Films Watched, January 2021

Housekeeping

For me, January is usually a mad rush of consuming recent titles from my watchlist before submitting my Chlotrudis Awards nominations; despite the pandemic, this year was no exception. In fact, my number of eligible films seen was the highest it has been since 2006, which makes sense given I’ve viewed over 300 titles at home since things first shut down last March.

The best of this year’s recently-watched bounty: Kajillionaire (Miranda July, Richard Jenkins, Evan Rachel Wood playing a character named “Old Dolio”—what’s not to like?), Sorry We Missed You (never thought Ken Loach would seem more essential than Mike Leigh at this phase of their careers), Beanpole (Russian miserabilism, beautifully shot and not without humor), The Planters (Wes Anderson-ian in the best ways) and She Dies Tomorrow, which, while imperfect, is at least an original (and timely) take on apocalyptic dread. Also, two titles worth subscribing to Apple TV for: Wolfwalkers, a stirring Irish animated epic and Boys State, an engrossing doc that’s a complete microcosm of modern American politics in male teen Texan form.

A subscription to HBO Max (for Wonder Woman 1984, natch) enabled me to catch Bad Education (if this is the template for Hugh Jackman’s post-Wolverine career, more, please) and much buzzed-about docs on The Bee Gees and Jane Fonda; meanwhile, a deal on a subscription to MUBI, a very different streaming service, gave me an excuse to finally watch The Holy Mountain (exhausting but often inspired madness) and Terrorizers (an Edward Yang film that’s more technically accomplished but less emotionally satisfying than Taipei Story from the previous year) and revisit Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives. The latter, which I hadn’t seen in over 20 years, naturally led to breaking out my Blu-ray of The Long Day Closes (last watched about 7 years ago.) One of the most groundbreaking filmmakers of the last half-century, and a reminder that I want to revisit his third feature, The Neon Bible, also on MUBI.

Revisited an above-average amount of films this month, most notably two mid-70s features from John Cassavetes: A Woman Under The Influence (still his masterwork) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a deep-dive into a very particular Sunset Strip sleaze, tempered by the director’s most heartfelt and elaborate commentary on being part of a cast and putting on a show. From roughly the same period, also watched Chinatown for the first time this century, which holds up nicely as a blend of classic and New Hollywood sensibilities. Gillian Armstrong’s inexplicable New Wave musical Starstruck remains a curio, while Bill Forsyth’s good, underseen adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s great novel Housekeeping should be as renown and beloved as Local Hero.

Films viewed in January in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches.

Midnight Family (Luke Lorentzen, 2019) 6
Death to 2020 (Al Campbell, Alice Mathias, 2020) 3
A Woman Under The Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)* 10
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011)* 8
Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach, 2019) 8
Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997) 8
She Dies Tomorrow (Amy Seimetz, 2020) 7
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (Frank Marshall, 2020) 7
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, 2019) 6
Make Way For Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937) 8
Kajillionaire (Miranda July, 2020) 8
Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)* 10
Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again (Ol Parker, 2018) 3
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, 2020) 6
Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, 2019) 8
Un Flic (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972) 6
Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, 2020) 8
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Cassavetes, 1976)* 8
Time (Garrett Bradley, 2020) 7
The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973) 8
Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (Martha Kehoe, Joan Tosoni, 2019) 6
Boys State (Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss, 2020) 8
Housekeeping (Bill Forsyth, 1987)* 9
Cuties (Maimouna Doucoure, 2020) 6
Bad Education (Cory Finley, 2019) 8
The Forty-Year-Old Version (Radha Blank, 2020) 6
The Planters (Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder, 2019) 8
Red, White and Blue (Steve McQueen, 2020) 8
Terrorizers (Edward Yang, 1986) 6
Starstruck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982)* 7
Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988)* 8
The Long Day Closes (Davies, 1992)* 10
Jane Fonda In Five Acts (Susan Lacy, 2018) 7
Let Them All Talk (Steven Soderbergh, 2020) 6

Favorite Films of 2020

As always, “2020” is relative. Many of these titles have a copyright date of 2019 (a few even go back to 2018!) My #1 film received its initial theatrical release in 2019 but did not play my town until last February; likewise, most people won’t get to see my #3 film until it hits VOD and Hulu this February, although I had the fortune to view it at virtual TIFF last September. With exhibition presently and continually being redefined due to COVID, think of this as a list of the best new movies of the past year, including those that I could not have seen any earlier.

1. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
Celine Sciamma’s exquisite 18th century romance between two women, an artist (Noémie Merlant) and her subject (Adèle Haenel) gains so much power from taking the slow burn route, deploying all of its accoutrements sparingly, letting the connection between its two leads develop organically so that when it first reaches a crescendo in the astonishing feast scene midway through, one can’t help but be fully engaged in their fate. And, as that actual fate becomes apparent, it’s near-impossible not to feel and absorb the mad rush of emotions practically emanating from the screen, culminating in a simple but profound, powerful final shot.

2. SOUND OF METAL
Ruben, a noise-rock drummer (Riz Ahmed) loses his hearing—a succinct, seemingly clear-cut premise that director/co-writer Darius Marder (in an astonishing feature debut) expands and permutates into a far-reaching but compellingly interior study of losing control and the lengths we’ll go in order to retain it. Anchored by Ahmed’s terrific, immersive performance and buoyed by Paul Raci as his unsentimental counselor, Sound of Metal is a journey whose depth you would rarely find in a studio film; it’s also one of the best ever movies about addiction.

3. NOMADLAND
If anything, an advance on Chloe Zhao’s last film, The Rider, and not necessarily because she’s now working with an Oscar-winning actress (though McDormand is the best possible one for this type of project.) Nomadland retains the earlier film’s willingness to observe and illuminate rather than judge or persuade. Lyrical but not pretty, sorrowful but not miserable, reflective but not static, it may take place in 2012, but it fully embodies an era of American life that’s still with us and continues to unfold.

4. FIRST COW
This has a gentle, gestating narrative that requires patience, but it also rewards those who become invested in the fate of a 19th century cook (John Magaro) and a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) as they become unlikely friends and form an impromptu business partnership. What they build is forever precariously hanging by a string due to the titular animal that makes their potential fortune possible. By applying such high stakes to such richly detailed “slow” cinema, First Cow ends up filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s most fully realized effort in years, possibly ever.

5. BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS
The Ross Brothers nearly outdo themselves with their latest documentary, a fly-on-the-wall account of the last day of business for a Las Vegas dive bar. Initially resembling a Frederick Wiseman-directed, much seedier version of Cheers, it eventually reveals the all-too-human behavior of the bar’s assorted patrons, for good and for ill. To divulge anything more would spoil what the Ross’s are actually up to here; I will note that, watching this on November 3rd, it confirmed for me the character and compassion that I know my country is capable of.

6. BACURAU
Defying categorization, this references a variety of classic films but gradually reveals itself as a neo-take on one particular genre (it’s best to come into it not knowing what that is.) A fervent chaos surfaces in often thrilling ways–a drunken speech at a funeral, an unexpectedly brutal death, a certain 80s pop song on the soundtrack (also too good to give away here.) Bold, slightly erratic, gorgeous and, of all things, nearly as tuned into the modern world and its growing social-economic divide as Parasite.

7. AND THEN WE DANCED
This Georgian import focuses on Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), an aspiring competitive dancer who falls for a new nonconformist male member of his troupe. It owes a lot to Call Me By Your Name, from the intense flirtation that develops between the two to Merab’s sympathetic faux-girlfriend. Fortunately, And Then We Danced easily transcends homage, not only by nature of telling its particular story in a culture where it is still highly taboo, but also in its Georgian dance sequences and in particular, that rapturous finale.

8. DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA
Initially thought this was going to be a lesser Stop Making Sense; while any kind of concert ex-Talking Heads frontman Byrne attempts will always live in its shadow, by the end of this, I was overcome by the same adrenaline rush I felt the first time I saw the Demme film. The humaneness and goodwill on display here may or may not resonate as effectively when viewed ten or twenty years from now; presently, it feels immense, a celebration of rhythm as the great unifier.

9. HAM ON RYE
A group of teens converge for a party at a local deli, and that’s arguably the only conventional aspect of Tyler Taormina’s auspicious debut feature. Simultaneously comforting and unnerving, it’s a fully-formed world both carefully resembling and greatly diverging from our own. Nearly as unique as (and far less upsetting than), say, Blue Velvet, it builds towards a ritualistic sequence that filled me with joy while also leaving me with so many questions (What was in those sandwiches? Is this what happens to Mormons?)

10. HOUSE OF HUMMINGBIRD
A working class study blessed by both a great lead performance from Ji-hu Park and writer/director Bora Kim’s nuanced, humanistic approach. Set in the ‘90s, it follows a teenage girl going through some ordinary but substantial issues with her family, friends and school—kind of like a South Korean Eighth Grade, only set in pre-internet/social media times. Mixing Mike Leigh-style class critique and Ozu-esque domestic drama with great finesse, this belongs on a short list of essential coming-of-age films.

11. BOYS STATE
This documentary about a conference of a thousand teenage boys from Texas who come together in state capital Austin to build a mock government complete with elected officials is thrillingly a total microcosm of the current American political climate.

12. COLLECTIVE
Can’t remember the last film (or documentary, no less) where I gasped or whispered “wow…” out loud so many times. This alarming level of corruption took place in Romania, but it could also all too easily happen here (and arguably has.)

13. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
As for scenes that explain the title of a curiously-titled film, this is one of the best–certainly the most harrowing and effective in recent memory.

14. WOLFWALKERS
A gorgeous, 2D-drawn fantasy set in 17th century Kilkenny, centered around a conflict between the townspeople and a wolfpack. Forgive me for being sappy, but it genuinely warmed my heart like little else I’ve seen in the past year.

15. KAJILLIONAIRE
Give Miranda July credit for continuing to follow her own peculiar path and not succumb to working-for-hire or diluting her quirks for a mass audience. With a novel hook and a great ensemble, it even resonates in ways one can hardly predict at the onset.

16. STRAIGHT UP
Name-dropping Gilmore Girls in the first fifteen minutes reveals director/writer/actor James Sweeney’s core aesthetic, but he both conceives of and (with his cast) delivers the rapid-fire dialogue superbly without it coming off as secondhand.

17. ANOTHER ROUND
This latest Vinterberg/Mikkelsen pairing nimbly shifts between humor, satire and despair—a funny, sad, engaging and fully dimensional study of male mid-life crises.

18. BLACK BEAR
Aubrey Plaza in this film is not as amazing as Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr, but she’s really, really close.

19. LOVERS ROCK
So much pure, unadulterated joy in this–certainly more than in any other McQueen film I’ve seen.

20. MR. SOUL!
Stellar, entertaining doc about an old public television show you probably don’t know but should. Ellis Haizlip is an unsung hero of his time; this gives him his due.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

76 DAYS
BAD EDUCATION
BEANPOLE
CAT IN THE WALL
CITY HALL
CRIP CAMP
DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD
DRIVEWAYS
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS
MOUTHPIECE
THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF
THE PLANTERS
RED, WHITE & BLUE
SORRY WE MISSED YOU
TIME
THE VAST OF NIGHT

Film Journal: December 2020

Tesla

Normally, we’d be at the height of Awards Season; instead, the cinema landscape’s still in limbo, with a selective assortment of VOD and streaming titles battling it out. Sound of Metal, one of my favorites of the year, would’ve surely received a buzz-building theatrical release in any other year instead of going straight to Amazon Prime, right? (Right?) Well, as the past few years of Netflix interference have shown, no matter the venue, Riz Ahmed’s intuitive, elaborate performance would still receive deserved across-the-board critical accolades.

Small Axe is a different story, as it further blurs the movie/TV line as an anthology series made for Amazon but with each of its five feature-length installments standing on their own. I made a point to see Lovers Rock because it’s by far the most acclaimed (and also the shortest), and I’ll get to the other four, if not within the next few weeks before I post my year-end list—even without cinemas, there’s no shortage of good stuff to watch, from the alarming, mesmerizing Romanian doc Collective to Brexit-informed London immigrant drama Cat In The Wall, plus titles that played VOD earlier in the year like the superlative Georgian Call Me By Your Name-inspired And Then We Danced or the Mexican subculture study I’m No Longer Here.

As usual for the season, I spent the week leading up to Christmas watching holiday-themed flicks, including the month’s only two re-watches, Going My Way and Holiday, the latter more of a New Year’s Eve film that excels chiefly by the charm of its cast. Among the discoveries, The Holly and The Ivy, a 1952 British film that anticipates the kitchen sink realism later in the decade more than it revels in the romanticism of the prior one and Remember The Night, a Preston Sturges-written, pre-Double Indemnity pairing up of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck that’s far less cookie-cutter than you’d expect for the era.

Biggest misses included the almost universally reviled Wonder Woman 1984 (which makes Stranger Things look like Blue Velvet) and David Lynch’s Lost Highway, the first of his films to leave me cold. On the other hand, a few pleasant surprises: legendary new wave rock flop Times Square, which feels more like a butchered-by-its-studio art film than an exploitation film; Coco, easily my favorite Pixar since Ratatouille and The Incredibles; Possessed, more proof of Joan Crawford’s acting prowess; Family Plot, more evidence as to why Barbara Harris should’ve been a far more prominent ‘70s screwball icon; and Tesla, which didn’t go as far as it could’ve in the revisionist/deliberately anachronistic department, but I will not soon forget an insular, deeply in character Ethan Hawke-as-Tesla performing a karaoke version of a certain Tears For Fears song.

Films viewed in December in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches.

The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin, 2019) 7
Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955) 8
I’m No Longer Here (Fernando Frias, 2019) 7
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (Stephen Nomura Schible, 2017) 6
Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, 2019) 10
Collective (Alexander Nanau, 2019) 9
Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980) 7
Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock, 1976) 7
The Social Dilemma (Jeff Orlowski, 2020) 5
Guest of Honour (Atom Egoyan, 2019) 7
Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997) 5
Wander Darkly (Tara Miele, 2020) 6
Tesla (Michael Almereyda, 2020) 7
Christmas Survival (James Dearden, 2018) 4
Small Axe: Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen, 2020) 8
Words on Bathroom Walls (Thor Freudenthal, 2020) 7
Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940) 8
Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993) 6
The Holly and the Ivy (George More O’Ferrall, 1952) 7
Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947) 7
Holiday (George Cukor, 1938)* 9
Holiday Affair (Don Hartman, 1949) 7
Going My Way (Leo McCarey, 1944)* 6
Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins, 2020) 4
Coco (Lee Unkrich, 2017) 8
Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007) 8
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin, 2019) 9
Times Square (Allan Moyle, 1980) 7
Cat In The Wall (Vesela Kazakova, Mina Mileva, 2019) 8

Film Journal: November 2020

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Two new movies this month that will likely make my year-end top ten: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which “captures” the last day of business at a Las Vegas dive bar, and David Byrne’s American Utopia, Spike Lee’s filmed concert that can’t avoid comparisons to Stop Making Sense but in the end transforms into its own thing. Each one represents the spirit of contemporary America in vastly different ways, but both strive to depict the best versions of ourselves—a welcome necessity in these challenging times.

As for the other fourteen new titles viewed, they run the gamut from pleasantly average (Happiest Season, Uncle Frank, Fire Will Come) to pretty-but-disappointing (The Sunlit Night, Little Fish, Coming Home Again) to forgettable (Freeland) and godawful (Holidate, no thank you.) Martin Eden and Monsoon are intriguing if imperfect character studies; Crip Camp is an above-average Netflix doc; at 275(!) minutes, Wiseman’s latest marathon doc City Hall is at least 100 minutes too long, but the remaining 175 are essential.

Begun in October, my “Marlon Mondays” continued through the very end of this month, with the prizes being Riggs’ swan song, Black Is…Black Ain’t and eight-minute music video Anthem, where not one second is wasted within that slender frame. The posthumous documentary on him is a solid overview but no substitution for the work itself, of course.

Only two re-watches, both of them titles expiring on Criterion Channel: Red Road remains a stunning debut feature for Andrea Arnold (with superb work from lead Kate Dickie), who would nonetheless surpass it with Fish Tank; Parting Glances, which I last saw 20+ years ago, is a true curiosity, a pre-New Queer Cinema queer indie (starring a young Steve Buscemi, improbably) whose director, Bill Sherwood, would sadly not live to make another one.

Also, I finally got around to watching Variety, another ‘80s NYC curiosity (co-starring a young Luis Guzman!), Modern Romance (now my favorite Brooks film after Defending Your Life), Smooth Talk (Laura Dern brilliant even as a teenager), Girlfriends (young Melanie Mayron is the anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl and I love her for it) and Autumn Leaves, which has one of Joan Crawford’s best late-career performances—proof she was good for more than camp at that age.

Films viewed in November in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches.

Little Fish (Chad Hartigan, 2020) 6
Freeland (Kate McLean, Mario Furloni, 2020) 4
Anthem (Marlon Riggs, 1991) 8
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Turner Ross Bill Ross IV, 2020) 9
Variety (Bette Gordon, 1983) 7
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Nicole Newnham, James Lebrecht, 2020) 8
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Jason Woliner, 2020) 7
Long Train Running: A History of the Oakland Blues (Riggs, Peter Webster, 1981) 6
Modern Romance (Albert Brooks, 1981) 8
Coming Home Again (Wayne Wang, 2019) 5
Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, 2019) 7
Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956) 8
Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013) 5
Fisherman’s Friends (Chris Foggin, 2019) 6
Holidate (John Whitesell, 2020) 3
Black Is… Black Ain’t (Riggs, 1994) 9
City Hall (Frederick Wiseman, 2020) 8
Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986)* 8
Monsoon (Hong Khaou, 2019) 7
Girlfriends (Claudia Weill, 1978) 9
The Sunlit Night (David Wnendt, 2019) 4
Smooth Talk (Joyce Chopra, 1985) 8
I-94 (Gordon, James Benning, 1974) 5
No Regret (Riggs, 1993) 7
Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)* 8
Happiest Season (Clea DuVall, 2020) 6
Uncle Frank (Alan Ball, 2020) 6
Fire Will Come (Oliver Laxe, 2019) 6
David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee, 2020) 9
I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life Of Marlon Riggs (Karen Everett, 1996) 7

Film Journal: October 2020

Ham On Rye

In the tradition of “Marty Mondays”, I did the same for Marlon Riggs this month when his oeuvre became available on The Criterion Channel. A black, gay film essayist who died of AIDS in 1994, I was first aware of Riggs a few years later as a Film Studies grad student. I remember watching the first few minutes of a bootleg VHS of Tongues Untied borrowed from the Harvard Film Archive (where I was an intern) before putting it aside, overwhelmed by my master’s thesis and all the other stuff I was required to watch.

My present overview of his work has been mostly chronological (and will extend into November), though I started with Tongues. An hour-long examination of what it means to be black and gay in the 1980s, it’s arty, layered and inviting, equally adept at exuding sly humor and heartfelt pain. Obviously more personal than his (admittedly solid) television documentaries Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment, it’s as essential as anything from the New Queer Cinema canon while somewhat standing apart from it.

Best new-ish titles this month include Sundance hit doc Dick Johnson is Dead, Josh Melrod’s impressive shot-in-Vermont micro indie Major Arcana, Canadian stage play adaptation Mouthpiece (a return-to-form for director Patricia Rozema) and odd streaming sensation The Vast of Night (like a Spielberg film written by Amy Sherman-Palladino and directed by Andrew Bujalski.) However, the one I can’t get out of my head is Ham On Rye, Tyler Taormina’s audacious, dreamlike debut feature where a cadre of suburban teens meet up for a party at a local deli—to say anything else would lessen the impact it has when it takes an unexpected turn and transforms into something I haven’t really seen before.

More re-watches than usual, mostly because of the season: Young Frankenstein and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (of which The Vast of Night lovingly references) remain all-time favorites, with mid-tier Burton both better (Sleepy Hollow) and lesser (Dark Shadows) than I recall. It was also a kick to see Tsai Ming-liang’s first feature after so many years–it’s definitely an impetus to eventually re-watch them all (for who knows when his new one Days will be available to screen or stream at-large.)

Best first-time watch, however, was Harry and Tonto, recorded off of TCM. I wrote on Letterboxd, “It’s the greatest Hal Ashby film Ashby never made.” While not as special as, say, Harold and Maude, it’s both a great showcase for Art Carney and a neat cross-country time capsule of mid-70s America as illuminating as, well, The United States of America. A touch sentimental but never sappy, it confronts aging and change with honesty and grace.

Films viewed in October in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches.

Mouthpiece (Patricia Rozema, 2018) 8
The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949) 7
The Boys In The Band (Joe Mantello, 2020) 8
Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989) 9
Little Fugitive (Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, 1953) 7
Residue (Merawi Gerima, 2020) 5
Queen Bee (Ranald MacDougall, 1955) 6
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)* 7
The Vast Of Night (Andrew Patterson, 2019) 7
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)* 10
Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, 2020) 8
Mother (Albert Brooks, 1996) 7
Major Arcana (Josh Melrod, 2018) 7
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2015) 5
Harry and Tonto (Paul Mazursky, 1974) 9
Palm Springs (Max Barbakow, 2020) 6
Ethnic Notions (Riggs, 1986) 7
Affirmations (Riggs, 1990) 7
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)* 9
The Way I See It (Dawn Porter, 2020) 4
The Trip To Greece (Michael Winterbottom, 2020) 6
Rebels Of The Neon God (Tsai Ming-liang, 1992)* 8
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton, 1999)* 6
Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974)* 10
Color Adjustment (Riggs, 1992) 7
The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001) 7
Ham On Rye (Tyler Taormina, 2019) 9
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)* 8
Experimenter (Michael Almereyda, 2015) 6
Dark Shadows (Burton, 2012)* 6

DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD

Death is still one of the greatest taboos. On the whole, we don’t talk about it simply because we fear it and for good reason—it will happen to each and every one of us and no one knows what follows. To ponder the oncoming death of a loved one is even more daunting; to capture that person’s decline on film is too much for most to bear. Which is why, a minute into this, the instance an air conditioner unit falls out of a window right onto Dick Johnson’s head on the sidewalk below like a 16-ton weight out of Monty Python is so jolting, no matter what the film’s title promises.

If you know exactly what Dick Johnson Is Dead is about before going into it, you might laugh out loud like I did at that moment. Or, it may take seconds until the subsequent reveal that it’s just a prank, that the director, Johnson’s daughter Kirsten, has fashioned the film as a way of coping with the inevitable: Octogenarian Dick, a retired, widowed psychologist, is slowing down and entering the December of his life. Throughout, Kirsten stages one fake death of her father after another, ranging from crude sight gags such as the A/C unit to more high-concept spectacles, sun as entering the gates of heaven, complete with costume changes, dance sequences and camera trickery—they often resemble something David Lynch would’ve made in a particularly jocular mood. Happily, for his daughter and for us, the affable Dick is game for seemingly anything (would your father agree to the process of installing an intricate apparatus that allows a considerable amount of fake blood to seemingly shoot out of his neck?)

Kirsten’s previous feature Cameraperson recalibrated the longtime cinematographer as an essayist on the order of Agnes Varda or Ross McElwee; here, she delves into even more personal, thornier territory, documenting the final years of her father’s life, facing and dissecting head-on what it means to inch closer to the end of life both for her subject and herself. The fake death sequences provide levity but also open up a dialogue between what we can imagine the act of dying and its aftermath to be like versus what actually happens, i.e. what we can’t possibly fully comprehend. Through this push-and-pull, death is rendered less taboo without becoming trivialized, but its mystery also remains intact and not fully reconcilable.

At the film’s tricky, decidedly meta-conclusion, Kirsten seems to finally, fully confront and elegize her father’s demise while further blurring the difference between what we perceive and what we’re actually witnessing. When the reveal comes, it’s a kicker on par with suddenly seeing an appliance crashing down from the sky right towards your own head. Grade: A-

(Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.)