As newsprint-based dailies and weeklies get the squeeze in terms of word count and content, one increasingly has to look to the World Wide Web for no-holds barred criticism. If Film Freak Central film critic Walter Chaw feels uncomfortable with the “Web critic” label, it might be because the medium throws amateurs and professionals onto the same playing field, and studios and publicists fail to distinguish between the wheat and the chaff. But when you find an online critic with writing chops as strong as Chaw’s, you don’t want to keep him to yourself. Where many Internet-based reviewers mimic the acerbic aspects of Pauline Kael, Chaw takes his caustic, occasionally hostile wit so far that one sometimes wonders if the Paulettes might ask him to tone it down a little. Barbed language aside, though, Chaw’s approach owes less to the obvious film critic models than to satirist, science fiction author and cultural pundit Harlan Ellison, who famously said, “Not everyone is entitled to an opinion. They are only entitled to an informed opinion.”
In that spirit, Chaw often references artistic sources that predate cinema’s brief history. Praising Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator as an “ode to needing to make movies—and needing to watch them,” Chaw invoked William Blake’s “idea of gods created in the breast of man [being] transmuted into the cult of personality and the patina of nostalgia for the titans of the silver screen’s golden age. This is a shrine to individualism and a critique of the dreadful cost of individuality.” In his review of Harmony Korine’s second film, Chaw said that Puccini’s ’O Mio Babino Caro’ aria from ’Gianni Schicci,’ a plaintive appeal for the acceptance of a lover, finds itself scattered throughout ’julien donkey-boy’ to further underscore these themes of alienation, sexuality, and a frustrated desire for familial harmony.” Chaw clearly expects his readership to keep up or get out of the way.
He shows an affinity for art house fare, singing the praises of Claire Denis’s astonishing and frequently misunderstood masterpiece Trouble Every Day as “the most insightful film about sex and gender that has perhaps ever been made.” But he’s equally quick to assault the pretentiousness of Sundance favorites like Primer, writing, “I suspect that a lot of people are afraid to admit they don’t understand what’s happening in the film, which talks too much in too stultifying a fashion, obscuring its heart of glass with blizzards of expositive candy.” He is frequently accused, at least by those who write in to Film Freak Central, of being an elitist and a snob.
But those readers might be surprised learn how many mainstream Hollywood films Chaw has championed over the years. He has given four-star reviews to V For Vendetta, King Kong, and Spider-Man 2, which he said “takes chances with its story that lesser films would not, affirming, along with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, that big budgets don’t just by the fact of them quash unique, distinctive, ambitious voices.”
Chaw rages against the Hollywood machine’s depictions of class, gender and race, puncturing political correctness, but assailing films that still think it’s okay to use xenophobic or chauvinistic stereotypes. His jihad against dumbed-down content is so wide-ranging that I’ve occasionally wondered if he needed to take a break. He’s incinerated movies that were paper-thin in the first place: Bringing Down the House, The Dukes of Hazzard, Bulletproof Monk, xXx: State of the Union, Last Holiday. Maybe he justifies his vitriol on the grounds that he watches this junk so we don’t have to.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, where I went to school with the children of Denver Broncos and Coors. They called it “White Rich”, my high school. I was one of three Asians in the building, I think, [during] my three years there. I like to say that I didn’t even know that I was Asian until freshman year of college. I went to lots of neighborhood six-plexes as I was growing up, and a couple of art houses that I never went to until I moved to Boulder in my late teens.
What were some of your formative movie-going experiences?
I saw Star Wars when I was three before I could speak English (it’s better that way, perhaps) and spent the next 10 years playing with action figures and wrapping tubes. My wife remarked once how interesting she found it that men of my generation all knew how to breathe like Darth Vader instantly. I saw Dragonslayer when I was eight and spent a goodly portion of it hiding underneath the seat in front of me—didn’t stop me from seeing it three times that summer. Also, I sat through three consecutive screenings of Back to the Future with a pal of mine by telling the ushers that we’d missed the opening and would leave after a few minutes. The film that decided me on this path, though, was a screening of The Conversation for a college critical theory course…It was the first film that competed with poetry, literature and music in my mind as a testament to the soul.
When did you get started as a film critic, and was this helped by the rise of Internet film criticism?
About seven years ago now, I guess, occasioned by a massive heart attack that my father happened to survive. It caused me to reassess the path I was taking into owning a corporation and working something like 80 hours a week. I didn’t want to end up in my early fifties with a spotty relationship with my family, terrible stress, terrible health, wondering how it was that I squandered all the important things in my life in the pursuit of some hazy idea about financial/material comfort—though, ironically, being really poor and a freelance columnist puts you right back into that straitjacket in a lot of ways. I will say that the decision probably saved my marriage, though. It wouldn’t have happened as quickly without the Internet, for sure. I’m not a good hoop-jumper. Query letters and résumés give me migraines, [though I’m] probably just lazy or mentally ill. The Internet allowed me to essentially just write—to post/publish in free public forums, and to eventually get picked up to do a few pieces in cult analog journals before [editor] Bill Chambers asked me to go to work for FilmFreakCentral.net “full time”.
I assume then that it’s “full time” without getting paid.
This is true—or, at least, not paid in the traditional manner. I’ve parlayed my visibility through the Web sites into teaching assignments, public speaking opportunities, festival panels, and now books collecting the reviews published annually. But from the start, Bill had a strong philosophy about pop-up ads and so on, so that even before the Internet ad bubble popped, we weren’t exactly cash cows in terms of selling bandwidth for sponsors. It does keep us honest though, in that I don’t know if I’d be as moral if I were banking [Roger] Ebert’s, or even a living, wage.
Has the public perception of Internet critics changed since you’ve started?
I don’t believe that it’s changed at all. People who know about it as its own entity either embrace the freedom of discourse online or scorn the same. The great thing about the Internet is that everyone has a voice. The terrible thing is that everyone has a voice—ditto film’s digital revolution—so we tend to get lumped in with the Ain’t It Cool News-type gossip/blog sites rather than the “legit” online sources like Salon or Slate. Feast or famine.
You’ve had some big issues with the way films are screened for critics. Can you describe your essential gripes with the system, and recommendations for changing it?
It’s a complicated thing. I’m in a small market here in Denver—lots of stuff never makes it this far within months of their East/West releases, if ever. We don’t have private screening rooms and there are a goodly percentage of major releases that sport private, daytime showings only for “major daily” writers. Internet guys are shut out completely. I’m not certain—and here’s the complexity—that I’d even argue with that ban in 99% of the cases. Of course, I don’t think that I deserve to be lumped into that ghetto. [But] it still burns, and it gets worse as time goes on. It’s harder, not easier, sitting in a public/filled screening, rubbing elbows with the entitlement freeloaders, the pass-rats, the other Internet guys who work out of their basement without editors or taste, and the rude. [It’s harder] knowing that there was a better way to see this film just a few days earlier with just one or two other critics in the auditorium. I had a falling out last year with the Denver Film Society over a festival screening of Brokeback Mountain that Focus Features allegedly shut all “Internet” critics out of. Less than a week later, of course, Focus sent all of us in the Online Film Critics Society a DVD screener. So my big issue with the screening process is it’s undemocratic and essentially corrupted with an eye towards manipulating the absolute best result somehow for the studio. I don’t know what the truth was in that festival screening, but I do know a few of the yahoos who did get the invitation, one of whom can’t spell and has never crafted an elegant sentence, and boy if that didn’t sting.
The only recommendation I have is that national publicity read the reviews that we, collectively, produce. If my work doesn’t stand up to that of my “major daily” peers, then it doesn’t. But if it does—and taking into consideration that our “circulation” is more than three times the circulation of both Denver major daily papers combined—then treat me accordingly. Of course, there are some films that are only screened with the public to confuse or influence, I guess positively, the critical response. I don’t see how kids kicking your chair, answering cellphones, narrating to one another, and generally acting like asses can influence you positively, but there you have it.
Do Internet critics have any influence whatsoever, or are they just mosquitoes dive-bombing Hollywood’s white elephant?
We’re all just mosquitoes dive-bombing Hollywood, man. Unless you’re Ebert, and then you can manipulate the middlebrow as their most-beloved enabler and mouthpiece and then go on to influence the Oscars. The function of film criticism seems now more than ever—if you’re genuine about what you do—to just be on the record when the wind changes and we move away again (if we ever do) from all this consumer reportage of bankable product. I’m not concerned about anything other than putting on paper what my reaction is to a film within the context of my personal experience and prejudices: strengths and shortcomings. Pauline Kael was asked once why she didn’t write an autobiography, and she pointed back on all of her reviews and said that she already had. I believe in that. Good film criticism, any good criticism, is 1% savvy, 99% auto-psychoanalysis. I don’t like Kael, by the way. I think she was a brilliant writer, but a mean person, a borderline personality, and a shaky critic. She did have a way of articulating ephemera like performance and fashion, though. But ultimately, I’m not certain her bully tactics and popularization of film criticism did anybody any favors.
Are you in the Andrew Sarris camp?
Not exactly. I think auteurism is a grand place to begin a discussion of a film and I think that Sarris’s great contribution to the conversation is that permission to stratify directors—but ultimately, like Kael’s “gut & fuck” philosophy, it’s strict ideology applied to a slippery beast. I’d much rather take the bits from each that are useful for my own deconstructive instincts, and use them as sharpening stones, if you will, for my instrument. That’s a pompous way of saying that I’m a product of my experience and the things that I pick up along the way, from [Sigfried] Kracauer and [Lotte] Eisner to [Manny] Farber to Sarris to Ebert and Kael. They just feed into the mess of my own critical shortfalls, convictions, and contradictions.
Can you name some movies that in retrospect you feel you were wrong about? If there’s any auto-psychoanalysis involved, as you said earlier, one has to admit we look back on earlier decisions and learn from them, including learning from our mistakes.
Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour. I was ambivalent about it, disregarded what admiration I felt about it at the time, and underestimated the power of the auteur presence in that piece. Looking back on it as I have a few times since then, I can almost not think of a Lee film that I respect more. Summer of Sam has, likewise, risen in my rearview. I was wrong about my effusive praise for In the Bedroom as well. I went so far as to name it the best of a year that also saw The Royal Tenenbaums and Mulholland Drive, so yeah—pretty far off on that one. I was a sucker for the melodrama and a sucker, too, for Marisa Tomei’s amazing facility with weeping. Looking at it now, I still admire Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek (and Tomei’s) performances, but the whole thing feels a little…well, a little Canadian to me now.
What are your thoughts on organizations of Internet critics like the Online Film Critics Society [OFCS]?
Well, I think that they’re problematic when they have no desire to limit membership or establish bedrock standards so as to make themselves unimpeachable as an institution. You don’t invite someone to the New York Film Critics Circle just because they live there. You shouldn’t invite someone to the OFCS just because they can’t find an analog outlet for their writing. Essentially, you become useless when the perception—even amongst your membership—is that you’re bloated by non-professionals [who don’t have] a lot to add to the conversation. Too much liberal panty-twisting is to blame—this idea that no one is qualified to judge critical standards. It’s the kind of soft thinking that’s killed liberal arts in American colleges and, more, the kind that makes me very suspicious of the value of their film criticism. If you’re not sure you’re qualified to say what’s good, you’re probably writing equivocal pap that’s wasting all of our time.
Broadening the discussion, what is the state of film criticism today?
It’s bankrupt and in bed with the industry for the most part. I think a lot of us are bought and sold. When Sony invented a film critic to create blurbs for their films, I wasn’t so much dismayed as I was thinking that there are a lot of people I’ve met in the flesh in this business who were also invented as film critics by the studios. Did you ever hear the story about journalists personally invited to Skywalker Ranch pre-Episode One and offered a list of blurbs (pre-screening) that they would like their names associated with in the publicity materials?
I just saw a thing for the new animated The Wild the other day with yahoos calling it the best animated film of the year—and I know that until last week, there wasn’t even a print cut of it. And, more, it’s the goddamn fourth month of a year that’s going to have a new Pixar film. I don’t care if these idiots bleed when they’re cut, you can’t tell me that they’re not studio, test-tube inventions.
Are there any critics out there you feel are taking passionate, provocative or contemplative looks at cinema? Who are the critics you read regularly?
I read Jonathan Rosenbaum because he’s brilliant, if sliding into obscurity most times now, Armond White, J. Hoberman, Michael Atkinson—I like a lot of The Onion A.V. Club though more in the past than now—all of them because they take a sociological prism to film that will make their work on the medium endure…I used to read Godfrey Cheshire when he was at the New York Press, and I’m glad to have found him again. I avoid Ebert because it’s heartbreaking after a while to see the kind of apologist and glad-hander he’s become, who likes 75% of everything he sees.
For a while, you were struggling with the idea of continuing to run interviews with filmmakers and actors on FilmFreakCentral.net. What was the source of your frustration, and what made you decide to continue the interview process?
I was contemplating throwing in the towel for good at that moment, all aspects of it, so dropping interviews, [which] I did for a couple of months, seemed a good partial measure. I was just sick of feeling grateful for getting interviews. It’s some kind of personality defect or something, this need for recognition or acceptance or respect in this business that’s so niggardly in regards to any and all positive feedback. But I came to a point where I started to wonder why the only interviews we were ever getting offered were from one guy out here who represents a studio where the publicity reps actually read our work. Doesn’t take a lot of digging to figure out which studio that is. But even after we did these massive pieces on David Cronenberg and John Sayles and so on and so on, we were still just getting offered, like, first-time documentary filmmakers stumping for mediocre works. Requesting guys like Charlie Kaufman or Wes Anderson [above] or even Steven Soderbergh was just out of the question. We wouldn’t even get the courtesy of a “no” from the decision-makers. Fact is, though, that if you fight the machine, the machine wins—so we’re back to doing interviews, though I’ve been a lot more selective about who I try to chase down.
You are very active on the blog for FilmFreakCentral.net. What are the advantages of having a blog?
My editor offered the blog in large part to give all of us a vent for our frustrations. At least that’s certainly the direction that I take in my writing there. I did do free-form reviews of The Last Detail and Swimming to Cambodia there, too, and hope to do more with a few of my favorites into the future. But as a means to blow off a little steam, it’s rejuvenated me a lot this year.
Yeah, talk about auto-psychoanalysis!
No kidding. I’m way too poor to go to a real therapist, I’m the best that I can afford and film and film writing is my Rorschach. What I put down to paper right now is full of stuff I hope to be able to decode somewhere down the line. I’ve also been rejuvenated by the fact that I’m reviewing about a third as many films by this time of year as I have in the last six.
Do you feel you need to cover every movie that comes out on a given week, or as many movies as possible, to feel you’re on the front lines of film criticism?
I did, I did. Now, I just feel like I need to see them sooner or later…certainly before a year-end list, maybe in second-run, maybe first. The urgency to cover them weekly has diminished. Bless [my editor] Bill for letting me ease up on the throttle.
I mean, does the world really need another review trashing Failure to Launch?
Well, yeah—I understand the gist of your question, but that is a particularly vile picture. There’s not enough trashing sufficient to bring that one down in the rearview. The spirit of your question, though, is an interesting one, and in truth I don’t take much satisfaction anymore in trashing a film that’s just bad in an inoffensive, sort of incompetent sort of way.
Does the fact that you have children affect the way you perceive movies, family movies, “children’s” movies, and/or movies in general?
I don’t think so, not yet at least. But in saying that, I have to acknowledge that having children is so transforming a life event that the way that it’s affected my watching and writing could be something that I’m unaware of until somewhere down the road. I will say that I don’t write my reviews like some do, with caveats like “My toddler loved it: 3 stars!” One of my favorite saws is that our culture, when it says that something’s “just for kids,” it means that it’s better (food, toys, clothes), except when it comes to film. Then “it’s just for kids” means that it’s [such] an appalling piece of shit that no person of any kind of moral or developmental maturity could possibly wring the slightest bit of edification or enjoyment from it.
You frequently cite references to literature and poetry in your reviews, including William Blake, John Donne, T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner. Could you describe how your literary tastes have evolved, and how you find it a useful point-of-reference in your reviews?
Is it frequent? I thought the hate mail beat it out of me. My training is in British Romanticism and critical theory, primarily; they are, at least, my great loves.
Obviously, it couldn’t hurt if your readership is inspired to read.
This is true, but I’m not evangelical about my tastes or experiences. I don’t—as Ebert did this year at the Conference on World Affairs at Boulder—my, what a gasbag he’s become, between commenting proudly about his love of tits to his recollection of last year spent reading the works of Willa Cather—[I don’t] demand that folks who read me have read the same things that I’ve read, nor gotten the same things from those texts for sure. Rather, when I’m talking about a film, I’m talking about my experience of it, and sometimes the only way that I can relate that experience is through an analogue. Sometimes, too, like with Brett Ratner’s piece of shit Red Dragon, a discussion of the poems and paintings upon which the source was inspired [see above] leads to a few insights into the film. I got heat for referencing Blake in that review, by the way, which is particularly puzzling because it’s sort of like catching hell for mentioning Shakespeare in a review of West Side Story.
You’ve been a partisan of movies adapted from comic books/graphic novels to cinema, such as Batman Begins, Sin City and Hellboy. Is it fair to say you don’t look down your nose at that popular art form?
Absolutely fair—and don’t forget A History of Violence and From Hell. I love graphic novels, and was a big Neil Gaiman junkie, for all of Gaiman’s self-regard. His Sandman series for DC’s Vertigo line was transformative for me in that medium. They’re just bound storyboards, aren’t they?
I don’t believe that at all. I think they’re two radically different mediums.
[Listen,] almost no other medium is as conducive to filmic translation and when you begin to capture the work of Frank Miller—and Batman Begins is an analog to Miller’s Dark Knight Returns—in atmospherically faithful adaptations, I’m as slavering as the next fanboy about it. But, of course, it can be done poorly. Constantine comes to mind, as does Road to Perdition as does any adaptation, I suppose.
You’ve also adopted some seemingly controversial takes on older films, such as Casablanca (three stars) and Dark Victory (one star). Do you feel you’re attacking these films in a modern context, or viewing them from their place in film history?
Ah, and Gunga Din, too. I got some nice, juicy hate for that one, too. Regardless of the place of films in history—and I do think that it’s important to talk about that if, like with Casablanca, there’s actually a semi-interesting thing to say about [that]—the best art breathes no matter the era or the context. With Casablanca, I just don’t get the romance/sacrifice of its love story and so the rest of it: Curtiz’s static camera sets, Bogie’s Old Hollywood heroic postures. The story is done better, more cinematically and with more humanity at stake, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, with Bergman and Raines again, and Cary Grant in place of Bogie. With Gunga Din, I found the treatment and characterization of the title character to be frankly abhorrent. He’s compared to a performing elephant most of the time. I’m consistent across the board with being repulsed by stuff like that. It’s one thing to excuse its empire-attitudes as byproducts of the age, and another to excuse cruelty and ignorance at any time. You walk a line sometimes, but Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was never “okay.” Good thing I’ve never been asked to review Gone with the Wind.
Do you feel you have any catching up to do with films pre-1960?
Always. Post, too. I never will know everything that I want to know, nor see everything that I want to see. I recently saw that Val Lewton-produced The Seventh Victim and almost wet myself in excitement. Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon, too: a revelation.
Despite the fact that in some circles you’re accused of being an elitist, you’ve shown populist taste in your praise of certain studio pictures such as King Kong and Black Hawk Down. How do you figure some of your more hostile readers accuse you of hating all Hollywood movies when you’ve gone out of your way to recommend these and other blockbusters?
My more hostile readers seem to fall into two camps: the ones that liked the Star Wars prequels sight-unseen—did you know that Lucasfilm put us on a “banned” list?—and the ones who read one of my reviews and stalk off to flame me on some chat board somewhere as being some arthouse champion, blinded to the charms of Fantastic Four or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
I’m curious as to what review sets people off, really. Is it that I hated Failure to Launch or Eight Below that you’re now making the assumption that I hate mainstream films? What about my dislike of garbage like Crash and March of the Penguins? My tastes are pretty Catholic. I put Fahrenheit 9/11 and Passion of the Christ as co-“Worst Of’s” a couple of years ago, but I still get these weirdo emails from folks who loved the drab/harmless Chronicles of Narnia flick about how the “Lion loves you passionately anyway,” while prehistoric feminists lambaste me for disliking The Hours, and black people pepper me for saying that Bringing Down the House is a racist picture, and on and on. What I’m saying is that most people who hate me haven’t read more than one—if that—review of mine in its entirety. I’m not making a play for “man of the people” here, but I agree, according to Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus a pretty depressing 73% of the time. I think what gets people is that I’m not all that equivocal about dislike of a film and, more, will actually say if something is repugnant about a picture’s message, or if it patronizes its audience. Folks don’t like to be called—even if it’s just by the association of their affection for a picture—racist, misogynistic, dimwits with critical faculties. Can’t say that I blame them, but unless they’re willing and able to frame a cogent response to my outrage about some of that shit, they’re just bolstering my sad, hermetic little beliefs about the kinds of people who get a real charge out of North Country and Million Dollar Baby.
How would you respond to the perception of you as a “bomb-thrower,” or a guy who employs hyperbole to get a rise out of people?
Is that the perception of me? I think that’s the easy way out of assessing what it is that I actually write about in my work. Maybe I don’t succeed—I certainly don’t for those folks. Let me say that in my mind the “guys who employ hyperbole to get a rise out of people” are the Earl Dittmans and Jeffrey Lyons and Larry fucking Kings of the world who call every neo-Stanley Kramer piece of leaden dreck that floats down the bilge the “best film of the year” or “a masterpiece” or “the first great. . . of the year.” When I look at what I write—and I seldom have to, thank god—I hope that what I’m seeing there is a real, throbbing outrage at films that are out to do harm and, on the other side, a real live joy at films that feed me. Stuff that’s just out to make money off of easy stereotypes and nakedly shill to robotically-demarcated demographics of imaginary people– and looping back around, here, offering up all this feckless garbage to the blind eyes of the vast majority of the critics in lofty positions that I (if no one else) hope are manning the gates—makes me exhausted.
You sense a sea change this year with all the unscreened films, don’t you? I think the studios are getting wise. It’s like the girl who molds her boyfriend into the model boyfriend and then dumps him for being boring and untrue to himself.
Interview: Angela Schanelec on I Was at Home, But…, the Berlin School, & More
The filmmaker discusses her elliptical approach to filmmaking and how she compels our active spectatorship.
One year ago at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Silver Bear for best director went to Angela Schanelec for I Was at Home, But…. The film stars Maren Eggert as Astrid, a Berlin woman recently bereaved of her husband and coping with the subsequent weeklong disappearance and reemergence of her son, Philip (Jakob Lassalle). Astrid’s life in the wake of these dual traumas unfolds episodically, as her emotional duress manifests itself as displaced obstinacy and heightened passion in social interactions.
Astrid’s emotional struggle is also intercut with dispersed scenes of Philip’s class neutrally reciting lines from Hamlet, of a romantic crisis in the life of one of his instructors (the omnipresent Franz Rogowski), and of a donkey and a dog living together in an abandoned schoolhouse. With this film, Schanelec crafts a portrait of grief that can be at once alienating and deeply moving, its fragmentary nature both reflecting the way Astrid and Philip’s worlds have been shattered and compelling our active spectatorship.
That latter aspect is typical of Schanelec’s body of work, as well as the film movement it has been grouped with. The so-called Berlin School—originally consisting of Schanelec and Thomas Arslan and Christian Petzold, her fellow graduates from the Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie Berlin—wasn’t the filmmakers’ intentional creation, but rather a label often applied to the slow-paced, formalist, and critically engaged art films they made. French critics and the German film magazine Revolver were the first to propagate the coming of a nouvelle vague allemande in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and, as Schanelec emphasizes in our interview, particularly in the early days of the “School,” the grouping helped the trio’s small collection of completed works find places in film festivals.
Now, 25 years into her filmmaking career, Schanelec has an oeuvre that stands on its own—as evidenced by the career retrospectives that have begun to crop up around the world. Last fall, the Vienna International Film Festival organized a comprehensive one. And from February 7 to 13, Film at the Lincoln Center in New York will be showing her films under the program “Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec,” which in addition to her shorts and features also includes a program of three films by other filmmakers selected by Schanelec.
Has this retrospective given you reason to revisit earlier work that you haven’t in a while, or to revisit your work as a whole? If so, what kinds of insights have stood out to you as you have considered your career up to this point?
I have to say that it’s quite exhausting to be confronted with the work of my whole life. There were other retrospectives, earlier retrospectives, and for me it’s quite hard. I mean, I’m very happy that there’s this interest in my work, there’ no question. But it’s also quite hard for me.
What’s so difficult about it?
Because, I mean, it’s not such a big body of work. I started in the ‘90s, and the first long film was in 1995, so it’s 25 years. But between my films is two or three years, so I spend a lot of time with them. And when they are finished, they are finished. And then I have the deep wish to continue with something new. And I think I know my films.
Do you see, then, each film as something new you’re exploring? Or do you leave a film with an idea you want to continue working on in the next film?
It’s not a new start. It’s not a new beginning at all. It’s rather a need that emerges from the work on a film, and I follow up on this need in the next film. And this is also not an intellectual or conceptual decision, and often it’s very primitive. So, when, for example, I’ve worked a lot with language, there’s a certain fatigue, or there emerges the need to work with images again. If you look at the way my films alternate, there’s always, I don’t know—in Plätze in Städten [Schanelec’s first feature] there’s hardly any talking, in Passing Summer lots of talking, then in Marseille, again, hardly any. So, certain needs develop, and they come from exhaustion.
In fact, I noticed that The Dreamed Path has no subtitles on Amazon Prime, and perhaps it doesn’t need them because as you said it’s one of your films that’s so visual.
This is only one point how one film comes from another. Ah, there are lots, but it happens, as I said, not rationally, but instead it emerges from certain needs.
To what degree do you feel an affinity with something called the Berlin School? And if you did, do you feel like it’s so-last-decade, do you feel it’s over now?
To start at the beginning, it was only Thomas Arsland, Christian Petzold, and I. And Thomas and I had become friends already at the Filmhochschule. And via this concept, “Berlin School,” it was much easier to make the films visible, because we hadn’t made so many films. But then under the concept “Berlin School,” one could show the whole set. Then the films were also shown abroad very often, and naturally that was good, and we were happy with that. But the concept didn’t result from collaborative work, but only from a look at the finished films. And we—Thomas and I—never, though we were friends, we never worked together even at the Filmhochschule. There was no cooperation, and correspondingly, the films developed completely differently over the course of these 15 years—or I don’t really know how long this concept has existed. If you look at the films only of the three of us, you’ll see they’re very different from one another. And mine are somewhere different entirely. In my eyes, anyway.
And therefore the concept is not relevant for me. What’s also positive, though, is this next generation came up—Christoph Hochhäuser, Nicolas Wackerbarth—and the two of them are from Revolver, and are very practiced at communicating. And that was also positive, because for Thomas and I that was unaccustomed. We had much more worked each for ourselves.
Turning to I Was at Home, But …, there’s a lot of Hamlet in the film. You translated a volume of Shakespeare plays a couple of years ago, so it’s clear why Hamlet appears in it to a certain extent, but I’m wondering what has drawn you to Shakespeare recently, and whether your work translating him served as a kind of germ for the film.
What I can say is that I translated, between the year 2000 and five years ago, six or seven Shakespeare pieces, and Hamlet was quite long ago, but it was the one that impressed me to a very extreme point. It’s a very intense work to translate dialogues, because in a way I try to find out how I can say something. It’s not a text, it’s words which are spoken. And so there’s a confrontation, an intense confrontation that belongs to me, that remains present to me. When I began to write the script, I didn’t write it with Hamlet in mind. But when I considered, how will one see the students, and I thought, I want to see the students without the teacher. What could they do? They could perform. What could they perform? Hamlet. It came back to me. My confrontation as someone who’s staging something with actors—the confrontation with staging—is to be found in the Hamlet scene. That is, what does the spoken word mean in front of a camera, and in comparison to the stage, and all these questions, I could think through them. That’s actually it. In a moment in which language is so expressive, like in Shakespeare, that has consequences for the performance, for the expression of the play, because the children simply say the sentences, but they don’t really play it. But it’s important to understand that just saying it doesn’t mean emptiness, it just means to let the body work, I mean to let the body express itself without will, without position.
One thing that I was picking up on in how you use Shakespeare is that when you’re going through the kind of grief that Astrid and Philip are going through—especially if you’ve lost a parent—that’s an almost universal experience, and you feel like it’s something that has been played through so many times. You feel that grief intensely, but you also feel that you aren’t unique—it’s in Hamlet, everybody goes through this.
You’re completely right. I don’t feel unique at all [laughs]. It’s interesting that you say it. I never talk about it. It’s just sometimes I try to describe that. But what I’m interested in isn’t what is special about the individual person. I speak much more about what unites us, about [what is] basically human, than about the individual. So, yeah, to that extent, you’re right. That’s somehow interesting, somehow very important, because it’s important to me that the characters you see can be anyone.
You’ve spoken of the importance of space in your films—of the emplacement of the characters, so to speak. I Was at Home, But… clearly takes place in Berlin. But to what extent do you see it as a “Berlin film”? Could this story take place somewhere else?
Yeah, for sure it could take place somewhere else. But Germany isn’t so big [laughs]. Of course, this film was shot in Berlin because I live there. But there’s also a reason why I live in Berlin. There aren’t so many alternatives if you want to live in a big city. What’s special about Berlin is that many people live there who aren’t from the city, and that shapes it. And the streets are very broad in Berlin. One notices this in particular when one wants to shoot a “big city” shot showing a lot of people—that’s very hard to find in Berlin. One has to go to Friedrichstraße, or these days Alexanderplatz. But even there, it’s simply so wide. And because, before as now, the city is so varied, the tourists aren’t totally concentrated. There aren’t so many alternatives when one wants to aim at explaining the big city, and a city where there are foreigners. The young man, for example, in the long dialogue scene in the middle, he’s applying to be a professor. That’s already complicated. So obviously it’s a city in which foreigners work at colleges and apply for professorships. There aren’t many alternatives to this.
I think that audiences, when watching your films, realize how much work the standards of conventional narrative do for us. Yours have a kind of different infrastructure. They call on us to fill in more of the gaps, especially when it comes to relationships between the characters, which are established largely through implication. How conscious of structure are you when you’re writing or conceptualizing your films?
I think I’m very aware of classic storytelling. I’m very aware of it as everyone, as someone who sees films, also as someone who worked a long time in the theater. I’m very aware of it, but I use it in a different way, because my interest is on the moment. For me, every moment is essential as it für sich [“for itself”], as one says in German. So, every moment I see für sich. I don’t tell any moment in order that this moment makes me able to tell another moment. So, this is a very different way to narrate. And, yes, maybe this describes it already, that also this classical narration is a narration of storytelling and not how life moves on.
I Was at Home, But… conveys a clear sense of structure. It has these bookends, the scenes with the donkey and the dog. There’s a sense of self-parody there: We see the donkey looking out the window, ignoring the dog, and then, soon thereafter, we see Philip’s school director doing the same thing with him. I know you’re probably sick of being asked “what’s with the animals,” but is self-parody part of what’s going on here?
No, I mean, I didn’t reflect on that, what you’ve said. I had this character of this boy, and he came from nature, and I had this wish to show nature, but I didn’t want to show him, so I noticed that I wanted to show animals instead, because they live in nature, more natural than a child can. They aren’t missed, you understand what I mean? We were looking on location, scouting for a stable for the animals, and a stable normally doesn’t have windows, so we saw many stables where we shot it in Croatia. And then we saw an abandoned schoolhouse, abandoned for 20 years, had a window and a small stage. I saw it and I thought immediately I want to shoot the animals here, not in a stable but in this abandoned house. So, I had the opportunity to let the donkey look out of the window, and I felt that this is good. But I didn’t think, “Ah, okay, then it will be a great parody of the school director, who also will look out of the window.” He looks out of the window because he’s waiting for the mother because he’s in a situation where he cannot talk to that child. So, it’s easier to look out of the window. Also, the donkey cannot talk to the dog [laughs]. So, for me it doesn’t make sense to reflect on that. I just follow and trust my relation to what I want to see and tell.
Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked
Consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives.
It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.
92. Crash (2005)
Crash is set in Archie Bunker’s world, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyone’s speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. “I can’t talk to you right now, Ma,” says Don Cheadle’s cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. “I’m fucking a white woman.” “Holy shit,” another character exclaims. “We ran over a Chinaman!” “I can’t look at you,” Matt Dillon’s cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyle’s character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, “without thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job.” Dyno-miiiiiiite! Paul Haggis’s depiction of a world where everyone’s thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chip—like a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature length—and then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and it’s untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isn’t a racist for fear of being ostracized by one’s peers. Matt Zoller Seitz
What Should Have Won: Munich
91. Cimarron (1931)
As pre-code spectacles go, Cimarron is something of a big-budget exercise in experimentation, though not in the sense that it actually produces anything innovative. Director Wesley Ruggles helms a script spanning 40 years to create what’s meant to be eye-catching spectacle; the film’s story, which spans 1889 to 1929 in Oklahoma, begins with a restaging of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, a sequence that uses 47 cameras to cover some 40 acres of land. From there, heavily theatrical acting styles and overwritten dialogue define most scenes, as Yancey (Richard Dix) and his family try to turn Osage County, Oklahoma into a tenable place to live. Certainly, if only for the fact that it was an early sound western, Cimarron would have been a new audio-visual experience for audiences at the time. Today, and not least because of its racist characterizations, it’s little more than an eye and ear sore. Clayton Dillard
What Should Have Won: The Front Page
90. Out of Africa (1985)
Out of Africa is the worst of the bloated, self-important best picture-winning pseudo-epics. It attempts to merge the sweeping visuals of Lawrence of Arabia with a Gone with the Wind-style story. But director Sydney Pollack is neither David Lean nor David O. Selznick, with the interminable result shellacked to the highest of glosses by John Barry’s syrupy score. Out of Africa depicts Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s (Meryl Streep) time growing coffee in Kenya. “I had a fahhhhhrm in Ahhh-frica,” says Dinesen seven times in the first scene, highlighting the aural act of violence that is Streep’s accent. This is one of the actress’s busiest performances, a full-tilt deployment of her entire arsenal of tics; a scene where Dinesen fends off a hungry lion with a whip sees the actress chewing as much scenery as the animal. Meanwhile, Robert Redford coasts by on his looks and Klaus Maria Brandauer smirks like a syphilitic Cheshire Cat. Whenever Pollack gets visually stuck, he cuts to a sea of dark brown African faces staring at the screen in confusion—an overused, racially suspect punchline. Out of Africa’s biggest sin is that it immediately evaporates from memory, as if one’s brain were committing a mercy killing. Odie Henderson
What Should Have Won: The Color Purple
89. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
If the cartoonists at Hanna-Barbera wanted to quickly convey the extent of a cartoon character’s world travels, they might cut from a shot of, say, Huckleberry Hound walking before the Eiffel Tower to a shot of the pooch prancing before Big Ben. In A Beautiful Mind, a film that doesn’t lack for the laziest of short cuts, a young John Nash (Russell Crowe) sits at his desk while special effects morph the exterior of a Princeton dormitory to accentuate the changing seasons: leaves drop, snow gathers and melt, birds chirp. Throughout the film, such hacky artistry is in service not for bringing us closer to the reality of the mathematician’s life, but for implicating us in a circus act. Imagine, for a second, the fascinating possibilities of having simply shown Nash talking to dead air for the duration of the film. Doesn’t quite sound like a potential Oscar winner, and so Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman decided to articulate schizophrenia’s grip on the mind with a bunch of swirling digital numbers and cutesy imaginary encounters. The film is, through and through, quintessentially cornball. If it’s impossible in retrospect to believe that A Beautiful Mind’s first half is supposed to depict the world as hallucinated by a master mathematician, that’s because the film’s comprehension of mental duress is fundamentally jejune, the stuff of shock tactics as imagined by connoisseurs of Dead Poet’s Society, or the most earnest believers in a cliché I always wished had made it into Roger Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary: Crying While Sliding One’s Back Against a Door. Ed Gonzalez
What Should Have Won: Gosford Park
88. Braveheart (1995)
Braveheart substitutes polished aesthetics, quotable speeches, and superficially bravura camerawork for a genuine examination of historical legend, while its would-be woozy romance remains trapped beneath the weight of both its unmerited running time and overly orchestrated sense of tragedy. Never have the Dark Ages appeared so plasticine and manicured as they do through Mel Gibson’s panoramic lens, nor has any single image of the director’s career been more encapsulating than that of William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England, his limbs outstretched in a Christ pose just before his final gutting. In this final moment of masochistic glory, Gibson and Wallace become one, a man of fire and passion ready to kick your ass into complacency. Rob Humanick
What Should Have Won: Babe
87. The Broadway Melody (1930)
Philosophically speaking, Sunrise was the first film to win the award associated with the qualities we now associate with the best picture category, in a year in which the industry tossed The Jazz Singer an honorary award rather than make the field of silents compete against it. In its second year, Oscar embraced the future with both hands, and thanks to The Broadway Melody’s win we have a case study for how technical innovations are occasionally anathema to artistic expression. Exactly the sort of clunky apparatus that Singin’ in the Rain decades later gently mocked, the film’s every shot announces itself as the result of a compromise made to sync image with sound, with neither of them being done any particular justice. A deluge of movie musicals would soon flourish thanks to the advent of sound: Gold Diggers of 1933, Love Me Tonight, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, all of them as dizzyingly innovative and effortlessly entertaining as the shallow, melodramatic The Broadway Melody is frozen. Eric Henderson
What Should Have Won: In Old Arizona
86. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Oscar has awarded expansive tedium more often than not, but even by those pitiful standards, Around the World in 80 Days is a specialized case. Adapting a Jules Verne novel but framing the entire proceedings as a reactionary pre-Space Age paean to days gone by, producer-impresario Mike Todd’s dick-swinging epic is regressive in every conceivable way. From David Nivens’s entitled superciliousness as Phileas Fogg to Cantinflas’s shameless mugging as Fogg’s lackey manservant, Passepartout, from their rescue of Shirley MacLaine’s Indian princess (admittedly less cringeworthy than, say, Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed but still rough to watch) to a William S. Hart-era Wild West shootout between white folks and whooping Native Americans, the entire enterprise distills the world’s entire history of cultural appropriation into an endless amusement-park ride. And even that would have some contemporary worth as an eye-popping reminder of shifting attitudes if it were at least watchable. But no, it’s three-plus hours of vacation slides you found in your grandparents’ attic. Eric Henderson
What Should Have Won: Friendly Persuasion
85. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
As is true of a great deal of the films that have been adorned with the best picture Oscar in the past two decades, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is a thunderous mediocrity, a beautifully costumed and designed mess, as ultimately amiable as it is nonsensical. The greatest voice the theater has ever seen, the author of an unequaled canon that serves as inspiration for nearly all narrative works in the modern age, William Shakespeare is here portrayed by Joseph Fiennes as an egotistical cad—a loathsome, unrepentant scoundrel and bum who’s capable of uttering “Damn, I’m good!” after finishing the first act of a play he’s weeks late on. Indeed, the screen’s contempt for its chief architects remains as potent and unyielding as it is largely thoughtless and despicable. Hollywood has never been very comfortable, or perhaps capable of, depicting great writers successfully—or, for that matter, taking their struggles seriously and their triumphs sincerely. As Shakespeare in Love unfolds, the penning of Romeo and Juliet is seen as near-accidental, spurred by the Bard’s misguided lust for a costume girl. And yet, as the film proceeds through its weedy narrative, focused mainly on the romance between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the first production of Romeo and Juliet, the unenviable task of believing that Shakespeare was a genius of tremendous insight and imagination, despite the production’s eager insistence that he was simply a jealous coward stricken with luck, becomes an exhausting exercise of imagination. Chris Cabin
What Should Have Won: The Thin Red Line
84. Gladiator (2000)
The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a string of duds almost inexplicably become critical and awards darlings, suggesting that mainstream cinema culture was undergoing some kind of intellectual regression. And with the release of Gladiator at the start of the millennium, it didn’t appear as if such deterioration was going to slow down any time soon. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott on depressing autopilot, the film displays none of the technically nimble artistry of such classics as Alien and Blade Runner. The overstuffed production meanders through knotty character dilemmas and rote attempts at Shaekepearean esoterica in as bland a manner possible. All the better to elevate Russell Crowe’s Maximus to the level of the grandiose, and in the most suspect and laughable of ways. The man is a walking vacuum of personality who the film believes to contain multitudes, and the kicker is how Gladiator, with Maximus taking a moral stand against the brutal culture of ancient Rome and his befriending of an African slave, is viewed through the lens of modern political correctness. In the film’s key scene, a gruesome gladiator battle, Maximus righteously screams, “Are you not entertained?!” But the presentation of the scene is as unironic as a crowd-pleasing ESPN highlight reel, or a pep rally pretending at moral conviction. Wes Greene
What Should Have Won: Traffic
83. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
As far as tributes to vagrancy and animal abuse go, mid-century American cinema has done worse. But even taking into account Hollywood’s then-emerging neo-gigantism, it’s shocking how much effort The Greatest Show on Earth goes into missing the forest for the trees. Cecil B. DeMille, then regarded as Hollywood’s undisputedly great showman, setting his sights on the big top spectacle of P.T. Barnum ought to have been the ultimate “best of both worlds” proposition. But the allowances modern audiences still grant to DeMille’s products of their time—crediting his ability to sustain momentum through grandiose running times, or his balanced eye for scope—lay down and die in the face of this monstrosity, alternately leaden and corny and neither in the right moment. In the same sense that James Stewart’s mysterious clown never removes his makeup, anyone exposed to this film today will spend 152 minutes with Emmett Kelly’s expression frozen on their own face. Eric Henderson
What Should Have Won: The Quiet Man
82. American Beauty (1999)
A black comedy with a curious opinion of its characters’ repellent behaviors, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is also tone-deaf in its belief that the struggle is real for white, wealthy suburbanites. The Burnham clan and their neighbors aren’t so much people as they are often offensive caricatures that exist only to service screenwriter Alan Ball’s anti-conformist message-mongering. American Beauty’s most famous scene, in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) explains to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) that a plastic bag floating in the wind is the most beautiful thing in the world, is emblematic of the jejune self-aggrandizement that, like Ball’s litany of leaden ironies, abounds throughout the film and works to dubiously sentimentalize the characters’ pathologies. Indeed, this is a film that sees only beauty and nobility in transgression, as in Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, after yearning to bed his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari), retreating to his corner upon learning that the girl is a virgin. One walks away from American Beauty believing that if its makers could blow themselves, they would. Greene
What Should Have Won: The Insider
81. Argo (2012)
There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticism—or film culture more broadly—that the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures. The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectively—and, perhaps, self-consciously—passes the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Ben Affleck’s tone-setting meta-gesture—which winkingly acknowledges that this is the film version of a “declassified true story” (as the film was obnoxiously marketed)—is intentional, it’s undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardly—a cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the film’s veracity come to bear. The film is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleck’s all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. John Semley
What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Picture
How could the essentially non-political 1917 not arrive as sweet solace in our cultural moment?
We now have roughly a decade’s worth of data to postulate how ranked-choice ballots have altered the outcome of the top Oscar prize, and we’ve come to understand what the notion of a “most broadly liked” contender actually entails. And in the wake of wins for The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, The Shape of Water, and most especially Green Book last year, we’re left with the impression that the biggest change in what defines a best picture is no change whatsoever. In fact, what appears to have happened is that it’s acted as a bulwark, preserving the AMPAS’s “tradition of quality” in the top prize during a decade in which the concept of a run-the-table Oscar juggernaut has shifted from the postcard pictorials of Out of Africa to immersive epics like Gravity and Mad Max: Fury Road, both of which won two to three times as many awards as the films they lost out to for the top prize.
We’re far from the only ones who’ve noticed that—Moonlight eternally excepted—the contours of best picture winners seem to be drifting in the opposite direction of where Academy representatives have indicated they want to go. Wesley Morris recently concluded that, despite his fondness, if not downright love, for the majority of this year’s top contenders, the slate still just doesn’t jibe with a purportedly forward-thinking, brand-spanking-new academy: “Couldn’t these nine movies just be evidence of taste? Good taste? They certainly could. They are. And yet … the assembly of these movies feels like a body’s allergic reaction to its own efforts at rehabilitation.” Melissa Villaseñor’s jovial refrain of “white male rage” two weeks ago knowingly reduced this awards cycle down to absurdly black-or-white terms, but if the YouTube comments on that SNL bit are any indication, raging white males aren’t in the mood to have a sense of humor about themselves, much less welcome serious introspection.
Neither is that demographic alone in its disgruntlement. What was yesteryear’s “brutally honest Oscar voter” has become today’s “blithely, incuriously sexist, racist, and xenophobic Oscar voter.” As the saying goes, this is what democracy looks like, and given sentiments like “I don’t think foreign films should be nominated with the regular films” and “they should have gotten an American actress to play Harriet,” it looks a lot like the second coming of Hollywood’s Golden Age gorgons of gossip, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.
It might be a stretch but we can imagine that, to many voters, the presumptive frontrunner, Sam Mendes’s 1917, comes off a lot less like a first-person video game mission and a lot more representative of what it feels like to navigate our landmine-strewn cultural landscape as your average politically neoliberal, artistically reactionary academy member circa 2020. Especially one forced to make snap decisions in the midst of an accelerated Oscar calendar. And even if that is, rhetorically speaking, a bridge too far, there’s no denying the backdrop of representational fatigue and socio-political retreat liberal America is living through.
How could the stiff-lipped, single-minded, technically flawless, quietly heroic, and, most importantly, essentially non-political 1917 not arrive as sweet solace in this moment? It’s the same reason why we suspect, despite ranked-choice ballots pushing Bong Joon-ho’s insanely and broadly liked Parasite in major contention for the prize, it’s actually Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit we most strongly fear pulling off an upset. After all, how many Oscar voters are still more concerned about Nazis than they are global income inequality? Or, if you’d rather, how many of their homes look more like the Parks’ than like the Kims’?
Will Win: 1917
Could Win: Jojo Rabbit
Might Win: Parasite
Every DC Extended Universe Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
On the occasion of the release of Birds of Prey, we ranked the seven titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best.
This week marks the release of the eighth film in the DC Extended Universe, Birds of Prey, which Slant’s Chris Basanti dinged for its “rote crimeland plot, over-eager and unsuccessful stabs at subversive humor, and failure to bring its ensemble together until far too late in the film.” Still, it effectively claps back at Suicide Squad at one point, and resists falling under the spell of the Joker. On the occasion of the release of Birds of Prey, we ranked the eight titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best. Alexa Camp
8. Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)
Jared Leto’s hollow character work matches the empty style of David Ayer’s visual rendition of the Joker, all silly tattoos and teeth grills. Ayer’s direction aspires to the kind of frenetic pop-trash redolent of Oliver Stone’s most outré work, and coincidentally, the film’s best moments depict the romance between Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker similarly to the relationship at the heart of Natural Born Killers. In one of Suicide Squad’s few mesmerizing moments, the pair leap into a vat of the same acid that disfigured the Joker and share a passionate kiss as their clothes melt off, sending streams of red and blue dye into the dirty yellow liquid. Elsewhere, however, the film adopts the functional shot patterns and desaturated palettes common to contemporary superhero cinema. The hyperactivity that propelled films like End of Watch and Fury is ideally suited to this material, but Suicide Squad never gets to be a manic, freewheeling alternative to the genre’s propensity toward dour severity and increasingly uniform aesthetics. Like the recruited criminals themselves, the film longs to be bad, yet its forced by outside pressures to follow narrow, preset rules. Jake Cole
7. Justice League (Zack Snyder, 2017)
Beyond the substitution of one intellectual property for another, practically nothing about Justice League distinguishes itself from what the Marvel Cinematic Universe was doing five years ago. The film’s style, though, is very much Zack Snyder’s own. The filmmaker continues to fixate on fitting his characters into a political framework, with material gloomily rooted in economic malaise. Images of the Kent family farm being foreclosed in Superman’s (Henry Cavill) absence speak to a kind of banal, mortal villainy more subtly at work on people than the cataclysmic horror visited upon them by super-powered beings. But Snyder again leans on his propensity for desaturated images, so much so that even scenes full of sunlight appear faded. Such dreariness is consistent with his past DC films, but it’s still difficult to square how much Justice League wants us to look up to its superheroes with the way the film underlines how little they enliven the world they protect. Cole
6. Aquaman (James Wan, 2018)
“Call me Ocean Master!” King Orm (Patrick Wilson), the villain in James Wan’s Aquaman, portentously shouts at the outset of the film’s climactic scene. Warner Bros.’s latest attempt to shift its DC brand away from the dour masochism that marked (and marred) such films as Man of Steel embraces high fantasy, but for Wan and screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, this turns out to mostly mean having characters proclaim their silly comic book names as assertively as possible. At its best, the film’s underwater action, with its traveling shots that zoom through crowds of fantastical marine species and past moss-encrusted classical ruins, are vibrant, aesthetically engrossing spectacle. At its weakest moments, though, the film offers a parade of ocean-floor vistas that evoke the substanceless world-building of George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy, a supersaturated digital landscape of smooth surfaces and expensive-looking designs. The weightlessness of fights rendered with CG is compounded by that of fights between people suspended in water, and the sexlessness of superhero movies is only emphasized by the perfunctory romance between two leads who seem to have been cast largely because they look good dripping wet. Pat Brown
5. Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020)
The self-consciously ornate subtitle for Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey—And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn—lays out the reason for this film’s existence far better than the first 45 minutes or so of jumbled exposition that follow. In theory, the self-consciously goofy story of a traumatized but ultimately triumphant “badass broad” who breaks free from being pole-dancing eye candy for her scenery-chewing villain boyfriend to carve out a name and a life for herself would be a welcome addition to a canon of films still in thrall to hyper-buff and hyper-serious dudes. Also in theory, surrounding her with a squad of equally fierce and sarcastic female ass-kickers has the potential for the launch of a great franchise: Think Guardians of the Galaxy by way of Barb Wire. But since the film can never figure out how seriously to take its heroine, or gin up a halfway engaging caper for her to lead us through, what could have been an emancipation ends up feeling more like a trap for her. Chris Barsanti
4. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016)
Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an overstuffed sketchbook of ideas for a half-dozen potentially striking superhero adventures. One can feel Snyder aiming for an obsessive masterpiece while attempting to please investors with the expository generality that’s required of global blockbusters. The film wants to be a treatise on How We Live, dabbling in incredible religious iconography and glancing infrastructural signifiers, yet it can’t commit to any specific view for fear of alienating consumers. It comprises self-contained moments and gestures, some of which are impressive in their own right, but which fail to cumulatively breathe. It offers an apologia for the massive collateral damage that marked Man of Steel’s climax while reveling in more damage, resulting in more of the thematic hemming and hawing that belabored Christopher Nolan’s comparatively elegant Batman films. Every few minutes a character utters a bon mot that’s meant to impress on us the film’s depth and relevance to a culture racked by terrorism and a dangerous distrust and resentment of the populace toward governmental authority. After nearly two hours of this busy-ness, one wonders why we still haven’t gotten to see Batman fight Superman. Chuck Bowen
3. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)
Wonder Woman is, particularly in the first hour, a remarkably buoyant and even laidback film, allowing a long conversation between Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to play out uninterrupted, simply basking in the atmosphere of thick sexual tension between them. Gently edited and genuinely funny, it’s the kind of scene that would be hacked to pieces and laden with ominous portent in a film like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. At its core, the film is about watching a badass female kick some ass. And on this score, the film delivers, offering up lithe, supple fight sequences featuring Diana gliding through the air, punctuated by painterly smears of light and fire. And it creates at least one indelible image: Diana calmly but determinedly striding across a no man’s land as German artillery fire whizzes around her. However, as in so many superhero films, the final battle is an overcomplicated jumble of CGI explosions and ubiquitous blue lightning, waged against a seemingly arbitrary villain—in this case an armor-suited giant who looks like he stepped off the cover of a Molly Hatchet album. This gets to the film’s fundamental weakness: that the genre in which it’s operating has ossified. The central character and lightly kinky undertones may distinguish Wonder Woman from its predecessors in the superhero universe, but the film still falls victim to familiar pitfalls: a glut of underdeveloped side characters and unintimidating villains, an overcomplicated mythology, and a reduction of its characters’ interior lives to bland pronouncements about Truth, Duty, and Love. Keith Watson
2. Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019)
The movies don’t lack for superhero stories that deal with the angst and isolation of young people who’re radically different from those around them. But few of them are quite like David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, which foregrounds the rush of bafflement and elation that grips a down-and-out child who’s suddenly given the power of a god, potentially allowing him to bypass all of the pitfalls and anxieties of adolescence. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a prickly 14-year-old foster kid who’s transformed by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) into the adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) and tasked with defending the world against the Seven Deadly Sins. To the film’s credit, it smartly treats this premise as inherently absurd, embodied right away in Billy’s inability to stop cracking up when he’s first presented with this quest. Shazam! sees DC combining the golden-age optimism espoused by Wonder Woman and the jubilant, self-aware silliness of Aquaman into a satisfying whole, even if the narrow scope of Billy and Sivana’s conflict does lead to stretches of downtime where thematic and narrative points are rehashed to the detriment of the film’s otherwise brisk pace. In stark contrast to the politically nihilistic and aesthetically grim Batman vs. Superman, Shazam! offers a charming, even moving throwback to the aspirational sense of belonging that marks so many comics. Cole
1. Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)
Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a surprisingly thoughtful work in its examination of political and personal responsibility, and ultimately a call to arms against warfare of both the physical and ideological sort. Its militaristic without being fascistic, patriotic without being nationalistic—a bizarre amalgamation of hard science fiction and overt religious allegory. It’s also very much a historically present-tense film, giving us a Superman for a post-9/11 world—not unlike Superman Returns, albeit more explicitly. Opening with the destruction of Krypton as a result of an overused, fracking-like method of resource-extraction, the film is quick to contrast that planet’s demise—spewing geysers of fire before chillingly collapsing into a miniature star—with the political and environmental tumult of our own world: burning oil rigs, melting fields of ice, corporations run amuck. Much more has been made of the film’s third-act mass destruction, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, delectably batshit) wage war of Godzilla-sized proportions in a still-populated city. Your mileage will vary based largely on your investment in/adherence to the Superman canon, but to these eyes, the titular hero’s lone instance of lapsed judgment—namely, taking the escalating fight straight to the heart of Smallville, where innocent bystanders abound—is easily forgivable, if for, admittedly, inextricably personal reasons: Only someone looking for a blind-rage ass-kicking would be foolish enough to threaten Superman’s mother. Rob Humanick
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Director
Given the academy’s long history and resurgent embrace of technical triumphs, we’re not holding our breath for an upset here.
Last week, when Eric brought to my attention the New York Times article that exposed the myth of Hollywood being in the tank for movies about the industry, I used the piece as a jumping-off point for why Quentin Tarantino was vulnerable in the original screenplay category. At the time, I thought I was stepping on Eric’s toes by referencing his intel, believing him to be charged with giving our readers the lowdown in this category. Turns out he was tasked with whipping up our take on the film editing contest, meaning that I had stepped on my own toes. Which is to say, almost everything I already said about why QT was likely to come up short in original screenplay applies here, and then some.
Indeed, just as math tells us that the academy’s adulation for navel-gazing portraitures of Hollywood has been exaggerated by the media, it also tells us that this award is Sam Mendes’s to lose after the 1917 director won the DGA award, the most accurate of all Oscar precursors, having predicted the winner here 64 times in 71 years. A win for the pin-prick precision of Bong Joon-ho’s direction of Parasite would be a welcome jaw-dropper, as it would throw several stats out the window and, in turn, get us a little more excited about predicting the Oscars next year. But given the academy’s long history and resurgent embrace of technical triumphs—trust us, the math checks out—we’re not holding our breath.
Will Win: Sam Mendes, 1917
Could Win: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite
Should Win: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Film Editing
The only thing louder than the vroom-vroom of James Mangold’s dad epic is the deafening chorus of “Best. Movie. Ever.”
This past Monday, while the nation waited hour after embarrassing hour for the Iowa caucus results to start rolling in, Film Twitter puzzled over an AMPAS tweet that seemed to leak this year’s Oscar winners—before the voting window had even closed. It didn’t help matters that the slate of “predictions” tweeted by the academy seemed plausible enough to be real, right down to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite for best picture.
As it turned out, the academy’s problems weren’t so unlike the DNC app gumming up the works in, as the New York Post shadily dubbed it, “Duh Moines.” And sure enough, AMPAS fessed up to a quality-control gremlin (sorry, “issue”) that resulted in someone’s personal predictions going out on the main account. As Iowa’s snafu reaffirmed that Occam’s razor isn’t just something you need to keep out of Arthur Fleck’s hands, we’re 100% certain that the intern who posted that ballot on the academy’s account meant to post it on their personal one.
Speaking of Joker, if you would’ve asked us even just a few days ago whether we thought Ford v Ferrari was any more likely than Todd Phillips’s dank meme to take the Oscar in the category that has frequently been characterized as the strongest bellwether for a film’s overall best picture chances, we’d have probably collapsed in a fit of incontrollable giggles. And yet, with a BAFTA film editing win in Ford v Ferrari’s favor, we’re not the only ones wondering if the least-nominated best picture nominee actually has more in its tank than meets the eye.
The only thing louder than the vroom-vroom of James Mangold’s dad epic, however, is the deafening chorus of “Best. Movie. Ever.” being sung on Parasite’s behalf, and indeed, it was selected as the academy’s unofficial, accidental prediction in this category. As Ed noted yesterday, momentum is in its favor like no other film this year. Well, maybe one other, and it was mere providence that the one-shot gestalt kept Sam Mendes’s 1917 off the ballot here, or else one of the tougher calls of the night could’ve been that much tougher.
Will Win: Parasite
Could Win: Ford v Ferrari
Should Win: Parasite
Every BoJack Horseman Episode, Ranked
As the series comes to a conclusion, we take a look back and rank all 77 episodes.
Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is about many things. How we make sense of a senseless world. How we find happiness amid constant crisis. How we assert and give others power. That’s a lot for any show, let alone the animated misadventures of a famous horseman, one whose life stands on the razor’s edge of celebrity privilege and deeply internalized emotional self-abuse. Contending with BoJack Horseman, now as it comes to its conclusion, has meant contending with my own life these past six years, which have been made markedly better by this series. This exercise would have been much more difficult had the final episodes failed to deliver. (Spoiler alert: They don’t.)
77. “BoJack Hates the Troops,” Season 1, Episode 2
First, let me be clear: I love this episode, which feels like an early performance by a beloved artist who went on to greater and more daring things. Maybe there’s a note or two out of place. Maybe they aren’t stretching their talent as much as you think they can. BoJack’s (Will Arnett) profound pettiness makes him an asshole to many—here, it’s the contested dibs over a box of muffins at the grocery store that lands our remorseful horse in the national spotlight—and it’s admirable how this episode leads the charge in painting that fact unambiguously. In a way, it feels like a foundation stone of sorts (one of several), featuring as it does BoJack’s decision to open up to Diane (Alison Brie) for his memoir. Full truth: From here, mountains are made.
76. “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish”
The mere existence of this holiday episode made it unambiguous that BoJack Horseman was created out of love. Further enriching the world so thoughtfully laid out in the first season, this metatextual holiday episode, in which BoJack and Todd (Aaron Paul) watch one of the Christmas episodes from Horsin’ Around, came as an unannounced Christmas gift in 2014. It also, hopefully, satisfies those who will inevitably be curious about what a proper episode of the show-within-the-show looks like, and Todd’s four-word refutation (“I can’t, can’t I?”) of BoJack’s faulty logic stands with the funniest moments of the series.
75. “The BoJack Horseman Show,” Season 3, Episode 2
A novel exposition dump, this episode goes back to 2007, when BoJack and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a cat, first slept together. Its title refers to the name of BoJack’s sophomore TV series, a vulgar satire that tanked and was promptly canceled. This episode also lays general groundwork for episodes and seasons to come. Lots of obvious references abound—e.g., Princess Carolyn pitches scripts for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, though films actually being shopped around at that time instead of those just arriving in theaters might’ve been a better touch—not unlike a Trojan horse for the ongoing world building. The highlight herein is an updated version of the show’s end credits song, adapted to underscore BoJack’s much less successful follow-up to Horsin’ Around.
74. “The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One,” Season 1, Episode 1
This first episode doesn’t get its due. Brilliantly juxtaposing scenes from BoJack’s interview on The Charlie Rose Show with a gotcha shot from this world’s version of Maury, this first look at BoJack’s anxiety-ridden existence had the difficult task of establishing the show’s very particular tone (think Chuck Jones meets Don Hertzfeldt meets Albert Brooks) while also making blatant the sadness beneath it. The serious and silly rub shoulders here, like travelers on a crowded bus trip. It’s subversive, too, in warning against the dangers of over-binging; BoJack re-watches his old show obsessively, including the finale in which his character dies, at the expense of almost everything else in his life. This episode features Patton Oswalt in three parts, a Sellers-esque stunt that will prove to be one of the show’s regular hat tricks, while the closing gag exhibits the raw confidence required to deploy both guffaws and sobs with such simultaneous precision. In hindsight, it’s no surprise.
73. “Zoës and Zeldas,” Season 1, Episode 4
It was a small stroke of genius to introduce early in the series a pop-cultural dichotomy specific to this world. Leonard Cohen sang of a bird on a wire, and here the either/or stems from characters on Mister Peanutbutter’s House, a knockoff of BoJack’s sitcom in which the eponymous canine raised two little girls: Zelda, a fun extrovert, and Zoë, a cynical introvert. This episode features some of BoJack’s funniest quips and nastiest deeds. As for Todd’s rock opera, I’d be lying if I suggested that I didn’t want to see it brought to greater fruition. This episode does a lot of prep work for the season and the series, and does it well, while Wyatt Cenac’s performance as one of Diane’s exes provides a weary vantage point, effectively underscoring what makes this world feel so emotionally real in the first place.
72. “BoJack Kills,” Season 3, Episode 3
Plot-wise, this is a lowkey key episode in the series, establishing the source of the heroin that ultimately causes Sarah Lynn’s death. That would be Richie Osborne (Fred Savage), former Horsin’ Around cast member and current proprietor of Whale World, a family-friendly strip club that doubles as a drug front. BoJack and Diane get to catch up and establish a greater understanding of themselves (“I can’t keep asking myself if I’m happy, it just makes me more miserable,” says Diane, summarizing my 30s so far in 14 words), but my favorite moment is probably the chef’s-kiss perfection of Mister Peanutbutter’s LL Cool J reference (a close second is Angela Bassett’s line delivery on “you betcha”).
71. “Our A-Story Is a ‘D’ Story,” Season 1, Episode 6
If BoJack Horseman’s flair for wordplay wasn’t already clear, this episode is tantamount to a flag planted on the moon for all to see. Hollywood becomes Hollywoo when BoJack steals the “D” from the Hollywood sign in a drunken stupor, all in the hopes of impressing Diane after squaring off with Mister Peanutbutter—and buying the restaurant Elefante in the process. Todd, having found himself in prison at the end of the previous episode, navigates the various gangs courting him in sublimely naïve fashion, while BoJack’s backup plan to fix the “D” situation results in a tragedy befalling Beyoncé and, relatedly, one of the very best verbal gags in the entire series.
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
One of the realities of the Oscar race is that you never want to peak too early.
So much has happened across the home stretch of this perversely shortened awards season that it’s almost difficult to process it all. Believe it or not, at the start of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, just after the Golden Globes and a few days before the Producers Guild of America Awards announced its top prize, I was still confident in my belief that we were heading toward another picture/director split, with Jojo Rabbit taking the former and Quentin Tarantino the latter. But flash forward two weeks and we’re now looking at an Oscar ceremony that will be in lockstep with the final wave of guilds and awards groups, leaving frontrunners in various categories up to this point in the dust.
Case in point: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood in original screenplay. Even after a recent New York Times article used old-fashioned math to expose the myth being propagated by awards pundits—even us!—that Hollywood is in love with seeing its image reflected back at itself, we figured that the film, even if it isn’t our stealth best picture frontrunner, and even if it isn’t Tarantino’s swan song, couldn’t lose here. After all, the category is practically synonymous with QT, who only needs one more win to tie Woody Allen for most Oscars here.
And then—tell us if you’ve heard this one before—Parasite happened. Here’s a category in which Oscar voters aren’t reluctant to award genre fare, or re-imaginations of that fare. That’s Tarantino’s stock in trade…as well as Bong Joon-hoo’s. Parasite’s screenplay, co-written by Bong and Han Jin-won, found favor with the WGA last weekend, and while we weren’t ready to call this race for the film at that time—Tarantino isn’t a WGA member, and as such can’t be nominated for the guild’s awards—we’re doing so in the wake of the South Korean satire winning the BAFTA against Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. That victory proves, among other things, that one of the realities of the Oscar race is that you never want to peak too early.
Will Win: Parasite
Could Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Should Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay
Oscar has a long-standing history of using the screenplay awards for token gestures, especially toward writer-directors.
As soon as the Oscar nominations were announced and the headlines were dominated by the academy’s cold shoulder toward female directors, it sure felt like the balance of this race was tipped in Greta Gerwig’s favor. After all, Oscar has a long-standing history of using the screenplay awards for token gestures, especially toward writer-directors; they’re where filmmakers like Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Pedro Almodóvar, Jordan Peele, Spike Jonze, and, to date, Quentin Tarantino have won their only Oscars.
Gerwig’s status as the most conspicuous best director castaway in this category might not in itself have been enough to push her through, but virtually all the press on her exceptionally good Little Women has focused specifically on how successfully she remixed the novel vis-a-vis jaunting back and forth between different periods in the chronology. Her framing device allows the novel and its modern fans to have their cake and eat it too, to be told a story overly familiar to them in a way that makes the emotional arcs feel fresh and new, to be enraptured by the period details that have always fascinated them but then also come away from it feeling fully reconciled with Jo’s “marriage” to Professor Bhaer. Within the world of pop filmmaking, if that doesn’t constitute excellence in screenwriting adaption, what indeed does?
Alas, as was confirmed at this weekend’s BAFTA and WGA awards, the token gesture this year looks to be spent not on Gerwig, but the category’s other writer-director who missed out in the latter category. We’re no fans of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, and we aren’t alone, as it boasts the lowest score of any best picture nominee this year on Metacritic. Still, we admit that it must touch a nerve somewhere in the average academy voter who not only finds the Holocaust so irresistible a subject that they’re willing to back a film that this year’s crop of “honest Oscar posters” memorably dubbed Lolocaust, but who also, while continuing to feel increasingly persecuted about the online catcalls over their questionable taste, would right about now love to drop kick Film Twitter out a window like Jojo does Waititi’s positively puckish Hitler.
Will Win: Jojo Rabbit
Could Win: Little Women
Should Win: Little Women
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Production Design
Oscar voters are suckers for scale, throwbacks, ostentation, and, above all, a sense of prestige.
Oscar voters are suckers for scale, throwbacks, ostentation, and, above all, a sense of prestige. No film nominated in this category checks off all those boxes, but two come close: The Irishman and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. While the former never caught fire the way it needed to in order to vie for even the major prizes, the latter has been cruising toward more than just a win in this category from the second people laid eyes on it out of Cannes last year. Regardless of what you think of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, it’s difficult to imagine the scope of Quentin Tarantino’s sense of regard for a bygone Hollywood being possible without Barbara Ling’s production design and Nancy Haigh’s set decoration.
Still, this one is going to be a squeaker. First, there’s the matter of 1917’s late-in-the-game surge and whether or not the film can run the table in the technical categories, even in this particular one where war films almost never prevail. And then there’s Parasite. Near the start of our rolling Oscar coverage, I mentioned how almost every day is bringing us some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is that film’s main setting. Now there’s a black-and-white version of the film making the rounds that will certainly allow people to think anew on the dimensions of the film’s thematic and aesthetic surfaces. Because winning in most of Oscar’s tech categories isn’t about restraint, but “more is more,” Parasite’s concentrated sense of texture is more likely the spoiler to the vividly haunted past-ness that clings to every surface across Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s plethora of settings.
Will Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Could Win: Parasite
Should Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
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