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Top 20 Films of 2018: #11- Support the Girls

Andrew Bujalski’s latest scruffy, lovingly small-scale glimpse into a tiny subculture starts off with 2018’s most effectively humble credits sequence. Support the Girls is set at a Hooter-style restaurant (or breastaurant, as they are sometimes called) just off some nondescript Texas highway, and we open on that same highway. Family sedans, RVs and big rigs whoosh by and, under the din, we hear the strains of an upbeat pop country song. The song has to compete with the buzz of traffic, almost as if we are hearing it diegetically. As if the music was coming like a siren song from the open door of Double Whammies, the mainstream family sports bar that will be the film’s central setting. The names of the cast appear on screen in multi-colored handwritten scrawls, as if they were from the name tags that the restaurant’s servers wear. One of many, many things I love about this warm, intimate, and insightful little film is how well it sets its tiny scene. Support the Girls is a film set entirely at a kitschy family sports restaurant and the drab strip malls and plain Texan suburbs around it, but that prefab world is bursting with more emotion and life than all the sterile speaker outlets and and bland smoothie shops in the world can contain. This setting could have so easily been condescended to, but that is not Andrew Bujalski’s way. These surroundings may appear unattractive and soulless, but it takes Support the Girls less than a third of its zippy 93-minute running time to make these spaces feel lively, idiosyncratic, and full of affection. When you hear that a film is set at a small Hooters knockoff, you expect a certain degree of tackiness and exploitation, and there is certainly an atmosphere of cheery tackiness that is part of the vibe at Double Whammies. But Support the Girls is the opposite of an exploitation film. Its goal is to go into an anonymous breast-themed bar (its name is a cheeky reference to boobs) and find real, lovable, and specific characters there. To remind us that empathy and humanity exist everywhere, even in a place where women are expected to earn their living with tight-fitting t-shirts and heavy flirtation. Support the Girls insists on their specificity, their integrity, and the value as human beings.

Support the Girls explores a space that caters predominantly to men, but it is all about women. It is about being a strong, self-sufficient woman in places that don’t always make that easy. It introduces a number of servers, managers, cooks, and customer, but it largely focuses on a three women. It is mostly about a single day in their lives. The first person we meet is Lisa, (a magnificent, sensitive and subtle Regina Hall; ask me on the right day and I’ll call this the best performance of 2018) an African-American woman in her forties who we meet crying in her car on the morning before work. Lisa is a smart, accommodating and endlessly resourceful manager at Double Whammies, the kind of person who spends her every waking moment solving problems, putting out fires and keeping people happy. On this single, taxing day, she will have to fire one of her cooks when his cousin is caught trying to break into the restaurant’s safe room (through the air ducts). Even this man she fires leaves tells her that she is a generous person. She lets him finish out his shift. Support the Girls is a fly-on-the-wall look at the culture of this local sports bar, but its central plot is about Lisa dutifully marching through the worst work day of her life. On this day, the always professional and honorable Lisa has to do something a little questionable. One of the girls on her wait staff has run into some legal trouble. During a drunken spat, the server hit her hot-headed, aggressive boyfriend with her car. Lisa knows she will need money for a lawyer, so she quietly arranges a car wash in the restaurant parking lot to raise funds for her. This could get Lisa fired if her boss, the restaurant’s short-tempered and chauvinistic co-owner, finds out. This is the kind of high-stress day where your hands are full before it even starts. The kind of day where you would hope not much else is going on. There is unfortunately quite a lot else going on. There is an attempted break-in, she has to interview new serving girls, the owner is in a fuming panic about a big national breastaurant chain moving in across the street, she’s trying to find an apartment for her recently separated husband to move into, the cable needs to be fixed before the evening’s big televised boxing match, her best employee Danyelle (hip-hop artist Shayna McHayle, a hilariously sardonic revelation) needs a babysitter for her sick son, she has to fire a second employee (for getting a terrible, unconcealable Steph Curry tattoo on her side), and her other best employee Maci (a superb Haley Lu Richardson, playing the living embodiment of a confetti cannon) may have started dating a regular customer three times her age. Support the Girls is a character study about Lisa, Danyell and Maci, and a lovably ramshackle ethnography of their working environment. Above all, it is a lovely, funny, spirited salute to women who help hold their small worlds together. To women who wade ahead through the swamps of sexist society and light a torch for others to follow.

Support the Girls is about women making a place for themselves, but it does have a lot to say to, and about, men. The male presence is inescapable for women, and that is particularly true in a place like Double Whammies, which markets to a particularly libidinous breed of man. The master stroke of Support the Girls is that it refuses to tolerate misogyny in that space. Lisa and her girls know that they are basically selling the idea of sex; that some level of titillation is part of their trade. But that does not mean that the girls are there to be demeaned or degraded. Lisa has a zero tolerance policy on disrespect and we see her enforce it vigilantly. Sad dudes may be her business, as she tells her estranged husband, but that doesn’t give these male egos license to run roughshod over women. Support the Girls is realistic about men. Quite a few are rude and condescending to the servers who work so tirelessly to make them happy. Some are well-meaning, if a little oblivious. Some are gentlemen. And some, like Danyelle’s 10 year-old son McWray, are still young and unmolded. They are ready to learn what being a strong and decent man really is, if someone can provide them with the right guidance. McWray sits at a booth and draws a ninja for LIsa. He says his name is Ninja Guy. Lisa softly reminds him that there could be a woman under that ninja garb. Support the Girls knows men can be selfish and crass, but it holds a resilient hope that confident, capable women can shape healthier attitudes and mold men who are worth a damn. Support the Girls strides into a space that most would think of as sleazy and exploitative and holds men accountable there. It is the female gaze that matters here, and what these women are scanning the horizon for is a better class of man. It is a chipper, effervescent little film but it does not budge an inch in its insistence that every woman deserves respect, no matter what they happen to wear to work. Any man who has an issue with that basic principle can go get buzzed at a less dignified breastaurant.

In a way, it’s helpful to think of Support the Girls  as the year’s best, most unassuming superhero movie. LIsa refers to Danyelle as a real-life Wonder Woman. She reminds Danyelle’s son that women can be heroes too. And, like Superman with an indomitably cheery demeanor and an amiable Southern drawl, Lisa herself is always circle this small strip mall world and restoring order. She sees everything and fixes everything. She knows everyone, from the police officers to the regular customers to the juice shop managers in the next lot. Danyelle is a sarcastic, wisecracking, endlessly capable jack of all trades. Bubbly, joyful Maci is an irrepressible ray of sunshine, the bantering, hula-hooping Robin to Lisa’s Batman. These are three of the best female role models in recent cinema; each of them an utterly distinct testament to female empowerment and solidarity. And they are brought to vivid, sparkling life by three of the best performances of the year. At one point, Lisa explains to McWray how she comes up with the weekly schedule and her focused tone makes it sound like the universe depends on it. A very small universe does depend on it. Support the Girls is effervescent and giggly, but these characters and their trials have a real weight to them. In every viewing I’ve had, the impact and insight of the film has snuck up on me. This little film about female dynamos feels more consequential than a thousand Marvel doomsday scenarios. The not so simple act of being a working woman ends up holding a power that rumbles beneath the film’s charming, scruffy exterior. Like its optimistic, perseverant main characters, Support the Girls is soulful and emotionally grounded while also being irresistibly light on its feet.

On top of being a heartfelt feminist screwball comedy, Support the Girls is also a terrifically sharp workplace comedy. The art of a good workplace comedy has a lot to do with making a confined space and its inhabitants feel dynamic and interesting. One must make the small hallways and back offices feel lived in, even loved. On what may be her last day as a manager at Double Whammies, Lisa picks up some free heart stickers from the local smoothie shop. She starts affectionately sticking them on the walls and door jams of her little breastaurant world. To say that Support the Girls makes Double Whammies feel loved would be an understatement. As is her way, Lisa spreads love, joy, and self-esteem wherever she goes. Double Whammies is far from a perfect workplace, between its uncaring owners and sometimes grabby customers, but Lisa is too positive and resolute to to admit defeat to the occasional sexism and negativity. So long as she is manager of this place, the girls are going to feel safe and supported (the title, Support the Girls, is a randy breast-based double entendre but it is also literally about women supporting each other), and there are going be bright red heart stickers up in the break room. The film is very much about how work places (and all places really) are colored and defined by the people inside of them. It is a love letter to great bosses (Lisa really is the Fezziwig of hypersexualized family dining) and anyone who makes their own world better for being in them. Radiant, self-respecting women like Lisa, Danyelle, and Maci cannot help but infuse the darkest, most toxic spaces with love and humanity. Now just think how great this place could be with even a few more good men following their lead.

Then again, if the men of the world can’t be bothered to make the spaces of this world healthy, loving, and good for the world’s women, maybe they don’t deserve those women. And in that case, who really cares what becomes of those spaces? Double Whammies is presented as the quirky Mom and Pop sports bar of this town (though both “Mom” and “Pop” are just two chauvinistic, white dudes). Still, we’re led to see it as maybe preferable to Mancave, the soulless, uber-corporate megachain setting up shop across town. But if neither place values its women, what really is the difference? If the underdog is unappreciative of the women who are its heart and soul, that doesn’t sound much like an underdog worth rooting for. If the so-called authentic place is sexist and cavalier toward its women, why not just let it burn or go belly up? Support the Girls turns out to have a righteous working class spirit to complement its breezy feminism. It’s the kind of joyously angry, full-throated punk song that both Bruce Springsteen and Bikini Kill would approve of. Support the Girls may be a terrific look at a specific space, but spaces mean nothing without their people. That goes for breastaurants, cities, and nations. Any civilization that does not support its girls can collapse, crumble, vanish from the face of the Earth. The people inside those obsolete systems, the human beings truly deserving of our empathy and respect, will be just fine. They will always land on their feet. They will not have to look long to find each other again. A good woman is not hard to find.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #12- Eighth Grade

The nitpicky critic in me tends to steer away from any material extraneous to the film. I basically don’t care about what a director or a performer is like outside of their work, and, while I enjoy a good behind-the-scenes anecdote as much as the next person, I typically don’t need to hear about it or write about it in a film review. It all feels a little too extracurricular to me. But occasionally I have to make an exception. Sometimes a bit of lore or trviia from outside of the films feels so on brand that it naturally becomes part of how I think about the film. Like Mick Jagger turning the set of Performance into a months-long hedonistic garden of vice (thereby turning co-star James Fox into a lifelong conservative). Or Stanley Kubrick pushing Shelley Duvall to the brink of sanity with an ungodly amount of takes in The Shining. Sometimes a story from the film just feels too right as an extension of the film itself. In the case of Bo Burnham’s pitch-perfectly anxious, subtly empathetic adolescent character-study-cum-mood-piece, I think of a production photograph. The 28 year-old first-time director and his even greener leading performer, 16 year-old Elsie Fisher, (subtle, lovable, and ever so relatably awkward as the film’s 14 year-old protagonist) are seated on the floor of a middle school hallway, leaning their backs against some lockers. They appear to just be in the middle of some conversation, laughing and listening to one another. It’s nothing so surprising. I imagine most directors have friendly chats with their actors, figuring out what the next scene will need to really sing. But there’s an understated empathyto this moment that is part and parcel with the film. This is the story of a shy, fumbling eighth grade girl, as directed by a white man in his late twenties. Burnham knows he is not telling his own story. He is telling the story of young girls like Elsie Fisher or really any woman who remembers being that age. His job is to be empathetic and open and the learn everything he can from her. To make her feel happy and open and at ease with exploring this young woman’s inner life. I see this photograph and am not only moved by their sweet, easy rapport (while extracurricular material is still on the table, Fisher and Burnham were also an adorably chummy fixture on the 2018 awards circuit, before that mean girl they call Oscar kept them out of the big party). That photograph also just makes sense as an essential document of the film that follows. What makes Eighth Grade such a lovely and beautifully observant character study is that the man in the director’s chair knows to mostly give the reins to his superb female actor. She is there to make this story resonate through her vivid characterization. It’s his job to give her the space to tell that story and to capture it as perceptively as he can. Most of all, it’s his job to ensure that the audience follows his lead and listens attentively to this sweet, soft-spoken young woman. Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher give us one of the most empathetic duets in recent cinema. That picture bears witness to their harmony and chemistry, though nothing can compare with the what they have lovingly put up on screen.

Eighth Grade covers an awkward, shy 14 year-old girl’s last few months of middle school. Kayla Day knows she is at a sensitive and precarious stage, as most people her age are. Kayla has gotten used to feeling awkward over the past few years. What seems to bother her more is being seen as shy by her peers. At her school’s annual awards assembly for graduating students, she wins Most Quiet and her reaction to this dubious  honor is one of the most mortified facial expressions you’ll see in a film. While Kayla has trouble talking to her classmates, tongue-tied is not the way she sees herself. Somewhere beneath her timid exterior is a vibrant conversationalist and deep thinker. The film’s recurring framing device is a series of teenage social advice videos that she puts up on her sparsely viewed YouTube channel. Eighth Grade is a coming-of-age character study about an insecure, kind-hearted young lady striving and struggling to navigate the turbulent transition to high school, and to close out those three puberty-addled years that are the bane of so many adolescent existences. At times, it also feels ever so slightly like an experimental film. It’s full of frenetic editing, moody lulls, and artfully jarring sound design. Part of that unsettling aura comes from British composer Anna Meredith’s terrifically effective electronic panic attack of a score. An even larger part comes from Bo Burnham’s sharp instincts for amplifying mood. Eighth Grade consists of a number of setpieces that astutely capture the anxiety and guarded elation of those early teenage years. Kayla gets invited to an aloof classmate’s pool party. She gets the chance to socialize with a group of high schoolers and catches a glimpse of adolescent challenges still to come. She also pines for a cocksure, absurdly stoic cool boy and starts a friendship with a hyper-talkative, gangly boy whose energy seems much more in tune with her own. When not braving the tween trenches, Kayla spends her time at home trying to ignore her well-meaning and intermittently exasperating dork of a single father (Josh Hamilton,  terrifically endearing and sympathetic), and burying herself in the simultaneously stimulating and soothing deluge of social media. Eighth Grade is a strange but perfectly tailored hybrid of character study, gripping drama, and observational comedy (until now, Bo Burnham was known for his standup comedy, which often commented on youth culture in the Internet age). Its chief strength may be that Burnham infuses his film with bold, stylistic flourishes to recreate the heightened unease of middle school life while always keeping one foot firmly in empathetic territory. He sees this time of life through a woozy, distorted lens, but he always looks at his protagonist with clear compassion and warm concern.

Still, Bo Burnham whips up quite a temperamental little storm for his timid but intrepid heroine to weather. Before Kayla’s journey to the shores of high school is complete, she will have experienced a fairly constant stream of embarassment, resisted a genuinely unsettling unwanted sexual advance, and gone to a pool party that feel like a social war zone. Eighth Grade is often very funny, but Burnham also treats all of this seriously. Even when we are invited to laugh, there is nothing glib in his treatment of the hurdles young people like Kayla face. He respects what a nauseating and frightening thing it can be to be 14 years old, especially for a young woman still finding her identity. Burnham shoots with an inventive livewire energy that makes every moment its own tiny powder keg. We hear the egg shells crunching under Kayla’s feet and we watch her every subtle, anxious facial expression as she figures out how to get through the next adolescent survival test. It would be hyperbole to say that Eighth Grade has elements of horror, but it often has a buzzy aura that is not a thousand miles removed from a thriller. Simply put, it is one of 2018’s most stunningly original creations. A film about being a teenager with notes of pulse-pounding tension and paranoia that is still completely sweet and funny at its core. It’s the classic case of a chef adding some wild, unexpected ingredient to a dish (putting Sriracha sauce in a dessert, let’s say) and having it not only work but really make the dish. Eighth Grade leaves such a strong impression because stories of adolescent angst are so rarely told with this kind of idiosyncratic immediacy. Bo Burnham wants us to put ourselves in Kayla’s brain; to experience the feverish calustrophobia of her viewpoint. Burnham knows there may be no age more nerve-rattlingly subjective than puberty, when looming adulthood, your own changing body, and the moody insecurities of your peers all conspire to make you feel more perpetually off balance than you ever though possible.

Bo Burnham is also interested in the subjective dissonance between how young teenagers see themselves, how they want to be seen, and hos they see each other. The Kayla we see in her videos is still a humble young woman, but one with the intelligence and confidence to put her thoughts out there. She wants people to see her as outgoing and outspoken. Her awkward but supportive father reminds her that the very fact of having her own YouTube channel shows that she is that dynamic, interesting, well-rounded person she wants to be. The problem is it feels like no one is actually listening to that version of her voice. None of her peers at school are seeking her out for her insights, and so those thoughts mostly stay rattling around in her own already hectic brain. She is both the engaged and engaging raconteur she wants to be and the reticent wallflower who still hasn’t figured out how to loudly speak her truth in public. It is nothing new to say that puberty can be something of a paradox. A time where we are trying on an entire closet’s worth of competing identities. Elsie Fisher stutters and painfully draws out certain words as if she’s at the first table read for the script to her own life. What makes Eighth Grade so compassionately observant is how Bo Burnham sees all adolescents as actors who haven’t quite gotten their characters down yet. Even the characters you would probably identify as mean girls are painted with charitable, humane understanding. They also seem to be frantically ad-libbing their way through this crazy play, trying to workshop the role of who they will be for the rest of their lives. What none of them presently realize is that they will rewrite these parts dozens and dozens of times more. Eighth Grade feels for them all. It is a comedy, but Bo Burnham is not laughing at Kayla or any of her classmates. He is laughing with them, or more accurately with the people they will be five years from now.

Eighth Grade is a bittersweet thing of beauty. It gives us a wince and a smile, though the early going probably contains more wincing than smiling. This is the nature of the film’s journey and it turns out to be a splendid choice on Burnham’s part. The majority of the film is an arrestingly cringey dramedy of teenage manners. Eighth Grade takes Kayla and us through the miserable, sweaty gauntlet of the eighth grade, adding welcome doses of humor to keep any of the awkwardness and humiliation from being too much to bear. But as it draws closer to its conclusion, Burnham starts to add more sunlight and air to his suffocating maze. Eighth Grade has an uncanny knack for capturing adolescent dread, but its goal is not to simply provide a way to relive pubescent discomfort. This is not some exercise in vicarious teenage desperation. In the end, Bo Burnham loves Kayla too much to have Eight Grade be a chamber of horrors. Quite the opposite, it is really a reminder that this fraught, ridiculous time passes and that we emerge on the other side of the tempest. We all get better at being the selves we really want to be and we learn that toying around with the recipe of our own identities is part of life. The film’s kind but candid outlook on this time of life has helped it to resonate with a number of adult film lovers, who can remember this time with all its intensity, melodrama, and embarrassment. The alternating strains of comedy and disquieting anxiety are in the film for a very good reason. We can all look back at puberty now and have chuckle at it, while still remembering how genuinely disorienting it was. We can recall the fears we felt And then, finally and wonderfully, we can have a laugh at those fears as well.

But more than what Eighth Grade communicates to people who have already been through it, I hope it gives some kind of perspective and solace to any young person who is going through this period right now. Or is about to go through it. Like the videos Kayla films for her older selves to watch, Eighth Grade wants to be a wise, sympathetic hand on the shoulder of the young. And who knows what a current eighth grader will make of it? This communication from a man in his late twenties who has long since passed through this phase. As pitch-perfect as I find the film to be, maybe a 14 year-old of today (or decades from now) will see things that it misses about the experience. That’s probably to be expected. With a film like this,  the empathy is what is really important. The very act of just trying to understand the experiences of a person in different shoes than your own. What matters is that Eighth Grade works with such sweet, gentle candor to place itself and its audience back in that state of mind. It is a wise and winningly empathetic film. And one with no ego, no lecture to give. It seeks to give voice to one of the most honest and relatable portraits of an adolescent young woman I’ve ever seen captured on film. Its aim is solely to see her; to view her desires, hopes, and anxieties with clear, generous eyes. Eighth Grade is a wonderful addition to 2018’s bountiful crop of films. The only thing we need more is to give the Kayla Days of the world more chances to tell these stories personally. To be fair, the fact that Bo Burnham has made a marvelous female coming of age story doesn’t correct the larger issue of letting women craft their own narratives. A film centered on a female character finding her voice is not remotely the same thing as actually giving women more voice in film. With that said, this industry’s glaring issues are not the fault of this lovely film and I have no desire to look a cinematic gift horse in the mouth. Eighth Grade is still the kind of film this world needs more of. One that values and loves women. One that admires them, believes in them and listens intently to what they will say next.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #13- Hereditary

To begin, I am pointedly not going to talk about the Horror Renaissance again. Masterful horror films from exciting new voices are coming out at such a reliable tilt these days that the term is starting to feel condescending. As if the genre’s potential for depth, stunning characterization and overall greatness should be any surprise by now. At this point, if you don’t already know that some of the most brilliant, emotionally nuanced and insightful films of the last decade have been in the horror genre, I’ll just remind you that they exist and that every cinema lover owes it to themselves to seek them out. Yes, horror is rolling along with supreme confidence right now and that is a great thing for film in general. What’s really been heartening isn’t just how many great horror films have come out in recent years. It’s the sheer diversity of this boom. The number of different kinds of stories that have been told using the tools of horror cinema. The sinister and subtle feminism of Robert Eggers’ The VVitch. The evocative blend of John Carpenter nostalgia and AIDS paranoia that colors It Follows. The gorgeously chilling chiaroscuro phantasmagoria of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. At its best, horror has an endless palette of colors to paint with and an unlimited number of interesting and important things to say. Ari Aster’s brilliant debut film Hereditary is a film with a lot of insights and ideas on its mind. About the burden of upbringing, the anguish of loss, and the all-consuming obsession of grief. But beyond its psychological depths, Hereditary is one of 2018’s most punishing cinematic forces of nature. Few of the year’s films operated on a more visceral level. Hereditary is just one of the most deeply, terribly felt horror films in quite some time. Its deep and unsettling themes aside, no film conjured a more palpable and overwhelming aura of anxiety, sorrow, and nameless dread. If you’ve ever woken up with a particularly savage hangover, muscles aching, face damp with cool, sickly sweat and an indescribable throb of guilt and regret pulsating in your temples, that might go a small portion of the way toward describing what it was like to watch Hereditary for the first time. What it was like to marinate in its dankly suffocating, ominous mood. Here is a film completely suffused in the unshakable feeling that things are going very wrong and that even more terrible things lie just beyond the horizon. For all its incredible skill at conjuring terrifying, stomach-twisting imagery, its most unnerving quality may be its ability to continually amplify its own sense of foreboding. As horrific as Hereditary gets, you can never escape the dread that this is only going to get worse. It may sound like a strange endorsement, but we all need to vicariously experience a little doom and dread sometimes. You really haven’t taken in the full scope of 2018’s film riches until you’ve seen this stunning high watermark in feel-bad cinema.

Hereditary opens on the text of a 78 year-old woman’s funeral invitation and that opening is about as mournful as it sounds. Still, the sad, discordant tones of Colin Stetson’s eerie saxophone score promise us much more sorrow to come. Mourning a dead grandmother will really just be the very tip of the iceberg here. The deceased is the mother of Annie Graham (a brilliant Toni Collette, not so much going through the stages of grief as pounding them down like shots of whiskey), a diorama artist in Montana. Annie lives with her mild-mannered Irish husband (Gabriel Byrne, dialing back all his intensity to play a meekly protective warm cup of milk of a man), and her two children, sixteen year-old Peter (Alex Wolff, tremendous and rattled beyond belief) and thirteen year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro), an eccentrically melancholy young girl with an instantly foreboding nut allergy. So we meet the Graham family in the midst of a serious bout of bereavement and their lives proceed, over a period of some months, to get much sadder and uglier. Thirty minutes haven’t even passed when something terrible and grotesque happens and the Grahams end up burying a second family member under even more tragic circumstances. Peter becomes consumed with guilt. The father becomes an even more ineffectual shell of non-confrontational comfort. And Annie becomes an angry, grieving, unhinged force of nature. She finds no solace in the local grief counseling sessions at the town recreational center. She foams and accuses and lashes out at her milquetoast husband and the moody, bereft son she not so secretly blames for her misery. The only small comfort she seems to find is in Joan (the indispensable Ann Dowd), a kindly older woman she meets in the parking lot after a counseling session. She has recently lost a child and a grandchild in a drowning accident and she has a way of speaking plainly and listening attentively to Annie. For a very short time, it seems like Annie could find some semblance of stability. And then Joan brings Annie home and convinces her to take part in a séance. A séance that seems to successfully conjure the spirit of Joan’s departed grandchild. Annie sees a chance to maybe reach out to her lost loved one and she forces her reluctant family to participate, much to their discomfort and trepidation. It’s hard to say much more without giving the whole fearsome, gutting rollercoaster away, but suffice to say that Annie’s read on the spirit world is wrongheaded and nothing she does in the name of assuaging her or her family’s suffering works. In Hereditary, the unbearably sad becomes the unthinkably tragic and then hurtles speedily into the realm of the unimaginably sinister and macabre. Ari Aster ratchets up the dark and terrible vibes of his domestic chamber of horrors with masterful aplomb. He starts with a funeral for an estranged mother and confidently announces that this is nowhere near rock bottom. When the film ended, I wasn’t sure that I’d even seen the bottom at all. Hereditary feels like an extended free fall into an abyss that never ends.

The best way to put it might be to say that Hereditary starts as a harrowing study in grief and that it never really stops being that. It’s just that it then proceeds to find a portal to Hell underneath grief’s floorboards. It finds so much devastation, dysfunction, and trauma under its initial bereavement, that normal grief seems benign by comparison. That said, the early scenes of Hereditary are so crushingly perceptive about grief that it would already be a beautifully, relentlessly upsetting piece of work if it went no further than a family’s loss. Hereditary is such a tense and superbly crafted work of art that it almost feels wrong to single out the acting. But I can’t very well not highlight Toni Colette’s gripping primal howl of a career best performance. Before candlelit ceremonies and cryptic incantations and demonic portents enter the picture, Hereditary already feels like a cursed object just because of the sheer depths of Annie Graham’s pain, anger, and almost animalistic rage at the world. Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff are also brilliant, with each actor bringing nuance to starkly different studies in how people process tragedy. One of them exploding outward into a supernova of teeth-gritting anguish. One curling up into a tweedy cocoon of politeness and domestic obligation. And one trying and utterly failing to rationalize and medicate away his feelings of personal responsibility for his family’s torment. The depth of characterization in Hereditary is stunning and ensures that it feels painfully grounded no matter how wild its plot machinations become. If Hereditary were nothing but a very somber domestic drama about heartache and blame, it would be one of the most breathtakingly excruciating ever committed to film; an account of bewildering grief and familial torment to proudly stand with the likes of In the Bedroom. Before the quicksand of even more sinister forces swallows the Grahams whole, they are already locked in a battle with all-consuming bereavement that they are completely powerless to win.

As elementally strong as the film shows grief to be, however, the truly primal, downright primeval power at work is right there in the film’s title. Hereditary. The weight of family (genes, family histories, destructive cycles of behavior passed down through generations) is an unbearably heavy thing in Hereditary. Ari Aster presents family as a kind of blood pact forged years before we were even born, from which there is no escape. And again, Aster’s gift here is really how much menace he can conjure before he even turns to the paranormal. The first twenty minutes of the film hold the most nauseating gut punch in all of 2018 cinema, and it’s all just the result of normal, sadly plausible human behavior. Hereditary makes the long shadows of ancestry and upbringing feel terrible and burdensome before a single supernatural thing happens. The mere mixture of horrible loss and family miscommunication is enough to form a perfect storm of animosity and foreboding. The most awful demons are already inside the Graham house before any seances are held. After the film’s second funeral (in which Ari Aster’s camera appears to bury the Grahams and us along with the departed), the feelings of sorrow and anger, both spoken and unspoken, become absolutely palpable. They radiate in the air like a heat wave. There is no shortage of stories about toxic relationships between parents and their children, but Heredeitary feels like some kind of dreadful scientific breakthrough in capturing domestic unrest. The amount of white-hot vitriol Toni Collete puts behind the phrase, “I am your mother”, has a staggering stinging power. Even a biting look at mother-child tension like Coraline feels like a warm cup of chamomile tea next to Hereditary’s tumbler of vinegar and turpentine. And it’s not just how Ari Aster taps into the heightened emotions and feelings of obligation that can really only come from our blood ties. It’s also how he strips family of any connotation of comfort or affection. He puts the concept of family into some demonic still and boils away all the love and understanding and unconditional acceptance. What remains is the kind of anger that you can only feel for a person when you know their neuroses inside and out; the kinds of pointed blame and torment that family members have the unique ability to inflict on one another, because they alone know how. Hereditary is about the ties of kinship slipping loose and then reforming into a noose around the necks of our main characters. Everything warm and familiar about our flesh and blood  is blanched away and all that remains is the sterile, unfeeling sensibility of that title. “Family” sounds like a warm hug and a heart-to-heart chat. “Hereditary” sounds like a homicide report.

Hereditary is about feeling dwarfed and defeated by forces too massive to fathom. That force might be grief and it might be the deterministic feeling that our own DNA and family histories have conspired against us. The other elemental force operating here is a sense of guilt too great to even name. Annie Graham blames her estranged mother for her own feelings of inadequacy. And she knows that her mother put blame on her. She does not even fully know what she was blamed for and it doesn’t matter. “I am blamed,” she stammers tearfully. Annie blames her own bloodline, full of disorder, depression and suicide. She grits her teeth at a husband who hides from the full weight of their tragedy. She blames Peter for their latest loss, and Peter in turn blames himself and her. And the father blames Annie and her dysfunctional genes for obliterating any sense of decorum and decency in their rapidly devolving household. Hereditary is a nightmare of guilt and blame so powerful that it sucks every health emotion into a screaming vortex. When the story takes a turn for the demonic and outwardly evil, it’s terrifying but it also feels like a natural extension of what came before it. Ari Aster shows us a family that has traveled through so much blistering pain and guilt that the idea of anything ever being normal for them again is laughable. It makes sense that the film finally careens into pure, grisly phantasmagoria because there really is nowhere else to go. Devastation as powerful as what the Grahams experience is not something you just come back from. If the film didn’t conclude with bloody sacrifice, arcane ritual and hellish omens, I’m not sure where it would even end up. Ari Aster sees the Grahams, and maybe all human beings, as being hopelessly swept up in the tides of cosmically powerful forces. Somewhere beneath the surface of our routines and our practiced civility lies an ocean of despair. Many of us are fortunate enough to never become aware of it, but it is always there. The awful potential for everything to be taken away from us. And if you are unfortunate enough to fall into that ocean, what can you really do then? There are simply forces and feelings that are too strong to fend off or struggle against. Hereditary is about being caught in a rip tide of terrible circumstances that were set in motion long before we even got here.

All that makes Hereditary the rare horror film that works on a psychological level while also being totally above and beyond things like ideas and themes. It is a tremendously smart film with a lot of subtext to dig into. But the further this haunting chain of events progresses, the less its intellectual qualities matter. I spoke to a few friends who are fans of Hereditary but who expressed some disappointment in the film’s ending. They didn’t completely care for how explicitly demonic the film becomes, as if it turned the film’s ominous subtext into something too literal. I understand the criticism, but to me this is one of the film’s great strengths. There are plenty of great horror films that operate in ways that are largely symbolic and I love them for it. But too much reliance on the symbolic and metaphorical can rob a terrifying film of its urgency. Even a grueling new horror masterpiece like The Babadook leaves some ambiguity as to how much of the terror we see really happens. The film can be enjoyed for its cathartic scares, but it also leaves some some room to explain away those scares as metaphors. Maybe the horror was just there to make us think and now we can turn the movie off and put what we saw out of our minds. That cerebral, symbolic quality can give us a little bit of safe distance. Hereditary is absolutely not that kind of horror film. Its aim, first and foremost, is to make us feel profoundly upset. There is no protective intellectual buffer here. The grisly, ecstatically shocking imagery does have deeper meaning, but everything we see in the film is also very much happening and that lends the film a dreadful immediacy. Ari Aster’s fiendishly frightening new horror classic flings its doomed family and its hapless audience into a maelstrom of menacing events. It’s a broken elevator plummeting into the dark heart of the Earth; the kind of bracingly bleak work that knocks the wind out of you because, Satanic rituals and all, it feels so distressingly real. Even at its most fantastical, this is always the tale of a recognizably scarred family losing their sanity, each other and their own damned heads. Hereditary is a journey into the bowels of Hell and there is nothing the least bit metaphorical about that. Metaphor would be too  easy an escape hatch for a cinematic wringer like this. This film made me feel absolutely dreadful, but also perversely giddy. Every ounce of anxiety, fear, sorrow, and foreboding I’d felt in the past year was right up there on the screen. I hadn’t left a movie so thoroughly miserable in years. And it was glorious.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #14- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Around five years ago, I had a little epiphany watching The Big Lebowski for the umpteenth time. It was a warm summer Saturday night and I was watching it outside on a good friend’s patio. I had a paper plate full of perfectly cooked steak in one hand and a sturdy little cocktail in the other and I was really enjoying letting the Coen Brothers’ shaggy comedy masterpiece just wash over me. The way you only can when the sound and feel of a film have become second nature to you. That was the night I realized there are some films that have a musical kind of quality to them And I don’t mean that they literally are musicals or even that they necessarily have to rely heavily on music. What I mean is they have a sense of rhythm and pacing in their dialogue and their sound and their editing that is akin to listening to a song. It feels natural in the way that only great music does. They can be appreciated just for the pure sensory pleasure of how they sound and feel; how all the parts just click together. I think this is something that Joel and Ethan Coen grasp better than any other modern director I can name. They delight in cadence and subtle pauses and repetitions. Images and phrases pop up again and again like refrains. It is a huge reason why, if pressed, I would call the Coens my favorite living filmmakers. Their films are not always easy viewings. They have a fascination with bitterness, folly, and human cruelty. But there is an ease I feel in watching them. Regardless of subject and theme, their films hum along like finely tuned symphonies. They are cohesive not just as narratives, but in the way it feels to sit back and take them in. And that effortless sense of rhythm and timing is in evidence once more in their musically titled Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I initially watched the film when it debuted in October of 2018 and I liked it fine. Still, I told myself it was “minor Coens” and moved on. Then, over the next day or so, a thing happened. A thing I would call funny if I hadn’t seen it happen with so many Coen Brothers films in the past. I kept repeating lines to myself and poring over scenes in my brain. So I saw it again a few days later and realized I maybe kind of loved it. Then I saw it a third time a week after that, under the pretense of wanting to show it to a friend. So now, seven months later, in classic Coen Brothers form, the film that I initially deemed a worthy trifle is one of my very favorite films of 2018 and holds the honor of being the 2018 film that I have watched most often. That would be seven times as of this writing. Like a great album, I’ve reached the point where I feel I can put it on any time. Its dark, funny, soulful rhythms already feel so perfect and intuitive to me that I feel like it’s been around for decades. When you’re the Coen Brothers, even your so-called minor works have a way of quickly feeling classic and timeless.

I’ll be only the 612th critic to point this out, but one of the major achievements of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is that it brings distinction to a genre of film with an awfully spotty track recod. That genre is not the Western (to which the film obviously belongs) but the anthology film. Films composed of multiple shorter films set a tough hurdle for themselves because the quality of each film inevitably varies. Thus, even anthologies with some dynamite entries usually face the problem that the good entries just throw the lower quality of the mediocre entries into starker relief. At the risk of damning with faint praise, Ballad of Buster Scruggs is helped greatly by the fact that it has no duds. My pick for the weakest of the six chapters, the James Franco-starring bank robber tale “Near Algodones”, is a beautifully crafted (every last one of these films is a master class in shot composition, scoring, editing, and costume design), morbidly funny piece of work that gets its business done in a satisfying terse ten minutes and concludes with a poignant bit of gallows poetry and one of the sharpest punchlines of the year. It also makes its minor splash early, for it is only the second entry in the anthology. The first, and most purely funny, entry is the titular “Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, the tale of singing cowboy (played with equal parts genial charm and gleeful menace by Tim Blake Nelson) with a knack for getting into deadly, outlandishly gory fracases wherever he goes. It is an early promise that this anthology will be about the ever-presence of death in the Western and how that death tends to be either glorified or mourned based on who is doing the killing or dying. The third film, the chilly and smart “Meal Ticket”, is about the co-dependent relationship between a traveling theater impresario (a taciturn and very Irish Liam Neeson) and his one source of livelihood, a limbless British orator (Henry Melling, formerly Harry Potter’s spoiled stepbrother Dudley Dursley, now all grown up and acting up a storm). It is about their struggle to eke a living out of their highbrow trade over the course of a harsh Colorado winter, and about the Neeson character’s temptation to turn to more steady means of making ends meet. The fourth film is the splendid “All Gold Canyon”, based on a short story by Jack London. It stars musician and occasional actor Tom Waits (one of my very favorite artists in all recorded music) as a humble, grizzled gold miner, who may have finally come upon the fabled mother lode late in his life. In a film that looks hard at man’s greed, this entry is the most joyful, generous and hopeful. It is rather simply the story of a gracious and hard-working person finally receiving some reward for his faith and perseverance and it stands out like a beacon of warmth in a film that is overwhelmingly about the cold facts of mortality and human selfishness. The fifth film, probably my favorite of the whole lot, is “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, the story of Alice Longabaugh (brilliantly played by Zoe Kazan), a shy, self-effacing young woman traveling along the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon with her patronizing brother. She is traveling to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the hopes of receiving a marriage proposal from her brother’s potential business partner. When her brother passes away from cholera less than halfway into the trip, Alice must rapidly become a braver soul while also seeking help from the two men in charge of leading the train. One of them is a jovially soft-spoken, earnestly helpful younger man named Billy Knapp (Bill Heck, subtle and marvelously likable). The other is his older mentor, a trail-hardened, tight-lipped frontiersman named Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines, in a terrific performance that speaks volumes even when the character says almost nothing). The film’s depiction of frontier travel is beautifully unforgiving, with the team of wagons moving like frail, tiny lifeboats along the endless sea of pale grass. But what makes this entry truly stunning are the lovely performances and a central relationship between Alice and Billy so tender, open, and sweetly honest that it positively hurts to watch. Finally, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs closes with “The Mortal Remains”, a ghostly, moonlit stagecoach ride shared by five passengers (and one wanted man’s corpse strapped to the roof) that spin’s the film’s themes of uncertainty, mortal struggle and death into their most eloquently overt form. This epilogue is like a short, spectral one-act play full of heighted ruminations on the passage from life to whatever comes afterwards. As with so many Coen pictures, the Reaper’s presence never feels far away and the Almighty’s role in human affairs remains tantalizingly unresolved.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs finds the Coen Brothers returning to their old pet themes of death and the great beyond, and reflecting upon them in the way that an old blues picker might sing his hundredth song about losing his woman. The fact they’ve trod this ground before has not dulled their wit and imagination. This kind of thematic repetition energizes the Coen Brothers. They have certainly been to this well before but the fun of it and the poignant impact of it lies in how creatively they can keep riffing on old material. This is really about nothing so much as Joel and Ethan Coen taking on a musty old genre (the Western, which they so skillfully mastered and mined for pathos in 2010’s True Grit) and spinning clichés into gold. They are interested in how so many of their favorite subjects (from death to greed to the lonely quest to find the rare human being who doesn’t want to rob or kill us) are part of the essence of this old genre. “Ballad” is really the right word for this film. This collection of quintessentially American tales is like its own little haunted bluegrass album. The tunes change, but there is a cohesive throughline of mortality and human fallibility that runs through it. Like the blues, it is many stories that are sort of all the same story on some level. Fittingly, the film features a number of old blues numbers (“Cool, Cool Water”) and classic traditional songs (“Mother Machree”, “Pills of White Mercury”) as if to announce the company it wishes to join. The Coens have made their own classic blues song in film form, filled with its own ageless beauty and melancholy. Their song, like so many others, goes like this. Human beings are born under an impartial, unfeeling sky. They sweat and fret and search as best they can for some kind of comfort in each other. Sometimes they find it and sometimes they really, really don’t. Sometimes they only find selfishness and pain. People hope and love and struggle on. But only one thing is ever set in stone for them. As Billy Knapp tells Alice Longabaugh, in an intimate, hushed existential fireside chat, “only in death do we vouch save certainty.” Like the passengers in “The Mortal Remains”, we all share this rattling, lurching stagecoach together and we do not know when and where the voyage will end. The one certainty we have is that there will be a final destination. As gruff Mr. Arthur might say, we aren’t going to go on with this battle all day. The fact, simultaneously chilling and strangely reassuring, is that everything comes to an end. And if there’s one other bit of cold comfort to be had, it’s this: though the quality of the company we share may vary, we are all going to the same place as one human mass. Saints, sinners, robbers, prostitutes, tycoons and beggars are all going to the end of the line together.

And if the notion of the squabble of humanity, in all its backbiting and thieving, sounds cynical and bleak, it certainly is at least a little bit. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is caustic and condemning in that gallows chuckle of a way the Coens have. But the Coens have never been about simply writing off the human race as a bunch of heartless bastards. The film’s most metatextual moment arrives in the first five minutes of the first entry, when Buster Scruggs unfurls a Wanted poster and shakes his head in dismay at being nicknamed “The Misanthrope”. For any diehard Coens fan, it’s  a complaint that has dogged the brothers for the length of their careers. The idea that they are looking down on humanity in disgust and condescension. Their cheerily violent, singing cowboy stand-in scoffs at the very idea. “I don’t hate my fellow man. Even when he’s tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker. I just figure that’s the human material.” The Coen Brothers have sometimes been accused seeing the very pettiest and worst in mankind. It’s the price they pay for spending so many decades as the cinematic poet laureates of desperate grifters, doomed conmen, impotent schemers, and downtrodden wage slaves. They have a beautiful way of capturing the seedy, the trapped, the greedy, and the unsavory. But it’s always been a failing and a grievous misreading of their work to reduce them to that kind of sad, sweaty cynicism inherent to some of their most memorable characters. As with other great Coen films, the violence and avarice in Buster Scruggs don’t feel cheap and exploitive. It resonates deeply because the Coens always have a sense of rueful longing for the world as it maybe could be. They see the selfless, striving and good in this world too. Buster Scruggs may refer to “the human material” dismissively. He feels he knows too much of mankind’s meanness to ever let himself be disappointed by it. But the Coens are a tad more hopeful, or at least more soulfully conflicted, about people. Sometimes they see just enough decency in the world to make the next senseless act of human apathy or cruelty land with an even more sickening thud. But that disparity between the best and worst in humanity makes their universes strangely optimistic and rich. There are thin layers of virtue interlaced with all the selfishness and vice. The Coens see that the good-hearted Marge Gundersons must share this world with the weak-willed Jerry Lundegaards and pessimistic Llewyn Davises; to say nothing of the murderous Anton Chigurhs. What makes life such a beautiful and gutting experience is that each person has the capacity for goodness and monstrosity. And if the kindly Marges of the world really are outnumbered by the less benevolent characters, that only makes the presence of their generosity and empathy all the more precious. If The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is largely about death and greed and foul dealing, it is also about the things that stand in opposition to all that. It is, in some small way, about the oases of life and kindness, even if those can feel like tiny, helplessly outmatched outposts in a desert of indifference and hostility.

Three decades into a dazzlingly rich and diverse career, the Coens are still working out just what “the human material” really is. When you count us all up, who are we? How many of us are scared and self-regarding like Liam Neeson’s faltering theater operator? Or rash and impulsively mercenary like James Franco’s bank robber? How many are thoughtful and righteous like Zoe Kazan’s Alice or industrious and honest like Tom Waits’ prospector? Or are most of just Buster Scruggs: self-interested forces of chaos just looking out for number one, cutting a haphazard trail of destruction through whichever human life is unlucky enough to run afoul of us? Regardless of how each of us answers that question, the best parts of Ballad of Buster Scruggs propose that we are all bound together in this human play, whether we like it or not. We really are traveling the same dusty, red path toward life’s end, and we have the whole gamut of free will to draw from. We can abandon each other or hold each other; rob each other or lend a hand. That is what makes “The Gal Who Got Rattled” my favorite entry in the anthology. While it goes to some truly sorrowful places by the end, the connection Zoe Kazan’s conscientious spinster and Bill Heck’s lonely, sweetly earnest wagon leader find out there among those endless plains is one of the most humane and sincerely lovely things I saw all year. Ballad of Buster Scruggs is very much about the lonesome, solitary fate that awaits us all at the end of our respective trails. But, until we get there, we do not have to be alone. We may occasionally be a cowardly, self-serving, uncharitable lot. We human beings. But we still have each other for better or worse. And it can be for better. We have the power, even at our most venal and base, to be of comfort to each other. And, when you think about it that way, it’s hard to come away from the Coens latest rich treatise on humanity feeling too much misanthropy for our species.

The Coens have always had playful, restless imaginations. It should come as no surprise then that, in the midst of a fairly focused essay on death and the West, they find time to break away for some thoughtful digressions on other topics. In the middle of the film, they take time for two very different examination on making art and the thin line between failure and success in artistic endeavors. The first of such digressions is the almost apocalyptically bleak “Meal Ticket”. Neeson’s frustrated money man and Melling’s helpless quadriplegic thespian are both locked into a relationship where one needs the other. But the Coens have no doubt about whose need is more desperate; about which party, between artist and benefactor, is most vulnerable. It is a beautifully acerbic and morbid reminder that, like everything else on this Earth, Art exists at the mercy of scarcity and humanity’s baser instincts. The next film, “All Gold Canyon”, chases its predecessor’s jet-black pessimism with a golden shot of joy and slowly building enthusiasm. While the tale of an experienced prospector plying his trade with a pan and a pick may be less overtly about the artistic process, the implication is very much there. This entry radiates a beatific pride for the virtues of knowing your craft and putting your all into it. Tom Waits’ sweetly raucous 49er pans and digs and strains his creaky body without complaint, swept up in the joyful immediacy of hunting the big score he’s spent his life pursuing. He is certainly thinking about money, but he also seems elated to just be doing his job well. “All Gold Canyon” is a transcendentally positive ode to loving what you do for a living and getting the details right. It is a cinematic rendering of that old Quaker saying: hands to work and hearts to God. It may also be the film’s most powerful piece of metatextual commentary. It is not hard to look at the Tom Waits character, sweating and smiling and merrily cursing up a storm, and also see the Coen Brothers. Two grizzled veterans of cinema just plugging away, delighting in the chance to wake up and do what they have spent the last three decades getting better and better at. This may be the sweetest, most optimistic piece of work they have ever produced. They may have spent many years sadly shaking their heads as hapless, selfish men who throw away their lives and souls for a little bit of money. But this time they do not begrudge their protagonist his modest little fortune. It may be because the film is about more than just the naked quest for gold. Here, the pure pursuit of something seems to be mean more to the character than the mere reward. The Coens have never cared too much for golden treasure. But, after thirty-four years of beautiful, bruising films, they know that there are some riches worth digging for. Some fortunes are worth losing a few drops of blood over.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2018: #16- First Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 Films of 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.