Cheerfully billed as “A Saturday Night Television Special” starring Sissy St. Claire (Sophie von Haselberg), writer/director Amanda Kramer’s film may feel as if it’s beaming in from another planet to those unfamiliar with 1970s/80s variety shows. Devotees of camp classics such as Donny and Marie, The Lynda Carter Special or the finale of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz will recognize all the genre tropes being lovingly replicated and satirized but even they might feel bewildered (or perhaps transported) by the dark interior spaces an increasingly taxed and frayed Sissy inhabits.
Kramer understands that if you’re going to make a feature-length pastiche, pinpoint accuracy is required. Not only does she shoot on smeary video in the classic 1:33 analog format, stylistically, she replicates everything of the era from the sequined clothing, elaborate wigs, neon colors and piercing lasers to the requisite hanging mirrorball, vintage-looking graphics and Donna Summer-worthy disco anthems including the title track and “Making It” (not a David Naughton cover.) If she left it at that, it would be nothing more than an elaborate tribute to an ultra-specific type of entertainment from a bygone era. However, as with last year’s Please Baby Please, a 1950s-set mashup of West Side Story-style bohemia and genderqueer studies starring Andrea Riseborough (!), this pushes the viewer much further than that.
Not even a few minutes in, Sissy literally faces her demon(s) while the screen glitches and distorts and continues to do so intermittently. Effervescent and hungry for attention, she seems to shrug it off at first, for the show must go on and she’s made it clear she’s giving it her all. As the special moves from one titled set piece to another (“The America Number” answers the question, “What if Laurie Anderson had been given one of these specials circa ‘O Superman’”?), we see the implications and consequences of this. Touches of surrealism such as a literally faceless psychic and an interpretive death-dance with a nurse that climaxes with Sissy declaring, “You will never, never, ever, ever have your own television special, so don’t even DARE to DREAM!” add to the disorientation, burrowing deeper into madness. But you can’t stop ever-resilient Sissy who is dead set on triumphing, even if it means nearly losing what’s left of her sanity while delivering an epic, climactic monologue about a defining, near-traumatic childhood memory and how it made her who she is today.
Whereas Please Baby Please, while fabulous, occasionally muddles its intentions with its many intellectual diversions, this firmly retains its focus (being just 79 minutes helps.) Von Haselberg’s casting is especially inspired—I didn’t even know who her famous mother (someone who might’ve starred in a special like this back in the day) was until afterwards; it’s the type of role that could make her career if it wasn’t such a genuinely strange little film. Regardless, as we get to know Sissy (who appears in nearly every frame) rather intimately, Give Me Pity! gradually transcends its premise, revealing layer after layer of everything that goes into a performance and the toll it can take on the performer’s psyche.
Pauline Kael rarely saw a movie more than once. Even near the end of her life, long after her tenure as film critic at The New Yorker, she remarked, “I still don’t look at movies twice. It’s funny, I just feel I got it the first time.” While Kael’s quirk is a notorious one, it’s to some extent explicable given that she spent most of her career pre-home video. Apart from theatrical releases or even private screenings, she had limited access to rewatching a title, at least compared to today’s wealth of viewing options. Yet even with them, of the thousands of films I’ve seen over the past three decades, there’s at least half, maybe even two-thirds that I’ll likely never rewatch or want to revisit. After all, if I limited myself to first-time watches, I’d never run out of new things to see.
Still, a world where I never again returned to Mulholland Drive, Beau Travail or Young Frankenstein holds little appeal. I acknowledge that films (and, for that matter, books and episodic television series) require a heftier time commitment than a favorite piece of music. I can prepare for an essay on an album by listening to it four or five times over the course of a day; for one on a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey, however, I’d need to put at least 10-15 hours for an equivalent experience. As a visual medium, movies require closer concentration. Unless you literally know one by heart, you arguably can’t put it on in the background and absorb it while attending to other tasks as you could with any piece of music from Abbey Road to ABBA Gold.
I’ll often rewatch a movie for one of three reasons: it’s playing theatrically, available for streaming or just simply one of my favorite films. Accessibility plays a key role here but so do other factors. Is it something I’d love to see on a cinema’s big screen given the opportunity? Do I revisit it because I haven’t watched it in decades and want to see how well it holds up (or not)? Has the film been in my thoughts for whatever reason (for instance, having read a web article or a social media post about it), or is it something I love to rewatch because it gives me joy, no matter how many times I view it?
Particularly in the pre-streaming age, this last reason was my most common for wanting to see a film again (and in some cases, again and again.) When my family acquired our first VCR in 1985, we soon accumulated a cabinet overflowing with recorded VHS tapes of favorite movies and TV shows I’d watch repeatedly, from childhood favorites like Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown to movies such as Monty Python and The Holy Grail and dozens of episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I replayed some more than others but the novelty and attraction of having a permanent record of something I loved to watch whenever I wanted (often for the price of a blank tape) was considerable. Even later on, when VHS tapes largely became priced-to-own (instead of priced-to-rent), for comparatively little money one could proudly curate a collection of favorite titles akin to having shelves of CDs or stacks of vinyl.
Beyond accessibility or convenience, that “it” factor which draws us repeatedly to a particular work of art is harder to pinpoint. I may as well have watched Trainspotting over a dozen times because I owned it on VHS (and later, DVD) but I didn’t just watch it because it was there. Something in it beckoned me to want to see it again and again because I got something out of it (and in most cases, something different) each time. I’ve revisited films that don’t hold up to subsequent viewings—La La Land is a good recent example. While I appreciated its invention and audacity the first time through, after rewatching it ten days later with my family, my first thought leaving the cinema was, “Well, I never need to see that again.” In this case, the novelty had worn off, enabling me to see the film’s flaws more clearly. Luckily, most rewatches are worth the time and effort, even if they all can’t be as continuously rewarding as Trainspotting which took me a few run-throughs to fully comprehend the deeper, often ironic implications beneath all the flash and fury of its editing, music and performances.
There’s also comfort in returning to favorite works of art. While as a well-rounded film critic I strive to seek out titles I haven’t seen before (both new and old), I return to specific ones because their familiarity provides solace, often for various reasons. I’ll rewatch some films as a tradition in celebrating a particular season like Christmas or Halloween (for years, the latter wasn’t complete without a viewing of Dario Argento’s Suspiria or the Bela Lugosi Dracula.) Others I’ll put on when I’m in a particular mood: Bringing Up Baby for screwball comedy, Back To TheFuture for 1980s escapism, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls for psychedelic, counterculture exploitation. What pleasure I find in these films is, like any work of art, entirely subjective; for instance, Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant together never fail to make me laugh (which is why I also adore Holiday), the Robert Zemeckis film came out when I was 10 and had a formative impact on me at the time and the Russ Meyers-directed, Roger Ebert-scripted film is so gloriously bonkers that watching it is never less than a blast.
Rarer than isolated titles lending themselves to multiple viewings are those entire oeuvres of a particular filmmaker that do so. Naturally, I’ve revisited many works by some of my favorite directors from Robert Altman to Claire Denis. Over time, Wes Anderson has proven something of an ideal in this regard. Most of his films hold up to additional viewings because, so densely are they packed with insane attention-to-detail production design and such complex, shifting tones that I get more out of them each time. I’ve grown accustomed to giving Wes the benefit of the doubt if I’m initially underwhelmed by one of his pictures—The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example, struck me as nothing more than a solid addition to his canon when it came out in 2014 and became his highest-grossing film to date. Revisiting it seven years later, I found it exceptionally moving to a degree I hadn’t previously, marveling at its tenderness for a lost, presumed world rather than just admiring the intricate fantasy world it had presented.
Like most people my age or older, Anderson’s second feature Rushmore was the first one I saw during its early 1999 theatrical run (his first, 1996’s Bottle Rocket got such a limited release that I hadn’t even heard of it.) The first film of his I revisited, however, was his third. Stoked by my love of Rushmore, I prioritized seeing The Royal Tenenbaums like no other new release in December 2001. After that first screening at the AMC Fenway in Boston, I thought it was… fine. I placed it at #7 on my annual top ten list; in my journal, I praised its set design, soundtrack and some of its cast but also thought that “it made little advance” on the “visionary”(!) Rushmore. So, not a failure or outright disappointment but apparently not as impactful as Waking Life (my #1 film of that year at the time), Memento (#2) or In The Mood For Love(#3).
Flash forward seven months to a particularly taxing summer. Just about shellshocked by the rough (if necessary) end of a long-term relationship, I sought comfort wherever I could find it. During a week-long “staycation” from work, on a whim, I rented the newly-released Criterion Collection DVD of The Royal Tenenbaums. After this rewatch, I wrote, “I found it more affecting the second time: once you know to expect the sensory overload and stylistic quirks that threaten to turn too brittle or clever, you’re left with a literary jewel of a film that makes the most of Rushmore’s best qualities.” It wasn’t long before I purchased my own copy—while the Criterion Collection was mostly beyond my price-range at that point, Anderson had made a deal with the distributor to issue the film at a lower price point for consumers.
As autumn beckoned, I kept returning to my The Royal Tenenbaums DVD. My 19”, late 1980s-model TV probably didn’t provide as robust a viewing experience as a big cinema screen would have, but in this case, Anderson’s carefully packed mise-en-scène felt reassuring rather than overwhelming. For instance, take the bravura opening sequence. Accompanied by a swelling, then soaring instrumental version of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and wistful voiceover narration (from a rarely better Alec Baldwin), it provided succinct but revealing mini-portraits of each member of the Tenenbaum family as it toured 111 Archer Avenue, their enormous, meticulously designed New York brownstone (as much of a character as its inhabitants), informing us of their rise, decline and subsequent fracture, all in the space of a few minutes.
From there, the story picks up twenty-two years later. Banished and broke patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) longs to “make up for lost time” with the family he neglected, only to discover how much everyone has changed. His estranged wife, archaeologist Etheline (Anjelica Huston) is now engaged to Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), a respectable accountant—he’s “everything Royal is not,” (as Royal himself notes late in the film.) Uptight, eldest son Chas (Ben Stiller) is an entrepreneur traumatized over the recent death of his wife. Overprotective of his two pint-sized-versions-of-himself sons, Ari and Uzi, he moves them back into the Tenenbaum home. Adopted, eternally disaffected middle child Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a failed playwright, and shattered youngest son Richie (Luke Wilson), a former tennis pro, also return. Margot is stuck in a loveless marriage to psychologist Raleigh St. Clair (a somewhat dour Bill Murray) and is cheating on him with Richie’s childhood friend, novelist Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), while Richie is secretly in love with her. With the aid of butler/sidekick Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), Royal schemes to return to 111 Archer Avenue and win back everyone he’s alienated.
The film weaves together a tapestry exploring familial relations made relatable by Anderson’s quirky but ultimately compassionate sensibility. Structured like a novel (the opening shot imagines the film as a well-worn book being checked out of the library) and divided into chapters, it’s also bursting at the seams with literary references and allusions. For instance, most of the characters have either written books (from Margot’s plays to Henry’s Accounting For Everything) or, in Richie’s case, have appeared on a magazine cover. The film’s design also suggests a comic strip come to life (it’s no coincidence that the Peanuts standard “Christmas Time Is Here” plays in a scene having nothing to do with that holiday.) Virtually every character is cloaked a requisite costume of sorts that rarely changes throughout: Richie’s tennis shirt and headband, Henry’s blue blazer and bow tie, Chas’ red Adidas track suit and the identical, miniature versions his sons wear. The immaculately storyboarded interior sets with their deep pink walls and insane attention to detail (the childhood drawings on Richie’s bedroom walls (created by Anderson’s brother Eric), the walk-in closet overflowing with board games) are also obviously exaggerated. Many shots even feature someone tightly framed through a window, peering at the outside world.
Although it had a relatively large budget (twice that of Rushmore), a high-profile ensemble cast (supposedly, Hackman’s and Huston’s parts were written with them in mind) and a far wider, more ambitious scope, it was, at that time, still instantly recognizable as a Wes Anderson film. Like the previous two, it featured credits entirely done in Futura Bold typeface, a whimsical musical score from former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh, Anderson stock players such as Pallana, Seymour Cassel (as Dusty, the elevator operator-cum-doctor) and Andrew Wilson (Luke and Owen’s older brother), a cameo from the director himself (as the tennis announcer) and a final, reflective shot that’s filmed in slow-motion. Viewers could also look out for various motifs and in-jokes: the number of Tenenbaums wearing a piece of pale pink clothing at any given moment, the particular instrument on the soundtrack most prominent during Margot’s scenes, the cameo appearance (as a paramedic) by one Brian Tenenbaum, a real-life college friend of Anderson’s.
For all its self-aware cleverness, off-the-wall sight gags, and excessive stylization, The Royal Tenenbaums is really a sweet, rather poignant film that resonates more profoundly with each viewing. Once you’ve absorbed such showy (but dazzling) moments as a detective’s clipped rundown to Raleigh and Richie of Margot’s past loves (furiously edited to The Ramones’ “Judy is a Punk”), you’re left with essentially a kindhearted (if occasionally side-splitting) tale of redemption. Marvel at the brilliant long take where Royal tells Etheline he’s dying and note how Huston’s reaction continually shifts from disgust and surprise to concern, grief and rage without missing a beat. Observe how Anderson often tempers melancholy with hilarity without obscuring either tone (e.g., the Gypsy Cab that appears just in time as Margot walks out on Raleigh.) Pay attention to subtle details like how Royal finally refers to Margot not as “my adopted daughter”, but simply, “my daughter” in the ice cream parlor. Take in the “Sparkplug Minuet” scene late in the film, where the camera tracks from one group of characters to another along the street outside 111 Archer Avenue and notice the obvious affection and care Anderson has for each of them. At one point, poor, yearning, forever-the-outsider Eli gently says, “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.” Royal replies (mostly to himself), “Me, too,” and you just want to join him in unison.
I pause to think what life would be like had I emulated Kael and never bothered to give The RoyalTenenbaums (or anything else) a second viewing. I might remember it fondly the way I do, say, In The Bedroom or The Man Who Wasn’t There (to name two other films from that time I’ve never rewatched.) If I hadn’t seen it again, perhaps I wouldn’t have given subsequent Anderson films like the aforementioned The Grand Budapest Hotel or Tenenbaums’ even more ambitious and widely misunderstood follow-up The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) a second chance. With the exception of his most recent work (2020’s The French Dispatch), I’ve seen all of Anderson’s movies more than once and each rewatch has yielded similar results. Tenenbaums remains my favorite, perhaps due to when I saw it and that process of being able to see deeper into it on additional viewings, but he has other works that come close, like Grand Budapest, 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom and of course Rushmore, forever his breakthrough film.
We revisit works for the pleasure they provide. Occasionally, we also have a sixth sense, an inclination that there’s more to glean from them than we can discern from a single viewing. The best films (and books, and albums etc.) are ones that gradually insert themselves into our lives and by extension, our subconsciousness. Their dialogue, visual design, narratives and richly-drawn characters become part of us whether, in this case, we identify more strongly with well-meaning asshole Royal or guilt-ridden, tortured Richie. Revisit them enough and they become touchstones raising the bar for what we expect and hope from every new (and in some cases, old) movie we watch.
A few nights after viewing this, I was still piecing it together—less in terms of logistics than taking in all the shifting perspectives, recurring images, ambiguous tones and sustained feeling of drifting in and out of consciousness. Then again, I like movies that are somewhat unknowable. I retain and reflect on the experience of watching this more than anything else I’ve seen in some time. Charlotte Wells’ debut feature is less a key for a lock than an open door into another way of seeing. Also, Paul Mescal proves that his breakthrough performance in NORMAL PEOPLE was just an inkling of things to come.
A great film, and writer/director Todd Field and star Cate Blanchett seem to know it; such air would normally be off-putting, but the fluidity and grace with which the whole thing moves (acrobatic sound design and all) reminds me of something like Kenneth Lonergan’s MARGARET but minus that film’s pretensions towards greatness, or perhaps everything comes together so convincingly that it doesn’t matter. A pitch-black comedy in prestige drama clothing, TÁR is sui generis, nearly as entertaining as Paul Thomas Anderson and as enigmatic as Kubrick. 158 minutes have rarely passed by so swiftly.
3. AFTER YANG
I recently wrote something about falling in love with a film over its opening credits, and I think this one is a contender. A tad more accessible and also genre-defying than director Kogonada’s last film COLUMBUS without lessening the qualities that made it unique, it’s science fiction without walls, exploring artifice and memory and what it could look like if the two would ever intersect. Also, I want to feel as passionate about and satiated by something as Colin Farrell’s character (his best work since THE LOBSTER, though see also #11 below) is with regards to tea.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first film outside of Asia (and follow-up to my favorite film of the last decade) is no less experimental than his previous work, thank god. Tilda Swinton’s been an expertly intuitive reactor since her Derek Jarman days, and this might be her most fascinating performance in some time for how she simultaneously commands the screen and also fades into it. I found this fascinating (if equally confounding) after my first viewing; it made somewhat more sense after a second viewing but remained, like everything else the director has done, slow, perplexing, surprising and one-of-a-kind.
5. A LOVE SONG
Her weathered face, Tennessee accent and general moxie has relegated Dale Dickey to smaller, supporting parts (most notably WINTER’S BONE); here, she’s as earthy and tenacious as you’d expect, but this tailor-made leading role allows her to exhibit much more vulnerability and warmth than usual. Furthermore, writer/director Max Walker-Silverman’s gem of a first feature gradually reveals itself as a film about time and loss, the need for connection and the benefit of perseverance and finding strength within. Although Dickey’s character doesn’t stray far from where she’s anchored her trailer, she goes on a considerable journey of the soul.
6. DRIVE MY CAR
Despite all the awards it received last year, I’m counting this as a 2022 film since it didn’t screen or stream here until then. The allure of this bold if leisurely paced Murakami adaptation is that you don’t necessarily know where it’s going, but when it gets there, the impact is staggering without seeming showy or unearned. I first saw it last March and am still looking forward to carving out another three hours to watch it again.
7. THE ETERNAL DAUGHTER
Call it the year of Tilda Swinton, I guess, or call this Joanna Hogg’s THE PARENT TRAP, only Swinton plays mother and daughter instead of twins, the genre’s gothic/psychological horror (set at an equally creepy/charming old British estate/hotel) rather than Disney rom-com, and the dog (Swinton’s own pet!) gets fourth billing. Also the third of a trilogy (which includes THE SOUVENIR, PART II (see below)) and possibly the best of the three.
8. WOMEN TALKING
Mostly meeting my ridiculously high expectations for it, Sarah Polley’s return to filmmaking is both of the moment and seemingly timeless. Though the story occasionally oversteps and the final section drags a bit, those are minor complaints: here, Polley depicts a world contained to the point of being restrictive; with great catharsis and reasoning, the film shows with artful clarity why this is damaging and what future generations can do to avoid succumbing to such a closed-off, incomplete life.
Terence Davies’ portrait of World War I soldier/poet Siegfried Sassoon is as unique as you’d expect from the director; what I wasn’t expecting was something more akin to his early masterworks like THE LONG DAY CLOSES than anything he’s done since. Along with his other recent poet biopic about Emily Dickinson, Davies is clearly on a late-career high with this, his most deliciously bitchy film to date (and it doesn’t even have Laura Linney in it.)
10. PETIT MAMAN
Celine Sciamma follows her most acclaimed work (PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, already placing high in this decade’s Sight and Sound poll) with a deceptively simple fantasy about memory and motherhood that ends up one of her more conceptually ambitious films. As usual, she builds a fully realized world built out of a few essential components, only this time with a playfulness-bordering-on-whimsy that’s difficult to pull off (but rest assured, she does.)
11. THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN
Makes a lasting impact for the striking, evocative landscapes, the performances and the confirmation that an isolated place, no matter how striking or evocative can be heaven for a few days and deadening for an eternity.
12. GIRL PICTURE
An immensely likable Finnish indie dramedy which portrays female teen relationships with a genuineness that’s instantly winning—up there with the likes of OUR SONG and GHOST WORLD (though far sweeter and less acerbic.)
13. THE DOG WHO WOULDN’T BE QUIET
“You’ll be fine, it will pass, you’ll get used it,” our protagonist is dutifully told in this purposely disorienting but intriguing, unclassifiable reverie from Argentinian director Ana Katz.
14. STRAWBERRY MANSION
Set in a near-future where dreams are taxed by the government, I knew I adored this film about ten minutes in when the title card appeared (let’s just say it involves an ice cream cone.)
15. ALI & AVA
From the director of THE ARBOR, it has a good beat and you can dance to it (to quote American Bandstand.) Also gratifying to see Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook cast as unconventional romantic leads.
16. THE CATHEDRAL
A sort of autobiography relayed in carefully chosen fragments, it plays like BOYHOOD condensed to ninety minutes but with four different actors instead of one (because it wasn’t shot over a dozen years.)
17. GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY
Rian Johnson can make as many of these as he likes as long as he keeps assembling dynamite casts and giving Daniel Craig-as-Benoit Blanc phrases to drawl like “Jared Leto’s Hard Kombucha.”
18. THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD
Divided into a very Godard-ian twelve chapters with a prologue and epilogue, Joachim Trier’s latest plays with form and genre; it also verges on precious at times only to always snap back into sharp focus.
19. PETER VON KANT
This is how you remake Fassbinder: cast a boisterous lead (Denis Menochet) who could play him in a biopic and include a glorious running sight gag like poor, dear, silent slave-twink Karl (Stefan Crepon).
20. EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE
Unlike SWISS ARMY MAN, this is silliness I can fully abide, thanks to Michelle Yeoh and the rest of its glorious weirdo ensemble. Nearly a BEING JOHN MALKOVICH for the internet age of info-overload.
My movie watching decreased by 30% in 2022—completely expected since between the pandemic and unemployment, 2021 was an anomaly of a year. If I learned anything from such circumstances, they helped me acclimate to watching more movies at home, as Letterboxd (now five years after I began using it) ended up a motivator to watch more movies, period. Here are the best older (pre-2021) films I saw for the first time this year.
I’d seen a handful of Ken Loach pictures from this century but nothing earlier (unless you count the Poor Cow footage inserted into Soderbergh’s The Limey); I want to see more in 2023 as his second feature (from 1969) is simply masterful. An initially straightforward but increasingly resonant story about a boy and his bird, it captures something about the British working class arguably not even Loach contemporary Mike Leigh has ever replicated. Looking beyond archetypes, it subtly indicts an entire social structure while also locating a speck of transcendent beauty within it.
2. RUNNING ON EMPTY
A teenager (River Phoenix) born into family forever on the run (due to a crime committed by his former hippie-activist parents) struggles to forge his own identity. While Phoenix’s death five years later makes it too easy to overrate his work, here (along with My Own Private Idaho) it’s sublime, as is Sidney Lumet’s direction—for that matter, so is the family sing-along to (of all things) a James Taylor song (too earnest to probably get away with in a movie today.)
3. GRAND HOTEL
In 2022, I kicked off an attempt to watch all the Best Picture Oscar winners I haven’t seen (about 40 or so) over the next few years; this is the best of the five I’ve made it through so far. Viewing this pre-code film was like trying on a vintage coat that fits beautifully: you’ve experienced such level of comfort before (via all the ensembles that followed from Robert Altman to Wes Anderson) but its age, finery and grace render it all the more satisfying.
4. SHERLOCK, JR.
I admired Slate film critic Dana Stevens’ new book about Buster Keaton—not enough to make my top ten this year, but at least it encouraged me to seek out the major works of his I’ve missed. This one in particular also landed dead-center on my radar after it cracked the latest Sight and Sound poll’s top 100. It’s 45 minutes long, just at that breaking point to distinguish a feature from a short, and it would be peak Keaton even if it didn’t have the best chase scene of all time.
5. DEAD RINGERS
David Cronenberg came back with the good-enough Crimes of The Future this year; if you liked it, chances are you’ll love this. Building on the body horror/tech-nerdery of Videodrome, it’s a feat of camera trickery but also a deep dive into all of the unsavory obsessions that makes his characters (and for all we know, the director himself) tick. Also, watching Jeremy Irons perform mouth-to-mouth on himself (or at least his body double) is a very Special Moment.
6. ONE SINGS, THE OTHER DOESN’T
Alternate title: Women’s Lib Rules. Agnes Varda was a treasure for many reasons, not least of which was that she made narrative films (Cleo From 5 To 7) as genuine and engaging as her documentaries (The Gleaners And I). This hails from a somewhat undervalued period between those two peaks; however, its dissection and celebration of feminism and abortion rights is obviously as relevant as ever and that she fashions it with whimsy and humor doesn’t make it any less powerful than a more outwardly darker work like Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
7. THE CROWD
This came as a recommendation from former Boston Globe critic Ty Burr when it aired on TCM (it’s not streaming anywhere); I want to rewatch it in a cinema when I next have a chance. Although King Vidor’s film about society, peer-pressure and collectivism looks and feels the near-century old that it is, it doesn’t matter: great art endures when it retains a strong resemblance to the present moment in premise and concept if not in its physical aesthetic.
8. CORPUS CHRISTI
The idea of a criminal posing as a member of the clergy isn’t new; to frame it as an identity crisis and a genuine attempt at redemption rather than just for laughs, however, sets up a tightrope walk for this Polish film’s protagonist, who lives out his selfish fantasies while also becoming a more active presence for good in the world. And yet, there are no easy resolutions and the film zags when you expect it to zig without losing focus or purpose.
9. MIDNIGHT RUN
I often think of the late 1980s as a particularly fallow period for cinema, but this is the third 1988 film in this top ten and it’s a glorious action-comedy, like Lethal Weapon but with brains and far more nuanced dialogue and character development. Also, it greatly helps that Robert De Niro (so good at comedy when given a good screenplay!) and Charles Grodin are as inspired and sublime a pairing as Lemmon and Matthau, Pryor and Wilder, Tracy and Hepburn.
10. SIGN O’ THE TIMES
Long available for whatever reasons I suspect are firmly kept locked up in the Paisley Park vault, this concert film to complement Prince’s landmark 1987 double album of the same name has, like so much since his untimely death, reemerged. As a “director”, the Purple One was obviously no Jonathan Demme, but this, made at his absolute fucking peak (at least artistically), should be as well-known as Stop Making Sense. The choreography is almost as amazing as the outfits, which are almost as wonderful as the music.
Birth, Blue Collar, Chocolat (1988), Darling, Fort Tilden, The Godfather Part II (!), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Jaws(!!), Once Upon A Time In America, ‘Round Midnight, The Secret of Roan Inish, The Sisters Brothers, Splendor In The Grass, Time Piece*, Titicut Follies, A White, White Day
(*A short presently streaming on Mubi and a must-watch for any Jim Henson fan.)
BEST RE-WATCHES (not including anything for 24 Frames):
Appropriate Behavior, The Boy Friend, Delicatessen, Dick, Ed Wood, Hairspray (1988), Knives Out, The Last Days of Disco, Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979), Out Of The Past, Phantom Thread, The Shop Around The Corner, Something Wild, The Sweet Smell Of Success, Vive L’Amour, Written On The Wind
Most years, my film group conducts a poll amongst its members. In the past, we’ve determined our all-time favorite films of a particular genre (horror, documentary, animation) or other categorical distinction (remakes and sequels, foreign language, black-and-white.) For the first time, this year’s list is centered on people rather than films. One would think it a breeze to curate a list of just 25 or 50 directors; my original long list ended up past the 150-mark. We were allowed to include up to 100, which is what my ballot below has. The first 30 or so are the most important; the placement of almost anyone beneath is a little more arbitrary.
In curating my list, I thought about whom I’d most like to see on the group’s list which is chiefly why Agnes Varda ended up at #3 – French, female, equally adept at documentary and fiction, she’s the sort of revered talent (that might not necessarily be a household name) that the group was created to promote and highlight. I also wanted to talk up my favorite LGBT directors which accounts for half of my top ten. My first draft placed the ever-dependable, ever-unique Tsai Ming-liang at top but in the end, I couldn’t deny giving it to the artist I wrote my Master’s thesis in Film Studies on.
The thing with all-time-best-of lists is that they could credibly go on for days. What favorite filmmakers of yours missing from the 100 below would you have included?
A rumor spread like wildfire across social media last week that this decade’s Sight and Sound critics poll of The Greatest Films of All Time would crown a new winner. Citizen Kane had won every ten-year iteration of the poll from 1962 until 2012 when Vertigo finally knocked it off the top—an upset for sure but supposedly not as shocking as 2022’s victor. Some speculated it would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, which placed sixth in 2012—a reasonable guess but not a particularly game-changing one; although somewhat divisive among viewers, Kubrick’s sci-fi head trip feels firmly ensconced in the canon as much as the Welles or Hitchcock films. I wouldn’t mind it topping the poll nor would I have felt too strongly about it.
One can imagine the collective gasp on Film Twitter when the actual winner was announced: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, all the way up from #36 in 2012. For the unfamiliar (i.e. mostly everyone who is not a film critic or a considerable cineaste), it is a 1975 drama about three days in the life of the titular housewife (Delphine Seyrig) and her mundane routines. She peels potatoes, cleans the dishes, brushes her hair, etc. Nothing else happens, except for one crucial thing each day—revealing it here would be a major spoiler. The film is over three hours long and so exceedingly methodical that it can feel like thirty. This deliberateness is crucial for, as the film continues, the slightest deviations in Dielman’s routines (like when she drops a just-washed spoon) seem all the more noticeable though even they do not prepare one for the alarming finale.
I first watched this in a graduate-level film studies class; at the time, few of us knew what to make of it. Completely unprepared for the sluggish pace and rigorous formalism, many of us sat in our seats talking back to the screen, giving it the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment (our professor was not present for the screening, though he heard about our reaction to it and later scolded us at length.) Whenever one describes a movie as unlike anything one has seen before it often comes off as hyperbole, but Jeanne Dielman (few casually refer to it by the full laborious title) wholly lives up to this aphorism. It is an experimental, structurally radical film and also one of the key works of feminist cinema (made by a 25-year-old Belgian lesbian director, no less.)
How could something so extreme top even a critics poll of the best films of all time? For one thing, nearly doubling the number of participants (1639, up from 846 in 2012) allows for more inclusivity and diversity. It could reflect the current era, serving as a course-corrective to decades of white male critics dominating this and other likeminded polls. It might also be a way to honor Akerman’s legacy (sadly, she committed suicide in 2015.) The film is also more accessible than ever before: one can easily stream it on Criterion Channel (or, a few years ago, purchase it on Blu-ray or DVD; it’s currently out of print. At the time of my first viewing, I don’t think one could even find it on VHS.) I remember watching it again a year or two later, perhaps at the Harvard Film Archive; I haven’t revisited it since though I’ve seen a good chunk of Akerman’s filmography, which contains everything from audio-visual diaries (News From Home) to a glossy musical (!) (Golden Eighties, also starring Seyrig.) Undeniably a great work, it is a film to endure, maybe even admire rather than enjoy in the conventional sense. That it topped Sight and Sound in 2022 will delight some and infuriate many. Still, it’s altogether preferable to seeing Citizen Kane (a worthy film whose continued dominance of such polls pushed it to seem overrated) at number one again.
As for where films on my (fake) 2022 ballot placed, the highest was In The Mood For Love (#5, up from #24), followed by The Passion of Joan of Arc (#21, down from #9), The Apartment (#54, did not crack the top 100 in 2012), A Matter of Life and Death (#78, up from #90) and Parasite (#90)—the latter the newest entry to make the top 100 along with Portrait of A Lady on Fire (#30). I didn’t expect most of my other five entries to chart except for maybe The Shop Around The Corner. 35 Shots of Rum isn’t as nearly as beloved as Claire Denis consensus choice Beau Travail (#7, up from #78!) and I suppose the others are too obscure, though at least Love Streams and The Long Day Closes are part of The Criterion Collection—not so Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, which I just bought a Kino Lorber Blu-ray of since it remains unstreamable.
Regarding my entirely different 2012 ballot (which included Beau Travail), four other titles placed in 2022: Vertigo (still a very respectable #2), Mulholland Drive (#8, up from #28), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (#11, down from #5) and Playtime (#23, up from #43 (tied)). As for titles I’ve covered so far in my 24 Frames project, in addition to the Denis and Lynch films, there’s Close-Up (#17, up from #43 (tied)), Meshes of the Afternoon (#16) and The Piano (#50) (the last two did not crack the top 100 in 2012.)
Akerman’s triumph was not the only surprise among the results. I certainly didn’t predict Barbara Loden’s Wanda (#48), Daughters of the Dust (#60), The Gleaners and I (#67), My Neighbor Totoro (#72 – over Spirited Away at #75!) or Tropical Malady (#95) to place. That The Godfather Part II dropped out of the top 100 entirely after placing at #31 in 2012 was also unexpected. 2001: A Space Odyssey did top the adjacent directors poll where Jeanne Dielman reached #4 (tied with Tokyo Story.) I’ve seen all but ten of the critics poll’s top 100; of those, I’m most eager to watch Sherlock Jr. (I know!), The Spirit of the Beehive, Madame De…, Once Upon a Time in the West and Black Girl.
Is it too soon to speculate what will top the 2032 poll? Given that I wouldn’t have bet my life on this year’s number one back in 2012, who knows? I’m more curious about where the most recent titles (Portrait of A Lady On Fire, Parasite, Get Out) will place, for it’s always intriguing to see how a newish movie endures (or not) in real time.
It’s nearly time for British film magazine Sight and Sound to publish their once-every-decade critic’s poll of all-time greatest films. Ten years ago, I presented my own hypothetical ballot; for this latest edition, here’s another one with ten different films. My only criteria was to not repeat anything from my 24 Frames project—a relatively easy task because there is an almost overwhelming amount of movies to pick from for a list like this.
In chronological order:
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Director: Carl Dreyer, France, 1928)
My silent-era pick. Wholly radical when it was made, it still feels as such today—I can’t name another film that utilizes faces and close-ups with such candor. As with SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS, I remain uncertain whether an alternate universe where the invention of sync sound was decades away would’ve been a good thing, but this film’s rare achievement makes me wonder.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1940)
This is the oft-described “Lubitsch Touch” at its most graceful and lithe. The epiphanous, empathetic last twenty minutes or so is what all romances, comedies and rom-coms should aspire to; Stewart (in arguably his most complex performance until VERTIGO) puts it best: “You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.”
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1946)
I could’ve gone with any one of this duo’s efforts from this period; this has the most innovative use of switching back and forth between black-and-white and glorious color (even more so than THE WIZARD OF OZ). Still, as with the best of Powell and Pressburger, the technical spectacle is always in service of a fable full of heart and substance.
THE APARTMENT (Billy Wilder, USA, 1960)
I didn’t appreciate this when I first tried watching it in my twenties, but I fully get it now (being a major influence on MAD MEN helps.) No other filmmaker besides Billy Wilder ever achieved such a tricky balance of humor and melancholia as he did here. Also, how in the world did a rarely-better Shirley MacLaine lose the Academy Award for Lead Actress to Liz Taylor???
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (Sam Peckinpah, Mexico/USA, 1974)
I first saw this neglected classic five years ago at a screening in conjunction with Charles Taylor’s indispensable book on ‘70s genre cinema, OPENING WEDNESDAY AT A THEATER OR DRIVE-IN NEAR YOU and fell for it instantly: Peckinpah’s scabrous take on the human condition feels entirely undiluted and yet so… humane. Warren Oates very well may also be the original anti-hero (or at least the template for those of modern prestige-TV.)
LOVE STREAMS (John Cassavetes, USA, 1984)
Cassavetes’ final film is almost a beautiful mess, and one by design. Knowing he had not much longer left to live, he made something people might’ve deemed elegiac if his philosophy would’ve allowed for such sentimentality (it mostly did not.) To put so much of oneself onscreen warts and all was his specialty whether in the guise of his ensemble players (including wife Gena Rowlands) or, in this case, himself; arguably, no one did so with more blistering honesty.
THE LONG DAY CLOSES (Terence Davies, UK, 1992)
Davies’ personal, idiosyncratic style refashions memories as a stream-of-consciousness rush, although perhaps rush is the wrong word for a film that lovingly takes its time. The rare period piece to revel in nostalgia without letting it obscure the mundaneness of everyday life, it’s also pure poetry in how it orchestrates all of its cinematic elements, especially its bold use of light and darkness.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000)
Last year, I rewatched all of Wong’s films included in the new Criterion Collection box set and this one’s still his best. A deceptively simple tale of a romance that’s never acted upon, it sounds like the stuff of a prime Douglas Sirk melodrama. Instead, it plays out with such nuance and restraint that it achieves an almost unbearable intimacy, leaving the viewer both swooned and devastated.
35 SHOTS OF RUM (Claire Denis, France, 2008)
I included another Denis film on my 2012 ballot; here’s one nearly its equal. Less formally adventurous, this account of a single father and his adult daughter communicates less through words than glances and evocative stylistic choices such as hypnotic point-of-view shots taken from commuter trains in motion. Also, what a sublime soundtrack, not only for the Tindersticks score but also its unexpected use of a certain Commodores song.
PARASITE (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019)
Haven’t rewatched this since right before the pandemic, but I imagine it holds up brilliantly—so well-constructed, you believe every facet of it even as it threatens to spiral out of control. As usual with Bong, it’s tough to classify or define: is it a class-conscious satire, a race-against-the-clock thriller or a revenge-driven horror film? Bong seems to be asking, “Why not all of these things, and simultaneously at that?”
I spent a recent holiday watching the 287-minute director’s cut of Wim Wenders’ 1991 techno/sci-fi extravaganza Until The End Of The World (streaming on Criterion Channel.) The 158-minute theatrical cut infamously bombed and the film, a follow-up to the still-beloved Wings of Desire seemed to languish in memory until this longer version surfaced–first in Europe, then in the US in 2014 and finally as part of the Criterion Collection a few years later.
Rather than attempt a traditional review, I present a journal of my viewing experience, done pretty much in one sitting—possibly the longest film I’ve ever conceived this way. (Times are in hours:minutes.) SPOILERS AHEAD, obv.
0:04 – Protagonist Claire (Solveig Dommartin) wakes up and wearily strolls through a lingering party in a bohemian but upscale Venice apartment like she’s Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll 25+ years early.
0:10 – Set in “1999”: MP3s do not yet exist, although music comes on ultra-thin rectangular discs that resemble playing cards instead of CDs. More prescient (to the COVID age, anyway): the boat driver wearing a face mask.
0:14 – I was thinking I could spend the entire film blissfully watching Claire driving through pre-apocalyptic landscapes and whoops, her car just crashed.
0:24 – The problem with sci-fi, particularly films set less than a decade in the future is that the imagined technology often resembles a slightly warped take on what is readily available in the present. Hence, the bank of VIDEOPHONES Claire calls her friend Makiko from (and runs into Sam (William Hurt) at for the first time.)
0:24 We have the U2 title song! I remember seeing/hearing this soundtrack everywhere but have no memory of the film playing theatrically in Milwaukee, though I was 16 and not yet aware of the ins and outs of arthouse cinema.
0:30 – At least some of the imagined tech is seriously warped, like the police cars that resemble Lego Duplo figures.
0:37 – Well, Claire and Gene’s (Sam Neill) Parisian flat is the most 90s apartment ever; Elvis Costello’s slooow version of The Kinks’ “Days” is the worst version I’ve heard (def. inferior to Kirsty MacColl’s from two years before.)
0:44 – Someone actually says, “Don’t be stupid; this is 1999.”
0:53 – Nearly 20% (!) through the film, and I’m suitably entertained. When not overtly wacky, the production design’s sublime (e.g. the giant, rotating world globe illuminating one time-zone clock after another.)
1:03 – Between this and The Piano, early 90’s Neill really was your go-to guy for playing strait-laced, uptight cucks.
1:14 – “Bounty Bear” WTF.
1:29 – I might’ve done without so much narration from Gene. “She spent a fortune video-faxing the tape to me in Paris,” he notes, presumably straight-faced.
1:33 – Oh Claire, I hate Gene’s suit too.
1:35 – Guessing the Tokyo hotel chase scene, where the film briefly turns into an episode of Scooby-Doo (with spazzy, incidental music straight out of an ancient Merrie Melodies cartoon) was cut out of the shorter theatrical release.
1:44 – Regarding the rural Japan sequence, as Wenders proved in his earlier doc Tokyo-ga, Ozu he is not; it’s still touching to see octogenarian (and Ozu regular) Chishū Ryū onscreen though.
1:52 – Here we get to the premise/MacGuffin/whatever: “A camera that takes pictures blind people can see !” (o rilly?) To which Claire silently responds, Can you see my naked body?
2:01 – After the unexpected thrill of seeing Claire and Sam to do “The Twist” on a cruise ship, the U2 theme appears for the third time. Feeling overwhelmed that we’re not even halfway through this thing, so I’m taking a 15-minute break.
2:19 – The bright blue and orange of the Australian outback landscape is truly breathtaking; not even late-period Lou Reed can destroy it, although Gene doesn’t throw the most convincing punch at Sam. I had to look up and confirm that the South Australia town of “Coober Pedy” actually exists.
2:31 – “They shot down the satellite” – man, it really is Y2K; also, “It’s the end of the world” (but certainly not the film.)
2:42 – “These are bloody dangerous times, mate.” Believe the guy with the hook (not only for a hand, but his entire arm.)
2:51 – So happy Jeanne Moreau is here. And Max von Sydow as a weird doctor? What novel casting!
3:22 – Around here is where I start to drift. The theatrical cut apparently contains less than an hour of the Australia stuff while this has more than two. I miss the “on the road” part of this road movie—it builds more momentum than waiting to see if blind Moreau can see the images taken by the special camera. I imagine the actress lying down in the simulator thinking to herself, “Merde, what did I get myself into?” The “simulations” themselves have a flash video quality and sound not far off from the early days of dial-up internet (so that’s prescient of ’99.)
3:27 – We have a digeridoo, and of course the guy with the hook is playing it.
3:43 – Gene’s narration includes a dippy speech about music being the purpose for their journey – what a dopey writer, ain’t he?
3:49 – On 12/31/99, we find out the nuclear crisis is averted for the missiles conveniently blew up in space. Von Sydow exclaims, “The world is still alive!,” while sourpuss Moreau dissents: “The world is not okay.”
3:51 – At least Solveig’s Nico-esque version of “Days” is charming (and much better than Costello’s.)
4:03 – That darn Dr. Von Sydow! Now he wants to record pictures of dreams, the dope. I begin waiting for Harvey B. Dunn from Bride Of The Monster to show up and say, “He tampered in god’s domain.”
4:12 – The dream imagery is not pretentious, exactly, but unquestionably weird. Turn off the sound and it might make for good ASMR. This is getting vaguely psychedelic, like end of 2001: A Space Odyssey but less portentous.
4:19 – Someone named Karl: “There’s a line that should never be crossed, and we passed it a long time ago.”
4:32 – “Split… from myself”; “Impossible to rescue a man lost in the labyrinth of his own soul”… now the film’s getting a little pretentious.
4:38 – Gene’s still wearing that awful suit!
4:41 – Gene wrote his book, and Claire read the whole thing! It all ends with perhaps the worst rendition of ‘Happy Birthday” ever, then that damn U2 song returns over the closing credits.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Not the resurrected masterpiece I was hoping for and not Wenders’ best by a long shot (I’ll stump for Paris, Texas though I haven’t seen it in a quarter-century.) Maybe his last good non-documentary*, however, though it may have had a sharper impact had it been split into two a la Kill Bill or The Souvenir.
*Buena Vista Social Club, while imperfect, belongs on a shortlist of essential Wenders.
IFF Boston’s Fall Focus is a counterpart to their main film festival in late April/early May (in my opinion the best in the area.) Since this offshoot began about 7 or 8 years back, I’ve caught titles there such as Anomalisa, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Cold War and Shoplifters. After an online-only edition in 2020 and my skipping it last year, it was a treat to return. Of the eleven films playing over four days (plus two bonus titles afterwards), I saw these three.
Sarah Polley’s return to directing after a decade carries almost ridiculously high expectations due to her previous, consistently strong body of work (Away From Her, Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell) and all the awards season hype already showered upon this new film, which Polley adapted from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel. Happily, Women Talking mostly meets them.
Set in a remote, rural, unnamed religious community (though Mennonite seems most likely), it revolves around an emergency, clandestine meeting among about a dozen of its women. Upon discovery that some of their men are drugging and raping them, they debate whether all the women should stay and fight back or leave the settlement with their younger children. It takes place in the near-present, though with the addition of an unlikely musical cue it could reasonably be any time since the late 1960’s; it also leaves open the possibility that it could even be in the near (or remote) future.
Much of it is exactly what the title promises: the women process the dilemma before them, discussing and arguing at length the implications of what courses of action are available to them. If this sounds dry and overly, well, talky, it’s visually far less static and isolated than something like last year’s (admittedly great) Mass. Polley not only sculpts dialogue to ebb and flow naturally like a good screenplay should, she also comprehends the value of opening up this world cinematically when the time is right for it. As the camera moves around and sometimes away from the barn where much of the action occurs, one can usually sense Polley’s hand as an additional unseen character right beside the women, reacting to and often enhancing what transpires.
The superb ensemble cast includes indie-friendly stars (Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy), Canadian stalwarts (Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod), revered veterans (Judith Ivey and in a smaller role, Frances McDormand) and Ben Whishaw as the sole on-screen adult male, a sympathetic school teacher asked to take minutes of the meeting (most of the women there are not taught to read and write.)
As the women work their way towards decisive action, the film accumulates considerable power, laying out what’s at stake for these characters, illustrating their turmoil (but never in an exploitative way) and placing it in a larger context that strives to be universally applicable. Occasionally, the story oversteps, simplifying logistical concerns for actions taken; the final section also drags a bit, reiterating ideas and emotional beats already touched upon. However, those are minor missteps. The world Polley depicts is contained to the point of being restrictive; Women Talking, with great catharsis and reasoning explains with artful clarity as to why this is damaging and what future generations can do to avoid succumbing to such a closed-off, incomplete life. (4.5 out of 5)
After a brief sojourn in France (The Truth), director Hirokazu Kore-eda made this movie in South Korea rather than his home country of Japan, purportedly so he could work with the actor Song Kang-ho (he was most recently the patriarch in Parasite.) As with its predecessor, the shift in locale does not mean any departure in style or tone, though some parts of Broker might comprise his most overtly comedic work in years.
The plot, however, is the stuff of drama and suspense. Two men, Sang-hyun (Song) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) run an illegal business in Busan where they steal abandoned infants from a church’s drop-off box and sell them on the black market. It works swimmingly until So-young (singer/songwriter IU), a teenage mother in the process of dropping off her own baby discovers their scheme and joins them to interview prospective adoptive parents. Meanwhile, two detectives (one played by Kore-eda alumnus Doona Bae, now middle-aged but still fabulous) sit in their unmarked car and watch this all play out.
Although Broker won the Jury Prize at Cannes, it isn’t on the same level as Kore-eda’s very best work (my top four, chronologically: After Life, Nobody Knows, Still Walking, Shoplifters.) Actually, it’s slightly flabby (maybe 10-20 minutes too long) and although he retains a knack for getting amusing (but not irritating!) performances out of children, this film’s humor and pathos do not always sit comfortably alongside each other. Of course, as veteran auteurs go, Kore-eda is still in a class of his own. He may be relying on variations on familiar themes, but no one else matches his sustained comfort and nimble touch with depicting makeshift families and finding those ingenuous, unforced grace moments that co-exist with the mundane. (4 out of 5)
The latest from writer/director James Gray is almost nakedly autobiographical. His 11-year-old alter ego, Paul (Banks Repeta) lives in Queens, 1980 (as Gray did), the younger son of a middle-class Jewish-American family whose grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) arrived at Ellis Island near the turn of the 20th century. A would-be artist prone to daydreaming with little traditional work ethic in him, Paul befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), an African-American classmate who was left back the previous year and is barely tolerated by their public-school teacher. His friendship with Johnny doesn’t so much open up a new world for Paul as it gradually puts into perspective his own place in the world and how his race and class afford him privilege; meanwhile, his grandfather helps him to understand the complexities of bearing such privilege along with the moral and ethical implications at risk as a result.
Gray gets the period look and feel exactly right but sometimes struggles with other details. Apart from Hopkins, Paul’s family can come off as stereotypical-verging-on-cartoonish; even worse, Johnny’s barely a character at all, a sacrificial lamb for Paul to learn from. The insertion of two real-life figures related to a former president also feels a little clumsy, reiterating the overall point by practically banging it into the ground. On the other hand, the film would fall apart without Repeta’s naturalistic performance; he’s certainly one of the more plausible 11-year-old film protagonists, itself a tough age to depict in that Paul is still an innocent child to a degree but also easily corruptible. Of the few Gray films I’ve seen (Ad Astra, The Immigrant) this is somehow the most satisfying but also the most flawed, which frustrates–I repeatedly sensed that he’s just too close to the material even though it’s undeniably his story to tell. (3 out of 5)
Why film? As I watch one movie after another, I seldom pause to consider such a question. I suppose this project is an attempt to track my own relationship with film, how it grew from a pastime of simply viewing them for entertainment to a full flower of talking, thinking about and obsessing over them. Rarely does a week pass where I haven’t watched a single film (or more likely four or five.)
What initially drew me to studying film was its invitation to view and partake in cultures and perspectives outside my own. It’s unlikely I’ll ever spend much time in or even visit Russia, but I can glean various perspectives of what Russia is like through the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrey Zvyagintsev (to name three great directors from three wholly different eras.) Granted, I’ll never know it as well as the places I’ve lived and spent ample time in, but even just familiarizing myself with Russian movies (and those of other countries from Finland to Burkina Faso), I feel my mindset expanded.
Culture aside, film can be limitless in its approach—just think of all the disparate (and in some cases, intersecting) worlds a film can contain according to genre, tone, style and structure. Over ten days at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago, I watched a trashy camp classic (Valley Of The Dolls), a pioneering experimental/fake documentary made around the same time (David Holzman’s Diary), a Reagan-era, female-directed French musical (Golden Eighties), the low-budget indie debut from Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan (Next of Kin), a popular “ripped from the tabloids” doc from a decade ago (The Queen of Versailles), peak early 90s New Queer Cinema (The Living End) and, from two years before that, Bertolucci’s adaptation of the Paul Bowles novel The Sheltering Sky—there you have it, seven distinct ways of seeing out of hundreds of thousands available to rent or stream.
Even the pre-streaming age afforded such possibilities if less access and convenience than we’re now accustomed to. As the 1990s gave way to a new century, I kept at it, practically organizing my own life around what I could see in theatres, and then what I could rent or borrow to watch at home. I continued perceiving film as a virtual global passport of sorts, but something else shifted. The idea that cinema not only offered many things to see around the world but also new ways of seeing the world regardless of location registered back in grad school when I first watched bold, wholly original takes on contemporary life such as Safe. I kept this in mind when picking out new movies to see. Those making the most instant and lasting impressions adhered to this notion of cinema as a lens offering viewpoints that were recognizable (to a degree) but also fresh and illuminating in ways that I’d never devise on my own.
Writing about Beau Travail, I championed 1999 as a consensus-supported banner year for film; in my personal view, 2001 nearly surpasses it, especially in the realms of indie and world cinema. Ghost World, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, In The Bedroom, Memento, Waking Life, Amelie, Gosford Park, Donnie Darko—not too shabby a selection (and I’ve left out some titles I might devote to future entries here.) Adding delayed domestic releases from the previous year like In The Mood For Love and Our Song only enhances this notion of 2001 as another all-timer for cinema.
Naturally, the year carries a weightier association in the collective memory. Even though my spreadsheet of watched films by date only goes back to 2004, I still recall the last film I saw in a theatre before 9/11: a restored print of Godard’s Band of Outsiders at the Brattle in Harvard Square with a solid Saturday night crowd. Francois Ozon’s slow-burn psychological thriller Under The Sand at the Arlington Capitol was what I first saw in a cinema afterwards, three Saturdays later. It’s no stretch in noting how much the world changed between those two screenings and how coincidentally those two titles represent the collective mood before and after (particularly the Ozon film with its gloomy undertones and quiet, numbing sense of dread.)
Exactly two weeks after Under The Sand, I saw Mulholland Drive on its opening weekend at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. At this point, I appreciated director David Lynch but felt no strong passion for his work. I’d viewed The Elephant Man in a high school class (way over my head at the time); as an adult, I’d watched Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; the former had unnerved me without necessarily transcending that feeling, while the latter left me cold (granted, I hadn’t seen a single episode of the series at that point! Why I watched this prequel at all is best saved for another essay.) And yet, I’d also seen The Straight Story, which did move me with its deceptively simple narrative and in how it captured the unlikely beauty of a region (rural Iowa and Wisconsin) I’m familiar with—never mind that it’s Lynch’s most atypical work (rated G and produced and distributed by Disney!)
Mulholland Drive arrived in theaters with no shortage of hype. Originally conceived as a 90-minute television pilot for ABC (home of Twin Peaks) in 1999, it was rejected by the network. Rather than leave it behind, Lynch refashioned it into a film, securing funding from Canal+ and shooting additional footage. The 146-minute feature version premiered at Cannes in May 2001 to critical acclaim and Lynch tied with the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There for Best Director (Nanni Moretti’s comparatively forgotten The Son’s Room won top prize, the Palme d’Or.) By its theatrical release, growing buzz around the film positioned it as one of the year’s most anticipated arthouse attractions.
A film lives up to such lofty expectations (such as the swaggering, singular Hedwig and the Angry Inch) just as often as it does not (to pick an extreme example, all I wanted to do was take a dozen Silkwood showers after feeling thoroughly pummeled by Requiem For A Dream.) My first viewing of Mulholland Drive was closer to that of Hedwig, but with some reservations. I wrote in my journal (this was still pre-blog) of walking away from it feeling “entranced” (a word I surely overused in my twenties) and given my overall impression of Lynch’s back catalog, a little surprised. I described it as “a world of dreams” populated by characters that were less Twin Peaks caricatures (remember, I hadn’t seen the series yet) but more “grounded and fragile.” However, I couldn’t love it due to its unusual structure and inexplicable twists. I suspect I was far from alone in this, as I’ve discussed the film with numerous people over the years who similarly find Lynch’s tendency to leave crucial things open and unexplained a stumbling block if not a reason for outright disliking it.
Still, that initial watch of Mulholland Drive, perhaps enhanced by a continual string of accolades (like Beau Travail the year before, it topped the Village Voice Film Critics poll) stayed with me. I made room for it on my own year-end top ten film list at #9, right between Our Song and The Man Who Wasn’t There. When it hit the then-second run Somerville Theatre in early January, I saw it again. In that journal entry, I wrote, “It’s a film that begs to be seen more than once” before noting how much funnier it was the second time, the half-filled theater often reacting with belly laughs (only to be subsumed by some rather nervous laughter in the brain-melting last half hour.) Whereas I kept trying to figure out what the hell was going on after that first viewing, now I could come up with a few ambitious (if probably insufficient) theories, having noticed reoccurring objects and parallels drawn between characters and situations.
No matter how much I worked on cracking the film’s narrative code, its mystery (as well as its mastery) left me captivated (to use a slightly better word than “entranced”.) I bought the DVD when it came out months later and re-watched it a handful of times before seeing it again on the big screen at the Coolidge in 2006. When I redid my best of 2001 list a few years later, it wound up at #2. In 2012, it secured a place on my list of ten favorite all-time films inspired by the once-every-decade Sound and Sight poll (as did Beau Travail and McCabe & Ms. Miller.) Just last year in a job interview when referencing my professional and academic background in cinema, I was asked (for a non-film related position, I might add) what my favorite movie was: Mulholland Drive popped in my head before anything else.
I’m not going to make that particular case for it here; to name a single favorite film out of the thousands I’ve seen is increasingly an impossible task. Neither will I fully go through it scene by scene given limitations of time and space and my readers’ patience. However, I have to address the narrative and will do so starting at the very beginning. To this day, I struggle explaining why I feel a sensation akin to goose bumps upon just hearing the opening swing-band music as images blur and skitter across the screen. Soon enough, they settle on a tableau resembling those Louis Prima-scored Gap commercials from the late ‘90s but with slightly older and decidedly amateurish dancers, not to mention all those overlapping silhouettes. As jarring and exciting as any beginning, it barely has anything to do with the rest of the film; only over two hours later does one character (whose visage flashes over the action at the scene’s conclusion) mention once having won a dance competition. Is that what the opening scene depicts, or is it a dream?
In the film’s grander scope, such a question is irrelevant. Mulholland Drive might be the ultimate movie gathering power predominantly from feels rather than plot. Still, one must consider that latter. The narrative throughline of Betty (Naomi Watts), a blonde, fresh-faced aspiring actress from Podunk, Canada apartment-sitting for her Aunt Ruth in Hollywood and her relationship with Rita (Laura Harring), the mysterious brunette car accident survivor/amnesiac she finds squatting there easily draws one in. As compelling a mystery as anything featuring Nancy Drew or Jessica Fletcher, it’s Lynch as his most outwardly engaging and tender.
Alas, as much as it, well, drives Mulholland Drive, it serves as only a part of its universe. The film’s first half often plays like the TV pilot it was conceived as, given to multiple storylines that in a feature context resemble planted seeds meant to develop into full-grown branches in subsequent episodes: the man (Patrick Fishler) recounting his nightmare to another man at Winkie’s, a Denny’s-esque diner where the dream took place; a ropey hit man (Mark Pellegrino) whose attempted mark goes horribly and absurdly awry; Adam, a hotshot filmmaker (Justin Theroux) whom, in a closed-door boardroom is forced by mafioso (one of ’em played by longtime Lynch collaborator/scorer Angelo Badalamenti!) to cast a particular actress as the lead in his next picture, declaring upon her sight, “This is the girl.” That last thread actually develops further as Adam endures and suffers various foibles, only for his story to briefly merge with Betty’s as she visits his film shoot directly after an audition where, performing an intense scene with an older actor (played by Chad Everett!), both she and Watts reveal what skilled actresses they are.
The Betty-and-Rita story increasingly takes up more screen time as the film lingers past the 90-minute mark until they find a key to open the blue box in Rita’s purse. As Rita unlocks and opens it, the camera seems to dive into its darkness; on the other side, everything has abruptly shifted. Watts is now Diane, whose name earlier bred a spark of familiarity in Rita, leading her and Betty to scope out Diane’s drab apartment only to find her decaying corpse lying in bed. Watts-as-Diane, disheveled, glumly shuffling around her shitty bungalow is nearly the polar opposite of Watts-as-Betty, so cheerful even her pink sweater literally sparkled with sequins. Harring also reappears, only now called Camilla, a successful actress who has been helping Diane get bit parts. Camilla (also name of the “This is the girl” actress) is in a relationship with Adam, who is still a filmmaker; at a house party they invite Diane to (out of pity, it seems), they introduce her to Coco (Ann Miller—yes, that Ann Miller), whom we previously knew as the manager of Aunt Ruth’s apartment complex; she is now Adam’s mother. It’s all purposely disorienting and as Diane’s mental and emotional instability surges into the red zone and the film ends with her suicide by gunshot, it’s not difficult relating to her madness.
For years, my most basic interpretation was that everything up until Rita opening the box was Diane’s dream with Betty an idealized version of herself. It’s probably no coincidence that when Betty becomes Diane, the first words heard are “Hey, pretty girl, time to wake up” from The Cowboy, the flat-voiced, Uber-Lynchian figure who ultimately convinced Adam to obey the mafia’s wishes (do we even have time to get into who or what else The Cowboy is?) Going back to my notes after that first watch in 2001, I described the entire film as a dream or a series of dreams dissolving into one another, rather than the opening of the box as a demarcation line between dreams and reality. Those words now startle me, for on my most recent rewatch, they sum up how I currently interpret Mulholland Drive. Given Lynch’s notoriety for refusing to explain anything in his films (no commentary tracks from this guy!), it’s fitting that his greatest work is one of his most enigmatic. He purposely leaves a trail of clues, some of which even match up, but there’s no grand denouement, no rationalization for why Betty becomes Diane—although earlier dialogue such as Betty’s “It’ll be just like the movies—we’ll pretend to be someone else,” or Rita’s anguished cry of “I don’t know who I am” resemble premonitions in retrospect.
Still, when thinking about the film, I always go back to that bizarre swing-dance opening. Whether or not it has anything to do with what follows, it undeniably sets a tone: nebulous and perplexing for sure, but also expectant and positively giddy. Where (and possibly when) in the world are we? The simplest answer (to the former at least) is Los Angeles. Lynch seems to view the city as his medium here, a canvas with space for him to manipulate, paint over and reassemble what’s already there. For instance, he inserts numerous establishing shots panning over the cityscape—in particular, the steel-and-glass-heavy Downtown skyline mostly at night. He just hovers over it all with Badalamenti’s near-ambient, white noise score playing a crucial part. He avoids most recognizable landmarks, instead opting for an anonymity heightening an encroaching dread.
Instead of Grauman’s Chinese Theater or the Hollywood Sign, he renders ordinary, everyday locales as places to remember. Think of those already vaguely recognizable to a viewer of a certain age, like Winkie’s coffee shop or an abandoned drive-in movie theater. In this film’s universe, they’re presented as significant a part of the overall design as Aunt Ruth’s cozy, incredibly well-preserved art deco apartment or Adam’s swanky mansion in the Hollywood Hills. This extends to reoccurring objects such as mirrors, an ashtray and a rotary phone (!) as well as settings that aren’t what they initially appear to be—most notably, the abrupt cut to a tableau of singers decked out in 1950s outfits performing the Connie Stevens song “Sixteen Reasons” in a recording studio. Again, where (and when) are we? As the camera pulls back, we see it’s actually Adam’s film set, an audition for a scene in a Stevens biopic he’s directing—the one he’s being forced to cast a particular lead actress in.
After Betty and Rita’s discovery of Diane’s corpse (which climaxes in a chilling superimposed image of the two of them reacting in horror), most of these locales and objects seem to just melt away, restricting the action to Aunt Ruth’s apartment where Rita begins cutting off her hair to disguise herself until Betty lends her a wig. The two women now look nearly identical, and their relationship soon turns sexual. Then, in the middle of the night (with no explanation), Rita asks Betty to take her to a place revealed as Club Silencio. They sit down in the sparsely attended, dilapidated old theater. A goateed magician takes the mic and delivers a spiel about how “It’s all recorded… it’s an illusion.” He introduces Rebekah Del Rio, who sings Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish, her tremulous, haunting voice filling the cavernous space like a siren, powerful enough to raise every last hair on your body. She makes it through half the song, her intensity forever rising until she suddenly *drops* to the floor… and the song continues. After all, “It’s all recorded… it’s an illusion.”
Arriving just before Rita opens the box, the Club Silencio scene could be the key to unlocking the film’s allure, if not entirely its logic or purpose. It’s as if everything has been building towards this gorgeous, striking, transcendent, shocking moment where we witness a great performance that’s not entirely truthful. Similarly, the engaging, intriguing stories of Betty and Rita, Adam and Camilla, Diane, Coco and all the rest of these Los Angelenos aren’t entirely truthful or are at least altered to allow for simultaneous truths, none of which are absolute. Mulholland Drive is indeed a panorama for Lynch to fearlessly explore connections between dreams, reality and also the movies (“Why film?”, indeed), not to mention all of the wicked, sublime and terrifying possibilities that surface as they overlap.