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Top 20 Films of 2021: #11- The Lost Daughter

Over the past decade or so, and for the COVID years especially, I’ve noticed a lot of friends expressing a desire for characters of the sweet and sympathetic sort. Many of them have experienced enough anxiety of late that it’s become difficult to willingly reach out to works of art that deal in strife, misanthropy and bad decisions. As an avid consumer of the humanist works of Richard Linklater, Mike Mills, and Greta Gerwig, it’s a sentiment I fully understand. I’ve taken deep, soul-healing solace from drinking from the fountains of kindness offered by shows like Ted Lasso and Steven Universe, and films like A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood and Paddington 2. But like some cinema nutritionist, I feel it is my duty to urge all of you to continue to seek out film experiences, and specifically characters, who are abrasive and unsympathetic. I feel it is deeply healthy to include some unlikeable people and upsetting experiences as part of your cultural diet. Think of it as cinematic roughage, if you will. If art offers us the chance to gaze into a kind of mirror that reflects parts of ourselves while also allowing us to see facets and flaws we would want to avoid, then there’s a huge value in having that mirror be as expansive as possible. It should show us not just our best or most aspirational selves but the darker places human beings can go too. We should not only look into the mirror to see how we should be, but to remind ourselves of the more uncomfortable truths of what we can become at our most selfish, proud, or irrational. There’s also the fact, evidenced by shows like Succession and films like the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time and Uncut Gems, that watching deeply toxic people fuck up and squirm can be a lot of smart fun in the right hands. In those aforementioned art works, watching seedy, short-sighted and greedy fools stumble about can feel like riding a rollercoaster, a vicarious scream through some of the most thrillingly bad decision-making imaginable. But what of those of us who want to get the complex joys of watching not entirely sympathetic characters at a less hectic, punishing pace? What about those of us who just want to spend a relaxing time floating along in the Lazy (or Greedy, or Selfish) River? In 2021, celebrated actress and sterling debut director Maggie Gyllenhall had you covered on that front. Her phenomenal freshmen outing, The Lost Daughter, offered up all the giddy, perverse delights of watching prickly characters flail about, but at a more hypnotic, soulful pace. Gyllenhall’s adaptation of the novel by felt like reading a great book in all the right ways; cinematic but carried along by a sophisticated current of dialogue. Her perceptive, often sorrowful look at a woman who puts herself first and foremost has all the spicy fun of wrestling with an unlikeable (or at the very least frustrating) character, just with its own distinctively literary flavor. To fellow fans of wholesome cinema who want to branch out into something just a bit more acidic, The Lost Daughter is like a bracing shot of very strong limoncello. It should make your lips pucker and make the blood rush to your head, but without leaving you hungover and useless the next day.

 

What makes The Lost Daughter such a tingly, unnerving experience is its willingness to look candidly at a character archetype that has too often been rendered in black and white. The role of the mother is one that bears a tremendous burden in our society. Our culture has longed preferred its screen and page mothers to be shiny and lacking in warts. Angelic, loving, self-sacrificing, and defined by their unflagging desire to nurture their children and husbands. When mothers don’t meet these needs, they have tended to fall onto the other end of the dichotomy: wicked stepmothers, deadbeat parents, and shrill stage moms. The Lost Daughter is about neither of those two opposing character types. It is about a woman somewhere in between. Certainly not a good mother but maybe not an abysmal one either. We meet Leda (a dependably spectacular Olivia Colman in what could be her best screen performance), a 48-year professor and celebrated academic, arriving on a remote Greek island. She is ready to begin a blessedly solitary vacation there but that humble goal is continually frustrated by the existence of other human beings.. What we pick up almost instantly is that Leda is not one to small talk with strangers. She is politely terse with Lyle (a welcome and very strong Ed Harris), the groundskeeper tasked with taking care of the islands’ apartments, in spite of his best efforts to break through her superficial veneer. She seems slightly put off whenever the handsome Irish cabana boy walks up to her beachside chaise lounge to ask if she needs anything. And she is completely beside herself (in a flummoxed, quietly seething British way) when an entire large family of boorish Italian tourists crash the very beach resort she has chosen as an ideal hideaway from the world. Leda is the type of person whose eyes are forever looking for the quickest way to exit a conversation; the type of person who is maybe only entirely themselves when they are alone. The Lost Daughter is already a fascinating, nuanced portrait of a misanthropic introvert trying to adapt to a peaceful holiday gone awry before we learn about Leda’s past relationship with her ex-husband and children. Through flashbacks to Leda in her late twenties (played excellently by meteorically ascending star Jessie Buckley), when she was married with two young daughters, we get the story of how Leda tried and, in some respects, failed to make it as a mother. That’s not to say Leda completely abandoned her children. In the present, we see her occasionally talk amicably to her two daughters, now in their twenties, on the phone and there seems to be a nice enough conversational relationship between them. But we witness a chapter in Leda’s life in which a maternal role that she not so quietly resented came into conflict for a chance to become a luminary in her field (translating classic poetry into Italian) and she did not make the classic, selflessly maternal choice. It is a choice that clearly gave her the life she wanted and she did get to reconnect with her children eventually, but Colman brilliantly reveals how those past choices weigh on her. The weight almost becomes too much to bear when that brash, raucous group of Italians (the perfect family-oriented foil to Leda’s cool independence) stampedes into town with kids in tow. Leda ends up mixed up in some tricky business with a young mother (Dakota Johnson, as good as she’s ever been) and her daughter, a stolen baby doll, and an overbearing sister who seems keen on knowing why Leda hasn’t brought her own children on vacation. What Gyllenhall has made is a disorienting but soulful meditation on the heavy yoke of motherhood, the familial expectations women shoulder, and the bittersweet choices people must make in determining what personal success means to us. It’s a sorrowful but also liberated torch duet between one woman’s present and past. In a society that expects its mothers to give up everything for the greater good of their children and men, it’s mainly about a woman blessed and cursed with the inability to not look after herself. It’s imbued with a strong feminist spirit, but it also frequently leaves all of Leda’s prickly narcissism to flap naked in the breeze. Whether strong-willed or submissive, self-promoting or subservient to the will of others, everybody has to live in the shadow of their past.

What impresses me most about Maggie Gyllenhall’s graceful sense of psychological depth here is that she could have easily made a whopper of a film just based on the theme of the colossal burdens placed upon mothers and the simplified notions of how mothers are supposed to feel for their children. In that one respect alone, The Lost Daughter is one of the most boldly honest and compassionately unflattering films about the maternal instinct ever made. Like Jennifer Kent’s 2014 horror masterpiece The Babadook, it dares to speak candidly about adjusting our expectations for what it means to be a mother. Both films anchor themselves to impeccable tour-de-force lead performance and trust their great actresses to render beautiful, unsettling, even alarming portraits of people for whom mothering does not come easily or naturally. “You’ll see,” Leda tells the pregnant Callie, who has just finished gushing about the child she will soon have. “Children can be a crushing responsibility.” In the present day, we watch Leda watch the Dakota Johnson character’s daughter invade her mother’s space, drench her while she is sleeping, yank her about, place fingers in her mouth. And we see that ,whatever part of Leda loves her daughters, she loves her personal freedom and agency just as much. In flashbacks to her past with her own 7-year old and 9-year old daughters, we see how Leda would have reacted to such invasions very differently. To many, a steady, kind-hearted mother knows that children will be children. Maybe Leda sees this young mother’s every moment of peace being disrupted and wonders why she too couldn’t just bear it silently and patiently; why she couldn’t give her own children’s obnoxious invasiveness a pass. Most people probably would give very young children such a pass, but we learn that the younger Leda was not such a paragon. When the younger Leda’s child defaces a doll that had belonged to her as a girl, she finds she does not have the ability to tamp down her honesty and righteous anger. “This is my doll. You can’t treat her like shit,” she bluntly asserts into her daughter’s face. And, whether some part of Leda regrets that brusqueness or not, the fact is that Leda could not control it if she wanted to. Gyllenhall fearlessly delves into what a frightening and enlivening thing that must be to realize. From careers to friendships to parenting, we center so much of our lives around certain obligations that we have been told simply cannot be broken. But what happens when those mores lose their power. What happens if even that supposedly ironclad sense of obligation of a parent to their child suddenly begins to groan and fray? On some level, I think Gyllenhall is arguing that it is untenable for any parent to think that they can suddenly shut away fallible and human parts of themselves just because of the great responsibility of childbirth. What Leda learns is that a certain portion of her own vibrant (and, yes, also selfish) humanity cannot be tamped down. The Lost Daughter does not ask that you agree with Leda’s distant and sometimes unloving parenting decisions, or even that you necessarily think of her as an entirely wholesome person. Gyllenhall just wants you to realize that mothers like this exist and that most mothers deserve to be seen in richer hues than the tranquil madonnas and shrill abusers that so much of literature allows them to be. For creating a portrait of complex motherhood this simultaneously unapologetic and empathetic, Gyllenhall deserves consideration as one of the most sensitive and exciting new directors of recent years. This goes beyond simply recognizing how this source novel has important things to say about how society views female parenting. What she displays here is an exquisite talent for understanding her source material and figuring out how to tease out its themes in ways both literate and cinematic. And, again, directing at least two of the year’s very best performances is no small accomplishment either.
I find myself in the position once more to explain why a film that is not remotely meant to be a comedy is rather shrewdly funny to me. That seems to be happening more and more often, but I guess you take comedy wherever you find it in this world. This film has so much on its plate with being a small-scale tragedy and a powerful feminist critique that it surprised me how quietly tickled I was by much of it. Perhaps, as an introverted person myself, there is just something amusing and relatable in how Leda’s face winces at the sight of that gaudy, foul-mouthed Italian throng moving like noisy Mediterranean squall right for her little patch of sand. You don’t have to be quite so misanthropic as Leda herself to feel the familiar aggravation of wanting to be alone and finding that solitude interrupted. And once you know who Leda is, it’s hard to imagine the gods cooking up a more perfect little torment for her than this braying, oiled up gaggle of lowbrow tourists. Hell, as Jean Paul Sartre mused, is other people. And Gyllenhall’s The Lost Daughter smartly adds, “Just don’t forget, you’re one of them.”  Much of the film’s richness comes from how the crass Caruso clan tries to unsubtly tries to break up Leda’s loneliness and how Leda rebuffs them.  Most of them, particularly the pregnant Calista (Succession‘s Dogmara Dominczyk, a brilliant barrel of gunpowder primed to go off at any second) pick up on exactly the kind of unpleasant loner Leda is when she refuses on general principle to switch lounge chairs with them so that their enormous family can all be together. Their testy first meeting and the occasional friendly exchanges (Leda reaches a brief peak of social acceptance with the Carusos when she helps find a missing child) add up to one tense week. Neither side will leave this film looking sympathetic. On the one hand, Leda bluntly refuses to be the least bit of accomodating with them in her flagrantly asocial way. On the other hand, this is her spot and her vacation and one of the buffoonish Caruso youths calls her the C-word. And as we will come to know very well, Leda places a different, lesser priority on family than most people, especially the vulgar Olive Garden commercial that has just pulled up next to her. For as much as these two diametric opposites, proudly alone Leda and the Italian chorus of Carusos, try to play nice with each other, there is a sense that they all know exactly who the other is from that first scene. I think they grasp right away that they don’t and won’t much care for each other. To refer to one of The Lost Daughter‘s central visual motifs, this heightened character study is a bit like unpeeling an orange on a human scale. It may start with a polite veneer of civility, but it becomes a story of human beings very unbrasively revealing themselves to each other and to us. I wouldn’t say many of the film’s characters are models of civil behavior, but I do think Maggie Gyllenhall is revealing something perversely empowering in Leda’s total lack of tact and inhibition. Long ago, Leda learned the hard lesson that not even her adorable children and doting husband could keep her from putting herself first. The lusciously sharp characterization that Olivia Colman presents us with is of a person who has long stopped being afraid of their own meanness and self-interest. In that wonderful Olivia Colman way, she is able to put a chipper “oh well, here I go again” spin on introversion and misanthropy. This is what the rollercoaster of unlikable characterization can be at its best. It can be a revealing look into a cracked mirror where we imagine what life might be if we acted less decently, if only to help us cling to our goodness and empathy all the more firmly. This is, once again, not a story of humanity at its best. But it is a rather thrilling call of the inner wild; a meditation on everything great and terrible we might become if we gave in fully to our egomania and selfishness. Some films make you want to be a better person. This asks you to consider for a couple of hours what it would be like to be a worse one.
I do think The Lost Daughter would be absolutely worthy of being counted among 2021’s most sharp, empathetic and tonally powerful films if it were just an essay on the crushing expectations placed on mothers and the brazen bravery of one prickly woman’s candid admission that she is just not a natural fit for the role. That, among all the things she could be great at, motherhood just does not rank anywhere for her. That idea by itself is fascinating and important in forging a conversation about parenting. But what makes The Lost Daughter truly brilliant is how that mothering narrative tucks coherently into the story of Leda trying to enjoy a holiday without a groundskeeper, cabana boy or entitled Jersey Shore cast member killing her vibe. The holiday is not just a framing device for us to look back into Leda’s past. It allows the film to turn into something more full and human and disquieting. In both its present and its past, The Lost Daughter is about how every individual chooses for themselves how much they want to participate in the social contract. We all choose how selfish we want to be, maybe have to be, while still being able to look at our own reflections each day. The is about realizing that only you can decide how much of an island you want to become, but it also reminds us that no person is as much of an island as they may think they are. For all Leda’s defiant individuality, the events of her vacation and the reminiscing they inspire do shake her up. Her desire to maintain her boundaries and find inner peace will have to be postponed until the next getaway. Whether it’s one’s own children, family ties or a friendship, every relationship asks us for a conscious choice on how much to put into it. And every ounce of ourselves we pour in is a little less we have to apportion elsewhere. How do you divvy that time and energy up and how much of yourself to do you save for, well, yourself? It’s an uncomfortable question, one that almost feels selfish just to write out. But narcissistic, unlikable Leda has give me a reason to pose it to you and to myself. As someone who tries to support loved ones and meet obligations and spend time enriching people outside of myself, there is still a greedy little goblin within me who looks at all that time and energy expended and whispers the question Bilbo asked of Sauron’s ring. “Why shouldn’t I have it?” The Lost Daughter gives you an answer for why it might be best that you don’t live a life centered around yourself, which is that you might become like Leda. And that’s also the film’s answer for why you maybe also should. We feel a rush watching the younger Leda bust through the walls of domesticity and fulfill her wildest dreams, professionally and sexually. Despite her mental anguish over the course of this week, I don’t think Gyllenhall is ever saying that Leda wishes she had chosen another path. She just realizes or remembers the obvious, which is that every decision has an emotional weight that gets added to our future lives. Even a beneficial decision is a thing we have to live with and none of us can simply pretend that our actions don’t affect others. Placing all our efforts into self-care and self-fulfillment carries consequences too. In the end, we all make our choices and pay the bill when it arrives.
I found it enriched The Lost Daughter‘s understated, dark humor to imagine it turning into an entirely different kind of movie experience. I thought about the kind of generous, quirky vacation rebirth film it could have been with just a few tweaks. With the same basic bone structure, you can picture the redemptive story of a frigid, driven career woman with a hermit’s chip on her shoulder. Her hardened heart just waiting to be inevitably softened and seduced by the enchantment and friendliness of this dreamy Greek island. The Best Exotic Absentee Mother Hotel.  Leda’s at-first intimidating, icy veneer would melt away in the balmy Mediterranean climes and the overbearing tourists and endearingly nosy hotel staff would win her over bit by charming bit. The Carusos, heavily implied to be unsavory and possibly violent Mafiosi in the film, could easily be declawed for a gentler story of kooky opposites bringing out the best in each other. They could keep their mob ties but in a more goofy, non-threatening way. The pasta jokes and hilarious Italian swear words would become part of the great, rib-tickling tidal wave that eventually sweeps Leda away from her isolationism. The Carusos would help Leda become a more social person and Leda would pretend to be annoyed with them but she would also secretly appreciate them for reminding her of the joys of connecting with the world around her. And at the end of a sun-dappled, crowd-pleasingly idiosyncratic, unexpectedly life-affirming week, she would bid the obnoxious but well-meaning Italian clan goodbye with an affectionate eyeroll. And that final phone call with her adult daughters would overflow with teary pathos and a newfound appreciation for family. But that’s not how this story goes. The call is nice but politely strained. Leda does love her daughters but they will never be the thing that moves or excites her. She has learned to be there for them in her way, but the faint remnant of a wound will always be there on that relationship. Leda has to live with that and she is able to live with that. Because this is not the story of a difficult woman learning a life lesson about opening her heart or being more conscientious of others. She’s not going to change. She’s simply going to go on feeling the same pang of melancholy. The one she’s probably carried with her ever since she made that fateful sharp turn toward self-fulfillment. That soft, manageable sadness that can’t quite be called regret because she wouldn’t do anything differently. There is no coming to Jesus. There is no shrew to tame. This is just who she is and who she always will be. In the immortal wisdom of The Big Lebowski, she’s not wrong. She’s just an asshole.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #12- Bad Luck Banging

Romania, we should hang out more often! I mean that personally, as in I should let more of the darkly puckish Eastern European nation’s beautifully bleak and defiantly subversive cinema into my life. And I mean that societally, as in all of the world’s nations, and maybe Americans in particular, would do well to learn from Romania’s struggles for civil rights over the past century and more. To dive deeply into its fight against oppression ranging from press censorship to anti-intellectualism to a woman’s right to freedom over he own body (unforgettably examined in 2007’s masterfully unnerving black market abortion drama 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days). And I don’t just mean that in the dry academic sense of comparing our own recent authoritarian woes with the unthinkable ones they have endured. I mean we owe it to ourselves to draw something emotionally and spiritually from Romania’s experiences. There is something raucously inspiring about the art they make in response to hypocrisy and oppression. There is nothing treacly or even all that optimistic about it, except that it reveals the heart of a population determined to survive. Films like Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Radu Jude’s timely cherry bomb Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn aren’t really in the business of looking for silver linings to governmental apathy and national trauma, but they do carry a proud sense of resilience to them. Their power comes from their willingness to pay unvarnished witness to corruption and cruelty and their unwillingness to try to make the best of it. These are things that have happened and, in many cases, are still happening and the only best that can be made of it is to simply tell the truth about it. In a society that has, at various times, tried to silence the artist, imprison its thinkers, and bend reason and science to the whims of the powerful, the Romanians have made cinema that moans as ominously as a death metal song but also holds up a punk rocker’s middle finger to decades and decades of state repression, indifference to poverty, and deeply ingrained misogyny. And I’m not saying that Romania’s history is literally a one-to-one with America (the particularly vicious Ceausescu regime that lasted from 1965 to 1989 started nominally as a socialist state before quickly turning craven, greedy, and despotic) or that our own law enforcement problems are at the same degree as those of the Ceausescu Securitate disappearing and brutalizing dissenters. I’m just saying, when a country has lived through wave after wave of authoritarianism and managed to distill that horrific experience into volumes of aspirationally rebellious, vivaciously angry art, we should consider knocking at their bedroom door (don’t let the Black Flag stickers and the blood red “Go Away” stickers scare you away) and picking their brains. For anyone dealing with their own petty, bullshit demagogues, Romania is plainly a nation worth listening to. They know a thing or two sticking it to cheap, mean-spirited tyrants and they happen to do it in a way that is acidically funny and cool as Hell!

While Rade Jude’s subversive, righteously pissed off Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn has a nominal plot, its energies are so restless and digressive that said plot feel more like a single narrative strand in an anthology stretching back centuries. The invasions of privacy that our protagonist Emi (Katia Pascariu, blessed with a face that does not suffer fools) endures are just one more aggravating entry in a thick leather-bound tome titled “How To Stifle Your Citizens”. The central premise is that Emi, a middle-school teacher in Bucharest, makes a sex tape at home with her husband that, due to various human errors at the laptop repair shop, ends up being uploaded to the Internet. And, while it only ends up on  an adults-only site, that does not matter to the parents of her class after two children find the video and decide to watch it on school grounds. Now Emi will have to sit through an excruciating hearing with her superior and the parents of her class in order to defend her own right to a private life and, more pressingly, her right to keep her job. We do not see business of that hearing (a high-energy symphony of morons that manages to feel both like Bunuel and a town hall meeting in South Park) until the last thrid of the 106-minute film. The first third is just a day in the life of Emi, as she runs errands around a congested and drably commercial Bucharest. The middle portion is a Godard-like series of short vignettes (sometimes just consisting of a single, static image) packaged as a a kind of Romanian cultural dictionary. Framed as a series of definitions for basic words like “Christmas”, “children”, and “bookshelf”, each one is a critical, often sorrowful window into Romania’s tortured history. It ruminates on the nation’s abuses toward its citizens, the regressive ways women have been treated, its small but damning relationship to the Holocaust, the value of art and history, and Romania’s place in the larger context of a globalized consumer society. This second chapter, which made me think of both the Post Secret postcard project and Van Halen’s “Right Now” music video, may be the most polarizing segment. I have seen the odd critique refer to it as indulgent or like something from a student thesis. Personally, I loved it for how it opens Emi’s smaller satire of bureaucracy and privacy invasions into a much bigger conversation about authoritarianism, capitalism, sexism, xenophobia, propaganda, and systemic abuse. It opens up the present Romanian moment (and global moment) and allows the patterns of centuries past to flood in until they are one and the same. Bad Luck Banging is not the kind of story to settle down and focus. It is a delightful and horrifying anti-establishment pinata, already leaking Tootsie Rolls before the first stick hits it. It is less straight narrative than an unruly underground punk zine. And it is thrillingly alive for how much timely critique it fits into its reasonably modest runtime. It’s an avante garde scream in the face of decrepitude, incompetence, bureaucratic perversion and toxic bullshit. And it’s the kind of art this weary world could all do with a whole lot more of.
Bad Luck Banging is not just a reminder of the need for bold, abrasive works of art but a sharp attack on the kind of complacent society that tosses the artist and the individual’s voice aside or, maybe worse, drowns them out. After its dryly funny sex tape epilogue (routinely interrupted by questions from forgetful mother-in-laws and rowdy children), the film gets down to its conceptually daring first chapter, which conists of nothing but our put-upon heroine, Emi, running errands around the supermarkets, intersections, apartment blocks, cafes, pharmacies and mini-malls of Bucharest. We catch snippets of dialogue in this first of three parts, enough to understand how the sex tape has been discovered and how that error has jeapordized Emi’s teaching position at a middle school. Mostly, however, the camera seems deeply disinterested in Emi or any other Romanian citizen. It never waits with human subjects for any longer than it takes to catch the gist of what they are saying. Sometimes that’s no more than a sentence or two. What the camera does seem curious about is the signage, bric-a-brac and detritus of Romania’s consumer society. Bad Luck Banging‘s first chapter is brazenly ugly. It lingers on billboards and strip mall marquees and garish pink displays for Paw Patrol toys. The camera lets Emi wander off behind buses and into crowds like she is its neglected child. The lens will let her walk right out of the frame so it can linger over a decaying collage of bumper stickers on some sidewalk utility box. I was puzzled and put off the first time I watched Emi in a wide shot with all dialogue lost under the din of car horns. And then it happened again and again and my eyes lit up as I became aware of Bad Luck Banging‘s brazen, bitter attitude. I suddenly recognized how standoffish and outputting it was being and I beamed. It felt angrier than anything I’d seen in a long, long time. It’s a film that is always up to something and it strikes a razor balance between dour realism and pissed off snark. It’s about living in a society where you constantly feel like you are lost in the supermarket. It’s a dark note passed on to any nation or  people that feels like their society pays them no regard whatsoever. To anyone who ever believed their government would starve them or work the life out of them before it allowed business to slow down one iota. And it’s about a society too driven by its bottom line to have any space for culture and art. Here there are only crany parents unloading children into the nearest multiplex. To put an exclamation point on its thesis, a group of young adults at a food court discuss how the Japanese students forced into kamikaze missions were the ones pursuing degrees in the arts and humanities. The future scientists and businessmen were spared. That’s what happens when a nation only values what is economically beneficial. It’s a biting observation later undercut when we see the local cinema is shuttered. No one in this bustling Romanian commercial center will even be getting this film’s message. Nobody here will even be able to see Bad Luck Banging. In the words of the Talking Heads, we ain’t got time for that now.
Like certain other nations we could name, Bad Luck Banging is taking deadly aim at a Romania that has often economically trampled its people, while also taking an oppressive interest in their morality and personal lives when it suited the interests of those in power. It has been particularly brutal to its women, from the horrifically restrictive laws against abortion during the Ceausescu regime (an effort to bolster Romania’s economy by increasing the fertility rate) to the prevalence of shockingly repugnant attitutdes regarding justifiable rape (a substantial percentage believe it to be just when a woman so much as agrees to come to a man’s house) to the double standards about sex that Emi encounters at her school hearing. The cruel paradox is that Emi can disappear into the consumerist horde for a moment but she is also always being watched. Her country does not care for her but it watches her and all its female subjects with the hawklike focus of an abusive husband. Bad Luck Banging is about the hypocrisy of a nation that really doesn’t care about its women one bit but is also psychotically interested in what they are doing with their own bodies. It’s about living with a government that tells you to get lost but also not to leave town. It might need you for something when it’s good and ready. And it at least wants to make sure you don’t expose its children (who it has no qualms about showing nationalistic propaganda and state violence) anything that might scar them. Heaven forbid that! Xenophobia and war songs are okay. Blow jobs are absolutely out of the question, lest their innocent souls become perverted by such a concept. And of course, the real perversion is always power and its whims. It so often seems to be the most loudly moralistic of a society that want to discuss so-called deviant behavior. At the hearing, a self-righteous mother insists they all watch the controversial sex tape again jsut to make sure veryone knows exactly what they are there to discuss. The men all agree instantly and move closer to the computer screen, the better to educate themselves on this pressing matter of morality.
What the three disparate segments of Bad Luck Banging (neorealist capitalism travelogue, avant garde essay film and frantic courtroom satire) have in common is the wearing down of human beings to the nub by the things society has chosen to value above them: the economy, conservative propriety, homogeneity, war, patriarchy. Bad Luck Banging is a film so filled with ideas that it’s easier to define it in terms of negative space. By what tiny amount of space for individuality and freedom remain once you account for all the impersonal forces and pedagogical buillshit whirling around it. That tiny sliver of room that hasn’t been boxed out and suppressed is the space left for human beings. It feels no larger than a utility closet and it is the cramped space from which Puiu’s indignant masterwork caterwauls and shrieks. And all Bad Luck Banging‘s puckish technique and rebellious spirit is a way of gathering the courage to confront everything this society does to control people and make them feel spiritually small. It is made with the hope that enough of that courage might start a blaze; might help people to oppose their myriad abusers. One of the dictionary pieces in the second section references the legend of Medusa and how Jason used his mother’s shield as a mirror to look upon the gorgon’s terrible visage without being turned to stone. Cinema, this film explains, is that same reflective shield, enabling us to look upon the injustices and horrors of the world without becoming petrified by them. This observation is the film’s mission statement and a handy summation of what makes great satire like this so important. Bad Luck Banging sees a whole lot of societal evil, from the soul-sucking banality of commercial sprawl to misogyny and xenophobic violence, but it left me feeling elated. It has a rich sense of gallows humor and it laughs from the belly like a fearless Viking berserker. It is the laugh of a warrior ready to lay waste to every bigot, sexist, and coward in its vicinity. And it hopes that laughter is contagious.
We had the usual host of superheroes in 2021, many of whom were very familiar and a few who were not. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the surprise, but Bad Luck Banging does end by blowing a deliciously cross little kiss to superhero cinema. It makes sense that they would do this, partly because the film is such a counter-cultural snarl against all things monocultural. If Paw Patrol and crowded AMC megaplexes are going to get flak, leaving Marvel and its ilk out of the blast radius would just feel like a missed opportunity. This is the type of film that knows it could never get invited to the big movie malls, but why not play a little dress up just for the Hell of it?

Crashing parties is fun! It also makes sense because I think Bad Luck Banging is quite a heroic work in its own right. The hero we need more than the hero we deserve and all that. While most of our superheroes these days fight under the banner of an ethically dubious (at best) mega-corporation, Bad Luck Banging is the kind of film actually fighting for rights in need of defending. The right to bodily autonomy and pleasure and privacy. The right to a space that exists for people and not just for people’s money. The right to scream in the face of sanitization and so-called good taste. May the homophobes, despots, sexists, heartless capitalists, and religious hypocrites quake at the approach of Captain Romania! She is fierce, foul and fun. Her shiny shield repels bullshit. Tell these curs that Romania’s own homemade Lasso of Truth will be wrapped around them shortly. We shall be free. And glorious, goofy smut will rain from the skies!

Top 20 Films of 2021: #13- Memoria

My favorite poet is Edward Arlington Robinson. Most of his works, such as “Eros Turranos” and the very famous, Paul Simon-inspiring “Richard Corey” seem to take place in turn-of-the-century (19th that is) smalltown New England, but he has a great one that takes place in actual England. In this poem, “Ben Jonson Entertains A Man From Stratford”, Robinson imagines the titular 16th century playwright and Shakespeare contemporary meeting one of Shakespeare’s hometown friends in a pub and regaling him with musings about the Bard. One line I’ve always loved is when Jonson speaks of Shakespeare’s testy literary relationship with time and its mysterious, nebulous, inexorable passing. He refers to it as “his monster Time” It’s an observation that has always resonated with me. I also have a kind of rambunctious frenemy relationship with the copet. The very idea of Time feels both fascinating and disquieting, inspiring and harrowing. Time is a thing to be wrestled with and reckoned with and many of my favorite artists have been those who have their own Time monsters to spar with. Linklater stretching time out in Boyhood and the Before trilogy while also weighing the idea that everything might be just one simultaneous instant. Brilliant documentaries like Manakamana and Time (go figure) grappling with how Time moves and is experienced. Tarantino chopping up the temporal order of events in Pulp Fiction for maximum emotional and thematic oomph. Some artists regard it with awe and mystery and some just send Marty McFly whizzing back to the 1950s, turn time into a child’s playtoy and leave the metaphysical debates for the philosophers to figure out. After all, nobody ever said you had to take Time seriously. Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (he prefers the name Joe) is one of those deeply philosophical types, a man who beholds the mysteries of Time with a respectful humbled hush. His films, like his great Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives often exist in a magical realist realm where all things, from ghosts to royal animal spirits to a man who dies every time he goes sleep, feel possible. The nature of existence suddenly unfurls to reveal a world unbeholden to the restraints of our rational senses. His explorations of Time take place in the present moment, from which we observe Time passing, but also hum with the energy of all the Time that passed through this space before we ever got here. In Memoria, we briefly hear a university professor talk about how wood absorbs everything that touches it, and Weerasethakul seems to be positing that maybe all present existence retains the energy of the histories that came before. His latest opus is another bewitching, at times deliberately inexplicable tone poem of history, life, death, sleep and magic.’

Weerasethakul’s films take place somewhere between the real world, the land of myth, and our dreams all at once. Their sense of reality is as nebulous as a fog bank and he encourages the viewer to loosen their thinking accordingly. In Memoria, he has found the ideal museum guide to take us through his latest placidly heady maze, that magnificent, statuesque extraterrestrial known to most by her Earth name, Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays Jessica, a Scottish woman living in the Colombian capital of Bogota where she is a flower vendor. We meet her on the morning she is visiting her sister, who has been sick in the hospital. On that morning, Jessica begins to sporadically hear a strange cacophonous sound. Her description of the noise is of very large concrete balls being dropped down a metallic well surrounded by sea water. She seems to be the only person able to hear it. Her sister’s anthropologist husband (Zama‘s Daniel Gimenez Cacho) puts her in touch with Hernan, a young music student who helps her to recreate, or at least approximate, the sound through recording technology. They begin a friendship until one day he disappears and nobody in his university music program seems aware he ever existed. Jessica eventually takes a trip into the rural mountains to look at an archeological site uncovered during a tunnel construction project and ends up meeting a villager also named Hernan, only some decades older. He could very well be the same Hernan, or some version of him. How much sense you can make of a revelation like this (and Weerasethakul never says you need to make sense of it all) feels like the key to how you experience his films. Have you ever had a dream where a character suddenly changed into someone else, but you also understood automatically that they still were that same person? I think it’s kind of like that, though I would never presume that my take is right with this man’s filmography. If you thought I was guiding you knowledgably through Memoria, I am delighted to inform you that we are actually both hopelessly and irretrievably lost. The new Hernan has an enigmatic relationship to Time and death and he has a memory that holds not only his thoughts but the collective experiences and traumas of everyone who ever lived in his village. He is also that same man who temporarily dies any time he takes a nap. All of this ties somehow to Jessica’s mystery noise, Colombia’s history, Jessica’s status as a white foreigner learning about an ancient non-white land, and just maybe the totality of what it means to live and die as a human being. It has the briefest of plots or the fullest of plots depending on how you look at it. It is very quietly, very unhurriedly about a great many things. Like Jessica’s own journey, the experience of watching Memoria is filled with both serenity and discombobulation of a gentle kind. We spend long minutes on static shots that linger on hospital wings, Bogotan cafe courtyards and Colombian river towns. And then, every now and again, that percussive sound jars us out of our trance again.

Memoria is a film about being unsettled and in that respect it’s the best such film I can name since Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. What scant conventional narrative there is pales in comparison to the visual and sonic world that Weerasethakul conjures around us. It is a film deeply in tune with sonic texture. The bustle of pedestrian traffic or the low din of a restaurant crowd or the trickle of a Colombian mountain creek may seem banal, but Weerasethakul lets us spend enough time with them that they become entrancing. The film has explicit ideas and themes, but its focus is really about the enormity and bewilderment of existing in this big, mysterious world of ours. The way we do the best we can to process it with the starter pack of senses we are born with and how outmatched those faculties are in the face of everything. I think the times when our senses can barely make sense of things is where the magic lives for Weerasethakul. He means to very gently and lovingly short-circuit our brains. There’s a lovely and unnerving scene early on that focuses on nothing more than a parking lot full of cars at dawn. Then one of their alarms goes off and then other cars join in until they are all crowing their different sirens together. Then, one by one, they stop. Until there is finally silence again. No living thing is there in that parking lot and we do not hear anything before they go off, but something must have caused this chain reaction. Is it Jessica’s phantom noise that we can no longer hear when we aren’t sharing her point of view? Or is it some other force vibrating on some undetectable level? Our senses can’t process it in any direct way, yet the chorus of alarms testifies that something must be there, just beneath the feeble radars of our perceptions. And if our five main senses can be given the slip in this way, are things like reason and understanding not similarly susceptible? A Weerasethakul film aims to shake up our rigid notions of certainty about this world that holds us. He wants us to make room in our rational, scientific brains for the eerie, unexplainable and confounding. And while the result is meant to be disorienting and haunting, I think there is also a touch of something wonderful and sweet in the way he disorients us. His films feel as if they are possessed by friendly ghosts.
Memoria is fascinated by the nexus between the corporeal world and dreaming and it fittingly resembles nothing so much as the act of trying to describe a dream upon waking. There is that wonderful, patient scene where Jessica goes to the sound recording booth and she and Hernan try, step by step, to pinpoint the sound she keeps hearing. It’s a mesmerizing dance between our fantasies and all the tools of science, as Jessica and Hernan take the stuff of feverish imagination and run it through the sorting machine of logic and technology. The beautifully futile attempt to give language to the ineffable majesty of existing. In a Weerasethakul film, unlike most actual dreams, there isn’t really a moment where the strange power of the dreaming dissipates or loses its grip to the real and the rational. If anything, the film has us wake from what felt like real life into a dream. Dreams are real here. Memoria starts with what could be just a hallucination, watches Jessica hold it up to the light of day, and then slowly metamorphosizes into a rumination on how much wonder and bizarre phenomena are right there in front of us. It is a blurring of the lines between life and death, sleeping and waking, until they are one and the same. While waiting in a hospital hallway, a scientist opens up a doorway in front of Jessica. She informs her it is essentially a morgue, a place where bones and remains are being kept and puzzled over. A space for death. “Want to come have a look,” she asks with cheery politeness. Jessica does want to have a look and follows her in. And Joe Weerasethakul is similarly beckoning us in and inviting us to meditate, without any sense of fear or negativity, on life’s natural endpoint. Or maybe endpoints, for some. When the older Hernan awakes from his very long death siesta and looks up at Jessica, she inquires very matter-of-factly what temporarily dying is like. “Not bad,” he casually replies. “I just stopped.” Again, as much as Memoria is the story of Jessica being unsettled by a sensation she cannot explain, its attitude toward the unknown is one of peaceful curiosity and even hushed excitement. What a wonder to be in this beautiful place and to still have so very much to know about it. With as much death as I have felt surrounded by in the last few years, watching Weerasethakul muse on it with such wisdom, calm and childlike wonder felt like a thing I needed. It made for one of 2021’s most soothing cinematic odysseys.
Memoria is a notable example of a film that teaches you to watch it (and using that buzzy film phrase allows me to mark another square on my Cinema Bingo card). You might find parallels to it in the hushed meditations on nature in Terrence Malick’s films of in the long static shots of Malaysian filmmaker Tsai Ming Liang. But Joe Weerasethakul has long developed a rhythm all his own. As he does in that car alarm scene, his hypnotic patient takes suggest a world just under the surface of what we can see and feel. We all (sigh, most of us) believe in things like microscopic bacteria, sound waves that only certain creatures can pick up on, and even a part of our own brains that is virtually inaccessible to our conscious minds most of the time. Weeraethakul’s films whisper tome that if I can believe in those wondrous, hidden phenomena, who knows what else could be happening just beyond the fumbling grasp of my human senses. His films are an invitation to be quite and still but also alert, anticipating what might happen next. It feels like stretching a muscle one rarely uses, and it feels downright subversive in a cultural landscape with no shortage of frenetic entertainments. There is, to use an old cliche, nothing quite like it. If you have the urge to expand your definition of what an adventure film can be, Memoria is a transcendental trek into the wildernesses of Time, life, death, and the human self. And of course, if you ever feel confused or dumbfounded by what this unique cinematic object is up to, you can just look into the paradoxically open and inscrutable face of the incomparable Tilda Swinton. Behold the mixture of awe and disorientation that dances across her eyes. Her expression will tell you that you are entirely right in being puzzled and lost here in Weerasethakul’s haunting Colombian trance state. It will also tell you that it can be bracing fun to not always know where you are going.
Memoria has a lot to say about letting fo and allowing one’s self to be taken on a journey into someone else’s world. It is partly, I think, about the value of opening up to others’ stories. Weerasethakul has certainly done that by crossing the Pacific Ocean to Colombia and making his first film outside of the Asian continent. Tilda Swinton has left the Scottish Quarter of the Milky Way and acted in a film where at least half of the dialogue is in Spanish. And Swinton’s character within the film undertakes a trip outside of her own comfort zone through Bogota, out into the Colombian mountains and beyond in order to catch some part of a story that is much larger than her and older than her and also crucially not really about her. It’s a beautiful and necessary thing to let yourself be touched by stories that are not really about you. It’s as good for warding off narcissism and myopia as oranges are for scurvy. I cannot overstate how vital and soul-expanding it is to fill your life with stories that are not your own. Memoria also quietly and implicitly critiques the way white people, well meaning or not, can plunder non-white experiences for their own benefit in an exploitive way. Jessica’s sister speaks of a tribe her anthropology crew is researching that does not wish to open themselves up, mentally and culturally, for the world to probe. We are blessed to have the chance to take in a multitude of stories and perspectives, but we are also not entitled to every last one of them. Some of the world’s mysteries should be allowed to stay mysteries. It is just one more way that Joe Weerasethakul is teaching his audience to be still, curious, and respectfully receptive to the overlapping buzz of narratives all around us. That is the nature of cinema’s empathy-invoking power. You walk into a dark space and an artist introduces you to some people you’ve never met. Some are real and some are fictions conjured by actors. Either way, you sit quietly and you learn about them, while maybe learning a bit more about yourself too. Sometimes the intent of the story is to inform you and educate you. To shed light on some important subject or to illuminate an idea, so you can walk into the theater lobby with a firmer grasp on existence. Films to bolster our understanding and give us newfound clarity. I appreciate films like that. Still I’m very thankful they are not all like that.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #14- C’mon C’mon

I’ll stand on my soapbox for a minute and say that, as an uncle many times over, I feel that uncles still feel underrepresented in cinema.  It feels particularly tough to find good films about uncles. My people cry out for more stories. I say this as someone who never cared for John Hughes’ comedy Uncle Buck growing up and who had the pleasure of agreeing with his childhood self wholeheartedly after a recent rewatch. And, as I’m one of those snobs who can’t stand Napoleon Dynamite, I have little use for that desperate goofus Uncle Rico as well. I’m very much behind Mary Poppins‘ Uncle Albert and his laughing-on-the-ceiling shenanigans, but that’s a bit role and it’s unclear whose uncle he’s even supposed to be. It’s possible he might just have been bestowed with an honorary Uncle title, which obviously doesn’t really count. We have some very compelling uncles in The Lion King‘s Uncle Scar and Hamlet‘s Uncle Claudius (Scar’s non-lion equivalent), but those are some real unsavory uncles. Certainly not the kind of uncles anyone lucky enough to assume the title of uncle should aspire to become. The same goes for Harry Potter’s miserable Uncle Dursley. And of course, no matter how often he is reincarnated and reimagined, things don’t go ever all that well for Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. That poor man has died a lot. So where does that leave you ifyou’re looking for an uncle in a major role, who isn’t palpably evil, whose film doesn’t suck, and who isn’t frequently dying on a sidewalk in the name of increased pathos? I feel like I’m currently looking at Uncle Fester (who, to be clear, is not dead even if he would love it if you thought of him that way) standing in a room all by himself. And we love Fester, but that is just not a satisfactory state of avuncular affairs for more than a century of cinema. That’s why Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon hit me on such a personal level and filled me with teary joy for all the uncles out there like me. We’ve waited for this, gentlemen! Behold, a great film that not only has a really good, fully realized uncle as a leading character, but is also very much about the joys of having a nephew or niece. An arty, sweet little dedication to the bond between children and their parents’ brothers. It may seem a small thing for a film to be about, but there’s not such thing as a small thing when a filmmaker approaches it with this much clear-eyed thoughtfulness.

Also, being the latest film from the literate, referential and effervescently digressive Mike Mills (who last directed Annette Bening to her career zenith in his masterpiece 20th Century Women), C’mon C’mon is about a whole lot more than just nephews and uncles. Like its lead uncle Johnny (a spectacularly moving and impressively human-scaled Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist and interviewer, Mike Mills has a way of letting things unfold naturally, of letting the subject reveal itself. He has long been animated by a curiosity about human beings of all ages and how they grow and change. And he is gifted at allowing incredible actors to capture people at new crossroads in their lives. He has an eye for where pain, poignance, and rich humor overlap. C’mon C’mon begins with the first of many telephone conversation between Johnny and his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman, in one of the year’s best supporting performances). The two grew up close, but have hardly spoken to each other over the past year due to a couple of draining, highly charged famiy ordeals. Their mother died recently of dementia and there was heated disagreement over how to handle her passing. This also unearthed years of resentment over their starkly different relationships with her. There was also a great deal of discord over how Viv should handle her relationship with her husband Paul, a man possibly suffering from bipolar disorder. Paul has recently separated from Viv and relocated to Oakland away from his wife and their 9-year old son Jessie (Woody Norman, in a performance as full of humor, sadness, and exquisite grace notes as any I’ve seen in some time). Paul is having trouble adjusting to a new life in a new city and Viv feels a moral duty to go help him get settled and find treatment. This gives Johnny the perfect opportunity to reconnect with his beloved sister and nephew by offering to look after him while his mother is away. It may have only been a year since they last saw each other but, as Viv reminds Johnny, a year is a mighty long time for someone who has yet to live their first decade. Johnny lets Jessie borrow his tape recorder and microphone to capture sounds and conversations as they walk around Jessie’s Los Angeles home. Eventually, Johnny convinces Viv to let him bring Jessie to New York City and later New Orleans as part of his work.  It is clear from the start that Johnny and Jessie have a very strong emotional bond. It is also clear that their easy chemistry cannot entirely smooth over the fact that much does not feel right in Jessie’s life. He is anxious about his father’s departure and the reasons for it, and there is also general hyperactive ennui that comes with being nine years old. Mike Mills’ film is full of harmony and just as often punctuated with misunderstandings. It lives in the space between loving connection and missed communications, as Mills patiently and tenderly watches two good, wounded souls talk and get to understand each other. I don’t want to undersell the small traumas that all these characters are enduring and trying to make sense of, but the magic of C’mon C’mon lies in how it never feels burned out or defeated. It is a story that believes in love and healing, even if does not pretend that they are always easy to come by. The trials of these characters, from tending to an aging parent to divorce to watching a loved one admit they need psychological help, are all recognizable and relatable to a vast number of people. Mills does not minimize them but there is something soothing in how matter-of-factly he confronts them. He has made a tremendous film about acceptance and change and the power of talking it out with people who care about you. His characters’ struggles color them but they do not consume them. Big, life-altering ordeals share time with quiet moments of playful banter. Just like his interviewer protagonist, what Mike Mills wants to do most is just to listen and find some kind of peace in the free-wheeling rhythms of the dialogue.
Listening with a sense of humor and curiosity is key to Mike Mills’ approach with C’mon C’mon because that is such a vital part of communicating with children. More than just uncles and nephews, it is a film about the importance of speaking with and listening to the very young. If there is one superlative C’mon C’mon earns, it is that it may be the most astute film I’ve ever seen when it comes to presenting a truly honest view on pre-adolescent kids. It does not try to turn children into tiny, impossibly precocious adults and it does not make the other mistake of underestimating their awareness. It grasps the paradox of childhood, when one suddenly wakes up with a whole host of new ideas but still doesn’t quite have the discipline to organize all of them. As Viv puts it to her brother, his nephew is “a whole little person”, a phrase which crystallizes the full complexity of children and carries an implicit critique for how superficially and glibly the adult world often perceives them. Sadly, some of those very adults go on to make movies for and about children. C’mon C’mon isn’t just one of the least pandering glimpses into a 9-year old’s mind ever (it is the best such film since Spike Jonze’s underrated Where the Wild Things Are). It is a shot across the bow to anyone who would render child characters in a way that is cheap or lazy. It makes not pandering to children its mission statement and it features an adult character who understands and respects how important every interaction with this particular child is. Early on, when Jessie asks Johnny a serious question about why he has not married, Johnny fires out some quick, sassy, fun uncle response, but finds himself regretting it later. “I turned it into a dumb joke,” he confesses to his tape recorder. “Why did I do that?” Mike Mills understands that we should not assume we have children so easily pegged. One of the film’s most lovely and often funny decisions is just to let Jessie be genuinely weird sometimes. Because, in all honest, I’ve met precious few whole little persons who aren’t genuinely weird, in the best and most human of ways. Viv tells Johnny the night before she leaves Jessie in his care that her son will frequently play a game he made up called The Orphan. He will pretend to be a child who has escaped from an orphanage and shown up on her doorstep asking to spend the night in her house. And (here’s the gloriously macabre kicker), he offers to take the place of her dead children. Johnny greets this revealing look into this nephew’s psyche with a perfectly deadpan, “That’s fucked up.” And Mills’ perspective seems to be that, yes, it is a little fucked up and also the kind of strange little thing that happens with kids all around the world. As with so much of the character details in this film, he shrugs his shoulders with a smile and makes note of it. The joy of C’mon C’mon is that it is unafraid to be a little fucked up, and that is what makes it entirely wondrous. The beauty of Mike Mills’ look at Jessie (and children as a whole) is that he allows him to be both a disarmingly articulate little future adult and a specifically bizarre little boy, and it immediately makes this character (one of 2021’s absolute best characters) a real, breathing human being and not some cute abstraction. Mills’ film goes so much deeper than the realm of adult-kid bonding you see in a film like Kramer vs. Kramer. What we have here is a true two-hander between an adult and a child that could not feel more honest and alive. C’mon C’mon‘s dazzling magic trick is the subtle unfolding of Jessie’s foibles and nuances, so that, in no time at all, you know that Viv is right about him, This is a whole person. A fully dimensional, flawed, funny, free-thinking person.
C’mon C’mon is also quietly political in how it critiques an adult world that often reduces kids to abstractions, causes, victims, or problems to be solved. The  framing device of the film’s many poignant child interviews (all of them featuring real children discussing their hopes and fears for the future) allows the film to reinforce its thesis that children are real, autonomous beings. That we should question them more and talk at them less. The film is also political in its honest insights on the burdens and patriarchal hurdles that surround motherhood. While those child interviews are giving us conversation after conversation from the perspective of youth, Johnny is also having regular phone conversations with his sister on how to be a better communicator with his nephew. He is listening, as all men should, to a mother’s wisdom no how to not only raise and instruct a child but to nurture and one. And he is allowing Viv to tell her own story to someone who will listen; someone other than her sweet-natured but often manic child. Without underlining the point too boldly, Mills is positing that our would would be vastly improved by emotional attentiveness, by having conversations with women and children where we act more as student than as teacher, and by an understanding of where we can make life less difficult for the women tasked with raising the next wave of small adults. We owe it to them and to ourselves to lean in closely and bear witness to anyone who is helping to make the world’s little persons whole. Mike Mills follows Johnny empathetic curiosity with some of his own by occasionally coloring his film with excerpts from female scholars. C’mon C’mon is a story about throwing out rigid and very masculinized notions of strength and control when it comes to how we speak to children. Part of Jessie’s journey is that he must learn that his mother is a full person deserving of love and respect, and that his father’s psychological difficulties do not make him weak or unloving. The film is a gorgeous, lyrical reverie (and a luminous travelogue of Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City and New Orleans) about the power of conversation to compassionately counter ignorance and misinformation. It is one of 2021’s most emotionally intelligent films, and it is almost certainly the year’s most beautiful essay on the value of teaching emotional intelligence.
So much of the joy and warm humor of C’mon C’mon come from the rambunctiously sweet rhythms of his stellar screenplay, as a man with no children of his own does a kind of merry play battle with the sharp wits of this marvelously dimensional child. The sweetness of Johnny’s journey comes from watching him figure it out one interaction at a time. It is a film about the challenge of meeting children on their level, but it beams with the knowledge that we all get better at it with practice. Most of the time, Johnny’s talks with Jessie go pretty well. And then, sometimes, he oversteps his bounds or raises his voice too much, and then he has to fall back and rethink his approach. He has to be human enough to continually question what he thought he knew. Even a career spent interviewing children cannot prepare him for every scenarios and I think coming to understand that is the crux of his arc. What he gradually sees is that communicating with a child, and really with any human being, should be an act of enthusiastic inquisitiveness. We may enter a conversation with certain set ideas, but great conversations take place when we let ourselves become spontaneous, curious, and reactive to the moment. One could have imagined C’mon C’mon as a kind of uncle out of water tale; a story about an uncle who learns he’s utterly out of his depth when it comes to looking after a child and maybe eventually learns a lesson or two. It’s blessedly a looser and more complex tale than that. Johnny learns that, yes, he does have a lot more to learn about how to engage with young people. But he also finds himself enjoying the process immensely and he finds that his instincts as a journalist and an open-minded student of life give him some natural advantages. Maybe most importantly, he finds himself genuinely enlivened, tickled and edified by the chaotic adventure of trying to understand the budding someday adult in front of him. Mike Mills has made a wise and witty love letter to the blessing of having children in your life, but it is also a more general ode to the joys of starting up a dialogue with another human being.
For all its intellectual rigors and progressive ideas, I love C’mon C’mon because it is an unpretentious feast for the heart and soul. There is plenty interesting to unpack in its deep conversations but, as with the works of Richard Linklater or Eric Rohmer, it is really just about the joy of having the conversation. One does not need to be a scholar of any sort to tap into the joy of Johnny and Jessie sparring and joking and connecting with each other. In its heart of hearts, C’mon C’mon is a lush and lovely poem about how nice it is to get to know someone, child or otherwise. The juice that makes the story go is one common to a great man of the best narratives. Two characters begin a story not knowing one another that well, or maybe just knowing each other on a surface level. And then they spend the next hour-plus breaking through first impressions and awkwardness; jettisoning all the tics, postures, and bullshit that separate them from each other. It’s an extremely basic sort of character journey that I will never ever grow tired of. When it’s done right (as in films like The Station AgentAlice In the CitiesLost In Translation and Andrew Haigh’s 2011 Weekend to name just a handful), I remember that it is the cinematic meal I want most often. It is the filet mignon of humanistic cinema, the purest essence of character-based storytelling. And all Mike Mills needs to get it right is one scintillating, patient, funny, tear-jerking jewel of a screenplay and a few absolutely faultless performances.  After all the beautiful and wonderful advances in storytelling and cinema, there’s still a simple fundamental core to why we treasure narrative. Sit us down by the glow, tell us a tale. Tell us about some people. They may not be people we know at first. But by the end, we’re sure to see some of ourselves in them.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #15- West Side Story

I adore Stephen Sondheim and revere him, as one should do with genre-busting, influential creative geniuses. I know his contributions to musical theater and movie musicals over some five decades are immeasurable and that he is probably the overwhelming consensus choice for greatest musical lyricist and composer of the 20th century. One cannot discuss Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story without talking first and foremost about the man integral to building the beautifully sturdy original structure; without looking at Sondheim’s lusly witty book of lyrics, surely among the most staggeringly assured debut works for an artist in any medium. If this is your first time learning that little factoid, take a moment to let it linger. One of the most enduring and brilliant songbooks in history was merely the opening salvo to the man’s long career. And that long career brings us to the problem that I am still utterly unqualified to give you any kind of satisfactory primer on the genius of Stephen Sondheim, short of remarking that his genius is evident in virtually every work of his I’ve seen (a number that is still far too low). It’s a genius evident in the sumptuous and sardonic melancholy of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and in the thinking person’s fairtyale puncturing of Into the Woods. Even select pieces I’ve heard divorced from the larger works, such as certain numbers from Company and Merrily We Roll Along, have struck me and have been the centerpieces for great scenes in brilliant films like Ladybird and Marriage Story. The godfather of musical theater passed away just this year and a host of moving essays have been written about the man, all worth reading and all suffused with a lot more lovely context than this relative Sondheim neophyte can provide. The best this review can muster is to send in one uninformed clown to urge you to visit, or revisit, his deep and prolific work. I know that is what I will be doing in the near future. The wild thing about West Side Story isn’t just that it’s Stephen Sondheim’s debut, but that it’s actually him operating at only half of his powers, which is to say only as a lyricist. Sondheim would quickly join Cole Porter and Irving Berlin in the rarefied air of musical theater artists who wrote both their own music and lyrics. For his maiden voyage to the Great White Way, however, Sondheim would write to music by the legendary Leonard Bernstein (soon to be played by Bradley Cooper). Those lyrics are still confoundingly great and are, to my mind, the biggest reason why a fairly faithful remake of Robert Wise’s 1961 masterpiece can still feel revelatory and necessary. From the sardonic teen rebel snark of “Officer Kruepke” to the delicately devastating poignance of “Somewhere” to the still-timely critique of “America”, Sondheim’s words are a thing of piercingly astute Technicolor rapture. Capable of leaping effortlessly from humor to yearning to sorrow (this is the Romeo and Juliet musical after all), Sondheim’s first little masterpiece springs and swoons with a verbal dexterity to match the gymnastic finesse of its dancers. Before Steven Spielberg adds his own vibrant visual brushstrokes to the canvas, it only takes a few lines from “When You’re A Jet” to set aside any misgivings about redundancy. This is Stephen Sondheim’s “West Side Story”, one of the most incandescently alive songbooks there is. There is certainly a place for it, for multiple imaginings of it. And it’s going to be great!

The new film begins, like the 1961 version does, in 1950s New York City, with two street gangs, alike in immaturity. But perhaps not completely alike, for one gang, The Jets, seems to exist solely for the purpose of making life miserable for all the non-white gangs in the city. In particular, they live to terrorize and vandalize the neighborhoods of the local Puerto Rican immigrant community. They’re a band of uneducated, nationalistic, young Bill the Butchers still clinging fast to the xenophobia of yesteryear and (as Tony Kushner’s nimbly updated screenplay is not shy to remind us) of our present American moment. The local Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, exists to oppose the Jets and to protect their neighbors, though it seems that neither gang really has anything to offer its melting pot city but more and more cyclical (albeit balletic and meticulously choreographed) violence. The police officers, who tellingly harass the white gang with noticeably more almost-affectionate frustration than they do with the Puerto Ricans, shake their heads at the futility and the sad class blindness of the two sides’ squabbling. All the territory they are brawling and bleeding over will soon be dismantled to make room for Lincoln Center and for luxury condominiums that not a single character in this narrative will ever be allowed to set foot inside. That feeling of senseless brutality doesn’t seem entirely lost on the fatalistic leaders of the gangs, Bernardo (a very strong David Alvarez) and Riff (a best in show revelation named Mike Faist), but neither are about to stop the show or cede any ground to the other. On the contrary, Riff wants to escalate the tensions even further with a once-and-for-all fight to determine control of the territories. He’s planning to have this final brawl in the next 24 hours and he is counting on his ace in the hole and best friend, Tony (Ansel Elgort, handsome) to be the deciding factor in this climactic duel. Tony was the Jets’ most feared fighter some years back before he was sent to prison for nearly beating the member of another gang to death. He is now working and rooming in the general store of a local Puerto Rican widow (the wonderful Rita Moreno, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Anita in the Best Picture-winning 1961 version) and making a concerted effort to turn away from criminality. Riff insists on Tony accompanying the Jets to that night’s youth dance, where members of both Jets and Sharks will be present. Tony ends up going with the caveat that he won’t be doing anything to jeopardize his parole, but ends up finding a different form of trouble when he and Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler, tremendous dramatically and vocally) meet behind the gymnasium bleachers and fall instantly in love. The next 24 hours are a fraught and luscious whirlwind of romance, beauty and bloodshed as only Shakespeare’s most emo-infused play (give or take a Hamlet) can offer. Anyone who’s seen Romeo and Juliet or the first West Side Story knows where this goes, but it’s really all about how kinetically, kaleidoscopically and heart-tuggingly it goes there. And after a production period as long as COVID itself and filled with enough hype to fill a skyscraper, it is somewhat unreal what a miraculous success Spielberg’s remake is. As a pure parade of colored lights, beautiful faces, and wooning sounds, there is really nothing from 2021 to equal it.
It’s always a good sign when you can split opinion up every which way about whose contribution is most crucial to the greatness of a film, and I could happily spend the length of two reviews throwing bouquets at every person involved in this opulent production. To start, you would not be wrong to focus your highest praises on Spielberg’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The man who made Schindler’s List‘s ghettos look almost indecently striking, who filled the Congressional hallways of Lincoln with shafts of holy historical light, and gave Saving Private Ryan its transcendentally hellish Omaha Beach charge. Set loose in a metropolitan dreamscape vision of the 1950s, Kaminski produces an ecstatic barrage of vivid color and gravity-defying motion so transporting that the word I most want to use to describe it is just musical. In some effable way, it just looks like melody, like the passionate strains of a song. His compositions glow and sizzle and radiate like the movements in a bombastic, gospel-tinged symphony. To use the words of an old turn-of-the-century ditty, Kaminski casts a light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York, and in just about every alleyway, apartment and warehouse too. There is a shot of Tony simply standing in a puddle, surrounded by the reflected glow of street lamps, which looks like something Van Gogh might have imagined or wished he’d lived to see. And, just as important as his painterly eye, is the fact that Kaminski is a giddy, athletic collaborator with Justin Peck’s blistering choreography (and vice versa, as the two worked in tandem along with Spielberg to conceptualize each thrilling setpiece). When you see Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita (a magnesium-hot bolt of starpower named Ariana de Bose) twirling and gyrating with scores of other dancers through the daytime streets of Harlem, you can feel Kaminski and Peck both jockeying jovially with each other to see who can captivate you more. What comes closer to touching the face of God: the carousel twirl of Anita’s bright yellow dress until it rises to reveal the blood red slip underneath, or the way Kaminski stages it against a sea of similarly color-coded men and women so it feels like we are watching a flowerbed get its wish to turn human for a few minutes? One other reason you need not fear this West Side Story feeling old hat is that Kaminski and a team of aesthetic wizards in various crafty disciplines ensure that the film would be a perfect sensory experience even if it had no story at all.
And then, there’s also just that magical way Steven Spielberg has with casting. I imagine it might be one of the tertiary things most people credit the storied director with. After his technical wizardry, his blockbuster showman instincts, and maybe even after all those wonderful John Williams scores his films have given us. But, almost from the beginning, Spielberg has had a keen knack not just for working with great actors but for finding them too. His Empire of the Sun (a supremely underrated Spielberg masterpiece in this critic’s opinion) not only spotlighted a very young Christian Bale but allowed him to start his career with a performance that still stands among his best work. The whiz kid (now entering into his sixth decade behind the camera) knows when to cast megastars as his leads (Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise) and when to give big roles to terrific character actors like Laura Dern, Mark Rylance, and Ralph Fiennes. And if you are thinking that some those “character actors” are stars too, consider the role Spielberg’s films have played in deservedly elevating their statures in the public consciousness. For purposes of this review, Spielberg has a particularly acute eye for casting new or relatively untested talent. In Saving Private Ryan, he paired the then-biggest Oscar magnet in the world, Tom Hanks, with a group of young men who were all practically unheard of at the time. They were Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi. Every single one of them has gone on to have some measure of success, critically or financially or both. It would surprise me to no end if West Side Story‘s electric young cast did not repeat or even surpass that feat. After seeing Ariana de Bose sizzle or Rachel Zegler gently tuck your heart in her pocket or David Alvarez hold the screen with his commanding gaze, I could not wait to see what all of them did next. It would be lunacy if we did not get to watch them again and watch them a lot. And most of all, I just don’t think it’s possible to watch Mike Faist turn the reasonably good role of Riff into the year’s most unexpectedly transfixing screen performance and not feel in your bones that Spielberg has just introduced us to a generational talent. The undercurrent of pathos and knowingly doomed stubbornness he brings to the Jets’ leader steals the story away with every appearance. Moreover, it makes you believe the idea of Tony’s eventually fatal loyalty to the gang in a way that Ansel Elgort is just not capable of doing. Faist pitches the idea, just for a scattered handful of moments, that West Side Story should actually be the tale of a charismatically ignorant, racist, self-defeating shitkicker with a Newsies accent and John Mulaney’s bone structure. But are we all so sure that it shouldn’t be? Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story are both about photogenic, young bodies clashing up against each other and throwing their lives away for no good reason, except for two of them who at least end up throwing their lives away for some kind of reason. The senseless tragedy of it all becames bearable and even guttingly irresistible only by making horny, stupid, impetuous youth feel as hypnotically, alluringly alive as possible. It only works with actors that can dazzle both your mind and your eyes. To have found a cast this up to the hot-stepping, lens-popping task is the kind of thing few outside of Spielberg could pull off. And full credit to all these superb actors of course. But let’s also raise a toast to the wily old bastard who, all these years later, still knows how to put together a team!
Spielberg has obviously had a number of partnerships I would love to see the next chapter of, from the poignant gravitas and effortless charm he’s gotten three times out of Tom Hanks (we do not acknowledge The Terminal‘s existence) to a wealth of collaborations with masters of their craft like John Williams and Janusz Kaminski. But, when we look to Spielberg’s work in the 21st century, it’s hard to find a partner more harmoniously beneficial to the veteran director’s process than celebrated Angels In America playwright-turned-dynamo-screenwriter, Tony Kushner. The man has written screenplays for only four completed films to date, but every one of them has been a Best Picture nominee. It’s a Stephen Sondheim-like run of immediate early success and the streak seems unlikely to change with his work on Spielberg’s coming of age autobiography The Fablemans later this year. The genius scribe, a subtle dramaturge who punctuates patient scenes (Lincoln, about trying to secure enough votes to pass the Emancipation Proclamation, is literally nothing but patient scenes) with bursts of flowery poetry, has performed a minor miracle with West Side Story. He has taken a property seven decades old based on a play centuries older, and he has cut right to its modern heart. He has supplemented Ernest Lehman’s 1961 screenplay with small grace notes that bring West Side Story into modern age. The age of immigrants fighting for their place in the American narrative. And the age of infantile, emasculated white men who view diversity as an existential threat while pig-headedly failing to see the true adversary of greed and capitalistic indifference right in front of their noses. Kushner’s words allow us to feel some pity for these foolish young men marginalized by their nation’s rampant classism, while never cleansing them of the sin of their hateful racism. He allows the Jets to be captivating and human and even funny but, as Doc (the Rita Moreno character’s late white husband) said in the 1961 film, all the Jets are really doing, with their sburron pride and mistrust of anyone who doesn’t look like them, is making the world lousy. There is so much that could better, but prejudice continually rears its head and reduces everything to ashes. Riff bemoans the rubble of his life and the dust covering everything, but he and his men are too slow to see how much of that is of their own making.
At the heart of West Side Story lies the idea that these characters, so many of them sympathetic fools, could be doing more joyful things with their time. Dancing and singing and falling in love. Before the brawl, one young Jet proposes they just go smoke weed at the zoo instead and he’s absolutely right! How much less devastating a film this would be if most of these characters chose any other path than the violent one that they opt for. The one that pulls everyone, hateful or not, into its merciless eddy. Of course, the young stoner’s wisdom is ignored and the plot proceeds along its tragic course; the course that Tony and Maria briefly thought they might break away from. It’s the reason that, of all Sondheim’s glorious words, the ones that still prick the most may be the simplest. “There’s a place for us.” The dream of making things just a little bit better, and how hard one must fight to find a little bit of good somewhere in the world’s angry free-for-all. It’s the sadly timely wisdom that Kushner sees in this story. There are so many ways that America has decided to give into the inertia of selfishness and exclusivity rather than enjoying what we have and letting others feel some of that joy as well. Somewhere along the way we’ve decided that people will need to suffer and die instead, and for no other reason than that it is the status quo. The tragedy of Shakespeare’s play, Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, and now Kushner’s beautifully perceptive adaptation is that habit and a lack of empathy doom us. Our leads find something nice among the carnage and rubble of their lives and those who care about them all have their chances to learn by their example; to brush away the fog of long-festering grievances and help their families, their friends, and themselves. And then everyone is just a little too dumb, stuck, hurt, trampled upon and mixed up to break free. And that’s the old story. The tidal forces of toxic history and rotten tradition are currents too powerful for these aimless kids to overcome. Kushner, Spielberg, Shakespeare, Sondheim, and the rest of us can only watch and know that this will all be writ again. The lights come up. And we go hence to have more talk of these sad things.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #16- Spencer

I try my best to be a purist when it comes to reviewing films and when it comes to choosing the worthy group to make my annual top twenty list. By that I mean, I tend to avoid choosing a film just to be novel or omitting a film just because it’s already been listed by a plethora of other critics. My list is meant to commemorate (for my own forgetful future self as much as anyone) what most impacted me that year and I like it to stand as a reliable barometer of that first and foremost. To be frank, I don’t go out of my way looking for controversy in my choices. I often find myself in line with much of the critical consensus and I’m perfectly okay being in that line as long as it reflects my honest impressions about the film year. That said, left field picks and passion picks do end up on my lists semi-occasionally and I won’t deny that I feel a little swell of pride when they do. It’s nice to stand up for films that deserve more love. Critic or not, having personal choices you can fight for is one of the great joys of being a movie lover. In the case of Pablo Larrain’s Princess Diana film Spencer, I may need to walk the word “personal pick” back a bit, for it’s not as if I’m by myself in adoring it. There is a nice, reasonably sized group of us up here on this weird little Kubrickian hilltop. Spencer was by and large a well-reviewed film, even taking home the lion’s share of Best Actress critics prizes for Kristen Stewart. But, despite some good ink, Spencer has still felt like the most unfairly picked on great movie of 2021. General audiences seemed to absolutely loathe it (the same ones that presumably cheered on a dysfunctional carbon copy biopic like Bohemian Rhapsody to earth-shattering box office) and, even among the critical community, it felt just a wee bit polarizing. I am incensed on Spencer‘s behalf that it is not unanimously beloved, but this does give me the thrilling opportunity to defend its honor; to leap onto my white steed and mount a spirited defense on behalf of Pablo Larrain’s inventive, cerebral, and emotional fable (as an opening title informs us) about the late Princess of Wales’ uncomfortable tour of duty as an in-law of England’s Royal Family. It’s a joy to be able to champion its many virtues because a second viewing of Spencer only made it more clear what a special, singular and even playful ode it is to Diana Spencer and what her trials as both a Royal and as arguable the world’s most public figure have to say about modern celebrity worship and how a media-infused society treats the women it purports to idolize.

Being a Pablo Larrain film, Spencer is a vivid rumination on the full gamut of what it means to be a politician, celebrity, or often both. It is what it means to be someone with a place reserved in our history books. The one thing the film is not, to the dismay of many a viewer, is a straightforward, completely factual biopic. While it takes inspiration from a specific Christmas holiday Diana and her sons (William and Harry, who you may have also heard of) spent with the Royal Family, the word “fable” clues us in from the start that Larrain has something more surreal in store. It is what I would call an impressionistic rendering of its subject. Cinematographer Claire Mahon shoots Sandringham House and the surrounding verdant countryside like it’s all trapped inside a haunted Faberge egg. And the sense of regal pomp and circumstance inside these airy spaces add a sense of something eerie and spectral to this winter palace. We start the film with not a soul in sight. Then a cavalcade of armored trucks roll past a dead pheasant on a lonely private road. Nameless soldiers exit the lorries and march into the palatial estate with wooden crates that look like they might contain rifles. But, instead of containing weaponry, we see that they are filled with meats, produce and cheeses for the three days of terribly tasteful Christmas festivities. Then a large company of chefs march in to the darkened kitchens, entering the palace as the soldiers retreat from it. And only after all that ceremony do we finally glimpse our titular princess, driving in her convertible and seen from behind. Her festive plaid sweater feels like the first genuinely warm splash of color after those bracingly chilly opening moments. She has gotten herself lost, almost certainly on purpose, on the way to her antiseptically majestic lodgings. The first time we see the face of Diana Spencer (a spellbinding Kristen Stewart, using all her talents as both an A-list and an endlessly undersung character actor) is in a rural roadside cafe asking directions from a gaggle of working class folk who are all stunned speechless to see her. Once all the royals have arrived at the palatial grounds, we learn why Diana was keen to take her time getting there. She is scrutinized for having the gall to be the subject of tabloid fixation. A taciturn lurker of an ex-soldier (Timothy Spall, terrific as a man so quiet and intensely off-putting that he almost comes off as comical) has been retained by the Queen to both keep an eye on Diana and watch out for anyone who might want to spy on her. A centuries-old tradition calls for guests to weigh themselves on arrival and departure, nominally in the name of fun. And, while she knows her distant husband Prince Charles is having an affair (he presents her with the same pearl necklace he gave to his mistress and Diana is expected to wear them to the Christmas Eve supper), all the gossip about attention-seeking behavior and impropriety swirls about her. Even sequestered away with the people who despise her for attracting flash bulbs, she is still the one who is gawked at. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and disorienting, though her beloved sons are there to lighten the mood and provide her with listening ears and real love. But, sadly for Diana, most of the ears at Sandringham are the ones she feels leaning in to catch the next unorthodox thing she says. And, if it were all not enough to make Christmas tense, she starts imagining that the ghost of Anne Boleyn (another disrespected and martyred British royal) is walking the grounds and speaking to her.

Now, while the average viewer just eager to watch a little bit of down–the-middle lifestyle porn was probably already feeling uncomfortable with the constrictive, frigid Kubrickian atmosphere of Spencer, I have to believe the moment Larrain turned it into an actual ghost story is the moment that basic audience mentally (and in some cases physically) hurried for the exits. In losing a certain kind of general audience, Spencer freed itself up (just as Princess Diana eventually broke free from stifling royal customs) to be a much more rewarding film. For my part, I love how Pablo Larrain makes history feel a little haunted. Films like Spencer and his superb Jackie burrow deep into the recesses of their heroines’ psyches and delve into the subjective experience of being a public figure. And, far from being some arbitrary flourish, what the Anne Boleyn ghost connection drives home is that, for a certain kind of famous woman, being placed in a high position can actually be a terrifying and powerless thing. Even the Queen herself breaks her stony composure for a few almost gentle moments to remind Diana that they all exist as fodder for the public’s consumption. each of them typecast into whatever civic image can best serve the people’s expectations of them. “The only picture that really matters is the one of you they put on the ten-pound note,” Her Royal Majesty confides to her estranged, press-hounded daughter-in-law. “When they take that one you understand that all you are, my dear, is currency.” Poor, doomed women like Anne Boleyn were used and abused by their powerful husbands, disposed of and mistreated, and then fed the popular imagination for centuries afterwards. But what of their inner lives, and what of the stories they would have wanted told? Diana spent her adult years trapped in royal finery and boxed in by photographers, but the one happy thing we know of her story is that, before her death, she was able to free herself from her handlers. Before her road ended in that Paris tunnel, she was able to experience real love and a life of her choosing for a short while. And so, criticizing Spencer for not being a standard issue prestige film about the finer points of life as a Royal feels cruelly ironic to me. The film seems to argue that Diana Spencer fought to leave that lonely place. She took great, courageous pains to thwart convention and escape that repressive and sterile way of life, and in doing so she authored her own story as something more than just popular currency. She earned the right to have her story be more than just some coffee table book of behind-the-scenes palace intrigue. However one may feel about Spencer‘s wildest liberties and flights of fancy, from ghost Queens to pearl-eating to Polanski-evoking fever dream outbursts, this subjective, impressionistic take sure feels more like the story Diana deserves.

 

This also is a major reason that Kristen Stewart is such a perfect choice for the role, before we even touch the perfect blend of enigmatic exteriority and outspoken grace she brings to the banquet table. Stewart comes to this role with a metatextual understanding about what it means to be an object for the popular culture; a precious stone to be handled, praised, ogled, valued and devalued. She has all those years of being under her own kind of microscope, from child star to rising indie actor to disrespected Twilight ingenue to vilified other woman to brilliant character actor finally penning her own cinematic legacy. Stewart became the first American to win the Cesar (France’s answer to the Oscar) some years back for her revelatory work in Olivier Assayas’ The Clouds of Sils Maria. The big American awards body shunned her from even getting a nomination, as they did for her similarly great Assayas follow-up Personal Shopper. American audiences have placed Kristen Stewart on some of the highest pedestals and just as often pelted her with rotten fruit while she was up there. She surely knows something of not just the trappings of fame, but the powerlessness and disrespect that can come with it. She secured her first-ever Academy Awards nomination not two months ago for Spencer, and it certainly seemed like she had to fight tooth and nail to even have the Oscars notice that. None of Spencer‘s other great performers (Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins’ lovely work as her dresser and childhood friend), its splendid crafts (Claire Mahon’s icy kaleidoscope camerawork; Jonny Greenwood’s majestically ghostly score; Jacqueline Durran’s elegantly arresting costumes), or Pablo Larrain’s beautifully controlled direction were considered worthy. Stewart is perfect for the part because Spencer is a film all about what it feels like to be somehow both idolized and demeaned at the same time. To have the eyes of the masses utterly consume you for pleasure and then insult you afterwards. And she brings to the role both psychological realism and a haute couture model’s sense of the persona Diana projected. She has a dancer’s knack for rendering grand, glossy emotions in subtle, physical ways. I think of how difficult it must have been to completely let us into the headspace of this person while also nailing all the iconic exterior pop of the most photographed individual in the world. It demanded an actor with a character actor’s emotional complexity and an Angelina Jolie-level sense of how to captivate the camera one still image at a time. Off the top of my head, I can name maybe three current actors capable of doing both those jobs at the very highest levels. They are Marion Cotillard, Charlize Theron, and the great Kristen Stewart.

 

Like those performers, Spencer‘s perfection lies in being beautiful and iconic and also upsetting the expectations that come with wearing that heavy icon’s crown. It’s a pet theme for Pablo Larrain too, investigating the double-edged word of image and of historical scrutiny; how the broader society looks at its idols and how those idols respond to the knowledge that society is trying to make sense of them and define them. Jackie argues that Jacqueline Kennedy very shrewdly used the public fascination with her and with the assassination of her husband and spun it to the nation’s advantage by giving them a moving moment of historical pageantry. Spencer‘s Diana is different. She does not want to dance with history, but to dance with herself. She knows she will forever be under the microscope of the popular eye, but she refuses to accept it quietly, much to the ongoing consternation and embarrassment of her controlling, stiff upper lip in-laws. She is thwarted at every turn by the ever-seeing gaze of her new family and the Paparazzi (the former stitch up Diana’s bedroom curtains for fear of the latter) and she is corralled in by the nagging feeling that anything she says or does will be framed as either an acquiescence to the Royals’ arbitrary customs or as further proof that she really is an attention-seeking exhibitionist. And what Diana wanted, the film poses, was to feel something like freedom. I’m not trying to argue that one cannot take Spencer to task for being indulgent, wildly fictionalized, and sometimes even campy (to its great benefit in my opinion). But all of that is what makes Spencer feel like such a liberating, melancholically heartfelt dedication to Diana and to her her legacy as a person who chafed at the societal corsets that tried to hem her in. Larrain’s “fable of a true tragedy” is an ode to Diana as the wild English colt that no paddock could contain. There’s a montage of wordless moments in the last third of Spencer that consist of Diana dancing. Posing. Prancing, Pirouetting and twirling through finely furnished sitting rooms and marbled halls. Puckishly swatting at lacey curtains and merrily thumbing her nose at stately decorum. It is the most indulgent and purely interpretive scene in the film and it is also quite easily one of my favorite cinematic moments of 2021. In all its bratty, fed- up glory, it is the perfect affront to the Royal Family and mainstream audiences alike. Don’t let the ornate vases and velvet cushions fool you. Spencer is a silly, raucous punk song ringing through the prim halls of power and rattling all the tea trays. And it’s okay if it is not entirely to your personal taste. With all due respect, sir or madam, this one is not, strictly speaking, for you. It’s for Diana.

 

Of course, who really knows what the Princess of Wales would have made of Pablo Larrain’s beautiful, befuddling paradox of a film? I think he’d be the first to admit that it’s not so much an attempt to photorealistically render Diana Spencer. Photographs and tell-all exposes were probably the things she was most sick of, outside of her coldly philandering husband. If anything, the film is a rebuke to the idea that anyone could knows Diana better than Diana herself. For all the voyeurism she endured, her thoughts were her own, and yet history still needs to have its say on the matter. It always does. And so, in addition to being a raucous salute to Diana’s flight from rigid customs and a loveless family situation, Pablo Larrain is also using Spencer to punk history itself. He is critiquing the idea that we can cleanly tell anyone’s story no matter how much time they might spend in the public eye. In a late scene, Diana muses on how many British rulers are memorialized with a single word (William the Conqueror and such) to try to succinctly convey a sense of them. All of a person’s traits and faults and contradictions and personality boiled down into one last pudding for the easy consumption of future generations. The past melted down into one currency. And, as silly as condensing a living human being into a single adjective obviously is, I’ll play along for a moment. If Diana is to be commemorated with a word, what is it? Based on Larrain’s fault, I propose Diana the Defiant. Diana who would not be hemmed in by a pearl necklace or by a miserable marriage. Diana who, when the time came for them to compose her portrait, would not sit still. In her honor, Pablo Larrain has created one characteristically uninhibited work of art to hang in History’s stuffy sitting room. A spirited feminist whoop, from its ghostly freakouts to its flippantly discordant pop song ending. In a hall of solemn biopic busts, it’s a treat to have one with color in its cheeks and a self-winking sneer in its lip.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #17- The Tragedy of Macbeth

Everyone take a bite of your nearest mutton leg (or vegetarian alternative), hoist a pewter mug full of mead, and roar out a mighty toast to the Year of Our Lord 2021, one of the greatest on record for Medieval Cinema! I’ve never been automatically in the tankard for tales of ye olden days, heavy with sword fights and knights and kings. If I’m being honest with myself, most of the Robin Hoods not featuring photogenic foxes or Mel Brooks songs have been non-starters for me and, like many, I had consumed my fill of Game of Thrones years before it ended. But when a good Middle Ages-adjacent tale works it works, and 2021 gave us a few special films to stir up the raucous warrior blood in the Medieval film genre. Ridley Scott gave us a wickedly modern skewering of fragile masculinity in The Last Duel and David Lowery may have made the best Arthurian movie of all time with The Green Knight. And, surprising nobody who has seen the delicious texture and tone he has brought to period pieces like True GritInside Llewyn Davis, Barton FinkO Brother Where Art Thou, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Miller’s Crossing, Joel Coen gave us another grippingly nuanced and inventive look into bygone times with The Tragedy of Macbeth. He has given us a reading of Shakespeare’s violently engaging masterwork that howls and moans with all the maniacally ominous glee of a crackling ghost story. A bloody and foreboding yarn so cynical and bleak that you almost feel elated by its sinister, primeval majesty. Both The Green Knight and Coen’s Macbeth aim to make us feel unsettled from the first seconds and in similar ways; a raspy feminine voice croaks archaic poetry at us from offscreen in a way that both repels us and invites us to lean forward to enjoy the old school pleasure of a dark, dangerous story. Both got right under my skin and made me light up like a little kid huddling by a campfire. Apparently Old World sagas recounted with heaping helpings of uncanny dread is a pleasure center I had forgotten I had, and one I hope to have engaged more in the near future. As I have noted before, 2021 gave a renewed good name to the period piece by taking journeys into history that were both aesthetically engaging and also worked with feverish imagination to connect those stories, costumed in period garb, to the present day. And very few films did a better job tying a centuries-old tale to the here and now than Joe Coen’s masterful voyage into Shakespearean calamity.

 

With some minor abridgements, The Tragedy of Macbeth is largely the same deliciously fatalistic “Scottish play” many of us probably first came across in high school. MacBeth (a terrific Denzel Washington, as weary and as ill-tempered as an old grizzly bear) is a great warrior and loyal subject of King Duncan. At the story’s beginning, he is fighting off the last of his leader’s enemies in a great war. For his valor, he is to be named the Thane (a land-holding nobleman) of Cawdor. On his way to receive his promotion, however, he and his war buddy Banquo come across three old “weird sisters (Coen’s rendition proposes the could also just be 3 parts of one troubled old woman’s Gollum-like personality). The witchy trio present Macbeth with the first of several prophecies: he shall hereafter become King of Scotland. This oracle gets into Macbeth’s head so thoroughly that the wine of his new title later that evening (King Duncan proclaims that his son Malcolm will be Scotland’s next ruler) turns to vinegar in his mouth. Instead of serving as the nice gold watch for decades of loyal service to the Crown, Macbeth now regards it as a crushing rejection.. Macbeth treks home to Castle Dunsinane and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand, having a lot of fun with her characteristically brusque take on the role) with blood-thirsty and bitter thoughts already stewing in his mind. King Duncan will soon be visiting them in their castle and their disappointment and desperation plants a vicious seed in their minds: kill King Duncan and claim the throne for themselves. And once that treacherous deed is done, the remaining bulk of the story is all the stuff of legendary falling action. Blood stains that won’t wash out. Frame jobs and feuding. A cauldron bubbling with more noxious prophecy to poison our protagonists last vestiges of reason. A forest marching to in unison against a fortress. It’s a bitter and senseless tale that, unlike Macbeth’s late assessment of his own sorry plight, signifies quite a lot. Few stories written have such a distressingly resigned stance on man’s cannibalistic urges toward his own species and the ways that power leads human beings to drunkenly lurch in the direction of their own undoing. Macbeth was not the first bloody game of thrones written, but it has a claim to being among the finest to ever muse on man’s cruel efforts to climb to the top of the heap, even when that heap turns out to be a pile of corpses.

 

The film is shot in black and white but, Bruno Delbonnel’s gob-smackingly godly, German Expressionism-evoking cinematography makes it all looks like pure gold. To watch The Tragedy of Macbeth is to see Joel Coen plugging his own distinct sensibilities and thematic obsessions into this classic story. I found myself delighted and only a little bit surprised to discover that the Coen touch is an absolutely perfect fit for Shakespeare’s cynical saga of power. In the Coen Brothers’ first film and masterpiece, Blood Simple, one character warns another that it is no simple thing to kill a person. He is speaking in that instance of making sure the job is done, lest your poor victim survive to turn the crosshairs back onto you. But the thorniness of causing another’s death only begins there. A Host of stories from Macbeth to Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart to myriad other Coen films remind and caution us (we vicarious armchair murderers) that sometimes, even when the job is done, it’s not really done. Our trail of guilt and incrimination does not go cold just because the body does. What is Lady Macbeth’s eternal “out, damned spot!” soliloquy if not the most famous example of a character learning too late the pesky complications of taking a human life. For most, the cost of killing is so psychically consuming that self-justification becomes a Sisyphean task; one that takes up the rest of our pitiful hours.. Lady Macbeth is understandably remembered as a coldly calculating schemer, but Coen’s direction and Frances McDormand able performance help us to remember the even more tragic shred of a person she becomes in the wake of her vile act. She has thrown herself, a frail and shivering child, into a violent brawl with her own hulking conscience and it only takes a matter of hours for the beast to leave her broken and lifeless inside the fortified walls of her own castle. And, while his wife is rapidly losing a duel with her own sense of self, King Macbeth is locked in an outward battle to protect himself from the immediate consequences of murder. What that means is he must commit even more murder, in a futile race to justify himself and insulate himself from the bloody evidence pointing toward his cursed house. By the time the Weird Sisters reenter the scene to fill his head with more suffocating swamp gas, it is already far too late for his attempt at self-cleasning to succeed. The seeds of his vice are already blowing out across the fields of Scotland. Even the bloody trees know what he’s done. And they’re coming to see him about it.

The hardest thing about a good Macbeth to my mind is that both Macbeths are, on their face, despicable. The first time I witnessed Shakespeare’s Scottish play read out loud by my Junior year Honors English class, I felt something was missing. No offense to us. I remember enjoying the morbid spectacle of it all, the twisty and sinister journey of mayhem and bloodshed. But it was also a nasty piece of work and it felt pretty easy to keep a distance from the sorrow of the play because the Macbeths were such plainly greedy, unredeemable sociopaths. One can picture a particularly basic 1500s attendee of the Globe Theater walking out and saying, “Gee, I thought the writing was good but Macbeth is such an unlikable person. Why should I care what happens to him?” Well, Joel Coen is an awe-inspiring wizard at getting us to care about some of the most distasteful, unpleasant characters in all of fiction. Fargo‘s Jerry Lundegaard is an absolute monster by the end, but it feels cruel to call him unlikable per se. He is broken, sad, impotent, and dumb. But our hearts also ache for him. What makes a plan-gone-wrong story so compelling in Joel Coen’s hands is how he manages to bring us into the stunted hearts and minds of some very amoral and short-sighted people; at regarding them with a critically honest kind of compassion. On that note, I will never have much patience for the school of thought that the Coens cruelly torture their characters. On the contrary, I think they torture them with the utmost empathy and insight. We are always given the chance to relate to these people up to a point. I will here echo the critics applauding Coen’s shrewd decision to make the Macbeths an older childless couple. We would never condone what the Macbeths do. Macbeth murders a dear, old friend for the sake of a title. But we are meant to feel their sense of panic and to see their jagged little wheels spinning. We see they, like a Jerry Lundegaard or a Llewyn Davis are nearing the back half of their lives with little to show for it. Like Llewyn Davis’s box of unsold records that he must now carry with him, whatever grand dreams the Macbeths have harbored for the future have turned to burdens over the dissatisfied years. I may not know much about what an aging Scottish general feels when he is passed over for the promotion that was supposed to give his life meaning, but I can see Macabeth’s face fall when Duncan passes the monarchy instead to his son. And I can see the pain in Lady Macbeths drawn face; maybe even the painful memory of a failed attempt at bearing children. And these people are monsters, make no mistake about it. But a Coen monster is a very human monster. To put a finer point on it, it often seems to be an overabundance of the human that brings the monster out in them. And in letting the Macbeths’ low-rent disappointment sink in before the dagger plungers into Duncan’s chest, Coen ears the right to truly call his Macbeth a tragedy.

Of course, some time between the murder of King Duncan’s bodyguards and the moment one of Macbeth’s own soldiers is throwing a rival’s child from the second story of a burning house, we stop feeling pity for the Macbeths. Dismay and revulsion take over, for King Macbeth is a revolting human being. By the time he reaches the end of his bloody, savage road and the oak leaves of Birnham Wood are blowing through Dunsinane’s cavernous halls, he has gone from a pathetic, manipulated monster to a vain and entitled one. Emboldened in the belief that he cannot be taken down, he has galloped well past the likes of a haphazard bringer of death and sadness like Jerry Lundegaard and is now discussing murder tactics with the likes of an Anton Chirgurh. And when I made note of that gruesome metamorphosis on my first viewing, that was the moment I concluded that Joel Coen had made another work of genius. (Just as an aside, if The Tragedy of Macbeth is to be labeled a minor Coen film, then the time is past due to find newer and more descriptive ways of discussing those films that happen to only rank in the back half of a near-perfect ouevre.) Coen had picked up a centuries-old play and seen two separate Coen archetypes in one man: the sad sack schemer down on his luck and the hellbent avatar of carnage. Jerry and Anton, there in the heart of one classic villain. He had found in Shakespeare’s blood-soaked saga a very Coenesque story of how men are emasculated by a desire for money and respect, how they cry out to be heard and recognized as serious men, how they overestimate their faculties and conspire to rise above their stations, and how all that impotent upward striving can so often turn us into bad men. Into doomed, damned and dead men.

And being damned and forsaken by God (or the howling void that marks the absence of God, whatever the case may be) might just be the most Coenesque element that Shakespeare’s play has to offer. I thought back on the Coens’ A Serious Man protagonist and Gob stand-in, Larry Gopnik, trying mightily and sincerely to find God’s presence out in the world, fearing that there may not be a Creator to witness his ordeals or hear his pleas, and eventually learning there could be worse things out there than an indifferent and godless Universe. By the time poor, put-upon Larry is staring down a cancer diagnosis and his only son is staring up into the funnel of a tornado, Coen has posed the hypothesis that we should maybe treat the search for God with the same guarded caution as the search for extraterrestrial life. That is to say, if we assume a higher power exists, can humans actually assume that said power cares about human life or even feels positively predisposed to humankind? Must God necessarily be like the cute, grey, almond eyed aliens of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or could he not just as easily be like the xenomorphs of Aliens? In Macbeth, the would-be King starts the play thinking he’s found a miracle; that the spiritual world has pierced the veil between Heaven and Earth to bestow a glorious, regal destiny upon him. He believes he is hearing a voice, though Shakespeare, ever ambiguous and open to interpretation, never settles whether that voice comes from God, a senile or malevolent old woman, the Devil, or the demons in Macbeth’s fragile head. The only thing of certainty is what happens to the Macbeths, whether you believe the cosmos leads them astray or, like so many greedy and frail dream-chasers before them, they just doom themselves. In a Joel Coen drama, the quest for gold and power tends to end poorly no matter what logic is guiding or justifying the quest. And both Divine Arithmetic and human calculation have an uncanny way of adding up to similarly dismaying sums.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #18- A Hero

The ascendance of Persian writer-director Asghar Farhadi over the last ten years, from hot upstart to reliable Oscar contender (he has two gold men for Foreign Language Film already) has been so steady that it almost feels like we cinephiles may already take him for granted. By the time he was accepting his second Academy Award for The Salesman in 2016, you could detect a whiff of the inevitable and the unhip to it; the sense that the Oscars were now just fully in the tank for Farhadi. As if he were Ron Howard, as opposed to one of cinema’s most exciting and consistently thoughtful chroniclers of human nature. We have the luxury of living in a world where an Asghar Farhadi film is a presumable Oscar heatseeker and, predictability aside, we’re all much the better for it. And, if there is a reason why a director with the prickly, nuanced humanism of a Persian Kenneth Lonergan has been so readily embraced even by the rarely prickly Oscars, it’s that there is something kind of undeniable about his films. You can feel it when you watch one. There is just something intuitively powerful and right about how candidly and potently he captures living, breathing human beings. Anecdotally, I remember speaking to a handful of friends in 2011, not long after A Separation had come out, and being quietly floored to find that they had sought out the film. None of them were what I’d call ravenous arthouse fans and I was rather surprised that an intricately plotted, densely verbal Iranian divorce drama had found its way to them. Not only had they seen it, they were ecstatic and effusive about it. And when I went to rewatch it, it made sense why they would be. Yes, the film was difficult in its subject matter and the simmering intensity of the characters’ plights, but the stuff of classic, old-school drama was right there on the screen. When you watch an Asghar Farhadi film unfold (and few directors working today are better at painstakingly unfolding a story), you get that know-it-when-you-see-it tingle. They required a modicum of patience, but they reward that patience with stories of human miscommunication and striving and faltering and trying to do better that just connect. They tap into something universal and relatable. I think what is spell-binding is how Asghar Farhadi can take stories happening in the very specific cultural and political environment of modern Iran, posit very pointed insights about Persian society, and also transcend that cultural setting to find themes that are powerful and timeless.

Before A Hero‘s poignant and eloquent themes have been unpacked, however, Asghar Farhadi is already doing what he may do better than anyone working: building himself a beautiful plot. The triumph of the film is in how it weaves together an intricate pattern of human actions and consequences that organically feed off one another in ways that feel honest and believable. This plot concerns Rahim (phenomenally played by Amir Jadidi), a recently divorced single father in the city of Shiraz. Rahim has just been released from debtor’s prison for a weekend furlough. While out, he has grand plans to make good with the man who had him jailed, a creditor who he owes 75,000 rial. His idea is to sell some gold coins that his girlfriend discovered at a bus stop to pay off all of his debt. However, a calculation issue at the local pawn shop leads Rahim to realize that he will not be able to pay his bitter debtholder back entirely. Instead, he decides to take the road of piety and leaves the coins with the police in hopes that they can be returned to the person who misplaced them. Instead of leaving his cell phone as a contact number, he leaves the number of his prison. As a result, when the coins are recovered (by a grateful woman who had hoped to use them to gain some financial independence from her domineering husband), news of Rahim’s good deed ends up reaching the prison. The warden and staff are all quite inspired by Rahim’s virtuous act, particularly because Rahim could have used the coins to help repay part of his debt. The prison, which has its own public relations reasons for wanting to publicize Rahim’s kindness, calls a news affiliate to report on the story and Rahim suddenly finds himself out of jail and embraced as a national celebrity. A charity is collecting to help pay the rest of his debt, a cushy government job offer is in the works, his concerned sister and brother-in-law have regained respect for him, and he seems to be in the good graces of just about every man, woman and child in Iran. One notable exception is Bahram (an excellent Mohsen Tanabandeh), the man he owes the money to and also brother to Rahim’s ex-wife. This stern man is openly suspicious that Rahim is not acting openly. It’s partly the byproduct of their soured business relationship (the opportunity went under, though Rahim insists he was not at fault) and Bahram’s feelings of vicarious resentment on behalf of his sister. But we sense that, his temper and bias against Rahim aside, Bahram is not entirely wrong in his skepticism. Farhadi films are patient and unfailingly observant; they do not tune any information out, regardless of which character is presenting  it. A formulaically plotted version of this story might posit Bahram as nothing more than an antagonistic obstacle to Rahim’s freedom, but A Hero chafes against the unfairness of that notion.  After all, Bahram may look like the ill-tempered creditor, but wasn’t he originally just a generous man who took on debt to help his former brother-in-law and then suffered for it when everything fell apart? Farhadi films remind us that the dramatic notion of a single protagonist is something of a deception because everyone is the protagonist of their own story. If you’ve seen one of Farhadi’s marvelous films, you know that any clear-cut idea of heroes and villains has no place in them. Any bold lines between characters we are meant to sympathize with and ones we are meant to resent are bound to get blurred in short order.

 

And, while Farhadi is gradually allowing flecks of mud to spatter onto Rahim’s saintly Samaritan story, he is also adding nuanced plot complications. While Rahim has most of the money he needs to settle his debt, he will still need the job the charity is setting him up with to make the last of the payments. But when the hiring manager asks to cross-check Rahim’s story with the woman he allegedly returned the gold to, the narrative starts to fray. Because Rahim wasn’t the one to meet the woman (his sister met her along with Rahim’s developmentally disabled son), and the woman left no telephone number, which of course could look suspicious. Maybe she did that for her own secrecy (we know that she feared her husband finding out about the coins) or maybe Rahim put together an act of kindness to repair his own sullied reputation. And now maybe Rahim’s decision to have the woman call the prison looks a little more like a calculated act of grandstanding for his own gain. And while this detailed array of moving parts is coming together, at first to our protagonist’s benefit and then just as quickly against him, Farhadi’s characters are making mistakes. As people do. Mistrusting each other and accusing each other and getting in their own way. The wonder of an elaborate Farhadi plot is that there is never a feeling of contrivance. It’s all the seemingly natural result of fallible human behavior; sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes borne of petty emotions, but always recognizably human. It is a talent I stand utterly in awe of. The ability to turn the wheel of plot effortlessly so that one decision seamlessly brings us to the next, and yet to be in control of that seemingly invisible process. To make it seem like your film is off-roading away from any kind of pre-scripted path and then to arrive somewhere so powerful and revealing that you can’t help wondering if the writer really did end up right where they intended to go after all.

It’s not just A Hero‘s eventual resolution, both sweetly tender and heartbreakingly tough, that resonates. As the sleek engine of its script design purrs along through each bracing twist and turn, Farhadi finds windows into humanity and psychology and morality the whole way. Among other things, A Hero is one of the greatest films I’ve seen about overnight celebrity and the social media age. Think of how leadenly and obviously a great many films have tried to shoehorn Facebook and Twitter into their plots over the years (look at Don’t Look Up‘s inscrutable, cursed boomer mishmash of Internet montages for the latest example) and then marvel not only at how organically the phenomena of tweets and viral videos shape A Hero‘s plot, but also how much of the viral age is at the core of what Farhadi’s film is grasping toward. Namely, Farhadi wants to examine the way we rush to adjust our perceptions of a person’s character in response to a constant, often contradictory torrent of information. Even the film’s simple title, A Hero, feels like a sardonic smirk at the fallacy of trying to categorize things too neatly. It’s a dunk on the fallacy that complex human beings can be cleanly grouped under simple archetypes. As uncharitable as he seems, Bahran is right about one thing: Rahim’s overnight development into a national good guy inevitably paints Bahran as the miserly asshole. And neither label comes close to telling the real story of who they are. The film sees in social media not just new ways of processing facts and stories but the prevalence of some ancient human habits, like vanity and the need to sculpt a public-facing image for ourselves. To design a version of ourselves that others can accept and that we can life with. Rahim, the prison, and even the charity are all forced to grapple with the omnipresence of social media and all of their decisions and conundrums are the product of living in an age where our decisions reverberate far beyond their immediate effects. Every self-benefiting choice that a character wants to present as completely noble has its layers of self-interest stripped bare and revealed. And even those choices that may have been done without selfish reasoning have their purity called into question. It is the inherent result of living in a world so public that scrutiny is widespread and so interconnected that our actions cannot help but collide and commingle with the actions of others. And the collision of human behavior may be the most Farhadian theme there is.

That sense of the epic tangle of humanity is what allows Asghar Farhadi to sculpt this explicitly 21st century parable into something that could also feel at home in the plays of Chekov or on some ancient Greek stage. There is a curious scene in the opening minutes of A Hero, just after Rahim has been temporarily released. He goes to visit his brother-in-law at work to propose the idea of paying off his debt. His brother-in-law happens to do archaeological preservation at an ancient tomb, the massive and awe-inspiring Naqsh-e Rostam. His current place of work happens to be some hundred feet above the ground and Rahim must makes his way up a wooden scaffold erected against the wall of this lofty historical wonder. This ancient site doesn’t affect the rest of the film in any way. Rahim’s brother-in-law could just as easily have worked in an office park or a laboratory or a school. But Asghar Farhadi chooses to set this scene here, to include this ancient glimpse of a civilization long past. This has the effect of making us think of all the people who were here before. People who occupied this same city, same ground and same space for centuries and centuries before the characters of A Hero were even born. And it made me reflect on how some of those ancient humans might well have had stories fundamentally similar to Rahim’s. People in jail. Someone who can’t catch up with her debts. A man trying to patch together his broken reputation. A Samaritan. A saint. A con man. Walking the streets of Shiraz separate from each other or all inside the heart of a single citizen. That briefly glimpsed, seemingly extraneous tomb may be Asghar Farhadi calling his shot. He’s telling us that he is striving to make something that is timeless, its deep themes so rooted in the human condition as to be transplantable to any age in human history. Maybe I’m being hyperbolic by saying you could reimagine a Farhadi drama at any point in human history, the same way people do with Shakespearean plays. But also, maybe the comparison is not an undeserving one. Both can be simultaneously true. Asghar Farhadi would certainly approve of that notion.

After all its moral complexities have been meditated on and chewed over, what lies at the heart of A Hero is a story about the difficulty of trying to do the right thing. One of the oldest metaphors for a life lived virtuously is the straight and narrow path, but Farhadi’s films critique that image. In Farhadi’s rich, multi-faceted moral universes, the right thing seems much less straightforward.  In A Hero‘s first act, Rahim thinks he has found an easy way to free himself from jail; a way to start a new life with his loving girlfriend and to reunited with his son. What his ordeal teaches him, in ways both harsh and true, is that the truly virtuous path takes a lot of discipline and self-sacrifice. It will likely mean that Rahim cannot have the freedom he thought he was so close to gaining just yet. To many eyes, the ending of A Hero might feel merciless, but I also found a small sliver of hope to it. Rahim does end the film in a better place, even if it is not as ideal a position as the one he thought he could maneuver his way into. But he does have people who love him and he finds a new sense of ownership over his own past mistakes and the ways that he can do better in the future. And there is a kind of freedom in that realization that we can only hope will sustain him until he finds the more overt, physical freedom that he wants. The pathway to redemption he thought he had found may have been a mirage. But that does not mean that the real pathway to a better life does not exist.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #20- The Rescue

Some time after November 2020 and after the uneasy haze of paranoia and exhausted hope that was December, someone with a Twitter handle felt confident enough to say a few optimistic, forward-looking words. What they said was that, whatever the Biden Administration had in store over the next few years, they were tentatively eager to return to some semblance of competence. That matters would once more be conducted, however soullessly, greedily or bureaucratically, by people who believed in a rule of law and a certain time-tested way of doing things. It might end up being as enjoyable and inspiring as a visit to the DMV, but there was an immediate feeling of relief in even returning to that grinding, hidebound state of affairs. DMV’s may be soul-crushingly clinical, unsympathetic and slow, but they are at least rarely chaotic. One year and change later, there are arguments to be made about how functional and competent the new regime has been and also how much blame is to be apportioned between the slow bureaucrats and the remaining agents of craven chaos that still gleefully tie the bureaucracy’s shoelaces together. But I bring this all up because there is something resonant in the desire to be surrounded by people who are at least trying to get a job done. Who want to be functional at their roles, even if that function can seem limited and indifferent to the bigger picture. It struck me while watching The Rescue, 2021’s best documentary, what a comfort there is to be had in watching smart, capable people come together to do something helpful for the greater good. Chalk it up to four years of obstructionism and sabotage by our own leadership, but I felt a serenity in The Rescue, at the same time that my heart was palpitating with it. The year’s most claustrophobically tense cinematic offering took on the peaceful vibes of a YouTube ASMR video at certain points. What times we live in when a white knuckle disaster film can take on the warm glow of comfort food!

 

As they demonstrated with their Academy Award-winning masterpiece Free Solo, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have a knack for balancing unbearable tension and laidback empathy. Free Solo had me grinning and gripping my seat rest in roughly equal measure. The Rescue achieves a similar feat and throws in a heaping handful of tearful catharsis too. It’s a promising development in their relatively young careers (the husband and wife team had made one previous climbing documentary together, 2011’s Meru, before really breaking out with Free Solo a few years ago), showing a hunger not just for documenting great feats of adventuring but for infusing those tales of derring-do with humanity and swelling emotion. Many of you probably still recall the global news event that sets The Rescue into motion. In 2018, twelve adolescent boys from a Thai soccer team, as well as their assistant coach, went spelunking into one of the many gorgeously labyrinthine caves that snake under the limestone Doi Nang Non Mountains of Northern Thailand. The plan was simply to explore and throw a birthday picnic for one of the players while they were down there. However, a sudden outbreak of heavy rainfall flooded the caves and left the team trapped some two-and-a-half miles inside the snaking system of tunnels. A myriad of concerned citizens of the world, from the Thai Navy to a mass of international volunteers to religious leaders, all flocked to the caves to lend their efforts, but the barrage of rain from the beginning monsoon season and the beyond-challenging conditions inside the cave (One subject says just swimming beyond the entrance felt like navigating whitewater) meant that the prospects for the boys’ survival were grim. As fortune had it, one local was an older British man with a peculiar hobby: cave diving. His niche interest had put him in contact with Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, two of the biggest fish in this exceedingly small and dangerous pond. The story of how two British men ended up unofficially spearheading a miraculous rescue effort in the Thai Highlands and the cavalcade of obstacles they faced is a thing I dare not ruin with over-explanation. Suffice to say that The Rescue can stand alongside Apollo 13 in the annals of great and rousingly meticulous problem-solver cinema. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s tremendously detailed true yarn has so many thrilling and fascinating twists, it makes a rescue film like The Martian seem sedate by comparison. I had truly forgotten the simple, weepy joys of watching intelligent people out-maneuver certain doom and, for reasons as topical as COVID and as universal as the joy of seeing human tenacity in action, it felt positively rejuvenating to watch it happen.

 

Of course, the “watch it happen” of it all is itself a minor miracle of filmmaking. For, as you may well have put together by now, Vasarhelyi and Chin did not just happen to be in northern Thailand when this thrilling saga went down. Nor would they have been inside the caves filming the rescue if they had been. The challenge of being in these caves at the time was so perilous that only a small handful of experts in an extremely niche subculture could even think to attempt it, and even they knew they were taking their lives into their hands. What we have then is a work of non-fiction built substantially out of dramatization, in order to recreate the astounding experience of bodies moving through those narrow spaces and brackish, unforgiving waters. If Free Solo felt at times cinematically modest outside of its thrilling El Capitan climax, The Rescue announces that Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin can move a few mountains of their own when they need to. It is incredible to see the scope of what they’ve recreated here, but even more jaw-dropping is that I rarely snapped out of my reverie (or back from the edge of my seat) long enough to even register that what I was seeing was being dramatized at all. That is partly an accomplishment of bravura technical filmmaking, but it is even more a credit to the fact that The Rescue’s spectacle and scope are secondary tools on its utility belt. Because what really makes this film soar is the richness of its Swiss timepiece plot and the empathetic way it gives its subjects character beats within that plot. The way it creates a delicious party mix of narrative surprise, humor, and human reflection is a reminder that, while Vasarhelyi and Chin may seem to be operating within their own niche area of thrill-seeking outdoorsmanship, it is folly to pigeon-hole them; to see the National Geographic production title at the beginning of the film and think we already have them pegged. Their work feels too emotionally transcendent to be filed under either sports or nature. They have my blessing to never make a single film without a harness or crampon, so long as they are all rendered with this much heart and vibrant empathy.

 

That ineffably soulful and positive seam that runs through The Rescue and Free Solo is important in the same way feeling the safety mechanism snug against your chest at the start of a rollercoaster ride is important. When you find yourself about to zoom away on a journey with this much breath-catching storytelling velocity and with stakes this high, it’s important to feel a little security. To know that you are in safe, responsible hands. Because our adventurous directing duo have clearly absorbed enough of the world’s thrills themselves (Jimmy Chin’s feats include scaling Mount Everest) to know how to transmit that adrenalized feeling to their audience. In the back of our minds, we know that The Rescue will end happily, just as surely as we know that Free Solo is not the sad tale of Alex Honnold falling to his death from El Capitan, but Vasarhelyi and Chin tighten a screw with such diabolical glee that it is easy to forget about happy outcomes for a couple unbearably fraught hours. They are deft at keeping us locked in the moment and they build this story with the patience of Lego enthusiasts. As hesitant as I am to spoil a single beat of this plot, perhaps we can open just one Christmas present early, in the name of showing just what a fantastically constructed adrenaline machine The Rescue is. The first time our two hellbent hobbyists enter the cave (I could write an entire essay on how Vasarhelyi and Chin stand in awe of death-courting obsessive while never entirely letting their psyches off the hook), they find people there in one of the first chambers. These are not the trapped boys, but four grown men; utility workers who were unable to escape when the flooding began. The men are thankfully alive, but the British divers have to extract them by carrying them underwater to the safety of the entrance. It’s a relatively short distance away, but the process is nearly disastrous. The men thrash against their saviors and reflexively bang their heads against the cave ceiling in a claustrophobic panic. One diver describes the process as akin to an underwater wrestling match. A detail like this adds so much to an already gripping and full-to-bursting story. For one thing, it adds a marvelously scary dash of color to a narrative that was never not tense to begin with. Beyond that, it organically complicates the already sticky matter of the rescue, for the divers now realize that any kind of simple extraction effort is doomed to fail. What barely worked with a few grown men for a few minutes can hardly be expected to work with a dozen scared boys over the course of some four hours. And then, beyond mere story mechanics, the anecdote with the utility workers invites our imaginations to recoil at the agonizing detail of it all. The distance, the darkness, the terrible animalistic fear that anyone would feel in that situation. Which is why only this small group of awkward Britons with strange, specifically wired brains can even conceive of going on this excruciating odyssey. Which then makes it feel all the more fiendishly inconceivable that Vasrhelyi and Chin are sending us with our squishy, non-thrill-seeker brains down there with them. Before we can arrive back in the sweet safety of The Rescue’s joyfully tearjerking finale, we must first endure one heart attack of a dark story ride. The only way back to Gepetto’s Workshop is through the belly of the whale.

But what a delight it is to arrive at the other end of it, born anew and baptized in some combination of cold sweat and salty tears. It’s a lovely feeling to have experienced all the slow-building tension and terror and to feel the release and to laugh at the harrowing ordeal we have allowed ourselves to experience vicariously. The Rescue takes a near disaster and makes it so entertaining that it almost feels indecent. But once you’ve see it, one cannot imagine trading it for something more staid, studied, and conventionally inspirational. And I would not trade Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin as filmmakers for anyone less given to heightened sensations. In a world full of talking head documentaries (and The Rescue has its own fair share of talking heads), I don’t know that I will ever begrudge a documentarian for seeking something more ecstatic than just bare facts. As I begin to salute the great artists of 2021, I am so pleased to count two journalists who can tell a story in strokes of passion, spectacle and emotion. As I noted with 2020’s masterful documentary, Honeyland, you know you have a brilliant documentary on your hands when you can picture it being every bit as rich and interesting if the story were pure fiction. Every documentary filmmaker has an obligation to present the facts honestly, but the truth need not be an obstacle to dynamic storytelling. The great ones take the facts and paint with them.

To put it another way, any story probably has more possible details and nuances – more truth inside of it -than a single film can encompass. The art of telling a great non-fiction story lies in carefully curating the facts and deciding which ones to give emphasis. The Rescue even acknowledges that, outside of its central story of these UK divers, there were many thousands of people who were no less vital to the survival of those boys. Before the divers could even begin their rescue, armies of volunteers had to methodically take strips of tarp and plug up cracks in the hillside to keep more water from falling into the caves. A mass of people came together to literally seal a mountain and it is but a single detail in The Rescue’ s intricate plot. Think what a story that would make! Then a wise religious elder came when all hope seemed lost and he led everyone in days of prayer to calm the monsoons and, would you believe it, it worked! What a gorgeous look at the age-old dialect between faith, reason, spiritualism, and science that would make! The Rescue honors a multitude of selfless human beings even as it sticks primarily to the action-packed business of an adventurous few. It recalls a film like Clint Eastwood’s underrated Sully in how it finds heroism not only in the death-defying but in simple acts of discipline and professionalism. Beyond mere competence, the film seems possessed of a more noble spirit. Call it generosity. Call it community. Call it anything but indifference. The film sees more love, compassion and ingenuity in this tale than it can possibly unpack in two hours. It leaves those other wonderful wrinkles for the next storyteller to more fully unfold. Just add water.