Film Journal: May 2020

High and Low

Cinemas remain closed, but there’s no shortage of new movies available to stream online, whether through Netflix or Hulu or your local indie theatre’s website (like this one.) I saw a number of titles this way that might’ve had a traditional theatrical release, pre-pandemic. The best included Driveways, an earnest but whip-smart coming-of-age film featuring Brian Dennehy’s last performance (start the posthumous Oscar campaign now—it’s a superb farewell); Straight Up, which puts a novel, modern, undeniably queer spin on the screwball rom-com; and The Painter and The Thief, a documentary about an unlikely friendship, assembled like a gradually completed puzzle.

As for the rest of the new: cult French auteur/techno musician Quentin Dupieux returns with Deerskin, another transgressive weird-o-rama, but it has an ace in the hole with lead Jean Dujardin fully committing to such absurdity; On A Magical Night (a much different French film) is somehow simultaneously enchanting and irritating whenever it’s not boring. Alan Yang’s Tigertail is half a great picture (specifically, the flashbacks) with cinematography I would’ve liked to have seen in a theatre (these days, wouldn’t we all?) but less dull than docs that are well-intended (A Secret Love) or entertaining if wildly misshapen (This One’s For The Ladies.)

Two masterworks viewed for the first time: High and Low, an Akira Kurosawa kidnapping thriller that cannily spends its first hour in a single setting, then gradually expands both its physical and emotional spheres until it culminates in one of the most exciting extended sequences I’ve ever seen (even more so than the admirable, silent, thirty-minute heist in Rififi); and The Best Years Of Our Lives, as much a film about the year it was made as you’re ever likely to find in classic Hollywood, and made immortal by non-professional actor Harold Russell’s genuine, endearing performance.

Other great discoveries: It’s Always Fair Weather, which deserves to be as well-known as On The Town (if not Singin’ In The Rain); Taipei Story, an earlier film from the director of Yi Yi and a rare acting showcase for fellow Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien; and Targets, Peter Bogdanovich’s first feature and startling in how ahead of its time it was, and also in how perfectly it captured it.

As for re-watches, Images holds up about as well as Mauvais Sang, both of ‘em benefiting from their leads; slightly better than either is Orlando, which might still be the quintessential Tilda Swinton vehicle. As for Moonrise Kingdom, it remains Wes Anderson’s best of the past decade-and-a-half (we’ll see how The French Dispatch measures up, hopefully this October.)

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

The Out-of-Towners (Arthur Hiller, 1970)* 7
A Secret Love (Chris Bolan, 2020) 6
Tigertail (Alan Yang, 2020) 7
Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968) 9
This One’s For The Ladies (Gene Graham, 2018) 5
Taipei Story (Edward Yang, 1985) 8
Tomboy (Celine Sciamma, 2011) 9
49th Parallel (Michael Powell, 1941) 8
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)* 9
Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux, 2019) 7
It’s Always Fair Weather (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1955) 9
Private Life (Tamara Jenkins, 2018) 8
Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992)* 8
High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963) 10
Straight Up (James Sweeney, 2019) 8
It Felt Like Love (Eliza Hittman, 2013) 6
Driveways (Andrew Ahn, 2019) 8
Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) 7
Stolen Kisses (Francois Truffaut, 1968) 7
Images (Robert Altman, 1972)* 7
On A Magical Night (Christophe Honore, 2019) 6
Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1982) 8
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)* 10
Waiting For Guffman (Christopher Guest, 1996)* 9
Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax, 1986)* 7
The Painter and The Thief (Benjamin Ree, 2020) 8
The Best Years Of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) 10
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Alexandra Dean, 2017) 7

Film Journal: April 2020

Day For Night

Honestly, few films I’ve viewed in this second month of quarantine have provided as much pleasure as the first two seasons of Succession, which I binged after HBO made it and a few other shows temporarily free to non-subscribers. Epic, hilarious, nasty and blatantly (and effectively) Shakespearean, it’s both a balm to and a mirror of these times.

Still, as I work through my various streaming queues, a few close contenders emerge. Day For Night, the first post-Jules and Jim Truffaut I’ve seen is one of the great movies-about-movies in part because it delves so deeply into process without seeming too inside-baseball; it also reactivated my interest in the Antoine Doinel films, so Antoine and Colette, the first one after The 400 Blows is a trifle by design (thirty minutes, part of a multi-director anthology), but Truffaut’s perfectly suited for crafting trifles with heft and weight.

Also pretty good: that long-unreleased Orson Welles film on Netflix, which is a mess at first but eventually stumbles upon the genius you’d expect from the man; a Mike Leigh short that neatly condenses material for a feature-length film into a compact frame; Fleck/Boden’s best effort since Half-Nelson; Beineix’s ultra-stylish-and-just-as-moving early ‘80s thriller (which I tried watching once years before but must’ve dozed off pretty early into it, because I didn’t remember a thing about it); and, a relatively late Powell/Pressburger flick that’s unlike anything else they did and, simultaneously, something that could come from no one else.

I last saw Scenes From A Marriage more than two decades ago in a film class and it remains my favorite Bergman (television origins and all) for its surgical focus, wringing so much thought and emotion out of such bare essentials. Stories We Tell, which I rewatched for a work project, also remains the most innovative documentary from the past decade, while Klute also holds up nicely though this time I was more in thrall to Gordon Willis’ cinematography than Jane Fonda’s admittedly iconic performance.

Biggest letdowns included Hale County This Morning This Evening, especially after all the raves it received at the end of 2018 (“Pretty but aimless” is my three-word review) and Kinetta, an early film from the director of Dogtooth and The Favourite (a case of not-quite-there-yet.) As for most notable What-Did-I-Just-Watch titles, Greener Grass is silly but almost enchantingly weird at times for its commitment to such weirdness, while Bunny Lake Is Missing starts off as Hitchcock before turning into proto-Haneke in the last half hour—if you think of Keir Dullea as something of an automaton based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, well, this will irrevocably change that.

Films viewed in April in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10.)

The Booksellers (D.W. Young, 2019) 6
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018) 4
Welcome To L.A. (Alan Rudolph, 1976) 5
The Small Back Room (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949) 8
Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts (Nicholas Zeig-Owens, 2019) 7
The Short & Curlies (Mike Leigh, 1987) 8
The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983) 7
Day For Night (Francois Truffaut, 1973) 9
The Queen (Frank Simon, 1968) 6
Isn’t It Romantic (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2019) 5
Mississippi Grind (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, 2015) 8
Scenes From A Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1974)* 10
Sissy-Boy Slap-Party (Guy Maddin, 2004)* 8
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)* 10
The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher, 2014) 6
The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978) 7
Kinetta (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2005) 5
Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971)* 8
The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) 6
Cinema Verite (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2011) 5
Bunny Lake Is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965) 8
Antoine and Colette (Truffaut, 1962) 7
The Other Side Of The Wind (Orson Welles, 2018) 8
Circus of Books (Rachel Mason, 2019) 6
Hector and The Search For Happiness (Peter Chelsom, 2014) 3
Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981) 8
Greener Grass (Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, 2019) 6

Film Journal: March 2020

First Cow

I used to post monthly reports collecting thoughts (no matter how succinct) about every film I watched. While I still write individual reviews (which can be found on Letterboxd), I thought I’d start doing a monthly summation here as well—at least as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and I have time to watch close to twice as much stuff as usual.

Four of the first ten titles here were viewed for Chlotrudis Awards (where I managed to see all but four of the nominated films.) The keeper in this bunch was The Art of Self-Defense, a love-it-or-hate-it indie whose dry, bordering on absurd humor was right up my alley (see also Lemon.) Thankfully, First Cow was one of the last movies I got to see in a theatre before the mass shutdowns (snuck in to the second-to-last screening—full disclosure, I work at an indie cinema); more than a month on, I’m so grateful for this, as Kelly Reichardt’s latest might be her best: applying considerably high narrative/emotional stakes to such richly detailed “slow” filmmaking, it’s also a fine portrait of friendship between two men (a concept still very much a rarity in 2020.)

Most of what follows was viewed on The Criterion Channel, Hulu and Amazon Prime, though not everything—most notably, The Green Fog, which is streaming for free on Vimeo and essential for fans of Guy Maddin and Vertigo (a guaranteed crossover?). Criterion, in particular is an invaluable resource for filling in the cracks in my extensive moviegoing, from Malle’s wistful but never foolish depiction of an anachronism in a changing world to the delightfully anarchic but compulsively watchable Daisies. Also revisited The Swimmer, which I absolutely hated sixteen years ago. Now, in my mid-40s and having consumed seven seasons of Mad Men, I sort of get it, admiring its innate weirdness rather than being repulsed by it.

Also nice to finally see a proper presentation of Teorema (first viewing long ago was a poorly dubbed 16mm print-to-VHS), A Place In The Sun (on my watchlist forever, and maybe my favorite Clift performance, if not the best film he was ever in), first features from the directors of Toni Erdmann and It Follows, and most of all, Glitterbug, a montage of Jarman’s Super 8 work I’ve owned for over a decade (as part of the Glitterbox set) but never got around to seeing until now. Thank you, pandemic?

Films viewed in March in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10.) *Denotes I’ve seen this title before.

Emma. (Autumn de Wilde, 2020) 6
Auggie (Matt Kane, 2019) 3
Wendy (Benh Zeitlin, 2020) 4
The Art of Self-Defense (Riley Stearns, 2019) 8
Horse Girl (Jeff Baena, 2020) 5
A Moment In Love (Shirley Jackson, 1956) 7
The Times of Bill Cunningham (Mark Bozek, 2018) 5
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, 2019) 9
Little Woods (Nia DaCosta, 2018) 7
Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018) 6
Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980) 8
Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968)* 8
The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell, 2010) 7
Le Bonheur (Agnes Varda, 1965) 8
Bullfight (Jackson, 1955) 6
The Green Fog (Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, Guy Maddin, 2017) 8
The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968)* 7
Cold Case Hammerskjold (Mads Brugger, 2019) 7
Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019) 6
The Forest For The Trees (Maren Ade, 2003) 8
The Falling (Carol Morley, 2014) 6
A Place In The Sun (George Stevens, 1951) 8
The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson, 2014)* 7
Daisies (Vera Chytilova, 1966) 9
Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene, 2018) 8
Glitterbug (Derek Jarman, 1994) 9

Best Films of the ’10s: #10-1

10. BOYHOOD
Richard Linklater’s best films dissect how the passage of time shapes our perception of narrative (Dazed and Confused,The Before Trilogy, Slacker); this is arguably more ambitious than all of them, and even more blatantly driven by a gimmick. But the cumulative effect of Boyhood is unprecedented, realizing a new way of seeing and storytelling only possible via the moving image; through his deft use of this structure, Linklater enables us to witness something both so singular and universal.

9. THE MASTER
As innovative as Kubrick and enigmatic as Malick, The Master builds on the sharp turn Paul Thomas Anderson took with There Will Be Blood, scrutinizing post-World War II America while often playing like a fever dream come down to earth. Joaquin Phoenix’s meticulous, intriguing performance is but one of many he gave this decade, so look to one of the last great ones from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman—his L. Ron Hubbard-esque figure perhaps the key to this film’s slippery, near-unknowable soul.

8. SHOPLIFTERS
As with his great forebear Yasujiro Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to familiar, familial themes across his discography with a rare consistency. So, place this well-deserved Cannes Palme D’or winner about a family of sorts up there with Nobody Knows and Still Walking and admire his ever-present humanism and kindhearted but fair depiction of what ordinary, flawed people do in order to survive while also seeking solace in each other (whether they’re able or even willing to reciprocate.)

7. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
Peter Strickland’s strange, arresting film is not just a kinky parade of verbal abuse, face-sitting, being tied and locked up and other unmentionables alluded to behind closed doors; it’s also a profound, intriguing, complicated love story. Come for the dizzying homage to Italian horror and soft-core erotica and stay for a fascinating, eloquent exploration of what it means to play a role in a loving, sexual relationship—and how not fulfilling your partner’s expectations throws everything out of whack.

6. OSLO, AUGUST 31
This film follows a man on a one-day leave from rehab. We see him drift through a city (and traces of a former existence) teeming with life and pleasures running the gamut from the mundane to the sublime. And yet, director Joachim Trier never makes light of the conundrum of addiction and how effusively it colors both one’s surroundings and perceptions. Cold and unsentimental, yet affirmative and at times unexpectedly buoyant, Oslo, August 31 is a one-of-a-kind meditation on life itself.

5. STORIES WE TELL
Anyone can make a documentary about one’s own family; for her first nonfiction feature, actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley does just that, but she also explores how such a story can be told, considering differing points of view from each family member, the abundance (or absence) of found documentation available and how all that information is shaped into a narrative (what’s emphasized, what’s left out). As these details accumulate and overlap, Polley crafts a hybrid that does nothing less than open up and redefine what the genre’s capable of.

4. PARASITE
What more is there to say about Parasite? That it genuinely lives up to all the hype and then some? That it’s so well-constructed, you believe every facet of it even as it threatens to spiral out of control? Is it a class-conscious satire, a race-against-the-clock thriller or a revenge-driven horror story? Why not all of these things, and simultaneously at that? I won’t be surprised when I revisit this in another five or ten years if it feels more like a definitive record of its time than any documentary.

3. FRANCES HA
At first glance, Frances Ha shouldn’t work. It’s full of precious anachronisms like black-and-white cinematography, deliberately old-fashioned opening titles and a jarring soundtrack. Besides, the world did not need another tale of a single 27-year-old white woman in New York. And yet, for all of its quirks, actor Greta Gerwig (prefiguring her subsequent work as a filmmaker) and director Noah Baumbach’s collaboration is an utter delight—especially whenever Frances/Gerwig is paired with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), transforming the film into a closely observed study of female friendship.

2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Reining in the excess that sometimes cheapened his earlier work while retaining his passion and drive, director Luca Guadagnino crafts almost an embarrassment of riches, from a monologue for the ages for the great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg to the exquisite modern classical/Sufjan Stevens score to Armie Hammer’s solid presence to Timothée Chalamet, whose breakthrough here is iconic as, if nothing at all like Dustin Hoffman’s in The Graduate. Beyond that, however, this film locates something vital and deeply affecting at the core of giving yourself completely over to love, and also loss.

1. CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR
I’ve loved all of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films since Tropical Malady, but none have stayed with me like this one. Set in a military hospital in the director’s rural hometown, which he positions as a sort of purgatorial waystation for sleep-prone soldiers, it’s another magical realist mood piece. He draws connections between psychic mediums, ghosts, mythic sites and dreams, feeling both familiar and otherworldly. The film practically glides from scene to scene, concerned with such ephemera as the light in the sky or the unusual therapy provided by symmetrical rows of glowing neon tubes at the foot of the soldiers’ beds. Seductive and inscrutable in equal measure, it’s like nothing else I saw this decade.

Best Films of the ’10s: #20-11

20. MINDING THE GAP
A documentary rife with all the euphoria and turmoil (and every emotion in between) of day-to-day life via three young male skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois; one of them is director Bing Liu, whose editing and cinematography are both exceptional for a film of this scale and budget. Building to a powerful finale without calculation, this could serve as a definitive portrait of its time and place in the decades ahead.

19. STAYING VERTICAL
A drifter stumbles into a variety of not-so-pithy (and sometimes life-altering) situations, among them cruising, fatherhood, screenwriting and holistic medicine. Destitution, sheepherding and loud, vintage progressive rock also play into it, along with a birth, a death and a whole lot of sex (after those three things, what more could one want?) Like an Antonioni film scripted by Hal Hartley, it’s quirky for sure, but also hypnotic and transformative.

18. ROMA
Concerning a middle class family in early ’70s Mexico City as filtered through the perspective of its maid, Cleo, this draws heavily from director Alfonso Cuaron’s own life. Although individual scenes register as slice-of-life vignettes, their order and procession is key, for they lead towards something both heartbreaking and life-affirming. When Cleo says to a co-worker and friend, “I have so much to tell you,” it could be Cuaron’s own epitaph.

17. MOONLIGHT
In following three life stages (child, teen and adult) of a black man from a rough Miami neighborhood, Moonlight could have easily succumbed to its potentially gimmicky structure or turned out an Issue Picture about how an outsider never truly escapes his confining environment. Instead, the end result is uncommonly lyrical in its fluid pace (and camera movement), often gorgeous imagery and narrative/structural leaps—not to mention the rare intimacy it also achieves.

16. DRIVE
We go to movies for the seductive thrill of entering a world that, no matter how relatable, exists apart from reality; Drive not only does this but proudly, blatantly references other films to a degree that would shame even Quentin Tarantino. And yet, it never seems derivative or empty because it’s so gleefully, compellingly drunk on its own allure, crafting a Los Angeles tableau full of gripping chase sequences, brutal (but rarely gratuitous) violence and magnetic, minimalist cool.

15. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
Celine Sciamma’s exquisite 18th century romance gains so much from the barest essentials, deploying all of its accoutrements sparingly, letting the connection between its two leads develop organically so that when it reaches a crescendo in the astonishing feast scene midway through, one can’t help but be fully engaged in their fate. One feels and absorbs the mad rush of emotions practically emanating from the screen that culminates in a simple but profound final shot.

14. THE ACT OF KILLING / THE LOOK OF SILENCE
This two-pronged examination of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide of over two million Communist citizens focuses on the perpetrators (The Act of Killing) and their victims (The Look of Silence). The first film’s somewhat more effective as cinema, swerving fluidly between riotous absurdity and appalling horror as these men are asked to recreate the various ways in which they committed their acts. However, the second film is nearly as essential in its attempt to start a necessary dialogue about something that’s still verboten in this culture.

13. KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER
Built around a reference to Fargo (the movie, not the TV series), this wondrous mash-up of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch traverses from Tokyo to Minnesota and features a singularly odd protagonist who has a noodle-eating pet rabbit named Bunzo. Rinko Kikuchi, best known for Babel and The Brothers Bloom, brilliantly portrays the stubbornly insular misfit while filmmaking team the Zellner Brothers survey a structure that allows for both rigid symmetry and inspired surrealism.

12. HOLY MOTORS
Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) mysteriously travels in his stretch limo around Paris to a series of appointments where he slips from one role to the next, ranging from a heavily-costumed actor on a motion-capture soundstage to a foul, gibberish-sprouting sewer creature. Writer/director Leos Carax offers no explanation or rationale for why Mr. Oscar is hired to do what he does, only exploring to absurd heights what it means to inhabit a role and assume an identity.

11. MARWENCOL
A masterful illustration of art-as-therapy but also a riveting profile of Mark Hogenkamp, who deals with his trauma by constructing an ever-more elaborate facsimile of a World War II Belgian village populated with dolls he then photographs. Serious and contemplative rather than kitschy and flippant, he creates great art—as does director Jeff Malmberg, who carefully reveals the hidden layers of Hogenkamp’s story one by one without any exploitative slant.

Best Films of the ’10s: #30-21

30. AQUARIUS
Sonia Braga delivers a career-best performance as a woman pressured by developers trying to force her out of the titular apartment building she has resided in for decades. While yet another story of one person determinedly holding on to a way of life in the face of gentrification, Aquarius is elegiac, not nostalgic, driven by mystique instead of melodrama and it masterfully builds towards a shocking, gloriously cathartic finale.

29. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Director Marielle Heller translates Lee Israel’s own memoir about her brief career in literary forgery as if it were a living, breathing, sincere re-creation of a now forgotten Manhattan. The top-notch work from Melissa McCarthy as Israel and Richard E. Grant as an aging hustler and her cohort-in-crime feels so well-drawn and rich with nuance, that, despite being despicable, unapologetic misanthropists, you’re almost compelled to root for them anyway.

28. GOOD TIME
Wipes away any doubts you ever had about Robert Pattinson as an actor—in accent, haircut and overall demeanor here, he’s scarcely the pin-up vampire he once was. But the Safdie Brothers, whose work I’ve admired since their not-mumblecore debut The Pleasure of Being Robbed, have also evolved in sensibility and scope, drawing as much from Scorsese as they do from Cassavetes, only making it all their own thing.

27. PHANTOM THREAD
The retired (for now) Daniel Day-Lewis is predictably great here, as is Lesley Manville, Jonny Greenwood’s score and the insane attention-to-detail (from costuming to period breakfast food.) And yet, what launches this into the upper tier of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work is both the odd confluence of tones he absolutely masters and the arresting Vicky Krieps, who is every bit DDL’s equal, her Alma far shrewder than you’re first led to believe.

26. MOONRISE KINGDOM
In his first explicit period piece, Wes Anderson doesn’t exactly absolve himself of those quirks that all but define him, but in his total commitment to recreating an era and fully realizing a setting’s rich potential, he suddenly feels vital again. The extended sequence where his young protagonists run off together hits a crescendo of feeling and warmth that carries over to the delicate and lovely note the film goes out on.

25. FACES PLACES
As 89-year-old Agnès Varda and her co-director, 34-year-old performance artist JR (whose giant portraits plastered onto buildings drive this essay film’s narrative) travel around France, we see them as nothing less than kindred spirits. Ruminating on her illustrious past and contemplating her own mortality, this last major work from the Godmother of the French New Wave carries a wistful undercurrent in step with her affection for both art and the human spirit.

24. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
I initially fully bought this screwball account of a doofus who captured nearly an entire artistic movement with his video camera, which he then turned on its head by becoming its most celebrated participant. Banksy’s film exhilarates via its ingenuous construction and shrewd critique of art’s inevitable commoditization; whether it’s all real or just a hoax is less a cheat than a fascinating study of what an audience will take at face value.

23. UNDER THE SKIN
As an alien (Scarlett Johansson) visits Earth, adapting herself to a strange new world, director Jonathan Glazer encourages the viewer to follow the exact same process where the entire film is concerned—in time, the inscrutable gradually, effectively becomes relatable. A decade on from Lost in Translation, Johansson is a revelation, and so is the film, driven by startling imagery, an intricate sound design and the sustained excitement of continually leaping into the unknown.

22. FIRST REFORMED
The ridiculous and the sublime remain inseparable (as they should) in Paul Schrader’s late-career miracle about a priest (a never-better Ethan Hawke) troubled by climate change, alcoholism, religion-as-business—all the big stuff. From its austere, slow-track, zoom-in opening credits to an absolutely nutty ending, Schrader conducts a wild ride through the dark night of the soul; at last, he achieves the transcendence so favored by his longtime heroes Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson.

21. CAROL
As Todd Haynes films go, what distinguishes Carol’s early ‘50s lesbian relationship apart from Far From Heaven’s heterosexual interracial dalliance (set a few years later) is the love story itself. As expected, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are both terrific and the meticulous evocation of so particular a world is top-notch; still, it’s all in service of a brave, slow-building screenplay that resonates all the way to its absolutely perfect final scene.

Best Films of the ’10s: #40-31

40. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
The Coen Brothers’ depiction of the early ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene is one of their more affectionate confections, but don’t call it nostalgic. Oscar Issac’s titular figure is a talent worth rooting for, but he’s also often boorish and self-sabotaging. This has some of the nihilism and absurdity of their late-career masterpiece A Serious Man, but it’s also more contemplative—dare I say, soulful, even.

39. WINTER’S BONE
Debra Granik’s surprise indie hit about a teenager in the Missouri Ozarks gave Jennifer Lawrence her breakthrough role, but don’t forget about good work from John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt or Dale Dickey, the latter brilliant as the film’s vicious yet maternal force-of-nature. Stark, deeply affecting and with a vivid sense of place, Winter’s Bone dexterously humanizes a world foreign to most of its audience.

38. GIVE ME LIBERTY
Following a young medical transport driver over a single day in Milwaukee, this American indie is one of the more ambitious and exciting to emerge in recent memory. Focusing on multiple populations that aren’t affluent, white and/or fully abled, it’s breakneck-intense and more than a bit messy, especially in its artier moments; it’s also funny, lyrical and full of outstanding performances.

37. EIGHTH GRADE
I still can’t understate how terrific Elsie Fisher is as Kayla, an awkward, average fourteen-year-old who’s quirky enough to stand apart from any other similarly-aged protagonist you’ve seen before and also recognizable to an almost painfully universal degree. With his debut feature, comedian Bo Burnham’s understanding of this ultra-specific world (one most of us who’ve lived it would rather forget) remains fully palpable.

36. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES
In this lyrical rumination on death, long deceased or disappeared relatives return to guide the titular character towards his next rite of passage. With his usual wry, mystical bent, Apichatpong Weerasethakul blends fantasy and reality together so fluidly that both become interchangeable and otherworldly—particularly in the final scene where he throws in a monkey wrench of sorts that perplexes but also engages in its offhanded whimsy and swiftness.

35. KNIVES OUT
As for Rian Johnson’s spirited neo-whodunit, I can’t recall the last time I had so much pure, unadulterated fun at the movies. That Knives Out not only concerns familial bickering but also class differences and illegal immigration firmly renders it a film of its time, and one I suspect will serve as a defining record of it decades from now. Bonus points for Daniel Craig pulling off his ridiculous Foghorn Leghorn accent.

34. BURNING
This Haruki Murakami short story adaptation focuses on a peculiar male-female-male triangle; to get further into the story would lessen much of its mystique. Only know that director Chang-dong Lee sets up any number of expectations only to masterfully defy most of them without leaving the viewer feeling cheated. “Haunted” is word used far too often in film criticism, but that’s the exact tone Burning leaves one with.

33. HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE
The story of ACT UP, a 1980s coalition of New York-based AIDS activists unfolds so effectively that not one archival clip in it feels unnecessary. A few, like Larry Kramer’s passionate address to a mob scene that inspires the film’s title, are more powerful as anything in even Angels In America. Essential viewing for those wanting to understand how a disease ravaged a culture, and what that culture did to combat it.

32. SWORD OF TRUST
An inspired screwball romp regarding the sale of a sword from the Civil War, this benefits considerably from Marc Maron, who’s equally adept at deadpan humor and convincing pathos as a laconic pawn shop owner. Director Lynn Shelton’s ease at letting him and the likes of Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins and Jon Bass improvise and play off each other results in a hilarious, somewhat overlooked comedy.

31. PATERSON
As the bus driver/poet with the same last name as the titular New Jersey city he lives in, Adam Driver has never been more attuned to a director’s sensibilities than Jim Jarmusch’s in this meditative film. Still, don’t overlook the rest of the cast: everyone from real find Golshifteh Farahani (as his wife) to William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place!) leaves deep traces fortifying what Paterson is actually about: a community.

Best Films of the ’10s: #50-41

At last, my fifty favorite films of the past decade. As usual, I’ll be counting them down ten at a time, but don’t expect five straight days of posts as I’ve done in the past; look for them over the next month.

50. SHORT TERM 12
Two years before Room, Brie Larson first proved her acting mettle playing a young woman managing a group home for at-risk teens. Also featuring such future stars as Rami Malek and Lakeith (here just “Keith”) Stanfield, Short Term 12 eschews melodrama for something closer to how people simply make the best of unsolvable problems.

49. THE LOBSTER
This frankly won me over the moment a rather nebbishy Colin Farrell brayed the film’s title when explaining what animal he’d like to be and why; what a peculiar but completely realized fantasy that satirizes the very idea of being able to find one’s supposed “soulmate” while also secretly buying into the notion despite itself.

48. THE ARBOR
Late British playwright Andrea Dunbar explicitly drew from her surroundings to the point where her art and life became indistinguishable; by interviewing Dunbar’s neighbors, children and other relatives, but casting actors to lip-synch their words, Clio Bernard’s unconventional documentary is both revealing and cathartic.

47. FREE IN DEED
Free in Deed provides an unusually nuanced depiction of faith healing, allowing the actions of parishioners of a storefront Pentecostal church in Memphis (and their consequences) to speak for themselves. Featuring a trio of excellent performances (David Harewood, Edwina Findley and RaJay Chandler), this intense micro-indie shook me to the core.

46. TONI ERDMANN
Maren Ade’s father/daughter absurdist epic remains one of decade’s most unique confections, an audacious melange of cringe humor and bizarre set-pieces that play out like a series of particularly cerebral episodes of The Office, complete with ridiculous false teeth and an impromptu rendition of a schlocky power ballad.

45. THE SOCIAL NETWORK
At its best, this Fincher/Sorkin spectacular recalls 1970s New Hollywood auteur cinema by placing faith in an audience’s ability to keep up with its moral ambiguities and briskly paced dialogue. Not sure how well it holds up in the face of subsequent Zuckerberg revelations, but Jesse Eisenberg here remains a bravura of casting.

44. LITTLE WOMEN
With the aid of an ensemble for the ages, Greta Gerwig lends invention and life to a familiar tale. Her openness-bordering-on-irreverence to the well-wrought source material captivates—any complaint of having to work to comprehend the fractured timeline dissipates as that structure pays off beautifully in the final third.

43. AMERICAN HONEY
A two-and-a-half-hour-plus road movie about teenagers selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door (in 2016?), with first-time actress Sasha Lane carrying almost every scene and a rat-tailed Shia LaBeouf as a credible romantic lead? Only Andrea Arnold, the great British director behind Red Road and Fish Tank could have pulled this off.

42. WEEKEND
In Weekend, two guys hook up at a bar and spend the next 48 hours fucking, chatting, ingesting copious substances and walking all over town, trying to make sense of their newfound connection and how messy, startling and beautiful it is when two people seek and find a certain intimacy with each other.

41. THE OVERNIGHTERS
A pastor opens up his church to shelter transplanted male workers in rural North Dakota in exchange for assistance with chores and adhering to a moral code as he sees it. As details accumulate and hidden intentions come to light, even the simple notion of wanting to do “the right thing” proves ever more complex and loaded in this intriguing doc.

Favorite Films of 2019

1. PARASITE
The first Bong Joon-ho film to become a genuine sensation, it lives up to all the hype and then some. It’s so well-constructed, you believe every facet of it even as it threatens to spiral out of control. As usual with the director, it’s hard to classify or define: is it a class-conscious satire, a race-against-the-clock thriller or a revenge-driven horror story? Bong seems to be asking, “Why not all of these things, and simultaneously at that?” Also, he and his impeccable cast and crew show you can create technically astounding cinema that’s also thoughtful and deeply felt.

2. SWORD OF TRUST
Lynn Shelton’s first feature in five years might be her best. An inspired screwball romp regarding the sale of a sword from the Civil War, it features a sharp ensemble cast headed by Marc Maron. Exhibiting real growth as an actor here, he’s equally adept at deadpan humor and convincing pathos as a laconic pawn shop owner. Shelton’s ease at letting him and the likes of Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins and Jon Bass improvise and play off each other results in a hilarious indie comedy that was somewhat overlooked.

3. KNIVES OUT
Rian Johnson’s spirited homage to neo-whodunits like Clue and Murder By Death is first and foremost wonderfully entertaining—I can’t recall the last time I had so much pure, unadulterated fun at the movies (and how could you not with Daniel Craig somehow pulling off a ridiculous Foghorn Leghorn accent?) That Knives Out not only concerns familial bickering but also class differences and illegal immigration firmly renders it a film of its time, and one I suspect will serve as a defining record of it decades from now.

4. GIVE ME LIBERTY
Following a young medical transport driver over a single day in Milwaukee, Kirill Mikhanovsky’s American indie is one of the more ambitious and exciting to emerge in recent memory. Focusing on multiple populations that aren’t affluent, white and/or fully abled (like his lead character, Mikhanovsky’s the son of Russian immigrants) in one of the country’s most segregated major cities, it’s breakneck-intense and more than a bit messy, especially in its artier moments; it’s also funny, lyrical, breathtaking, and full of outstanding performances.

5. LITTLE WOMEN
Lady Bird was a fine (if *slightly* overrated) directorial debut for Greta Gerwig; this follow-up shows what she’s made of as a filmmaker. Her openness-bordering-on-irreverence to the well-wrought source material is captivating—any complaint of having to work to comprehend the fractured timeline dissipates as that structure pays off beautifully in the final third. With the aid of an ensemble for the ages, Gerwig lends invention and life to a familiar tale, her adaptation a sparkling reminder as to why some tales endure and a guide as to how one should retell them.

6. END OF THE CENTURY
Kicking off with ten-to-fifteen sublime, dialogue-free minutes all over Barcelona, this eventually becomes what you’d want to a call a love story if that term didn’t feel so reductive. As the rest unfolds in non-chronological order, it depicts a relationship but also delves into themes of sexual coming-of-age, deciding whether or not to act on a feeling and, as the title spells out, a little pre-Millennium tension. A mashup of transcendent art film and affecting character study, End of A Century is also a hidden gem.

7. THE FAREWELL
The latest in a long tradition of family wedding films and one of the more relatable, realistic depictions of such I’ve seen. I’d like to think Lulu Wang was influenced by Ang Lee’s somewhat forgotten The Wedding Banquet, where one can swap a lie about illness with one regarding the groom’s sexuality, but this feels closer to the recent work of another great contemporary, Hirokazu Kore-eda. Awkwafina exhibits range far beyond her usual comedic persona, but don’t forget Shuzhen Zhao, who is perfection as the grandmother.

8. THE SOUVENIR
When I finished watching Joanna Hogg’s latest, my first thought was, “I really want to see this again,” and it’s been some time since I last felt that way about a new film. At this date, I haven’t yet returned to it, but I still think fondly of Honor Swinton Byrne (who should have no trouble following in her mother’s footsteps based on her excellent work here) as a stirringly complex heroine and the ultra-specific world Hogg (re-)creates for her, informed by memories and artefacts that add ample heft and texture.

9. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
This is Tarantino’s best since the ‘90s (come at me, Inglorious Basterds-stans!) because it has everything I want from him right now: great deep-cut soundtrack, insane period detail, wacko cameos and, as something missing from the rest of his recent work, an earned emotional resonance via the bromance between DiCaprio and Pitt. The ending is imperfect and kind of dumb but also ballsy and truly cathartic, so I don’t know. Pulp Fiction, although trailblazing and iconic, is also imperfect, and perhaps only Jackie Brown is more poignant than this.

10. HER SMELL
Elisabeth Moss as a Courtney Love-style ’90s alt-rocker is an unlikely but juicy proposition in Alex Ross Perry’s searing psychodrama, which captures not only the frenzy of ratty concert venues and lived-in recording studios, but also their lingering monotony and ennui. Moss suffuses her bratty, monstrous tyrant with humor, weirdness and depth, exhibiting full command of her character’s startling emotional trajectory. Not holding back in its depiction of dark excess and terrible behavior, Her Smell also recreates a time and culture with fluency and feeling.

TIED FOR 11TH PLACE:

Apollo 11
Hail, Satan?
Maiden
Marriage Story
Monos
Pain and Glory
Under the Silver Lake

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

And Breathe Normally
Aquarela
Ash Is Purest White
Booksmart
Diamantino
Gloria Bell
Honeyland
In Fabric
The Irishman
The Last Black Man In San Francisco
Museum Town
Shadow
Uncut Gems
Varda By Agnes

Film Journal: January 2019

This entry concludes an entire year of movie reviews posted on this blog. Going forward, I direct readers to my Letterboxd page, where all of this writing first appears. As usual, starred titles are re-watches (I also saw COLD WAR again, but have nothing more to say about it.)

Support The Girls
Building on the underrated RESULTS, Andrew Bujalski’s sixth feature might be his most satisfying one to date. Using a Hooter’s-like restaurant called Double Whammie’s as its unlikely setting, he portrays what amounts to a makeshift workplace family that comes across as genuine and nuanced as one you might’ve actually been a part of.

As its matriarch/general manager Lisa, Regina Hall delivers one of the year’s best performances, but the ensemble is terrific as well, especially Shayna MacHayle (a real find in her film debut) as her right hand/confidante, the great Lea De Laria as an adoring customer and Haley Lu Richardson (COLUMBUS) as an extremely energetic young waitress.

Over roughly one day, we see the careful ecosystem Lisa has fought to maintain in the restaurant and how it all too easily devolves into chaos in her absence. While a few scenes could’ve been edited even more tightly (such as the rooftop finale), I can’t think of another recent film so perceptive and engaging in its depiction of contemporary working class America. Grade: A-

Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things
A philosophy I can get behind, presented in a thoughtful, if unexceptional package. B-

Love, Gilda
Gilda Radner may not have been the most original or technically accomplished comedienne, but she was unquestionably one of the most likable–as the cliche goes, she lit up whatever room she entered. Lisa D’Apolito’s sympathetic documentary gets this across beautifully, making a case for Radner’s accomplishments and effervescence. As an analysis, however, it’s somewhat choppy, never forging as a complete or illuminating an assessment of its subject, as, say, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR did for Fred Rogers. Still, it makes the case why Radner, her life tragically cut short by ovarian cancer in 1989, should not be forgotten. B-

Minding The Gap
Man, this movie… it just *wrecked* me, even though it’s not a tragedy. It captures both the euphoria and turmoil (and every emotion in-between) of everyday life via three young male skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois, one of whom is the director. I’ve seen this kind of documentary before, but never has it felt so honest or carried as much weight this effortlessly. The cinematography and editing are both superb. It’s on Hulu, so go watch it already. A

Andrei Rublev*
Tarkovsky’s stab at a historical epic naturally has more poetry in it than the Hollywood equivalent; I still think his subsequent, stranger films more fluently make the case for him as one of the best filmmakers of his time. A-

Never Goin’ Back
Less the Gen-Z GHOST WORLD it wants to be than a distaff, sillier, low-budget SUPERBAD. Upped half a notch for inspired use of a certain Michael Bolton song. Camila Morrone, however, is nearly as good as a young Scarlett Johansson. B-

Shirkers
As a 19-year-old student in her native Singapore, Sandi Tan wrote and starred in an independent feature film she made with her friends and her much older male mentor, but it was never finished, as said mentor absconded with the film reels and just disappeared. A quarter century later, Tan has made a documentary about the experience, complete with a good amount of footage she eventually recovered from the earlier project. Purposely disorienting and chockablock with fantastic imagery, especially when it reverberates between past and present, the story SHIRKERS recounts is almost as wild as that of THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS; it’s also more nuanced and artfully assembled. B+

Detour*
“That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
(BTW, this would make a wicked double feature with MY WINNIPEG.) B+

Burning
I like films that aren’t entirely knowable, where motivations and intentions are obscured and shrouded with mystery and yet, the whole satisfies, inviting one to perceive the world differently after the credits roll. BURNING firmly falls into this category; that its intentions aren’t apparent until the very last scene nearly puts it up there with MULHOLLAND DR. and CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR in the canon of slippery, unknowable cinema.

Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, it focuses on a peculiar triangle centered on Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), a young, aspiring writer who runs into an old female friend from his rural village, Hae-mi (Jong Seo-Jun), who now lives in Seoul. They become involved romantically and all seems to go well until Hae-mi’s wealthy, enigmatic friend Ben (Steven Yeun, the standout performance here) enters the picture. To get further into the story would lessen much of the film’s mystique; only know that director Chang-Dong Lee, in his first feature since 2010’s great POETRY, sets up any number of expectations only to masterfully defy most of them without leaving the viewer feeling cheated. “Haunting” is word used far too often in film criticism, but that’s the exact tone BURNING leaves one with. A

Rodents of Unusual Size
Further proof that one can make a movie about *anything*–in this case, twenty-plus pound swamp rats (technical name: nutria) infesting coastal Louisiana and beyond. Fun, educational and not for the squeamish. B-

Disobedience
If you ever mixed up Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams before, just wait until the scene where they wear similar wigs. Weisz is great, McAdams is good and I hardly recognized Alessandro Nivola; a thoughtful, if bland picture that occasionally lapses into sexual and religious kitsch–I expect a little more from the director of A FANTASTIC WOMAN and GLORIA. B-

A Matter Of Life and Death*
Had forgotten so much about this (including that I hadn’t seen it in nearly a decade.) Has the most innovative use of switching back and forth between black-and-white and glorious color, but as with the best of Powell/Pressburger, the technical spectacle is always in service of a fable full of heart and substance. A

Roma*
ROMA depicts a large middle class family in early ’70s Mexico City as filtered through the perspective of its maid, Cleo. In direct contrast to the ever-expanding world beyond its characters that was a focal point of Alfonso Cuaron’s last Mexican film, the seminal Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, this is far more interior, its lengthy tracking shots resembling visual attempts at re-creating memories and essences of a long-ago past. As yet, just as often ROMA feels as expansive as its predecessor; although individual scenes register as slice-of-life vignettes, their order and procession is key, for they build towards something both heartbreaking and life-affirming. Near the end, Cleo says to a co-worker and friend, “I have so much to tell you,” and it could be Cuaron’s own epitaph for this intensely personal, singular film. A

Saturday Church
Well, it’s fun to see MJ Rodriguez and Indya Moore in pre-POSE roles, and the young lead is good, but oy, this would’ve been so much more effective without those clumsy musical numbers. C