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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.