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Top 20 Films of 2018: #15- Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap is a powerful, poetic piece of non-fiction filmmaking, but it’s the kind whose elemental force sneaks up on you. For example, the first time I saw Bing Liu’s aching coming-of-adulthood documentary, I basically didn’t even notice that it uses the same ambitious temporal framework as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Here is a movie that quietly covers twelve years in the lives of its three major characters (one of whom is Bing Liu himself) and never outwardly calls attention to it. It gives off the illusion that we are watching things happen slowly, but every now and then time will surge forward like a sudden patch of rapids in a gentle stream. We get to see our characters when they are mere children (two of them 16 and one of them only 11) and we leave them some 90 minutes later as young adult men with the pain, wisdom and personal growth of more than a decade etched into their faces. Time rushes all about Minding the Gap. The great weight of the past, the anxious immediacy of the post-adolescent present, and the trembling enigma of the future. A couple speaks with excitement and trepidation about the impending arrival of their first child, and a scene later their infant son has already been there for months. One friend, a black teenager, speaks about wanting to be like his older white friend but, thirty minutes later, two years have gone by and he has an entirely different understanding of who his friend is and of who he now wants to be. It’s not that I didn’t know that time was passing the first time I watched Minding the Gap. But the film flows with such grace that I marked the movie in emotional beats, not temporal ones. It was only late in the film when we see the characters flash back through their entire story once more, that I realized I had watched three people struggle and grow up right in front of my eyes. Like Boyhood, Bing Liu’s film has its eye fixated on the subtle and sometimes seismically sudden growth of its characters. Its leaps forward in time, as impressive as they are, are more impressive for how organically they are tailored to the film’s story rhythms. The wide span of time the film covers is not there to call attention to itself. It is there to make a seemingly small story about skateboarding and growing up in recession-addled America feel as overwhelming as some great epic. Minding the Gap is about three small lives in an unassuming Midwest city, but it contains oceans of insight and emotion. This babbling brook hides tidal  waves.


Minding the Gap’s tiny, forgotten corner of the world is Rockford , Illinois, an economically ravaged industrial city in America’s Rust Belt. It is the hometown of 30 year-old filmmaker Bing Liu and his friends, Zack and Keire. Zack is white and the same age as Bing. Keire is black and five years younger than Zack and Bing. All three friends grew up in dysfunctional homes with varying levels of abuse. As many a confused, hurting American adolescent has done, Bing and his friends turned to each other and to a community of skateboarders to find some sense of stability and understanding. And, without cheapening the poverty and crime that exists there, I must say that the rundown, brick-and-iron aesthetic of Rockford, Illinois makes a stunning backdrop for this tale of frustration, stalled dreams, and worn out spirits. While Minding the Gap is mostly the intimate story of three friends grappling with becoming men and reckoning with abusive pasts, the beautifully dilapidated skyline of Rockford lends a sense of something larger to their stories; the sense of an America full of stories and cities just like this. Rockford carries a lot of heavy psychic weight for Bing, Keire, and Zack, but the film’s aim is to make some kind of tenuous peace with the misery and hardship, not to be destroyed by it. Liu films his travels through these crumbling streets with a complicated feeling of affection, and the result is that a kind of weathered halo seems to hang over all the heartache and ruin. Those old red buildings and wooden townhouses really do look beautiful, never more so than when Bing and his surrogate skater family is whipping past them on skateboards, the closest things they have found to deliverance. Late in the film, Zack sadly observes that he may not be capable of turning his past trauma into something worthwhile. Turning ugly truth into beautiful poetry is not an ability everyone has, but Bing Liu has that talent in spades. Minding the Gap is all about dealing with the painful past and trying to make something good and beautiful out of the scars. In the way it views its desperate city and its wounded subjects, it is a prayer for the broken down and bruised things in this tough world.


What makes Bing Liu’s stunning debut so organically beautiful is how it almost seems to stumble on its own deep well of hurt by accident. From its early frames, it is about hardscrabble upbringings and familial tensions, but it is not immediately clear how important the subject of fraught family histories will be. In its opening moments, it promises to be an empathetic view of young men skating and stumbling toward maturity, but it is not initially evident that this will also be a film about abuse. I tend to believe that this maybe wasn’t even Bing Liu’s immediate intention. At least not when he first started filming his skater friends as a troubled sixteen year-old. What I do know is that Bing Liu was living in a house with a very physically abusive stepfather when he first began to collect footage of his friends. It would not surprise me a bit to learn that the instinct to start filming that time period was, just like skating itself, a subconscious release valve for his suffering. But, part of what makes Minding the Gap marvelously moving and authentic is how the story of Bing Liu’s abuse, the story he may have always wanted to tell deep down, seems to find him over the course of filming. The film has a natural curiosity about its subjects. At the beginning, it is content to just observe Zack and Keire and learn about them. We bear witness to the trials of adulthood that Zack and Keire are just beginning to face. Both have reached ages where they need to go to work and pay bills. Moreover, the Peter Pan-like Zack is also figuring out how to provide a stable home life for his girlfriend, Nina, and their infant son. All of this is is poignant and absorbing enough. And then a bomb drops. One night, Bing sees cell phone footage of Zack and Nina having a drunken shouting match. Nina sounds livid, warning Zack that she will kill him. Bing is concerned for his friends. He starts to gingerly kick at the dirt, to get a better sense of what is going on. In the process, he learns that Zack may sometimes hit and throw Nina when he gets intoxicated. And, as much as he may have felt hesitant to confront his own abuse before, Bing Liu now feels a duty to lean in closer; to investigate his friends and himself. Minding the Gap becomes the story of Bing Liu walking down a dark and haunted path of trauma and familial dysfunction. If only for Nina’s sake, he now feels an obligation to stare down the cycles of abuse in his own backyard. And, as it turns out, economically depressed Rockford has a grave history of abuse. At the time of filming, domestic incidents accounted for 25% of the city’s significant violent crime statistics. Bing starts asking questions about his friends’ own experiences with abusive fathers. He learns Keire was often physically disciplined very harshly as a child. Zack tells stories of a father who was kind and permissive when he was very young, but who took a sharp turn into sternness and emotional distance when Zack reached adolescence. The hardest part of all this is that Bing Liu must come to terms with his own experience being abused. His abuse story appears to be the most scarring of all. Bing’s half-brother recalls hearing Bing’s screams from the regular beatings he received and still feels haunted by it. The hard choice Bing must make is to gracefully but firmly reopen the past; to turn the most horrific memories around in his fingers and gaze at them without fear. He must shine a light on his own demons and he must interview his soft-spoken immigrant mother, who was also abused and who felt powerless to protect her child. Minding the Gap is about the difficult moral choice not to shield ourselves or the world around us from bitter truths. When it comes to something as ugly and pervasively toxic as domestic abuse, truth must be dragged screaming into the light.


Minding the Gap is a brave, unflinchingly compassionate exhumation of the painful past. It could not have been easy to make a film that indicts domestic abuse so thoroughly, especially when that abuse was something you suffered through personally. But if there’s one thing that may (and I stress the word “may” here) be harder than interviewing your own weeping mother about long-buried traumatic memories, it’s trying to approach a friend who has now become an abuser. The sudden revelation that Zack is beating Nina is a painful shock to Bing Liu and to any viewer who has been listening to him and empathizing with him for the first thirty minutes of the film. It crystallizes the film’s true raison d’etre and sends Bing Liu, dismayed but intrepid, off on his journey to uncover the past. We register the hurt and disbelief on Bing’s face when he learns that someone he loves and calls a friend is now enacting the same kind of terrible behavior Bing suffered through as a child. The scenes where Bing interviews his mother may throb with the most raw, cathartic anguish, but the longer path toward bringing up the subject of abuse with Zack may be what the film is really building to. Calling out abuse when it comes from one of our own is the true test of conscience. Up to this point in the film, we have spent substantial time with Zack. He is a flighty, boozy, sometimes ridiculous figure, but he seems to also be a generally thoughtful and self-aware person. We have viewed him through Bing’s eyes and come to understand him, and then we learn something that completely alters everything we thought we were seeing. Zack does not come off as some easy monster, and that may be the scariest truth of all. His frailties, his fears of adulthood and fatherhood, and his need to escape from his own hurt are relatable and resonant. Minding the Gap is an endlessly rich character study and I left feeling deeply connected to all of its characters, even this immature, abusive flounderer. I found myself caring a great deal about Zack. And I say that not to excuse his galling conduct, but to zero in on how difficult it must have been for Bing to confront him. Bing, who has known Zack almost his entire life. How gutting and hard it must be for anyone with friends who have engaged in toxic and violent behavior to call those friends on their bullshit. But, of course, you must! The fear of seeing the monster of abuse in the eyes of someone you love and the reflex to turn away from it or rationalize it; that is where the cycle of abuse lives. Bing Liu knows this all too well and he receives repeated signals from family and friends to maybe leave it all alone. Nina worries that confronting Zack will forever sabotage any hope of a peaceful home situation for her child. Bing’s mother prays through tears that he will one day be able to leave the past behind, and Bing even agrees that this may be the end goal. But abuse cannot just be left well enough alone, in the vain hope that it will resolve itself. If the traumatic past is to be buried for good, it cannot be in some shallow, forgotten grave. To move on from something like that, you have to fully come to terms with it, glean everything you can from it, and lay it honorably to rest. Minding the Gap is a film that courageously refuses to use any half-measures when it comes to exploring domestic violence.

This makes Minding the Gap a film that is serenely thunderous. It is as damning about abuse and toxic masculinity as any film I can name, but it refuses to scream itself hoarse or flail its fists. The kinds of abuse the film examines should make us angry, but anger is not the approach the film takes. I think Bing Liu must figure that a reactionary response to hurt is probably what caused all this trouble in the first place. Angry men under pressure keep passing their pain along and nothing gets resolved. The last thing Bing Liu wants is to turn his anguish into more confusion and torment. Instead, he wants to find male rage where it lives and understand it. The film’s critique of toxic masculinity is withering, but its strategy is to talk the beast down rather than hurl invective at it. It brings focus and tranquility to subject matter that would make the average person feel dizzy with rage and sorrow. Minding the Gap is simply one of the most superb essays ever crafted on what it means to be a man; what too many men wrongly think it means and what it should mean. In a year full of beautiful and trenchant works on the subject of masculinity, Minding the Gap is one of the most fearlessly truthful. Bing Liu reveals himself to be that most welcome kind of documentarian. He is the kind who is more eager to bear witness than to speak; quicker to coax out his subject’s deepest thoughts than to hammer his own point. He is on a journey to process his own hurt and what he wants is to understand why cycles of male violence keep repeating. Where rage, depression, and abuse are concerned, his wish is to better see what the point is; why these old, bitter ghosts cling to American men from generation to generation. The desperate, embittered places some men go when they feel slighted, cornered, confused, or out of options is a terrible and pervasive blight on our society. It makes one’s blood boil to think about it and I don’t think we can coddle it or rationalize it one minute longer. We can never accommodate domestic abuse. What we can do is dismantle this terrible behavior in healthy ways. What Bing Liu has managed here is a kind of resistance that draws immeasurable strength from a sense of serenity. Its mode is one of deeply empathetic concern. To put it another way, Minding the Gap is Paddington’s hard stare in documentary form: unyielding, unafraid, and powerful in its peaceful refusal to meet hostility with more hostility.

Minding the Gap becomes one of the most moving examinations of abuse ever made partly because it invests in character. It seems doubtful that Bing Liu will ever make another film where he is this close to his human subjects, but, my God, does he ever make that sense of intimacy and familiarity count here. He has a gift for listening closely and calmly asking the right questions. The confessions that his friends and family make to him contain some of the most wrenching and poignant truth that you’ll find in any 2018 film. Bing Liu also has a keen awareness of where he fits into this tapestry of American dreams and discontent. In a greatly moving scene late in the film, Bing tells Keire that he wanted to learn more about his friends’ experiences with abuse because he sees himself in their stories. I’ve written before about the notion of walking with the subject. That’s the theory of studying a person or culture that says the observer must take their own presence into account. When you write a study or make a documentary, you inevitably become a character in the story you are crafting because you are interacting with your subject. Instead of trying to stay out of the frame and pretend like you are not there, the more honest approach is to just admit that you are a part of the documentary. By choosing to explore a subject, you enter that world and become a subject yourself. You don’t pretend to be observing from a remove, as if hidden behind the duck blind. You join your subject and walk beside them. In the case of Minding the Gap, Bing Liu participates in what you might call “skating with the subject”. Skating is one of the only unshakable sources of joy and liberation for these earnest, haunted young men, and that feeling really shows in the film’s numerous skateboarding scenes. Those scenes move with an unmistakable kind of elation. Bing and his friends tear through the battered brick blocks of their weary city, and their very act of moving says volumes about the pain they have endured and the hope they are grasping toward. And when you finish dabbing your dewy eyes, you might suddenly come to and realize that this is, after all is said and done, a skateboarding movie. Here’s something I can add to 2018’s list of unexpected cinematic achievements: a film about skating moved me to tears. It’s really just par for the course for a film that finds poetry, heartache, and frayed beauty tucked away in the most forgotten and unassuming places.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #16- First Man

If 2018 was a crash course in how to make familiar stories feel dynamic and new, Damian Chazelle’s First Man may deserve credit for doing that in the most subtly inventive way. With a lot of the year’s great reboots and reimaginings, like A Star Is Born and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the secret ingredient was a certain joie de vivre. Among the innovative things those films do formally, I think what sticks with me is that they move with passion and elated purpose. Joi de vivre and elation are the last words I would apply to First Man. First Man is different. In lending its voice to the chorus of astronaut films like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff, it creates a more outwardly radical reimagining of the kind of film we expect it to be. It is not content to simply tell its type of narrative with more conviction and exuberance than its predecessors, for it is defiantly not an exuberant piece of work. Its way is less the enthusiastic embrace of tropes than the recontextualizing of trope through tone and through adding beats that are not often dwelled on in stories about space exploration. It is very much a kindred spirit to 2017’s Dunkirk. Both films are about Great Moments In History that are often thought of as unequivocal triumphs. Thousands are rescued from the beaches of France in the Miracle at Dunkirk. A rapt world huddles around televisions and radios as Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to walk on the moon. Both films build to those moments that most human beings think of, but they expand the narrative in unexpected ways. They ask us to consider what it was like to live in the moments before the Big Moment; before posterity, when triumph was still far from a certain thing. They ask us to view historical highlights in a fuller context and to reflect on the sacrifice and cost of those triumphs. If a film like A Star Is Born is about digging deeper into an old narrative well, First Man argues that the well of a story can also be widened. By considering more of the surrounding narrative. By including details that get left by the wayside in other tellings of the story, an old narrative can suddenly look radically different. Even the moments we already know about can take on new shapes as a result of new emotional context.

Part of that new context is an astonishing level of technical detail. And to be clear, it’s not as if The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 lack for stunning technical crat. But it becomes clear in the very first shot that this will be a different kind of astronaut film. We open on Neil Armstrong hurtling toward the ceiling of Earth’s atmosphere, more than 100,000 feet above California’s Mojave Desert. In the prestige film version of this sequence, we would see Armstrong’s rugged profile, his powerful aircraft gleaming in the sunlight, and maybe even hear a rousing French horn or two. Instead, First Man’s opening moments have us utterly disoriented. The plane is completely cloaked in shadow and we can just make out that we are looking at one of its wings. Inside the cockpit, it’s dark as a tomb and we can barely see the outline of Armstrong’s stoic face. And forget symphonic fanfare. The only music to speak of is the deafening banshee wail of wind and the frenzied rattling of machine parts. It is 1961, more than eight years before the moon landing, and Neil Armstrong nearly kills himself horribly in a flight test, by bouncing off the atmosphere and into the void of space. It will not be the last time his profession tries to kill him. First Man follows the years leading up to the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing and the various training programs and test missions NASA ran to prepare for that lofty goal. This included desert flight tests, a nearly fatal outer space docking mission, and the tragic cabin fire that claimed the lives of the first Apollo 11 crew. It is the story of the tribulation and loss of life that had to take place before a man could take that fabled giant leap into history. It is also about Neil Armstrong’s own personal tragedy. The Armstrongs lost their 2 year-old daughter to a malignant brain tumor in 1962, and that gutting loss casts its long shadow over the entire film, even as Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, in a performance that makes deft use of his gift for playing taciturn figures) refuses to speak openly about it. It falls mostly to his wife, Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy, doing an exceptional job of shading and subverting the archetype of Great Man’s supportive wife) to keep the family happy and functional, and to be the one member of her family who can communicate openly and honestly with the other astronaut families in their planned neighborhood. Damian Chazelle wants us to see how the journey to the moon was not just a simple, uncomplicated bit of American heroism. He respects the story of Apollo 11 as a great human achievement, but he also wants us to consider how that triumphant arc was borne out of death and tinted by grief.

First Man is thrillingly original in how it paints a rousing bit of history in muted mournful tones. Part of that new, more conflicted, less simplistically inspiring perspective has to do with the film’s stunning and jarring cinematography and production design. The opening sequence of Neil’s test flight is telling of what space travel will feel like for the rest of First Man.  We are looking at spectacular planes and spacecraft, ingenious works of technology designed by some of history’s most dazzling mathematicians and engineers. But they are still just human machines, prone to error and built out of parts that can break down. These machines may represent the apex of scientific innovation at that time, but the nuts and bolts holding everything together still rattle in their casings. You could be forgiven for momentarily thinking you were driving a rundown Ford Pinto. And that perspective is not only technically brilliant, but also pays emotional dividends. If, like Dunkirk, First Man is about the claustrophobia of being stuck in your tiny moment of history without the context of hindsight, then the cramped, cluttered design of these spacecraft makes you share that claustrophobia. You share the heightened, nervous feeling these astronauts must have felt in those crafts. When you’re blasting from firm ground to the limitless expanse of space on a plume of white hot rocket fuel, can any human machine help but feel a little inadequate for such an endeavor? Chazelle’s stroke of genius is to mirror the emotional claustrophobia of this historical moment with the actual, physical claustrophobia of being in these rattling machines. Just as the astronauts sat in these clattering contraptions not knowing what might happen to them, hoping not to die in their insane pursuit of new frontiers, NASA and the team assisting them from the ground must have felt the same trembling confusion about the Moon mission and the entire space program. Great milestones had already been reached, but significant blood had been shed in reaching those heights. Chazelle knows that the Moon landing is now a hyperlink in the American consciousness to swelling pride and easy platitudes about the unquenchable human spirit. But that is after the fact. Before Apollo 11 and the Moon landing was a mainstay of documentaries, Smithsonian exhibits, and postage stamps, it was a bloody and deeply costly endeavor whose merits were questioned by wide swaths of the American public. Chazelle wants to cast some essential, truthful shadows on the Technicolor hues that typically color this accomplishment. He wants us to see the Apollo 11 mission as something haunting as well as rousing. And even with the feat now capture and the outcome certain, he wants us to ask an important question about this moment in American history. “Is this worth the cost?” a reporter asks Neil Armstrong. “In money and in lives?”

The early complaints from detractors of the film took issue with it for being too cold and cerebral. I went in ready to wrestle with that criticism, but what I found was not the dry, clinical film I had expected. To be sure, an unmistakable chill runs through First Man, but that is not an accident or a failing. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) did not misread the recipe and forget to add two teaspoons of pathos. The viewer just needs to realize that First Man is about grappling with grief and death. It is about those things every bit as much as it is about Neil Armstrong or the 1960s or going to outer space. One of the ways in which First Man finds a new perspective on a very public event is by viewing it as Neil Armstrong’s own private ordeal. History may boil Apollo 11 down to the Moon landing and the “one small step” quote, but for Neil Armstrong, this was also the stretch of time when he lost a toddler to cancer, buried numerous friends, and was almost incinerated or sucked into outer space at least three times. There is a darkness in this story that has rarely been fully glimpsed. First Man finds more melancholy in the story of a successful mission than the estimable Apollo 13 found in the story of a failed mission. Even the horrifying Apollo 11 cabin fire, which was briefly shown in Apollo 13, feels much more upsetting here for how matter-of-factly it is presented. And, right wing pundits be damned, none of that sadness and subdued malaise is presented to nullify the genius, the daring, and the gobsmacking accomplishment of what Armstrong and his colleagues did. If anything, the full emotional wallop of Neil Armstrong finally making that first footprint in the soft lunar dust is amplified tenfold. Because we know how much heartache has gone into this project and we better understand the costly, arduous subtext. First Man is about a man who went to the Moon with a procession of ghosts in tow. Historical achievement is complicated. It is not just about the grand moments of success. Every victory like Apollo 11 probably has a ledger of setbacks, compromises and painful costs. Chazelle is keen on reminding us that these things are in the back pages of the true feel good stories we take for granted.

First Man is also about grappling with a certain kind of stoic American masculinity. And this is not to be too reductive. Human beings are diverse and different men process emotion, and grief specifically, in different ways. But First Man is interested in a very classically masculine response to sorrow and trauma. And that response is essentially not much response at all; sitting quietly with your pain and trying to convince those around you that nothing is wrong. It is, to be clear, not one of the healthiest aspects of masculine behavior, and First Man is very critical of it up to a point. Janet Armstrong’s face tells us that she understands her husband’s almost pathological reticence, his stubborn unwillingness to talk openly about his bereavement or put any of his emotions on display. She knows this simple, quiet man and loves him. But she also knows full well the absurdity of his ridiculous reserve. And we sense that it has not been easy for her to lose a child, bury numerous friends, console their widows, and repeatedly almost lose her husband, only to have that same husband be defiantly unwilling to acknowledge that a damn thing is wrong. Chazelle punctures Neil Armstrong’s manly dispassion, but he is also curious about that kind of very male disposition. The impulse to bury what is painful or uncomfortable and just get on with it. With what? Something. First Man reframes the Apollo 11 story as a classic example of men coping with grief through action. Armstrong doesn’t want to talk publicly of his suffering (though we do see him wail like a baby when he feels sure that no one can see him). He just needs to get back to work; to wrangle his unimaginable anguish by way of toil and action. He needs a project, and that project just happens to be going to the Moon. A lot of painful stuff happened to Neil Armstrong in the 1960s on Earth. And, well, he just needed to get off the planet for a week or so. No big deal. I think First Man is also implicitly about how an entire country was going through a similar grieving process during that time. While NASA was planning Apollo 11, America lost Medger Evers and John F. Kennedy to sickening acts of murder. Kennedy had proposed the idea of going to the Moon when he was still alive. Suddenly, he was gone and America needed that silly dream goal more than ever. The 1960s were exciting but they were also excruciatingly sad. We lost more leaders along the way: Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. America was in pain, maybe too much to process all at once. Right or wrong, people felt the need to bury themselves in some bit of business. Whether it would make us whole again or not, we needed a project. We just needed to get a job done. We needed to get to the damned Moon. The beauty of First Man is that it honors the marvelous achievement of Apollo 11 while also deepening its place in American history. It posits that the Moon landing may well have been a Band-Aid for deeper national wounds.

For all its technical merits, strong performances, and heady ideas, First Man is also just a tremendous sign of growth for Damian Chazelle. I refuse to use the words “return to form” here because I don’t think Chazelle has faltered yet in his young career. We can poke at La La Land all day long for being ideologically slight or for just being a very white and bourgeois piece of art, but it is still a fairly immaculate pop object. If that fizzy Technicolor jewel is to be Chazelle’s low, then his low is an exceedingly well-directed, sumptuously crafted thing of beauty. The work of a director with a ravishing sense of scope and a terrific eye for performances. Chazelle became history’s youngest Best Director winner with La La Land and almost took home Best Picture. He did not have to prove a solitary thing with his follow-up. He had every right to go make the safe, prestige-courting space biopic that First Man could have been. He could have made Apollo 13 with a stronger directorial stamp. He didn’t. He opted not to play it safe. On evidence of First Man, Oscar success has not boxed Chazelle into stiff notions of prestige filmmaking or made him compromise in the name of winning more trophies. Instead, he continues to be an ingeniously kinetic craftsman and a shrewd chronicler of art, success, perfection, and obsession. Success has not hobbled him because Chazelle is too canny about seeing what a conflicted thing success is. He seems to understand better than any director alive that perfection has its price and that there are no easy victories. And, by staying true to his own cerebral muse, he has turned what looked like an old fashioned, patriotic crowd-pleaser into one of the most moody, haunting films of the decade. Naturally, First Man was almost completely ignored at the Academy Awards. I like to think that Damian Chazelle is at peace with that. Like his driven characters, from Whiplash to First Man, I think Damian Chazelle knows the very specific kind of posterity he wants to chase.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #17- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


Coming into 2018, reboots and sequels felt like the last things we needed. After two crisis-packed years full of rape scandals and xenophobic uproar, the culture was in dire need of something original and fresh to wash the acridness out of its mouth. We needed exciting, new stories. We needed to find in the movies the joyful, creative enthusiasm that felt so scarce in the outside world. The last thing filmgoers needed was more of the same. And, dear God, if you had asked me on January 1, 2018 to name the single thing American cinema needed least, I probably would have said, “Another Spider-Man movie.” With no disrespect intended to 2017’s very good Spider-Man: Homecoming, our culture has hit peak Spider-Man fatigue. Since 2001, the popular comic book hero has had no fewer than eight films to himself. If you throw in the two Avengers films he appears in, that figure climbs into the double digits. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse really should have been the absolute last thing we needed. But, as I noted in my review of Paddington 2, sometimes we can be bad judges of what we need in films. And, as I noted in my review of A Star Is Born, 2018 had a way of taking old, overplayed stories and making them feel new again. So, for the record, this is my third 2018 film review to double as a mea culpa for my faulty film assumptions and the year’s third reminder that even the most tried and true properties can be vital, energetic, and essential when approached with wit, insight, and a palpable love for the story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not just an astonishingly wonderful animated reboot of this old franchise, but also a lively, intelligent meta discourse about why we like to reboot things. Why societies like to take certain stories, revise them, and retell them. I still maintain that we are nearing critical levels of super hero saturation, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the exception that recontextualizes the rule. It is about why we love to think about heroes and where we see ourselves in those narratives.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse starts with what will become a recurring bit. A version of Spider-Man catches us up on the essentials of the Spider-Man mythos. The opening narration comes courtesy of the Spider-Man we all know and love, Peter Parker. A bookish teenager, in love with his friend Mary Jane Watson, who attains super powers from a spider bite, loses his Uncle Ben, and dedicates himself to a life keeping New York City safe from criminals. Peter Parker is the official Spider-Man of this universe; what appears to be our universe. However, while Peter Parker takes us into the film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not his story. The film is instead the story of young Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager living in New York City. Miles’ father Jeff (Bryan Tyree Henry, who had a banner year with brilliant work in If Beale Street Could Talk, Widows, and television’s Atlanta) is a brusquely endearing police officer with some strong negative opinions on Spider-Man, who he regards as a reckless vigilante. Miles has a loving but testy relationship with his father. Some of that testiness can be chalked up to general teenage malaise and some of it is the fact that Jeff is forcing Miles to attend a ritzy boarding school uptown instead of the public school in his own neighborhood. Like most teenagers, Miles is wrestling with his identity as an adolescent. He is also figuring out who he is as a member of two different minority cultures. Miles feels most at ease with his father’s estranged brother, Aaron (Mahershala Ali, having a very good year), who places less pressure on him and who is more encouraging of Miles’ true passion: street art. One night, Uncle Aaron takes Miles to an abandoned subway station to throw up some graffiti. As he is finishing his art, Miles is bitten by the fated spider, which gives him superpowers. At this point, we think we know the rest, but this is where the film expands in unexpected directions. When Miles returns to the subway station to look around, he finds Peter Parker engaged in a heated battle with Kingpin (voiced with deadpan Brooklyn brutishness by Live Schreiber), a wealthy businessman and supervillain who wants to open a portal to other dimensions so he can be reunited with his tragically deceased wife and child. In the first of many breaks from the standard narrative track we think we are on, Peter Parker is killed by Kingpin and Miles flees in terror. Before he dies, he tasks Miles with making sure Kingpin does not complete his mission, which would annihilate all of New York City. For better or worse, Miles is now his universe’s Spider-Man and he is confused and terrified about how to assume the mantle. As luck would have it, the opening of all those dimensions has sucked other versions of Spider-Man into Miles’ version of New York City, which allows Miles to seek help from an alternate Spider-Man, Peter B. Parker (a hilarious and surprisingly poignant voice performance from New Girl’s Jake Johnson). As misfortune would have it, Peter B. Parker is something of a trainwreck. Saggy, broke, and recently divorced from his universe’s Mary Jane, he is truly the John Q. Adams to Peter Parker’s John Adams. However, in spite of his paunchy appearance, Peter B. Parker gradually becomes an engaged and capable mentor to Miles and Miles helps Peter remember the motivated, inspiring man he used to be. Together with four other versions of the character, including Spider-Girl and an incorrigible cartoon pig named Spider-Ham (the always very funny John Mulaney), they must prevent Kingpin and a female Doc Ock (a marvelously fun and  nuanced turn from the indispensable Kathryn Hahn) from reopening the portal and sucking New York City into nothingness. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey (Rise of the Guardians), and Rodney Rothman, three relatively young animation directors. They deserve all the credit in the world for this tremendous work, but the big celebrity of this creative team is co-writer Phil Lord, one half of the terrific Lord-Miller directing team. Lord and his partner, Chris Miller, brought us The Lego Movie and the 21 Jump Street cinematic reboot, two films that could have been lazy and overly commercial but turned out to be vivacious and irrepressibly funny instead. What Lord understands is how to lean into formula in ways that both mine it for comedy and lovingly own the tropes. The typical Lord-Miller film puts familiar cinematic stereotype in a fond headlock. As a film that flies fearlessly in the face of the overly familiar, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has Phil Lord’s comedic stamp all over it. It is one of the most consistently hilarious films of 2018 or any other year. However, what makes it better than anything he has done before, even the fantastic Lego Movie, is the dexterity Lord shows for balancing humor with rich pathos. Spider-Verse turns the 21st century’s seventh Spider-Man film into one of the most perfectly complete, emotionally fulfilling movie experiences of the year.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s script has all the beautifully zippy confidence of Spidey himself, but that only accounts for a portion of what makes it so winning and exhilarating. It is also a kaleidoscope of delirious, discombobulating color. I don’t know that I can name a single film from 2018 that was more delightful to just sit and look at. Scenes are painted in dazzlingly bold primary colors. The film’s version of New York City vibrates and twitches with nervous energy and possibility, like a hundred different dream versions of itself. Even that most troubled element of most Marvel-based films, the final climactic battle, feels gripping here. All of Spider-Verse’s many inspired elements are enriched and complemented by its ecstatically innovative animation. It cycles through a dizzying array of styles, as if to underline the film’s idea that there are hundreds of personal, idiosyncratic ways to tell the same story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also sets a new high watermark in making a comic book film that feels like a comic book in all the best ways. The look of the film shifts with the tone and stakes of individual scenes. Characters appear in panels. Words flash across the screen. And all of it looks fun and glorious The upside down shot of Miles Morales seeming to dive upward toward the New York City skyline is one of 2018’s most arresting and instantly iconic images. More than just evoking the look of comics, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the one film in its franchise to fully capture how disorienting, liberating and thrilling it would feel to actually be Spider-Man. That’s true during blisteringly energetic fight scenes, but it’s just as true in moments of calm. In one scene, Peter Parker has walked up the side of a building to the roof and Miles is standing sideways on the building’s façade, looking up at him. We cut to Miles’ point of view and we see the roof ledge and the sky above it and I gasped. It’s an intimate dialogue scene, but that shot thrilled me. When you’re Spider-Man, even your downtime involves defying gravity. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an impossibly fun, kinetic whirlwind of a film; the rare example of a comic book movie utilizing the full possibilities of cinema to tell its story. At the end of the day, it forces me to use a word that the truly sober-minded critic would resist. But, when I reflect on how I felt watching it, the most accurate word is just “cool”. Because holding your breath while grinning from ear to ear is cool. Because riding the world’s most hilarious, poignant, and socially conscious rollercoaster is cool. Because I know cool when it sends me hurtling from the tops of skyscrapers with wide eyes and a giggle fit.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse addresses the notion that the comic book movie has become predictable and stale and it reminds us that this genre still has boundless creative avenues to explore. It sees comics as a form with a distinctly communal kind of creative spirit. The beauty of comics and of animation in general is how much they allow for and encourage wild, limitless artistic expression. The style varies based on the artist interpreting the material and the familiar tropes and formulas serve as challenges to the artist’s imagination. The comic book has long been an art form where a wide variety of artists take turns telling the same story and the comic book film has become its own very collective cultural phenomenon. At this point, there can be little argument that it is the kind of movie seen and shared by the widest cross-section of the population. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is about the act of taking a very widely known, communal piece of art and reinvigorating it by making it your own. In that way, comics are also a lot like hip hop, a musical tradition that richly informs the film’s aesthetic and soundtracks its most pivotal scenes. In hip hop, as in comics, there is a joy that comes from taking old lines and classic beats (story and musical) and bringing them back in new forms. Old material recycled into new patterns and permutations. There is an art to taking something familiar and allowing it to mutate. Hip hop and comics can both be like a big cultural game of Telephone. In taking one of the most covered super hero origin stories out for another spin, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is accepting the noble challenge issued to every comic and hip hop artist. Many have played in this art form before you, but the good news is you have a wealth of tradition to draw on. What will you do with it? We get reboots and sequels every year, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is something special: the super hero movie’s first remix.

The film is all about how many new directions and angles still remain in one of comics’ oldest narratives. But Spider-Verse also attains an extra level of pathos because it is about allowing new types of characters into those old narratives. For as long as we’ve had Spider-Man movies, we have never seen someone like Miles wear the mask before. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse gives cinema its first non-white Spider-Man (not to mention its first Spider-Girl in the same film) and the decision pays off splendidly. Miles Morales is simply one of 2018’s richest characters: funny, kind, conflicted, and complex. In a film where picking the best voice performance could easily result in a six-way tie (a tie that doesn’t even include John Mulaney’s riotously funny, ahem, hamming), special notice has to go to Shameik Moore’s sensitive, note-perfect work as Miles. Representation for people of color on screen is an inherent good, regardless of the given film’s quality. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the kind of victory for diverse screen casting one really hopes to see. Forget my ever thinking this Spider-Man arc was too familiar. The addition of this nuanced, young Afro-Latino man into the narrative makes all the difference. I have swung through the air with a lot of Spider-Men. But swinging with Miles Morales was an honor and a genuine pleasure. This is an exciting, interesting, soulful character journey by any metric. A primetime role for a talented black actor that he proceeds to knock the ever-loving stuffing out of. I am happy and curious to follow this hero’s journey wherever it may go in the future. The most pleasantly surprising facet of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is that, for the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like I know where Spider-Man will go next.

To its list of accomplishments, there is one more we can add. Spider-Verse has what is, for me, far and away the best Stan Lee cameo in any Marvel film. The film isn’t even part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the compliment stands. The cameo occurs when a distraught Miles Morales goes to a costume shop to buy a Spider-Man mask to wear in solidarity at Peter Parker’s funeral. He goes to pay and the cashier is Stan Lee. Miles asks what he should do if the mask doesn’t fit and Stan Lee gives him this inspiring bit of reassurance. “The mask always fits eventually.” It’s a great line about self-acceptance, coming of age, and learning to take personal responsibility, themes that are pivotal to the Spider-Man narrative. But then, having uttered this bit of wisdom, the old man points to the “No Refunds” sign behind him and flashes a toothy huckster’s grin. It’s everything to love and hate about these super hero movies all captured in one moment. Can comic book films be inspiring and inspired, capable of speaking eloquently to our loftiest aspirations and deepest fears? Yes, they can. Are they also an insanely profitable racket, a cunning ploy for our wallets that mercilessly mine our most fragile desires and insecurities? Yes, they are. My goodness though, the last thing we need is another comic book movie. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is just plainly a great, great film. And those, we can never have enough of. Besides, there is a reason people are so drawn to these kinds of stories. And the chance to ponder those reasons, while backflipping over the Empire State Building, is pretty damned cool. There’s just no fighting it.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #18- Zama

2018 marked our first full year in the Me Too era and masculinity’s grand inquisition is going strong. The conversation has not only been about issues of consent, abuse of power, and sexual harassment. We are also in the midst of a deeper discourse about the drawbacks and complications of manhood itself; about what masculinity means and how it can aspire to be something better and healthier than it has been in its past. 2018 saw a number of films wrestle with the issue of toxic masculinity, male ego, and the way men process emotion. Damian Chazelle’s First Man did it with moody curiosity. Chloe Zhao’s The Rider took on standards of masculinity with gently heqrtbreaking empathy. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning examined male jealousy with enigmatic intensity. But of all these, Argentinian director Lucretia Martel’s 18th century period film Zama may have given manhood its most thoroughly merciless autopsy. Zama is a historical film and a bone dry satire of Spanish Colonialism and all the prideful, insecure chauvinism that imposing your will on an entire country entails. In a sense, it is also the year’s most sweeping takedown of toxic masculinity, for it is not just about the entitled posturing of its title character, but of an entire nation. With surgical remove, Lucretia Martel uses her camera to puncture and eviscerate the notions of what makes a strong, respectable man, individually and as a larger society. In the story of a 1700s Spanish magistrate abroad in Uruguay striving and failing to get a transfer out a rural backwater village, Martel is using the lens of Spanish Colonialism, one of history’s most egregious acts of patriarchal aggression, to fashion a rigorous critique of male peacocking. These officious men of the Spanish Crown, made up in their finery and appointed with important titles, are impotent and lost in a Hell of patriarchal society’s own making. They have been summoned to forcefully impose Europe’s laws and ideals on a country that never asked for them and they are inevitably doomed to fall short of the imperial expectations foisted upon them.

Our first look at our protagonist, Don Diego de Zama, winks at more romantic visions of colonialism and the Age of Exploration. Zama is standing on some shore, sharply dressed in a burgundy coat and tricorne hat, gazing out across the water, waiting for a ship to come in. He seems almost proudly posed, like some statue or Renaissance painting of a famous explorer. What we soon learn is that he has been awaiting this ship’s arrival for years. It is the ship that will take him away from the remote jungle boondocks where he serves his function. For years and years, Zama has acted as the local magistrate for a small colonial outpost, somewhere deep in the muggy jungles of Uruguay. He has long since stopped feeling any particular sense of swelling pride for his position. He goes about his duties with rote, bored resignation. “A functionary,” he dubs himself with weary self-loathing. Whatever ego he may have initially had about serving Spain has long since evaporated in the stifling heat, and what remains is an exhausted feeling of Sisyphean obligation. His days are taken up with the drudgery of petty theft cases, property (read: slavery) disputes, and sometimes making burial arrangements for the odd cholera death. He feels no greater purpose. All he wants is to finally be transferred to a city, where can be with his wife and child and where he can experience some modest portion of the trappings of Western civilization. Zama is not what you would call a plot-driven film. It is quite crucial that not much happens, that Zama remain forever stuck in place. Zama is a satirical character study and the very essence of Zama’s arc is that nothing ever moves forward for him. In the rare occasions where it looks like he might come closer to getting something he wants, it is always quickly yanked away from him. Nothing happens in this sweltering river town where his own country has buried him. He is consistently thwarted, not only in his futile attempts to be freed from this miserable post, but in every other effort to feel like a dignified, self-actualized man. His attempts to become intimate with one of the only Spanish women in town come to nothing. His young assistant undermines him and mocks his lame attempts at gravitas. Having just been choked by Zama for being impudent, the underling smiles and sarcastically exclaims, “Such bravura!” The superiors Zama appeals to ignore his requests. Instead, he gets moved from his relatively nice house to a dilapidated, termite-ridden hovel. Finally, after many more years of limbo, Zama volunteers himself for a bounty mission, hoping to earn some brownie points to support his transfer. The mission is to hunt down an infamous, murderous outlaw named Vicuna Porto, a man the Spanish government claims to have already executed but who seems to always come back to life. Like the rest of the film, this final act is about grappling with the myths of manly strength and coming to see how fundamentally hollow they are. The courageous band of colonial conquerors set out to kill the most feared man in South America and bring glory to Spain. In the end, what dies out there in the jungle is the myth of machismo; of bending the world to your whim with a sword and an adventurer’s spirit. Lucretia Martel is declaring that this is not how the world works, though it may sadly be how men work.

Martel’s meticulously observant historical film is a razor sharp dissection of the folly of Colonialism and all its dubious lore. In his tricorne and tailored coat, looking out over the water, Zama momentarily assumes the image of Columbus, Cortez, or Pizarro. Brazen men of action, eager to find what is just over the horizon. The cruel joke is that Zama is not called to any bold action and he knows he is not going anywhere. Hell, this isn’t even the sea. It’s just some anonymous river. Zama’s horizon will never change. In drawing a sharp dagger on white exploration and exploitation, Martel keenly grasps something crucial to the whole explorer mythos: forward motion. Relentless forward motion. Martel uses Zama to judge centuries of colonial rape and she comes up with a devilishly ironic sentence for her hapless colonial surrogate. In selecting Zama as Colonialism’s whipping boy, she condemns him to the thing that is most anathema to exploration: perpetual stasis. If the key narrative elements of empire-building are bravery and adventure, Martel replaces them with ineffectual cowardice and drudgery. Martel attacks Colonialism but she also reserves a muted, sad kind of feeling for Zama. I am unsure what to call that feeling. It is definitely not sympathy. It is not really empathy either. It is simply that Martel allows a kind of pathos to hang over Zama like a tattered, muddy coat. Zama is justifiably punished for his acquiescence to, and participation in, an immoral system. But the sad thing is that he no longer believes in any of it. Clearly, he ignorantly bought into colonial conquest when he was an opportunistic young man, but those days are far away. Now he hears the termites in the walls. That pathos enriches the film, but Martel also refuses to let her protagonist off the hook. It is the very point of the film that this ineffectual, frustrated bureaucrat be eternally on the hook. Zama is the hook. Martel’s film is divine retribution for the sins of European exploration, all of it heaped upon one unfortunate man. Don Diego de Zama has learned too late that being the oppressor’s errand boy is hard work. Tedious, fruitless, soul-sucking work.

I am cautious to say this but Zama is, at its heart, a kind of comedy. I do not want to create a false expectation here. It is quite unlikely that you will laugh during Zama. I do not believe that I ever did, at least not audibly. But the film is darkly, absurdly humorous for how feeble and trapped this emasculated fool is. Much of that humor comes from Daniel Gimenez Cacho’s sharp, subtle performance. His every weary, embarrassed facial expression betrays the losing battle he is fighting in his soul. The gleaming legacy he thought he signed up to defend and the steaming pile of bureaucratic llama dung he has found in its place. Zama’s eyes wince with the struggle of holding onto some shred of self-worth, but the universe just laughs and cocks its fist back again. There is a pained expression on his face whenever someone mistakenly thinks he can protect them, vindicate them, or make them whole in any way. When he is somehow mistaken for that great man from the film’s first shot. It would be one thing if he could just call his dignity dead forever and move on. But the slow death of his pride is never over because he is never done meeting people who haven’t yet learned how impotent he is. He never runs out of new faces to disappoint. Spain has sold Zama a tremendous bill of goods, and now they won’t even let him do his pointless, unfulfilling job in an actual city. When I call Zama a comedy, I mean the humiliating kind; the comedy of watching someone have dignity continually stripped away from them. Zama is really only a few centuries and a Spanish accent removed from Milton in Office Space. If staplers existed in the 1700s, you can bet Zama would be the one man in the whole Spanish government who never got to have one. Beyond its pointed critiques of Colonialism,!Zama is also just about the timeless ordeal of having a shitty, thankless job. Some of us work retail and have to deal with obnoxious customers and some of us have to live on the muggy outskirts of civilization performing mundane administrative work for brutal hegemonies. It’s a living! Zama is something rather novel and ingenious: the period piece as deadpan workplace satire.

What makes Zama such a fine cinematic achievement isn’t just its subdued wit or its gift for subtle social critique. Lucretia Martel has also made something impressively sensory to complement her ideas. Zama’s score is a mélange of traditional Spanish guitar songs and low, sinister drones that convey the sweaty, dusty, malingering tedium of Zama’s sedentary plight. Her visuals wryly underline the absurdity of these Spaniards imposing their will on this place that does not want them. Spaces feel hot and claustrophobic. Zama moves through them like a shiftless, irritated ghost. These faces all look bored and sticky. The hot days feel like they go on forever. The only cool place in the entire outpost is the room where they store corpses before burial, for understandable reasons. Zama speaks in hushed, romantic tones about one day seeing snow again. The humid, fetid natural world threatens to swallow up these vain little wooden dwellings. For all of Spain’s pomp and circumstance, they have no real control over this place. Horses and llamas wander nonchalantly through sitting rooms and government offices. At a critical moment of cowardice, a horse turns to Zama and looks at him with what can only be judgmental disappointment. Nature has no regard for these pathetic colonial interlopers. Zama presents Colonialism less as a blight on the land than as something absurd, ephemeral and doomed. Martel is not weeping for Uruguay. Uruguay will be fine. Instead, she is cackling in righteous fury at the folly of a society that thinks it can force itself upon another land. The land is eternal and it has sucked Don Diego de Zama in like quicksand. It does not want him but it also doesn’t feel like releasing him yet. The only cool place is the crypt. Zama’s only release may be death.

And after a second viewing, I think death is maybe what Zama longs for. If not for himself, he at least wants everything he represents to breathe its last, Colonialism, manifest destiny, Spain, the arbitrary modes of masculine decorum, this cursed magistrate job. The very idea that any of this is doing any good for anyone. Zama is a coward. He fears death coming to him. But at an abstract level, I think he realizes what a relief it would if this toxic patriarchal system and his role within it just went away. If nobody, oppressor or oppressed, had to act out this tired play ever again. His tired eyes finally see the inane artifice of it all. Face to face with the fearsome Vicuna Porto, Zama recants all of it. Porto mockingly calls him “corregidor”, a reference to his title. It also literally means one who makes things correct. Zama flatly replies back, “I’m not the corregidor.” The title, with its evocations of justice, righteousness and strength, is a hollow lie. Sometimes myths outlive their purpose and need to die. Lucretia Martel gives Colonialism, noble conquest, and toxic masculinity the ego death they deserve. She condemns them, carries out the sentence, and buries them in a shared grave. It doesn’t matter what takes their place. When chauvinism, exploitation and greed are your societal foundations, tearing that system down is the most merciful course of action. For everyone involved.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #19- Paddington 2

I have a real frenemy relationship with my own expectations. They have their uses. They’re good for making predictions and they’re fun to gossip with. Still, when all is said and done, I consistently root for them to look stupid. I live to see them proved wrong. I love seeing my cinematic expectations get crushed. Is there any feeling better than being surprised by a film? We inevitably bring certain expectations into the theater with us. For as much as I try to clear my mind of any prejudgments and extracurricular baggage before a screening, it’s impossible to keep my overly active brain from forming some premature impressions about what it’s about to watch. Predictions about the film’s quality, thoughts about the source material, suspicions about who the movie is catering to, and feelings about the director and actors’ past work. There may be no better example of me wrongly saddling a film with expectation and prejudgment than Paul King’s 2014 film, Paddington. Prior to its release, the Internet had itself a field day mocking the films marketing, and I can’t deny that it was a lot of fun to witness at the time. The film’s posters showed the delicately drawn cartoon bear now rendered into an uncanny actual bear though what initially appeared to be hideously misjudged CGI. The sweet little ursine looked nightmarish. His fur was realistic to the point of feeling fake and his beady bear eyes peered out with lifeless, alien apathy. Memes flooded the Internet, transporting this ursine member of the Uncanny Valley into various classic horror movie posters, where his dead-eyed stare felt perfectly, hilariously at home. The marketing was a terrible joke, and beyond that many assumed the movie itself would just be no good. That it would take a gentle, whimsical figure of child literature and plug him into the latest homogenous piece of slapstick spectacle. Another crass, CGI-infested product in a cinema landscape littered with it. The knives were out for Paddington and we all had our reasons. We all ended up being very, very wrong. Paddington turned out to be a remarkably winning, charming little film. We weren’t just wrong about its general quality, but also about its very nature. What was expected to be crass and garish was genuinely heartfelt, creative and fun. And the little bear mocked for his creepy lifelessness has now turned out to be one of the most sweetly vivacious, heartwarming characters in the whole of 21st century cinema. Paul King’s first Paddington film far exceeded the expectations set for it. And, for as much as I was now prepared for Paddington 2 to actually be good, it utterly obliterated whatever expectations one might attach to a sequel to a surprisingly good family film starring a CGI bear. Paddington is a fine, fine film. Paddington 2 is an instant classic. A new masterwork in the family film genre, fit to be uttered in the same breath as Babe.

The story structure of Paddington 2 is a thing of simple elegance. The first film was about how Paddington (Ben Whishaw, making unflappable kindness subtle and interesting), a young Peruvian bear being raised by his adoptive aunt and uncle, leaves the Andes to fulfill his Aunt Lucy’s longtime dream of seeing London. Paddington was about a kind little bear setting off for a new place and finding a new home and family with the Browns. The Browns. The Brown household consists of gruffly accommodating accountant Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), kindhearted illustrator Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins, channeling the same effortless tenderness that made her so terrific in The Shape of Water), their teenage children Jonathan and Judy, and their tartly funny no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Bird (the great Julie Walters). Paddington was about the polite, diminutive bear winning his way into the Browns’ hearts, finding a new home, brightening the world around him through his soft-spoken positivity, and tangling with a colorful villain. Paddington 2 is more of the same in the very best way. What these films have going for them is vibrant color, confident charm, and gently side-splitting humor. Part of what makes Paddington 2 such an improvement over its lovely predecessor is that there is no need for table-setting. London is now very much Paddington’s home and Paul King has more time to spend just enriching his world and its inhabitants, through wit, emotion, and splendidly choreographed spectacle. Another way Paddington 2 improves on Paddington is through a tremendously fun and interesting villain. The first film’s villain was a depraved and chilly taxidermist with a vendetta, played in a perfectly good performance by Nicole Kidman. In Paddington 2, antagonist duties go to Hugh Grant, having the time of his life and giving quite possibly the performance of his career. Grant plays Phoenix Buchanan, a once-celebrated London stage actor now mostly forgotten and relegated to appearing in wonderfully humiliating dog food commercials. Paddington runs afoul of Phoenix when he finds a beautifully ornate and very expensive pop-up travel book of London that he wants to buy for Aunt Lucy’s birthday. Aunt Lucy’s dream was to visit London and Paddington sees the book as a small way of helping her experience that dream. The rub is that Phoenix Buchanan knows the book is also secretly a treasure map, and finding its riches is the only way he can finance his long-delayed one man comeback show. Paddington gets a series of jobs to try to earn money for the book, while the vain, selfish Phoenix Buchanan connives to steal it from the store. Eventually, mishap and misunderstanding land Paddington in prison for burglary, while Phoenix remains free to carry out his treasure hunt. As he does everywhere he goes, Paddington makes unlikely friends in prison, including a curmudgeonly bruiser of a chef named Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson, brilliantly funny). While the Browns try to clear Paddington’s good name, Paddington transforms a maximum security prison into a charming, pastel-tinted luxury spa all through the power of cheerfulness and marmalade sandwiches.

And, on paper, maybe that all sounds like too much sugary sentiment for any one film to have on its hands. Perhaps it all sounds like having nothing but marmalade (or mah-mah-lade, as Knuckles hilariously pronounces it) for a meal. There is precious little irony in Paddington 2, which is one way that a film can temper its sentimentality. Paddington 2 is absolutely dripping in good-natured, kindly emotion. And somehow it all works. It works by leaning into its unabashedly earnest nature. It is probably ten times more sentimental than I can convey in words, and it all completely and totally works. It doesn’t just function, it soars every level of filmmaking. It succeeds in the same way Singin’ In the Rain succeeds. As it turns out, you can make a great film that is utterly saturated in sweetness and joyful emotion if you are smart and fearless about how you approach it. Our intrepid hero is unafraid of being judged for his kindness, his thoughtfulness or his sincerity and the movie follows his lead. Like Singin’ In the Rain, Paddington 2 is an open-hearted, joyous feast of color, sound, and comedic setpieces. Paddington 2 is unfiltered joy in cinematic form. It radiates generosity and good humor from its every frame. It journeys into a dank prison because it knows that whatever sorrow is in there doesn’t stand a chance against it. The gloomiest raincloud is powerless in the face of its benevolence. Almost every character is charming and nice. Most of the movie’s sourpusses quickly succumb to Paddington 2’s onslaught of kindness and good will. And the film’s one outright villain is hysterically funny and a consistent hoot to watch. Paddington 2 is just too confident and purposeful in its joyfulness to ever feel saccharine. It rallies love, warmth, sweetness and color and marches them into battle against the forces of darkness.

In our fractious times, rife with discord, bigotry and trolling, kindness starts to look more and more like a radical act. One of 2018’s big success stories was Morgan Neville’s Fred Rogers documentary, Wont You Be My Neighbor?. I like that movie quite a lot, but I think Paddington 2 is fighting for the same cause with quite a bit more flair. Paddington 2 has a sharp, witty screenplay full of insightful lines, but the most instantly iconic may be the mantra Paddington picked up from Aunt Lucy and that he passes on to the stubbornly petulant Knuckles McGinty. “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right.” In its sweet, effervescent way, Paddington 2 is out to fight back against the notion of kindness as weakness. It is about love and selflessness as sources of strength and courage. There may be no better example of virtue as something powerful than when Knuckles insults Aunt Lucy and Paddington give him one of his aunt’s patented hard stares. It is a fixed, unwavering look of disapproval. It is not outwardly aggressive, but it is unflinching in its moral censure. When someone does wrong by you, you do not need to insult them or harm them back, but you let them know they have acted out of turn and you do not back down. As Knuckles blanches in discomfort, Paddington explains, “My Aunt Lucy taught me to do them when people have forgotten their manners.” This is a scene of genuine power. I found myself tearing up a bit. And then I shook my head and laughed, remembering that time five years ago when I mocked that Paddington poster for not appearing emotionally expressive enough. Just look at him now. There may not be a single facial expression in all of 2018 film with more simple, expressive power than that hard stare. Paddington 2 announce that we should feel resilient in our decency and never look back. When we find rudeness and spitefulness out in the world, we don’t have to respond with more negativity. But we should not hesitate to make hate squirm.

In my review for Lady Bird, my favorite film from 2017, I started a new annual tradition. I like to call it the Damp Face Award. The honor goes to whatever film leaves me with teary eyes for the greatest percentage of its runtime. A film can win the Award through sadness, humor or naked emotion, but any film wins is probably going to have some combination of all three. The Damp Face Award favors laughter and pathos, two qualities that I value highly in my films. This year saw no shortage of emotionally strong work, but Paddington 2 wins the 2018 Damp Face Award handily. It is a film of bottomless heart and wit. I cannot overemphasize how very, very funny it is both verbally and visually. It is also an overwhelmingly poignant film. Paul King’s family opus is tremendously fun and inventive, from the prison shenanigans to Phoenix Buchanan’s amazing, endless stream of costume changes when committing his crimes. But the film’s stroke of genius for me is that its central story arc is so simple and generous. Paddington loves his Aunt Lucy dearly, appreciates here years of support and sacrifice (the film smartly opens with a flashback of Aunt Lucy rescuing the orphan cub Paddington from a Peruvian river), and wants to give some portion of that kindness back to her. It is the reason that Paddington 2 can be the giddy, colorful, digressive whirligig that it is and still feel so grounded and cohesive. Paddington 2 is about the power of simple, selfless acts and it is about being grateful for the people (and bears) who love us. Without spoiling anything, the film concludes with a small act of kindness so genuinely heartfelt and overwhelmingly meaningful that any list of the decade’s best endings would be incomplete without it. It is such a refreshingly simple; a gesture and four words. Realizing that this little moment was what this entire film had been building toward completed walloped me. It felt so perfectly scaled to the compassionate little family film around it, but I was unprepared for its power. Even in very good family films, one does not expect moments this intimate, emotional, and well-observed.

I’ve been telling anyone who asks and a few who don’t that my favorite quality in 2018 cinema is how hungry the filmmakers seemed. The great works of the past year left me with a lot to think about and unpack, and that is what reviews are for. But they also felt so immediately satisfying in the moment I was watching them. There’s a feeling almost beyond words when a film is clicking into lace while you’re watching it. I chalk it up to conviction and exuberance, and there were few films in this or any other year with as much infectious exuberance as Paddington 2. It’s an infectiously exuberant film about the transformative, transportive power of infection exuberance. And that’s not just something it’s selling to its audience. Paddington 2 is also its own most loyal customer. It is a symphony of goodness that builds and builds upon itself. It is a rare and beautiful thing to find a family film with this degree of zest and directorial prowess. The same goes for sequels. And that rare quality becomes even more astounding when we factor in that this is a sequel to a family film based on a very British children’s book series about a talking, marmalade-loving Peruvian bear exploring jolly old England. I have no conceivable idea of what the expectation is or should be for a film like that. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe that’s as it should be.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #20- A Star Is Born

It’s always fun to look at my yearly Top 20 and identify patterns and present-day applications; themes that stand out across multiple films and messages that speak to the world we live in. That said, while there are a number of recurring ideas across 2018 cinema (cycles of abuse, familial histories, the ever-presence of classism, and the continuing struggle over racial inequality), what really defines 2018 as a year in film  for me is that it just tasted so incredibly good. Regardless of genre, what I found in my film-going year was a wonderful abundance of flavor. The defining feature of this year’s cinematic menu, from the most heartwarming comedy to the most austerely despairing indie drama, was a sense of luscious, swaggering vitality. It was a year with gumption, brio, and full-throated spirit. In that context, having a film as marvelously sumptuous as A Star Is Born begin my year-end list feels fitting. Bradley Cooper’s stirring directorial debut is a fine banner carrier for a year that had no shortage of swagger. A year full of relationships writ large and with infectious flair. Of old ideas carried out with such infectious panache, they made you want to forever ban the use of such a presumptuous and dismissive term as “old ideas”. 2018 saw such disparate and well-established breeds as the Western, the space exploration period piece, the teen coming-of-age film, and the workplace comedy approached with originality, yes, but more than anything, with splendid faith in the ability of rich characters, poignant emotion, and keen ideas to spark life into the most familiar genres. Such a wealth of the year’s films trod old roads while allowing us to feel like we have never noticed them this way before. It is altogether fitting that Bradley Cooper’s arresting and heartfelt riff on an oft-told story should start off this set of reviews, not only because it is such a sterling example of how to make an old form feel fresh, but also because revitalizing old forms is practically the film’s mission statement. Late in A Star Is Born, one character opines to another that all of music is really only some combination of the same twelve notes played out again and again. It is not all that often that music, film, or any other art form sees some radical new development. Most artists will inevitably find themselves using tried and true methods to tell their stories. What matters then is not so much the old song itself as the small, emotional nuances of the singer. The modulations and phrasing and where the singer allows her voice to crack and strain with vulnerabilities. Originality and innovation are fine things and we should always honor those who seek to push art forward in bold new ways. But there is also something to be said for those who can find inspiration within the lines of what already exists. When an artist performs an old standard with true conviction, there is no such thing as the same old song.

The notion of finding new life in an old-fashioned story is an important one for A Star Is Born, not only because it belongs to a long-standing tradition of stories about fame and the rise and fall of artistic fortunes, but because it is also no less than the fourth iteration of this particular cinematic property. The kinds of music the two romantic leads play has changed between versions of A Star Is Born. And in the earliest version, from 1937, the two leads were not musicians at all but rather actors. But the basic skeleton has always been that an older artist, famous but well past the zenith of his career, finds and helps to establish an undiscovered female talent. The films are about the relationship between the two leads, the joys and trials of fame, and balancing success with artistic integrity. More than anything, the hook is always that we are watching the ascension of a new star while a former star falls, beautifully and tragically, out of the sky. We first meet our old star, alt-country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, in a splendid mixture of histrionic swagger and subtle nuance that may as well be the film in miniature), at a concert where is he is already years into tumbling from his peak. He plays “Black Eyes’, the first of A Star Is Born’s numerous strong songs, and he sounds very good. Still, he is plainly drunk and staggering his way through the motions. The number cuts off midway through to a flurry of flashbulbs, as Jackson slips into the protection of his limousine and bottle of scotch. Slurring his words, he asks his driver to find him a bar somewhere in the nameless city he has just played to. He ends up in a cozy, dimly lit drag bar on the night of its weekly cabaret show. Here we meet our second star, Ally (Lady Gaga, in a powerful, confident, and subtle performance), a young, recently divorced Italian-American woman living at home with her working-class father (Andrew Dice Clay, lending lovely humor and shading to a small role) and putting in shifts at a thankless catering job to pay their bills. We gather that this cabaret night is probably the one release valve in a never-ending grind of frustrations and narrowly missed opportunities. Ally is a tremendously gifted singer and performer, as she demonstrates to the audience and to Jackson Maine when she strides across the bar to give a fiery, deliciously vampy rendition of “La Vie En Rose”. Jackson is instantly blown away and he asks her friend, Ramon (Anthony Ramos, who played one of Alexander Hamilton’s friends in Hamilton), to take him backstage for an introduction. Their chemistry and shared love of music is immediately apparent, and so the meeting quickly turns into an impromptu date that climaxes with a heartfelt, breathlessly intimate conversation at 2:00 AM in an empty supermarket parking lot. Here Jackson shares the details of his dysfunctional, blue-collar upbringing and Ally reveals the first glimpses of her stellar songwriting talent. Within what feels like twenty-four hours, Jackson has invited Ally to meet him on tour in Arizona, where he invites her onstage to sing a full arrangement of the song she showed him on their first date. That song is a blazing chart-topper called “Shallow”, which has now gone from being a massive hit in a raved film to being a massive hit on the real world Billboard charts. The moment where Ally must summon the courage to take the stage is one of the most breathtakingly, breath-holdingly rapturous in any film this year. Lovers and detractors of A Star Is Born cite this moment as the film’s blissful apex, and it should be. In a film about two careers and lives, one soaring toward its peak and one plummeting to its inevitable demise, it only makes sense that the brightest moment would be that brief span of time when their arcs cross with one another. Where the film goes from there is increasingly less ecstatic and joyful as Jackson grapples with his addictions and professional insecurities, and as Ally faces the compromises that are part and parcel of mainstream success. Some see that dip in euphoria as a detriment to the film and I will concede that A Star Is Born is probably never quite as exquisite as a sheer piece of filmmaking in its back half. On the other hand, that seems entirely the point. This old story is very much about a kind of artistic hangover for both of its protagonists. The moment when the artist either loses their relevance never to get it back or when they catapult to such wild heights of success that the act of creating and performing can no longer be as joyful or sweetly uncomplicated as it once was. If “Shallow” feels like an Eden that the rest of the film can never quite return to, I would argue that is very much by Bradley Cooper’s design. A Star Is Born is a lot of giddy, heart-swelling fun in all of its spectacle and romance. But it is also finally a tragic melodrama, and anyone taken aback or disappointed by its descent into dysfunction, jadedness and sorrow has forgotten the very specific old torch ballad that Gaga and Cooper are crooning. Bradley Cooper has radically revitalized this property, but the song is still the song.

And the fact that this is fundamentally the same A Star Is Born is really the great achievement of the film. Or rather it’s the notion that we would forget what movie this is for even a minute. The film hits its potentially clichéd story beats with such passion and thunderous force in its first half that we scarcely notice how familiar those beats actually are. There are countless rise and fall biopics. There are countless romances like that of Ally and Jackson Maine. But all that stops mattering in the time we spend with them because they feel so specific and real. It is a wondrous cinematic magic trick to make an audience momentarily forget all the strings of plot and archetype dangling right in front of their faces the whole time. We suffer through a great many flat, uninspired romance films year after year. Audiences clearly have a hunger to see people in love, but so few of the talent Hollywood entrusts to capture love on screen seem to truly have their hearts in it most of the time. There seems to be a kind of disrespectful presumption that the people who want to see love stories are not picky; that, when push comes to shove, quality is secondary and people will get their romantic narrative fix through any means available to them. And, at the risk of sounding trite, I think the grand human emotion that is love deserves a whole lot better than what it gets throughout most of the film year. In its swelling, old-fashioned, star-studded way, A Star Is Born is one of the best films of recent years to capture the scope of what it feels like to fall head over heels for a person. Really, the reason that “Shallow” is such a breathtaking display of emotional fireworks isn’t just that it captures what it would feel like to finally have your moment in the spotlight. It is more than that. It is about what it would feel like to rocket to fame overnight and find the love your life in the same exact instant. It is frankly almost absurd in its delirious wish fulfillment. This is not a subtle kind of love. A Star Is Born’s romantic poetry is not scribbled delicately upon napkins and diary pages. It is written in plumes of pink smoke across the sky and emblazoned in black block letters on the marquees of sold out stadiums. And yet, so help me, there is real nuance here amidst all that jaw-dropping scope. A Star Is Born is a film that feels enormous, yet still has a canny way of filigreeing its large-scale imagery with tiny nuances. This is nothing like real-world romance. It really is the quintessence of a love that can happen only in the movies. But its epicness is also unfailingly intimate in an almost paradoxical way. Somehow, in all its larger-than-life spectacle, its romance feels completely right.

And, really, it’s not just the love scenes. Everything about A Star Is Born balances an almost impossible grandiosity with smaller flourishes. Its lovelorn music world feels like a flashy Technicolor marvel, but one that you can actually imagine real human beings existing in. Its concert stages and music halls feel like Mount Olympuses and also like fond, familiar spaces where performers line up celebratory shots of Jack Daniels just offstage for a little pre-encore courage, and where megastars still huddle together in little pep circles like nervous sixteen year olds about to perform in a high school play. The allure of A Star Is Born isn’t just in how dazzling its world is. It is also about what it would feel like to suddenly call this big, crazy show-biz milieu your own. I cannot recall the last time I saw such a fascinating mixture of spectacle and intimacy. When Jackson proposes to Ally with a ring fashioned from a bass guitar string, it feels totally appropriate for two musicians in love. But that image of the knotted metal chord encircling Ally’s finger also feels huge, like something one might see on a rock ‘n’ roll album cover. I had to think for a moment just to make sure I hadn’t seen it in some Guns ‘n’ Roses music video. That, and every other thing about A Star Is Born, would feel ridiculously bombastic if its emotions were not so sweetly sincere; if its performances were not so beautifully raw, real, and committed. That goes not only for Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, who both do spectacularly charismatic work, but for a wealth of smaller roles and single-scene parts. From Sam Elliott conveying years of love and fraught history as Jackson’s beleaguered older brother and road manager, to Dice Clay’s proud, lovably embarrassing Italian patriarch, to Anthony Ramos as Ally’s protective and playful companion on the road to fame. The brief appearance of Jackson Maine’s cheerful and capable tour assistant Gail made me imagine an equally fun and stirring film about the backstage life of an assistant to an aging alcoholic rockstar. I could watch a series about the sardonic, loving family of drag show performers at the bar where Ally and Jackson first meet. I think what Bradley Cooper demonstrates here is an ability to make a lavish Hollywood entertainment with all the layered observational quality of a fine indie drama. It is tremendously exciting to think of the trend a film like this could incite. Gloriously big, swooning exravaganzas with sharp scripts and rich, method-style performances. The one time Daniel Day Lewis appeared in a musical (Rob Marshall’s Nine) the results were mixed at best, but maybe Bradley Cooper is the man to make that seemingly incongruous combination finally sing.

My single favorite moment in A Star Is Born is not just “Shallow” but a specific moment within the “Shallow” performance. After Ally finishes her first verse, to ecstatic cheers, she stands agape and overcome and the song begins to build to its bridge of gorgeous, frenzied caterwauling. Ally has been standing at one of the backup microphones downstage. We have just seen her muster up all her courage and will power to even walk this far. Suddenly, Jackson beckons her forward and she makes the fateful walk to the lead microphone. We follow her in a tight tracking shot as she crosses that important bit of space that separates anonymity from stardom. From backup vocalist to center stage diva all in a matter of seconds and steps. There is just something so very satisfying about the blocking of this scene. It made me think about the real physical space that a rising star like Ally would occupy. For as much as A Star Is Born might be a giddy fantasia of the pop music world, Cooper puts exquisite care into thinking about the concrete details of this world. A Star Is Born may be unadulterated romantic wish fulfillment, but, like the very best dreams, it feels palpably real while you’re in it. And, if nothing else, the genuine thoughtfulness and care of how these stage scenes are choreographed gives A Star Is Born one of its very best qualities: sheer, exuberant conviction. Even scenes that don’t feel quite like they might in real life, like Ally’s performance on Saturday Night Live, have an impressionistic kind of emotional authenticity. Maybe this is not what the real SNL studio space looks like, but the details sure feel true. Nervously holding your breath before your first official televised appearance. Standing next to Alec Baldwin in the dark in total silence until the producer gives you both the hand signal to head to your marks. When Jackson Maine is asked to play backup guitar for a Roy Orbison tribute at the Grammys, the Roy Orbison banner hanging behind the band looks monumentally large. I thought about all the crafts that go into making something pop visually on television; how colorful and gigantic everything must to be to register for the viewer, and how disorienting and surreal it must be to be surrounded by all of that. The wild, colorful bric-a-brac of show business. And, of course, as A Star Is Born increasingly turns into a story of addiction and self-destructive excess, the feeling of being dwarfed and swallowed up by the glitzy machinery of fame starts to take on the double function of letting us into Jackson Maine’s headspace. It places us in Ally’s headspace too. Stardom must be an intoxicating place to fine oneself, and perhaps even more to lose oneself. In its detailed imagining of the spaces of the music world, A Star Is Born once again feels true to life while also being ten times larger than life.

A Star Is Born is a marvelous work of acting, music, and directorial craft, but what finally makes it such a superb representation of what 2018 did right is that it reminds us that we can go back to wells that are decades or even centuries-old and still find life there. This film is no less than the fourth cover of this specific old story, and this general kind of story has been covered ever so many times more than that. The film is not the tiniest bit ashamed of that fact. It is giddy with delight to add its voice to a long-standing narrative tradition. The myriad hoary tropes set up for it to crash into and trip over turn out not to be stumbling blocks. Instead, it uses them as obstacles to nimbly dash around, leap from and parkour over. Subverting cliché while embracing it is not just part of the show. It is the feature. It is what A Star Is Born wants to offer its audience. I left this soaringly tragic melodrama with an elated tingle in my temples. Bradley Cooper had taken an old song, struck up the band, and roared at the top of his lungs, “Once more with feeling!” A Star Is Born makes formula feel moving and thrilling. It turns cliché into an equestrian course. Having a film this feverish, romantic, compelling, and downright assured in every facet eke its way into my year-end list is a firm declaration that 2018 was the finest film year in quite some time. And if A Star Is Born is not the year’s most altogether perfect film, it makes up for that handily by sounding a galvanizing rallying cry, to all the first-timers, developing talents, and wise veterans we were privileged to see make movies this year. Everybody, listen up. The rookie’s got something to say. Whatever we choose to say should be said with passion, hunger and raw emotion. This old medium of ours is still a baby with its best, most beautiful works ahead of it.  And everything old under the Sun is new again.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #1- Lady Bird

I am recently thirty-six years old and I am unashamed to say that I tear up in movies. I tear up in them more now than I did two years ago, which was already considerably more than I did five years before that. It’s been an escalating trend with me. As a young teenager, it would happen with a select handful of films, the most reliable of which was, and maybe still is, Field of Dreams, that lovely plate of steak and potatoes that I still love so well. If I was ever offered a million dollars to cry on cue, humming the closing strains of James Horner’s “The Place Dreams Come True” would be about as reliable strategy as I can name. But as I grow older and ever more in love with the cinema, it takes less and less to make my eyes mist over. I spent the closing hours of one of my dating anniversaries blubbering like an infant to the final monologue of Mrs. Doubtfire on TNT, while my future fiancé lay blissfully passed out and blessedly oblivious to my shameful little display. Now that the dam in front of my moviegoing retinas has completely crumbled, the most liberating revelation has been realizing that it doesn’t take sadness or even a particularly dramatic kind of joy to get the tears flowing. I can tear up at comedies, dramas, thoughtful documentaries, musicals, and droll animated films. And so, just as I did with The Florida Project (my other favorite film of 2017), I have come up with a term to describe my official number one film of 2017. Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s lyrical, witty, sweetly observant, and deliriously humanistic high school dramedy, is the quintessential Damp Face Movie TM. What this means is that there was nary a moment in this priceless, compact little gem of a movie where my eyes weren’t dewy and glistening in the best possible ways. To be clear, the Damp Face honor (I am now considering handing the award out annually) doesn’t just go to a film that makes my eyes well up. This is not an award for the film with the biggest cry (which surely goes to The Florida Project’s roundhouse kick of an ending), but the film that holds my eyeballs in a suspended state of emotional catharsis for as much of its runtime as possible. Lady Bird has moments of riotously funny humor, impossibly endearing human interactions, and stirring pathos, and it plays each those notes in a way that is clear, unpretentious, and undeniably affecting. It pirouettes between all its emotional poles with astounding finesse. It glides around them as if there were no distinction between laughter, thoughtful reflection, and melancholy. In so doing, it becomes that deceptively trick, rare thing that only the very best of such films can manage to be: utterly, authentically human. In a year that offered some astounding cinematic achievements, the most jaw-dropping of all of them was just to watch Greta Gerwig walk out on stage with humble, self-deprecating composure and deliver the softest, most unassuming knockout punch in all of 2017 cinema. Lady Bird is a sparkling comedy and an emotional juggernaut fused seamlessly together. It is a tearjerker of uncanny, sprightly effervescence; an intoxicatingly soulful character study to have you smiling through bleary eyes.


One of Lady Bird’s finest qualities is that it takes a genre that is not often particularly inspired and reminds us that it can be lively, deep, and invigorating. Every category of art deserves its masterworks, those great entries that remind us that brilliance can happen in any form. Hair metal has its Appetite For Desctruction. The parody film has Young Frankenstein. And now, with full respect to terrific movies like Mean Girls, The Spectacular Now, and Clueless, I believe the high school movie may have just served up its filet mignon in Lady Bird. Lady Bird is simply the story of one year, Senior year to be exact, in the life of a seventeen-year old Sacramento native named Christine MacPherson. She has bestowed herself with the name Lady Bird as a means of carving out some semblance of individuality that she believes her Catholic school and the sprawling capitol city around it do not provide her. In a breezy ninety-seven minutes, we follow Lady Bird through her last year as a high schooler, as she navigates her social world and waits to see what colleges will accept her. Her mediocre grades mean she will probably end up at a nearby public university, but she dreams of attending some lofty East Coast institution where she will be steeped in the kind of highbrow culture she feels her hometown lacks. In an attempt to stand out on her applications, Lady Bird ends up auditioning for the school play with her shy, big-hearted and bookish friend Julie (Jonah Hill’s younger sister, Beanie Feldstein, splendidly sweet and almost unthinkably endearing). She also forms a crush on the school’s best actor, an earnest red-headed young man named Danny (Manchester By the Sea’s Lucas Hedges, adding another impressive performance to his extremely promising young career). Lady Bird’s fractious, begrudgingly fond relationship with the city of Sacramento (the city where Greta Gerwig herself grew up) and her efforts to one day escape its orbit are nominally the plot of the film, though Lady Bird is so intuitively an emotional character study that I never think of it in such linear terms. It is more a cohesive, insightful, and funny series of impressions from one fateful year in a young woman’s life, like a delightfully heartfelt and impeccably written collection of diary pages. It is an empathetic assortment of touching, ticklish, and engaging anecdotes that let us in to the good-natured, sometimes pseudo-intellectual, and always rebellious soul of its protagonist. It is also about getting to know Lady Bird’s world and the many people in it, all brought to beautiful, bristling life by 2017’s best ensemble cast. This is a perfectly curated Murderer’s Row of talent, consisting of legends of stage and screen (Stephen Henderson, Lois Smith, multiple Tony-winner Laurie Metcalf, the Tony-and-Pulitzer-winning Tracy Letts) and meteorically ascending young talent (Saoirse Ronan, Lucas Hedges, and Timothee Chalamet, not a one of them above the age of twenty-seven, already have six Oscar nominations and numerous critics awards between them). The film is about Lady Bird’s relationships with her family, friends, and classmates. Above all, it is about the fundamentally loving but frequently testy relationship between Lady Bird and her hard-working, persistently critical mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf, in a performance of staggering nuance, humor, and gravitas). Marion and Lady Bird both house a complex mixture of pride and embarrassment about their lower-middle class circumstances. This sense is exacerbated by the fact that Lady Bird’s parents have enrolled her in an affluent Catholic school, where much of the student body lives in pristine two-story houses. Lady Bird is the least well off of her classmates and her aging father (Tracy Letts, a warmly self-deprecating pillar of decency, in the year’s most masterful small performance) has just lost his job as a programmer. Lady Bird is an endlessly heartwarming, honest, and funny coming of age story about the power of place and the weight of upbringing. It is about the interplay between the identity that others give to us throughout our lives and the identities we try to give ourselves. It is a clear-eyed and tender thing of beauty. This is simply a high school movie in the same way that Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset is simply a romantic tour of Paris. Its small, seemingly straightforward package holds a vast world of feeling, vibrant characterization, and human truth.


Like Linklater’s Before films, Lady Bird shares a sense of something organically soulful and human. Beyond the clear stakes of their plots, there is a feeling of something rich in the simple act of people knowing each other, sparring with each other, bouncing their whims and wills off of one another. Their apparent smallness in the grand scheme, whether just about two people finding romance or just a young woman deciding who she will be outside of high school and hometown, belies their ability to capture the full weight of life. Films like Lady Bird are reminders that no story need feel small because any life is a poignant and momentous thing to the person living it. To quote Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” Beyond their ability to house tidal waves of feeling in teacup worlds, Lady Bird also shares with the Before series a keen sense of place. As someone who has been to Sacramento many times and will soon marry a native of the California capitol, I can personally say that Greta Gerwig’s evocation of this place is sharp, observant and loving. And this is a lovely thing in part because each little corner of this strange, wide world of ours deserves its own piece of poetry. There are a great many places in this world that I have never seen, but I always hope there is an artist out there somewhere working away to capture some tiny, essential piece of the soul of those places. Still, for argument’s sake, let’s say that you have no exposure to the sprawling, creative charms of Sacramento and no expectation that you will ever visit there. In that case, perhaps the extent to which Lady Bird accurately captures Sacramento would be unknown to you and you might ask why this facet of the film matters. You do not know the place and you will not feel those flickers of recognition when shots of the city’s lovely Tower Theater flash by or when a scene plays out in the city’s famous rose garden. This is a tough argument for me to make because I obviously can never divorce myself from knowing Sacramento. I will never watch Lady Bird without having that perspective. And yet, I feel confident in saying that what Gerwig bottles here is a sense of the value and power of a place that transcends familiarity. This goes beyond the need to know Sacramento or to have visited there. The film’s lyrically dreamy editing stitches together impressions of this place that hold their own mystical weight. They are powerful to me not because I have been to these places (or not simply for that reason anyway), but because one can sense that Gerwig has been to these places and that each one of them holds stories and enigmatic meanings known only to her. Lady Bird, like many a great work of art, speaks from a specific place while also keeping one foot in the universal. One need not have lived in Sacramento to grasp Lady Bird’s sweet and caustic dialectic between treasuring home and wanting to journey as far from it as possible; to remember that our childhood homes could be both our shackles and our sanctuaries. The old haunts we grew up around and yearned to be free of were still part of our reveries because how could they not be? They had forged us, with all the pain, discomfort, growth, and strength that word implies. In a beautiful and understated way, Gerwig speaks of home as a place we dream of escaping so that we can lie in a strange bed and dream of returning to it. Yes, Lady Bird is an exquisitely lovely ode to Sacramento. But beyond that, it is among the most sweetly soothing essays ever made about home as salve and irritant, and about wrestling with that complicated tension between gratitude for what it gave us and relief that our worlds eventually expanded past it.


And in a similar way, Lady Bird is about that same mixture of love, appreciation and rebellion between parents and their children. In the same way that it is the story of Christine MacPherson struggling to define herself as both a Sacramento native and someone longing to be free of that place, it is also the story of who Christine is as both a product of her parental upbringing and as an individual seeking to exist and grow outside of that influence. That is a very, very clinical way of saying that Lady Bird is possibly the most wonderful, wise, and poignant portrait of a mother and daughter relationship that I have ever seen. A lot of the beauty in the powerful parallels and stark differences between Lady Bird and Marion come from the lovely, sharp writing, which can be nakedly emotional and painful but never comes within a sight of cynicism. Even the most heartbreaking scenes of discord come from a place of gentle, honest, humanism. Gerwig has a talent for sharp, cutting dialogue, but her directorial sense could not be more loving and compassionate. As a result, Lady Bird becomes a tender and clear-eyed journey through a remarkably nuanced relationship where we feel both bruised and emotionally secure. Gerwig is aided immeasurably by Ronan and Metcalf, giving two of the greatest performances by any performer in 2017. This is a film that can take us into places of genuine sadness and catharsis without ever becoming shrill or unpleasant. We may dab our eyes with recognition at its hard truths, but the smile is never far from our faces. It is the smile of knowing in our hearts that human beings are messy and sometimes selfish, that children can be myopically self-centered and reckless with their words, that parents are frail and imperfect. That every single person on this planet, be they seventeen or seventy-two, is frail and imperfect. It is the smile of recognizing all that and loving humanity all the more for it. I have watched these fights or been involved in arguments like them myself when I was a stubborn teenager. They are real, raw, and rich with feeling and insight. Each one comes with its share of winces and both characters have their moments where they are completely, cruelly in the wrong. But each scene also carries its share of belly laughs or sweet rays of levity, as in the already famous scene where Marion and Lady Bird pause their quarreling to coo over a dress they both like. And when the momentary squall of drama is done, we move on to a scene of pure comedy. But, regardless of the tenor of the scene, the emotional potency never lets up for a minute. And this is what makes Lady Bird 2017’s Damp FaceTM masterpiece.


Five years ago, Greta Gerwig wrote another character-centric classic and also starred in it. It was her now-paramour Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, a bittersweet, gnagly, lovingly critical look at a twenty-something dancer losing her boyfriend, roommate, and New York City apartment, and trying gamely to land on her feet. One of the film’s already iconic shots is of Gerwig’s Frances making her way across a New York City crosswalk like the world’s most awkward and exuberant ballerina. She pirouettes and flings her lanky dancer’s body in front of taxi cabs and city buses and turns the act of going down town into an impromptu dance recital. This is maybe the pivotal shot of early Greta Gerwig, when she was just a brilliant writer and actor. She is perched at the exact border between clumsiness and a beautiful, mesmerizingly unsteady kind of self-possession. As Gerwig’s protagonist and autobiographical surrogate, Lady Bird MacPherson is very much like an adolescent Frances. She is a confident, smart young woman and also an awkward, ungainly presence. Pithy witticisms pour out of her mouth just in time for her foot to end up there. I love the Gerwig archetype: a strong, intelligent woman with a New Yorker’s urbanity, a Tatiesque kind of clumsy curiosity, and a distinctly 21st century kind of aimlessness. However, while the classic Gerwig character recipe may be two parts clumsiness to one part grace, I have to say that Gerwig herself is only growing more graceful and composed by the day. Considering she is one of the finest actors we have, maybe the clumsiness was always just part of the performance. With Lady Bird, I am enchanted and amazed to see how she has retained her own ramshackle charm, but refined it into a new luminous form. Any hint of anything even resembling cynicism have been lost and what remains is honest insight into human behavior without a hint of mockery or judgment. Gerwig has retained her love for human fallibility and social mishaps, but as the woman sitting in the Big Director’s Chair, she now brings her own almost impossibly kind sensibility to the proceedings. Greta Gerwig is not Noah Baumbach. She is still curious about human flaws: about pride, brash youthful exuberance, putting on intellectual airs, and trying on new identities as we stumble through life. But she has no interest in patronizing anyone for their mistakes or weaknesses. Lady Bird is a film that loves people for their mistakes and weaknesses. Her observations of life are not sugarcoated because no sugar is needed. The filter of her directorial vision is so unfailingly tender and understanding that her hardest blows do not leave real bruises. They are not intended to cause pain, but to inspire clear reflection. And all of this is just my way of belaboring the basic point that, in a year full of fancy cinematic cocktails, Greta Gerwig gave 2017 its glass of sweet, cold spring water. Lady Bird is simply the kindest thing these jaded eyes took in all year. And kindness is what 2017 needed most.


Artists like the Greta Gerwigs and the Richard Linklaters of the world have appealed to me for a long time. I have long had a love for authors, be they writers or filmmakers, who paint in small-scale human colors. I recently realized that I can trace the germ of what makes me love this empathetic, lyrical kind of storytelling back to the first real, honest-to-goodness novel I ever read. I was a tender nine years old and I picked up Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women at the Danville Public Library. I finished it and gobbled up Alcott’s Little Men a few weeks later. The feeling of kinship with these kinds of stories and their loping, vignette-style structure was instantaneous and deeply felt. What these novels share with works like the Before series and Lady Bird is a sense that character is really driving the story and that the best kind of plots are just about watching people we like grow and change. Important events occur in the characters’ lives, but there is the unmistakable sense that we would be following these people no matter what was happening to them. What takes place in the story is less important than the fact that we are getting to know human beings; that, for the next two hours or four-hundred pages they are our human beings. There are naturally larger overarching plots, but mostly we are just witnessing these small, richly drawn lives as they are lived day to day. The plot exists only insofar as these lives are moving forward and each new bit of action, be it monumental or trivial, is another sentence, paragraph, or chapter in the story of who these people are. Sometimes the action is seismic, a major moment that changes the characters’ destinies forever. Jo March meeting her husband for the first time or Beth March passing away tragically young. But, just as often, there are brief moments, single paragraph excerpts, that represent little more than the smallest of stones on the pathway of their lives. Maybe it’s just a single pleasant day the March sisters spend playing in the countryside or the week they spend putting together a holiday play. Moments like these may not radically alter the road the characters are walking, but they are just as much a part of that road. In a way, the fact that these tiny moments are not held up as anything more important than what they are makes them feel more precious, more resplendent in their tiny transience. It is no wonder that I love Linklater’s Boyhood with its notion that life is the accumulation of fleeting, seemingly inconsequential moments. I first felt that way myself when I was only nine years old and made my first fond acquaintances with the March sisters. And now, much to my delight, I have learned that Gerwig’s sophomore directorial effort will be none other than Little Women. Based on her first blissful outing as director, I can scarcely picture a more perfect marriage of auteur and source material. Lady Bird filled me with many of the same feelings I had the first, second, and third times I read Alcott’s novel. The film is 2017’s most vibrant, lovingly frayed quilt; a patchwork of deep conversations and foolish misadventures and youthful flights of fancy and joyful, trivial memories. It captures life as a swirl of formative milestones and gleefully ethereal little anecdotes that we may not even fully remember in five years’ time. Gerwig has assembled her own impressions of growing up in Sacramento and sequenced them, large and small, into a raucous, soul-stirring greatest hits album about growing up. Her modest, delicate, charmingly self-effacing opus is full of epic suites, simple ditties and everything in between. Life is made of such stuff.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #2- The Florida Project

There was a moment shortly after finishing my latest viewing of The Florida Project (the third of what will be many to come) when I felt I had really gotten my finger on the right word to describe it. With a ridiculously self-satisfied grin on my face, I scrawled down the words “magical neorealism”. It was a portmanteau of neorealism and magical realism and it felt right in the moment. I would still confidently say that the neorealist tag fits The Florida Project like a glove. Neorealism descends from Italian neorealism, the cinematic style that developed in Italy after World War II, famously advanced by directors like Vittorio Di Sica (Bicycle Thieves), Roberto Rosselini (Rome Open City), and Federico Fellini (in 1950s masterworks like La Strada, before he was anointed with the adjective Felliniesque, which, in its carnivalesque grandiosity, is about as far from neorealism as film gets). Neorealist films famously present the economically downtrodden of society with stark clarity and they tend to draw added authenticity from the use of nonprofessional actors, which accentuates the reality of the films by removing the comforting familiarity of established stars. Bicycle Thieves famously helped cement this facet of neorealism when Di Sica ignored Hollywood’s pleas to use megastar Cary Grant and opted to cast a Roman factory worker with no film resume whatsoever. Neorealism fits The Florida Project, which focuses on people living on the economic fringe and almost exclusively features performers who are nonprofessionals, or who are at least untested in screen acting. The magical realist tag is one I feel less confident about the more I think about it. Unlike recent magical realist films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Beasts of the Southern Wild, there is nothing truly supernatural or fantastical in The Florida Project. The stuff of fairytale never really breaks us away from the film’s stark, impoverished realities. There are no minotaurs or mystical riddles to solve or magical curses to lift or mythical beasts roaming the landscape. I confess that my little portmanteau is probably, technically inaccurate, but it still feels right to me. There is never a moment of The Florida Project where we truly escape financially depressed Kissimee, Florida, with its myriad low-rent motels, sprawling strip malls, and blighted condominiums, but somehow an aura of strange, uneasy magic hangs over it all. This is maybe the major miracle of Sean Baker’s ingenious, transporting, and shattering third film. It taps into magical realism’s power to comment upon and augment real life without ever retreating into literal fantasy. It is a film about bleak social conditions that finds hope and relief from those conditions, not by poofing them away but by staring ever more intently and deeply at them.


The Florida Project is an ensemble film in some ways with its teeming, perfectly cast tapestry of untrained performers. The only trained exceptions in the cast are veteran Willem Dafoe (in what I am ready to call the finest performance of his obviously esteemed career) and young, ubiquitous Caleb Landry Jones (capping off an impressive 2017 trifecta, after performances in Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). The first of many miracles of the film is how everyone (inexperienced Floridians, Instagram stars, and high-pedigree thespians alike) blends seamlessly into the same utterly organic whole. Baker makes the rundown motels of Kissimee, Florida bustle with rich, subtle lives. Still, as full of believable people as this world is, the film’s arc truly belongs to two great female characters. The first is Halley (Instagram celebrity Bria Vinaite, in a performance with some detractors, but that I find endlessly powerful in its oscillations between frightened vulnerability and loud, performantive snideness). Halley is an unemployed mother taking on the odd stripper job and illegally selling wholesale perfume to tourists to just barely afford her 30-dollar-per-night motel rent. The other main character, and I would say the film’s unquestionable lead, is Halley’s daughter Moonee, an imaginative, energetic, and altogether unruly six-year old girl. Moonee spends her carefree summer days (likely the last before the school system reins her in) bounding about Kissimee’s overgrown fields, vacant buildings, and parking lots as if they were an enchanted wilderness. The most important, mostly implicit detail of Moonee’s ramshackle world is that it sits on the very furthest outskirts of Walt Disney World. While it is never mentioned in the film, “The Florida Project” was Walt Disney’s covert working title for the park when it was being developed. The setting of The Florida Project is removed from all the luxury and privilege of the Magic Kingdom, yet close enough to it to still exist very much in its shadow. Kissimee is littered with perpetual reminders of the better life just out of view. Cheap outlet stores promise Disney-branded swag. Halley and Moonee’s regular trips to sell fragrances at the nearby Marriott resort takes them along a road that has been named Seven Dwarfs Lane. At one point, a pair of rich Brazilian newlyweds arrive at Moonee’s little motel, The Magic Castle, in the middle of the night, shocked and mortified to find that this fleabag establishment is in no way a Disney property. The Magic Castle’s most steadfast guardian is its manager, Bobby (the aforementioned, heartbreakingly splendid Dafoe), who not only tends to routine maintenance and touches up its walls with fresh coats of gaudy lavender paint, but also acts as a firm, gentle overseer of the motel’s residents. As much as anything that happens in its lyrical, sometimes heartrending plot, The Florida Project is about the Magic Castle as its own small world of kinship, stalled dreams, fragile hope, and wonder. The idea of this rundown “magic castle” lying just outside the view of so many Disney dream vacationers is something of a stinging social critique, but there is nothing cynical in Baker’s unsparing but loving depiction of this tiny realm and its people. The film is in many ways about Moonee’s childlike ability to see genuine beauty in such a tacky, impoverished place, but Baker sees that beauty himself and wants us to see it too. He presents the sadness and strife of these poor spaces with frankness but The Florida Project is not an act of miserablist wallowing. It is a fond embrace extended to those underseen and barely hanging on in this world of ours. In its radiant love for these people, even for a stubbornly self-destructive soul like Halley, The Florida Project is not simply a very empathetic film. It is pure, undiluted empathy rendered cinematic.


To some extent, The Florida Project’s neorealist accomplishments are its least outwardly impressive, simply because of how neatly they fit with past examples of the genre. This is a film about living with the daily drudgery and minutiae of economic strain: scrounging for work, providing for a child, feeding oneself, and coming up with rent. In the tradition of so many past neorealist masterpieces, it is about painting a realistic and suitably sober portrait of a dire situation, in which every misguided decision and impulsive misstep threatens to compound hardship and send it careening toward disaster. Baker presents these rough circumstances candidly. He never allows us to be entirely ignorant of the desperation that hangs over this land. And yet, without cheating, he finds a way to make it all feel lively, engaging and humanistic. He comes to rely partially on Moonee’s vivacity and rambunctious spirit to provide a kind of salve for the hardship. But it should be said that, even if The Florida Project were solely a work of austere neorealism, it would be a particularly humane and emotionally nuanced version of the genre. To put it another way, The Florida Project does not have to become a dichotomy between crushing poverty and the childlike ability to find escape in naivete and imagination. The reason The Florida Project does not need to retreat into literal magical realism, into the refuge of pure fantasy, is that even the purely adult parts of Baker’s world hum with a sense of humor and life. In a way that never minimizes the economic weight they are experiencing, Baker draws these characters with joyful color and unmistakable affection. These are people living at the subsistence level, but Baker finds spontaneity and wit in their interactions. The Florida Project’s adult characters are weathered but not defeated by this bare bones existence. There is a ragged joy and to these characters, and it keeps the spectres of cheap bathos and exploitation at bay. Baker is not gawking at these fragile lives. The Florida Project is the furthest thing from so-called poverty porn. These people are not presented to be pitied or to become easy stand-ins in a lecture about America’s poverty problem. The director shows us these souls with no ulterior motive outside of basic compassion and curiosity. He shows them because they represent real human beings living out in the world, in Kissimee-like towns across the country, and their stories deserve to be heard. Even an aggravatingly immature woman like Halley is rendered with depth and a stubborn kind of nobility. These lives are not easy, but Baker does not show them to titillate us or to bolster a post-recession sermon. They exist because they exist. Understanding and really feeling the unvarnished beauty of that fact is quite possibly the most important element to grasping The Florida Project’s overwhelming emotional power. It is a litmus test for our compassion toward human beings.


That said, Baker knows that, even with all the empathy and positive thinking in the world, the austerity of this milieu could be a painful thing to look at for too long all at once. Watching The Florida Project can be a bit like staring at the Sun: glorious, dazzling, and also searing. Baker has no intention of looking away from the poverty and pressure (for the film, with one possible exception, never truly looks away). But he is interested in thinking about how a person, a child in particular, might find some hopeful respite within this place. This is where Moonee comes in, in all her exuberant, cavalier, infectiously profane glory. I could spend entire paragraphs on Moonee’s exquisite characterization and the miracle of Brooklynn Prince’s performance, which, like the film around it, perches effortlessly between neorealist naturalism and grand, heightened emotions. I could spend a full additional paragraph on the astonishing feat of presenting yet another child’s eye view of poverty without ever tipping into the most queasy and problematic kind of preciousness. What Sean Baker and Brooklynn Prince have given us is an almost impossibly candid picture of unruly childhood glee; one which marvels at youth’s optimism and unflagging spirit, but does not pretend that children are untouched or unfazed by the real world around them. It also remembers that children are people, with all the imperfection that implies. Moonee is a reminder that children can be vulgar, myopically self-centered little marauders. She is an adorable, bracingly funny, and very sympathetic character, but she is also a gallingly unrestrained force of chaos. For as much as Moonee is out to steal our hearts away, she is also the kind of child who would probably make the average person blanch if they had to share a city bus with her. In the first minute we spend with Moonee, she has already spat upon the sweet, shy little girl who will become her best friend and is cackling invincibly at the gobsmacked grandmother trying to reprimand her. Her petite pixie exterior seems possessed by the arrogant, braying spirit of some 1920s Chicago gangster. But we do come to love her, and it is through her eyes that this rundown world comes to take on its own jagged kind of lustre. Let me say right here that, for a low-budget film whose central setting is an economically ravaged city, The Florida Project feels lustrous and luminous. This place is a golden-hued frontier to Moonee and her friends, and Baker’s film glows with admiration for their hardy spirit; for the childlike ability to find beauty and adventure anywhere. He is not interested in defanging Moonee or softening her feral fallibility, and he does not use her rosy perspective to smother his film’s hard truths. Even at its sweetest, most purely awed moments, when Moonee is shepherding us through the Magic Castle like a giddy tour guide, shafts of painful, glaring reality pierce the optimistic facade. In that way, The Florida Project becomes the rare film to present a hardscrabble childhood in a way that is both loving and honest.


I think the guiding principle behind Baker’s approach is just to not shut out any emotional truth. Wonder and innocence do not make poverty and strife go away, and economic depression does not kill all optimism. Baker respects his audience enough to show this world from a wide array of angles and to let us decide how we feel about it. There is no right or wrong answer, but I think Baker wants us to feel as elated and devastated as possible all at the same time. For my part, no film in 2017 made me feel more hopeful and more shattered; more in love with humanity and more thoroughly spent with the full emotional toll of being a person. For what at first looks like a spare, realistic indie drama, The Florida Project is bursting at the seams with every possible emotion. Baker has taken a no-frills setting and a minimal budget and created an absolute kaleidoscope of feeling. This is a film that invites you to bring your own empathy and human outlook to it. Still, I do think Baker may at least offer a clue to his own feelings. I believe that clue comes in the form of Willem Dafoe’s gruff, kind, and heartbreakingly concerned Bobby. The experience of The Florida Project lies somewhere between a frail hope for people, a protective fondness toward childhood’s guileless innocence, and a knowing sadness that life can be unforgiving. Willem Dafoe lets that entire emotional tug-of-war play out beautifully, quietly, and powerfully across the face of this good-natured, fallible handyman. The moment where Bobby intercepts a pedophile wandering onto the motel grounds is simultaneously one of 2017’s most chilling and heartwarming moments. If The Florida Project is about letting some hope survive in the harshest of landscapes, Bobby is the character trying to shelter that hope; cupping his calloused hand around it like a windblown candle. He is the good king of this Magic Castle, but the withering emotional punch of the character comes from how Dafoe lets us catch glimpses of Bobby’s weary, frustrated impotence. Like Baker himself, Bobby is a man who wants to help and protect the denizens of his small, beleaguered, unseen corner of the world. But even in a place this tiny and insular, there are limits to how much any one person can do for another. The Florida Project is about the tremendous power we have to care for each other, to reach out to each other, and to be of good to each other. And it is also about the wrenching sadness that comes from remembering we cannot keep all the pain out. Even the most dedicated handyperson can never fix everything. The children may see Bobby as the all-powerful, benevolent wonderworker of this Castle, but Dafoe’s tired eyes betray the truth to us. We are not in the realm of magical realism. There are no wizards in this place. Only human beings doing all they possibly can and making torn, conflicted peace with where their power stops.


There is no real magic in Kissimee, Florida and the fake magic that Disney built decades ago is too far away to be visible on the horizon. The spires of Sleeping Beauty’s castle are far removed from this crumbling place. Nothing about this world could ever be classified as a fairytale. But what Baker, his actors, and his team manage to do is more wondrous to me than anything the Disney experience could provide. They make this barren land of strip malls and dilapidated medical clinics glow. They do all of this with nothing more than a contagious affection for humankind at its best and a non-judgmental compassion for people at their worst. A lot of The Florida Project involves watching people make hard, sometimes cruel choices and rash, foolhardy decisions. Sometimes the consequences of those decisions are so harsh they take your breath away. This is a world where some poor soul is always teetering on the precipice of ruin and loss. It is a world of prostitution, bedbugs, and petty crime. A world where ugly brawls sometimes break out in the parking lots, where only one of the motel washing machines works anymore, and where the closest you’ll ever get to a fancy vacation is flipping off the resort helicopters as they buzz by loaded with the more fortunate. This is a hard world and I left it in gutted silence. But somewhere beneath that, I also felt a strange kind of enchantment that no amount of misery could erase. The film left me with a strange, tingly feeling. It was something halfway between my earliest Christmas memory and my first underage tequila buzz. It felt sweet and pure, and also a little sad and seedy. It felt like magic, but borne out of something honest, painful and utterly real. I still can’t put my finger on what that feeling is. I’ll call it empathy until I find a better word.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #3- Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name is perhaps the most luminously stunning film of 2017. This is due in no small part to its beautifully sun-dappled northern Italian location and the myriad ways that cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom lets the golden summer light and cool evening shadows caress his camera. For as much natural beauty as the film displays, however, Call Me By Your Name gains just as much of its intoxicatingly lush ambiance from the small details of its interior spaces: well-stocked kitchens, cozy studies, and inviting sitting rooms. Nowhere is the film’s knack for marvelously homey design put to more enchanting effect than in its first minute, my favorite opening credits sequence in any 2017 film. As the rich, soothing piano tones of John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction cascade over us, the film’s credits appear in a blue, handwritten scrawl over a montage of photographs of classical Roman statues. The photographs are strewn over a table top and each new cut reveals some small piece of detritus on the table to show a person has been sitting or standing over these prints, looking at them. We see glimpses of train tickets, playing cards, silver coins, glasses (the kinds that facilitate both reading and drinking) and crumpled paper cigarette packs. Call Me By Your Name would contend for the year’s most flat-out gorgeous piece of cinema just by the quality of its camera work and the inherent splendor of its shooting locations, from old villas to shaded stone patios to the rich emeralds of the Italian countryside. But what vaults it into being a veritable dessert buffet of opulent imagery is this keen sense for tiny, perfectly lived-in detail. Call Me By Your Name, Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s dazzlingly romantic gay coming-of-age story is about one perfect, hot, hazy summer in one of the prettiest places on Earth and it grasps that the perfect summer days of memory are built just as much from tiny, trivial fragments as from larger moments. Before we meet young Elio Perlman or his family or friends or the young man who will open his eyes to love and to his sexuality, that flawless opening transports us to a place that is utterly specific. We are not simply in Italy. We are in the cool, dim study of this particular old villa, poring over old snapshots of ancient artwork, contentedly waiting out the muggy afternoon hours with a cigarette and an ice cold glass of apricot juice. Perhaps that same glass will hold a little more juice and a splash of Galliano in another hour. It is a masterful setting of place in a film where atmosphere and memories blur seamlessly with the life-altering events they swirl around.


The events of Call Me By Your Name take place in 1983. The same scribbly journal text that introduced the credits informs us we are “somewhere in Northern Italy”, and it could just as easily tell us that this is sometime in the 1980s or in no particular time at all. Outside of the occasional period-specific clue (a Talking Heads t-shirt, the recurring appearance of a perfectly used Psychedelic Furs song, some overhead talk of Italian politics for anyone with knowledge of such matters), this is a film that exists just as much out of time as in any specific period. Call Me By Your Name swims in a warm wash of remembrance. The film is not told in flashback, nor does it allow any characters to comment on the story through voiceover, but there can be little doubt that we are looking backward to a formative summer in the life of one Elio Permlan (an astoundingly subtle and effortlessly alive breakout performance by rising screen phenomenon Timothee Chalamet). Elio is a moody, hyperintelligent Jewish adolescent of seventeen years of age. He is spending this summer, as he has spent every other summer he can remember, staying with his university professor parents in a stony, stately Italian villa, staffed with groundskeeper and cook. One staple of these annual holidays is for his historian and archaeologist father (Michael Stulhbarg in a terrific, soft-spoken performance that clobbers you with its sneaky emotional power) to take on a graduate student to shadow him for a couple months and assist him with historical research. Elio awakes one morning in bed with his non-platonic friend, Marzia, to see his father’s latest protégé pulling up the long driveway. The new student is Oliver (Armie Hammer, understated and tremendous), a tall, classically handsome All-American man of about twenty-four. “The usurper,” Elio whispers in French (one of three languages Chalamet speaks in the film) with a wry grin on his face. As usual, the new graduate student will be taking his bedroom while Elio relocates to an adjoining room connected by a common bathroom.. Elio shows the exhausted guest up to his room, where Oliver promptly falls asleep face down on the bed. He sleeps right through house supper, finally emerging at breakfast the next morning. Elio chafes at Oliver’s presence at first. Oliver is an affable, learned young man but he has a blunt forwardness that is unmistakably, inelegantly American. He ends seemingly every social exchange with a terse, informal “Later”. What first appears like itchy discomfort at the new resident scholar, however, gradually blossoms into a grudging tolerance, an amiable acquaintanceship, a fulfilling friendship, and eventually into something more emotionally complicated. To go into description of how the relationship develops would sap a lot of the vibrant, spontaneous juice from the film, but it is a lovely thing to behold, full of humor, rich emotion, marvelously literate dialogue and brilliant acting. Hammer is great and Chalamet’s powerhouse symphony of curiosity, adolescent braggadocio, testy sarcasm, romantic longing, and youthful insecurity is the greatest feat of acting I have seen in quite some time. Call Me By Your Name is a lovely, nuanced gay romance, an achingly tender story of dawning adulthood, and a lush, gorgeously detailed travelogue of every sunny, sweaty, fragrant, and delicious pleasure that a single Italian summer can offer.


There may truly be no way to overstate the tactile, sensory saturation of Call Me By Your Name. It is not enough to say that the film collects dazzling, dusty, and bejeweled images and presents them to us. Luca Guadagnino’s brilliantly assured direction makes sure that we are not simply bearing witness to Elio’s fateful summer but are utterly immersed in it. Refreshed, sated, inundated and dumbstruck by it. It’s the keen sense of the geography of this house, this property, this town, and the verdant, grassy fields and gentle, lolling rivers that surround and cradle it. It’s an intuitive sense for how time passes there, with relaxing breakfasts of espresso and soft boiled eggs in the morning; long, hot afternoon hours skipped away swimming at the river, picking fruit in the orchard, or momentarily escaped from in the nooks of the main house; evenings spent dancing in the dusky cool of the local outdoor discotheque or nightswimming with a crush. Its sense of physical, temporal, and emotional geography is simply impeccable. We spend an unforgettably heady, ravishing summer in this place and with these people, and we leave feeling we know their every detail intimately and intuitively. Call Me By Your Name captures the seductive summer dance between pleasure and boredom. Being an Italian, Guadagnino seems to have an ineffable understanding of the interplay between gratification and anticipation. His film captures desire, carnal and emotional, as both the act of having our appetites sated and the tantalizing moments of having to wait for what we want. Call Me By Your Name is about blissful satisfaction and about the lulls of anticipating that satisfaction. It is a softly, sweetly hedonistic thing; a film that exists in an impossibly rich garden of delights, but also recognizes that strangely arousing and oh so human state of needing more. In Call Me By Your Name, both summer and love are swooning bacchanals, where you can feast more than you ever thought possible while never completely silencing the yearning rumble inside. Elio learns that love in particular is a hunger that cannot be entirely quelled.



Call Me By Your Name establishes itself as among the most beautiful and emotionally accurate portraits of first love ever put to film. As stated before, it accomplishes this partly through a combination of peerless performances and transcendentally splendid imagery. Guadagnino and his team have gleefully given themselves the challenge of sculpting a cinematic object that quivers with romantic longing. It is a subtle film in some important ways, but it leaves absolutely nothing in the cellar when it comes to dreamy, sumptuous spectacle. At the same time that it excels as a visual object, however, it is also a very literary work of art. James Ivory, a legendary conjurer of romance and prestige, has written a script rich in insight, character, and humor, and he gives the film a novelistic sweep. I bring up both the impeccable visuals and the lovely, lyrical writing in part because they are both wonderful and any review of the film would be incomplete and downright impossible without addressing them. But I also feel that the poetic interplay of images and words points to something essential in the film’s heart. When we meet Elio, he is a very specific breed of bookish, precocious, sensitively cocky teenager, and part of his burgeoning romance with Oliver involves a kind of intellectual fencing match with a sparring partner he feels can challenge and keep pace with him. Any film featuring these  characters, especially Elio, would have to be highly literate. Where the visual and the sensory come in is that Call Me By Your Name is very much about the emotional and the indescribable. It is about the verbal and the intellectualized jousting with and in many ways being overcome by the sensory and the sensual. In one of three songs he contributes to the film, the great Sufjan Stevens coos, “Words are futile devices.” One delightfully tense, emotionally charged scene finds Elio trying to impress Oliver by recounting the history of a World War I monument in the town square. Oliver is indeed impressed, but Elio suddenly blurts out what he really wants to say: “I know nothing, Oliver.” Call Me By Your Name is about a prodigiously smart young man getting his first taste of experiences that cannot be gleaned through mere academia. And all of this may even be overreading and you certainly don’t need any thematic analysis to love Call Me By Your Name as both a work of spectacular visual poetry and of beautiful screenwriting. But Call Me By Your Name is about first love, which means that it is about the lowering of one’s insecurities and intellectual defenses to make oneself vulnerable to love for the first time. And I think it is enough to say that the film has a sharp sense of love as something both verbal and ultimately beyond words entirely. It is about watching the senses gently disarm frail little fortresses like knowledge, theory, and vocabulary, and watching it happen is the sweetest, most fundamentally romantic film experience since at least 2016’s Moonlight.


And just as with Moonlight, I could very easily go on for pages and pages about Call Me By Your Name’s intoxicating reverie and peerless acting and beautifully nuanced  writing and unabrasively confident directorial style without ever arriving at the fact that it is a gay love story. But it is very much a gay love story and I want to reiterate that because it is a great and important fact to remember when taking in its myriad pleasures. Call Me By Your Name is a potent, sumptuous force of nature for reasons that are both independent of its characters’ sexualities and inextricably bound up in them. The subject of representation in media comes up a lot in my home, and as someone with a significant number of gay friends, the arrival of a major work of queer fiction like Call Me By Your Name is immensely encouraging. It makes me happy to say that the last six years have given us a small treasure trove of films that are not only frank and empathetic and insightful in exploring queer sexuality, but are also just utterly superlative works of pure cinema. The first to come to mind is Andrew Haigh’s divinely bittersweet Weekend in 2011, followed by the epic emotional wallop of 2013’s Blue Is the Warmest Color two years later. Then more recently, we have the classically ravishing perfection of 2015’s Carol and the much less classical but no less ravishing perfection of Moonlight in 2016. Three of these stand tall in the top two films of their respective years. Blue Is the Warmest Color, by no means the straggler of this brilliant pack, had the misfortune of being part of the staggering cinematic bumper crop of 2013, which means it has to settle for being the fifth best film of its year. And now Call Me By Your Name has the seemingly modest distinction of being just the third best film of its own year. These rankings really mean little. What is true is that all these films are masterpieces through and through. As with those other perfect gay films, Call Me By Your Name is simply one of the most poetic, passionate, and perceptive romances ever crafted. And if I have spent too much time speaking of its teeming virtues in ways that deemphasize or ignore its status as a specifically gay love story, let me now state unequivocally how wonderful it is that the year’s most perfect romance by leaps and bounds centers on two gay characters. It is the third consecutive full-stop perfect gay romance in as many years and, for as rapturously happy as I am to have this splendid film to return to whenever I wish, I cannot imagine how much it means to a gay person to have this. I do not know how far Call Me By Your Name (and those other aforementioned glorious films) go toward putting some dent in the representation deficit. Masterpieces are obviously nice to have. Still, my fiancé assures me that real representation will happen when gay filmgoers get to have their fair share of mediocrities and perfectly average featherweight trifles each year. In that regard, maybe true representative progress looks a bit more like this year’s perfectly, unremarkably nice Love, Simon than the auteurist pyrotechnics of a Call Me By Your Name. All the same, this film is surely a wonderful thing, for whatever small bit of social progress it represents. In addition to being great cinema, Call Me By Your Name’s very existence is an inherent good.


I will bring the matter back to scholarly Elio and his sudden confession to Oliver that his knowledge doesn’t mean all that much. In addition to everything else it does so well, Call Me By Your Name is about as skillful as any film I can name in bridging the perceived gap between cerebral and emotional cinema. It is a brainy film about highly intelligent people, but the wonder is how all that intellect, from discussions of classical sculpting to debates about the etymological origins of the word “apricot”, gets folded into the simmering emotional tone. In Call Me By Your Name, intelligence feels sexy and sex is presented with honest intelligence. It is a film about the dialogue between the mind and the heart; where they diverge, where they clash, and where they dovetail. If you let the film’s current take you in the way it wishes to, you come away in a state somewhere between mentally alert, physically relaxed, and emotionally spent. It presents the heart-pounding rush, woozy confusion, and queasy hangover of love in ways that are sometimes painful but always fundamentally right. Without giving away anything, I will say that Call Me By Your Name begins as a film about the decadent luxeness of a summer in the Italian countryside and ends as an exploration of how much beautiful, overwhelming sensation the human heart can hold. It is a film that is clear-eyed and optimistic about love but not oblivious to the strain that love can put on us. To live and to love is to open ourselves to a universe of sensations and emotions, and not every one of them will be easy to digest. The beauty of Guadagnino’s film is that it is finally about choosing to let ourselves be overwhelmed by life’s wonder, joy, and even pain. We leave the film on both a high and a low, blissfully sated and filled to uncomfortable bursting; swept off our feet and heartsick. Guadagnino leaves us as he leaves Elio. Dazzled, shaken, and emotionally dazed. After a feast of visual and emotional riches, he leaves us a tender moment to reflect and recuperate from all we have taken in. The film softly encourages us to take all the time we need. But it smiles knowingly for the morning when we will wake replenished, with healed hearts and newly charged appetites.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #4- Faces Places

I noticed the tiniest, most joyful little detail in my second viewing of Faces Places (or its lovelier French title, Visages Villages), Agnes Varda and JR’s humane, sweetly digressive documentary about meeting and photographing working class folk in France’s small towns. JR, a young visual artist whose calling card is pasting large photographic prints across the fronts of trains, tankers, and large buildings, has set up a scaffold to put up his latest piece of work. A friendly police officer has crossed the street to inform him politely but matter-of-factly that he will need a permit to erect any future scaffolding in this town. JR smiles and shows he understands and then starts joking and conversing with this civil servant. A moment later, Agnes Varda (legendary French director and the thoughtful nonagenarian co-director of this effervescently poetic film) arrives to suggest JR head to a nearby café to meet a beautiful barista who they may want to photograph. In the next beat, JR is in the café meeting the barista. And the officer is there with him! This stranger, who basically just came to check his paper work, is now there right beside JR just merrily tagging along on the errand. This most minute of moments is Faces Places’ soul in miniature, and I also think it points to perhaps the most vital skill a nonfiction filmmaker can possess. One of the most invaluable and often invisible talents that the greatest documentarians have is the ability to draw people into their orbit. You must make people want to be around you and talk to you. A great documentary filmmaker knows how to engage, even with the most shy and taciturn of subjects, to make them feel comfortable and open and ready to bear themselves. Expressing oneself for a camera can be an awkward, uncomfortably intimate thing even for a seasoned actor, and the magic trick of the most brilliant documentaries is to guide a person through that difficult process when they, in all likelihood, are not professional performers. Faces Places finds Agnes Varda and JR to be masters of connecting with the people they interview and you leave each exchange feeling that they have coaxed something deep and true out of their subjects. What makes this one of the most superlative documentaries ever made is how even the most humbly withdrawn subjects they find end their encounter smiling, engaged, and eager to reveal more of themselves. Faces Places is quite possibly the most unabashedly humanistic documentary I have ever seen, and it attains that power because its creators seem to genuinely love people. At the end of a long year, where it felt like a whole lot of human beings distrusted one another as a rule, Faces Places is a reminder that it is in our nature to reach out to one another and need one another. It is a love letter to human beings, working class ones in particular, that positively glows with empathy, curiosity, and affection for humankind.


The first thing to know about Faces Places is that it is an Agnes Varda film. If you are not aware of the 90-year old filmmaker’s past work, take comfort in the fact that this would-be cinephile has not caught up to a single film in her large, influential body of work until now. It is an omission I mean to remedy as soon as I can. For now, it is just important to know that the prolific Varda was a pioneer of the French New Wave, the stylish, energetic, and frequently anarchic film movement led by directors like Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, which tore down many of the boundaries of classical filmmaking and had a massive impact on a generation of modern filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese among them), who would take inspiration from its innovative, brazen example. Agnes Varda comes from this French pack of rebels, though her rebellious streak is more subtle and contemplative. She is a petite woman with hair that is half-auburn and half white, and she carries herself with a gracious, unfussy candor. At ninety years of age, where many a director might lose their cinematic appetite, Varda is motioning for a dessert menu. In Faces Places, she strikes up an artistic partnership with a 33-year old, sunglass-clad French photographer named JR. The two of them take a fast liking to one another and decide to head out on a loosely structured road trip through the many bucolic villages of rural France. They know each others’ talents (she a filmmaker and he a visual artist) and admire each others’ work. They have an idea that they will go out with a film camera, meet people, shoot their pictures, and the rest, in that oh so nebulous French way, will reveal itself to them along the way. The two new friends set out on their odyssey in JR’s mobile photography studio, a modest vehicle with a camera printed on the side and a small lab in the back. The idea is to head away from Paris and into the villages of the French countryside, where the two mutually admiring artists will mingle with the local populace and practice their respective arts. This involves introducing themselves to people, learning their stories, and using JR’s gift for grand-scale photography to pay tribute to them. In their first encounter, JR blows up photographs of villagers with a baguette between their teeth and stitches them together across a town fence to create what looks like an entire village feasting together on the same long loaf of bread. They travel to a salt processing factory and plaster images of every worker reaching out to one another across a spillway. And, in a tremendously moving scene, they meet a miner’s widow who is the last resident left on a block of abandoned, dilapidated houses, and emblazon her image twenty feet high across the façade of her home. Faces Places is a beautiful, lyrical travelogue of France, surely the finest documentary ever made about photography, and also a sweet, heartfelt ode to modest, hardworking people. It is also about Agnes Varda and JR and their relationship as partners, as cinema-lovers and as friends. It is the story of an older artist who is drawing closer to the end of her life and her meditations on death, art, and legacy. And it is very much about how her dear friendship with this kindly, hip young man colors those ruminations and reflections.


If one line evokes the soul of Faces Places, as well as that of the curious, poetic Varda herself, it is one that comes early in Varda and JR’s discussions about what the film will be. Varda is not concerned about setting out on the road with only the most tenuous of premises. “Chance has always been my best assistant,” she tells JR. Varda began her career as a photographer, and this notion, of never knowing what one will find but being ready for whatever it is, is a vital part of photography. You cannot always control what images will enter the frame, but you know they will come and you wait for them in anticipation. Faces Places is a masterpiece made on the fly. It attains much of its beauty via its invigoratingly flighty spirit, flitting from subject to subject and spinning merrily into sublime digressions. At one point, the film wanders off into a meadow for ten minutes to muse about two opposing schools of thought on goat farming. The genius of the film is that it leads with a spirit of blithely restless wanderlust, yet the end result feels soulfully cohesive. Varda is a brilliant editor and arranger of her own work, and having perfected that skill over decades and decades liberates her and JR to follow a rambling path, knowing that, whatever they find along the way, there will be a story in it. This is not just an approach to documentary filmmaking that Faces Places pulls off with breathless aplomb. It is also of a thematic piece with the film’s journey. Faces Places is very much about opening yourself up to new and unexpected experiences at any age. One of the joys of the film is seeing the vibrant, curious spirits of the subjects they meet. One factory worker stares quizzically at JR’s latest massive photograph. Then he beams and says, “Art is supposed to surprise us, right?” In another small town, they befriend a local farmer who has been in charge of doing his village’s harvesting for many years. Recently, the tractors he uses have had advanced computer technology installed in them. He admits that this makes him something like a passenger in his own job. He reflects that all this technology may be making use more antisocial, less engaged, But still, his overall attitude is one of wonder at progress; at life’s relentless forward motion. He is fascinated by the foreign and new. “I get a kick out of it,” he says with a smile.


Faces Places has a hunger for new sights, new places, and new experiences, but it is even more vitally about opening your mind and soul to other human beings. The film hums with a spirit of adventure and with a yearning to meet, know and love the countless faces that make up our world. It is about the small joys of reaching out and connecting with people and that love for engaging with new people extends to its very creation. Faces Places is simply one of the most lovely odes I have seen to the virtues of collaborating. Varda confesses at the start that this will be her first time really working with a collaborator in over sixty years as a filmmaker. She smiles and enthusiastically notes that this will be a giant leap forward for her. Faces Places gracefully unfolds as not only a film about its humble, hardworking subjects, but also a film about the wonderfully sweet, supportive partnership and friendship that develops between the sage, droll Varda and her spry, affably energetic traveling companion. Varda and JR are kindred spirits and also fascinatingly subtle contrasts to one another. In one scene, the two artists admit that each of them may be performing the roles their different ages have assigned to them: JR, in his sharp fedora and Roy Orbison shades, playing the spirited young man, while the diminutive, elderly Varda adopts the persona of the wise grandmother. JR’s playful presence provides a lovely complement to Varda’s more subdued brand of vivacity, though both brim with a glee for their art; for the process of finding and uncovering human beings. Faces Places is a celebration of collaboration as a process that both synthesizes the visions of multiple creators and also throws their unique differences into relief. It is endlessly joyful watching Varda and JR laugh, bounce ideas, and good-naturedly spar with each other, partly because the film has keen insights about the creative process. But what really makes their collaboration so engaging to watch comes down to the fact that Agnes Varda and JR are simply two of the warmest, most endearing figures to ever stroll across a film screen. They are generous, intelligent, spontaneous, and fun to be around, and they add immeasurably to this teeming, open-hearted tapestry of the very best in humankind.


At its core, Faces Places is about wanting to know people and see them with as much kindness, clarity, and insight as we can. This is the reason the two collaborators head out into the villages of France with little plan in place outside of simply finding people and photographing them. They trust that the desire to just look at humanity will be enough to see the project through, and their faith is more than rewarded. I adore every, warm, kind interaction in this film. However, what transforms Faces Places into a masterpiece of boundless compassion and curiosity is how it slowly evolves into the story of Varda and JR wanting to better know each other. The film’s spirit of vibrant empathy is so contagious that the creators cannot help but turn their cameras upon one another. They join the arc of this ever-developing story, or rather were always a part of it. And I will now need to tread lightly, as I do not want to give away the most poignant, soul-sating, and all around best ending in any 2017 film. One of the documentary’s recurring storylines involves Agnes Varda’s longtime relationship to French New Wave master, firebrand, and petulant genius Jean Luc Godard, a now-distant friend who Agnes has not seen in over five years. With his sophisticated air of cool and the sunglasses he keeps perpetually over his eyes, Agnes sees something of Godard’s enigmatic, confident flair in JR, for better and maybe also for worse. Varda reveres her estranged friend’s talent, but also knows that Godard had a knack for being cutting, aloof, and cruel. In trying to figure out who JR is as a young man just beginning to make his artistic mark on the world, Agnes Varda is also trying to parse what kind of people a new generation of artists will be. They have the shoulders of giants to stand upon, but I believe Varda also hopes for something a bit kinder than certain geniuses of her generation. I think she hopes that that a man like JR will aspire to Godard’s greatness as an artist, but also aspire to be a better all-around human being. In its final moments, Faces Places reveals itself as an effortlessly wise look at aging and legacy and an almost impossibly profound letter of hope passed down from one generation to the next one in line. In a year that seem pockmarked with generational infighting, watching the friendship and artistic kinship that flowers between Agnes Varda and JR over this brief, magical 94 minutes felt absolutely restorative. 2017 had its share of powerful endings, but the closing minute of Faces Places is the one I want to keep with me; the one I want to intermittently steal away to and dwell in. It is a warm embrace between the young and the old, a tender paying of respect to experience, and a sweet expression of confidence and hope for those who will decide what humanity becomes next. Faces Places is a movie about trying to see and understand people and it ends with an exchange of mutual understanding that is too wise and beautiful for words. At the end of 2017’s storm, that final shot is an oasis of selfless calm and fellowship that I could have sat in contentedly for hours.


Faces Places is a film with a vibe both heady and free-wheeling. In many ways it seems like a niche film on paper, being both a subtitled documentary and a reflective essay on variousvcerebral subjects, ranging from cinema to the nature of memory to the psychic weight of place. I suppose it qualifies as an art film, but the pretentious connotations that sometimes go with that label could not be further from this film’s crystal clear aims. I would recommend Agnes Varda and JR’s miraculous documentary to absolutely anyone because it is so thoroughly vivacious, loving, and open. It is filled with beautiful imagery, lovely art, gracious people, and only the purest of emotions. It is funny and friendly and comforting and wistful. And, for all its philosophical musings, it finally just amounts to an open-hearted salute to the very best in people. Because its creators embark upon their journey with such earnest curiosity, playfulness, and kindness toward those around them, they find a country full of people with good hearts and stories just waiting to be unearthed. Faces Places has a lot to say, but one lesson might be that if you go out in search of the good in human beings, you are certain to find it. In one scene, Varda and JR are looking for a parasol to use for their latest photograph. One man they question seems uncertain and a bit hassled by the request, but he obligingly runs off to his parents’ home to see what he can find. He comes back moments later beaming from ear to ear and holding his mother’s old bridal parasol. He proclaims with a proud smile, “You may use it for the photo.” A couple scenes later, he is excitedly pulling JR up to the top of the town’s tower to show off his skills as the village bell-ringer, gushing about how each bell has its own name. My mother always told me that, deep down, people want to be of help to one another and that they want to have their stories heard. You have only to extend a warm hand to them. Faces Places is 2017’s great reminder of this beautiful truth. It is as true in documentary filmmaking as it is in life: kindness and a spirit of gentle curiosity can open worlds before your very eyes.


Top 20 Films of 2017: #5- Get Out

Popularity is not a huge concern for me where film is concerned. I try not to get overly invested in how widely seen or heard the art I like gets. A great many of the albums I cherish most will probably never go platinum and many of the films I count among the best are lucky to get anywhere near $50 million at the box office. One of my favorite recent Best Picture winners is The Hurt Locker, which, even after everyone knew it was going to win the Oscar, managed to scratch out just over $17 million in the United States. Popularity and approval are fickle mistresses and it’s best for your sanity not to let them get in your head too much. That is not to say I am a contrarian about popular art. I like, value, and adore plenty of widely successful works of film and music, but I also have long divorced myself of the need to have my tastes validated through massive mainstream acceptance. Still, I have to say the occasional chance to love something in tandem with a huge group of people is really, really nice. There’s an indescribably giddy thrill when you watch a brilliant piece of art skyrocket into the zeitgeist. When you hear a great film’s name floating through the air at coffee shops and house parties. I imagine it’s how it must have felt to be a Beatles fan in the 60s or a Michael Jackson fan in the 80s. Or to be alive in 1972 and watch The Godfather become the year’s box office juggernaut. It’s a special feeling when a bold, beautiful piece of art not only hauls in a boatload of money, but also just gets a wide swath of the culture talking about it. And again, one never knows when that will happen with the things they love and you can drive yourself crazy if you wait for it too expectantly. It’s probably best to love whatever moves you and not put too much stock in popularity. I only mention it for two reasons. One, because it’s been incredibly gratifying and great to watch a new horror masterwork like Get Out deservedly capture America’s hearts, minds, and fear sensors. And, secondly, because every viewing I have of it ends with me gushing that of course this became a popular phenomenon and bloody well deserves to be! Get Out is brilliant for a whole host of reasons, but I have to marvel first and foremost at what a furiously engaging, viciously clever piece of pure pop entertainment it is. Its exquisitely canny sense of cinematic popcraft is key to why it has only improved after this third viewing, just as it was crucial to coaxing $175 million worth of American eyeballs into theaters to applaud for the year’s most explosively insightful, rousingly incendiary examination of racism in modern America. It is the reason that millions not only came to see the movie and take in its scintillatingly caustic wisdom, but gushed elatedly about the experience afterwards. Get Out is the year’s, maybe even the decade’s, great reminder of the power of brilliant popular art to get a grand conversation going; to stoke the flames of discourse on a national scale.


Jordan Peele’s marvelously witty horror satire begins on the dark streets of an anonymous, affluent American suburb. A young black man walks and talks on a cellphone. He speaks to the person on the other line with trepidation about his surroundings. In what may be my single favorite line of comedic dialogue in a film filled with lacerating humor, he wonders aloud what kind of demented psyche would conceive of placing a street called Edgewood Way a half a mile away from a street called Edgewood Lane. It is an early look at the film’s hybridization of horror and white bourgeois critique. It is the tried and true horror standby of suddenly not recognizing your surroundings or realizing with dread that you just passed that same creepy tree for the third time. But this time the gnarled forest has been replaced by a quiet, wealthy, predominantly white upperclass neighborhood. As an aside, having grown up in a suburb myself, I can attest that having streets with nearly identical names pop up in different random locations is a real phenomenon, and if you were to theorize that they were so arranged to confuse the daylights out of anyone foreign to the area, I would grant that is about as sound a theory as any. This young African-American man is on his way to some dinner at one of these grand, palatial houses. He never makes it there. A white muscle car blasting old-timey 1930s music (a sly elbow to the ribs of any privileged person who has ever felt nervous hearing hip hop coming from a car on some city sidewalk) pulls up and a hulking figure in a metal mask subdues this poor, lost traveler. The masked attacker throws his unfortunate conquest into the trunk and the car drives away into the eerie, lamplit suburban darkness. There is something nefarious going on in safe suburbia and Peele, an observant horror aficionado, gives us a glimpse of it through the time-tested horror trope of meeting an early a victim before we meet our main characters. To put it another way, this young African American man (the terrific and ascendant Lakeith Stanfield) is Drew  Barrymore in Scream. The film’s protagonist, and the next person to walk into this perilous patch of privilege, is Chris Washington (rising British actor Daniel Kaluuya, whose subtle, brilliant facial expressions are the movie’s secret weapon), a young black photographer living in New York City. He is four months into a romance with Rose Armitage (Girls’ Allison Williams, very good), and they are about to take a very serious step forward in their relationship. They are driving down somewhere south to a nice suburb (we understand instinctively that it is the same ominous suburb from the opening) so Chris can spend a weekend getting to know Rose’s parents for the first time. The Armitages are very well played by Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) and national treasure Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich, Capote, Into the Wild). As Rose drives, Chris talks on the phone to his best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery, giving occasional, utterly welcome bursts of broad comedy to an unsettling film), an animated, slightly paranoid TSA agent who warns him that the white suburbs can be a strange and scary place. A moment later, a terrified deer hurtles across the road and leaps through the window of the moving car. It’s a tense moment made even more tense by the arrival of a pushy police officer, who prods Chris for his identification even though he had not been driving. The two lovers eventually make it to the Armitage homestead, a large, gorgeous mansion with a gazebo, a lake, and a sprawling backyard fit for strolling and lawn sports. The Armitage parents seem to be nice enough people with an awkwardly liberal sensibility. Mr. Armitage gushes to Chris that he would have voted Obama for a third term and he blushes when Chris sees that the family keeps two black servants on the property. They are soon joined by Rose’s cocky smart-aleck brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones in a polarizing performance that I actually find perfectly tuned to the arrogant, entitled archetype it is going for). Jeremy is home on a holiday from medical school. The film is about Chris entering into a white suburban setting as essentially the only black person and it keenly shows what a stressful process that is for him to navigate. We feel a subtle sense of unease for Chris even before Mrs. Armitage is cajoling him into an already iconic midnight hypnotism session to cure him of his smoking, before Chris starts noticing that the black housekeeper and groundskeeper have an air of polite, lobotomized menace about them, and before a throng of wealthy Caucasian partygoers descend upon the house to attend the Armitages’ annual garden soiree and to pepper Chris with wrongheaded displays of racial sensitivity and questions about the advantages of blackness. Get Out is a horror film at its core, in ways that I prefer not to spoil, but it is also a brilliantly pitched satire of the general anxiety of being black in America and in largely white spaces, to whatever extent the two are even different. Before we come to understand the sinister mysteries lurking beneath this civil, liberal façade, Get Out is an outstanding deconstruction of the façade itself. It is amazingly perceptive about the quieter, less overt kinds of racism and fear that Chris has to deal with as a matter of daily black life. If Get Out had never transitioned into a literal horror film, it would still probably stand as one of the most insightful and stinging examinations ever made about the intersection between racism and well-meaning white progressivism. Get Out is great as both a perfectly paced horror film and as a shrewd, biting comedy of manners, but it is most ingenious of all in how it blends the two approaches to create something new, lively, and startling.


Jordan Peele has famously bristled at the suggestion that his film could ever be classified as a comedy. Peele may have risen to prominence as one half of the acclaimed Key and Peele comedy duo, but he has been unequivocal about having only the most sober motives for making Get Out. “Get Out is a documentary,” he announced on Twitter. I may disagree with Jordan Peele’s argument that Get Out is not a comedy, but his point is very well taken and I am in total agreement with the spirit of what he is saying. Get Out is smart and very funny, but it does not exist to be anyone’s source of levity. It is a film that speaks its truths with clear wisdom and authority and Peele’s nimble comedic timing, which is present even in some of the film’s most terrifying moments, should not undercut the fact that the film is speaking honestly about a very real state of injustice in modern America. But Get Out is a fantastic reminder that comedy can be used to enhance serious themes rather than detract from them. What makes Get Out such a blisteringly great piece of work is that it reminds us of comedy’s power to speak with fury and unflinching candor. Not every work of comedy exists simply to produce laughter. Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) is one of the most perfect comedies ever created and it is not the least bit frivolous. It has arsenic in its veins and its purpose is to bluntly tell us that we will one day annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons. But the bigger issue here seems to be Peele’s fear that comedy gets unfairly dismissed in today’s culture, and that suspicion could scarcely be more well-founded . Get Out’s script contains some of the sharpest comedic insights to be written in years, but it is a work of genius because it has more on its mind that any single genre can encompass. Peele has created an impeccably paced hybrid of horror, thriller, satire, social critique, and comedy because he needed all those colors to evoke the full picture of what racism looks like in the 21st century. And what is most gob-smacking is not only that this hybrid of styles hits its targets with pinpoint precision, but that the finished result is so completely captivating and compulsively watchable. For a film taking on at least three different genres at once, Get Out simply moves like a dream. Jordan Peele has made a blazingly original, energetic blockbuster entertainment for America to laugh at, scream through, and excitedly talk about. And I stand in defense of his freedom to question how that work is processed and classified. He has made a film that captures American race relations in a way few ever have, and he has earned the right to call all of us out for finding any of it simply funny or entertaining.


Get Out announces itself as a horror thriller in its opening minute, when a young man is put in a violent chokehold and thrown unconscious into the back of a strange car. It is a dread-soaked, pulse-pounding, menacing piece of work right until it plays its heart-stoppingly suspenseful final card. For all its genre-bending, it is indisputably a work of horror cinema, yet I have heard the odd viewer express disappointment about where the film ends up in its most explicitly horror-bound third act. I personally think that the film’s journey from subtle social satire through nervy, unsettling comedy of manners and into the realm of the nightmarish is a big part of the film’s brilliance. But the very fact of that complaint points to just how cannily Get Out works as an incisive dissection of white gentility. Get Out is a brilliant whole composed of individually brilliant parts. The early scenes introducing the Armitages have a strong grasp of the banal niceties of a privileged Caucasian family that dearly wishes to be seen as racially enlightened. The little touches of affluent suburbia are trenchant and funny and just right, from the early false start menace of a runaway deer (the scourge of many a suburban street where I come from) to the awkward mandatory tour of the Armitage house, to Mr. Armitage’s desperate attempt to endear himself to his daughter’s new beau by shoehorning urban vernacular into his conversation. The Armitage cocktail party, like the Armitages themselves, is a cavalcade of cringeworthy rich progressive tics, from the retired golfer who won’t stop gushing about Tiger Woods to the man who tells Chris without blinking how very fashionable black culture has become. These scenes are not horrifying in the conventional sense, but Daniel Kaluuya’s precise, beautifully reactive performance captures the agonizing discomfort of having to be the one black person in this situation. The scenes of Chris simply trying to survive an awkward weekend with a self-consciously liberal white family, their aggravatingly oblivious friends, and their unnervingly sedated African-American servants add up some of the most splendidly written, well-acted, and insightful satire I have seen in a long time. This is a world of gazeboes and bingo, of hired help and carrot cakes. Of badminton and leisurely days spent drinking pitchers of lemonade on the back patio. It is unsurprising that bocce balls, fine china teacups, and mounted hunting trophies are fixtures of this place. The twist is to present this mannered, civil milieu as something foreboding and unhinged and to have those symbols of luxury become props in a frantic struggle for survival. Peele paints his vision of upper class suburban life in such a sublimely acerbic way that I do not blame anyone for wanting a whole film of it. But having that space, which feels so benign to those who dwell in it, morph into a hellscape is the point. To Chris and other black men like him, a rich, predominantly white space like this always has the potential to become dangerous. For black Americans, the suburbs have always vibrated with the barely hidden threat of violence and suppression.


Get Out cannot simply be a satire or a social critique of liberal privilege for the same reason it cannot simply be a comedy. It was never meant to be about that. Horror was always deep within its DNA. The film draws us in to laughing and nodding in knowing agreement at its witty social points, but the film is really about coming to understand Chris. In fact, it is not even to correct to say it is about understanding him. Peele’s faultless writing and Kaluuya’s rich, focused performance make Chris Washington an understandable, relatable, and endlessly sympathetic character from the very outset. There is never a question that we will understand and like this man. The reason Get Out must descend into full-scale horror, into the inky suffocation of the Sunken Place, is that we must learn to feel Chris’ alert state of terror. We must be with him through this ordeal so that his horror, from the smaller social anxieties to the larger fear of death, becomes our own in some way. Jordan Peele is saying in no uncertain terms that this is what the black experience in America has felt like, feels like, and will likely continue to feel like for the foreseeable future. It is the simmering tension of feeling at best out of place, and forever looking over your shoulder for an even less innocuous source of dread. It is why it is not only really nice, but also just plain important that Get Out has become the year’s most perfectly engrossing piece of popular entertainment. Its pop bonafides ensure that its massive audience is hooked in and along for the ride, and from that point all Peele has to do is train his camera on Chris for the duration. Get Out torpedoes the typical big shows of racial tolerance. Peele throws these ineffectual gestures back at his country and instead asks that we just think more about what it is like to be in Chris’ shoes. It is a call for less impotent guilt, less useless self-pity, and more empathy. To the white crowds that saw and cheered for it, Get Out was an invitation to empathize in a truly clear-eyed way. And to the millions of black Americans who watched it, it was a gratifying opportunity to have a grand mainstream phenomenon capture bits of their experiences and project them onto the screens of a nation that rarely hears them. It was a chance to go into a horror film, a genre that historically chews up black characters, and see something different. Without saying if Chris survives his journey through the seven circles of suburbia, one thing is beyond doubt: Chris is a vibrant, nuanced, unforgettable character, and Get Out is fully his story. This horror film may put him through some mortifying paces, but it also respects him and is entirely about him. It belongs to him.


There are any number of great films to come out each year, and only a fraction of them get the wide attention they deserve. That is just a fact of life in our current cinema culture, which offers a staggering array of potential titles to watch each and every week of the year. Popularity does not give a work of art its greatness, but certain works of art demand to be seen by as many people as possible. If any film this year were to pull in a massive audience, I am glad that Get Out is that film. That is not simply because it is witty and cutting and wonderful. It is not even because of how valuable and poignant its message is. More than anything it is because Get Out says more to me about the American experience than any other film this year did. It deserves to be a national box office hit because it is a film about our nation. It deserves to be popular because it is about our population. It is about how it feels to be a black person in the current national climate. It is about the current black struggle and about how the privileged Americans on the sidelines of that struggle attempt to understand it, lend support to it, misguidedly define it, and exploit it. It is about the varying ways that white Americans try, and often fail, to help; to reduce some of the dread that comes with being black in this country. It is about the teeming, conflicting mass of racism, compassion, apathy, idealism, and ignorance that is America. It is a critique of the failings of those of who meekly claim to want to do some good; of those who insist that they stand for tolerance and personhood but can offer little outside of empty assurances. It satirizes our varying, feeble responses to this ongoing saga of dread. It pokes fun at the many layers of our rhetoric and our guilt. It allows us to laugh at the absurdity of our manners and mores. But it eventually stands back aghast. Because for as many of us decry bigotry, America continues to be a pretty frightening place to not be white. Even with all our niceties and best intentions accounted for, the end result still looks an awful lot like horror.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #6- Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is the latest film in a grand tradition of cinema that blurs the line between being an artist and being a romantic partner. It examines the elements of passion, control, dedication, and commitment that are common to both love and the creative process, and in so doing it joins a fine list of films ranging from the charming likes of Shakespeare In Love, to the visionary romantic dysfunction of 8 ½, to the heart-palpitating phantasmagoria of this year’s mother!. Also like mother!, Phantom Thread is a film about an artist weighing the all-consuming needs of his artistry against the needs of another human being, and if I say that Daniel Day Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock is at least a marginally less selfish partner than Javier Bardem’s messianic poet in mother!, then that may be the year’s most damning faint praise. The key difference I find between those two films is that I do not believe mother! Is really about love in any substantial way. It is in the nature of that film for the artist’s ego and obsession with creating to utterly drown out the slightest hint of romance. By contrast, I think that Phantom Thread is absolutely about love, even more than it is about the struggles of an artist. Phantom Thread is a keen look at the rhythms and pitfalls of a new romance and, at the risk of overselling this too much, it is also subtly very funny. In telling the love story between a celebrated dressmaker and the gently headstrong waitress who comes waltzing in to his neatly arranged life, Paul Thomas Anderson finds a rich, crackling energy beneath a pristine world of elegant decorum and self-serious craft. Love is an effervescent, discombobulating whirlwind in Phantom Thread and, while it does have a lot of insight into the rigors and superstitions of an artist’s work, the artistic process is also largely here to be the apple cart that romance jostles. Phantom Thread is a deliriously lavish, meticulously composed, sumptuously costumed British period piece and it uses its gorgeously ornate surfaces as a kind of contrast to the brash, unpretentious, blithely unfussy blush of swooning romance. It is a film whose lovely, old-fashioned sheen exists both to be admired for its surface beauty and to be ever so sweetly punctured.


The period of Phantom Thread is 1950s London, where a world-renowned dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis, giving a dependably tremendous dramatic performance punctuated with sly comedic notes) is the toast of womens fashion. He is a man of soft-spoken haughtiness; intense, unflaggingly confident in his skills as an artist, yet also given to temperamental fits of frustration and doubt. He is a rich portrait of the most exacting kind of artist, while also feeling ever so slightly like a keen satire of a certain breed of talent. Reynolds is a believable, multi-faceted depiction of the genius diva archetype, with just a sprinkle of self-aware skewering. The House of Woodcock, the multi-story London studio where he lives and works, is a pristine sanctum to his rigid, well-honed routine. The guardian of that sacred routine is his sister Cyril (the great Lesley Manville, softly terse, quietly acerbic, and very funny), a no-nonsense woman who oversees the traffic of deadlines, appointments, and people that streams in and out of Reynolds’ busy, posh life.  Part of that job involves ushering out Reynold’s latest brief romantic fling whenever he inevitably tires of her. Cyril’s job is to indulge her brother through his wild swings between inspiration, melancholy, and petty outrage. On the evening after a successful fashion show, Reynolds sits with Cyril in their favorite restaurant, cautiously pleased with the show, wistfully longing for his dear, late mother, and unhappily at a loss for what to do with the latest paramour to wear out her welcome. With the nonchalant professionalism of a woman who has dealt with this a hundred times before, Cyril tells Reynolds she will show the unfortunate lady the door and sends him off for a brief holiday in the English countryside to recharge his mental, emotional, and artistic faculties. Reynolds speeds his sleek, gleaming Bristol 405 down Britain’s narrow country lanes and through the night, and ends up on an idyllic village on the Yorkshire seaside by morning. He stops at a hotel restaurant for an impressively large breakfast, which he orders from a shy, soft-spoken waitress with rosy cheeks, a slender physique and a Belgian accent. She blushes as he speaks to her. Before the check has been paid, the intensely self-possessed Reynolds has convinced her to have dinner with him at his country house. Her name is Alma (Vicky Krieps, a relatively unknown Belgian actress who does brilliant work and, by the film’s very design, steals scenes from Daniel Day Lewis in what is allegedly the swansong performance of his career). They have a fine meal of fish and wine. He tells her about his mother,  his career, and his penchant for sewing secret messages and small totems into the linings of his work. He has a blunt, domineeringly forward way with her from the start. He has her remove her lipstick so he can better see her true face.  After supper, he brings her downstairs to his workshop where he takes her measurements. Entering into a relationship with him will mean entering into a relationship with his work as well. Cyril arrives halfway through with her usual knowing half-smile, and the two siblings methodically size up the young woman who will soon become the latest in House Woodcock’s ever rotating queue of romantic partners. “You have no breasts,” he tells her with clinical detachment, before helpfully reassuring her, “You’re perfect. My job is to give you some.” We see Reynolds Woodcock is a talented, fascinating, and all but impossible man. His attention is always tuned first to his own voice, then to Cyril’s. And of course the majority of his energies go to the clients and to the dresses. His romantic partners get whatever little bit is left over. What is curious to see is that Alma notices his maddening drive and his brusque manner almost immediately. She chooses to fall for him in spite of it and because of it, but she also maintains a quiet resilience in the face of it. She weathers his commands and insults, but she will not allow herself to be made a silent partner in the relationship. “Stand normally,” he curtly says. She calmly says she is. With annoyance, he explains he meant to stand up straight. “Yes, well, you didn’t say that,” she shoots back with a soft frustration to match his own. Phantom Thread is a wondrous, clever melodrama and the joy comes from watching this relationship unfold, but there is a simplicity to this film once you have seen where it goes. It is really just the story of an artist walled in to a life of routine and how the woman he falls in love with enters into that sterile, meticulous space. It is about Alma entering into this prestigious, pristine house of rules and manners and walking through it with her own stubborn, clumsy grace. It goes to some dramatically unhinged places before all is said and done, but it is a love story through and through. All the gripping intrigue, intense conflict, and testy power upheavals are there to act as both an operatically pitched commentary on the challenges of any relationship and a blackly comic satire about what love does to the human ego. Phantom Thread is both the lush, emotionally fraught, old-fashioned melodrama it appears to be and a slyly winking send-up of the same. It sets up its fancy pretensions to luxuriate in them and to irreverently topple them. Like love itself, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is swooning, intense, and just a little bit absurd.


Phantom Thread is a decadent, luminous, crystalline ode to the many facets of love. One way it is wise is in presenting love as a disruption to the status quo of a person’s life. Paul Thomas Anderson is smart enough to let us become swept up in all that tradition and routine just as Alma is. He lets us be bewildered and enchanted by the dazzling sheen of it all. This is a painstakingly groomed world of delicate fabrics and brittle decorum. And beyond what all this says about how new love can upend the structures we spend years carefully erecting around ourselves, Reynolds Woodcock’s precise little Faberge egg of a world is just a beautiful little object to behold and marvel over. Anderson weaves this tasteful, dapper fashion world with glee, relishing the chance to make the most formally old fashioned film of his career, but in a way that feels as boldly intoxicating as one would expect from the director of There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights. Instead of showy cinematic pyrotechnics, Anderson instead focuses on images so rich with color and texture that you feel full just from looking at them. This rich soufflé of a film does not rewrite any of the recipes. Instead, it just replaces the onions with the most expensive shallots money can buy and uses three times more butter than the cookbook calls for. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood (a frequent collaborate with Anderson) ties this glowing, perfumed package together with a swelling score of piano and strings that is both sophisticated and sometimes perversely grandiose. It is a world of linens and silks, shiny sports cars, gleaming white penthouses, diamond tiaras, and delicious cuisine. It is important we see the minutest detail of this fussed over universe. It is a world designed by a man with great wealth, impeccable taste, and an unyielding sense for how and where everything should be if he is to continue operating at the peak of his powers. He loves big breakfasts eaten quietly, dislikes meals cooked in too much butter, and detests the word “chic”. Everything about this world, including Reynolds himself, is carefully put together with not a thread out of place. And it is not to say Alma’s arrival changes Reynolds’ ability to eat a scone with raspberry jam and Lapsang tea every morning, or throws the glitz of his lifestyle into any knde of jeopardy at all. But the very presence of a newcomer who doesn’t intuitively grasp the finest detail of his strictly programmed schedule is enough to throw Reynolds Woodcock into a tizzy. It is the very notion of having to change anything for another person that vexes him. Phantom Thread is about a self-labeled bachelor who has seemingly never kept a romance for more than a few months suddenly finding a person he may really want to keep. And it is about him frantically looking for any justification to be done with it. “He’s like a spoiled, little baby,” Alma confides with bemusement to a friend. Love means allowing some small change into our lives. Somewhere deep in his soul, Reynolds must know it is not any one shakeup to his process that is bothering him. It is a thin-skinned irritation at the idea of having to make any change, any compromise whatsoever.



To be clear though, while the opulent, manicured world of House of Woodcock may at first seem like a cold, domineering fortress, the film’s true immovable object, and I would also say its primary protagonist, turns out to be Alma. What makes Phantom Thread such an invigorating and darkly sweet film is that it is about the act of being bold and defiant with your love. Reynolds has spent decades with no change and no real dissenting voice outside of Cyril’s, who has learned to only press him cautiously in ways that will not disturb his fragile, artistic temperament. Alma is not explicitly out to upset her new love but she has the courage to be utterly herself in love. When she tells Reynolds she does not care for a fabric he is using, he and Cyril both balk. He spits that she has no taste, but she fearlessly replies that she likes her own taste. “Maybe some day you’ll change,” Reynolds mutters wearily. “Maybe not,” Alma replies with serenely unflappable confidence. After Reynolds throws a fit over Alma taking her breakfast too noisily, Cyril offers that she should probably just acquiesce to his preferences. Alma shakes her head, “I think he’s too fussy.” Cyril stares back with a look that conveys both amused surprise and a bewilderment at such a novel idea. To live in Reynolds’ world is ostensibly to tread lightly and to conform to his whims, because he is the great, put upon artist; because it is England circa 1950 and he is a powerful, respected man. Alma loves him steadfastly, but she will not become a tongue-tied mannequin in Reynolds Woodcock’s shop window. “I respect your advice, Cyril,” she later tells her future in-law, “but I have to know him in my own way.” Phantom Thread is a complex, nuanced picture of the joys, trials, and indignities of bonding yourself to another person, but I think it is also of Alma’s refreshingly straightforward state of mind. Loving someone is a choice you make. And no one, even and especially the subject of your affections, can dictate how you do it.


That is not to say that Phantom Thread thinks that one should refuse to ever budge in romance. The important distinction between Alma and the Reynolds Woodcock we first meet is that Reynolds recoils at the idea of having to do any bowing or bending. Alma is fiercely true to her self and to her need to love in a way that is free and open, but she is not unwilling to let love alter who she is. I have never believed in the axiom that you should never change for another person. Any life experience is an occasion to grow and change, and a deep love is one of the most soul-shaking life experiences one can ever have. Alma is not resistant to all of Reynolds’ rules and customs. She simply refuses to be a passive spectator in her own love story. She wants to change for Reynolds, insofar as that metamorphosis does not diminish her integrity. She dearly wants to become joined to this man, but the notion that this should mean completely submerging her sense of self into his strikes her as ridiculous and also rather counter-intuitive. What real good are we to the ones we love if we do not bring our own personhood to the table? Alma is active and engaged in a way that frequently perturbs Reynolds, but she is not simply trying to rattle his windows. She may chafe at the House of Woodcock’s occasionally stifling protocol, but she also very much loves the House, just as she loves the man. She speaks with joy about helping Reynolds with his work, blushes with earnest pride when she gets to help model his dresses, and reacts in protective rage when a boorish heiress makes a drunken spectacle while wearing one of his fashions. “It’s your work,” she seethes tearfully. I think Phantom Thread is about holding on to a sense of yourself fin love, while also eagerly picking up the burden of another person’s dreams and fears. When a Belgian princess comes to the House of Woodcock to be fitted for her royal wedding dress, Alma walks politely but nonchalantly up to her and introduces herself. “I live here,” she says proudly. Phantom Thread is fundamentally a film about being unafraid in love; about making your love a space that you own are proud to spend your days in. As long as you are with a person, you have the right to make your home in their heart and to assert your place there. For all its heightened melodrama, Paul Thomas Anderson’s grand, woozy, decadent film is really a sweet, simple, and sharp ode to the strange dance of courtship; to the art of changing for another person in the right ways.


Phantom Thread comes at love from a lot of angles, but its stance is largely curious and empathetically quizzical. It is a film whose tones are often cerebral, arch, and pitch-black, but it nevertheless is never less than wholly compassionate. It sees romance as a fascinating, powerful, fickle, and mysterious force. Beneath its billowing score and almost dauntingly elegant compositions is a real, beating heart. With deference to Anderson’s terrific Punch Drunk Love, I believe this is the most unabashedly romantic film of his career. It is a stately, impeccably sculpted film about finding real, squishy emotion somewhere deep inside a stately, impeccably sculpted world. In its deliriously wicked conclusion, it manages to get to true love in a thoroughly demented way. In that moment, it proclaims that there are few wrong ways to find love with another person. Love is strange, enigmatic, and nebulous, and as long as you and your partner understand each other, nothing is really off limits. The rules of love are an ever evolving contract between the parties. Romance is a delightful, frustrating, frightening, revelatory conversation between souls for as long as they want to go on having that dialogue. This is Paul Thomas Anderson skewering the follies of artistic and relational pride, and honoring the value of working with a partner. Giving part of yourself to someone can be a scary and occasionally uncomfortable process, especially when you have become very accustomed to creating alone. But there is value in finding someone who challenges our spirits and bucks the wisdom that we have spent years following. What good are life and art if we are never pushed to change? Where would humankind be without collaboration?

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.