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Interview: James Gray on The Immigrant, Joaquin Phoenix, and More

Gray speaks to us about not directing Phoenix, his personal links to his films, and what he loves most about NYC.



Interview: James Gray on The Immigrant, Joaquin Phoenix, and More
Photo: The Weinstein Company

The first thing James Gray asks me is where I live. “Bensonhurst,” I tell him, with that slightly embarrassed, brace-for-impact tone I always inflect when I confess how close I am to Coney Island—and how far I am from midtown Manhattan. “I know Bensonhurst,” Gray says. “I know all about Brooklyn.” A Gotham-centric filmmaker to his core, Gray says this with a very mild, stereotypical New Yawk timbre, but the declaration isn’t one of arrogance so much as true hometown pride. All of Gray’s movies have been set in New York, and the one that put him on the map at age 25, Little Odessa, takes place just a stone’s throw from my apartment, adjacent to my landlord’s place and the beach where I spend my summer Saturdays. After making movies about crime and love that unfold in Brooklyn (We Own the Night, Two Lovers) and Queens (The Yards), Gray has finally made a period piece about New York as the entry point into America—or, more specifically, into the ever-elusive American dream. If Gray were to quit filmmaking tomorrow, The Immigrant would be his magnum opus, a paean to his Russian-Jewish grandparents who, like Marion Cotillard’s Polish protagonist, Ewa, came to this country in the 1920s, and a near-mystical deconstruction of the many contradictions that define American life. A man whose tendency to ramble is instantly forgiven thanks to the intriguing places his tangents take you, Gray told me about not directing Joaquin Phoenix, his increasingly personal links to his films, and what he loves most about this city.

So you’ve said that—

First of all, I’m just going to stop you right there. Whenever somebody says “you’ve said,” I have a pit in my stomach because I know that what I’ve “said” is going to be dumb. I think, “Uh oh, my moronic words are going to be put back in my face.” But go ahead.

Well I think this one’s pretty safe. You’ve said that The Immigrant is largely based on memories of your grandparents, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s.

Yes, I did say that.

Okay, so no worries about stupidity there.

None so far.

Well, I want to back up a little bit and talk about the personal connections of some of your prior films, specifically Two Lovers, which was my favorite film of yours before The Immigrant. What were the specific personal connections for you with that project?

The birth of Two Lovers is a strange one. What happened was, I had married my wife, and she got pregnant pretty quickly. We had been trying to have a child. And we went to the doctor, and I had to get all these genetic tests done. My wife, being the tall, Shiksa goddess that she is, didn’t have to get all these tests done; well, she had them done, but she tested negative for all of these genetic markers for diseases. I tested positive for three. I was shocked. They were genetic diseases that you might pass on to your child if both the husband and wife have them.

Do you remember what they were?

One was called Gaucher’s disease, which is a nervous disease. Another one was called Maple syrup urine disease, if you can believe that. By the way, I don’t have these diseases. I have the genetic potential to pass them onto my children if my mate had the same genetic disorder. You then have, I think, a 50 percent chance of handing it down to the kid. Anyway, the point of all this is that I had been talking to the woman who was giving us the test results, and she said she had seen an orthodox Jewish family where both the husband and wife had tested positive for Tay-Sachs disease. And there’s no cure for that. If your kid is born with Tay-Sachs disease it’s invariably fatal. And I thought, “Well, that’s just devastating.” I thought it was like our genetic, 21st-century definition of fate. So, Two Lovers became born out of that. The woman told us that this couple had broken apart because they both had this gene. And then I started thinking about a story that was about that—this sort of self-loathing Jew who has this genetic thing, which became Joaquin Phoenix’s character. I don’t know how well you remember the movie…

It’s been a few years, but I remember it well.

Yeah, he tells the story, his backstory, and that’s why he broke up with this girl beforehand, and has this weird obsession with the blonde next door who represents everything that he’s not. So it came from that, and then, of course, many other things come into play. I had just gotten married, and in marriage, you always wonder if married life is going to mean good or bad things; it’s filled with all kinds of potential, but also concerns about what your life will be. Now I’ve been married for nine years, and I can say it’s been more or less fantastic, thank heavens.

But you would say that The Immigrant is your most personal work to date?

Well, it depends. Personal isn’t the same as autobiographical. Autobiographical means it adheres to the facts of your life. And a ton of this stuff is taken directly from my grandparents—how to eat a banana, and the whole monologue in the church, where Ewa says, “We are all together, and the ship is dirty, and we are like animals.” All of that is verbatim from my grandparents. But, personal, yes, in that, what you wonder about is what you can feel…it’s not just the mood of the film, it’s what the film, thematically, is trying to express. And how closely and how intimately you feel what the film is trying to express. So, in that way, is this film the most personal? The last two films I’ve made, this one and Two Lovers, are my favorite films so far, because they’re getting closer to the cinematic expression of the mood and the attitude and the behavior and the feeling that I want to communicate to the viewer. Am I making no sense?

You’re making sense.

So when we talk about this film…I guess I had been beating myself up for a long time, about one sin or another that I had perceived that I had committed. And I guess I wanted to try and say to myself and to others that, no matter what you do in life, there is the possibility of redemption. And forgiveness. And that nobody is garbage—nobody is beneath us. This idea of being condescending to this character, or condescending to anybody, is almost a cancer.

Did you find, in the process of making The Immigrant, that having these personal and ancestral connections helped you to craft a film that’s about certain toxic aspects of the American dream, but never, in my opinion, falls victim to cliché? Because this isn’t exactly an under-explored theme.

Well, to me, I think that comes from my grandparents. They would always tell stories to me—in very broken English, because they spoke Yiddish their whole lives—but the sense I got was never one of, “America! What a country! It’s amazing! All the things that I could do!” That, to me, is the cliché. What I saw was a more nuanced thing, where the American dream was something that was there, and that was present, and that was both the truth and a lie. Because they missed the old country a lot. It represented a real emotional pull for them. That was their culture, their world, and they got pulled away from it. That had to hurt. Now, they’re in a new place, New York, where their heads aren’t going to get chopped off by Cossacks, but it’s not all roses. For me, the problem with the presentation of the American dream is it’s always either one of two things. One is that there’s no possibility that the American dream is true. It’s bullshit. Garbage. The other is that the American dream is fantastic, and you’re gonna get out there and make a zillion dollars the second you get here. Which is truly bullshit—mostly, unless you win the lottery. So, if that’s the case, what’s an interesting depiction of the American dream? I think the answer is it’s both: It’s true and it’s a fiction.

For me, it ended up being that the characters were embodiments of that double-edged notion, and it’s what gave them depth. People love to hail characters and performances as having dimension, or layers, but here, the layers seemed born directly from the pros and cons of being in a new land. I think Joaquin’s character himself embodied all of that.

Well, I’m glad you felt that way because Joaquin and I really talked about that. And not a lot of people brought it up to me, so it’s interesting that you’re mentioning it. We discussed that, in a sense, part of the reason he should be forgiven is he’s doing everything he can to simply survive. It’s probably the only reason. That’s why I felt it important that the cops called him a “kike” and that, you know, obviously…surviving is a form of heroism. And as grotesque as what he does is, he’s doing the best that he can, as horrible as that may sound, within the context of what we might call “the American dream.” Yeah, we certainly talked about, and thought about, all of these things. Whether or not they get communicated in the film is another matter.

What’s it like to direct Joaquin? The only professional exposure I’ve had to him is in press conferences, and it’s pretty clear he’s not keen to discuss the work. But he’s such a marvel to watch. What’s an anecdote or something that you can share about working with him?

Well, he doesn’t like to talk about the work at all. Once the work is done, it’s not just some amorphous group of “journalists.” If I go to his house for dinner or something—which is not common, by the way—when we’re not shooting, I don’t ever talk about work with him. Ever. I never talk about the characters or anything like that. It’s a very internal process for him. He’s not easy to direct, because you almost have to read his mind about what it is he needs from you to help him, especially if he’s in trouble, which, by that way, he’s usually not. He can do anything. He’s always trying to explore and investigate a new aspect. He’s an amazingly inventive person, and he’s always looking for ways to reinvent something.

What did he reinvent in The Immigrant?

So, for example, that character, the pimp, was originally written very much as a kind of brute. And he said, “No, no I think it’s very important that, at times, I be very nice to her, and proper, and almost pretentious. And then, at times, be very angry with her to manipulate her.” So, it’s to be a con man, in essence, which I thought was a much more complex and interesting conception. So when you’re working with him on the set, to me it’s most important to give him the space to roam. If he wants to leave the room in the middle of a take, he needs to be able to do that. I need to allow him to do those things to get things that are very textured and nuanced, eventually. I say very little and let him know he has the freedom to do what he wants.

You’re a New Yorker, you make a lot of New York films. What do you think is the toughest thing about the city and the most romantic thing about the city? Because I think The Immigrant strikes a beautiful balance of toughness and romanticism.

That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that in my life. Literally. Well…the toughest aspect of New York, I think, is that functioning is very difficult. New York is a crazy experiment, where they basically took an island, which is about 26 miles long and I think three miles wide, and packed a zillion people into it, and built concrete jungles to the sky. And functioning in New York is its own form of heroism. It’s tough, New York life. Unless you’re so rich that you have chauffeurs and chefs and all that, but that’s not the way practically anybody lives.

And the most romantic aspect?

It’s that we live in such close proximity, and we walk the streets and we have, like I said, this strange mixture of people from all over. And you never know when something very beautiful is around the corner. There’s an incredible sense of discovery. In L.A., if I know about a jazz band, I get tickets in advance, I drive there, I watch the show. In New York, I walk down the street, and I look in a window, and I see a beautiful book on some artist I’ve never heard of. And I’m constantly meeting people and running into people on the street. The other day, I ran into this couple, a husband and wife I hadn’t seen in years. There’s something very romantic about that to me. There’s a beautiful, earthy quality to urban life, to New York life.



Interview: Mary Kay Place on the Emotional Journey of Kent Jones’s Diane

The actress speaks at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character.



Mary Kay Place
Photo: IFC Films

Diane, the eponymous character of film critic, programmer, and documentarian
Kent Jones’s narrative directorial debut, provides Mary Kay Place with a rare leading role that the character actress inhabits with customary nuance. Diane is a woman grappling with countless burdens, none bigger than her struggle to bridge the gap between herself and her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), who’s battling addiction. Place is in every scene of the film, and she’s mesmerizing in each one, for showing how Diane’s routines, from volunteering at a soup kitchen to caring for a dying cousin, takes some kind of toll on her mind.

Place has delivered many memorable performances throughout her long career, most notably in The Big Chill and Manny & Lo. She became reliable for playing folksy, no-nonsense women—often mothers—who’re predisposed to putting others first and leading from the heart. Maybe that’s why Diane felt like a perfect fit for the actress. Throughout Jones’s film, Diane drops by houses and hospital rooms, looking to stay “only but for a minute.” But her business masks a deeper pain and loneliness, and the film allows Kay to bring to the surface certain rhythms that she hasn’t often been allowed to channel in her previous work.

In a recent conversation with Place about Diane, the actress spoke to me at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character, how she expresses her own anger, and why she considers herself a “kitchen dancer.”

Diane is selfless, lonely, ashamed, tough. Do you see yourself in her?

Yes, because she lives in a small community, and my parents came from small towns in Texas, and because I went to these towns my whole life to visit my grandparents with my family. The casserole exchange, and the experiences that take place in small communities—they resonated with me. Many of us in our families have addiction issues; we can all relate to that aspect of Diane. And many of us have said things we regret or feel ashamed about and hold on to, though maybe not for as long as Diane does. As members of her family pass away, that family loss is an initiation into a new dimension of your life. I could relate to that as well. She takes a turn into a deeper exploration of her own needs and wants because she has time to reflect.

Diane’s well-meaning is an attempt to compensate for her failures. Why do you think Diane is the way she is, so hard on herself?

Because some people just are. She’s a sensitive person. She busies herself with lists to distract her from thinking about the things she carries around as a burden. But as the film moves on, she has more time for reflection and goes through a transformation in small, tiny ways.

Much of your performance as Diane is internal. Can you describe your process in playing those moments?

It flowed naturally because of the script. There was an inner dialogue going on and that was reflected on my face. I was aware of subtext. Even though it wasn’t written, my imagination found the rhythm and flow that occurred. Once you get into shooting, being in every scene helped that development. There was an inner and outer dialogue. We go through this whole time period and as she has more time alone and once her son gets sober—that’s a huge weight off her shoulders—she doesn’t know what to do with herself.

Diane’s relationship with her son is interesting. He lies to her, he bullies her, and at times she stands up to him. She’s no-nonsense in dealing with him. I’m curious to know your personal thoughts about this dynamic of their relationship?

She’s definitely codependent and enabling her son by doing his laundry. She doesn’t know how to let go. Maybe she’s never been to an Al-Anon meeting—or has and rejected it. So, they have this dynamic, and they feed off each other. They’re hooked in. She’s not able to break free of it.

How do you personally cope with the ups and downs of life?

Well, I do centering prayer, and mindful meditation, exercise. I think the prayer and meditation have always been important coping mechanisms.

There’s a scene in a bar where Diane goes drinking, puts on the jukebox and dances. It made me remember your dancing in the kitchen to “Handyman” in Smooth Talk.

I’m a big kitchen dancer—with other people or by myself. I have all kinds of playlists and I love to dance. I really wanted to do that bar scene. I picked the song—Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods”—because it’s fun to dance to, and the lyrics were appropriate for Diane. Kent was game for that. It showed another side of Diane that we hadn’t seen. It was from when she was at a simpler time in her life and didn’t have shameful thoughts and was just out having fun.

We see what makes Diane come undone. So I guess I’m also curious to know what makes you lose your temper or patience?

I come from a family that doesn’t hold things in. We let the freak flag fly and then it’s totally over and done with. Explosions and then we’re through! I lose patience with people being oblivious to the feeling of others, and I have no tolerance for meanness. None. I might lash out, depend on the circumstances—and I can if called upon—but I generally don’t.

Diane appears to be a creature of habit, living a life that consists of routine. Are you in that mold, or more peripatetic or free-spirited?

I’m “both/and” instead of “either/or.” I get real orderly and then I get real spontaneous and have to start all over again. Diane’s driving connects the scenes and shows that monotony that she experiences. Oh my God, we’re back in that car again driving to someone’s house! It’s not a walking community. And it’s a different rhythm driving on country roads than in L.A.

We also see how patient Diane can be. Where do you think she gets that quality, and do you share it?

Sometimes she’s not patient. I strive to be more patient. I can be patient and sometimes I can be very impatient. Once again, it’s a “both/and” kind of thing.

Your career has been as an in-demand character actress. This is a rare leading role for you. Watching Diane, I kept thinking: “It’s long overdue that you were the star!”

Thank you for saying it’s long overdue. I enjoy every minute of it, but I love ensemble work. It’s interesting to find a rhythm and exchange words and movement with other people. It’s fun. It’s been interesting to have this leading part, but I love the other work as well.

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Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China

Jia discusses what he likes about digital video and how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life.



Jia Zhang-ke
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese government’s censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.

Jia’s films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.

In a conversation before Ash Is Purest White’s debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his government’s suppression of his work.

The music in your films is always an important part of the story. Can you talk about how you picked the songs for this one, starting with “Y.M.C.A.”?

Since I wanted to set the story starting in 2001, I wanted to find a piece of music that can trigger that particular era very authentically. And back in the day, in 2001, the younger generation, they didn’t have a lot of sources of entertainment. They might have had a disco club and karaoke, and that was about it. Two songs very popular at that time were “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jia’s Mountains May Depart].

The reason that we liked “Y.M.C.A.” was not because we understood the lyrics or understood who sang them or who was involved in the production. We had no idea what they were singing about. But we did enjoy the rhythm, the melody, and the beat, which is matching the heartbeat of the young people. It really got you going and brought up the energy of the room.

Another song that is particularly important in the film—you hear it again and again—is “Drunk for Life” by Sally Yeh, a Cantonese pop singer. This is a song I listened to when I was in junior high. At the time, young people tended to hang out in the video arcade, and this was one of the songs heard there. It was also a theme song for John Woo’s The Killer. That film, in the triad genre, is very similar to the John Woo motif that I want to evoke in this film.

The third song in this film is “How Much Love Can Be Repeated?” This sequence was actually shot 12 years ago in Three Gorges, when I made Still Life. I think the reason why I wanted to use it was that it could create this interesting contrast between what was happening on stage and Zhao’s character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhao’s part was shot last year. Hopefully, you cannot tell that these two footages were from two different times and spaces.

Was any of the other Three Gorges footage shot for Still Life, or shot when you were making that film? I know you shot a lot of documentary footage there at the time.

Only that particular clip was shot 12 years ago. The rest, we went back to the same location and tried to capture what we did in Still Life. But, unlike in other parts of the film, where we tend to use digital video, for the Three Gorges part we use film stock. That’s why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.

You’ve worked in digital video for a long time, partly because it allowed you to bypass processing labs, which would not have developed your films because they weren’t government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they weren’t being played in theaters. Are there also things that you prefer artistically about using digital video, especially now that it can do so much more than it could early on?

Starting in 2001, using DV to shoot Unknown Pleasures, I didn’t think of it just for practical purposes. DV as a medium has its own aesthetics that I can really explore and develop. Using DV you can create a close proximity between the camera and the actors and actresses, a kind of intimacy that cannot be done through the traditional camera.

The other thing is, things that happen unexpectedly can be easily captured with DV cameras. With cameras that use film stock, things are usually highly scripted in a contained, particular environment. With DV you tend to have a lot of spontaneity and a lot of impromptu happenstances that can be easily captured.

It’s so important for people to share their stories and learn from history. To me, one of the most important forms of disruption in China since Mao is the way people have been barred from telling their stories, or made to alter what they say to fit some official narrative. So you’re performing an important service by writing history with your films, recording the story of the present and the recent past for the people of tomorrow.

I think that’s also why I rely a lot on DV. I joke that only the pace of the evolution of DV equipment can keep up with the pace of the development of China. For me, this film is very much about how, in this time span of 17 years, human connections and human emotions—the interpersonal relationships between people—evolves and changes as a result of all that. On the surface, you can see very clearly the changes pre-internet era and post-internet era, [things like how] in the past you had slow trains and now you have high-speed trains. But that is on the surface level. What I’m interested in exploring is what happened in terms of the inner world of those people in this particular historical context, how their relationships evolved or dissolved and the reasons for the dissolutions and the evolutions of their relationships.

You’ve said you like working with your wife partly because she becomes a kind of second author of your screenplays, adding detail to what you have written. Can you give an example of what she brought to this movie?

When she was in the cabin of the boat and the lady in black [a cabinmate] came in, she just, almost as a kneejerk reaction, stood up, suddenly and immediately. She was trying to capture what it would be like for someone who has been in prison for five years, how she would have reacted to a security guard entering the jail cell and how she would react the same way when this lady in black entered her cabin.

I see her training as a dancer a lot in the physicality of her acting.

Yes. Another example would be the water bottle in this film. It was used to evoke this same character in Still Life, and she carried that water bottle there too. It makes sense because of the weather; it was very hot so she would need to drink. But the water bottle also came in handy to enhance the mood I was trying to create. Zhao Tao took this on and really went for it. She used it as a weapon, she used it as a way to stop the door from closing,

And to avoid holding hands with the man she met on the train.

Exactly. She was using this bottle as a kind of third character in the film, thinking about how this can be expanded and explored.

Your work has faced such strong resistance from the Chinese government. What is the government’s response to your films these days, and how does that affect how you work or how your films are seen?

I make films based on my own ecology, my own tempo and rhythm. I don’t really think too much about whether or not the film can be shown in China. Of course, I would love if my film could be shown in China, but that’s not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that that’s not the end goal, so I don’t need to somehow sacrifice and change the way I make films in order to be shown in China.

I will make the film I want to make, and if it can be shown in China, great. If not, so be it. That’s the way I interact with this particular censorship system. But I have to say that the situation has improved in terms of the communication channels. Those have opened up a lot more, so after I finish the film, I will do my best as a director to communicate to the censor bureau why this film should be shown in China. That I am willing to do. But I will not compromise the quality or any subject matter.

Translation by Vincent Cheng

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Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.



Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
Photo: Wild Bunch

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, we’ll see if Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.

You’ll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannes’s competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme d’Or winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.

The Son’s Room

19. The Son’s Room (2001)

Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanni’s work, focus is shifted away from the family arena. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher throughout. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez

Fahrenheit 911

18. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)

A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez


17. Amour (2012)

There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh

I, Daniel Blake

16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac

The Class

15. The Class (2008)

When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps

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