What does it mean to connect with another human being? How fragile is one’s grasp on sanity, and self? Is it our families who give us our core identity, or do we find that elsewhere? What is the price that must be paid in even looking for answers to these questions? Director Jeremiah Kipp’s latest film, the 10-minute long Contact lives in the disturbing (nightmarish) atmosphere of these realities, the space between knowledge and wisdom, the abyss between making a youthful mistake and tragedy. Produced by Alan Rowe Kelly and Bart Mastronardi, and shot by Dominick Sivilli in beautiful black and white, Contact is a compressed journey of horror and revelation, with a core of emptiness, the echoing aloneness of Self, that jolts the audience at the finish, reverberating.
A pair of young lovers, high on each other and their love, decide to take a mysterious drug they procure somewhere in the underbelly of New York City. The drug trip goes bad, and the horror here is actual and gory (what is real, what is hallucination? and who can even know when you are tripping?), as well as psychological. The goal of the drug trip, for the lovers, was to connect in a new and intense way. They get more than they bargained for, although in a way they get exactly what they were seeking, and that is more horrifying than anything else. Be careful what you wish for. They wanted to connect, right? In a terrifying scene, they do. Literally. Contact depicts a loss of identity, the rupturing of trust, and the shattering of youthful hopes. Kipp’s gift is in the depths to which he is willing to go, and the specificity in which he films his story. It is clear, yet mysterious at the same time. There is very little dialogue. The story is told in images, one flowing to the other, and through the cuts, evocative and simple, an entire world opens.
The film respects its audience, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and it is a satisfying movie to think about and contemplate for that reason. To up-end Gertrude Stein, Contact is a film where there is a lot of “there there.” The more you look at it, the deeper it goes. The cast is excellent, each person filling in their part of the whole (Tom Reid as the worried silent father, Katherine O’Sullivan as the quietly devastated mother with a hint of OCD in her table-setting behavior, Alan Rowe Kelly as the corrupt drug dealer). The two leads—Robb Leigh Davis and Zoë Daelman Chlanda—are superb. Without the lightness and happiness they create, the strong bond between them, the film would not have the impact that it does, where separation, disconnection, is akin to banishment. Banishment from the world of love and hope. The strength of the film is partly because of its silence, the lack of explanatory dialogue. It has a spare quality, intensified by the black-and-white images. Seeing a bloody wound in black-and-white can be even more terrible than in fresh vibrant color, because your mind catapults off into awful realms through the mere act of “filling in” the red.
Recently, I sat down with indie horror actress Zoë Chlanda to talk about her process as an actress and about her experience making Contact. Chlanda is a sensitive and specific performer, an actress who thinks deeply about her roles, and thinks deeply about how she fits into the larger picture. I’m a process-junkie. I wanted to hear more about how she worked, and how she was able to pour so much life and depth into the role of Koreen in Contact.
How did Contact come about?
I met Jeremiah on the set of another movie, The Blood Shed, and we started going back and forth to the set, so that was a lot of hours to get to know each other, outside of him being the Assistant Director. We got to talking a lot. And we get along, we have good conversations. I liked him right off. He always said “I want to work with you again” and I said “Me too”, and the thing about him is that he follows through on everything he says, and that’s a very big deal in this business. He got me involved in two other projects, small parts, I was happy to be asked, happy to do it, and they were different from things I’d done before.
What are you normally offered? Is there a feeling like, “Oh, that’s a Zoë part”?
Within the horror world, I’m lucky. I think they do think of me as being a strong woman, so they give me kind of meaty characters which I’m thrilled about. Years ago, I was auditioning for commercials a lot, and it was so different, I was like “girl next door,” “young mom,” non-threatening in every single way. I didn’t complain much because I was being sent out a lot and non-threatening women sell a lot, apparently.
There’s a lot of work for that type.
Right. But I think that’s why it was so exciting when I met Alan Rowe Kelly and he got me involved in I’ll Bury You Tomorrow because it was someone who wanted me to do something so different from what everybody else saw me as. I jumped at it. I want to be able to do all kinds of roles. I’m not interested in being Zoë all the time. I played an alcoholic mother in Pink Eye, and I loved doing that. I like challenges. I hope a Zoë role is a challenging role.
Did you always want to be an actress?
I wanted to be a ballerina. My parents took me to the ballet a lot when I was little and I begged for classes. For my 5th birthday, I was signed up, and the ballet was the be-all end-all for me. I went to a very good school on Long Island, and then we moved back to the city, and I went to the American Ballet. It’s very intense. Most girls were already out of real school and they were being homeschooled, but I was going to a regular school, a pretty intense school, as well as ballet, and as I got older I realized that ballet was mentally and physically very difficult, and it’s a short-lived career. You’re done pretty quick. But I loved performing, telling a story without words, and with acting, I get to use my words, and I can do it until the day I die if I want. You’ll always need a middle-aged lady [in a movie], you’ll need an old lady…I like that. Because if I love what I’m doing, I don’t think I’ll want to stop. I like the idea that I can do it forever.
Whose work do you really admire?
Within independent horror films, I got the chance to work with Debbie Rochon. I produced a little film with Alan [Rowe Kelly], and she was in it. She’s a huge Scream Queen, probably the biggest. That’s all I had heard about her. What does the hugest Scream Queen mean? They’re bloody, they take off their clothes a lot? I didn’t know enough at the time. But I had heard about her forever. She was in a little segment, acting by herself pretty much, and I watched her, thinking, “This is why this girl has been working in the business for so long, and this is why everyone knows her name.” She was really neat, as an actress and as a person. She’s tough, but still very vulnerable when she’s acting. I was glad to get to see her act because I had always heard her name, I knew she was a big star. She also makes tons of movies. She is constantly working. She’s good, she’s a good actress.
When Jeremiah came to you with Contact, how did that conversation go?
He sent me the script and said “What part do you want to play in it? You can do whatever you want.” He first thought of me for a different role. He said, “Well, maybe you could do the drug dealer.” I think he thought right away that I wouldn’t go for Koreen because of the nudity, and I’ve never done nudity before. But when I read it, I thought that I didn’t want any other role. Koreen was the meatiest. I called him back and said, “I want THAT role.” I knew we were working with Dominick Sivilli. He makes things look beautiful. Jeremiah is very poetic, and he’s a really thoughtful person, so I knew that the film would be intense.
Did you rehearse it?
Yes. That’s another reason I like Jeremiah.
You like rehearsal.
I love it. That’s one of the best parts of it. You have more time to really develop the character. He got me and Robb Leigh Davis [who plays Westy, Koreen’s boyfriend] together, and Robb was so giving, and he so liked rehearsal too. He didn’t shy away from it. We met two times prior for rehearsal in the space, and the first time we met it was over coffee to talk.
How do you use rehearsal?
For instance, Jeremiah did something with us where he would ask each one of us a question, and he said, “Answer as the character, and let’s see where this goes.” He came right out there with, “Do you love him, Zoë?” I said, “Yes.” My God. He’s my rock star. The way I thought about Koreen looking up to this guy was: He was so different, something she had never seen in her own hometown, he was a rock star to her, and he wanted her to be his girlfriend! So I was madly in love with this guy. Later on, Jeremiah said to Robb, “Do you love her?” And I got scared, and I thought, “Maybe I don’t want to hear this, because Koreen would like to think he loves her, regardless,” and Robb said, “Yes. I do love her.” I thought his character really did love me, and that was important.
I really felt a relationship there between you and Robb. There was an element to it that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, going down the rabbit hole. Even though you were going to this scary-looking place to get the drugs, I didn’t feel that your character was in the hands of someone who meant you harm.
I felt like he was going to take care of me. We found that in rehearsal. That’s what we found: The love for each other. I trusted [my boyfriend], I looked up to him, and I think he was very aware of that responsibility, knowing that I came from a smaller town. [My character] was a bit naïve in a lot of ways. I was going through things I probably should have done a long time ago, but I didn’t. I’m a little bit older, a late-bloomer. But I think what his character saw in mine was that I was so transparent in my feelings and that was refreshing for him. We talked about our history together. Jeremiah and I talked about my history before I even got to New York City. I go through my character’s history a lot. I question everything. What’s her favorite color? What’s her sign? What’s her relationship with her mom? With her dad? Does she have a pet? What does her room look like? What kind of music does she listen to? If I can map out the physical things around her, and understand where she’s coming from in terms of her relationships in life, if I can breathe it in almost—that stuff will be there, and you are aware of what’s going on in your body. For example, if you’re feeling sad, you become aware of what else happens: I get a little dry in my throat, maybe I feel a twitch in my leg, I tend to not look someone in the eye as much if I’m nervous or sad. Once you decide on the emotion and then go through it, your body will do the right thing if you’re really there. You can’t be totally out of control because you have to say the lines. I try to learn the lines like I sing a song, like I know it so well that I could do it backwards, so I don’t get caught up in it.
The drug trip scene is so specific in how it is filmed, but also in your very specific responses to the drug, the pulling on the hair, the scratching. How did you find those things? Did you talk about what is going to happen in the drug trip?
Some of the rehearsing was [Jeremiah saying to me]: “You’re in pain. Be in pain, Zoë. Bring it to 5. Where is it at 10? Bring it to 4.” Jeremiah was throwing things at me, I think he visually wanted to get an idea of my reactions. Then he worked with the levels. If he saw something he liked, he would say, “Can you take that to 8?” He played with those levels. In terms of the drug effects, I came to that on my own. You can research what certain drugs do to certain people. Jeremiah also said, “Watch Bad Lieutenant.” I researched symptoms. When we were at the shooting day, it was a long day, because I think Jeremiah also wanted to do it over and over to get us exhausted and exasperated, because if you’re taking drugs it can be the greatest thing or the worst thing. That was a bad one for her. I imagined that she thought that things were crawling all over her, she was itchy, it was like I almost wished I could take my own skin off. You could see how people could scratch until there’s nothing left. Horrifying.
There’s obviously an arc the character goes through. The moment when you return home at the end of the film there’s that long look around from you when you are in your dad’s arms. When I first saw it, I felt that that moment of connection with her boyfriend during the drug trip, when you both literally merged…that moment was in her now. It almost looked like she liked having her secret, as awful as it was. As though she is thinking, “I can survive, as long as I have this secret inside me.” There was something a little triumphant about that look. That was my initial response. Now I am not so sure. It looks a little bit sadder to me now that I’ve seen it again. How do you see that moment as part of Koreen’s arc?
I felt very sad for her. I felt like she didn’t make it. She took a chance on something and fear sent her right back to what she knows. I felt like she was now going to live the life her parents want her to live, and she was so afraid of what happened to her, taking the drugs, but at the same time when she got home and she’s looking around—it’s a different horror. Perhaps not as scary, because it’s what you know, but there’s an emptiness. I feel like she knows that this is it, in terms of her hopes and dreams. But there is a little bit of triumph there because she did try, she got out, she went for it. But she crashed and burned. It was a prison. [So that look from me is:] “Look closely. This is going to be your life. Your parents will die, and you will live in this house.” It took so much courage to begin with to leave. She finally did that, later in life. She finally leaves and something unfortunate happened. It’s nice what you said though, in a way, because it seemed at that moment unfortunate that it happened, but maybe somehow, that secret, what she went through, will inspire her at a later date. I think about Koreen in the future, what will happen to her. There was a lot of pressure on the daughter Koreen. I think she was an easy teenager. A wallflower. I don’t think she stood out, I don’t think she was bad, she wasn’t really popular and she wasn’t picked on. I think she got away with being anonymous, unnoticed. She probably didn’t get punished too often. This was the crazy thing she did. She left home. I thought a lot about how she left. I thought she probably just packed up and left, left a note. I don’t think she would confront her parents. So coming home, she’s coming back to the hell she knows. Now I’m really an adult, I’ve given up on my dreams.
There was another moment that seemed similar to that last shot of you. When you go to the drug dealer’s, there’s a glance you give to another girl [Shane B. Kulman] who is standing there. A longer glance. Can you talk about that moment? It’s very specific.
I looked at this girl and in a way I am in awe of her. She’s wearing whatever she wants, she’s very in touch with her sexuality, and being pretty, hanging out at this place. I was kind of wowed, but also aware that I am not that kind of girl. I don’t really want to be her, but sometimes I do. What is she doing there? Who’s taking care of her? I was with my boyfriend, and that’s the only reason I felt at all safe being there. She looked different from all the girls of my town. There are no women in that scene. She was the only one there, and she was kind of glamorous to me. But also I’m a human being so I’m a little judgmental too. She doesn’t look safe. I don’t think I’d want to hang around her with my boyfriend. She looks pretty slick.
Where was that scene shot? Tell me about the location.
It’s in Patterson, New Jersey. It’s an old factory, and there were actually homeless people there. When we were walking down the stairs, there was a woman underneath, reading a book on a cot. I’m used to guerrilla filmmaking, though.
How did they find that location?
Alan Rowe Kelly found it. Alan is very good at stuff like that. Patterson is very interesting, it’s a city that was booming at one point and now it’s the opposite. There are so many huge old factories, brick structures with huge windows, and they are crumbling, and they don’t have enough money to even knock them down.
That location was awesome.
It was very sad, the debris left by people who lived there. You’d see shirts, shoes, the saddest thing was a couple of baby’s toys. There was a little photo album that you know that this person cared about it and tried to take it with them everywhere and for whatever reason, they didn’t care about it anymore, or they lost it, and I bet that that was the one thing they made sure they kept with them all the time. It was the one thing that kept them alive maybe. It was very creepy. Perfect.
How long did you shoot there?
A whole day.
Was the shoot, in general, a short one?
Yes. Three or four days.
Let’s talk about the special effects makeup in the drug scene.
Daniel Mazikowski did the special makeup, and he was incredible. I had never met him until that day. Jeremiah brought him in and he was incredible in not only what he could do, but also, he was so kind, asking me if I was okay. I mean, it was difficult—
You and Robb were attached by this huge appendage.
In our mouths. We’ve got this two-sided dildo basically, and they’re putting the makeup all around our faces, and it was good because it added to the freakout. We couldn’t really talk, so I tried to relax and breathe. It was putty and paste, and then [Mazikowski] was painting it, and around it, so it took some time. But he kept checking in with us and I could see that he was working as fast as he could and trying to make us as comfortable as possible in a very uncomfortable situation. And the movie needed this. I knew it was going to look great, once I understood what they were going to do, so we had to do it, and it was done in the nicest way possible. He had a nice energy, he was very concerned about us more than anything else. I like that calm energy on a set. Everyone was supportive and trying to make us comfortable, especially that day. We’re naked for the whole day, we’re sitting on the floor, a wood floor, so it could have been really uncomfortable, and if there had been bad energy that day, it would have made it worse. We were about to do some really scary shit, let alone the makeup part.
You filmed that sequence in one day.
Yes. We started with the smoking of the drug and that was good because that would have been the first thing the characters did anyway. It was good to film it in sequence. I’m glad it happened that way. You can’t always count on that. Koreen wanted to make it romantic, so she was putting the candles around, and she was excited. He’s showing me how to do the drug, and then it went into the first effect you would feel from the drug. You can think about it in a couple of different ways. If you burn yourself, what’s the first thing your body feels? I get migraines occasionally. When the migraine first comes on, what do I go through? It takes the breath out of me. It usually has to do with my breathing. That’s how I started with the drug scene. It got a little bit better at times where I was able to focus on Robb, he could bring me back.
The beginning of that scene had a very sensual peaceful feeling to it. But then, you could see it drop.
It started as a very loving thing, sensuous. We were going to get high and make love. And it didn’t turn out that way. We filmed in sequence, and by the time we got to the special effects part, we were already kissing, and in that moment in the script she realizes that something else is happening. Our faces are stuck together, quite literally. He is not holding me there. I am not afraid of him. But all of a sudden we are fusing together. It takes a while to get the makeup right, so we’re waiting, and I’m getting more uncomfortable and agitated, which is perfect for the character. “Get this makeup off me. Get me OUT of here.” By the time we actually got to shoot the scene that is all I wanted to do—rip myself away from him, even if it meant ripping off my face. I was on a swing when I was little, a big rope with a tire, and I was going around and around and my hair got caught and all of a sudden I realized I was stuck. My mother said, “Wait” and she was going to go get some scissors, but I freaked out and couldn’t wait and pulled back and ripped my hair out, making it worse. I felt like there was no being rational, or slowing down in that moment for Koreen, because Koreen couldn’t be outside of herself at that point. She couldn’t count to ten and tell herself it was just the drugs. She was totally high.
He was too. Her knight in shining armor, the guy leading her by the hand, is also incapacitated.
She thought this would be a very together thing, and it ended up being her all alone on her trip, while he was all alone on his trip. There was no connection. At the end of the scene, I’m on the floor, he’s facing away from me. At one point, I felt calmed down a little bit, and reached out for him, and he flinches when I touch him. It was horrible. They are actually very disconnected. It was totally the opposite of what she had been looking forward to.
When you had your discussions with Robb and Jeremiah about the script, did you talk about it in that way, like: “this is the story we want to tell in this scene”?
At times Jeremiah would say, “Okay, now you’re focusing together on Zoë’s hand” or “You’re focusing on Robb’s hair together,” “You’re connecting, you’re being high together.” He would direct us where to focus. “Rob, focus over there, and Zoë, you want out of your body.” The direction was there, but did we talk about the characters? No. I think Jeremiah wanted to see where we would take it, and he could always edit it to the story that he had in mind. By the time we got to the section of the scene where the trip goes bad, I just felt, “There is a disconnect here, and she is all alone.” That’s what made it more terrifying, and I think maybe she had distrust later on, of him. It took her on a total mind-trip. I think after that she didn’t trust her own thoughts, didn’t trust him.
You don’t bounce back from that.
There is no bouncing back. She doubts herself in a lot of ways, which is too bad because right before that was the first time she started to trust herself, and what she wanted. She is becoming her own person. Then she goes back to that quiet place of not being sure, wanting someone to tell her what to do.
The opening of the film with the parents is quite ominous. The silverware gleaming, the empty plate. I got the whole story. Then you see you two running through the warehouse, and even though the surroundings are quite scary-looking, the energy between you both was so playful.
Filming that section was so great. I certainly didn’t mind being Koreen at that moment in her life for a few days. She was in the moment. She wasn’t bogged down by life, job, health insurance. She’s in love. Nothing matters. She’s thrilled. It was magical.
I loved the actor who played the father [Tom Reid].
Wasn’t he wonderful? That was Koreen’s special relationship. He was a good man. Before I had Robb [as a boyfriend], that was the man I looked up to. I looked to him to see if he was proud of me, and then I was proud of myself. He set the tone. I was the light of his life. When she walks in at the end, he just opens up his arms to her. She grasps onto him, and he could have not hugged her back, but he holds her like, “You’re safe, you’re safe.” He did a great job. Katherine [O’Sullivan] did too. I thought a lot about my relationship with my parents, what I had with my mom, what I had with my dad. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, I decided, and my father was a little bit more mysterious, so I was maybe afraid or worried about what he thought or didn’t think of me. Oftentimes, the parent who stays home that you are closer to you sometimes don’t respect as much, unfortunately, because you think you know everything about them. He was the father, he worked, the reason we had this house, and I really cared what he thought about me. It’s a very rich film, isn’t it?
Can we talk about Vindication for a second, because it is such a different character that you played in that film from the one you played in Contact. You have the monologue, the explanation basically. Your scene is different from the other scenes in the film.
I play a mother, and this [scene] was her chance. She died during childbirth. I think she’s been waiting for this. This is her first chance to talk to her son, perhaps give him something that he can hold onto that will give him some peace in life.
She knew what kind of person she was carrying.
It was him or her. Either she was going to kill this kid, or she was going to die, and she couldn’t kill her own son. So she gave her life. She died so he could live, even though she knew that his living would mean a lot of pain for other people. Can you imagine being a parent to a psychopath and knowing it? Do you save the world from your child? Loving them can’t change them. I felt like my character didn’t have the strength to deal with any of this. She had no choice but to die. I knew Bart [Mastronardi, the director] was on a mission. It was like he was taken over by a force. You get a sense when you talk to him that he means business. He’s passionate in any project that he is involved in. I knew it would be good. I was thrilled when he asked me to be in it. And then to play a mom, that was very interesting and new for me. I did think about parents who have children who do horrible things, and how a lot of people are mean to them because of it.
You are blamed for the actions of your child.
There’s that, yes. Maybe there is something you did. I thought of my character as dying from a broken heart.
There’s that shot when the baby is taken away from you, just a closeup of your face.
I was so happy the baby was here, but horrified. That was the broken heart. I so wanted this baby to be here, but I also didn’t want it to be here. I wanted to stay pregnant forever, keep [my son] inside of me because that’s the safest place for him, because when he comes out, I am going to kill him. She was not strong enough to deal with everything she would have had to as a mom. I felt bad about that. You can’t do anything for the type of person [her son is], a psychopath, but maybe if he experienced some love…It wouldn’t have changed his nature, though. When she returned to her son in that scene, I saw that as her one chance, and I took that very seriously. Is there something I can relate to him, or give to him, that could perhaps give him some peace? I want him to know that he’s not responsible, he doesn’t have a choice in all of this. I wanted to give him something, as his mom. That was intense, to have to play that.
How do you like directors to work with you?
Here’s what I don’t like and I haven’t found this too much on film sets, but when I was doing more commercials, sometimes people think that you’re a trained seal. “Say it like this and do it like this.” I understand, and I am always going to do my job and do it well. I like it when the director makes you feel like a collaborator. He can stop everything, just for a second, and say, “What is going on right now for you in the scene, and how do you feel about this?” I like a director who thinks that their actress can bring something to it besides just their bodies and their lines. I want them to use us fully. We’re thoughtful people, we’ve studied the script, and we take this seriously, and we practice this, let’s try it a few different ways and see what works the best. They’re my boss, and on set I want them to be the boss, but it’s nice when you get the idea that they are willing to try anything if it’s right. Like saying to the actor, “What was your instinct there? I saw you were about to do something, follow through on it, let’s see what happens.” Jeremiah said that once to me with Contact, and it had to do with the one line I have in the film, “We will.” The drug dealer gives us the drug and says, “Do this together,” and I say “We will.” Originally, Robb was going to take the drug and say something like, “Don’t worry,” and then Alan snatches it away from him, and Robb’s about to take it back. We hadn’t talked about that moment, and right then, in the moment, I wanted to show the drug dealer that I was in this, too. That was my moment of strength there. I’m not just following my boyfriend around, I am a person. I felt like the drug dealer is looking at me like I was a prop, and I think in that little exchange, Koreen grows up a little. I’m here too, buddy. No one is telling me what to do, I want to do this drug, and I am doing this with him. That just happened, I just found it, and Jeremiah liked it. He also could have said, “That doesn’t work” and I would have been fine with it. I didn’t plan it, felt it in the moment. I like directors who like actors, and who like working with actors.
So the Contact set had a good vibe.
It had a very good vibe. When it came to the drug scene, I’ve never done nudity before. It’s never made sense before. I see it in a script and it seems gratuitous. Listen, there are real reasons to get naked in life, so if it ever came my way in a script like that, I would do it. And I read the Contact script, and I thought, I believe that. I believe that Koreen would want it to be romantic somehow. I could see her setting up how it’s going to be. Just like her mother with the silverware, she’s setting it all up. “We’re going to do drugs, I’ll light the candle”, and so the nudity made sense. Knowing Jeremiah, too, I just know that he has good taste. That has to be a given. People either have taste or they don’t. I felt like we had the same idea about what is in good taste and what’s in bad taste. Why there was nudity, why it helped the story, and then how it would be shot. I know Jeremiah well enough, and he also went out of his way to talk about that with me before we shot it. If there was ever a time to get naked, it was in Contact.
It felt innocent.
It was very innocent. It started off really romantic and very sweet. But then it’s even scarier, because you’re vulnerable. No one was there on the set that day that didn’t have to be there. That was key. Who do we really need in the room to get this done? And then, on top of it, the people who were there, the camera man, the special effects, they are all committed to doing their job. You just have a feeling about people, I think. They’re professionals. I know Jeremiah, too, and if I told him I was uncomfortable with it, he might have said, “Well, I’m going to have to let someone else do this.” I think he knew that it was important to the story, and he was right. I trust him. He really does what’s best for the project. He’s good. I love the movie, I’m so happy with it.
It’s amazing the journey it takes you on in only 10 minutes.
They really did make a story happen. That’s Jeremiah and Dominick. It felt like such a complete full piece in such a short time. You really get a story. You get invested in those characters in a very short time.
Sheila O’Malley blogs about film, literature, photography and life at The Sheila Variations.
The 10 Best Albums of 1980
We take a look back on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.
In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2010s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani
Honorable Mention: The Jam, Sound Affects; Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel; Young Marble Gods, Colossal Youth; Grace Jones, Warm Leatherette; Emmylou Harris, Roses in the Snow; Stevie Wonder, Hotter Than July; Devo, Freedom of Choice; Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables; Public Image Ltd, Second Edition; Bruce Springsteen, The River
10. Diana Ross, diana
Diana Ross’s fifth (again, fifth) solo album to feature some part of her name in the title, this was the first one where the choice in nomenclature felt like an act of self-preservation. Because the album’s signature is unmistakably someone else’s, namely the Chic organization. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were brought aboard to help Miss Ross carry on the momentum she had at her back from the string disco hits including “Love Hangover,” “The Boss,” and “No One Gets the Prize.” What seemed like a cunning collaborative move quickly dimmed when disco became, almost overnight, passé. A panicked Ross and Motown snatched the album and remixed it to push it back toward the realm of pop, but even a side-by-side listen with the since-released original version only proves that, lucky for us all, Chic’s DNA is impermeable. Stacked with peppy, irresistible post-disco hits like “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down,” diana is without question the diva’s most satisfying LP. Eric Henderson
9. X, Los Angeles
A punk-rock power duo making strong use of their male/female dynamic, Exene Cervenka and John Doe fronted X’s roaring songs with a vibrant vocal and lyrical approach, which helped make them the creative standard bearer of the nascent L.A. scene. Beefing up the usual punk attack with a sound hearkening back to several decades of rock, from Chuck Berry to Blondie, the band went beyond the usual three-chord dynamic, forming an album that’s both a paean to a fading city and an excoriation of its faults, all burning trash, clumped hair and Hollywood Boulevard sleaze, perfectly summed up by the burning logo of the album’s cover. Jesse Cataldo
8. The Clash, Sandinista!
The succulent fat that drips from this spit-skewered, bloated pig of an album—36 tracks spanning two-and-a-half hours!—is fuel for a distinctive genre bonfire. The flames reach brashly, soulfully, sarcastically beyond punk, rock, pop, dance, ska, rockabilly, dub, calypso, and gospel, and its themes, as diverse as its sound, are the concerns of the world: consumerism, working-class disaffection, political antipathy, immigration, warfare. And drugs, the afterlife, Jesus Christ, sometimes all at once. Heavy stuff, yes, but this is the Clash, who will provide us with an address of Cold War relations but so from the floor of Studio 54. These cheeky blokes operate as spies, disguising grave matters with high-spirited musicality, hoping the powers that be won’t notice. Truly an album without borders. Ed Gonzalez
7. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Get Happy!!
In the saga of the punk-rock upstart who shocked critics by going all Lennon-McCartney on their asses, the blue-eyed soul of Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!! is typically considered a genre detour, more like 1981’s country-themed Almost Blue than the classic pop triumvirate of Armed Forces, Trust, and Imperial Bedroom. But you need only compare it to Young Americans, Bowie’s misguided stab at R&B from five years earlier, to see how sincerely Costello inhabits the style’s past and present. Costello may have set out to show how much he knew about soul, but what he actually proved was how much he loves it. Matthew Cole
6. Pretenders, Pretenders
The Pretenders’s debut is notable not only for the pitch-perfect execution of the band’s glam-meets-punk style, but also its delivery of unconventional sex appeal. Like Debbie Harry before her, Chrissie Hynde represented a feminization of the punk aesthetic, a street-smart girl who could outdrink, outperform, and ultimately outsmart her male counterparts. Rock feminism never sounded as good as it does here, particularly on tracks like the spunky “Brass in Pocket,” where Hynde has the power to be playful, tough, and even self-deprecating without sacrificing any of her throaty vocal presence. At its core, rock n’ roll is about charisma, and as tracks like “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Private Life” prove, the Pretenders not only had a cache of the stuff, but were well-versed in how to showcase it. Kevin Liedel
The 25 Best Guided by Voices Songs
We’ve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in the band’s dauntingly huge catalogue.
Since reforming in 2012, Guided by Voices has seemed to be on a mission to record more long-players than they did during the entirety of their original run, a 17-year stretch that began with 1987’s charming, self-produced Devil Between My Toes and ended 15 albums later in 2004 with the muscular, mature Half Smiles of the Decomposed. Conventional wisdom says the band peaked with Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, the last album featuring the “classic” lineup featuring Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell, but anyone who continued to pay attention after the band fell out of indie-snob favor knows that any permutation of the group only has one essential member: lead singer and world-class songwriter Robert Pollard. His mastery has never ceased for creating two-minute post-punk anthems that make singing along at maximum volume seem like the greatest pastime in the world.
We’ve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in Guided by Voices’s dauntingly huge catalogue. It’s a list cut down from an initial group of 60, any one of which could’ve been included here. So if you don’t see one of your personal favorites, know that I probably wrestled over whether to include it. With that caveat out of the way, here are the 25 tracks that most proudly represent a group that’s not just one of the very best indie-rock bands, but on the short list of the greatest rock n’ roll bands in history.
25. “Space Gun”
The title track from Guided by Voices’s 2018 album is, like the album itself, one of the true highlights of the band’s reformation and resurgence in the last decade. With production pitched between the spiky compression of their 4-track beginnings and the cleaner big-rock noise of their post-Alien Lanes run in the 2000s, it’s a four-minute glam-prog stomper built around a glittering guitar line that sounds like “I Am a Tree” took the brown acid. And with lyrics which name-check John Philip Sousa, it isn’t difficult to imagine “Space Gun” as the future fight song for a gang of besotted galactic raiders.
24. “An Unmarketed Product”
At various times in the band’s storied career, Robert Pollard has abandoned his normal lyrical template of beguiling cosmic Dadaism to provide meta commentary on the band’s legacy as mischievous outsiders playing on the margins of the corporate rock game. The lyrics caution, “I can give you credit/Suitable and custom tailored/And if you have any luck/You’ll get ahead/Before you’re dead,” as this 69-second piss-take anthem mines sugary post-punk for a single-finger salute to the KROQ dreams that should’ve been the band’s birthright.
23. “Man Called Aerodynamics”
When Bee Thousand first conquered the ‘90s indie-rock landscape, rock criticism’s elder guard bemoaned the melodic ADD of their songs, with their manic rush to hooks and choruses an alleged affront to classic-rock formalism. What, then, would they have made of this roaring track from Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, seeming to begin midstream, at the very moment where its ‘60s and ‘70s forebears would already be at the minute mark? Sharing with “Space Gun” a sound that could be described as “Pete Townsend destroying his Gibson in a wind tunnel,” “Man Called Aerodynamics” is as mammoth as anything lo-fi indie rock has ever produced.
22. “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox”
“G-B-V! G-B-V! G-B-V!” chants the raucous crowd at the beginning of the nearly six-minute epic that kicks off the band’s transitional 1992 album Propeller. As we’d discover later, the “crowd” was the band themselves using echo and a little striving wish fulfillment to imagine the kind of frenzied excitement that would greet the band a few years later. The track itself is like many of the group’s forays into prog-rock: blazing mini-songs (technically two, if the title is to be trusted, though three by structure) strung together like a “Stars on 45” for the British invasion (non-Beatles edition), starting restless and rough, turning bright and hopeful, and then concluding in a cascade of reverbing choral tranquility.
21. “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”
Because almost everything Bob and the boys do is like a bizarro-world inverse of the rest of rock n’ roll, when it comes to lighter-waving power ballads, their ne-plus-ultra entry stops right when everyone else’s is just reaching the chorus. Built on a bed of keys from a piano that one imagines stained with tears, whiskey and spit, “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” is both melancholy and majestic—Leonard Cohen via “Champagne Supernova”—and the spectral production is so perfect that when And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead covered it years later with 10 times the budget, the dollars couldn’t add a thing beyond surface shine.
Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love
It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.
It’s to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.
Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.
The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the film’s limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joan’s tender marriage to life.
Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?
Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.
Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?
Liam Neeson: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.
Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?
Manville: Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—
Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.
Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?
Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didn’t we?
Neeson: Yeah, we did.
Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.
Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?
Were they more like chemistry sessions?
Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!
Liam, you’ve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something that’s less like a character and more like yourself?
Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if it’s supposed to be German, I don’t care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.
I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.
Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?
Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”
When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?
Manville: Certainly, for me, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.
Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.
There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?
Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.
Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?
Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.
We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?
Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.
Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.
It’s nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.
Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.
You’ve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?
Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t do that.
Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.
In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?
Manville: I didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.
Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.
Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…
Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.
Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”
Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.
Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll take it!
Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?
Manville: No! Listen, I think there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.
Interview: Angela Schanelec on I Was at Home, But…, the Berlin School, & More
The filmmaker discusses her elliptical approach to filmmaking and how she compels our active spectatorship.
One year ago at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Silver Bear for best director went to Angela Schanelec for I Was at Home, But…. The film stars Maren Eggert as Astrid, a Berlin woman recently bereaved of her husband and coping with the subsequent weeklong disappearance and reemergence of her son, Philip (Jakob Lassalle). Astrid’s life in the wake of these dual traumas unfolds episodically, as her emotional duress manifests itself as displaced obstinacy and heightened passion in social interactions.
Astrid’s emotional struggle is also intercut with dispersed scenes of Philip’s class neutrally reciting lines from Hamlet, of a romantic crisis in the life of one of his instructors (the omnipresent Franz Rogowski), and of a donkey and a dog living together in an abandoned schoolhouse. With this film, Schanelec crafts a portrait of grief that can be at once alienating and deeply moving, its fragmentary nature both reflecting the way Astrid and Philip’s worlds have been shattered and compelling our active spectatorship.
That latter aspect is typical of Schanelec’s body of work, as well as the film movement it has been grouped with. The so-called Berlin School—originally consisting of Schanelec and Thomas Arslan and Christian Petzold, her fellow graduates from the Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie Berlin—wasn’t the filmmakers’ intentional creation, but rather a label often applied to the slow-paced, formalist, and critically engaged art films they made. French critics and the German film magazine Revolver were the first to propagate the coming of a nouvelle vague allemande in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and, as Schanelec emphasizes in our interview, particularly in the early days of the “School,” the grouping helped the trio’s small collection of completed works find places in film festivals.
Now, 25 years into her filmmaking career, Schanelec has an oeuvre that stands on its own—as evidenced by the career retrospectives that have begun to crop up around the world. Last fall, the Vienna International Film Festival organized a comprehensive one. And from February 7 to 13, Film at the Lincoln Center in New York will be showing her films under the program “Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec,” which in addition to her shorts and features also includes a program of three films by other filmmakers selected by Schanelec.
Has this retrospective given you reason to revisit earlier work that you haven’t in a while, or to revisit your work as a whole? If so, what kinds of insights have stood out to you as you have considered your career up to this point?
I have to say that it’s quite exhausting to be confronted with the work of my whole life. There were other retrospectives, earlier retrospectives, and for me it’s quite hard. I mean, I’m very happy that there’s this interest in my work, there’ no question. But it’s also quite hard for me.
What’s so difficult about it?
Because, I mean, it’s not such a big body of work. I started in the ‘90s, and the first long film was in 1995, so it’s 25 years. But between my films is two or three years, so I spend a lot of time with them. And when they are finished, they are finished. And then I have the deep wish to continue with something new. And I think I know my films.
Do you see, then, each film as something new you’re exploring? Or do you leave a film with an idea you want to continue working on in the next film?
It’s not a new start. It’s not a new beginning at all. It’s rather a need that emerges from the work on a film, and I follow up on this need in the next film. And this is also not an intellectual or conceptual decision, and often it’s very primitive. So, when, for example, I’ve worked a lot with language, there’s a certain fatigue, or there emerges the need to work with images again. If you look at the way my films alternate, there’s always, I don’t know—in Plätze in Städten [Schanelec’s first feature] there’s hardly any talking, in Passing Summer lots of talking, then in Marseille, again, hardly any. So, certain needs develop, and they come from exhaustion.
In fact, I noticed that The Dreamed Path has no subtitles on Amazon Prime, and perhaps it doesn’t need them because as you said it’s one of your films that’s so visual.
This is only one point how one film comes from another. Ah, there are lots, but it happens, as I said, not rationally, but instead it emerges from certain needs.
To what degree do you feel an affinity with something called the Berlin School? And if you did, do you feel like it’s so-last-decade, do you feel it’s over now?
To start at the beginning, it was only Thomas Arsland, Christian Petzold, and I. And Thomas and I had become friends already at the Filmhochschule. And via this concept, “Berlin School,” it was much easier to make the films visible, because we hadn’t made so many films. But then under the concept “Berlin School,” one could show the whole set. Then the films were also shown abroad very often, and naturally that was good, and we were happy with that. But the concept didn’t result from collaborative work, but only from a look at the finished films. And we—Thomas and I—never, though we were friends, we never worked together even at the Filmhochschule. There was no cooperation, and correspondingly, the films developed completely differently over the course of these 15 years—or I don’t really know how long this concept has existed. If you look at the films only of the three of us, you’ll see they’re very different from one another. And mine are somewhere different entirely. In my eyes, anyway.
And therefore the concept is not relevant for me. What’s also positive, though, is this next generation came up—Christoph Hochhäuser, Nicolas Wackerbarth—and the two of them are from Revolver, and are very practiced at communicating. And that was also positive, because for Thomas and I that was unaccustomed. We had much more worked each for ourselves.
Turning to I Was at Home, But …, there’s a lot of Hamlet in the film. You translated a volume of Shakespeare plays a couple of years ago, so it’s clear why Hamlet appears in it to a certain extent, but I’m wondering what has drawn you to Shakespeare recently, and whether your work translating him served as a kind of germ for the film.
What I can say is that I translated, between the year 2000 and five years ago, six or seven Shakespeare pieces, and Hamlet was quite long ago, but it was the one that impressed me to a very extreme point. It’s a very intense work to translate dialogues, because in a way I try to find out how I can say something. It’s not a text, it’s words which are spoken. And so there’s a confrontation, an intense confrontation that belongs to me, that remains present to me. When I began to write the script, I didn’t write it with Hamlet in mind. But when I considered, how will one see the students, and I thought, I want to see the students without the teacher. What could they do? They could perform. What could they perform? Hamlet. It came back to me. My confrontation as someone who’s staging something with actors—the confrontation with staging—is to be found in the Hamlet scene. That is, what does the spoken word mean in front of a camera, and in comparison to the stage, and all these questions, I could think through them. That’s actually it. In a moment in which language is so expressive, like in Shakespeare, that has consequences for the performance, for the expression of the play, because the children simply say the sentences, but they don’t really play it. But it’s important to understand that just saying it doesn’t mean emptiness, it just means to let the body work, I mean to let the body express itself without will, without position.
One thing that I was picking up on in how you use Shakespeare is that when you’re going through the kind of grief that Astrid and Philip are going through—especially if you’ve lost a parent—that’s an almost universal experience, and you feel like it’s something that has been played through so many times. You feel that grief intensely, but you also feel that you aren’t unique—it’s in Hamlet, everybody goes through this.
You’re completely right. I don’t feel unique at all [laughs]. It’s interesting that you say it. I never talk about it. It’s just sometimes I try to describe that. But what I’m interested in isn’t what is special about the individual person. I speak much more about what unites us, about [what is] basically human, than about the individual. So, yeah, to that extent, you’re right. That’s somehow interesting, somehow very important, because it’s important to me that the characters you see can be anyone.
You’ve spoken of the importance of space in your films—of the emplacement of the characters, so to speak. I Was at Home, But… clearly takes place in Berlin. But to what extent do you see it as a “Berlin film”? Could this story take place somewhere else?
Yeah, for sure it could take place somewhere else. But Germany isn’t so big [laughs]. Of course, this film was shot in Berlin because I live there. But there’s also a reason why I live in Berlin. There aren’t so many alternatives if you want to live in a big city. What’s special about Berlin is that many people live there who aren’t from the city, and that shapes it. And the streets are very broad in Berlin. One notices this in particular when one wants to shoot a “big city” shot showing a lot of people—that’s very hard to find in Berlin. One has to go to Friedrichstraße, or these days Alexanderplatz. But even there, it’s simply so wide. And because, before as now, the city is so varied, the tourists aren’t totally concentrated. There aren’t so many alternatives when one wants to aim at explaining the big city, and a city where there are foreigners. The young man, for example, in the long dialogue scene in the middle, he’s applying to be a professor. That’s already complicated. So obviously it’s a city in which foreigners work at colleges and apply for professorships. There aren’t many alternatives to this.
I think that audiences, when watching your films, realize how much work the standards of conventional narrative do for us. Yours have a kind of different infrastructure. They call on us to fill in more of the gaps, especially when it comes to relationships between the characters, which are established largely through implication. How conscious of structure are you when you’re writing or conceptualizing your films?
I think I’m very aware of classic storytelling. I’m very aware of it as everyone, as someone who sees films, also as someone who worked a long time in the theater. I’m very aware of it, but I use it in a different way, because my interest is on the moment. For me, every moment is essential as it für sich [“for itself”], as one says in German. So, every moment I see für sich. I don’t tell any moment in order that this moment makes me able to tell another moment. So, this is a very different way to narrate. And, yes, maybe this describes it already, that also this classical narration is a narration of storytelling and not how life moves on.
I Was at Home, But… conveys a clear sense of structure. It has these bookends, the scenes with the donkey and the dog. There’s a sense of self-parody there: We see the donkey looking out the window, ignoring the dog, and then, soon thereafter, we see Philip’s school director doing the same thing with him. I know you’re probably sick of being asked “what’s with the animals,” but is self-parody part of what’s going on here?
No, I mean, I didn’t reflect on that, what you’ve said. I had this character of this boy, and he came from nature, and I had this wish to show nature, but I didn’t want to show him, so I noticed that I wanted to show animals instead, because they live in nature, more natural than a child can. They aren’t missed, you understand what I mean? We were looking on location, scouting for a stable for the animals, and a stable normally doesn’t have windows, so we saw many stables where we shot it in Croatia. And then we saw an abandoned schoolhouse, abandoned for 20 years, had a window and a small stage. I saw it and I thought immediately I want to shoot the animals here, not in a stable but in this abandoned house. So, I had the opportunity to let the donkey look out of the window, and I felt that this is good. But I didn’t think, “Ah, okay, then it will be a great parody of the school director, who also will look out of the window.” He looks out of the window because he’s waiting for the mother because he’s in a situation where he cannot talk to that child. So, it’s easier to look out of the window. Also, the donkey cannot talk to the dog [laughs]. So, for me it doesn’t make sense to reflect on that. I just follow and trust my relation to what I want to see and tell.
Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked
Consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives.
It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.
92. Crash (2005)
Crash is set in Archie Bunker’s world, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyone’s speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. “I can’t talk to you right now, Ma,” says Don Cheadle’s cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. “I’m fucking a white woman.” “Holy shit,” another character exclaims. “We ran over a Chinaman!” “I can’t look at you,” Matt Dillon’s cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyle’s character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, “without thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job.” Dyno-miiiiiiite! Paul Haggis’s depiction of a world where everyone’s thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chip—like a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature length—and then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and it’s untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isn’t a racist for fear of being ostracized by one’s peers. Matt Zoller Seitz
What Should Have Won: Munich
91. Cimarron (1931)
As pre-code spectacles go, Cimarron is something of a big-budget exercise in experimentation, though not in the sense that it actually produces anything innovative. Director Wesley Ruggles helms a script spanning 40 years to create what’s meant to be eye-catching spectacle; the film’s story, which spans 1889 to 1929 in Oklahoma, begins with a restaging of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, a sequence that uses 47 cameras to cover some 40 acres of land. From there, heavily theatrical acting styles and overwritten dialogue define most scenes, as Yancey (Richard Dix) and his family try to turn Osage County, Oklahoma into a tenable place to live. Certainly, if only for the fact that it was an early sound western, Cimarron would have been a new audio-visual experience for audiences at the time. Today, and not least because of its racist characterizations, it’s little more than an eye and ear sore. Clayton Dillard
What Should Have Won: The Front Page
90. Out of Africa (1985)
Out of Africa is the worst of the bloated, self-important best picture-winning pseudo-epics. It attempts to merge the sweeping visuals of Lawrence of Arabia with a Gone with the Wind-style story. But director Sydney Pollack is neither David Lean nor David O. Selznick, with the interminable result shellacked to the highest of glosses by John Barry’s syrupy score. Out of Africa depicts Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s (Meryl Streep) time growing coffee in Kenya. “I had a fahhhhhrm in Ahhh-frica,” says Dinesen seven times in the first scene, highlighting the aural act of violence that is Streep’s accent. This is one of the actress’s busiest performances, a full-tilt deployment of her entire arsenal of tics; a scene where Dinesen fends off a hungry lion with a whip sees the actress chewing as much scenery as the animal. Meanwhile, Robert Redford coasts by on his looks and Klaus Maria Brandauer smirks like a syphilitic Cheshire Cat. Whenever Pollack gets visually stuck, he cuts to a sea of dark brown African faces staring at the screen in confusion—an overused, racially suspect punchline. Out of Africa’s biggest sin is that it immediately evaporates from memory, as if one’s brain were committing a mercy killing. Odie Henderson
What Should Have Won: The Color Purple
89. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
If the cartoonists at Hanna-Barbera wanted to quickly convey the extent of a cartoon character’s world travels, they might cut from a shot of, say, Huckleberry Hound walking before the Eiffel Tower to a shot of the pooch prancing before Big Ben. In A Beautiful Mind, a film that doesn’t lack for the laziest of short cuts, a young John Nash (Russell Crowe) sits at his desk while special effects morph the exterior of a Princeton dormitory to accentuate the changing seasons: leaves drop, snow gathers and melt, birds chirp. Throughout the film, such hacky artistry is in service not for bringing us closer to the reality of the mathematician’s life, but for implicating us in a circus act. Imagine, for a second, the fascinating possibilities of having simply shown Nash talking to dead air for the duration of the film. Doesn’t quite sound like a potential Oscar winner, and so Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman decided to articulate schizophrenia’s grip on the mind with a bunch of swirling digital numbers and cutesy imaginary encounters. The film is, through and through, quintessentially cornball. If it’s impossible in retrospect to believe that A Beautiful Mind’s first half is supposed to depict the world as hallucinated by a master mathematician, that’s because the film’s comprehension of mental duress is fundamentally jejune, the stuff of shock tactics as imagined by connoisseurs of Dead Poet’s Society, or the most earnest believers in a cliché I always wished had made it into Roger Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary: Crying While Sliding One’s Back Against a Door. Ed Gonzalez
What Should Have Won: Gosford Park
88. Braveheart (1995)
Braveheart substitutes polished aesthetics, quotable speeches, and superficially bravura camerawork for a genuine examination of historical legend, while its would-be woozy romance remains trapped beneath the weight of both its unmerited running time and overly orchestrated sense of tragedy. Never have the Dark Ages appeared so plasticine and manicured as they do through Mel Gibson’s panoramic lens, nor has any single image of the director’s career been more encapsulating than that of William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England, his limbs outstretched in a Christ pose just before his final gutting. In this final moment of masochistic glory, Gibson and Wallace become one, a man of fire and passion ready to kick your ass into complacency. Rob Humanick
What Should Have Won: Babe
87. The Broadway Melody (1930)
Philosophically speaking, Sunrise was the first film to win the award associated with the qualities we now associate with the best picture category, in a year in which the industry tossed The Jazz Singer an honorary award rather than make the field of silents compete against it. In its second year, Oscar embraced the future with both hands, and thanks to The Broadway Melody’s win we have a case study for how technical innovations are occasionally anathema to artistic expression. Exactly the sort of clunky apparatus that Singin’ in the Rain decades later gently mocked, the film’s every shot announces itself as the result of a compromise made to sync image with sound, with neither of them being done any particular justice. A deluge of movie musicals would soon flourish thanks to the advent of sound: Gold Diggers of 1933, Love Me Tonight, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, all of them as dizzyingly innovative and effortlessly entertaining as the shallow, melodramatic The Broadway Melody is frozen. Eric Henderson
What Should Have Won: In Old Arizona
86. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Oscar has awarded expansive tedium more often than not, but even by those pitiful standards, Around the World in 80 Days is a specialized case. Adapting a Jules Verne novel but framing the entire proceedings as a reactionary pre-Space Age paean to days gone by, producer-impresario Mike Todd’s dick-swinging epic is regressive in every conceivable way. From David Nivens’s entitled superciliousness as Phileas Fogg to Cantinflas’s shameless mugging as Fogg’s lackey manservant, Passepartout, from their rescue of Shirley MacLaine’s Indian princess (admittedly less cringeworthy than, say, Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed but still rough to watch) to a William S. Hart-era Wild West shootout between white folks and whooping Native Americans, the entire enterprise distills the world’s entire history of cultural appropriation into an endless amusement-park ride. And even that would have some contemporary worth as an eye-popping reminder of shifting attitudes if it were at least watchable. But no, it’s three-plus hours of vacation slides you found in your grandparents’ attic. Eric Henderson
What Should Have Won: Friendly Persuasion
85. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
As is true of a great deal of the films that have been adorned with the best picture Oscar in the past two decades, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is a thunderous mediocrity, a beautifully costumed and designed mess, as ultimately amiable as it is nonsensical. The greatest voice the theater has ever seen, the author of an unequaled canon that serves as inspiration for nearly all narrative works in the modern age, William Shakespeare is here portrayed by Joseph Fiennes as an egotistical cad—a loathsome, unrepentant scoundrel and bum who’s capable of uttering “Damn, I’m good!” after finishing the first act of a play he’s weeks late on. Indeed, the screen’s contempt for its chief architects remains as potent and unyielding as it is largely thoughtless and despicable. Hollywood has never been very comfortable, or perhaps capable of, depicting great writers successfully—or, for that matter, taking their struggles seriously and their triumphs sincerely. As Shakespeare in Love unfolds, the penning of Romeo and Juliet is seen as near-accidental, spurred by the Bard’s misguided lust for a costume girl. And yet, as the film proceeds through its weedy narrative, focused mainly on the romance between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the first production of Romeo and Juliet, the unenviable task of believing that Shakespeare was a genius of tremendous insight and imagination, despite the production’s eager insistence that he was simply a jealous coward stricken with luck, becomes an exhausting exercise of imagination. Chris Cabin
What Should Have Won: The Thin Red Line
84. Gladiator (2000)
The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a string of duds almost inexplicably become critical and awards darlings, suggesting that mainstream cinema culture was undergoing some kind of intellectual regression. And with the release of Gladiator at the start of the millennium, it didn’t appear as if such deterioration was going to slow down any time soon. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott on depressing autopilot, the film displays none of the technically nimble artistry of such classics as Alien and Blade Runner. The overstuffed production meanders through knotty character dilemmas and rote attempts at Shaekepearean esoterica in as bland a manner possible. All the better to elevate Russell Crowe’s Maximus to the level of the grandiose, and in the most suspect and laughable of ways. The man is a walking vacuum of personality who the film believes to contain multitudes, and the kicker is how Gladiator, with Maximus taking a moral stand against the brutal culture of ancient Rome and his befriending of an African slave, is viewed through the lens of modern political correctness. In the film’s key scene, a gruesome gladiator battle, Maximus righteously screams, “Are you not entertained?!” But the presentation of the scene is as unironic as a crowd-pleasing ESPN highlight reel, or a pep rally pretending at moral conviction. Wes Greene
What Should Have Won: Traffic
83. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
As far as tributes to vagrancy and animal abuse go, mid-century American cinema has done worse. But even taking into account Hollywood’s then-emerging neo-gigantism, it’s shocking how much effort The Greatest Show on Earth goes into missing the forest for the trees. Cecil B. DeMille, then regarded as Hollywood’s undisputedly great showman, setting his sights on the big top spectacle of P.T. Barnum ought to have been the ultimate “best of both worlds” proposition. But the allowances modern audiences still grant to DeMille’s products of their time—crediting his ability to sustain momentum through grandiose running times, or his balanced eye for scope—lay down and die in the face of this monstrosity, alternately leaden and corny and neither in the right moment. In the same sense that James Stewart’s mysterious clown never removes his makeup, anyone exposed to this film today will spend 152 minutes with Emmett Kelly’s expression frozen on their own face. Eric Henderson
What Should Have Won: The Quiet Man
82. American Beauty (1999)
A black comedy with a curious opinion of its characters’ repellent behaviors, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is also tone-deaf in its belief that the struggle is real for white, wealthy suburbanites. The Burnham clan and their neighbors aren’t so much people as they are often offensive caricatures that exist only to service screenwriter Alan Ball’s anti-conformist message-mongering. American Beauty’s most famous scene, in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) explains to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) that a plastic bag floating in the wind is the most beautiful thing in the world, is emblematic of the jejune self-aggrandizement that, like Ball’s litany of leaden ironies, abounds throughout the film and works to dubiously sentimentalize the characters’ pathologies. Indeed, this is a film that sees only beauty and nobility in transgression, as in Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, after yearning to bed his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari), retreating to his corner upon learning that the girl is a virgin. One walks away from American Beauty believing that if its makers could blow themselves, they would. Greene
What Should Have Won: The Insider
81. Argo (2012)
There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticism—or film culture more broadly—that the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures. The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectively—and, perhaps, self-consciously—passes the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Ben Affleck’s tone-setting meta-gesture—which winkingly acknowledges that this is the film version of a “declassified true story” (as the film was obnoxiously marketed)—is intentional, it’s undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardly—a cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the film’s veracity come to bear. The film is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleck’s all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. John Semley
What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Picture
How could the essentially non-political 1917 not arrive as sweet solace in our cultural moment?
We now have roughly a decade’s worth of data to postulate how ranked-choice ballots have altered the outcome of the top Oscar prize, and we’ve come to understand what the notion of a “most broadly liked” contender actually entails. And in the wake of wins for The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, The Shape of Water, and most especially Green Book last year, we’re left with the impression that the biggest change in what defines a best picture is no change whatsoever. In fact, what appears to have happened is that it’s acted as a bulwark, preserving the AMPAS’s “tradition of quality” in the top prize during a decade in which the concept of a run-the-table Oscar juggernaut has shifted from the postcard pictorials of Out of Africa to immersive epics like Gravity and Mad Max: Fury Road, both of which won two to three times as many awards as the films they lost out to for the top prize.
We’re far from the only ones who’ve noticed that—Moonlight eternally excepted—the contours of best picture winners seem to be drifting in the opposite direction of where Academy representatives have indicated they want to go. Wesley Morris recently concluded that, despite his fondness, if not downright love, for the majority of this year’s top contenders, the slate still just doesn’t jibe with a purportedly forward-thinking, brand-spanking-new academy: “Couldn’t these nine movies just be evidence of taste? Good taste? They certainly could. They are. And yet … the assembly of these movies feels like a body’s allergic reaction to its own efforts at rehabilitation.” Melissa Villaseñor’s jovial refrain of “white male rage” two weeks ago knowingly reduced this awards cycle down to absurdly black-or-white terms, but if the YouTube comments on that SNL bit are any indication, raging white males aren’t in the mood to have a sense of humor about themselves, much less welcome serious introspection.
Neither is that demographic alone in its disgruntlement. What was yesteryear’s “brutally honest Oscar voter” has become today’s “blithely, incuriously sexist, racist, and xenophobic Oscar voter.” As the saying goes, this is what democracy looks like, and given sentiments like “I don’t think foreign films should be nominated with the regular films” and “they should have gotten an American actress to play Harriet,” it looks a lot like the second coming of Hollywood’s Golden Age gorgons of gossip, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.
It might be a stretch but we can imagine that, to many voters, the presumptive frontrunner, Sam Mendes’s 1917, comes off a lot less like a first-person video game mission and a lot more representative of what it feels like to navigate our landmine-strewn cultural landscape as your average politically neoliberal, artistically reactionary academy member circa 2020. Especially one forced to make snap decisions in the midst of an accelerated Oscar calendar. And even if that is, rhetorically speaking, a bridge too far, there’s no denying the backdrop of representational fatigue and socio-political retreat liberal America is living through.
How could the stiff-lipped, single-minded, technically flawless, quietly heroic, and, most importantly, essentially non-political 1917 not arrive as sweet solace in this moment? It’s the same reason why we suspect, despite ranked-choice ballots pushing Bong Joon-ho’s insanely and broadly liked Parasite in major contention for the prize, it’s actually Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit we most strongly fear pulling off an upset. After all, how many Oscar voters are still more concerned about Nazis than they are global income inequality? Or, if you’d rather, how many of their homes look more like the Parks’ than like the Kims’?
Will Win: 1917
Could Win: Jojo Rabbit
Might Win: Parasite
Every DC Extended Universe Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
On the occasion of the release of Birds of Prey, we ranked the seven titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best.
This week marks the release of the eighth film in the DC Extended Universe, Birds of Prey, which Slant’s Chris Basanti dinged for its “rote crimeland plot, over-eager and unsuccessful stabs at subversive humor, and failure to bring its ensemble together until far too late in the film.” Still, it effectively claps back at Suicide Squad at one point, and resists falling under the spell of the Joker. On the occasion of the release of Birds of Prey, we ranked the eight titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best. Alexa Camp
8. Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)
Jared Leto’s hollow character work matches the empty style of David Ayer’s visual rendition of the Joker, all silly tattoos and teeth grills. Ayer’s direction aspires to the kind of frenetic pop-trash redolent of Oliver Stone’s most outré work, and coincidentally, the film’s best moments depict the romance between Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker similarly to the relationship at the heart of Natural Born Killers. In one of Suicide Squad’s few mesmerizing moments, the pair leap into a vat of the same acid that disfigured the Joker and share a passionate kiss as their clothes melt off, sending streams of red and blue dye into the dirty yellow liquid. Elsewhere, however, the film adopts the functional shot patterns and desaturated palettes common to contemporary superhero cinema. The hyperactivity that propelled films like End of Watch and Fury is ideally suited to this material, but Suicide Squad never gets to be a manic, freewheeling alternative to the genre’s propensity toward dour severity and increasingly uniform aesthetics. Like the recruited criminals themselves, the film longs to be bad, yet its forced by outside pressures to follow narrow, preset rules. Jake Cole
7. Justice League (Zack Snyder, 2017)
Beyond the substitution of one intellectual property for another, practically nothing about Justice League distinguishes itself from what the Marvel Cinematic Universe was doing five years ago. The film’s style, though, is very much Zack Snyder’s own. The filmmaker continues to fixate on fitting his characters into a political framework, with material gloomily rooted in economic malaise. Images of the Kent family farm being foreclosed in Superman’s (Henry Cavill) absence speak to a kind of banal, mortal villainy more subtly at work on people than the cataclysmic horror visited upon them by super-powered beings. But Snyder again leans on his propensity for desaturated images, so much so that even scenes full of sunlight appear faded. Such dreariness is consistent with his past DC films, but it’s still difficult to square how much Justice League wants us to look up to its superheroes with the way the film underlines how little they enliven the world they protect. Cole
6. Aquaman (James Wan, 2018)
“Call me Ocean Master!” King Orm (Patrick Wilson), the villain in James Wan’s Aquaman, portentously shouts at the outset of the film’s climactic scene. Warner Bros.’s latest attempt to shift its DC brand away from the dour masochism that marked (and marred) such films as Man of Steel embraces high fantasy, but for Wan and screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, this turns out to mostly mean having characters proclaim their silly comic book names as assertively as possible. At its best, the film’s underwater action, with its traveling shots that zoom through crowds of fantastical marine species and past moss-encrusted classical ruins, are vibrant, aesthetically engrossing spectacle. At its weakest moments, though, the film offers a parade of ocean-floor vistas that evoke the substanceless world-building of George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy, a supersaturated digital landscape of smooth surfaces and expensive-looking designs. The weightlessness of fights rendered with CG is compounded by that of fights between people suspended in water, and the sexlessness of superhero movies is only emphasized by the perfunctory romance between two leads who seem to have been cast largely because they look good dripping wet. Pat Brown
5. Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020)
The self-consciously ornate subtitle for Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey—And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn—lays out the reason for this film’s existence far better than the first 45 minutes or so of jumbled exposition that follow. In theory, the self-consciously goofy story of a traumatized but ultimately triumphant “badass broad” who breaks free from being pole-dancing eye candy for her scenery-chewing villain boyfriend to carve out a name and a life for herself would be a welcome addition to a canon of films still in thrall to hyper-buff and hyper-serious dudes. Also in theory, surrounding her with a squad of equally fierce and sarcastic female ass-kickers has the potential for the launch of a great franchise: Think Guardians of the Galaxy by way of Barb Wire. But since the film can never figure out how seriously to take its heroine, or gin up a halfway engaging caper for her to lead us through, what could have been an emancipation ends up feeling more like a trap for her. Chris Barsanti
4. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016)
Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an overstuffed sketchbook of ideas for a half-dozen potentially striking superhero adventures. One can feel Snyder aiming for an obsessive masterpiece while attempting to please investors with the expository generality that’s required of global blockbusters. The film wants to be a treatise on How We Live, dabbling in incredible religious iconography and glancing infrastructural signifiers, yet it can’t commit to any specific view for fear of alienating consumers. It comprises self-contained moments and gestures, some of which are impressive in their own right, but which fail to cumulatively breathe. It offers an apologia for the massive collateral damage that marked Man of Steel’s climax while reveling in more damage, resulting in more of the thematic hemming and hawing that belabored Christopher Nolan’s comparatively elegant Batman films. Every few minutes a character utters a bon mot that’s meant to impress on us the film’s depth and relevance to a culture racked by terrorism and a dangerous distrust and resentment of the populace toward governmental authority. After nearly two hours of this busy-ness, one wonders why we still haven’t gotten to see Batman fight Superman. Chuck Bowen
3. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)
Wonder Woman is, particularly in the first hour, a remarkably buoyant and even laidback film, allowing a long conversation between Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to play out uninterrupted, simply basking in the atmosphere of thick sexual tension between them. Gently edited and genuinely funny, it’s the kind of scene that would be hacked to pieces and laden with ominous portent in a film like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. At its core, the film is about watching a badass female kick some ass. And on this score, the film delivers, offering up lithe, supple fight sequences featuring Diana gliding through the air, punctuated by painterly smears of light and fire. And it creates at least one indelible image: Diana calmly but determinedly striding across a no man’s land as German artillery fire whizzes around her. However, as in so many superhero films, the final battle is an overcomplicated jumble of CGI explosions and ubiquitous blue lightning, waged against a seemingly arbitrary villain—in this case an armor-suited giant who looks like he stepped off the cover of a Molly Hatchet album. This gets to the film’s fundamental weakness: that the genre in which it’s operating has ossified. The central character and lightly kinky undertones may distinguish Wonder Woman from its predecessors in the superhero universe, but the film still falls victim to familiar pitfalls: a glut of underdeveloped side characters and unintimidating villains, an overcomplicated mythology, and a reduction of its characters’ interior lives to bland pronouncements about Truth, Duty, and Love. Keith Watson
2. Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019)
The movies don’t lack for superhero stories that deal with the angst and isolation of young people who’re radically different from those around them. But few of them are quite like David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, which foregrounds the rush of bafflement and elation that grips a down-and-out child who’s suddenly given the power of a god, potentially allowing him to bypass all of the pitfalls and anxieties of adolescence. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a prickly 14-year-old foster kid who’s transformed by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) into the adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) and tasked with defending the world against the Seven Deadly Sins. To the film’s credit, it smartly treats this premise as inherently absurd, embodied right away in Billy’s inability to stop cracking up when he’s first presented with this quest. Shazam! sees DC combining the golden-age optimism espoused by Wonder Woman and the jubilant, self-aware silliness of Aquaman into a satisfying whole, even if the narrow scope of Billy and Sivana’s conflict does lead to stretches of downtime where thematic and narrative points are rehashed to the detriment of the film’s otherwise brisk pace. In stark contrast to the politically nihilistic and aesthetically grim Batman vs. Superman, Shazam! offers a charming, even moving throwback to the aspirational sense of belonging that marks so many comics. Cole
1. Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)
Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a surprisingly thoughtful work in its examination of political and personal responsibility, and ultimately a call to arms against warfare of both the physical and ideological sort. Its militaristic without being fascistic, patriotic without being nationalistic—a bizarre amalgamation of hard science fiction and overt religious allegory. It’s also very much a historically present-tense film, giving us a Superman for a post-9/11 world—not unlike Superman Returns, albeit more explicitly. Opening with the destruction of Krypton as a result of an overused, fracking-like method of resource-extraction, the film is quick to contrast that planet’s demise—spewing geysers of fire before chillingly collapsing into a miniature star—with the political and environmental tumult of our own world: burning oil rigs, melting fields of ice, corporations run amuck. Much more has been made of the film’s third-act mass destruction, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, delectably batshit) wage war of Godzilla-sized proportions in a still-populated city. Your mileage will vary based largely on your investment in/adherence to the Superman canon, but to these eyes, the titular hero’s lone instance of lapsed judgment—namely, taking the escalating fight straight to the heart of Smallville, where innocent bystanders abound—is easily forgivable, if for, admittedly, inextricably personal reasons: Only someone looking for a blind-rage ass-kicking would be foolish enough to threaten Superman’s mother. Rob Humanick
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Director
Given the academy’s long history and resurgent embrace of technical triumphs, we’re not holding our breath for an upset here.
Last week, when Eric brought to my attention the New York Times article that exposed the myth of Hollywood being in the tank for movies about the industry, I used the piece as a jumping-off point for why Quentin Tarantino was vulnerable in the original screenplay category. At the time, I thought I was stepping on Eric’s toes by referencing his intel, believing him to be charged with giving our readers the lowdown in this category. Turns out he was tasked with whipping up our take on the film editing contest, meaning that I had stepped on my own toes. Which is to say, almost everything I already said about why QT was likely to come up short in original screenplay applies here, and then some.
Indeed, just as math tells us that the academy’s adulation for navel-gazing portraitures of Hollywood has been exaggerated by the media, it also tells us that this award is Sam Mendes’s to lose after the 1917 director won the DGA award, the most accurate of all Oscar precursors, having predicted the winner here 64 times in 71 years. A win for the pin-prick precision of Bong Joon-ho’s direction of Parasite would be a welcome jaw-dropper, as it would throw several stats out the window and, in turn, get us a little more excited about predicting the Oscars next year. But given the academy’s long history and resurgent embrace of technical triumphs—trust us, the math checks out—we’re not holding our breath.
Will Win: Sam Mendes, 1917
Could Win: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite
Should Win: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Film Editing
The only thing louder than the vroom-vroom of James Mangold’s dad epic is the deafening chorus of “Best. Movie. Ever.”
This past Monday, while the nation waited hour after embarrassing hour for the Iowa caucus results to start rolling in, Film Twitter puzzled over an AMPAS tweet that seemed to leak this year’s Oscar winners—before the voting window had even closed. It didn’t help matters that the slate of “predictions” tweeted by the academy seemed plausible enough to be real, right down to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite for best picture.
As it turned out, the academy’s problems weren’t so unlike the DNC app gumming up the works in, as the New York Post shadily dubbed it, “Duh Moines.” And sure enough, AMPAS fessed up to a quality-control gremlin (sorry, “issue”) that resulted in someone’s personal predictions going out on the main account. As Iowa’s snafu reaffirmed that Occam’s razor isn’t just something you need to keep out of Arthur Fleck’s hands, we’re 100% certain that the intern who posted that ballot on the academy’s account meant to post it on their personal one.
Speaking of Joker, if you would’ve asked us even just a few days ago whether we thought Ford v Ferrari was any more likely than Todd Phillips’s dank meme to take the Oscar in the category that has frequently been characterized as the strongest bellwether for a film’s overall best picture chances, we’d have probably collapsed in a fit of incontrollable giggles. And yet, with a BAFTA film editing win in Ford v Ferrari’s favor, we’re not the only ones wondering if the least-nominated best picture nominee actually has more in its tank than meets the eye.
The only thing louder than the vroom-vroom of James Mangold’s dad epic, however, is the deafening chorus of “Best. Movie. Ever.” being sung on Parasite’s behalf, and indeed, it was selected as the academy’s unofficial, accidental prediction in this category. As Ed noted yesterday, momentum is in its favor like no other film this year. Well, maybe one other, and it was mere providence that the one-shot gestalt kept Sam Mendes’s 1917 off the ballot here, or else one of the tougher calls of the night could’ve been that much tougher.
Will Win: Parasite
Could Win: Ford v Ferrari
Should Win: Parasite
Every BoJack Horseman Episode, Ranked
As the series comes to a conclusion, we take a look back and rank all 77 episodes.
Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is about many things. How we make sense of a senseless world. How we find happiness amid constant crisis. How we assert and give others power. That’s a lot for any show, let alone the animated misadventures of a famous horseman, one whose life stands on the razor’s edge of celebrity privilege and deeply internalized emotional self-abuse. Contending with BoJack Horseman, now as it comes to its conclusion, has meant contending with my own life these past six years, which have been made markedly better by this series. This exercise would have been much more difficult had the final episodes failed to deliver. (Spoiler alert: They don’t.)
77. “BoJack Hates the Troops,” Season 1, Episode 2
First, let me be clear: I love this episode, which feels like an early performance by a beloved artist who went on to greater and more daring things. Maybe there’s a note or two out of place. Maybe they aren’t stretching their talent as much as you think they can. BoJack’s (Will Arnett) profound pettiness makes him an asshole to many—here, it’s the contested dibs over a box of muffins at the grocery store that lands our remorseful horse in the national spotlight—and it’s admirable how this episode leads the charge in painting that fact unambiguously. In a way, it feels like a foundation stone of sorts (one of several), featuring as it does BoJack’s decision to open up to Diane (Alison Brie) for his memoir. Full truth: From here, mountains are made.
76. “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish”
The mere existence of this holiday episode made it unambiguous that BoJack Horseman was created out of love. Further enriching the world so thoughtfully laid out in the first season, this metatextual holiday episode, in which BoJack and Todd (Aaron Paul) watch one of the Christmas episodes from Horsin’ Around, came as an unannounced Christmas gift in 2014. It also, hopefully, satisfies those who will inevitably be curious about what a proper episode of the show-within-the-show looks like, and Todd’s four-word refutation (“I can’t, can’t I?”) of BoJack’s faulty logic stands with the funniest moments of the series.
75. “The BoJack Horseman Show,” Season 3, Episode 2
A novel exposition dump, this episode goes back to 2007, when BoJack and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a cat, first slept together. Its title refers to the name of BoJack’s sophomore TV series, a vulgar satire that tanked and was promptly canceled. This episode also lays general groundwork for episodes and seasons to come. Lots of obvious references abound—e.g., Princess Carolyn pitches scripts for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, though films actually being shopped around at that time instead of those just arriving in theaters might’ve been a better touch—not unlike a Trojan horse for the ongoing world building. The highlight herein is an updated version of the show’s end credits song, adapted to underscore BoJack’s much less successful follow-up to Horsin’ Around.
74. “The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One,” Season 1, Episode 1
This first episode doesn’t get its due. Brilliantly juxtaposing scenes from BoJack’s interview on The Charlie Rose Show with a gotcha shot from this world’s version of Maury, this first look at BoJack’s anxiety-ridden existence had the difficult task of establishing the show’s very particular tone (think Chuck Jones meets Don Hertzfeldt meets Albert Brooks) while also making blatant the sadness beneath it. The serious and silly rub shoulders here, like travelers on a crowded bus trip. It’s subversive, too, in warning against the dangers of over-binging; BoJack re-watches his old show obsessively, including the finale in which his character dies, at the expense of almost everything else in his life. This episode features Patton Oswalt in three parts, a Sellers-esque stunt that will prove to be one of the show’s regular hat tricks, while the closing gag exhibits the raw confidence required to deploy both guffaws and sobs with such simultaneous precision. In hindsight, it’s no surprise.
73. “Zoës and Zeldas,” Season 1, Episode 4
It was a small stroke of genius to introduce early in the series a pop-cultural dichotomy specific to this world. Leonard Cohen sang of a bird on a wire, and here the either/or stems from characters on Mister Peanutbutter’s House, a knockoff of BoJack’s sitcom in which the eponymous canine raised two little girls: Zelda, a fun extrovert, and Zoë, a cynical introvert. This episode features some of BoJack’s funniest quips and nastiest deeds. As for Todd’s rock opera, I’d be lying if I suggested that I didn’t want to see it brought to greater fruition. This episode does a lot of prep work for the season and the series, and does it well, while Wyatt Cenac’s performance as one of Diane’s exes provides a weary vantage point, effectively underscoring what makes this world feel so emotionally real in the first place.
72. “BoJack Kills,” Season 3, Episode 3
Plot-wise, this is a lowkey key episode in the series, establishing the source of the heroin that ultimately causes Sarah Lynn’s death. That would be Richie Osborne (Fred Savage), former Horsin’ Around cast member and current proprietor of Whale World, a family-friendly strip club that doubles as a drug front. BoJack and Diane get to catch up and establish a greater understanding of themselves (“I can’t keep asking myself if I’m happy, it just makes me more miserable,” says Diane, summarizing my 30s so far in 14 words), but my favorite moment is probably the chef’s-kiss perfection of Mister Peanutbutter’s LL Cool J reference (a close second is Angela Bassett’s line delivery on “you betcha”).
71. “Our A-Story Is a ‘D’ Story,” Season 1, Episode 6
If BoJack Horseman’s flair for wordplay wasn’t already clear, this episode is tantamount to a flag planted on the moon for all to see. Hollywood becomes Hollywoo when BoJack steals the “D” from the Hollywood sign in a drunken stupor, all in the hopes of impressing Diane after squaring off with Mister Peanutbutter—and buying the restaurant Elefante in the process. Todd, having found himself in prison at the end of the previous episode, navigates the various gangs courting him in sublimely naïve fashion, while BoJack’s backup plan to fix the “D” situation results in a tragedy befalling Beyoncé and, relatedly, one of the very best verbal gags in the entire series.
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