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Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer on The Look of Silence

He hopes The Look of Silence can push Indonesia toward something like a Truth and Reconciliation Committee.

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Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer on The Look of Silence
Photo: Daniel Bergeron

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was a film made up of memories of mass slaughter—Oppenheimer has no problem using the word “genocide”—recalled, and eventually reenacted, by its own perpetrators in their twilight years. While the documentary profiled Indonesian death squad leader Anwar Congo, it also disentangled the relationship between his anti-communist (and U.S.-backed) mass murders in the 1960s and the ruling far-right Pancasila Youth party today, following veterans like Congo and their low-level enforcer friends as they extract protection money from village shopkeeps and mingle with neighbors’ families, as casual in their comportment as Oppenheimer’s film would have us believe they’re also feared and hated. The Act of Killing is a towering accomplishment, a documentary obsessed with questions of denial, guilt, complicity, and—in the longer run—the question of filmic reconciliation, and the remoteness of its own possibility. Following the film’s beyond-broad adulation and thorough unpacking within cinephilia, Oppenheimer’s announcement of a completed follow-up documentary about the purges could only arrive as a surprise last year.

It’s hard not to view The Look of Silence as a complicating accompanied text, doggedly foregoing its predecessor’s probe of the executioner mentality and, this time, seeking direct on-screen confirmation of culpability. Adi Rukun, an optometrist, goes door to door in the Sumatran village where he grew up, soliciting veteran killers under the guise of selling them on a pair of glasses. While Oppenheimer’s doomed-epistemology motif—wherein the perpetrators try on a pair of adjustable frames, inviting countless metaphors about blindness and oversight—is heavy-handed, the results of these face-to-face encounters are too gut-churning for it to matter. Like Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Oppenheimer’s film grows more frantic the closer it gets to the truth.

His older brother murdered under suspicion of being a communist, Adi seeks a closure that feels damn near impossible. In the darkness of the movie theater, The Look of Silence’s feedback between accusation and denial becomes a painful paroxysm shuttering through the audience, begging the eternal question: Even with an on-screen confession, can cinema really change anything? Oppenheimer is surprisingly optimistic on this score, hoping the films’ public exposure within Indonesia can help push the country toward something akin to a Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Aesthetic or philosophical hang-ups be damned, we will underestimate his work at our own risk.

I’d like to begin by asking you about the disparity between these two films. You’ve used the word “diptych” in other interviews, so I suppose maybe just tell me your thoughts on pairing them, your forecasting, or not, of their pairing. The Look of Silence strikes me a more sober visual creation. In some ways, it’s even harder to watch than The Act of Killing, it doesn’t have the reenactments…

So, first of all, it’s not being pedantic, it relates to how the films relate to each other: I would say, in neither film are there any reenactments. Reenactment is something used to make visible a past, which is no longer available to the film, to excavate the past, or to illustrate it. I would say even simple demonstrations of killing that you see in The Act of Killing, when performed in that boastful register, are precisely dramatizations of the present-day lives, fantasies, stories that the perpetrators are clinging to so that they can live with what they’ve done—the persona they inhabit so they can live with what they’ve done. And then in The Look of Silence, the film goes on to explore the terrible consequences of those lies and fantasies when imposed upon the whole society, so that means the guilt, corruption, thuggery, fear.

Now, I shot The Look of Silence after I had edited The Act of Killing, before it had its first screenings, at which point I couldn’t return safely to Indonesia anymore. I had this sense with Silence, the audience should enter into any of those haunted spaces, cut through the director’s cut of Killing, and feel: What is it like to have to live there? As a survivor? What would it be like to rebuild a life surrounded by the still-powerful men who killed your loved ones, always afraid this would happen again? Too afraid to work through trauma or grief, or just to mourn. What does it do to human beings to have to live for half a century, afraid? In that sense I think the two films are very complementary. Formally speaking. And I understood that from very early on, January 2004, when I was in the middle of the two years I would spend filming all the perpetrators I could find.

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I saw that they were even worse when they were together. They were reading from a shared script. It was terrifying for me because I had to let go of the hope that these men might be crazy, that their boasting was the symptom of some kind of psychosis. I had to recognize that if there’s insanity here, it’s collective and political. The boasting is a symptom of impunity. That realization came to me as if I had wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis in power—if the rest of the world had celebrated the Holocaust while it took place.

It allows for a narrative destressing on the role of the individual. It’s not highlighting…

Well, when I realized that these men aren’t insane, that they’re not monsters, I also was arriving at the premise for both films: that every perpetrator in the film is a human being, and there’s no notion of being divided into good guys and bad guys. That these men might be monsters, or psychotic, is a lie. That mainly serves to reassure us, that we have nothing to do with these men.

When you say “us,” though, do you mean as Western moviegoers? As Americans? Another difference between the two films is the given context of United States foreign policy.

You’re asking two separate questions. First, I want to say, I mean for “us” as human beings. That we are all closer to perpetrators than we’d like to think, and this is a frightening thought. But the fact is, if you or I grew up in Anwar Congo’s family, or the families of any of the perpetrators in The Look of Silence, we went to their schools in 1950s Indonesia we would hope that, in 1965, we would make different decisions. But we know we’re very lucky never to have to find out. When you overcome that frightening thought, you recognize that every act of evil in our history has been committed by human beings, by a human being like us. That’s the only hopeful perspective on human evil because it’s the only one that implies that we ought, therefore, to find ways of organizing ourselves, ways of living together, we teach one another, we encourage our children to do two things: one, to practice the widest possible empathy. With people we’d be otherwise tempted to dismiss as an other. Because we depend upon their suffering to feed ourselves and clothe ourselves, or all the people who make our electronics who we know are forced to survive in conditions of misery. From which we profit, at least, materially. I don’t think we profit in human terms. So we might be tempted to think of them as distant, remote from us. Or people we would otherwise likely demonize or see as different. If we encourage each other to practice the widest possible human empathy, and if we can encourage everybody in our society to doubt, to not accept the messages… To understand that the most important message in school should be, you shouldn’t really trust everything your teachers say. You shouldn’t trust authority – the exact opposite of what most schools teach children. We may be able to find a way of living together where these kind of unthinkable violence is no longer inevitable, but actually no longer even imaginable.

Earlier in the film we see an NBC documentary from the time, which is celebrating the genocide, reporting the genocide quite honestly, talking about hundreds of thousands of people being killed, but celebrating it on television as good news, as a victory over communism. They say such things as, “Bali is now more beautiful without the communists.” They would have us believe that in the exotic cultural difference of the Indonesians, the Balinese victims might have asked to be killed, which makes them so different from us we can’t even imagine their thoughts and feelings might have been.

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There’s an important moment, also, in the director’s cut of Killing where Anwar and Adi watch this government propaganda film justifying the killings, and that was forced upon generation upon generation of younger Indonesians, essentially blaming the victims for what happened to them, saying they deserved it, the perpetrators were heroes. And I asked, “How do you feel about this film?” Adi says, “Oh, we know it’s a lie, it’s obvious, it’s ridiculous.” And Anwar, panicking, interrupts him and says, “It might be a lie, but it’s still the one thing that makes me feel better. Please don’t say that”—suggesting the cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of all the perpetrators’ boasting. We know what they did was wrong, but because they’ve never been removed from power, they still have available to them a victor’s history justifying everything that they’ve done, so they do what every human being feeling guilt would do: They try to take these bitter, rotten memories and sugarcoat them in the sweet language of a victor’s history. Which would celebrate their atrocities.

That accounts for the persistence of their boasting, and why they always have to talk about the worst details. Because those are the bitter memories they need to swallow.

Along those lines, can we talk about the movie Anwar thought you were making? I hate to use this word, but as “characters” in the documentary, did they realize…

How about “participants”?

Well, exactly. Did Anwar know he was participating in a big social-justice-issue documentary release? Your intention was, I’m assuming, to do an international release.

But the most important release for both these films is in Indonesia. They’ve been seen there more widely and talked about more widely than anywhere else. And making this film, my fundamental position was: I never felt like the American filmmaker, or having spent nearly all of my life in Europe, also sort of a Danish filmmaker who comes in and makes a film to expose this for the world. First of all, because I thought the world won’t care. I’m surprised and honored by how much care there has been for these films abroad. But I felt I had been tasked by the survivors and the human rights community to make a film that would expose, especially for Indonesians, the nature of the regime in which they’re living, in the case of the first film, and the prison of fear that Indonesians are forced to raise their children in today—an abyss of fear and guilt and fear of their own guilt, for the perpetrators, that divides every Indonesian from each other. That Look of Silence makes it impossible to ignore. And forces people to address, and to start talking about how it might be overcome. That was the most important thing. I felt less like the American filmmaker who comes in from outside than the agent—the secret agent of the survivors and the human rights community. [laughs]

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Be that as it may: Anwar did not understand. Was that your question?

It doesn’t have to be about Anwar, specifically. Just in the process of making these movies across so many years, so many conversations and negotiations with people: the notion of what the finished product will be.

I think in both films you see the realization of that in different ways. In The Act of Killing, you hear the perpetrators and the politicians around Anwar, telling him to stop. “Stop, we must stop doing this, because if we succeed it will show all of Indonesia, it will show people what they’ve always suspected is true. Namely that all of the propaganda justifying what we’ve done is a lie. And that, what we did was wrong. And we could lose power from that.” And Anwar always decides to continue. I think the actual reason he’s participating is that somebody’s finally listening to his pain.

I think in The Look of Silence, all of the confrontations, you see these men who knew me, as one thing, who would come and film with them in a couple days. With the exception of the family at the end. I was filming perpetrators in the time that I was working my way, quickly, across the chain of command and filming everybody I could find. They knew me as one thing, taking me to the places where they killed and showing how they did it, and suddenly I come back with Adi, after all these years, and in the course of Adi’s confrontation with them, and it’s not an interview, it’s a confrontation, they realize this is something very different from what they thought. And that’s when, of course, those scenes become…very, very tense. And dramatic. Sometimes even frightening.

So much of this film is about processing, or denying, memory. A few years back, writing about Otto Preminger’s Exodus, David Bordwell invoked a concept originally belonging to Henry James, of “weak specificity.” It’s the idea that someone talking about something can be as dynamic in its own showing/telling, as flashbacks, re-stagings, abstract vignettes, music montages, etc. While your style appears more spartan to begin with, can we talk a little bit about how you shoot and edit these kinds of conversations?

How do you make dynamic cinema out of people listening or processing? It’s a usefully phrased question, because in fact cinema is a terrible medium for words. And it’s an indictment of most of our cinema, how dominated it is by dialogue. And action. Cinema’s a wonderful moment for doubt, for silence, for moments where people don’t believe the things they’re saying. Which is another thing that, uh, is important about the so-called director’s cut of The Act of Killing, as we have much more time to feel Anwar’s doubt. Everything has more space where we feel the doubt of everybody in the film, and the growing nightmare that they’re a part of. In The Look of Silence I felt that I was building on those insights, to try and figure out ways of capturing, especially, reactions. Focusing not on the dialogue, the speaker, in those confrontations, one can create a very tense and dynamic scene where you’re sort of cutting back and forth—panning back and forth—between these men, between Adi and the perpetrator and tense confrontation.

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A film professor might tell his students to cut it like that.

Well, it would create an illusion of drama. But the real drama is in the face of the people as they’re realizing what happened, the face of the daughter of the perpetrator who’s realizing her father isn’t the man she at least tried to convince herself that he was. It’s in the realization that these men are now having their boastful accounts of what they’ve done challenged, indicted. And we see in their faces a kind of network of fissures and fractures, in this facade of heroism, as they’re forming. The shame, the panic, the guilt, the fear of their own guilt, issue through those cracks. Flow through those cracks. And that involved figuring out a way of filming those confrontations while focusing as much as possible as reactions, which I did as much as I could with two cameras, to favor the listener rather than the speaker. With the confrontations with the two most powerful perpetrators, with the uncle, we didn’t know he was a perpetrator so we didn’t come prepared for that. The two most powerful, we didn’t dare have two camera setups because it would be harder to get out of there, quickly, to run away. We even had a getaway car so we could escape without being followed if necessary. There, we had to establish the beginning of a sentence of dialogue and then quickly pan, as quickly as possible, to the listener, so we could cut the pans out and have the same language we had developed for the other scenes.

I studied the work of Ozu, who I think is really the master of dialogue where everything important is being said in the silences. The scene with the uncle, actually, this loving relationship has transformed into an unsafe relationship for both of them, where the uncle is saying to Adi, “Your brother deserved to be killed. My nephew deserved to be killed.” And therefore, by extension, you might deserve to be killed if you continue to do this. That scene ends with brokenness and shame, and it was one of the most awful things I’ve ever seen. It’s something Werner Herzog pointed out at the German premiere of the film in Berlin when he and I had a dialogue on stage. The camera pans back and forth between the uncle and Adi; it’s the grammar of filming dialogue, but all we’re filming is shame and silence.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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


Amour

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

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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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Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked

On the eve of Captain Marvel’s release, we ranked the 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.


The Incredible Hulk

21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager


Iron Man 2

20. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager


Captain Marvel

19. Captain Marvel (2018)

As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti


Avengers: Infinity War

18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith Uhlich

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Thor

17. Thor (2011)

With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams


Captain America: The First Avenger

16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager


Avengers: Age of Ultron

15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin

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