even as time races on and even as the very building he binds himself to falls into disrepair, this sad, stubborn being cannot seem to leave this place behind. A Ghost Story is, first and foremost, a reimagining of the haunted house film as a kind of bittersweet tone poem. It is a reclamation of the ghost story as something more sad than scary, and all the more haunting for trading jump scares for melancholy.


And if my aim is to convince you that there is nothing in the least pretentious about A Ghost Story, I guess the next sentence will make my case more difficult. You see, A Ghost Story is all about its own sense of mood. It’s a difficult thing to create a film where tone and ambience do the heavy lifting. The shallows of film history are littered with the wrecks of indulgent pictures that fatally prioritized crafting a heady, introspective reverie above all else. Many sensitive, poetic filmmakers have doomed themselves by following what we might call the siren song of Terrence Malick. But A Ghost Story happily avoids that sorry fate, partly because it does have a lot of other things going on aside from a dreamy tone: engaged performances, skillful camera work, cohesive snippets of narrative always running through the ghost’s mournful fugue state, and one of the year’s most devastatingly sublime scores. I also have to say that, when it comes to mood, the proof is in the pudding, and David Lowery really has whipped up a delicious pudding. Part of the thrill is how he takes something like the haunted house narrative and recontextualizes it as something wise, tender, and bruisingly sad. That tender, eerily heartbroken sense of mood that Lowery focuses on is there for a purpose. It forces us to see an old narrative with fresh eyes. When Affleck’s ghost starts whipping plates around the room to frighten a Mexican single mother and her two young children out of their new home, we are getting a new perspective on something we have seen in countless spooky films. But this time we know exactly what is going on and our reaction is not terror. We are sad because we feel the ghost’s anguish and pain and we are also frustrated by him. He is not some fearful, unknown phantasm with hidden motives. He is just a despondent spirit, petulantly taking his grief out on small children, and he should know better. A Ghost Story strikes a deft balance between sorrow, small glimmers of joy (as when we see Rooney Mara tearfully but triumphantly leave her old house behind), fear, fragility, and even the odd bit of levity. If you let A Ghost Story wash around you as a purely emotional experience, what you get is a pitch perfect symphony of mortality, the ache of loving and then having to let go, and the sting of remembering that we are all falling rapidly through time and out of the Earth’s memory.


And the fact that A Ghost Story can capture that sense of mortality and human frailty just through its tone and things unsaid turns out to be a huge achievement, because the finiteness of life and the pain of accepting our insignificance is also what the film is getting at on an intellectual level. David Lowery manages to craft a tone poem that coherently aligns its undulating, poetic emotions with its themes and ideas, which gives A Ghost Story a welcome sense of rigor. The difficulty of letting go is smartly set up from the beginning, as we meet a couple with very different feelings about leaving their old house behind. That conflict culminates in one of the year’s most phenomenally moving moments: the wife wistfully but resolutely driving away from the home and her dead past, with the ghost trapped in the frame of the house’s front window and swiftly receding in his wife’s rearview mirror. The film comes to a place somewhere between sympathetic understanding and matter of fact disagreement with Affleck’s ghost. Life is beautiful and sweet and having to finally leave it all behind for the unknown is a gutting thing. You really can’t blame anyone for finding it hard to say goodbye. But, on the other hand, even if you had the choice to never leave your life, would staying around indefinitely not also suck something vital out of you? Sooner or later, the places that were familiar to us and with us, be they our homes, our towns, or our planet, go on existing without us. One day, the Earth will become a high school that we graduated from five years ago. The last freshman student who knew us will have finally left. At that point, what value could there be to continually going back there; to staying there and walking the halls? In one scene of the film, the ghost watches the house’s newest tenants throw a party full of people in their thirties. A man, played by celebrated indie musician Will Oldham, gives a long, intoxicated rant on the folly and futility of creating things to preserve our legacies, be they songs, books, or children, when we know the Universe will one day implode and start all over again. It’s a polarizing scene that some critics have called didactic. Personally, when it came, I found some relief in hearing a human voice speak at length for the first time in many minutes. But it is true that the Oldham character is just saying what the film itself says with every fiber of its being. It makes the same point more succinctly just a moment later. This room full of humans is reveling and the party is in full swing, when the ghost suddenly causes the kitchen lights to flicker. Then we instantly cut to the house abandoned and neglected. In an instant, many years may have just passed by and all the human faces who were celebrating in that house just seconds ago have scattered to continue along their own separate paths.


The lesson, both upsetting and strangely life-affirming, is that life’s value does not come from a place. What gives life its character is the fleeting minutiae and the ephemeral joys. And above all, life is the people we meet and learn about and love, who are all just as frail and impermanent as we are. What the ghost learns eventually is that, without all those little passing details, time hurtles forward like a bullet train. The sad, strange, stirring truth is that everything that ever made us feel anything and everything we ever assigned meaning occupies a very small space and an equally miniscule pocket of time, and that all confirms the plain fact that our lives are tiny and fragile. Without all that lovely, evanescent bric-a-brac; without music, memories, parties, food, sex, and people, the buildings and towns and time periods we occupy are just empty spaces. The big expanses of space and time that surround our lives look a whole lot smaller without all those little, fleeting details inside of them. I have stood in enough apartments on moving day to feel that intimately. I have walked down enough old streets in neighborhoods where I used to live to grasp the bittersweet truth that life is about context, and most of that context comes from things that are not meant to last. A Ghost Story is about mustering the grace and the courage to leave things behind, be it a former hometown or a past life. Knowing you must say goodbye is the right attitude to have, not only because it is emotionally healthy, but also because, as Rooney Mara’s character says early in the film, there really isn’t any other choice.


A Ghost Story just says too much, often with no more than a canny piece of editing or a perfect bit of body language, to ever call it pretentious. It is too rare to find a film this hauntingly atmospheric that also speaks with such eloquence. It captures so much of the soulful throb of being alive and knowing that nothing lasts forever. And it accomplishes all of this with great beauty and empathy, and all in a tight hour and a half. Still, this is the very kind of film that needs to be defended from accusations of pretentiousness. It is, after all, a quiet, reflective, relentlessly moody Sundance film that spends most of its running time watching a man wordlessly wander a single location donning a bedsheet with cartoonish eyeholes cut into it. And it does not present any of that jokingly. It has the audacity to ask, softly but sincerely, for your serious, hushed attention. And I understand how saying, “This is Casey Affleck in a bedsheet. Please take this all very seriously.”, might produce some peals of laughter. And the thing is that is all totally fine. Because one can laugh at the dizzy extremes that serious, heartfelt Art sometimes goes to, and still learn something from it. Art can be absurd, ludicrous, overreaching, silly, and even self-serious, and be no less vital for all of that. It can often better push boundaries, present new ideas, and provoke beautiful thoughts because of its very willingness to look preposterous. In the end, a word like “absurd” leaves room to feel gobsmacked by the wild wooliness of a film and still leave ourselves open to its message. And in the end, it is okay to cry foul when a film undoes itself through its own idiosyncrasies. It is okay to criticize films that put so much effort into looking and sounding like grand, meaningful statements that they forget to actually be meaningful. But dismissing a film outright just for daring to be off-kilter or bombastic or self-serious? That is, in a word, pretentious.

Top Films of 2017: #16- The Post

The tiny cinema snob in my head is screaming his little lungs off at me, but I need to do something that might not be critically kosher. I need to make some apologies and accommodations for my #16 film of the year. Attorneys, such as myself, have something called a severability clause. It means that, when some isolated part of a contract is just plain unworkable, that doesn’t doom the entire contract. Instead, like Groucho and Chico Marx in A Night At the Opera (the finest depiction of contract interpreting in all of cinema) you just rip that disagreeable section right out and carry on with the remainder as good as new. It’s cutting the moldy piece off of the cheese; a process that, with due respect to Ms. Sheryl Crow, should not be attempted with bread. It’s also damn shoddy film criticism. But let’s get back to the cheese. You see, unlike that loaf of bread, where the visible spores are probably just the tip of the fungal iceberg, you can take the odd expired bit off of cheese without fear that the rot runs all the way to the core. I would say that the clumsy handling of racism and police brutality in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri falls into the category of bread mold because it has a way of contaminating even the film’s better parts. The Post, on the other hand, suffers from cheese mold. It’s a nice, block of fine, flavorful farmhouse cheddar with one corner starting to get pretty discolored and tough and another corner that is unmistakably starting to sprout fur the color of John Goodman’s character in Monsters, Inc. That first, less than appetizing corner is the film’s rote, uninspired opening. The Post is the story of the journalistic fight to print the Pentagon Papers, which exposed a years-long ploy by the highest levels of American government to misrepresent the odds of success in the Vietnam War and to foolishly continue along a sorrowful, bloody broken path even when Robert McNamara and other architects of the conflict knew victory was not possible. The Vietnam War is the context and the unseen backdrop of this story, which leads director Steven Spielberg to make an understandable but detrimental decision: to start his film with one of the most uninspired, apathetic depictions of the Vietnam War I have seen. The whole setpiece only lasts about two minutes. Spielberg handles it all as if two executive producers, worried that maybe some future viewer from some later generation won’t know what a Vietnam War was, are standing over his shoulder with a checklist of easy Vietnam War signifiers. And so Steven Spielberg, director of the greatest single battle sequence in modern cinematic history, tells us, with all the conviction of a child being forced to add a transition sentence to his term paper at 11:00 P.M., that the Vietnam War was, well, basically a war. It took place in a jungle and some men smeared black makeup under their eyes and everyone listened to Credence Clearwater Revival. He shows that fighting in the jungle was dark and muddy and there were explosions. The screen is dark and dim but not in a way that shows the murky, confusion of guerilla warfare. It just looks like slapdash cinematography. And then we’re off with Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsburg on a government jet back home, and Spielberg breathes an audible sigh of exasperation and relief. He is now free to tell the story he really wants to tell and the bracing sense of engagement that comes rushing into the film is palpable.

To be clear, I do not mean to trivialize what the Vietnam War means to this story or how much the loss of life in Vietnam present in the shocked betrayal and righteous urgency of the people fighting to ensure this story was printed. But, frankly, the nitty gritty details of what the Vietnam War looked like are tangential to this First Amendment struggle. One does not need to be reminded, by the 100th Vietnam War film in existence, that the War involved fighting in the dark and listening to 1960s rock music in order to know that a lot of young men died tragically over there and that a government hiding that it was all in vain is a pretty evil thing to do. The Post is really the story of how the Pentagon Papers were leaked, how the New York Times sought to print them and were quashed by the Nixon administration, and how the then-fledgling Washington Post, led by famed editor Ben Bradlee (a very big but rousingly fun Tom Hanks), picked up the loose ball and ran it the rest of the way to score a touchdown for press freedom. And it is about the twists and turns of that historic war of rhetoric and resolve and the groundbreaking Supreme Court case it led to. And it is about a whole lot of engaging characters, played with energy and moxie by talented character actors, bringing life to what it was like to stand in the merry maelstrom of a newsroom during that climactic showdown. Oh, and to stop burying the lede, it is about how much the fateful decision to thwart Richard Nixon and publish those vital, brutal facts came down to the Washington Post’s owner, Kay Graham (played with gorgeous intuition by Meryl Streep in my full-stop favorite Meryl Streep performance since 2002’s Adaptation). For, while The Post is a lovely, spirited film about the importance of journalism, it is quite a brilliant film about sexism, specifically in the 1960s, and in the present day by extension. In spite of being heir to the Washington Post, Kay’s late father left the paper to Kay’s late husband. Kay reluctantly stepped into the role of owner three years prior, when she lost her husband to suicide. Kay is a smart woman with a beaming sense of pride and affection for her news company, but she also carries a visible aura of self-doubt, which the strictly male business world she occupies is all too quick to reinforce. Even Kay’s closer allies, like her friend and business manager Fritz (the great Tracy Letts), seem to quietly believe that this kindly, insecure woman is here by accident and may not be well-suited to running a company. Adding to the sexist concerns over Kay’s competence is the fact that the Washington Post is about to go public, meaning any seismic activity, such as being sued by the President of the United States, could give the banks grounds to withdraw their investment. Journalist Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to disclose the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post creates a perfect blizzard, both for the journalists trying to break the story an especially for Kay Graham, who is wrestling with doing the right thing for her paper, her readers, and herself, while also just trying to hear her own voice above the roar of even the most well-meaning male egos. It is a mixture of two narratives that matter a great deal to our current times: the freedom of the press and women’s rights.


With due respect to this watershed moment in First Amendment history, I am very pleased with how Steven Spielberg threads it with Kay’s story. Because, while the story of how the Washington Post defended the right to print is too vital to overstate, I would have hated for that urgent piece of history to become just another handsomely civic-minded issues film. And, for all that I love Tom Hanks growling and waxing about the holy mantle of newspersons, that is exactly what The Post could have been if it had only been an account of Journalism versus Nixon. If it achieved nothing else, having a great non-journalist character like Kay Graham there adds nuance to the usual notes of journalistic grit, simply by bringing in a different perspective. Her presence allows the film to breathe, if only by giving Hanks a complex foil;  a dedicated, sympathetic woman who gradually awakens to her own understanding of how important her company’s work is, even if she will never be the ink-spitting, idealistic, occasionally sermonistic avatar of journalistic derring-do that Ben Bradlee is. I will not pretend that The Post is not a high-minded prestige film in some regard, but its journalistic grandstanding is leavened by welcome notes of subtlety and rich color. Among other qualities, it has one of the finer depictions of the tension between the ego of a renegade artist and the quieter, more grounded intelligence of a producer. Leaving aside how essential Kay’s status as a 1960s woman is to her character arc, she also brings the perspective of the person trying to keep the business solvent, which allows The Post to implicitly touch on the issue of news as both a public service and an industry, without that ever being its primary thrust. I could watch a film just about the weekly breakfast meetings between Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee. One could create an intriguing and insightful character piece just out of observing their fond but prickly dynamic and seeing them quibble and commingle about their industry. None of this lovely detail changes the fact that The Post behaves like a very stately message picture; the kind to which I am normally a bit resistant. But it becomes something much better than its exterior trappings because there is a sense of a world beyond this one legal fight. It is buoyed along by a broadly scintillating style of writing. It is also helped by a strong sense of character. Kay Graham stands as one ofthe most interesting, poignant people to appear on screen all year.


If I call Meryl Streep the MVP of The Post, including Steven Spielberg, I do think that is partially by design. I think Steven Spielberg knows Kay Graham’s arc is the secret engine of the film, hiding there almost in plain sight, much like Kay herself. I think he sees the genuine power in watching Kay gradually, firmly make herself heard, until her journey becomes the emotional thrust behind everything. The decision to publish under threat of Government retaliation was monumental, but it achieves a truly overwhelming power because the key decision comes down to a capable, underestimated woman who never thought she would ever be in that position. Part of that is just the truth of the story; it really was Kay’s decision. But, in tending to the two narrative fires, the story of Bradlee and his team and the story of Kay and her business, Steven Spielberg shrewdly knows that it is all building toward Kay’s fateful choice to not just publish but to disregard the misogynistic male chorus that attempted to drown her out. It can similarly be no accident that this very talky, sometimes visually subdued film hits its cinematic highs whenever it just empathizes with Kay. Watching her walk into an important Board meeting, Spielberg smartly portrays the Board room as an uncomfortably crowded space; a minefield of power ties. Later, as Kay tries to brush off a misogynistic slight on her competence by thanking her insulter, we see her boxed into the frame by two suit-clad backs. These omnipresent male bodies are a physical impediment to be navigated. Consciously or unconsciously, they push her toward the background of her own scene. Streep really is giving her most beautifully realized, ungimmicky acting in over a decade. She is The Post’s shining star but there is also a sense of an engaged inspired Steven Spielberg whenever she is around. The feeling of commitment and purpose he shows during her scenes stands in stark contrast to that drab, pedestrian opening. He has nothing new to say about soldiers fighting on a foreign shore, but unspooling the thread of Kay’s slowly dawning self-confidence makes his eyes light up.


More than anything, what makes The Post the rare case of a social issue film with vitality is how canny it is about creating a hybrid tale of journalism and feminism. The two weave around each other in ways that feel organic and fresh. Maybe the idea is to say something not only about the value of printing stories but about recognizing stories; about how storytellers should think outside of their own narrow worldviews. Ben Bradlee is so fixated on his own hero’s journey and the blow his team is striking against state oppression that it scarcely occurs to him to see Kay’s story. Until his wife opens his eyes to Kay’s position, he appears myopic to the personal stake Kay has as the Post’s owner and to how her status as a woman in business subjects her to a daily volley of pandering misogyny. It does not occur to him to see the story that Spielberg now has the presence of mind to see; that Kay and countless women like her brave a culture that casually, pervasively disrespects their intelligence and their capabilities. He does not see how, in their first scene together, when he snaps that she should keep her finger out of his eye, he is lending his normally noble voice to the malignant chorus that rings in Kay’s ears. He is, for that moment, acting as the antagonist in someone else’s story, and a journalist should be aware of that. The Post deftly dodges the traps of a typical journalism film due to its awareness that there are other battles being fought outside of the one to publish the Pentagon Papers. It becomes an uncommon sort of salute to female solidarity, because Kay Graham is a most atypical flag-bearer. She never sets out to carry any standard or lead any great fight. She is not a crusader. She is a kind, mild-mannered person who cherishes her home life and her children and planning parties. And recognizing that the struggle for women’s rights includes soft-spoken traditionalists like Kay is another way in which this outwardly stately period piece becomes quietly bold. Steven Spielberg may have set out to make a film that was quick and timely. In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, he felt a need to champion the press’ right to publish and the danger of allowing authority to curtail that right. He gave himself nine months, which is a very short time to secure a script, cast the roles, shoot the picture, and complete post-production. And all that, combined with how prestigious it all sounded on paper, led me to expect something more valuable than actually good. God bless all involved that, in spite of those constraints, everyone involved had the patience and rigor to craft something better than valuable or good. The Post is humane, alive, and fully awake.


Of course, we then reach that albatross of an ending. I do not know if the tight schedule is to blame or if this is another case of Steven Spielberg’s perennial struggle with sticking the landing. I know that I already feel comfortable saying that it may be his worst ending and that it is certainly the most laughable when compared with the high quality of the material that precedes it. It could be that same old issue rearing its head. Or perhaps Steven Spielberg simply got tripped up by his own sense or urgency. Perhaps, in viewing Nixon as the unspeakable, mostly unseen villain of his piece, and in remembering that he was trying to hurl a brick at the new heir to Nixonian thuggishness, Spielberg couldn’t stop himself from getting histrionic. What I mean Is sometimes, when we argue passionately against something that incenses us, we can lose some of our focus to all that emotion and righteous anger. Suffice it to say, I think Spielberg tries to twist the knife hard into Richard Nixon, and I believe he twists the knife so hard that it flies right out of his hand, where it embeds itself in his otherwise terrific film. Without saying much more, this last scene gives one the sense that the Washington Post is about to get a visit from an eye-patch clad Samuel L. Jackson, and that Richard Nixon is going to spend his waning years hording plutonium in his Sky Dungeon instead of golfing in sad exile. It is all so tonally out of step with everything else, including that lackluster beginning, that I really have no qualms about chopping it right off. The Post is a great, imperfect film to cap off an imperfect year, but I am very glad to have it. This funny-looking block of cheddar gave me nourishment when so much of the cultural cupboard was bare. And, even in times of abundance, good cheese should never be taken for granted.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #17- Raw

Just a few years ago, I sat down to watch Jennifer Kent’s masterful horror film, The Babadook, for the first time. The opening montage of scenes featured no jump scares; only the suffocating claustrophobia of being a single parent with a particularly clingy child. By the time the opening title appeared, the film had me rapt with attention. I sat enveloped in its spell, tense but also giddy at the reminder that a horror film could do this. I had been an enormous fan of genre masterworks like Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and Alfred Hitchcocks Psycho, but they were all more than three decades in the past. For years, it had seemed like a horror film’s ceiling was the fun but mild subversiveness of a film like Scream or the generally well-made moodiness of a film like The Ring. Horror could be good, but its virtues had always been mostly at the surface level during my lifetime (The Shining was released the year before I was born). With The Babadook, I was once more watching a film with a gripping sense of tone and aesthetics, but also one with stimulating themes and sharp writing and pitch-perfect acting. And, best of all, they were all working in tandem to create something cohesive and thought-provoking. The Babadook ended up as my fourth favorite film of 2014, a terrifically strong year for cinema. Only five months later, I went with a group of friends to Oakland’s New Parkway Theater to catch It Follows, and that was the night I happily joined my voice to the chorus that had been building. A question had started to reverberate in film culture, steadily rising in volume: will there be a horror renaissance? I still hesitate to say we are, only for fear of jinxing it. I only know that I loved It Follows and wrote a glowing review of it for my 2015 year-end list and that I got to go see David Egger’s bone-chilling subtly feminist The Witch about four months later. The Witch ended up in my Top 10 for 2016. And then, just a few months after that, came the one that barnstormed popular culture. If the aforementioned films were lovely, smart, rapturously received works of art, they were still mostly modest in their impact on wider audiences. But Get Out announced that the surge of nuanced, thematically rich horror films would now be heard and felt by everyone. It broke the box office, hijacked the zeitgeist, and recently made Jordan Peele the first black screenwriter to win the Oscar. Renaissance or no, the cultural juggernaut of Get Out would be more than enough to keep the streak of excellent horror films over the past four years alive and well. So, in this relatively weak year for film, let me give thanks for another gift. What an a marvelous cinema Christmas it is when one not only receives a future horror classic like Get Out, but a nifty, sharp horror debut like Raw as well. As the last film I saw for 2017 list-making purposes, Julia Ducourneau’s perceptive, character-based horror film was the one remaining present underneath the Christmas tree. And if Get Out was the year’s big, shiny Nintendo Switch, I was just as thrilled in a more modest way to have that last gift be something small but special (a great LP or a lovingly curated Criterion Collection DVD perhaps). Really though, Raw was that gift that was all the more perfect because I never knew I wanted it.


To cut through the mystery, that unexpected gift happens to be a coming-of-age college character study involving a fair degree of body horror, animal viscera, and a healthy dose of human flesh consumption. Raw is a visceral, nasty little film in the watching and I also find it to be quite sweet and humane in its own unique, skin-crawling way. The film takes place in Belgium, at a small medical college. In a short, seemingly elliptical scene, we see a car driving down a two-lane road somewhere out in the country. A young woman jolts out in front of the car. The motorist swerves to avoid hitting her and instead smashes fatally into a tree. In a wide shot, we see the young woman nonchalantly pull herself from the asphalt and approach the driver side door. The nature of her intentions is part of the central mystery of Raw, but the film immediately cuts to its primary plot. That would be the tale of Justine, a shy, 18-year old girl beginning her first semester at veterinary school. She is a slight, bookish young lady with a face that conveys innocent vulnerability. Her birdlike timidity seems to be accentuated all the more by her anxiety about spending her first evening in a college dorm. The first and most important thing we learn about Justine is that she is a vegetarian. Her parents, also vegetarians, are dropping her off at the same veterinary college where they met and fell in love, and her sister Alex is supposed to meet her and show her around. Alex never shows up, but Justine finds her later that night when the entire freshmen dorm is rousted from its sleep by upper classmen in balaclavas, who force them to attend their first college party. She also meets her roommate, a young, athletic gay man named Adrian. Justine walks bewildered around that first party, until her very inebriated sister finds her and pulls her into a dark room filled with animals in formaldehyde. It seems creepy but Alex is actually just there to show Justine pictures of former classes undergoing their first rite of passage: having animal blood dumped on them and taking their class photo. As disorienting as it all is, Alex tells Justine to look at the photo from their parents’ year, and to see how even their staunchly vegetarian mother looks happy covered in all that blood. It is an early acknowledgment that freshman life will be challenging, particularly at this very ritual-happy college. Still, even the most disgusting parts of growing up carry a sense of adventure and discovery. Less than 24 hours later, Justine is soaked in blood, repulsed but with something resembling a smile on her face. Her least pleasant challenge, however, comes a few minutes later when upper classmen force each and every freshmen to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Justine balks and insists she is vegetarian, but her sister coerces her into completing the ritual. Justine has an allergic reaction to the raw meat and the side effect is a truly revolting body rash, which is the first hint that this will be a gorily unsettling film, if you discount the floating animal fetuses, blood-soaked photos, and people eating animal entrails. One other side effect is that Justine suddenly starts to crave meat. She begins by trying to smuggle a hamburger patty out of the cafeteria and before long she is crouching in front of her roommate’s mini-fridge eating raw chicken cutlets. However, matters really come to head one night when Alex and Justine are drinking and Alex convinces her sister to do a bikini wax. During the inebriated waxing session, Alex accidentally cuts off one of her fingers. Alex feints and Justine calls 9-11 for help. Then she hangs up and looks at the finger. She lets some of the blood drip into her hand. Then she tastes it and she is overcome with hunger. She eats the entire finger and finishes it just in time for her sister to wake up and catch her. We come to learn that the two vegetarian sisters both share the same dark secret: an uncontrollable hunger for human flesh. We come to learn that Alex is the young woman who jumps in front of motorists, purposely causing fatal car crashes so she can feast on the victims. Without going into the entire plot, Raw is a film about going to college, experiencing things we thought we would never try, and trying to alternately contain and satiate new adult hungers. It is also about immersing ourselves in the environment of this college, which is a rather oozy, bloody, visceral place without any of the body horror, just by virtue of being a veterinary school.


And the blurred line of where the horror ends and the stickiness of young adult life begins is one of the first things Raw does well and often. If Ducourneau’s film did absolutely nothing else of thematic interest, it would still deserve praise for being one of the most impressionistically sharp depictions of college ever made. It is a vision of college, or wherever we happen to be when we first begin to experience the wider world, as a fetid, smelly, pussy breeding ground from which we emerge as fully formed adults. Granted, a great majority of the people I know did not undergo mysterious, strict rituals or have to obey strange, hierarchies as college students. Even the people I know who joined fraternities and sororities did not end their first week coated in cow blood or have to consume the vital organs of bunnies. Raw is what you might call hyperreal. It uses the uncomfortable, unpredictable tone that comes with horror to create what I would call an impressionistic portrait of college. Still, as strange and off kilter as that portrait is, there is something about it that feels utterly accurate on an emotional level. It uses the same sense of unease to illustrate the anxieties of early college life as it does to show the bloody transformation that only Justine and her sister have to go through. What all those strange, gross rituals are really about is the class that came before foisting their own phobias and aversions on the incoming class. I do not remotely approve of hazing or bullying in real life, but these rituals, as disgusting as they are, are never presented in a malicious way. The upper classmen are clearly winking at their freshman charges that all this pus and circumstance is part of the unnerving fun and discomfort of maturing, especially in a profession that will probably involve opening up animals on a daily basis. They are Puckishly rattling the cages of their young charges, freaking the daylights out of them while also letting them know what a gas it all is. Again, I would never condone pressuring someone to eat raw entrails, or covering two people in body paint and forcing them to blend their colors together in a makeout closet. But Raw is the strange case of a well-acted indie character film that is operating at an operatic pitch. It is a kind of subdued fever dream, all about the sticky thrills and chills of going swimming for the first time in life’s pungent swamp. The film’s ambiguous emotional register is captured in that enigmatic look on Justine’s face as she stands in her blood-drenched class photo: repulsed, a bit rankled, but also amused beyond belief. Raw presents college and adolescence in general as a kind of steamy, sensual haunted house. It is not always pleasant in any conventional sense, but there is pleasure and even growth experience in being frightened. It is a place to dip that first toe into the world’s pool of vice and to discover that there is smaller pool of it within us.


Raw is a terrific character study about finding the gleeful sinner inside ourselves. I think all the movie’s provocative, grisly imagery can be taken as metaphor about self-exploration and having new experiences. That said, the best thing about great horror films, even the most cerebral among them, is that they work on our senses. It is vital that we can have a nice, vile time just soaking in the surface details. In explaining what makes Raw such a strange, sickeningly poignant film, I do not want to give short shrift to how much I enjoyed just being jarred and grossed out by it. As Freud may have said during his heady, flesh-eating school days, sometimes a bloody detached finger is just a bloody detached finger. On some level, what the fluids and flesh and meat represent are fluids, flesh, and meat. Going just a bit deeper, I think they represent that time in a person’s life when one suddenly realizes, in a fundamentally adult way, that fluids and flesh are everywhere. Raw is partly about wallowing in a dank, disorienting world of blood, alcohol, sweat, body paint, and moist skin. Not all of it is pretty to look at. I would go so far as to say that most of it is just about the furthest thing from photogenic and that is also Ducourneau’s entire aim. This is not a film about seeing human vice as aesthetically pleasing. It is about showing appetites and obsessions as the queasy things they are. It is that queasiness that makes desire all the more fascinating. If we knew better, we might look at that gristly, glistening slab of meat and feel strange about sticking it in our mouths. We might look at a sweaty, clammy, stinky human body with antiseptic eyes and see it as a bag of fluids and dying skin. Raw shoots meat, both human and animal, in the least pretty way imaginable. It is a film about insatiable appetite that is the very opposite of appetizing. And that, the film says, is what is so marvelous about desire. It is what is so intriguing and powerful about appetite and lust; that our sense of arousal overrides any queasiness. Raw presents fluids and flesh as something both visceral and also powerfully, wonderfully intoxicating. And, like that bucket of blood dribbling down Justine’s face, I believe Julia Ducourneau wants to nauseate us while also giving us a perversely pleasurable tingle of awareness. Maybe life is a little gross when you look at it analytically. But reveling in life’s fetidness also has an uncanny way of making us feel completely alive.


What I find fascinating is how Raw handles young adulthood, exploring one’s self, and sex so deftly even before it reveals the full scope of its horror conceit. Justine’s new taste for flesh builds upon the film’s depiction of college as a place to learn new things about what we enjoy, but it also marks a departure from the earlier scenes of group indulgence. The more general scenes of college life are about joining the herd, the big party, but Justine comes to find that her appetites make her very different from everyone else. Everyone gorges, but not everyone desires the same things. Raw takes Justine through her timidness into a place of conforming to the excess of college life, and then it sends her sailing way past that into a place where she feels just as isolated as she did when she was a studious, taciturn vegetarian. Her burgeoning hunger for human flesh and the discovery that she is one of only two people at the school who share that hunger give the film an interest queer subtext, which I find welcome for multiple reasons. First, because we need more films that take on coming-of-age from that perspective. Secondly, because it makes Raw a more fully realized examination of what it is like to discover adult pleasure for the first time. It reminds us that, while anyone’s sexual awakening is bound to be a strange mixture of anxiety and delight, it must be especially bewildering to go through that rite of passage and feel like the only person in your small community who desires and hungers in that same way. What makes Raw so empowering in its visceral, grisly way is in what an interesting, grasping, sympathetic character Justine is. This has a lot to do with the notes of trepidation and lustful curiosity that newcomer Garance Marillier brings to the role, and how the former gradually gives way to the latter. A scene where Marillier lip synchs along with a female rapper in the mirror, while gyrating and putting on lipstick, is one of my favorite pieces of physical, facial acting all year. It is the image of a young woman still tentatively finding herself, but the hesitancy seems to erode a little bit with every movement of her body. Her performance is one of the years’ underrated gems of acting, just as surely as Raw is the year’s great, underseen piece of horror cinema. The truth of Raw is, that beneath all the flaking rashes, oozing cuts, pig fetuses, dog cadavers, and dismembered fingers; beneath all that beastly appetite is really just a well-observed character study about both fearing and loving our most honest selves. What makes me smile fondly is that it is fundamentally a sweet film if you boil it down to its tiniest kernel. What makes me laugh with demented glee is how Ducourneau has caked that sweet little kernel of self-acceptance in as much nasty goo as she can get her hands on. Knowing one’s self is a messy process.

We meet Justine when she is a dry, spotless young thing and we end the semester with her as the empowered, slightly more experienced flesh-eater she is meant to me. Of course, this course in life will not always be easy for her, and the film acknowledges as much. We end with a sly, nasty little that this will be difficult, but it also doubles as an acknowledgment that human beings find a way to roll with the scars and lumps that life deals them. There is an understated note of triumph and pride to her journey that the macabre tone of Raw would never explicitly signal. It is there to be read all the same.  This is a film about the introverted bookworm in the woods learning the dark, scary, inconvenient, intriguing truth about herself, embracing that truth as fully as she can, and starting to boldly assert her new identity. The more I write about Raw, the more overwhelmingly positive I feel about it and about this rickety, uneven cinematic year in general. Any year with a horror film this trenchant, darkly witty, and compassionate towards outsiders is worth honoring. I always pray for as many unimpeachable masterpieces as possible in a given year, but I have to say that, year in and year out, the truth strength of the annual cinematic film crop is shared up by the films that don’t quite reach perfection; that strong supporting string of near-excellent films with their rough edges and oddly beautiful facets. I say “near-excellent” because to use the term “near-great” would imply that Raw is anything less than great, which would be an outright lie. She is a bold, idiosyncratic, hungry, artful beast. If Julia Ducourneau is the humble also-ran in this fine, historic fourth year of the 2010s Horror Renaissance, we underestimate her and her remarkable achievement at our own peril. If Raw is the film year’s quiet little sister, I would not dream of using it as a pejorative. Little sisters grow up to be bloody fierce women.

Carnivorous Couch Oscar Predictions!

Okay,  this won’t be pretty unless you mean pretty last minute, but I managed to crank out some Oscar predictions just before the big ceremony. Feel free to use these to make your own predictions, but I really don’t have a clue what will happen in a lot of these categories. These are educated guesses and most of last year’s educated guesses got utterly decimated.  With that said, here’s how I think it’ll go down.


Best Visual Effects:

Will Win: War For the Planet of the Apes

I unfortunately did not manage to see the third and final film in what may be the decade’s best trilogy. I do know, having watched Weta and Andy Serkis bring Cesar to life over the first two top-notch films, that this is probably the one to beat. It’s not just that all the newer Apes films have looked great, it’s how impressive it is to see this level of visual effects work go not just into an environment or a spaceship or a battle but into creating fully realized characters that you believe in. There’s plenty of stiff competition, but I think that the accomplishment of creating Cesar (in tandem with Serkis’ towering acting), combined with the admiration everyone feels for the effects company that brought Lord of the Rings to life, will be enough to give Apes the gold.


Should Win: Blade Runner 2049

There’s a very good chance that Apes deserves the win, but since I haven’t seen it, I’ll go with the best visual effects I saw this year. Blade Runner 2049 is an absolutely stunning visual feat, from the grand visions of a futuristic Los Angeles to the smaller character touches. It’s not every year that you get a film create a world out of visual effects that not only looks breathtaking but actually works as a visionary piece of filmmaking. This is arguably year’s best purely sensory accomplishment. I hope it wins and that its win helps encourage more films like it: movies that pair awe-inspiring effects with equally awe-inspiring ideas.


Should Have Been Nominated:

I’m certainly no expert on the field of visual effects as an actual art form. Like the casual museum-goer, I just know what I like. I know what I think looks good. I also know that I like when great visual effects do more than prop up the next giant blockbuster extravaganza. For that reason, I’ll crib from the AV Club’s page and say that the Academy should have found space to honor the visuals in Okja, Bong Joon Ho’s lovely, energetic, and tear-jerking tale of a young Korean girl’s quest to save her giant pet superpig from the slaughterhouse. The superpig Okja a handful of other superpigs we meet are really the only visual effect in this movie, but it’s key to the film’s emotional heft that we come to believe in these animals as sentient, emotionally sensitive being. For creating a lifeform out of lines of code and making her one of the year’s most memorable, lovable characters (human or animal), Okja certainly deserved a spot over at least one of the other films nominated here. I’m looking at you, Thanos.


Sound Mixing:

Will Win/Should Win:

Quick one sentence layman’s primer: sound mixing is the art of taking sounds that have already been created (a.k.a. sound editing) and deciding how they should be incorporated into the film. I’m probably crazy not to pick Dunkirk here, but I have a feeling that Baby Driver will win at least one of the three awards it’s up for. Baby Driver was a fantastic, fun lark, and it was also the kind of effervescent, carefree lark that was never guaranteed a spot at Oscar’s lofty table. The fact that it not only has three nominations, including the all-important Editing nomination, but also won the BAFTA two weeks ago means that this film is admired a lot. It even got a Producers Guild Award nomination back in January, which means it got real, real close to being a Best Picture nominee. I expect this to win somewhere and, to be honest, this may be where it most deserves to win. Baby Driver is all about playing with a toychest of sound and deciding how it should match the images. This merry-go-round of pop songs, engine vrooms, and gunfire is a great work of sound mixing. Here’s hoping it pulls off this little heist on Sunday.

Should Have Been Nominated:

I’m going to go with a film that I loved in many ways and also hated in a few. It famously got rid of what little score it had, just so it could wallow in the music of its own tortured soundscape. It’s the year’s most miserably grating, audaciously ambitious arthouse nightmare, mother! Leaving aside what about this epically angry, disorienting film works and what doesn’t on a purely thematic level, I can scarcely name a sonic experience that did a better job of getting under my skin. Sonically disquieting even in its less bombastic moments and a literal maelstrom of noise as it starts to descend into the Hell of its third act, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! Is, for better and worse, a testament to how much torture a filmmaker can inflict just through the sounds of a house.


Sound Editing:

Will Win/Should Win:

Sound editing is the process of creating the sound that goes into a film, which kind of makes it like the aural equivalent of Visual Effects. In all honesty, its been a pretty remarkable year for big, loud films. The new Star Wars and the new Blade Runner both exceeded expectations, there was a nice crop of really good superhero films, and the little V8 engine that could, Baby Driver. There’s also a very sound-driven film called Shape of Water that’s angling hard for every technical Oscar it can get its hands on en route to a Best Picture win. Tough race is what I’m saying. Still, it’s hard to see this going to anything but Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan created a terse nightmare of popping bullets, groaning ship hulls, rushing water, and sandy explosions. And above all there’s the near-demonic whine of those German aircraft, descending like banshees out of the sky. I love Dunkirk, but even those who don’t can’t deny that it is the year’s most supremely blistering sonic assault.


Should Have Been Nominated:

Oh, I don’t even know. We need to get out of these technical categories into areas where I can pretend that I have a clue what I’m talking about. I don’t really have much of an axe to grind with any of the nominees in this category. Even if I find The Shape of Water to beless than a perfect film, it’s hard to argue with its being included here. The feeling of that government lab and the subtle sound design for how the Creature communicates are part of what really works for that film. Baby Driver, Dunkirk, and Blade Runner 2049 are among the standout films of the year on a purely sensory level. And Star Wars is terrific. You leave Star Wars alone, Internet. I’ll just go with Wonder Woman. Watching a woman stand in the middle of No Man’s Land deflecting a whirlwind of bullet fire was one of the great theater experiences of the year, and it certainly could not have worked without good sound editing.


Best Production Design:


Will Win:

There’s a very good chance that Shape of Water is our Best Picture winner, and a big, lush film like this doesn’t get there without picking up some hardware along the way. And even if it would not be my choice, I’d be hard pressed to say that the production design isn’t the MVP of this film. It’s a world bathed in blues and greens and the aesthetic of the film frankly does a better job communicating the idea of deep emotions fighting to escape the rigid constraints of society than the script does. I think you can take this one to the bank and it won’t be entirely undeserved.


Should Win:

Still, the year’s most singular act of world-building is Blade Runner 2049. From the neon hellscape of Los Angeles to the rusty junkyards of San Diego to the orange, dusty ruins of Las Vegas, Blade Runner 2049 never coasts on a single look. Its production design is always working to find new ways to conjure societal rot and make it look hypnotically beautiful.


Should Have Been Nominated:

Again, not everything should be about massive scale, though of course Oscar has a very hard time seeing things that way. Production Design shouldn’t always be about the most design work or the most eye-catching scenery. Call Me By Your Name announces in its opening credits that it is going to do a marvelous job filling its spaces (a large home in northern Italy circa 1980, and the surrounding towns) with little details. Old essays, half-filled glasses of apricot juice, crumpled cigarette packs, beads hanging from the doorways of the local bars. This film has a tremendous wealth of perfect, small, lived-in production design and it deserved to be recognized.




Will Win/Should Win:

Roger Deakins sits atop the list of glaring Oscar omissions, having been nominated 14 times and never won. He’s a frequent collaborator with the Coen Brothers, the man who brought rustic majesty to the Assassination of Jesse James, and he’s now conjured some of the year’s most breathtaking imagery with Blade Runner 2049. There’s a lot of showy work in Shape of Water and I could make an equally compelling argument for why it might win as part of a very large haul. Still, I think this is finally Roger’s year.


Should Have Been Nominated:

The Florida Project saw director Sean Baker step up to a larger canvas (his last film, Tangerine, was shot entirely on an iPhone) and paint a world that was equally beautiful and ugly. The gaudy images of strip malls set against the blue Florida skies or the hazy purples and oranges of twilight at the Magic Castle motel were key in creating an atmosphere perfectly perched between whimsy and sorrow. The camera work by Alexis Zabe helped to make The Florida Project an exquisitely balanced cocktail of gaudy, surreal, and vibrant.


Short Film (Animated)

Will Win:

So I didn’t manage to see Denzel Washington’s nominated turn in Roman J. Israel, Esq., but you know what I did manage to see? Every single short film in all three of the categories. It’s a first for me. Let’s start with the weakest category this year: animation. I’m going to take the advice of my friend, Madeleine Covey, who reminded me that most of the Oscar voters live in Los Angeles. For that reason, a lot of them will be fans of the Lakers and of Kobe Bryant, and they will be particularly susceptible to the charms of Dear Basketball, a retirement letter written and narrated by Bryant, animated by Disney legend Glen Keane, and scored by the great John Williams. It wouldn’t be my choice, but it’s a nice, easy heart-tugger that will be appealing to a very friendly jury.


Should Win:

Negative Space, the story of a man on the way to his father’s funeral who reminisces about how they used to bond over packing suitcases, is the most clever, the most genuinely moving, and is the only one that features stop-motion animation. It’s got the right balance of eccentricity, humor, and pathos and it’s the only one that I would really feel tremendously eager to revisit.


Should Have Been Nominated:

I have not yet reached the level in my film geekery where I can tell you about short films that weren’t nominated. One day though.


Short Film (Live Action)

Will Win:

Dekalb Elementary, the story of an elementary school administrator who stops a school shooting through empathy and good listening. It’s one of the better short films in any category and it’s anchored by a good performance from Deloris Crenshaw. Above all, in the wake of all the recent shootings, it’s a topical short film that reminds its audience of a horrific issue without actually being horrific. That means it will make voters think and won’t turn them off by challenging them too much.


Should Win:

It’s a toss-up between The 11 O’Clock, a very funny New Zealand about a psychiatrist and his patient who believes that he is actually the psychiatrist, and All of Us, a compassionate true story about a Kenyan bus attack where Muslim passengers disguised and protected Christian passengers. The 11 O’Clock is better written and more novel but I did really like All of Us. It’s the kind of inspirational story that often gets nominated in this category, but I found this one to be focused and engaging in its details, from the pacing to the quality of the performances. I would be happy with either of these films winning



Short Film (Documentary)

Will Win/Should Win:

This is the first time I’ve watched any of the documentary shorts and I’m quite glad I did. This was the strongest short film category. Even the weakest film, Knife Skills, about a fancy restaurant that trains and employs ex-convicts, was charming, thoughtful, and well made. The best one, however, is Heroin(e), a sobering but very humane look at the opioid crisis, centered in the overdose capital of America: Huntington, West Virginia. I loved this piece of work, which can be viewed on Netflix. It approaches a sad and sobering crisis, but focuses on the efforts of three smart, resilient women: a kind, patient EMT who tends to overdose victims, a lively judge who specializes in rehabilitating drug offenders, and a minister who spends her nights diligently delivering food to the city’s prostitutes. It’s a look at an important issue that feels very alive and I left feeling good. I also cast the roles of the three women in the fictional recreation of the film that exists only in my head because I’m a nerd. Jodie Foster, Meryl Streep, and Kathy Bates can expect a phone call from me in the near future.



Will Win/Should Win:

I’ll confess that I have only seen two of the nominated films. My two year-old nephew’s favorite, The Boss Baby and Pixar’s lovely, charming Coco. In a pretty weak year for animated films, Coco was the one shining light. It’s the strongest Pixar film in 7 years for my money and it faces absolutely zero competition from any of the other nominated films.


Should Have Been Nominated:

I didn’t get to see much animation this year, and it was also a pretty thin year for that genre. I’ll just give a shout-out to a film that I hear great things about: In This Corner of the World. It’s the story of Hiroshima told in the months before the atomic bomb was dropped. I hear it’s lovely, mature, and appropriately sorrowful.



Will Win:

There’s a lot of talk about Oscar having a bias against Netflix, but I think there can be cases where being on Netflix helps a film. Icarus and Strong Island  are the two films on this list that is available on the streaming platform, and I think that means they will have been seen by the most people. Strong Island is a bracing look at racism and grief. Icarus is the story of the Russian Olympics doping scandal. With Russian corruption prominently in the news, I think Icarus will win due to its topicality.


Should Win:

In truth, I have only seen two of the nominated films, but I have a hard time imagining any film deserving the win more than Faces Places, the touching, effervescent love letter to working class people in France, directed by the ninety-four year-old cinema legend, Agnes Varda. The film sees Varda pair up with a young artist who puts up giant photographic murals on buildings and the two of them take a touching road trip through France to interview people and photograph them. It’s thoughtful and fun and sweet and it culminates with what may be my favorite ending in any film this year. I badly want this win to happen!

Should Have Been Nominated:

Dawson City: Frozen Time, the story of a tiny town that was part of the Yukon Gold Rush and the tins full of long-lost turn-of-the-century films that were excavated under an old building. This was one of the most singular watches I had in 2017, as the filmmakers use clips from these old, forgotten films to tell the story of both movie history and the history of this small town. The surprise is in finding out how many remarkable people actually passed through this little, desolate place. It has the serene feeling of a history book being told through a lullaby and it’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen.


Original Score:

Will Win:

Alexandre Desplat is a great composer and he does very strong work on Shape of Water, lending the film its balance between sweet romance and eerie science fiction. The film, as many have said, is Amelie mixed with Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Desplat’s score ably captures that interesting hybrid. This score is what a theremin would sound like if it learned to speak French.


Should Win:

Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who created what may still be the best score of the century for There Will Be Blood, was finally recognized for one of his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson: Phantom Thread. It’s the best work in this category by a comfortable margin.


Should Have Been Nominated:

If they were more adventurous, they could have gone with Good Time, which draws great power from Oneohtrix Point Never’s schnazzy, pulse-pounding shot of techno adrenaline. If they wanted something more traditional but still great, they could have gone with Tamar-kali’s score for Mudbound, which sounds bluesy and beautifully somber and, like everything else in that film, seems positively caked in Mississippi mud.



Will Win:

A lot of people say that The Greatest Showman’s massive box office could give the win to “This Is Me”. Still, Coco was a tremendous box office success as well and “Remember Me” is a better song that plays a crucial role in the film’s plot. I predict that the husband and wife team of Robert and Kristin Lopez follow up their win for “Let It Go” with a second trophy.


Should Win:

Sufjan Steven’s lovely, romantically melancholy “Mystery of Love” from the impossibly lush and romantic Call Me By Your Name. He’s the greatest singer-songwriter of his generation and seeing him perform will be the reward, but I can’t imagine any other song deserving the win.


Should Have Been Nominated:

They should have either given Sufjan a second nomination for the beautiful, film-closing “Visions of Gideon” or given a nomination to my favorite song from Coco, “Un Poco Loco”.


Foreign Language Film:

Will Win/Should Win:

I’m cheating here. The only nominated film I’ve seen is the harrowing Russian film Loveless, about a miserable divorcing couple trying to find their missing son. It’s very good but I don’t see it winning. My sources tell me that the Chilean film A Fantastic Woman will take home a well-deserved Oscar for telling the empowering story of a transgendered woman grieving her dead lover and standing up to the society that represses her.


Should Have Been Nominated:

I still haven’t found a way to watch it, but the big snub in this category seems to be France’s BPM, which tells the story of gay rights activists in the 1980s through a terrific ensemble cast and a focus on character dynamics.


Adapted Screenplay:

Will Win/Should Win:

Legendary screenwriter James Ivory’s adapation for Call Me By Your Name helps create a beautiful world of words to stand inside the sumptuous visual world of the film. It’s a beautiful, psychologically rich look at being young, at discovering one’s sexuality, and of experiencing the wonderful, terrible ache of first love. Elio Perlman is one of the most singular, nuanced characters created in a film this year and Ivory deserves a lot of credit for helping to bring him to life.


Should Have Been Nominated:

It’s a bit of a thin category, so I’m not upset about anything missing. If I had my way, however, I might have given some love to Sophia Coppola’s well-observed, subtly feminist adaptation of The Beguiled, which took the sleazy, hothouse pulp of the original Clint Eastwood film and gave it interesting new shades.


Original Screenplay:

Will Win:

I’m predicting Jordan Peele for penning one of the year’s best horror films, comedies, and lacerating social critiques all in one. It would be a richly deserved win and I think it could very well happen after Peele won at the Writers Guild Awards. That said, Peele was not up against Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which has been utterly dominant this entire awards season. I’m going to predict Peele partly because I think it’s a real possibility and partly because it’s the outcome I would like to see. Adjust your own predictions accordingly.


Should Win:

My favorite screenplay is Greta Gerwig’s warm, prickly, and funny Lady Bird. It’s my favorite comedy of the year, it’s my favorite drama of the year, and it’s the year’s richest character study. If I had my way, Lady Bird would be taking Original Screenplay and a whole lot more.


Should Have Been Nominated:

You know, I have a reputation for being harsh on baity films, but I really only object to bad bait. So let me earn myself some brownie points here and say that I loved the rich layer of melty prestige that was Steven Spielberg’s The Post. It was a beautiful, writerly, and admirably restrained piece of work and I would have been quite happy with it getting nominated. It’s certainly a better screenplay than Shape of Water.


Supporting Actress:


Will Win:

Last year was a great night at the Oscars for Brady Larsen. Lonergan and Affleck and Mahershala all won well-deserved trophies and it all culminated with Moonlight completing the sweetest Best Picture upset of all time. And as I stood there, I thanked the Oscar gods and said that I would not get too upset about anything next year because that year had been so perfect. So this is me saying through clenched teeth that I am not the least bit upset that Allison Janney, an actress I adore in most of what she does, will be winning this award for her fun, one-note performance as the world’s most hellish mother in I, Tonya. Not upset. Who said anything about being upset? Certainly not me. It must be the wind.


Should Win:

Laurie Metcalf’s beautiful work as a flawed mother that you can actually relate to. (I understand that Lavona Harding is supposed to exactly as bad as Janney portrays her, but that still doesn’t make her interesting to watch). Metcalf’s work as the overbearing but essentially kind Marion MacPherson is a beautiful thing to watch, every bit the equal of the outstanding film around her. Wry, funny, infuriating, fallible and utterly human. It will break my heart not to see this performance win, but there it is.


Should Have Been Nominated:

Holly Hunter’s wonderful work as the tough, worried mother in The Big Sick or Jennifer Ehle’s lively, observant work as Emily Dickinson’s sister in the terrific biography, A Quiet Passion.


Supporting Actor:


Will Win:

Sam Rockwell, whose racist cop with a perhaps-overly-pat redemption arc is the most problematic element of Three Billboards Outside Ebbinng, Missour. Still, Sam Rockwell is one of our greatest character actors and I do think this is worthy of being called great work. I may have to take a hot shower after I call it great work, but it is great work nonetheless.


Should Win:

Still, no supporting performance was maybe as great or, frankly, as crucially supportive as Willem Dafoe’s career-best work as Bobby, the manager of the run-down Magic Castle motel in The Florida Project. Meeting this protective, gentle man and seeing Moonnee and Haley’s broken but hopeful world through his eyes was the most moving time I had with a character this year. I’m still frankly shocked that the combined factors of a perfect performance and the chance to honor Willem Dafoe won’t be enough for him to win.


Should Have Been Nominated:

Jason Mitchell came out of nowhere a few years ago and wowed me in Straight Outta Compton, but he takes things to another level as a black soldier returning to hostile, racist Mississippi and forming a tentative friendship with his white neighbor’s brother. Mitchell perfectly plays the notes of wounded pride, fear, and essential compassion of a good man trying to adjust to civilian life and form a new friendship in a very dangerous time and place for black Americans.





Will Win:

Frances McDormand’s very strong turn as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will be the winner. Right or wrong, something about the film and Mildred in particular has struck a chord with people and tapped into the MeToo and Time’s Up movements. I’d feel better about that if I thought that Three Billboards had anything really substantive to say about those movements, but so be it. The fact is that this potently acted portrayal of an angry, aggrieved woman giving the world Hell has registered with a lot of people and it’s hard to be too upset at the idea of the great Frances McDormand having a second Oscar.


Should Win:

Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Christine ”Lady Bird” MacPherson may be the year’s most deft character work, presenting a teenager who is believable, funny, selfish, and completely alive. The job that Ronan and her director Greta Gerwig have done in balancing the comedy, drama, and all-around human messiness of this perfect coming-of-age film is the year’s best film miracle for me. People are saying that this work will assure Ronan a win in the near future, possibly for playing Mary Queen of Scots. Good for Ronan and I do badly want her to win one day, but I don’t need another Oscar for a historic royal. This is the type of performance I want to see honored. Funny, shrewd and vital to its very bones.


Should Have Been Nominated:

Brooklynn Prince’s unforgettable work as Moonee in The Florida Project makes me want to rant at every person who uses the word “child performance” as a pejorative. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about how much credit should go to the director of the film for coaxing the performance, but that’s what every director does. Child or adult, this is an utterly great performance, keenly attuned to the film’s lively sense of comedy and to the deep, cavernously dark places the film eventually has to go. I sobbed like an infant at Moonee’s final scene twice and I object to the idea that what she does there is not A-grade acting by a person of any age.



Will Win:

Gary Oldman is great in Darkest Hour. I won’t even be one of those people who says it’s hammy. Well, actually, I will. It is hammy, but it’s hammy in the right way. Some films call for restraint and realism, but Darkest Hour is history as a great entertainment. I don’t think he’s subtle, but I think that’s because Oldman knows that this is not a subtle film. His approach is pitch-perfect and he’s a Hell of a lot of fun. So, there. I’ve made my peace…


Should Win:

… with the fact that Timothee Chalamet’s staggeringly nuanced work as Elio Perlman will not win. And we can again have the Saoirse Ronan conversation and say that this sets this 23-year old wunderkind to take home an Oscar one day. And all I can say is that I hope it happens and that he deserves it, but this work right here is undeniable. This is the year’s strongest acting performance, full-stop. Probably of the last few years. I know that this won’t happen and that he’s young and will have time, but it does bother me. Chalamet will be great again, I’m sure, but I don’t know when he will be this great again. I frankly don’t know when anyone will be.


Should Have Been Nominated:

Guess what, Twilight readers? 2017 was the year that I became a Robert Pattinson fan. Part of that was his terrific, quiet performance in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, but the big one is the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time, in which Pattinson plays one of the greatest ne’er-do-wells I have ever seen. Pattinson’s Connie Nikas, a shifty, low-rent criminal trying to break his mentally handicapped brother out of prison after a botched bank robbery, is a jagged bundle of desperation, flop sweat, and bad decision-making. Watching his dark night of the soul was simultaneously one of the most entertaining and appalling film experiences I had all year And there are precious few films I can say that about.



Will Win:

Guillermo del Toro is a lovely human being. If anyone else were winning director for Shape of Water, I would be kind of appalled. But seeing that cuddly hobbit of a man with his little spectacles and his breathless enthusiasm for film up on stage will take at least some of the sting off of the win. And don’t get me wrong, Shape of Water is a pretty film with a meticulous aesthetic and one grade-A performance from Sally Hawkins. All of that is to del Toro’s credit, even if I don’t find Shape of Water to be a particularly directorial achievement.


Should Win:

Greta Gerwig directed my favorite film and deserves a lot more credit than she has gotten for the quiet, nuanced approach she takes. But if not her, I am flabbergasted that the kinetic energy, suffocating tension, and frenzied pacing of Dunkirk will not be enough to secure Christopher Nolan the win. In July, Nolan winning was the surest thing I could imagine and I’m pretty sure I quietly prayed for something unpredictable to happen. I should have been more careful what I wished for.


Should Have Been Nominated:

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is the year’s greatest directorial achievement. It has everything. The greatest performance of master thespian Willem Dafoe’s career sharing the screen with great performances from non-professionals. A beautiful balancing of whimsy and heartbreak. A keen eye that sees economically depressed Kissimee, Florida as both a place dreams go to die and a place where dreams are born if you are young and innocent enough to see the beauty in everything. A profound sense of empathy for those trying to get by in this relentless world. And finally, after creating something between a Terrence Malick film and Bicycle Thieves, he pulls one last card out of his sleeve and drops the year’s most jaw-dropping ending. It’s wholly original and also feels like it’s just always existed, which means that Sean Baker created something perfect. I wish he were nominated, but I take solace in the simple fact that this beautiful film now exists.



Will Win:

It’s a hard year for predicting Best Picture. The Shape of Water won the Producers and Directors Guild Awards and its big competitor, the SAG-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has no Director nomination. Still, Three Billboards has otherwise been on fire, including winning the BAFTA. The other wrinkle is that the Oscars use a special ranked ballot that makes it harder to win if you’re a polarizing film. There are a handful of people thinking Get Out could pull it off because of how popular it is with voters of all stripes. I would like to see that, but I think that this is going to go to Shape of Water. Fish sex aside, this film does not seem to be nearly as divisive as it looks on paper. It turns out that a lot of people really like the weird science fiction, Cold War paranoia, outsider romance film and just about everyone loves the big, geeky ball of positivity who directed the thing. With a lot of wins already in its pocket and a Best Director win guaranteed, I think Shape of Water will take home the big prize.


Should Win:

I’m rooting for Get Out to pull this off because I think it’s in the realm of possibility and it’s one of the year’s true masterworks. That said, I want Lady Bird to win even though I know that won’t happen.


Should Have Been Nominated:

Well, obviously The Florida Project. But since I’ve talked at length about that, here’s a round of applause for two other great films that barely missed the nomination: The Big Sick and Mudbound,

Top Films of 2017: #18- Blade Runner 2049

The original 1982 film, Blade Runner, is one of the great cornerstones of science fiction cinema. Among its myriad virtues as a work of art, one that has been crucial in its growing reputation since the 1980s is how prescient it has been. Prescient both in establishing a lot of the aesthetic touchstones of the sci-fi genre and in its ideas about the evolving relationship between human beings and technology. From rapid developments in the “I” portion of AI to ongoing conversations about how filtering life through a digital lens either erodes or enhances human socialization, Blade Runner’s musings about the uneasy nexus between humanity and machinery seem to grow more topical by the day. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner debuted to relative shrugs a full thirteen years before the Internet would make its grand popular entrance in a flurry of AOL Free Trial CDs and by the time Facebook arrived in 2004 to declare that we would all henceforth live on the Internet, it had basically become something of a grizzled elder statesman. It makes all the sense in the world that our times should have their own Blade Runner film, but it was also a real risk to make one. It’s a dicey move to build upon any well-regarded film, much less a groundbreaking, ceaselessly influential genre classic. There were a lot of variables that could have gone awry. Young French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is an immensely talented filmmaker, who proved only last year, with the beautiful and haunting Arrival, that he knows how to craft a science fiction world that has both epic scope and a rich sense of emotion and tone. Still, he is still early in his career and this is no less than one of the sacred texts of modern pop culture. That first film is mentioned in the same hushed tones as the first two brilliant Star Wars films and it brings with it the added challenge of being the thornier, colder, more idiosyncratic cousin to those films. The chance of some turbulence in revisiting this most moody and cerebral of sci-fi worlds was all but guaranteed, and I adjusted my expectations accordingly. It is quite a relief then to say that Blade Runner 2049 is not simply a case of failure averted. This is a major piece of work and the blessed case of a blockbuster with peerless art film credentials. It is beautiful and bracing and cool, and if I cannot yet commit to call it a full-stop brilliant film, then so be it. That does not tarnish its beauty. If anything, all it does is move it even closer into the company of its predecessor; a film to inspire appreciation and awe and just a little bit of puzzlement. Like Blade Runner, Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 cultivates an air of almost aloof headiness, but it wears it very well.

Blade Runner 2049 picks up 30 years after the events of the first film, in a Los Angeles that has only grown more shadowy and sinister in that time. Since then, society has continued to create robotic servants called replicants to attend to all manner of human needs. The opening title cards inform us that after the last generation of replicants started rebelling, the government initiated a “blackout” to erase their memories. A wealthy tycoon named Niander Wallace (played broadly but effectively enough by Jared Leto) has stepped in to reinvigorate the flailing robotic industry by creating a newer, more advanced form of replicant that does not have the same rebellious tendencies as previous generations. Despite this newer, more obedient class of replicants coming to the fore, there is still a need to retire the older class and this is where the titular blade runners come in. The job of a blade runner is to hunt rogue replicants and neutralize them, either by convincing them to turn themselves in or by forcefully terminating them. Our protagonist is a blade runner named K (Ryan Gosling, once again proving that he can make steely stoicism feel engaging). K has a knack for retiring replicants, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that he is one himself. In the film’s opening scene, K goes to the house Sapper Morton, (a fine single-scene performance by Dave “Drax the Destroyer” Bautista, in a film filled with fine single-scene performances), a replicant attempting to live the quiet life of a protein farmer. After neutralizing Sapper, K completes his due diligence of searching the premises and finds what look like human bones under an old tree. Forensics tests confirm that they belong to a female replicant and further inspection reveals that this replicant managed to do the impossible: give birth to a child. We come to learn that this replicant is Rachel, who Harrison Ford’s Deckard fell in love with and ran away with at the end of the first film. Blade Runner 2049 is dense with plot, but the main thrust is that K comes to believe that he may be the birth child of Deckard and Rachel. At the same time, his commanding officer (played with understated grace and gravitas by Robin Wright) has ordered him to find and neutralize the replicant offspring. While K is investigating with the aid of his personal AI and paramore, Joi (Ana de Armas, the warm, beating heart of this chilly film), another party is also trying to track down the offspring’s identity. This other party is Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a female replicant so intelligent, physically lethal and ruthlessly efficient that Wallace uses her as both a key executive in his company and as a kind of all-purpose fixer. She is also the only one of Wallace’s replicants to earn a real name. The film is about K’s quest to track down Deckard and learn about his birth, while simultaneously seeming to comply with his mission as a police officer and staying a step ahead of Luv, who wants to find the offspring for Wallace so he can discover the secret to making his own replicants fertile. A great deal more happens involving a great many small, potent characters, but I think I should stop there. Suffice to say that Blade Runner 2049 is an epic in every sense of the word. The most convincing criticism I have heard is that Blade Runner 2049 has an overwhelming, glacial sensibility to it, and I would not entirely disagree with this. The film is 2 hours and 40 minutes long and it would not be wrong to say that you could make a version of Blade Runner 2049 that is shorter while still being cohesive. Still, a nice, trim version of Blade Runner 2049 would be antithetical to everything that the film is. This is the kind of film that invites you to get lost and absorbed in its world and that world is one of the most stunning, gorgeously conceived science fiction universes I have ever seen. From the hazy neons of futuristic Los Angeles to the vast fields of rusty scrap metal that fill what used to be San Diego to the giant, crumbling statues of women that peer vacantly over the dusty, fallen ruin of Las Vegas. This is an absolute marvel of production design for which no words will suffice and a film with this sense of world-building was never going to look anything less than staggering. To top it all off, the whole spectacle is lensed by the brilliant Roger Deakins, quite possibly the greatest living cinematographer. This is the man who captured the frigid, snowy wastes of Fargo and draped the American South of O Brother Where Art Thou? in emerald greens and honeyed golds. Spending time in this beautiful and ominous world, full of shadows, glowing lights, steam, and smog is key to what makes Blade Runner 2049 a great film and it is crucial that we take a nice, long soak in that milieu. The longer we spend there, the more we can succumb to the power and the mystery of the questions it is asking.

Like the first Blade Runner, the central question at the heart of Blade Runner 2049 is really that of what makes a person, or at least what makes a being sentient. And if that old heady standby is the kind of prompt that has been firing up stoned college dorm debates since at least as long as the first Blade Runner debuted, then Blade Runner 2049 is proof that big, starry-eyed discussions about consciousness  are still worth having when they are done right. In the case of this film, that means approaching the subject with a healthy dose of rigor to undercut any of the pretension we may be expecting. It also means viewing consciousness as more of an emotional quandary than an intellectual one. To put it another way, Blade Runner 2049 is refreshing because it does not come at the premise of intelligence and personhood with the aim of blowing minds. It knows it is not nearly the first movie to broach this topic. Instead, it succeeds by going for our hearts. The film does not need to definitively answer whether an AI can ever truly be sentient or where intelligence ends and the soul begins, because it is more concerned with the subjective experience of questioning one’s existence. It is curious about the strange, soulful ache that must come with any kind of consciousness and what that feels like. Both Blade Runner films are largely about how terrifying, sad, and bewildering it can be to just realize that one exists. Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 can be counted among the most jaw-dropping visual experiences ever put to cinema. They are blockbusters. But I think the fact that the Blade Runner series fits, however uneasily, into popcorn cinema can make people forget that these films are also melancholic tone poems. The first film practically ends with its antagonist resigned to death, delivering an elegiac, heart-rending soliloquy on the erosion of memory and the transience of all life. And this, I would say almost without hesitating, is the most iconic scene. The first Blade Runner contains action and romance and detective noir and it is beloved for all of those elements, but it solidifies its status as a science fiction masterpiece because a sad android sits broken in the rain and laments the fact that he has to die. These films deliver terrific spectacle, but the emotional through-line of this now-franchise is simply that consciousness is a complicated phenomenon; that it is a scary thing to know that one is awake and breathing, and an even scarier thing to know that one will one day cease to do those things. Blade Runner 2049 avoids the pitfalls of the freshman philosophy debate because it does not overstep its bounds by offering answers it lacks. It follows its predecessor’s lead by bathing itself in a reverie of awe-struck wistfulness. It has many questions but most of its answers are white noise. The only sure answer seems to be that we should be kind to anything that exists because existence is a strange and scary thing. To quote my favorite album, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, how strange it is to be anything at all.


Blade Runner 2049 is not simply asking us tough questions that it cannot answer. I think these films are about how we, as human beings or replicants or whatever lifeform we happen to be, direct those questions out into the ether, to anyone and anything that may be listening. Like the first Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 is about the notion of God or gods or whatever we think created us. K is propelled forward by a sudden yearning to know why he exists. Just as many human beings look to various deities for some sign that they are loved by those that created them, both K and his kindred enemy Luv are moved by a need to have some sign that they are loved by their architects. For Luv, this means doing everything in her power to stay in Niander Wallace’s good graces. Beneath her veneer of steely professional competence is a naked hunger for her creator’s approval. For K, who spent much of his life in an orphanage with no hope of ever knowing what created him, the sudden sense that he might have a human father sends him on a mission to find his own creator. Whether we are seeking acceptance from a celestial parent or a biological one, Blade Runner 2049 posits that to be alive is to grasp toward some kind of validation from the powers above us. And as much as K’s quest is about discovering whether replicants can create life for themselves, it is just as much borne out of an unspoken need to find someone who wanted him to exist. This is not a novel philosophy. The idea of a higher power being akin to a parent is a fundamental part of many religions. But Blade Runner 2049 uses it as another emotional building block. It is another layer of fog that the film adds to the experience and another way of showing how thin the line is between humans and replicants. All sentient beings feel self-doubt. They appeal to something greater than themselves for a direction through the mist. It is human to look to our parents and hope that we have made them proud. In the film’s final battle, Luv tells K, “I’m the best one.” It is a moment of arrogance and it comes from the film’s villain, but the line carries an air of sad, almost childish insecurity. The unflagging hunger for her god’s love is what drives Luv to do monstrous things. She may be the most powerful replicant ever built, but she is just as prone to neediness and vulnerability as any other being on the planet. To be alive is to be frail and exposed with our loudest boasts thinly covering our weak points like scraps of tattered cloth.


What makes Blade Runner 2049 so much more than an acceptable sequel to Blade Runner is how it does more than ape its predecessor’s philosophical talking points. Like any good sequel, Blade Runner 2049 has an impeccable understanding of the questions that drove the first film and also has ideas about how to expand them. It manages to take Blade Runner’s ideas about the need for love and validation from God or a parent and apply them to the human ache to feel significant to the world around us. While K wants to meet Deckard so he can finally know his father, there is also a deeper longing to learn that he is important. The notion that he could be the figurehead of the greater struggle for replicant personhood shakes him out of his ennui and opens his eyes to a cause that he had formerly ignored. Learning of this destiny will mean he is valued, not only by his parents but by the world at large. Joi tells him that she has always known he is special. This need to be unique, to find that we are indispensable to the world, is what drives K to disregard his orders and rewrite the rules of his mission. It also makes him more similar to Luv than he might ever want to believe. Luv may be desperate to be seen as superior in the eyes of one powerful man, but K is just as desperate to receive a badge of honor from the Universe. Without giving too much away, Blade Runner 2049 throws a wrinkle into K’s vision of himself as a central player in the fate of the world. The film slyly plays into the narrative of the Chosen One, only to subtly invert it in the name of asking insightful questions about what it means to be important. The film sees some folly in the human need to find a hero’s narrative for ourselves, but it is not judgmental of it. As with all its other musings about what it means to be human, Blade Runner 2049 is curious and sympathetic about how people grasp ceaselessly toward some grand purpose. On the one hand, even a delusional belief in our own significance can sometimes embolden us to do things that are courageous and noble and quite beyond what we initially thought ourselves capable of. Still, the film sees folly in the idea of being chosen. Progress, revolution, and social change are complicated forces that require the actions of a great many individuals, and it is probably naïve to think that they could ever hinge on one pivotal figure. The idea that you are that one missing puzzle piece is wrongheaded, but what you are is a single, small thread in the complex, interweaving tapestry of human agency. Every sentient creature has been given the ability to make its own decision and an individual decision can be a thing tremendous power. No one is chosen, but you can choose yourself. You can opt in to what is right and opt out of what is wrong and that power can be a reminder that you are neither powerless nor alone.


For all the questions it raises about agency, consciousness, and personhood, Blade Runner 2049 excels best as a movie about the sensory experience of what it means to be alive. In that light, it is fitting to me that the film’s most poignant insights into what it means to exist involve small, tactile pleasures. To be alive is to be able to sense the world around you and come to appreciate it, not as a means to an end but for the strange, beautiful, singular experience it is. When a jaded K confronts Sapper Morton in the film’s opening, he finds the farmer has been doing more than growing tasteless protein for the world’s cities. He has been harvesting a small stash of garlic for himself. K smells it when he enters the house and Sapper asks if he would like to try some. K does not see the point. He declines Sapper’s offer and then dutifully kills him. K’s major arc is about finding out if he has an all-important destiny but I think it is also about him finding something deeper than duty. I do not know if K would accept a piece of garlic by the film’s end, but I do believe it finds him closer to understanding that life is about luxuriating in small pleasures. When he finally finds Deckard, Deckard utters a line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It is about wanting some cheese and Deckard speaks it as if it were the key line in some religious text. He says it as if it were the password to get into some speakeasy and he waits to see if it resonates with K in any way. Does cheese mean anything to you? Does a piece of pop music awaken anything in your soul? Can life be about more than fulfilling our programming or completing some world-altering mission we have created for ourselves? Do you see the joy in the ephemeral, inessential minutiae of life? What does the smell of garlic mean to you? You wouldn’t happen to have a piece of cheese, would  you, boy? This is the true essence of the film and it is why I do not need Blade Runner 2049 to be a concise, terse, declarative piece of work. It is about atmosphere and confusion and the senses. To be alive is to be pulled screaming into a waking dream full of color, sounds, smells and tastes. Life is a mystery, but not the kind that you need to solve.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #19- Kedi

2017 gave me many an opportunity to feel thankful. A new job in  the lovely, little city I call home. Countless moments in the company of friends and family. The opportunity to spend time with an amazing nephew just as he’s finding his inimitable two year-old swagger. I saw Chicago for the first time and I made the decision to ask my spouse to marry me. And with all of that said, let me not mince words: I could never bring myself to call 2017 a good year. The past 12 months have been frequently beset with gloom, from the mass shooting in Las Vegas to the deluge that swept through Houston. From the conflagrations that razed my home state of California to the profane Hydra of avarice, apathy and bigotry that besieged Washington D.C. And for all the many reasons I love Film, chief among them is its ability to raise its voice in times of conflict. At its best, Film speaks to us of our environment and calls out injustice. And 2017, more than any other year in recent memory, really was a time for Film to smear black makeup under its eyes and help lead the good fight. I am pleased to say there were a number of films that did just that. Some such films appear higher on my year-end list. Others (The Shape of Water, Wonder Woman, Coco) did not make my list, but nonetheless hold my undying admiration for the fine, noble, humane ideas they represent. But as much as this is a time for fortitude and human solidarity, I must confess that the first film on my list is not any great statement about the kind of year 2017 was. It has no real fire to breathe and is not even primarily concerned with humanity at all. What Kedi, one of the three best documentaries of 2017, does provide is a kind of salve for the burns and abrasions of a tough year. As I type this, even a word as modestly comforting as “salve” feels almost hyperbolic for a movie this disarmingly sweet, but it feels right. Precious few of this year’s films soothed and reassured me the way this one did. At the end of the day, maybe I just came to realize what the greater Internet has known for decades now: as a home remedy for anxiety and dread, there are few cures more effective than watching videos of cats.


I do have my tongue a little bit in cheek in calling Kedi a cat video, but it gives me joy to think of it that way. If watching moving images of felines in all their majesty, eccentricity and hilarious inscrutability has long been one of the most reliable sources of joy and relaxation for an entire planet of web surfers, then it only stands to reason that there should be a filet mignon of the genre. What I love about Kedi is that I can call it the high watermark of cat behavior films, mean it sincerely, and have that be the least of the various compliments it deserves. It is also an ingenious little hybrid of a nature documentary, in which the natural environment happens to be a city. Kedi is not merely a cat movie but a movie about feral cats specifically, and it is even more specifically about the teeming multitude of feral cats that make their home in the Turkish capital of Istanbul. It is a film about the many cats who call this ancient city home and it is about what these peculiar, enigmatic animals mean to that city. One of the most effective conceits of Kedi is how the filmmakers set out to know the cats better by knowing the city better, and vice versa. The documentarians follow the cats through this urban landscape and a good part of the wonder comes from how well they assume a cat’s perspective. It is one thing to distantly film lions across a wide open savannah and quite another to literally shadow the wild version of a house cat through the bustling streets and narrow alleyways of a dense cityscape. The filmmakers embrace the challenge, not only following their feline subjects into little shops and down side-streets, but using smaller cameras to go with them into the smaller nooks that naturally make up an undomesticated cat’s environment. The cameras follow the cats down into the small crevices beneath sidewalks to chase rats and up on to high ledges of old buildings. While I have thus far described Kedi as a sweet and modest film, I have to applaud it for being quite a dexterous, energetic piece of filmmaking. In its humble way, it is the kind of documentary I always want more of: curious, observant, and filled with just as much cinematic verve as it needs. The film also gains considerable charm from not simply being about cats in general, but by looking closely at specific cats. One Istanbul resident marvels that every cat has its own unique personality and Kedi latches onto that idea by giving each cat its own self-contained chapter. One is a mother embracing a newfound sense of courage and responsibility. One is a charismatic ne’er-do-well with a penchant for breaking and entering and getting into fights he is incapable of winning. Another is an enterprising hunter who offers his rodent-killing services to a nice restaurant in exchange for a daily supply of fine fish entrails. One cat is a troublemaker who throws his weight around the local marketplace, and the film salutes his rebellious moxie by giving him his own Turkish rock soundtrack. I do not think I am incorrect in calling Kedi a modest film, but there is also such an engaging sense of detail to these animals and their hometown. I could concede that it is a film with humble aspirations, but it is also too attentive, sincere, and genuinely engaged to ever be slight.


What makes Kedi so much more than the sum of its feline parts really comes down to a delicate balance of tone. When I first saw the film, I gushed that I had just seen a Linklater film about cats, which is basically the nicest thing that could come out of my mouth, if you know what a lyrical, animal-loving, sentimentalist I am. In the end, what I really mean is that Kedi is warm, gentle, subtly spiritual, and it left me feeling very good about being alive. What really put me in mind of Richard Linklater is probably how lovingly it honors a great city without that ever being its raison d’etre. And here is where Kedi adds another notch to its belt: it stands among the finest travelogues I have ever seen without explicitly setting out to be a travelogue. Much as Linklater’s divine Before Sunrise blissfully captured the heart of Vienna by just watching its romantic leads stroll through it, Kedi paints a vivid portrait of modern Istanbul just by following the cats through a beautiful, old city and staying keenly attuned to how they interact with it. The film’s first title card notes that Istanbul’s cats have been a part of its character and its very architecture for thousands of years, and one of Kedi’s chief arguments is how the lifeforms that occupy a space help to define its personality. Istanbul is not just a city full of cats, in the way that New York City is a city full of rats. Istanbul is a place that draws an ineffable essence from its most famous animal, and there is great beauty in how it continues to shelter and nurture them. And while I would defend Kedi to the end of my days if it were just the best “cat video” ever made, I can now say that it is much more than that. It is about the soul of Istanbul and how it has become inextricably linked with the spirit of the wild cats that have spent generations upon generations living and thriving there. In that way, it seems to posit that what makes a city beautiful transcends mere architecture. The beauty of a place must be understood through the lifeforms that call it home. The film’s first image is a panorama of the rooves of Istanbul. I came to appreciate how the film starts from this removed, aerial position and then zooms down into the tiny cracks that truly make up the city. In that way, Kedi says to me that, for as much as one can grasp the beauty of a city from a postcard or the view from an airplane, the true joy of any place exists at the ground level. In the end, Kedi’s twin successes as both a cat documentary and a travelogue of Istanbul do not exist in isolation. They support each other in the same way that the cats and the city have for so long. Following the cats allows us to see Istanbul intimately, and getting to know Istanbul in its finest details allows us to better understand the cats. Kedi is something I had never seen before: a heartfelt tour of a gorgeous city, conducted by that city’s power animal.


But what I love the most about Kedi, and what takes it beyond being one of the more novel, well-crafted nature documentaries ever made is how it follows Werner Herzog’s insight in Grizzly Man that films about wild nature are really films about human nature. In seeing these street cats as the key to unlocking Istanbul, the filmmakers also imply that these animals can help us understand the generous soul of the city’s people. The filmmakers have palpable love for the way Istanbul’s residents not only tolerate these street cats but treasure them. Kedi shows how a spirit of kindness and curiosity toward another lifeform is really a manifestation of self-curiosity and self-love. On some level, it is about the human tendency to project ourselves on to animals and how that can help put us in touch with our better angels. Animals can be a reflection of our best selves and our aspirations of who we wish we could be. One young woman looks at a cat she feels close to and admires her eloquence and proud femininity. She sees this animal and suddenly she wishes that more women in Turkish society felt as empowered to be defiant with their womanhood. A chef at a fancy delicatessen regards the cat who regularly patronizes his restaurant as an animal of both regal bearing and polite humility. He likes that this animal is determined to find a meal, yet never outwardly begs for his food. He refers to him as a cat with manners; an animal with the refined self-possession of an aristocrat and the moxie of a street kid. As I watched this proud man talk, I wondered how much his impression of this particular cat tapped into a sense of self. I could now imagine a man of meager beginnings who had molded himself into a person of sophistication and substance. And beyond mere projection, Kedi is also about that most precious quality in human beings: empathy. The ability to look at something that is not yourself and care for it. Kedi introduces us to two men who have experienced some hardship and found a renewed feeling of hope and compassion in these street cats. One suffered a financial setback when his boat sank and the other experienced a nervous breakdown. Both have found something restorative in helping the cats, checking in on them and bringing them food and medicine. They seem to have found solace and strength in the simple act of being good to another life in need. “They make you fall in love again”, one man muses contentedly.


Kedi is also about the value of basic gratitude for the world around us, be it a cat, a beautiful old city, or a fellow human being. That sense of humble joy really resonated for me on a second viewing. Kedi is filled with a sense of wonder and thankfulness for the simple joys of life and, without making any great fuss about it, I think the film is about how that sense of appreciation can be a bedrock for your soul in times when life feels harsh and austere. One man reflects that if you can find joy in looking at a cat, then the world will be yours. That is a feeling I have long held. That life’s greatest gift is just consciousness itself and our ability to sense and experience the tiniest pleasures of the world around us. And now I want to be very careful not to come off like some sedated self-help guru cliché; to not venture out of my depth and into a quagmire of cheap bromides and pat slogans. There are weighty matters in this wide world of ours, and a great many of them cannot be satisfied by gratitude and appreciative acceptance. I am fairly sure there are quite a lot of injustices that will only start to get better when humanity becomes less grateful and accepting. A sweet, humane film about cats will not fight off any of the threats that loom over our world, nor will it marshal any significant ideological sea change. There are real battles to be fought and serious discourses to be had and, as I said before, I look to Film to get its hands dirty in all of that. But battles do not just need weapons, armor, and ammunition. Wars also require poultices, bandages, and salves. Small trifles still have value in times of strife. We will still have need of gangly comedies, featherweight romances, and glitzy musical extravaganzas. And I am happy to say I am not so far gone that I do not feel a profound sense of adoration for this generous, lyrical cat video. Kedi is a small, good thing and the ability to appreciate small, good things is a way of checking our pulses to make sure we are still human. If Kedi is not a great mirror for our times, it is nevertheless some more humble form of mirror, capable of reflecting ideas that are warm-hearted, wholesome, and no less valuable for being small.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #11- Jackie

We hear the sound of Jackie before we ever see Jackie Kennedy. Before the famously forlorn First Lady’s face appears, the woozy opening notes of 2016’s best score envelop and disorient us. The buzzy, droning strings of Mica Levi’s menacingly pretty, beautifully tense composition sound out over a black screen before one sees a single frame of Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s visually distinct film. I think this is an important decision. Jackie’s music may be the best possible representative for what a paradoxically familiar and discombobulating piece of work it is. And “discombobulating” is about as fine a compliment as I can come up with for a film in a genre that, year to year, can be trusted to produce its fair share of lazy, formulaic films: the biopic. Jackie is a great biographical film for its keen insights into history, the way legacies are authored by the people who lived them, and what the lens of fame can do to something as universally human as death and loss. But, before it is about any of those things, Jackie is really about the subversion of the very idea of a traditional biopic and that first anxious exhalation of its score is basically the sounding shot to let us know this will be the case. The DNA of a stirring prestige biography is buried somewhere inside of Jackie, just as the sentimental strings and dignified horns of a standard stuffy biopic’s score are also there, struggling to make themselves heard over the more alien sounds. But the traditional polish of prestige has been scrubbed off, like some unvarnished piece of silver, to reveal all the rust and tiny cracks and strange protrusions that would have been tastefully sanded off of a standard biopic. Those first eerie notes announce a historical film that will be uncommonly honest as a picture of genuine human beings. However, Jackie also resists the idea that any biography can be entirely free of fiction. Mica Levi’s sinister strings and droning horns are partly symbolic of a biopic with more authentic warts, but they also call to mind a dense, confusing fog. They set the tone for a film that looks piercingly and unflinchingly at Jackie Kennedy and the days surrounding the Kennedy assassination but that also shrugs off the idea that its own idiosyncrasy makes it any less manufactured and fictitious than any other cinematic biography. Minutes after witnessing her husband’s death, Jackie Kennedy takes a hard look at her teary, blood-smeared face in an Air Force One mirror and then blurs her own image away with a swipe of her hand. And this is more or less how Pablo Larrain seems to see history in general; as something forever shifting in and out of focus.


Jackie is the story of Jackie Kennedy in the week or so following the Kennedy assassination, but that story is set adrift in a dreamy haze of memories. The FIrst Lady is played as a dynamic, oscillating whirlwind of anguished vulnerability and self-aware poise by Natalie Portman. Jackie Kennedy is the best work of Natalie Portman’s career, and, if Jackie didn’t already give me so much to talk about, I could easily make this review entirely about her performance. While Jackie Kennedy tells her story to a reporter from Life magazine (Billy Crudup), we go back in time to the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and sometimes back to the more distant past, to when the First Lady would put on grand concerts in the White House ballroom or to when she gave a televised tour of the Presidential home that she had taken great pains to decorate with important historical pieces. The film presents Jackie as someone who believed in the value of great legacies and beautiful cultural artifacts, even as her husband dismissed it as a waste of money. The story at the center of Jackie‘s foggy reverie is Jackie Kennedy’s desire to give her husband the best state funeral that money can buy, both as a sign of love for him and as a means of ensuring that he is remembered by his country. On the night of the assassination, as she and Bobby Kennedy are being driven away from the hospital where John has just passed away, Jackie asks the driver what he knows of past Presidents. She asks if he remembers anything of James Garfield, William McKinley, and Abraham Lincoln. Even though all three were assassinated, Lincoln is the only one whose legacy he can really recall. Jackie recalls that Lincoln was mourned with perhaps the most elaborate, ornate funeral in American political history and she sets about to seeing that her husband is memorialized with just as grand a gesture.  The true essence of watching Jackie is less about its basic plot than it is about bathing in its intoxicatingly sorrowful ambience and listening to its heady, rhetorical digressions. Cursing the fact that his brother got to do very little with his time as President outside of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bobby Kennedy (played very well by Peter Sarsgaard) says that “history is harsh”, and this is something that Jackie, for all her love of history, also sees. Pablo Larrain’s film is about Jackie Kennedy having her own private war with the fickle beast that is History. It is her fight to ensure that her family’s legacy does not become lost to time and she shrewdly sees the funeral as a crucial battleground.


If Mica Levi’s undulating uneasy musical blend of reverent grandeur and dizzy discord is a good representative of the film as a whole, Jackie’s other technical elements also do an excellent job of tapping into the film’s themes of history as something too slippery to be entirely pinned down. Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography is beautiful and grand and showy and it has its share of shots that would not look out of place in the kind predictably lavish prestige picture that is Jackie’s disreputable kin. But somehow, once again, something elusive and unnerving is at play inside the familiar form. I am struggling to put into words why a white monument, bathed in fog, on top of a hill behind John F. Kennedy’s final resting place at Arlington feels different; not just haunting but almost haunted. In any ordinary film, the shot would still have a kind of gorgeous solemnity, which is also partly the point here, but there is also a kind of restless, bristling energy to the way Jackie uses a shot like this. As Jackie makes her firm, final determination of where her husband should be buried, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. My most current, and not at all certain, take is that we may be feeling Jackie Kennedy’s own mixture of dread and awe at the very idea of people having final resting places; the notion that living, breathing human beings stop living and breathing and then become finished stories, on gravestones and in memories. In ways I cannot entirely explain, Jackie is one of the only biopics I can name that feels a bit like a ghost story. The acting also bears out this tension between real people and what remains of human beings when nothing remains but their legacy. All the characters feel like flesh and blood, and yet there is also something mysterious and unknowable to them and this adds to Jackie’s ghostly tone. Lyndon B. Johnson is seen as a prideful, domineering figure, already too wrapped up in tending to his own public image as President to pay much mind to the devastated widow of his predecessor. In real life, Lyndon B. Johnson was a man who had at least some better angels, but the film does not let us past his imperious surface, and in any other movie, this would be a tremendous failing. As a matter of fact, this kind of presentation of Lyndon B. Johnson was a failing in Ava Duvernay’s otherwise very good Martin Luther King biopic, Selma. But Jackie is a strange and special beast and Pablo Larrain is a skilled enough auteur to use a kind of intentional opaqueness to the benefit of his film. This cryptic inscrutability feels of a piece in Jackie, where it might ordinarily feel like a piece was missing. This is not thin characterization but characterization that toys with our expectations and critiques the very idea that we can entirely know who Lyndon B. Johnson or Bobby Kennedy or Jackie Kennedy really were. Jackie is awash in a kind of fog that wafts around its subjects and keeps us squinting to see them just a little bit clearer. Pablo Larrain wants us to finally know, in his movie and in every biopic to come, that this kind of clear understanding is a vain effort.


Still, the last thing Jackie wants to do is discourage our curiosity about history. Larrain simply wants his audience to know that grasping history requires us to know that our vision can never be perfect. Making sense of the past means we must create a kind of helpful fiction. As Billy Crudup’s journalist (based off of Life writer Theodore H. White but given no official name in the film’s credits) is sitting down to conduct his interview, he tells Jackie Kennedy that he is striving to get to the truth but that he would settle for a story that sounds convincing. Jackie wants us to take this same approach in our efforts to make sense of recorded events. Jackie believes very much in the value of history but it would likely argue that the word “non-fiction” is effectively meaningless. The film is a fascinating, rigorous take on the idea of how human beings shape history after it happens, and what makes that stance all the more sharp and cohesive is how Larrain presents all this as a seamless extension of Jackie Kennedy’s own soul. For as much as Jackie is about looking at important people, including Jackie herself, through a sheet of frosted glass, one facet of the former First Lady is made very clear: Jackie Kennedy loved history. She cherished it and valued it and she thought very hard about how she and her husband would be remembered by coming generations. And so the film’s notion that sculpting a historical legacy is something of an act in creative writing is what truly illuminates Jackie Kennedy, even as that same approach is what makes her somewhat unknowable. It presents Jackie Kennedy as both the perfect subject and the ideal lecturer on the principle that history is a kind of ever-fluctuating mirage.


The question that I come back to the most with Jackie is what all this talk about mythmaking and historical license has to do with grief. Because, while the film philosophizes and muses over the nature of history, it also happens to be a superb portrait of bereavement. Jackie is one of the truest films in recent memory about what grieving feels like, and this is where it’s also important to remember what a narrowly focused period piece it is. Jackie is not the full story of the early 1960s or the Kennedys or even the three short years between the time of President Kennedy’s inauguration and assassination. It is really the historical account of Jackie Kennedy’s grief. Leaving aside the later Life magazine interview that is just there to act as a framing device, Jackie is focused on the short period of about a week in which Jackie had to deal with her husband’s death, move herself and her young children out of the White House, and tend to her husband’s funeral arrangements. It is really the story of how Jackie Kennedy went about throwing one of the most opulent and iconic state funerals in modern history and how she maneuvered around the many people who tried to silence her, from in-laws who wanted their slain brother buried on a private family plot to political handlers who didn’t want to run the risk of parading American leaders through the streets in the weeks after an assassination. It is the story of Jackie Kennedy’s long week of the soul. So I will pose the question that lingers with me every time I watch the film: what do grief and history have to do with each other? And I think the answer may be, “Not much. Usually.” That is to say, not much unless you are the widow of the most powerful, famous man in the world. And if you are, then, for one thing, your grief might belong to history whether you would wish it to or not. And what makes Jackie Kennedy the most electrifying, enigmatic character in Natalie Portman’s career is how it suggests the paradox of a woman trying to deal privately with her own sorrow while also realizing that grieving publicly may be the very best strategic card she has to play. In the throes of intense suffering, Jackie Kennedy came to understand that thrusting her grief even further into the national spotlight would do a world of good: for her husband’s legacy, for a shell-shocked American populace, and finally for herself. Pablo Larrain argues that a former First Lady who many saw as demure and airy showed a rather brilliant understanding of the optics of her own tragedy. A great many people wanted to close that ugly chapter before the ink was dry, thinking that it would be best for the nation to just move on. Instead, Jackie Kennedy wrested that chapter from the hands of powerful men, picked up a quill, and scrawled her name there in bold block letters. And in the end, it’s not just that our most iconic First Lady made a cagey move to cement her and her husband’s legacy. It’s that leaning into that grief rather than suppressing it turned out to be just what a frightened country needed to assuage its own anguish. And that, to the best of my understanding, is what grief and history have to do with each other.


I have sometimes heard Jackie described as a “cold” film and I can understand why in a way. It follows a traumatized widow in the aftermath of a terrible killing and watches her pain with an unsparing curiosity. It is also filled with soliloquies that would feel right at home in a collection of historical essays. It is a film with the academic rigor of a philosophy lecture and the deathly hush of a mausoleum, and I can absolutely accept that it is a cold film if you mean its mood makes you want to hug a loved one or at least put on a sweater. But I object to the idea that Jackie is, in any way, a detached or clinical film. Whatever one thinks of Pablo Larrain’s spectral, unorthodox period piece, I think they would be hard-pressed to deny that Jackie is a potent emotional experience. It is a film where history itself is less about a strict set of facts than the sheer feeling of a moment in history. What it felt like for America and what it must have felt like for Jackie Kennedy. If I asked someone what it was like to live through those weeks, I would expect that the overall mood of sadness and shock is what would stand out most in their memory. Grief and loss are like that, whether one is burying a parent or a President. As it’s happening, I imagine you do your best to fumble your way through the fog. Then, years later, when someone asks you what it was like, you sit down and do your best to write a story that feels true.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #12- 20th Century Women

When I review films, I often give my highest praise to the ones that leave me with a lot to unpack both on an ideological and a visual level. And that’s just because, as my favorite special child of all the art forms (please don’t tell Music), I have seen its incredible potential. Film has the power to convey just about any idea, concept, principle, theme and theory a human brain can conceive of, and lord know that Mike Mills’  effervescently literate coming-of-age dramedy 20th Century Women has plenty of heady ideas to share; its own ideas and the ideas of various feminist scholars, ex-Presidents and Henry Rollins-led hardcore bands. But all the same, 20th Century Women is as fine an opportunity as any to remind myself that a great film can be about more than just how stimulating its insights are. When I think about what Mike Mills (taking the lovely humanism of Beginners and losing most of what made that fine film at times pretentious) has accomplished here, it’s not just the breathlessly smart dialogue about feminism, punk music, and the end of the 1970s that lands it on my list. In fact far from “just” that quality, I might be so bold as to say it is not that at all that makes it a proud entry in my top twenty films. After I chew over the film’s terrific ideas, the aftertaste that really stays with me is a more simple, emotional sense. It is the feeling Roger Ebert spoke of when, having walked out of Almost Famous, he felt a desire to hug himself. After walking out of 20th Century Women, I had not only a desire to hug myself, but a wish to walk back in the theater, somehow find those characters still standing in there among the discarded popcorn boxes, and hug each and every one of them. True, 20th Century Women probably could have landed on my list just on the strength of its verbiage, but it is even more essential that those wonderful words come out of the minds and mouths of funny, lovably fallible, and impeccably acted characters. More than any other film outside of my top ten, 20th Century Women is probably the best representative of that often deceptively modest brand of film that I have always unabashedly loved: the character study. Because for as much as I love scripts full of eloquence and poetry and philosophy, there really is no substitute for the heady magic of having “met” characters you love for the first time and feeling a full heart at the thought of returning to them again. For example, I adore the serenely beautiful language of a film like Before Sunset, but the real reason I return to that enchanting world again and again and again is that Celine and Jesse live there. It is the same way with 20th Century Women. The warm, witty, and yearning dialogue certainly helps to make the world of the film as intoxicating as it is, but that place would feel empty without such likable, lively, and unmistakably human characters making their home inside of it.


The home in question can be found near the beaches of sunny Santa Barbara in the year 1979. Before we learn anything else, we learn that 20th Century Women is, in essence, a period piece. Better yet, it is that exquisitely subtle kind of period piece that makes you feel like you are in the time period without making a showy fuss about it. Its understated feel for a specific decade puts it in proud company with the graceful evocations of the 1960s and 1980s in films like Inside Llewyn Davis and We Are the Best!, and, like those two films, the music of its temporal setting plays a major role in setting the scene. Most of the film’s scenes take place in a two-story house where a free-spirited but pragmatic single mother named Dorothea (brilliantly played by Annette Bening) is attempting to raise her fifteen year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, in one of the most confidently relaxed newcomer performances I have seen in some time). The house is also home to two other tenants. One is an earthy, yoga-practicing handyman played by Billy Crudup. A gentle soul, he is the kind of person who is often full of shit, but always agreeably so. It comes as no surprise when we learn he likes to spend his free time sculpting his own clay bowls. The other tenant is Abbie, a woman in her late twenties who is recovering from cervical cancer and who finds solace in Talking Heads records and taking photographs for art installations. The unofficial third tenant is Julie, a moody, sardonic seventeen year-old, who frequently scales the scaffold up to Jamie’s bedroom, so the two can spend the night conversing and chastely cuddling. The film is very much about meeting and existing alongside these very three-dimensional people, but the film does have a central plot that gives it just enough momentum. One day Jamie, at the urging of his skater friends, performs a stunt that momentarily cuts off one’s breathing, and ends up in the hospital. Mortified at her son’s recklessness, Dorothea suddenly begins to worry that her guidance may alone may not be enough to usher Jamie into a reasonably well-adjusted adulthood. She decides to calls on Abbie and Julie to spend extra time with him and tells them to share with him all the wisdom their tender years have given them. And, while much happens from there, that is really the crux of what you need to know about the film as you sit down to view it. Once upon a time in the 1970s, in Santa Barbara, there was a house full of smart, fallible, good-natured people who cared about each other a lot, and who all did what they could to help the youngest of them come of age with as much grace and unconditional love as possible. Much interesting conflict spills forth from there, but that sense of decency and compassion is always the film’s true north, and it ensures that kindness and good humor infuse even the saddest of its passages.


20th Century Women is the kind of film that revels in the simple, heartfelt joy of creating a rich, nuanced community of people, which it observes with palpable affection and occasional bemused concern. Its approach is simple, but there is an ocean of depth to that simplicity. As soon as I watched Dorothea tell the other characters what she needed from them in that kitchen, a smile spread across my face. Something about that simple declaration of purpose, both for the characters and for the film, made me realize right then and there that I was in very good hands. I knew I would love the film because I knew that characters who already felt impossibly rich and true not even a quarter of the way into it were going to spend the next ninety minutes or so just speaking with one another and interacting and relating to each other and revealing new layers of themselves. The film had spent its opening introducing me to a small, perfectly realized community and it now declared in a soft, warm, and assured tone that it was going to spend the rest of that time deepening those relationships even further. And I knew that, by the end, I would feel like I was now a part of that tiny world. It is the quiet genius of Mills’ approach that, just as Dorothea wants Jamie to listen to the women around him, the film in turn wants us to stand with Jamie as surrogates and to listen to their stories. Because, let me be absolutely clear, 20th Century Women holds a bright, beautiful torch for the axiom that women are people and that society becomes healthier when it pays attention to them. Dorothea knows that it will do Jamie a world of good to listen to, and converse with, the women in his life, and Mills implies that it is good for the whole lot of us. 20th Century Women, on its face, is a story about how it takes a village to raise a child, but it gently subverts that trope by paying even more attention the village than to the child and by having three women (and the occasional encouragement of a hilariously tranquil Billy Crudup) assume the role of the village.


In fairness, Jamie is actually a wonderful, interesting character in his own right and the film is more interesting for not making him a total cipher, if only because it enriches the female characters to watch someone genuinely responding to them and processing the knowledge they have to give. Still, Mike Mills wisely makes sure that Jamie, his autobiographical avatar, is only the fourth most important character in the film. Because, if it isn’t clear from the title, Mike Mills’ autobiography is not really the story of Mills at all, but his attempt to give something back to the women who raised him. 20th Century Women is a film about women existing at a time of great change, for the country about to elect Ronald Reagan and for a society of women fighting to have their voices heard, respected, and valued. And here I have to give credit to Mike Mills for knowing what he needed to do to make this kind of film: let the women take center stage. A middle-aged white man making a film about how much he learned from the women in his life could have ended up feeling patronizing or at the very least piously self-congratulatory, but Mills does right by his female protagonists by making sure 20th Century Women is a story driven by the personalities and souls of its female characters. To go back to what I spoke of before, placing character development above ideas doesn’t just happen to work for the film. It turns out to be the exact right way to tell the story because the story’s entire purpose is to listen to women. And that simple act of just letting them be heard is more important than whatever they happen to be speaking of in any given scene, whether its feminist politics, sex, or the difference between Talking Heads and Black Flag. 20th Century Women is a vibrant, aching, and clever salute to some women in 1970s Santa Barbara, and it salutes the complexity and compassion of women around the world by extension. Mike Mills conjures up a beautiful symphony of female voices and he avoids reducing the struggle of being a woman to some simplistic moral. In a sly, observant take on Mills’ own role in this story, he has his younger self read a feminist text to his mother, explaining how society marginalizes older women. Dorothea thinks for a moment and then reminds him that no amount of essays will ever make him fully understand her. The lesson Jamie learns is that every woman has her own unique story and that the key to empathy lies in listening to each new woman you meet as if you have never heard it. Because, of course, you haven’t.


But, to reiterate, the genius of 20th Century Women is really just that it leads by example. Dorothea decides that the best medicine for making sure her son grows into a good person is to just be around her and Abbie and Julie and Mike Mills prescribes us the very same tonic. He sits us down to listen to these beautifully shaded characters and in so doing he entrusts the film to its real authors: three phenomenal actresses, each from a different generation and each giving what could be the best work of their respective careers. Elle Fanning is not yet nineteen years old as of this writing and the character of Julie finds her in control of a sharp sense of comic timing that goes hand in hand with her ability to convey dramatic pathos. 20th Century Women is the kind of film where you might find yourself smiling just for a second in the middle of a sad scene and Fanning has an uncanny knack for playing multiple emotions at once. Julie is, in many ways, the film’s toughest role because it requires Fanning to dance around the cliche of the troubled, rebellious, sexually liberated teenager while never tumbling headlong into it. Fanning’s face holds notes of apathy and desperation to somehow pierce beyond her own bored ennui. Her character belongs to a long line of promiscuous iconoclasts, but she also displays a bemused self-awareness. She realizes that she has become something of a dissatisfied youth stereotype, at least to an outsider’s eye, but she is young and her experiments with men and booze and pot are the best idea she has for how to process her pain and confusion. The daughter of a therapist, she has the tools to scrutinize her own decisions relentlessly, but they are still the decisions she most wants to make at this time in her life. Greta Gerwig is an utter revelation as Abbie, a twenty-something visual artist recovering trying to come to terms with her brush with disease and the fact that she may never be able to have children of her own. Gerwig is one of my absolute favorite of modern actresses, and she has been brilliant in film like Frances Ha and Mistress America. Still those films, both from director Noah Baumbach, played on Gerwig’s talent for taking oblivious immaturity to its most graceful and nuanced point. Abbie feels distinctly different from past Gerwig performances. She is complex but also more straightforward in some ways. Abbie is in an emotional freefall, but she is also someone with a better sense of who she is and what she wants. There is no veil of irony or archness to shield Abbie as she nakedly processes how cruelly life can disrupt our best laid plans. Gerwig gets to play the film’s most devastating scenes and its funniest scenes as well (as when she coaches an entire dinner table on how to say “menstruation” without flinching), and she approaches every scene in the film with a sense of unguarded sincerity. Finally, there is Annette Bening’s Dorothea, which I am increasingly coming to think is the best work of her long, wonderful career. Mike Mills may have made his film for all women but it holds a special place in its heart for mothers. If 20th Century Women is a film about the complexities of womankind, then Dorothea is clearly its proper protagonist. She compels Jamie to continually question the mores of the world he will soon join, but she also wrestles with her own biases and the fact that it just gets harder to keep an open mind about every little thing as we age. She insists on accompanying Abbie to a punk club to see the musicians her son idolizes but she turns in early, knowing she will never be able to relate to the angry, inarticulate noise on stage. She reminds Jamie to stay aware of how his identity as a man gives him preferential treatment in an unjust system, but she is also leery about the more radical feminist ideas in the books that Abbie gives Jamie to read. 20th Century Women is a film about the ways in which the experience of being a woman had evolved by 1979, and Bening’s thoughtful, warm, prickly, quick-witted, intermittently exasperated, and ever self-probing Dorothea is the character who is most aware of just how much had changed by that time. Dorothea is a woman who is proud of her years of experience but also knows better than anyone the value of not letting one’s assumptions go unchecked. Watching the dance between her keen intelligence and her lovely humility was one of the most genuinely funny and emotionally nourishing experiences I had all year.


20th Century Women is a great feminist film because I takes the lesson that women are people and then applies the show-not-tell principle. Women are people, and here are three fantastic women speaking witty, soulful dialogue, and portrayed by three of the best actresses from three different generations. Mike Mills thanks the women in his life for everything they did for him, but his final gift is to actually treat the film like a gift and not make it about himself. 20th Century Women is about this lovely, urbane group of women and how entertainingly enriching it is to spend two hours getting to know them. At the film’s end, Mike Mills admits that fully capturing the tangle of emotions, ideas and desires that made up his mother would be an impossible feat. Women are people and a person is too wild a thing to be summed up and neatly defined. It is no secret that Hollywood still needs to do a much better job of telling women’s stories and the reason for that is not simply that we would all be better for hearing them, though I do believe that we would be. We need more films about women because it’s just the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do because film is an invaluable tool for helping us connect to humanity and women comprise more than half of what humanity literally means. I adored this film because I met a house full of great, great characters. They were smart, soul-searching, passionate and funny and, as with any great character study, I am excited to visit these people again in the years to come. They feel like real people to me now. And it means a lot that these real people are women.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #13- Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings is a children’s film that knows we never stop being children. This is especially true when we are at the feet of a great storyteller. It doesn’t matter how old you are. If you are there listening to the tale, you must turn off the chatter in your head in your soul, inch closer to the fire, and pay very close attention. In the first words of 2016’s best animated film, the young Kubo urgently instructs the viewer, “If you must blink, do it now.” For if we let our attention flag for even a second, the hero of this adventure “will surely perish.” Kubo says from the very beginning that the reader, the listener, the viewer are a part of the storytelling process, and the act of listening to the story and and learning from it is a central part of what narrative is all about. Kubo may be a modern animated film, but it shrewdly takes the form of a kind of ancient fable, as if its thrills, twists, and mythic battles had been the stuff of folklore for generations. It acts as if its wisdom had already been passed down through centuries of oral tradition, and in a sense that is true. It is true because, fundamentally, Kubo’s moral is that it is vital, and has always been vital, for human beings to tell each other stories. The art of storytelling has been one of the cornerstones of human development for thousands of years. Stories about how past generations hunted or farmed or built shelters helped us expand the reach of civilization. Familial histories gave children a sense of those who had come before them. And, as our minds expanded, we used stories to help theorize what might lay beyond our sight. Beyond the sky and beyond the barrier of death. Kubo and the Two Strings is the year’s most beautiful animated film and also one of the best about how human beings tell stories to make sense of an inscrutable world. It is the story of a nine-year old boy who tells stories for a living and how those stories help him cope with loss and mortality.


Kubo is another fine work from the very talented animators at Laika studios. Their films consistently show an affinity for children grappling with mortality, fear of the unknown, and the border between childhood and adulthood. We first meet Kubo as an infant in the film’s breathtaking opening. His mother is desperately trying to shepherd her son to safety across an angry sea in a small wooden boat. Hundred-foot waves threaten to dash their craft to pieces, but she is able to dispel them with notes from a magical stringed instrument. They make it to the shores, but not before the storm throws the boat onto the rocks and causes Kubo’s mother to suffer a debilitating head wound, which robs her of much of her memory. The two are running from Kubo’s aunts and his grandfather, the Moon King, who rules the Heavens. Kubo’s mother was once a deity, but gave up immortality for the love of Kubo’s father, a mortal samurai who was slain by the vindictive Moon King. Kubo never met his father. We also learn that the Moon King managed to steal one of Kubo’s eyes. He is now a nine-year old boy living  in a mountain cave above an ancient Japanese fishing village. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, who subtly plays him as an intelligent, observant boy, while still retaining the innocence and inexperience of youth) begins each morning by feeding his disabled mother, who can no longer take care of herself or speak during the day. He spends his days down in the marketplace telling stories to the villagers. As a result of being half-deity, Kubo can puppeteer elaborate origami figures by strumming his magical, titular, two-stringed instrument. He returns home every day before sundown to greet his mother, who regains some of her faculties at night. She still has difficulty, however, remembering all the details of her past and she can only give Kubo a vague impression of the father he never knew. The most important story she tells him is of his grandfather and wicked aunts, who are always hunting for them in the hopes of stealing Kubo’s other eye. She tells him that he must never stay out past sundown, when the moon will be in the sky. She also reminds him to keep two possessions with him at all times: a small wooden charm in the shape of a monkey and his father’s old robe, which has the shape of a beetle on the back.


One day, Kubo wakes up to find that the village is celebrating its annual festival to honor the dead. The villagers make lanterns that they believe allow them to talk to the souls of their departed loved ones. Kubo is so moved by a desire to speak to his father that he stays later than normal to make a lantern and ends up out past sundown. As a result, Kubo’s malevolent aunts find him and almost catch him. He is only able to escape through his mother’s intervention, but she ends up giving her life and soul to buy him time. She conjures a pair of wings on his back, which fly him to a faraway part of the country. Kubo wakes up in a snowy wasteland with a full-sized monkey looking over him. Monkey (voiced with a beautiful blend of toughness and sensitivity by Charlize Theron, who also voices Kubo’s mother) is Kubo’s wooden charm come to life, and she tells him that his mother poured the last of her magical life force into her so that she may protect him. Monkey informs Kubo that he must find three sacred objects that made up his father’s armor, in order to have a chance of defeating his grandfather and aunts. They are also joined by Kubo’s tiny origami samurai, who comes to life with compass-like powers, and later by a samurai who is half-man and half-beetle. The samurai, who simply goes by Beetle, can remember nothing, but feels sure that he was once a warrior loyal to Kubo’s father. Kubo has much in common with a great many stories of unlikely allies questing to find sacred relics, but it exudes a sweetness and a sad acceptance of death that very few such quest tales have. It is the story of how stories of our loved ones help us survive, make us who we are, and connect us to our past. In searching for these objects that belong to his father, Kubo also comes to learn about his family and finds that people leave traces of themselves in the narratives and possessions they leave behind.


One of the most refreshing and lovely qualities of Kubo and the Two Strings is that it speaks to children in a soft but firm tone about the idea of death and loss. Even if this were not one of the most gorgeously visualized animated films of recent years, it would still be fit to stand with films like Bambi, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo because of how directly it looks at the grief of not knowing if you will see a loved one again. Like those other great animated films, Kubo is soothing and sympathetic but also bruisingly honest. Kubo can take solace in the fact that his mother’s magic rests in Monkey and he can find a strong, compassionate male figure in Beetle, but the film also knows that having the essence of a lost parent is different from really having your mother and father in front of you. The stories of those we lose are a salve for our pain and they help us feel a spiritual bond to them, but stories do not erase the notion of loss and death. What they can do is write our love for one another in great, bold letters. This is why Kubo is willing to risk his own life to go to the festival in the first place. Even if it is only a ritual, that yearning, soul-filling act of telling a story to a departed loved one is powerful and worthwhile. For Kubo, telling a story to the father he lost is an act of love more powerful than death. This is one of Kubo’s most important overarching themes and its final thoughts on the matter of death and storytelling lead to one of the most ecstatically poignant, heartbreakingly true endings in any film this year. And it makes abundant sense that a film so sweetly honest about dying should have one of the year’s most powerful endings. Because Kubo and the Two Strings is a film all about the inevitability of endings. It is about the hurt of knowing we must all say goodbye and the solace we can find in telling someone’s story all over again once they are gone.


Kubo is simply one of the most emotionally healthy films about bereavement I have ever seen. And, even more than classics like Bambi, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo, the film is intently focused on the hardship and the unexpected beauty that comes from grieving for another person. Grieving were huge parts of those other films, but they are the focus of Kubo and I find it invaluable and refreshing to have a film that takes on that issue. For children and for everyone else too. It does not peddle in easy answers and it does not presume to know what lies beyond death. For all the film’s use of magic and all its mythical lore, the final question of what comes after our last breath remains hidden away. Kubo has no problem including a magical instrument that can puppeteer origami figures, a child who is half-god, a powerful lunar deity, a wooden charm come to life, a giant beetle with a samurai’s soul, and numerous fantastical monsters to battle. This is all in the game of storytelling. But Kubo and the Two Strings refuses to disrespect the children, of all ages, listening earnestly at its feet, by telling them it knows what happens when this life is over. What it will do is hug you tightly and tell you to find comfort in the memories of love once shared. Along with storytelling, memory is the tonic Kubo prescribes to help us process mortality and the unknown. The point of each magical object, be it a mother’s charm or a father’s robe, is not to suggest a world where magic can “cure” mortality, but one where treasured objects can offer a balm for our cuts. Inside Kubo’s scintillating modern technology is an old fable that tells us we can find comfort in any old relic; anything that stokes our memories of each other and of the love we shared. Monkey, herself an old memento, makes Kubo a bracelet out of his mother’s hair and tells him to keep it with him. It is a memory, she tells him, “and memories are powerful things.


What makes Kubo the most splendid animated offering of 2016 is not just its beautiful, hauntingly human story, but the fact that Laika Studios do what is perhaps their best work to date in order to bring it all to life. At the very least, Kubo and the Two Strings stands with the studio’s 2008 masterwork, Coraline, in the way it conceives a striking, surreal world of magic and places a smart, inquisitive child in the midst of it. And as with Coraline, this world is not just visually astounding but totally of a piece with the story the film is trying to tell. I regard Henry Selick as the master of stop motion and I have no interest in saying that Kubo “beats” the visuals of Selick beauties like Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, I will say this: this is the most seamlessly beautiful stop motion I have ever seen. The film has a sumptuous array of textures from the delicately sharp creases of Kubo’s origami figures to the pale porcelain of the gaunt masks Kubo’s aunts wear to the glassy serenity of the lakes and rivers. Monkey’s fur is made entirely out of tiny strips of white paper that rustle in the wind. I understand that some of Kubo‘s visual splendor was achieved through robotics, 3D printing and a bit of CGI, but I frankly do not care. I have zero interest in being a purist about this. Kubo and the Two Strings is too ravishing and too luminous a work of stop motion animation to be dismissed. If a stop motion film can look like this, it shows that the medium is still growing and evolving, and that is everything a lover of this increasingly niche form of animation could want to hear. Kubo is meant to feel like a fable from ancient Japan and that requires a mixture of both realistic natural landscapes and the ghostly, glowing textures of skeleton monsters and moon gods. Like a bedtime story or one of Miyazaki’s films, Kubo needed to feel like it was set in a recognizable (albeit ancient) human world that also shared a permeable border with the realm of spirits and magic. It succeeds beyond its wildest imagination in nailing that subtle blend of tones. It conjures a world that is alternatingly shimmering and spooky.


Kubo and the Two Strings is finally a story about how stories make us human and it radiates a palpable love for humanity. After all, it is the tale of a goddess who abandoned heavenly perfection for the beautiful, aching mess of humanity. When the Moon King urges his grandson to finally join his celestial kingdom and leave the imperfect mortal realm behind, he tells him that he will be “beyond stories”. Whatever we think of the afterlife or God (or the gods), there is something bittersweet in the idea that we would ever lose the need for narrative. Kubo says there is something perfect and complete just in the brief, sometimes painful lives we share together here on Earth. Maybe death really will bring us to a place where we understand everything and where we no longer need to cobble together these fragile scraps of fiction and lore to make sense of it all. But for myself, and any person still living, that state of confusion is the very essence of what it is to be human. Film, art, music, and writing are all the result of our feeble attempts to explain something to one another or to ourselves, and I cannot imagine wanting to be beyond any of them. Human beings render such brilliant gold out of the flax of their fears and doubts that I have to think it would at least give the beauty of the hereafter a run for its money. Then again, we are bewildered mounds of flesh, so maybe the most beautiful of our literature is nothing more than a cardboard nursery book in Heaven’s waiting room. Still, from the time I’ve been here those stories have meant the world to me. Whatever grand cosmic plan waits for me when I die, I pray I never forget that my first redemption came from the words of fellow human beings, living and deceased. They were my friends. They were my teachers. They were Seuss and Alcott and Eliot. Kubrick and Spielberg and Linklater. They were my mother and my father. They saw I was afraid and could not sleep. And they told me a story.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #14- Lemonade

I often ask myself how possible it is to separate the personal from the political in art. When I was writing my Communications Studies thesis in college, we read about a theory known as “walking with the subject”. The idea was that, when interviewing people as part of a study, it was impossible for me as the writer to entirely get around the fact that I was there in the room. My very presence and the little quirks of my personality and the way I asked questions would necessarily influence how a subject responded to me. It would influence the kind of answers I got and my biases would eventually become a part of how I interpreted those answers. Walking with the subject meant that, when I wrote about my findings and my interviews, I would acknowledge my own presence and how it impacted the study. Since it was impossible to conduct a study without being personally present, the most objective thing to do was to just make the study an account of my interaction with the subject. Like Charlie Kaufman, the writer becomes a part of his own script. Lately, I have similar feelings about film criticism. I try to be as objective as I can about my thoughts on a film, but any judgment of a film is going to have a lot to do with who I am as a person. Films don’t exist in a vaccuum. Films communicate. They make judgments about ideas and concepts in the world. To like a film or dislike a film is to necessarily throw some of your own values into the stew, because how can you not? For example, I love The Godfather. I don’t just love it because it’s lushly filmed or has a great Nino Rota score. I love it because I think it says beautiful, complicated things about the nature of upward mobility in our country and because I agree with its viewpoint on them. It is impossible for me to properly review The Godfather without revealing that. By the same token, if you don’t agree with its complex ideas about financial success or find its parallels between organized crime and the larger American bootstrap mythos interesting, then it would make abundant sense for you not to like that film. We cannot remove ourselves from the films we love and choosing to love a film means making larger value judgments. And this is all a long way of saying that I think Beyonce Knowles’ Lemonade, the 65-minute film set to her album of the same name, is an absolutely brilliant work of art because I value its insights on racial inequality and because I believe that modern America still visits egregious injustices on people of color. Lemonade is a film that is both personal and political, as it expands from the smaller story of confronting an unfaithful husband to take on the larger spectre of American racism. And what one thinks of it will inevitably be a reflection of how they feel about the state of race relations in this country.

Now, to be clear, much of Lemonade’s plot is about very personal relationship struggles that resonate outside the realm of social issues. While discussions of racial inequity can be polarizing, depending on the person, I imagine there would be decidedly less controversy around the notion that infidelity can be hurtful. On its face, Lemonade is the story of grappling with, and eventually forgiving, an act of emotional betrayal. Lemonade is the story of R&B diva extraordinaire Beyonce Knowles finding out that she has been cheated on by her husband, Shawn Carter, better known as the great and influential rapper Jay-Z. As a disclaimer, I understand that there was never any confirmed account of Jay-Z cheating, and it’s obviously the Carter family’s prerogative to keep that information close to the chest if he did. Whatever happened between Beyonce and her husband, or whether anything happened at all, Beyonce has managed to create one of the rawest portraits of post-affair grief in either of the two artistic forms it occupies. Lemonade is about processing one’s turbulent emotions, and it cycles through an absolutely dizzying array of them. It is, by turns, raw, funny, blistering, devastated, catatonic, unhinged, uninhibited, and eventually generous. By the end, it becomes one of the most generous films of this or any year and it’s all backed by one of the year’s true landmark albums. The film is shot as a collection of individual music videos but knitted together with snippets of poetry (by the poet Warsan Shire, a Somali woman born in London). The film also dreamily cuts back and forth between scenes to come and scenes that have already taken place. As a lover of both hip-hop and the films of Terence Malick, I found Lemonade a joy to watch each of the three times I sat down with it. The film is broken into eleven chapters and one epilogue after the credits roll. The chapters have names with different emotional states, which recall the five stages of grief. With a diva as extravagant and ferociously flamboyant as Beyonce, it makes abundant sense that her grief cycle would go to eleven. The story is Beyonce’s cathartic journey from denial into anger, through apathy and emptiness, and eventually to a place where she can confront her unfaithful husband about his actions, forgive him, rebuild their relationship, and continue together into the future. The magic of this odyssey is in the extraordinary splendor of the film’s emotional palette. It’s not just how much feeling Lemonade has, but how intelligently Beyonce takes her normal persona of an unflappably confident and empowered woman and sends it into Hades and back out again. Lemonade has the effect of deepening Beyonce’s past work, of making us see her with new eyes. What once may have played simply, if entertainingly, as diva swagger now takes on a new meaning. That swagger is her shield as she traverses the battlefield. After years of cutting down weak foes, in the form of insensitive lotharios and jealous female competitors, Beyonce finally finds a worthy adversary. Not in an unfaithful Jay-Z, but in her own conflicted feelings of self-worth.


I have thus far described the skeleton of the plot, but the real beauty and thrill of Lemonade is in seeing these twelve unspeakably dynamic music videos. If it were nothing else, Lemonade would be twelve of the very best music videos ever made. Each one of them would more than merit a Kanye West interruption. In one of the first videos, for the song “Hold Up”, Beyonce boldly breaks free of her own denial, pushing open the great doors of a city hall and striding into the daylight with a torrent of water rushing around her feet. Clad in a bright yellow dress and carrying a baseball bat, she swings with uncontrollable glee at car windows, fire hydrants, closed circuit security cameras, and, in a great humorous touch, a piñata. Those images of Beyonce, resplendent in her mustard-colored gown, delightedly dispensing destruction and laying waste to all the bullshit behind her are iconic by now. But, in truth, almost every frame of Lemonade felt iconic the moment I laid eyes on it. This is true of the images, and is also true of its biting, brokenhearted wit. If there is any doubt about how influential Lemonade already is, I recently saw “Call Becky with the good hair” emblazoned across a Finding Dory t-shirt. The video for “Don’t Hurt Yourself” contains the famous album cover shot of Beyonce, head down and wrapped in a thick fur coat, leaning against her luxury car and just seconds away from completely giving herself over to rage. When she starts singing, her voice sounds like gravel and gasoline and she stalks the retreating camera like a vindictive hyena. If anything this year sounded more like great, pissed off rock and roll than “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, I will be kindly surprised. At the end of it, she flings her wedding ring at the camera and the film adds another iconic image to its growing list of them. The great shots within these sixty-five minutes are too numerous to fully recount, and they are all striking and symbolic and loaded with emotion. Beyonce burns a bedroom and the fire spreads to the whole house. She dances on the hood of a prison bus with an upraised middle finger. She dances around in the old tunnel of a ruined Louisiana fort while a silhouette resembling her estranged father plays steel guitar. Lemonade works because Beyonce Knowles is an artist who understands the sneaky poetry of the meme. Like Bob Dylan, she knows there are lot of good ways to hurt a mean lover, but most of the best ones tend to just be a short, tossed off sentence. “You try this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife,” she whoops with a deranged sense of liberation.


Lemonade breathes fire for about half of its running time, but it eventually finds a gentler spirit and emerges as one of the most poignant, overpowering films about forgiveness ever made. And, I would argue these later moments are so unbelievably moving precisely because we have been to the absolute depths of despair first. In the later scenes, Lemonade is still wise and frank about relationships and the havoc adultery can cause, but Beyonce has conquered the hurt and the film no longer howls as wildly. She wants her wayward man to think constructively about why he would betray the love of his life and his love for himself. In an angrier moment she yelps, “When you play me, you play yourself!” But now that the red smoke has cleared, the wisdom of that statement still stands. For all the startling, aggressive power of Lemonade’s early scenes, the second half is just as vivid for its vulnerable beauty. As Beyonce imagines forgiveness as a kind of baptism, she and a line of black women in white robes wade out into the middle of a large bayou with an enormous sky above them. Standing in the light of dusk, they face the horizon and raise their hands above their heads. The next video begins and, suddenly, Jay-Z is there in front of us. He doesn’t appear all at once, but gradually. As Beyonce sits in her home, playing her keyboard and plaintively singing about promises, we see a man’s wristwatch sitting on a table. Then we see a hand with a wedding ring upon it reaching across a pillow. Then the top of the man’s head appears. Finally, his entire upper body can be seen in silhouette. This segment is beautifully directed, and it gets forgiveness just right. After such a tremendous breaking of trust, forgiveness can only happen as a painstaking process. You can come to see the other person as who they were again, but surely it is not easy or swift. If you are lucky, they return to you in pieces and parts, until one day they stand whole before you. The slow emergence of the sinner into the story of the betrayed, or more specifically her decision to include him, makes Lemonade a tremendously rewarding story of choosing to forgive. “So we’re going to heal,” Beyonce says softly. She walks above the old ruins and tunnels that once surrounded and swallowed her, and the joyful, reggae-tinted strains of “All Night” play. This bouncy song is about looking forward to kissing and holding the person you love after learning to let them back in your heart. And here I will confess that I teared up. R&B history has no shortage of songs about wanting to kiss and hug and make love to someone. Some are good, some are bad, some are “Too Close”. But none have ever moved me the way this one did. The context of the hard road that had come before made it overwhelming. Beyonce was basking in the simple joy of recapturing a love that had been in jeopardy. She had turned a medium-paced funk jam about make-up sex into blissful, euphoric poetry, and I could not help but weep with joy about it.


And, when I put it all that way, Lemonade really is the kind of personal story that just about anyone can relate to. It is obviously particularly relatable to anyone who has been cheated on or cheated on someone, or to anyone who has been through the sometimes painful process of learning to grow or change with a romantic partner. And even if none of that applies to you, chances are still good that you have had a hard experience with forgiving another person. So, with all that being so, does one need to believe in the existence of racial injustice to be moved by Lemonade? No, I suppose not. Still, that perspective is crucial to understanding where Lemonade is really coming from and for feeling the full weight of its mighty catharsis. The struggles of being a black person, and a black woman in particular, is a vital part of the film’s iconography, from its decision to set itself entirely in New Orleans to the aforementioned line about Becky and her good hair, which references both the difficulty black people experience in finding barbers who can handle their hair consistency and the troubling idea of black men dating white women as a sign of upward mobility. How many people reading remember that O.J. Simpson left his black wife to marry Nicole Brown Simpson? Before laying into Jay-Z on “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, Beyonce pauses to insert a montage of black female faces, underscored by Malcolm X’s famous remark that the black woman is the most disrespected person in America. Many of the film’s scenes play out at an old plantation house with black women wearing Antebellum-era white dresses. And, as Beyonce starts to forgive Jay-Z, she starts looking at him in the context of his own black identity. A series of mothers hold up pictures of sons who were lost to police brutality, and an actress holds up a photo of a fallen slave because he is also a part of this pattern. Beyonce seems to say to her husband, “You have done wrong, but do we not both face bigger threats than one another?” To view Lemonade as simply a story of forgiving infidelity, without taking Beyonce and Jay-Z’s race into account, would be to pretend that race can ever not be a part of the context. And I will now officially cease mincing words and say that of course it is. It always is.


But, if there were any doubts that racial injustice and the experience of being black in America are pivotal parts of Lemonade’s message, the final music video, “Formation”, swoops in after the final credits and slaps them down to the cement. The major story of the film is complete, with Beyonce and Jay-Z reunited and happy. There is no more spousal infidelity to forgive, but here we are. We must be here to talk about someone else. “Formation” is a furious, percussive dance song with all the militaristic swagger its name promises. It is about Beyonce’s roots as a black woman with ties to Louisiana, the land where the levees broke. The song is a call to unify, organize, and form ranks. Its beat pulses and seethes and it is clear we are back in a place of anger. Despite the odd reference to rewarding a sexual partner with seafood dinners, “Formation” is about protest and defiance against any oppressive force. We have watched Beyonce forge a path to forgiveness with her husband. Now that she has the one act of reconciliation behind her, she’s here to start the process again with a different transgressor: society. Over the last hour, we have seen that forgiveness is possible. But,the last image we have is of Beyonce sinking into the Katrina floodwaters on the roof of a police car. The film cuts to black and our penance remains out of reach, somewhere below the flood. There can be no forgiveness until there is an apology.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #15- Tower

Keith Maitland’s extraordinary animated documentary, Tower, plunges us immediately into a scene of violent turmoil. We are listening to a real news broadcast from the summer of 1966 and the film uses animation to put us inside the broadcast booth. The “booth” in this case is a four-door station wagon emblazoned with the letters KTBC, the call sign of a local news station in Austin, Texas. The man driving and speaking into the microphone is Neal Spelce, the station director. He is circling the perimeter of the University of Texas, urgently instructing people to stay away from the area. There is a sniper firing indiscriminately from the top of the famous campus Tower. Spelce is using the power of journalism to keep people out of harm’s way, but this remarkable documentary has a different journalistic aim: to take us into the melee on campus and ever closer to the gunfire. Tower utilizes a combination of old television and radio broadcasts, interviews, archival footage, and, most of all, animation to stitch together a meticulous account of one of the most sobering and sadly prescient days in American history: the day of the nation’s first official mass shooting. The film’s decision to immerse the audience in this time period without any backstory or even much context is the filmmakers’ way of recreating some small fraction of the fear and shock people on the University of Texas campus must have felt at the time. Tower knows that its viewers are all too familiar with this specific kind of horror in the present day, but it wants us to experience the birth of the American mass shooting with fresh eyes.


On the first day of August in 1966, a twenty-five-year old former University of Texas student named Charles Whitman drove to the campus, just after killing his mother and wife. Carrying three handguns, three rifles, a shotgun, and a machete , Whitman forced his way onto the 27th floor of the University of Texas Tower, killing a receptionist and two tourists in the process. From there, he went out onto the outdoor observation deck and began to fire at will at any passerby he felt he could hit. Over the course of ninety-six blood-curdling minutes, Whitman managed to kill fourteen people and injure thirty-one more before he was finally taken down by officers of the Austin Police Department. We get snippets of context and backstory throughout the film, but we never hear about Whitman’s history as a failed Marine or what he did before driving to campus or how he managed to force his way past campus security. The film’s aim is pointedly not to understand how Charles Whitman did what he did or to even puzzle over why he chose to murder fourteen innocent people. Tower instead places us with the people on the ground, who scrambled to make some sense of a senseless tragedy and did what they could to help one another through it. The film collects the traumatic memories of that day and lays them out on the floor for us to see. It is a patchwork quilt of the way human beings responded to an unprecedented survival situation. Tower wants us to imagine what it was like to be the first witnesses to this kind of savagery, but it also wants us to bring our present knowledge to bear on what we see. It wants to rewind a cycle of violence that has carried on though Columbine and the University of Virginia and the Pulse nightclub and understand the roots of America’s struggle with mass shootings. Moreover, like this year’s Jackie, it wants the viewer to think critically about we piece together and process tragic stories, individually, journalistically, and as a nation.


The very idea of a mass shooting was almost impossible to fathom before August 1, 1966. Going back to the first mass shedding of blood in our domestic history allows Tower to take a close look at how both people and their journalistic institutions react when the unfathomable happens. We learn that two students walked unknowingly, even eagerly, into harm’s way because some hapless reporter informed them that the shots were coming from an airsoft gun. A University of Texas professor heard the shots and assumed they were firecrackers left over from the Fourth of July. Our human brains are wired to analyze information and fill in the gaps with whatever makes sense to them. They are bound by the conceivable. On that day, the term “mass shooting” was not part of our cultural lexicon. On that lazy, humid summer afternoon, the thought that someone would be firing arbitrarily at innocent passersby was simply not in the realm of the possible or even imaginable for most people. Tower is fascinated by how we process an event when there is no precedent for it. One officer sheepishly admits that he looked up at the one-thousand windows in the Tower and imagined an army of one-thousand Black Panthers. Some combination of the media and his own skewed understanding of the world allowed this man’s brain to visualize a full-scale African-American revolt, while the image of a single, sociopathic white man with no motive behind his actions never crossed his minded. That seed had to be planted in his imagination, in the imaginations of University of Texas students, and finally into the national consciousness. Even after the situation became clear, the Austin Police Department still sent in supplies of tear gas instead of shotguns. A news station ended up falsely reporting that a young paperboy had been killed. Blessedly he survived, but not before his poor parents spent three hours believing him dead. And Tower presents none of this to be judgmental. Tower shows all the chaos, misinterpretation, and sloppy responses in order to posit that responding to a disaster is a messy process. Sometimes we spend days, months, and years trying and failing to fully grasp an event like the Tower shooting.


What makes Tower both a rigorous film and a generous one is that it takes in all the error and the misunderstanding and views it all as a fundamental part of being human. It opts not to show Charles Whitman because it views the real story of the Tower shooting in the teeming tapestry of people who moved about the campus below him. Tower presents a rich cast of characters who each responded to the terror in his or her own different way. It sees both fear and bravery through clear, empathetic eyes. One woman recalls watching frozen at the window of the English Building as other students raced outside to bring a dying police officer a drink of water. She remembers being stunned to see that people could summon themselves to do that and just as stunned to learn that she was not one of them. With sad candor she says this was the moment she realized she was a coward. The movie does not add anything to this. The point is not to judge, but to see how a collective tragedy gave a young woman sobering insight into herself. The intent is not to weight the morality of any individual’s actions during the unthinkable strain of a survival situation, but to observe that people are diverse in the way they handle stress. Some run headlong into danger while others are bound to the spot by self-preservation. Tower is a film with a great curiosity for the many shades of humanity. Even the acts of heroism the film shows are presented in a complex way. When asked if he was going to accompany his fellow officers out on to the observation deck to disarm the gunman, young Officer McCoy responded, “Well, I guess I don’t have much choice, do I?” Of course, he did have a choice, just as those who stayed out of the line of fire had their own choices to make. Nevertheless, Officer McCoy, being whoever Officer McCoy was deep down inside, was inclined not to see choice in the matter. Or maybe he just told himself that for fear of what he might do if he did have a choice. Every decision is the result of the myriad, intricate psychological forces within each person and Tower honors those choices, be they brave or fearful. They are testaments to the colorful tangle of humanity and the film pays tribute to them as the vivid, complicated antithesis to all that senseless death.


I have perhaps not adequately conveyed just how moving Tower is. This is the end result of its compassionate interest in human beings, with all their capacity for selflessness and self-preservation. Tower is a film that refuses to ever show the man known as Charles Whitman. Instead, our fullest glimpse comes from Claire Wilson, the first person to be shot. Claire ended up surviving the attack, but she lost her fiancé, Tom, and the child that was growing inside of her. Now in her sixties, Claire looks at a magazine portrait of Charles Whitman as a young child. She has no harsh words for the man. She loves children and she is now gazing down at the little boy who became Charles Whitman. She reflects sadly about how a precious child can grow up to commit heinous acts and, without hesitation, she forgives the man who murdered her unborn child. Tower focuses on the humanity that whirled around Charles Whitman’s vortex of death and this allows the brave acts of that day to take on the full triumphant power they deserve. Inspirational can be a dirty word, but Tower comes to feel genuinely inspiring without having a hint of mawkishness. It is not interested in rah-rah acts of heroism, but it is in love with our potential to be kind and good to one another. Allen Crum, a middle-aged campus bookstore employee, unwittingly became a hero through sheer Forrest Gumpian circumstance. He ran out of his store to help a boy who had been shot on his bike, but then found himself unable to go back across the street without running the risk of being shot himself. The only thing he could think to do was keep running in the other direction, toward the Tower, hoping to eventually wind his way back around to the store. And, before he knew it, he had run all the way to the foot of the building. And then he figured he should just go up and see if anyone needed his help. And so he was deputized and ended up helping to disarm the shooter. Before entering, Crum flashed two middle fingers at Charles Whitman and seeing this act of living defiance in the face of death made me laugh more cathartically than just about anything I saw this year. But the most wonderfully humane act did not involve a gun or any kind of force. It was the simple, brave act of a student named Rita Star Pattern, who ran out to the wounded Claire and lay down next to her. She lay with Claire for an hour, on scalding concrete and in plain sight of Charles Whitman, and just talked. This decision kept Claire conscious and very likely saved her life, and it involved nothing more than one person reaching out to another. Tower takes us to the first mass shooting, but it is not about killing. It is about living through tragedy as a community. In the present day, Neal Spelce, who drove around campus bravely warning people of the danger, recalls the moment they released the list of victims on air. His old boss came rushing in and asked them to repeat the list. He had heard his grandson’s name. Telling the story in the present, Spelce starts tearing up. “I just broke up now,” he stammers. “I think it’s because I have grandchildren.” This moment perfectly captures Tower’s unabashed sense of empathy. The loss of human life depicted in Tower made me break up too. I think it’s because I am human.


Tower is about a catastrophe that had no precedent in our history and how human beings dealt with an event that was then painfully new and shocking. However, as much as the film is challenging us to put ourselves in a time before mass shootings became a regular occurrence, it also holds us accountable for whatever is happening in the present day. It charges us with a sacred responsibility to learn from the past and have a discourse about what to do in the future. Because we do not live in 1966. And the next mass shooting we have will not be the first. It will not be the hundredth. Tower’s quarrel is not with any specific policy proposal, as long as that policy is not inaction or silence. Tower holds particularly severe censure for those who are not willing to talk about this. Late in the film, Claire has a reunion with a man named Artly. Artly was also a student at the University of Texas in 1966 and he was the person who would eventually pull her to safety. Shockingly, we learn that Claire and Artly did not meet for the first time until a few years before this movie was made. Almost fifty years passed by before they had a conversation about the trauma they both suffered through. Similarly, Aleck Hernandez, the boy who was shot during his paper route says that the occasion of the film has reunited him with the cousin who was riding on his handlebars at the time. They are both joyful to see each other again after nearly fifty years of silence. The cousin remarks that it does him good to sit down and talk about the tragedy. We get the sense that the University of Texas wanted the whole incident to just go away. They cleaned up the blood and never put up so much as a plaque to honor the people, living and dead, who went through this ordeal. Tower is not only a film about how we experience, process, and remember tragedy. It is a call to arms to never bury tragedy. Tower argues that the most rigorous and the most humane thing to do in the face of great loss is to turn to a human being and talk through the pain. As the film closes, the animated ghost of Claire’s slain fiancé, Tom, walks the campus alongside present-day students. The film seems to say that these ghosts are not unpleasant things to be feared and hidden away. They have lessons still to teach us. They were human beings with lives and people who loved them and it is right and good to remember them. Their spirits are a part of our history. Let them stay.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #16- Hell or High Water

It feels appropriate to me that, of all the great scenes in David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, the one probably most fated to become iconic involves a woman telling her customers that her restaurant only serves T-bone steaks and baked potatoes. Hell or High Water is the best example in recent memory of what one might call a steak-and-potatoes movie. There is a certain breed of film that has a kind of generally appealing and unfussy quality to it. It’s the kind of film that leads people of many different stripes to smile, reflect fondly and say, “Well that was just a very good movie.” Movies of this sort are not typically known for being conspicuously artistic nor for being the least bit cerebral. Like the T-bone steak in that West Texas saloon, the steak-and-potatoes movie is relatively unadorned, a movie to be appreciated largely for its surface pleasures. The simple steak-and-potatoes movie tends to be broadly accessible, energetically paced and frequently quotable. These are all qualities that Hell or High Water shares. The curious thing about my great affection for Hell or High Water is that I am not, by my nature, a steak-and-potatoes kind of viewer. I am particularly fond of challenging films, and I am just as happy sitting down to watch brutal Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days as I am watching Finding Nemo. With most steak-and-potatoes movies, I too often find something in their consensus-building palatability that robs them of vitality or personality. They can sometimes be lacking in idiosyncrasy. I have recently run into this issue with films like The Martian, The King’s Speech, and particularly Argo. These films wear their relative simplicity like a badge of honor, and that’s not necessarily wrong of them. Simplicity can be a virtue. The problem is, as much as I generally quite like two of those films (and technically like Argo), I found their simple populism to be what held them back from getting anywhere near greatness. Their lack of artistic flourish only seemed to throw light onto the deficiencies in their storytelling or character development or thematic depth (or all three in the case of Argo). To make a steak-and-potatoes film is to put the focus entirely on the meat of your story, and that Spartan approach really only pays off if you have very high quality meat. This is where those three films suffer and where Hell or High Water succeeds. Hell or High Water has the distinction of being a downright delicious slab of plain, old storytelling, and that is why it has the honor of being the one and only “simply great” film in my Top 20 this year.


To be fair, my own personal preferences for showier work almost got the better of me when I saw the film in the summer of 2016. I walked out of Hell or High Water having enjoyed the film deeply and recognizing a certain resonance in its depiction of post-recession America. I knew immediately, in my heart of hearts, that I had just seen a very, very fine film. But it was quite a simple film and this gave me pause. I started to have doubts that it would leave me with much to chew on. The story of the film is that of two Texan brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who set out to rob the bank that is foreclosing on their family home. If they do not have a certain sum of money wired to Texas Midlands Bank by the end of the week, they will lose both the property and the right to collect the vast amounts of oil that have recently been discovered underneath it. Tanner is a recently paroled criminal with experience in robbing banks. He also did time early in his life when he shot their abusive father. It is Toby, however, a veteran with a clean record, who has masterminded the scheme and who has a plan for how they can get away with it. They will only hit the bank that has victimized them and they will only steal smaller sums from tellers’ drawers, which means all the money they receive will be untraceable. As the two hit more banks, they are followed by a retiring Texas Ranger named Marcus (played with keen, crotchety charm by Jeff Bridges) and his younger partner, a half-Mexican half-Native American man named Alberto (a great, dry Gil Birmingham). The film’s main story is about Toby and Tanner, as they rob, launder their money at a Native American casino, and make plans to put the property into a protected trust for Toby’s sons, but it is also the story of the relationship between the two rangers. Marcus toes the line between puckish and prejudiced as he continually cracks jokes about Alberto’s heritage. Alberto alternatingly puts up with him and tosses out his own barbs, mostly about the fact that Marcus is too old to still be out chasing the law enforcement high that he is so clearly afraid to give up. Hell or High Water is about both action and conversation; robberies and moments of stillness between both sets of men. And, without underlining the point too emphatically, it is also about the state of a country with deep class divisions and increasingly scant opportunities for the upward mobility so central to its origin story. At the end of the film, as Toby and Marcus meet on his front porch for a fateful conversation, Toby explains why someone like him might rob a bank. Being poor, he says is “like a disease, passed down from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.” At the end of my first viewing, I joined the theater in applause. Once again, I knew right away that Hell or High Water was a terrific and topical film. And, as someone who sues on behalf of foreclosure victims for a living, I certainly empathized with and rooted for its fallible soulful protagonists. Still, name-checking a social problem and having a comprehensive, insightful discussion on that problem are two separate things, and I wondered if Hell or High Water was more than an exciting, engaging hyperlink to an important issue. Maybe it was more a heist film in the 2008 mortgage crisis’ clothing than a genuine, seething expose of our financial institutions. It took me multiple conversations with friends to realize what a deceptively great and nuanced piece of work Hell or High Water is.


The first sign of the film’s sneaky greatness was its quotability. This is never a guarantee of quality. I continue to be something of a holdout on Napoleon Dynamite and I would never in a million years deny that it is chock full of memorable lines. But the fact I could so easily quote Hell or High Water after watching it only one time made me start to look back at its script. Most steak-and-potatoes crowd-pleasers are not nearly this well-written. There I was on a Friday night, standing on my porch with a beer, and I started chuckling to myself about that scene with the waitress and the T-bone steaks. Then my friend laughed and said, “Only assholes drink Mr. Pibb.” And before I knew it, I was quipping back, “So drink up, asshole.” And this kept happening over the weeks. Any time talk turned to Hell or High Water, it would end in an exchange of sharp, funny quotes. I came to gradually see what a firecracker of a script this is, and not just for the one-liners and quips either. The writing is also often downright pretty in a way that both suits and subverts its tough, masculine tone. Toby’s recurring fascination with Comanches as the “lords of the Plains”. Alberto’s beautifully bitter soliloquy about how the banks’ avarice and blindness to human suffering are echoes of the same greed and cruelty visited upon his Native American ancestors. The way Marcus points to a bank teller and muses that he “looks like a man who could foreclose on a house”. Writer Taylor Sheridan keeps the action and the beats of the plot succinct and straightforward, but he also knows that simplicity is not the same thing as drabness. Simple lines can also be poetic. It is even the challenge that many great poets have set for themselves: to wring beauty and epiphany out of the least possible number of words. Look at Tanner’s solo robbery. It’s a short scene. Tanner just wants to the teller to display all the increments of cash in her drawer. But Sheridan injects even this brief bit of business with welcome color. “Fives. Tens. Twenties. Fan ‘em out like a deck of cards.” Money and cards, crime and gambling. All manifestations of the dream of some easy escape from poverty. All there in this five second snippet of a robbery. Fittingly, for a film soundtracked with country music and Nick Cave’s evocative Western score, the dialogue in Hell or High Water rings with the bruised, blunt beauty of a great country song.


As line after line came rushing back to my memory, scenes came back too. And as I began to recall those scenes, it dawned on me that Hell or High Water is one of those works of art with no filler. It is the kind of film that ends one great scene so it can move on to the next great scene. I cannot name a moment from it that I would call inessential. Each moment has a purpose and its placement in the narrative leads organically to another moment which also has a strong sense of purpose. The final product is a film that knows exactly what it means to do and does it. I do not normally require such efficiency from films I love. Some of my favorite films sprawl and malinger and I am content just to bask in them for as long as they want to have me. This approach would not have fit Hell or High Water. Its clean, propulsive momentum is the secret ingredient that turns it from a standard issue bank robbery tale into something terse, stirring, and almost elemental. Have you ever picked up a great album, perhaps by The Beatles or Marvin Gaye or The Rolling Stones, and realized that every last song on it is a timeless classic? Better yet, to choose an artist who almost nobody dislikes, think about Michael Jackson. Pick up “Thriller”, turn it over, and look at the tracklist. You realize you’re looking not only at a great album, but one that never once stops being great; not even for a moment to catch its breath. Hell or High Water feels a lot like that. If I ever read its DVD menu, I imagine it will feel like reading a no-filler tracklist. “Wow,” I’ll say, “that great casino scene leads right into that scene where Marcus and Alberto are watching that sleazy television preacher and theorizing about God in a seedy motel room. And that leads right into the scene where the new attorney they’ve hired as an executor knows they’re bank robbers and can barely contain his glee. And after that is the T-bone steak scene, which is just perfect.”


So you have subtly poetic writing, great scenes, and an almost total absence of any fatty downtime, which means that this story about desperate bank robbers in economically depressed Texas is strangely kind of a giddy joy to watch. It throws you in the back of a getaway car and speeds like a madman for 104 minutes that feel like less than an hour. And the thing that happened on my second viewing, when I knew how thoroughly I was about to enjoy myself, is that I gave myself over to it completely. And in that content, undistracted state, another layer of the film’s greatness started to come back to me. I remembered that I love these characters. Just as with the dialogue, Sheridan’s script creates characters that are extremely well-defined but too vivid and unique to ever become mere archetypes. Ben Foster takes the role of a shit-kicking jailbird and imbues him with a mischievous intelligence that transcends the bold lines of the standard ne’er-do-well. In the first robbery, Tanner snaps at a teller for calling him stupid. Tanner is reckless, impulsive, and prone to some very bad decisions, such as improvising a robbery alone while his brother is eating in a diner next door, but not stupid. Some of his decisions are terrible and ill-advised, but the character also has poetry in his outlaw country soul. Chris Pine does the best work of his career as Toby. He is the level-headed one with the clean criminal record, but he is neither a saint nor immune to poor choices and violent outbursts. When two young men in a lime-green muscle car try to start a fight with Tanner (who is utterly willing to goad them on) Toby shows up and slams one of their heads into a car door. The brothers have their individual, opposing personalities, but they each share shades of the other as well. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges takes the part of the irreverent, culturally insensitive ranger and give him shades of neediness and fear of the uncertain future. He becomes a more impish but no less haunted version of Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff in No Country For Old Men. And Gil Birmingham creates a nuanced portrait of a Hispanic and Native American lawman who has learned to navigate through an intolerant world. He is shrewd, determined, and resourceful. In a year full of great performances by non-white actors, any list without Gil Birmingham on it would be incomplete.


And all around the main four characters are memorable, beautifully specific entrances and exits by smaller characters. Tiny, detailed jewels of acting to complement the larger gems. Most are by actors I have never seen before. That sardonic waitress in the steakhouse. The Comanche man who confronts Tanner at the poker table. The eager citizen who drives Marcus to his final confrontation with Tanner. The kindly single mother who waits on Toby at the diner and who repays his generous tip with her own act of generosity. How can I say this without seeming to contradict everything I’ve said before? Hell or High Water really is a simple film, but for a film mostly just about two bank robbers and the lawmen pursuing them, it has a wonderfully rich sense of detail. And so much of that is a credit to those tiny characters who show up for a single scene and, one by one, help give a face to the broader financial struggle always in the background of the film. These are the human beings who have to live in this world besieged by robber barons and crooked lenders and they lend a larger sense of gravitas to Tanner and Toby’s private war with Texas Midlands Bank. The film also derives a wealth of detail from the locations it breathlessly races through. The film paints a world of oil fields and debt relief billboards. Tire stores and churches and casinos. And, of course, banks. Hell or High Water only tells a small segment of the story of the acquiring and the acquired in modern America, but the monuments to their existence are everywhere.


Hell or High Water is that rare example of a film that finds poetry and grace in its directness. It manages to be both humble and overflowing with flavor. It is a bit of a paradox, but this is the same film that can both stand with the year’s funniest comedies and have a scene that calls back to Captain Phillips in its realistic depiction of post-violence trauma. What at first seems slight eventually turns out to actually just be marvelously condensed; a vibrant world of compelling characters, relatable struggles, and playful language all tightly ground down into a delectable nugget of crime fiction. Seeing Hell or High Water reminds me that my real issue with most steak-and-potatoes films is that the meat of their stories is never high-grade enough to justify how little they do artistically. A top quality steak only needs a pinch of salt, but the meat of your average no-frills crowdpleaser is rarely anything like a top quality steak. At the risk of exhausting this food analogy, Hell or High Water can afford to be direct and thematically simple and still feel fulfilling because the meat of its story and its characters are delicious all by themselves. When the basics are in place the way they are here, you don’t need the A-1 sauce of extraneous directorial touches or overly self-consciously cerebral writing to make it work. I feel satisfied calling Hell or High Water one of the year’s twenty best films. It’s about time I had a simple film on my year-end list. As if making a funny, elegiac, humane, tersely poetic, quietly political, endlessly quotable bank robber flick was actually simple.