Pressure mounts on all sides to declare Tim Burton’s sweet and understated Big Eyes either a return to form or a turned corner, but for screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander it’s just an exemplary marriage of maker and material. The film is a dramatization of the struggle of 1960s artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose paintings of crying children were as ubiquitous, for a time, as their decidedly less gothic successors in the Precious Moments franchise are today. But Keane’s husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), took credit for her explosive success, and despite toying with a few loftier notions (alcoholism, gimcrack curios versus capital-A art), Big Eyes is an essentially spare, straightforward celebration of Margaret’s successful campaign to reclaim credit for the paintings. The film is as over-the-moon for postwar modernism as it is a painstaking character study, and, like the pair’s last collaboration with Burton, Ed Wood, strikes a lovely balance between laughing at and with its eccentric protagonist. On the day of the film’s New York premiere, I met with the duo over coffee to try extracting their secret recipe for the modern anti-biopic.
So, I understand people were whooping and hollering at the L.A. premiere, for the draw-off scene between Margaret and Walter.
Scott Alexander: There were a bunch of applause moments, but for us, we know the applause moments and these were new applause moments. That was kinda cool.
Larry Karaszewski: Any time Margaret spoke up for herself, people went crazy. Which has kind of been the biggest surprise from this week of screenings: that people really get into Margaret’s journey. We didn’t think we were making, like, Rocky. It’s like, this one particular screening, they were cheering at her when she actually spoke up at the radio station.
Alexander: We always talked about it like we were writing a 1950s women’s picture. It kind of began with Margaret as a typical ‘50s American housewife who believes she’s expected to let Walter speak for her. And we could have chosen to have the movie end at many different points in time, but we aimed for it to end near 1970. So it sort of parallels the beginning of the women’s movement. And these are choices we made, but I think that because it’s really touching a note with women who are identifying that this was really a distinct point in America where things weren’t the way they were supposed to be. As writers, we’re just in there adding plot points—because to get from B to E you need to get through your C and D. And there are moments to cheer, which is really kind of nice, that we weren’t expecting.
Karaszewski: I had two women come up after the screening last night and hug me. People I don’t know! One of them told me, “This is my mother’s story too.” That kind of thing. That’s what we weren’t expecting.
Interesting. I remember an interview where one of you guys described Ed Wood as a “plea for tolerance.” I’m wondering if, when you pitched Big Eyes, was there ever a version that was more pointed along the lines of an agenda: more capital-F feminist? The things people are reading into it are more implied than enunciated in the movie.
Alexander: There was never a pitch actually. It only lived as a spec script.
Karaszewski: It was never more pointed than Margaret was pointed. We were very true to who she is.
Alexander: Or even aware, really. I don’t think she would have looked at herself as, “Oh, I am a feminist role model.” It’s absolutely not something that would cross her mind in those terms. She doesn’t think that way. She was just trying to look out for herself and her daughter.
Karaszewski: But, I do think that’s something that’s happened to a lot of women. My mother was one of them; she stayed married to my father for 20 years in the same exact time period, and the only reason they didn’t get divorced was that she was a Catholic girl, and it was a sin, and, you know, she certainly didn’t consider herself feminist. But she wound up doing a very Margaret-like thing: grabbing all the kids in the middle of the night, driving away, getting a job, and working for herself. This was right around the same time period. So I think this is something that just happened to American women during this time. So Margaret’s story hits home.
Alexander: I haven’t read them in a while, but you have to look at the stories in the news from when Margaret went public. The first time she outed Walter. There was a People magazine profile, in 1971, I think, and I don’t think any of these issues appeared in it. It was really more about, “My husband is a liar, I’ve been living a lie, and now I’m telling the truth.” That was how the story was framed in its time period, so…
In the context of artwork alone, or…?
Alexander: In the context of Margaret coming clean after lying for all these years.
Karaszewski: It was framed as an art-world thing, not a feminist thing.
Alexander: So it’s interesting for us now to look back at it.
Karaszewski: At that screening the other night we had a woman come up to us, who was a painter, and she barely knew the story before she saw the film—and she’s a female painter who signs her name with her initials.
Alexander: She gave me her card with her paintings on it, and it’s her initials and her last name, because she says, “People don’t buy women’s art.”
Karaszewski: She’s like, “It’s gotten a little better, but not that much better.”
So, this opens up a question about verisimilitude. One of the things about this and also Ed Wood is, there’s no real judgment made about the work in question. It’s an interesting approach for a biopic, as most would climax with 45 minutes of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.
Karaszewski: Because most biopics are the Great Man biopics. They’re being told because somebody did this one amazing accomplishment.
Alexander: I mean, who doesn’t like Louis Pasteur? [Both laugh] What’s not to love? Of course he deserves a movie.
Karaszewski: We deal with characters who are more on the fringe of society—kind of really isolated, just being people who are looked down upon, whether it’s Ed Wood or Margaret Keane or Larry Flynt. Even to a certain degree Andy Kaufman, who was certainly more successful than these guys, but still—you know, basically invented comedy that didn’t make you laugh. So he had a lot of scorn directed against him. Because we’re dealing with these characters with an innate conflict with society, we just find it so much more interesting, to let the audience judge their work for itself. I also think part of the reason we do this is, once you know these people’s personal stories, it does give the work a different feeling. Ed Wood, once you know he was really a transvestite, he made Glen or Glenda? for personal reasons, it becomes an intriguing experimental film, as opposed to just something to laugh at. Same with Margaret. Yes, it’s considered kitsch if you’re looking at it in the context of Walter’s masculinity. It makes no sense why this man is painting sad children and puppies. But if you’re seeing it at Woolworth’s, as anonymous art, it means nothing. But if you know it’s a woman who’s trapped, and those eyes are crying because she’s actually in pain, it creates a whole other feeling, a personal statement.
I’ve read that Christoph Waltz tried to avoid reproducing the “real” Walter Keane, and did a more interpretive performance. Were you guys aware of this?
Alexander: It’s cute that he says that. In fairness, we didn’t have one frame of videotape to work off of. Larry and I tried in vain, for years, to find footage of Walter and, I mean, really, all Christoph had available was text. If he wanted to read articles, or see photographs, you can. If you wanna talk about his side of the story. But there was no film. Now, yesterday, CBS News magically rediscovered a piece of a tape with Walter on The Merv Griffith Show, which we had never seen before. I actually shot the Weinstein Company an email asking them, “We gotta see this!” So, Christoph was sort of restricted, whereas Amy actually got to sit with Margaret.
Karaszewski: But also, he made a concerted attempt. He read Walter’s autobiography, but the problem is his autobiography is completely mad, he’s totally off the rails.
Karaszewski: Yeah. And so I read halfway through that, and I was like, “This isn’t helping me. This isn’t a real human being either, this is a delusional guy… “
Alexander: The guy in our script is a consistent character from beginning to end. But the guy in this book was flying on Cloud 28. You should read it, just for the entertainment value. He has “the gods of the arts pantheon,” and I don’t quite know who these figures are supposed to be, but he’s written a bunch of celestial beings floating in the clouds, with pillars like Michelangelo, Gaugin, and at the end of the book Walter is appointed and gets to be up there with the others.
Karaszewski: I believe it’s his dead grandmother telling him about this.
Alexander: Yeah. She comes to him and says, “Walter, you’ve been appointed by the others.”
It’s a whole other movie, then.
Alexander: A science-fiction film. Exactly.
Or you could do it Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby style.
Karaszewski: Well, it’s funny you should say that. Right there is something we were really trying to avoid.
Alexander: Making the movie three times over? [laughs]
Karaszewski: We really didn’t want to do the he-said-she-said thing. We were given the rights by Margaret, and we only did that by assuring her we were going tell her story. She was really worried that there was still going to be some mystery about who really did the paintings. She didn’t want the movie to take Walter’s side.
Alexander: That might sound like bullshit. I’m assuming you believed what you saw in the movie, right? Because Walter loved the propaganda wars. He loved the camera. He died in 2000 and, right up until then, he was still doing interviews, claiming he was the painter. “Ignore that lady in the corner.” And Margaret is a very reticent person, so when she would choose to allow a reporter to come by and talk to her, those instances were few and far between. And so in 2003, when we had the idea to make this movie, it was still confusing. Because Walter had put out such a convincing scenario, so much disinformation, that Margaret was completely, legitimately concerned: “Which version of the movie are you guys going to make?” Because the world was still kind of confused. Despite the Honolulu Opinion. Okay, fine, the jury decided Margaret’s favor…
Walter spun the ruling as a technicality?
Alexander: Right. “The jury wasn’t paying attention,” “a couple of them were asleep on the bench,” etc.
Karaszewski: The other thing to point out is, the Honolulu trial happened after the paintings had their big success. When the Keanes were on top of the world, the biggest selling artists in America, Walter was the painter. By the time Margaret sued him, they had kind of moved off the front page. So for many people it appeared like, “Oh, the couple who did that art? They’re fighting about it.” They were on page 40 then, and nobody really cared at that point.
Alexander: That’s were we compressed time for the movie, just because it seemed dumb to us to put these actors in old-age makeup just for one last scene. But it did happen a little later.
Well, that’s another classic biopic problem. The E.T. makeup for the death scene…
Alexander: Also, consistent with the reverse-engineering of the movie, you go: “What happens to Jane, their daughter? Oh my god, we need a third actress: to play her as an adult?”
Karaszewski: But these are all the things you have to think about when you change someone’s life into a two-hour drama.
I know Ed Wood was shot without any revisions from Burton in preproduction, but stuff was added and changed once it had been shot.
Alexander: Tim shot our first draft.
What about this one?
Alexander: Well, we spent years and years trying to make it ourselves. I won’t say we ever did it as a potential rewrite; we tend to like our first drafts. We had done lots and lots of changes for line producers, because each time we’d try to reconfigure the movie in a new city, that’d mean a new line producer. It’s their job to ask, “Can you do it cheaper, guys?” As we bounced from L.A. to Portland to Salt Lake City to New Orleans to Buenos Aires, each line producer would say, “Can you drop these speaking parts? Can you lose these locations?” And we’d go, “Oh, of course!” So in the movie, the first scene where Walter and Margaret go on a date, and they’re sitting at a little cocktail table? In the first version, they had friends with them. And they’re all commiserating. And then by the time we got to the next city, there were fewer friends. And by the time we got to Argentina, there’s no friends at the table. And likewise, it was fewer scenes on the street, because every time you step outside you’re gonna need period automobiles, period clothing, and that’s a lot of money. So the movie just got more and more focused on Walter and Margaret, and their little Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? games going on inside the house.
But it’s clearly tight like that by design. It doesn’t feel lopsided.
Alexander: By design, but it got much more that way.
Karaszewski: What’s interesting is, once Tim came aboard as director, we actually showed him some of the longer versions, to see if he wanted to put some of that stuff back.
Alexander: Tim can do whatever he wants!
Karaszewski: And he was like, “No no no. I like the tight version.” He wanted to make a sort of lower budget, condensed version of the movie. Which he found exciting.
Interesting. It does seem like a real turned corner for him, none of the cast members have ever worked with him before…
Karaszewski: He wanted a palate cleanser. He wanted to make a movie that didn’t have a release date already, didn’t have a franchise on it, didn’t have Happy Meals connected to it, you know?
Alexander: I mean, it certainly fits into Tim’s body of work in an obvious way, because he likes movies about outsiders. Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, both movies about outsider artists in their own way. Which is how Tim goes about himself as an artist. This is also his first movie that takes place 100% on planet Earth. I mean, even Ed Wood is heightened, and Pee-Wee; I guess he’s a man-child obsessed with his bicycle, but maybe that’s just a little odd. We had this realization when we were shooting Ed Wood: Tim is really great at just shooting office scenes. Like, “You two guys, just sit at the table.” Tim excels at two guys at a table. He gets really great performances, which are often overlooked, because there’s so much spectacle and visual cleverness in his films. I think he’s terrific at it; he always gets an interesting angle, his frames are always beautiful, and he gets good work from the actors.
In the later Hawaii passages there are side characters who are clearly there to help push Margaret to the finish line, narratively speaking, but they’re simultaneously funny and yet not total comic relief. Like the judge in the big courtroom scene. Were those laughs supposed to be as big on paper as they are in the finished product?
Alexander: Jim Saito, the actor who plays the judge, did a great job.
Karaszewski: Amazing. I mean when we looked at transcripts from the Honolulu court trials, it was actually too funny.
Alexander: That judge was funny. He asked, “Mr. Keane, do you have cement between your ears?” This is how he was addressing Walter.
This was in the transcript?
Karaszewski: Oh yeah! He court-ordered him to keep his mouth shut.
Alexander: He told Walter, “I’m going to have the bailiff bring in some shackles for you now.”
So the draw-off really happened?
Karaszewski: Well, it happened on two separate days. It wasn’t like, bringing two easels back to back. Margaret painted in court to prove herself, and the judge offered Walter an opportunity to paint, which is when he did the “shoulder injury” thing. Margaret had challenged Walter to a series of paint-offs over time, in public squares, and he didn’t show up. So we sort of combined the idea of the paint-off and the trial scene.
Alexander: We like the image of the two easels, back to back.
Karaszewski: Because when she did it, she’d paint, and there would be an empty easel for Walter there.
Alexander: There’s a great Life magazine photo from one of these, at Union Square in San Francisco. It’s an overhead shot and there must be 5,000 people there for the paint-off. Two easels, Margaret at one, and the other one, nobody’s there. Walter sends a telegram, like, “My boat got delayed in Tahiti. I didn’t get the message in time.” And you’re just like, “What?”
Karaszewski: So, yeah, when we did our first draft, the courtroom scene was too broad.
It was this huge scene with extras?
Karaszewski: But it was. There was too much comedy. Even though it’s really comedic now, we had to fine-tune it and make Walter less…
Alexander: Because Walter can’t…I mean, whatever, it’s a movie, we have about 10 minutes to wrap it up. But Walter kept bringing in character witnesses, you know, and they all kept dropping out on the stand. They were expected to say, “Yes, Walter’s a great painter. Yes, Walter’s a great person.” As soon as they’d put their hand on the Bible and start testifying, they’d start sweating, panicking, and realizing that Walter had led them into believing they had seen him paint, but as soon as Margaret’s lawyer would cross-examine them, they’d realize it was this illusion that they were believing, all this time.
Karaszewski: Right. For example, Wayne Newton showed up at the trial, as a character witness for Walter. He had bought a piece prior.
Alexander: He was a fan!
Karaszewski: And it took a lot of restraint for us to not write a Wayne Newton scene. [laughs]
Alexander: He might be the only one who actually came through for Walter. And then the trial finished, and Wayne Newton realized he’d blown it.
Karaszewski: Supported the wrong person.
Alexander: So a month later, he fired up his own personal plane, flew back to Hawaii, just so he could apologize to Margaret in person. And it really meant a lot to her.
I don’t how you’d work that into a three-act biopic structure.
Alexander: Some of the goodies end up on the floor. To all fans of Wayne Newton: We apologize. Then again, your demographic and Wayne Newton’s.
Are there any major real-life considerations you’ve had to condense/leave out/mutate for the finished product?
Karaszewski: Nothing that we have any regrets about. The screenplay just got published and there’s a couple extra scenes that got cut out. For our previous biopics, when we published the screenplay, we published a whole extra section: “Well, here’s a bunch of deleted scenes.” This time we didn’t, because it’s pretty faithful to what we actually imagined.
Alexander: I don’t regret it, but just because of time constraints, we left out Margaret’s third husband, which was actually a happy marriage. And, I mean, he died eventually, and we sort of felt bad leaving him out, but he almost would’ve thrown off the movie, because this was in Hawaii. So for her to suddenly find personal happiness in the middle of all this commotion with Walter, the lawsuit, it just would’ve confused things.
I guess that’s like an extra 20-to-30 minutes right there.
Alexander: Exactly. And we’d have to introduce a new character and so we simply omitted him, which Margaret understood.
Karaszewski: I mean, that’s the thing: You’re turning someone’s entire life into two hours. You have to omit things. A lot of times, that whole fact-checker mentality, they get outraged that, “Oh, you left out that person!”
Alexander: “The movie’s all a big lie because they left out her third husband!” So what? That’s not our plot.
The movie’s not about her trying to find a man.
Karaszewski: Correct. But this is the thing: Every true-life movie has these omissions.
So, as a fan of biopics as a kitsch genre, I have to ask: You consciously made the biopic your specialty, correct?
Karaszewski: Oh, you don’t like Problem Child? [laughs]
I assumed that was autobiographical…
Karaszewski: It was!
Alexander: Our self-imposed marching orders are to cover as little as possible. The narrower the time period, the more successful we can tell the story. So we kinda work backward: “What’s the best place to stop this movie? What’s the end-point where the audience is going to feel like all of the themes and strands came together? Where do you go out feeling bittersweet, or triumphant, or where’s the satisfying ending?” And then from there, we back up and see, what’s the shortest point from which we can back up and start the film?
Karaszewski: We ask the question: Why are we making a movie about this person? If you can answer that question, a lot of times, the answer ends up being the third act. Winds up being the climax of the movie, because that’s what they are gonna be remembered for. So you ask: “How did this person get to that particular point?”
Because, I guess, the business idea of the biopic is to give the audience as much information about a person’s life as they can possibly fit.
Alexander: Well, Chaplin might have included all of Charlie Chaplin’s life…
Karaszewski: And that’s the problem with it. That’s the problem actually with the biopics I don’t find successful: They’re trying to do too much.
Alexander: It’s easy to look at Chaplin for the archetype of the other biopic—the kind we’re trying not to do. Because he’s a little boy, and it takes you all the way to him as an old man in Switzerland. As fantastic as Downey is in that movie, you’re asking the audience to watch a lot of Chaplin’s life.
Karaszewski: Whereas we would have done a Chaplin movie that’s all about him directing A Countess from Hong Kong. They left that part out. [laughs]
Alexander: Oh wow. We should do that next!
Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre
Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.
Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.
Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.
All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.
If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.
The femme fatale.
Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.
The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.
Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.
This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?
Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?
Tell me more the difference between then and now.
Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.
Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?
In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.
The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.
I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.
Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?
Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.
And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.
Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.
Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.
I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]
I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.
The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.
Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?
Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]
The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.
The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.
Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?
I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.
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 2020s, 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
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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
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