This ongoing Monday column, the appropriately titled “Navel Gazing,” features House contributors Sean Burns and Andrew Dignan kicking around a few recent releases. Feel free to join them in the comments section.
Andrew Dignan: Alright, the first column seems to have gone fairly well. An observation though: not enough conflict. We’re in agreement on far too much. Let’s get this week’s piece started on a more contentious note then: How about Babel, which is already one of the most divisive films of the fall. A few years ago I was put-off by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, finding its game of narrative hopscotch a rather arbitrary stylistic tick meant to energize a tedious and gloomy melodrama never about much beyond its own self-imposed misery. Expecting more of the same from Babel, I was stunned at how unexpectedly hopeful—or if it’s not quite hope, then at least isolating a problem and splaying it out in a way where change seems possible—I found the film.
It’s still an at-times oppressive film that pulses with anger and frustration, and it seems very conscious of the fact that the browner your skin is the worse your prospects are. But I never felt like I was being beaten over the head with a message meant to stimulate liberal guilt and with only one exception (a lot of what happens to Adriana Barraza’s nanny character after they drive back to the border feels lifted from Lars von Trier’s playbook) I didn’t think the film was being overly cruel or manipulative just to hammer home a point. It’s a film about the horrible choices people make and how these choices often spring from fear, resentment or inability to communicate with others—either through the language barrier implied by the title, a set of prejudices or their own self-involvement—that I’m sure on paper just seems like a funeral procession and yet I can’t help but keep coming back to its pockets of humanity.
Although I must admit, a lot of that “humanity” can be attributed to the strength of the film’s casting and Babel’s Tokyo segment which, as it’s been pointed out by others is both tangentially connected to the rest of the film and good enough by itself to be a stand alone feature. The work by Rinko Kikuchi mines a similar vein as Emily Watson’s Bess in Breaking the Waves (yet another LvT name check); her deaf-mute school girl is physically unable to relate to the world at large so she uses the only tool she feels available to her, her teenage body, to try and bridge the language gap. It’s easy to toss around buzz words like “devastating” and “brave” to describe the laid-bare performance, but what really sold it for me was the scene in her apartment with the cop and how painfully lonely and naïve she comes across in just trying to keep the guy there at the culmination of a day filled with rejection. But even that situation isn’t resolved in quite the way I expected. It took a lot of guts on Iñárritu’s part to end the film with the shot he does; it’s such a theatrical conceit it practically begs for scorn and yet I found it quite haunting and primal.
Sean Burns: I’m sorry, Andrew, did you just say that Babel was “at times” oppressive? Was I somehow in the bathroom for all the scenes that don’t play like a 500 pound weight being dropped repeatedly on the viewer’s chest? Don’t get me wrong, the film is brilliantly put together and strikingly well-acted… but after awhile I found it impossible to take even remotely seriously.
How much horrible, stinking misery and catastrophe can one movie pile on, and on, and on to its characters? You mention “the Lars von Trier playbook,” a comparison that doesn’t quite work for me, as L’Arse tends to temper his relentless sadism with Brechtian distancing devices, reminding the audience at every turn that they’re watching a movie and asking them to reflect upon the melodramatic conventions he’s self-consciously employing. Iñárritu goes for gritty, hand-held realism and elicits believable, naturalistic performances from his cast. The level of “reality” he’s achieving makes the screenplay’s hyperbolic misery contortions feel far phonier than the (only slightly) wackier stuff you’ll find in something like Manderlay.
Writer Guillermo Arriaga bears the brunt of my anger here, which is a shame because I quite enjoyed his script for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and his first collaboration with Iñárritu, Amores Perros, still ranks as one of the liveliest and most impressive debuts I’ve seen in recent years. But the hard-to-watch Perros feels like a screwball comedy compared to the miserablist demolition derbies of 21 Grams and Babel. These guys are seriously starting to veer into self-parody, as of course Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett can’t just be doing something simple like having fun on vacation in Morocco, here they have to be mourning the death of their infant child and secretly blaming one another… and that’s before their day gets *really* rotten!
I’ll agree with everything you’ve written about Rinko Kikuchi, and I’ll also concur with everyone else who’s already pointed out that the Tokyo storyline probably should have been its own movie. These scenes seem to be cut in a different, slightly dreamier (though no less depressing) time signature than the rest of Babel’s thudding gloom and doom. It’s almost as if the character’s deafness forces Iñárritu to explore different cinematic ways of establishing her point of view—and the nightclub sequence alone makes the film worth seeing, in spite of its countless, massive flaws.
I am, however, baffled by your assertion that this is a movie about people making horrible choices based on some sort of fear or communication breakdown. The movie I saw was nothing but a bunch of poor souls with really shitty luck being thrust into awful, unspeakable circumstances they have no control over. There’s no agency on the part of any of these characters—they just happen to stumble into the path of bullets, wind up abandoned in the desert, or get stuck watching people they love die in horrible ways. The only character who really makes any decisions in Babel is Gael García Bernal’s walking Writer’s Device, who exists in the film only to do the absolute stupidest things at the at the absolute worst time, and then right after causing the maximum amount of damage possible, he just up and disappears from the film altogether, as if he never existed… which, in a way, he doesn’t.
AD: Sean, I never thought I’d find myself on the director’s side of the Iñárritu vs. Arriaga grudge match, but I agree it’s a better directed film than it is a written one. The Mexican segments of the film are problematic and the behavior required for the four characters featured in that storyline to end up in the places that they do at the end of the film really require quite a bit of contortion and poorly thought-out behavior, but it was more a momentary annoyance than a deal breaker. I also, obviously, found the shifts in tone more subtle and varied than you did and never felt “like a 500 pound weight [was] being dropped repeatedly” on my chest. There probably won’t be a more intimate scene between a man and a woman this year than the one where Pitt must assist his infirmed wife go to the bathroom where the scene runs the emotional gamut using almost no dialogue and with the camera camped mere inches from the actor’s faces. I don’t see wall to wall misery; I see two people being brought closer together by this horrible ordeal and remembering what it is to be a human being held by another human which is an image that’s returned to later on in the film. It feels like an incredible maturation from the filmmaker.
Incidentally, you mention the Blanchett/Pitt scene and the motivation behind their trip to Morocco as one of the film’s failings, and yet the way that particular plot point is handled is one of the reasons I liked Babel so much. The dead child is never referred to (directly or indirectly) by either actor, with that particular piece of information only addressed in passing in another storyline and is never mentioned again. I think just about any other contemporary US-financed drama (say for example one directed by last week’s whipping-boy Paul Haggis) would foreground such a conflict and orchestrate a scene around our two talented performers verbally abusing one another over who’s to blame. I admire that the filmmaker trusts the viewers to connect the dots, as pandering to the cheap seats is the new epidemic of these high-minded, year-end “prestige films.”
The Blanchett/Pitt scene is also essential to my reading of the film. Rather than stay at home and address their problems and confront their guilt and anxiety, they travel thousands of miles to a third world country where they can continue to emotionally avoid one another and be miserable. If they’re direct with one another then they’re not off hiding in Morocco and Cate’s character isn’t shot. Or there’s the scene where an obviously frazzled Pitt barks at his housekeeper to cancel her son’s wedding, callously informing her that he’ll buy another one for her. We’re sympathetic to what the character has gone through up to this point (and a lot of that is owed to Pitt who brings much immediacy and fear to someone who is essentially a jerk and an Ugly American), but throwing money at a problem doesn’t fix everything no matter what we’ve been conditioned to believe in this country, and in failing to recognize the wedding as anything more than a big party with a bunch of Mexicans, he forces his nanny (herself a mother) to make an incredibly stupid decision that certainly could have been avoided if everyone had just calmly explained themselves instead of assuming the other person understands exactly how you feel.
And besides, even if you view the film as nothing but a well-acted misery-fest about how awful people are to one another, you’ve got to give this one credit for at least being well under three-hours-long.
SB: Well, it certainly doesn’t *feel* like it’s under three hours. You know, I interviewed Iñárritu a couple years back when 21 Grams was coming out, and what was supposed to be a throwaway puff piece for a commuter rag turned into a half hour of him burning with an almost feverish, borderline disturbing, intensity. My simple quickie breakfast chat turned into an overwrought, emotional discussion about 9/11, the consequences of addiction, and the role of religion in the world. (He also spoke fondly of his close friendship with Sean Penn, so ever since then I’ve imagined the two of them sitting around at one another’s houses being completely miserable and depressed together for hours and hours on end.)
A tough film, this Babel, as it’s clearly too well directed and acted for me to dismiss, but also just too doltish and ludicrous for me not to scoff at. (Sam Jackson’s oft-quoted “Benetton Crash” review is funny mostly because it’s true.) There’s also one more pesky matter, which I think speaks to a certain sadism on the part of the filmmakers, but the few happy endings in this picture take place off-screen, and are only conveyed through clutzy exposition from secondary characters. Iñárritu shoots the suffering in unflinching, bracing telephoto close-ups, but anything that isn’t downright awful takes place off camera? Haven’t we earned a little catharsis here? We’ve watched these folks sweat and pee and cry and scream, but we’re not allowed to see them get home okay? When trying to explain the movie to people, I just keep thinking of Alvy Singer’s line about how he was impressed by that one band’s “total heavy-osity.”
AD: Stranger Than Fiction opened this past weekend and here we have a film I wanted to hate with every fiber of my being. Not only did the premise scream “Charlie Kaufman-lite” but it’s another one of these movies where a comedian known for playing big, dumb, broad characters suddenly decide they want to be taken seriously as an actor which means lots of stiff upper lip and sapped energy. Plus it’s the kind of film that bandies about notions like “the triumph of the human spirit” which always strikes me as less than stirring when it’s being delivered by millionaires who have just stepped down from their mansions to teach us little people how to live our lives to the fullest. So now that I’ve seen the film and half-liked it, I find myself in a bit of a corner here as to explaining why exactly. It’s pure formulaic pone and the film doesn’t even really play that fair with its own rules (if Emma Thompson’s character is writing a book about Will Ferrell’s character and he’s hearing everything she’s writing, than wouldn’t that mean her “character” in the book is hearing her voice as well?), yet I found parts of the film charming thanks in large part to a truly Herculean performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Playing something of an impossible part, oscillating from Hollywood-safe perception of a punk rock girl to doting kewpie doll based on the requirements of the scene, she’s not only completely disarming but also humanizes Ferrell somewhat. I’m not entirely convinced of the Anchorman’s future career as a dramatic actor but I found the performance on par with Jim Carrey’s in the film’s unmistakable harbinger, The Truman Show. It’s all a little too high concept smoke and mirrors with no real insight but I can’t deny how touched I was by Maggie and Will’s unlikely and agreeably awkward courtship.
You’re always completely aware of the gears turning behind the scenes to get to that warm and fuzzy happy ending that’s inevitably coming, but that’s sort of the point of the film though, isn’t it? Around the same time the “Syd-Fieldian” formula kicks in we have Dustin Hoffman’s character (who after playing a string of unbearable cartoon characters in the likes of I [Heart] Huckabees and this winter’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, I found refreshingly down to earth as a self-centered literary scholar) chiming in with less than helpful advice about which narrative formula he’s likely adhering to. Allowing Harold Crick to live may be a thematic cop-out, but the film certainly seems to realize it. But as I suspect that you despised this film, please tell me why this inoffensive trifle is worthy of anything more than casual dismissal or indifference.
SB: You’’re absolutely correct, Andrew, but only in that I loathed and detested every minute of this insufferable little movie. For starters, it’s appallingly made. Marc Forster is one of the most gawdawfully obvious filmmakers working, and he seemed to spend most of this picture either trying to over art-direct every set until it looked like some sort of Kubrickian waiting room, or he was otherwise occupied doing stupid pet tricks, like putting the camera inside Will Ferrell’s mouth while he brushes his teeth.
What he certainly wasn’t doing was getting anybody onscreen to act like they’re in the same movie, that’s for sure. Ferrell is trying one of those gawdawful Jim Carrey-esque stabs at “respectability,” mistakenly assuming that the key to being taken seriously as an actor lies in tamping down all the manic energy that made you remotely interesting in the first place, and offering nothing in its place. I was especially embarrassed for Emma Thompson, as her sole character trait seemed to be putting out cigarettes in wadded up Kleenexes, and she spent every scene crying. I’m frankly stunned that you fell for any of this shit. Once Maggie Gyllenhaal’s anarchist baker said something to the effect of: “I decided if I can’t make the world a better place by practicing law, I was going to do it with cookies,” I threw up a little in my mouth.
Sorry, but who are these people? Nobody in this film has any life or interest outside of what Zach Helm’s painfully thin screenplay requires of them. Maggie improbably falls head over heels for Ferrell’s coma patient about as quickly as the entire meta-movie aspect of the “omniscient narrator” is discarded. Ferrell’s meeting his maker—cornering Thompson’s novelist—and yet the movie has nothing to say about an artist’s life or relationship with their creations… it just gets all sanctimonious and tells us that cookies are yummy. I call bullshit. This is one of the worst movies of the year.
AD: Lest you accuse me of liking everything that’s in theaters, I should report that Steven Shainberg’s Fur is the sort of disaster that can only come about when everyone involved has utter contempt for the audience. An arid, self-important “fictionalization” of the life of an artist that 99.9% of the film-going public will have zero familiarity with (the full title is Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, which as cumbersome monikers go, is up there with the one currently following Borat), I found Fur’s cardinal sin to be its inability to justify why we even need a film on this subject. The film is set in the “oppressive, creatively stifling” 1950’s when Diane (pronounced “Dee-Anne”) is “just” a wife and photographer’s assistant to her happily oblivious husband and mother to two precocious children, and her years as an award winning photographer and chronicler of the fringes of society are still years away. We see Diane surrounded by boring Bourgeoisie types as she mopes around her spacious New York apartment with the sort of bird-lipped Ennui that Nicole Kidman’s been wearing in half the films she’s made in the last decade. Oh if only she had an opportunity to let her freak flag fly…
Fur is so insistent on being more than “just another tormented artist” biopic that it fabricates an embarrassingly baroque romance between Diane and Robert Downey Jr.’s ex-circus-sideshow neighbor, who is covered from head to toe in thick fur (the effect of seeing Kidman interact with the prosthetic-wearing Downey Jr. is like watching her trying to seduce Cousin Itt), as some sort of Rosetta Stone to her fascination with transgression and outsiders. Yet this approach is as schematic and reductive as any at getting to the heart of its character and, in the process, is much less informative. No one who goes into the film without an appreciation of Arbus’ photography is going to leave with much of one, and all but the most devoted of admirers of her work are likely to grow restless at a relatively staid chamber drama between a tall, mousey woman and a wookie.
But what I ultimately found most frustrating about the film is how safe it is, keeping Diane’s own budding deviancy within the most comfortable of parameters (the film’s bookends take place at a nudist colony yet Shainberg shoots Kidman’s body double discreetly from behind or with a telescopic lens at a great distance). Diane may long for Downey Jr.’s dog-boy but she still takes a razor to him before she’ll lie down with him. What should come across as audacious or at the very least liberating is mostly dreary and somnambulistic, like everyone in the film has been dosed with Quaaludes. But should any of this come as a surprise considering Shainberg’s last film made self-mutilation and sadomasochism as sitcom-cozy as a Sandra Bullock film?
SB: Well, I wasn’t a big fan of Shainberg’s Secretary myself, but at least that picture had a sense of humor about its subject, and floated the crazy idea that sexual deviancy might be kind of fun. Fur is just a total drag. Granted, it all kind of plays out like dopey fan-fiction, but what really bugged me was the movie’s notion that Arbus’ artistry had nothing to do with her own inner drive or hard work, and the brilliance behind all those photos (none of which are even seen in the film) just emerged after making whoopee with a hairball. It’s a common gripe of mine with these “great artist” bio-pics, in crud like Ray we never actually see the hard work that goes into the process—everything just springs fully formed, on the spot, thanks to some easily dramatized, Freud 101 inciting incident.
Fur is an even more extreme example, as it’s foolish and myopic enough to never even acquaint us with Arbus’ work, giving the audience no earthly reason whatsoever to be interested in her fake, fairy tale biography—which itself is just another “Whoa, weren”t the fifties repressed?” riff from people who clearly think this is somehow something new. I could go on about how tired I am of Kidman recycling the same trembling-voiced waif schtick from movie to movie, or what a shockingly inert performance Robert Downey gives, but I think you’ve already said it all about this reductive, silly little waste of time.
The 25 Best Films of 2019
Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony.
This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.
More than ever, we live in an era in which people choose their own news and are hyper-focused on their own niches, which offers a paradox: While there’s freedom in such a lifestyle, it’s also deeply isolating. This context partially explains the exhilaration of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, insular works that, in their popularity and acclaim, recall the audience-unifying glories of ‘70s-era American pop cinema, and of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, an intoxicating, perhaps reactionary fantasy that rues the fading of a diseased patriarchal life that was nevertheless responsible for the comforts of pop culture.
Quentin Tarantino’s tender and transcendent film is, most explicitly, a paean to Hollywood’s ability to control an undivided public’s attention via he-men westerns and musicals and TV arcana. Tarantino, dangerously and daringly, glorifies a less obviously political cinema, implicitly regretting the divisions that would mark the ‘70s and the present. Such division fueled movies this year, that, while troubling, were undeniably in sync with America’s bitter underbelly, such as Todd Phillips’s Joker, Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete.
Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony. One example is Harmony Korine’s extraordinary, absurdly overlooked The Beach Bum, a lurid and beautiful poem of privilege and self-absorption. Another is Bong Joon-ho’s smash hit Parasite, which suggests that every oppressed person oppresses someone lower on the food chain. This year, as political divisions deepen, cinema became more and more inventive with satirizing capitalism while simultaneously rendering its narcotic charms. There were also moments of immersive tranquility and introspection, offered by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, among others.
Do we suffer from too much? Are there too many films, too many hot takes, too much detritus to wade through? In an age of endless excess, the critic’s, and the audience’s, job is to discern patterns and meanings, to whittle chaos down to manageable stimuli. The best films of the year found artists grappling with this very chaos, mining the emotion of the spectacle of the political. Chuck Bowen
Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.
25. The Gospel of Eureka
In 2014, Eureka Springs became the first city in Arkansas to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka doesn’t mention this fact, nor does it seek to explain why a town deeply rooted in Christian faith also has an outsized population of gay and non-binary citizens. The documentary isn’t a study of juxtaposition so much as an exploration of how the many strands of a person or location’s identity can’t easily be disentangled. Eureka Springs, both haunted by and economically beholden to the legacy of noted Christian nationalist Gerald L.K. Smith, proves a vivid backdrop through which to explore how neighbors overcome difference and embrace progress. Like October Country, Mosher and Palmieri’s latest is uniquely attuned to the fickle whims of history, politics, and biographical circumstance. Where their earlier film wondered how both the economics and personal trauma of war reverberated through a family struggling with decades of abuse, despair, and rebellion, this one communicates an atmosphere of persistent connection despite seemingly incongruous belief systems and lifestyles. The Gospel of Eureka’s overriding theme is mutability, and its one true enemy seems to be any form of dogmatism. Christopher Gray
24. Chinese Portrait
As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged. The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions. Diego Semerene
23. The Competition
Claire Simon’s The Competition follows the rigorous selection process for Paris’s iconic film and television school La Fémis, which every year accepts 60 new students, out of some 1,000 applicants. Throughout, Simon’s camera quietly observes the various phases of the selection process, aware that to best capture the anxiousness of a moment is to not embellish it. As a result, we come to take great pleasure in watching the most menial of tasks, such as a committee member counting numbers or checking boxes on a form. While those responsible for the selection process keep things mostly courteous among themselves during deliberations, it’s precisely when conflict emerges around a candidate that we realize how gracious Simon is with her subjects. It would have been easy to play up the drama or drum up miserabilist tales around the high hopes of candidates and the frustrations that follow. Simon focuses instead on how candidates trying to make a case for themselves are often self-contradicting, and as such difficult to truly assess; the film is also about the impossibility of objective criteria when it comes to such matters. The truly awful performances are never shown, only referred to in passing after they happened. This isn’t some reality show that allows us to revel in schadenfreude or root for charismatic underdogs. Semerene
22. Ad Astra
Throughout Ad Astra, James Gray uses the grand metaphors of science fiction to mourn the distance between a father and son that’s so often internalized as self-alienation. This repression, Gray underlines, has utility in a rationalized society: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the perfect astronaut because nothing unnerves him, as testified to by his diligently recorded pulse rate, oxygen levels, and the other defining statistics of his thoroughly technologized body. The inhuman coldness his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), foisted upon him is precisely what enables him to survive his epic quest from Earth to Neptune. Among Ad Astra‘s more universal themes is coping with and moving beyond the sins of previous generations, with overtones that evoke the climate catastrophe that global capitalism has prepared for us. When Roy finally finds his elusive target, floating out there somewhere around the rings of Neptune, Gray captures a heartbreak that will be familiar to many: a confrontation between a grown son and his erstwhile hero, both appearing suddenly small, frail, and all too fallibly human. Pat Brown
Gaspar Noé’s Climax reminds us how pleasurable it can be when a filmmaker essentially discards plot for the sake of unhinged formalism. The film works on two levels, as it’s a celebration of body and movement, featuring astonishing and painful-looking choreography, as well as an examination of the sexual resentment that drives a mixed-race dancing troupe. In early passages, actors more or less speak to the camera, a device that suggests a blunt clearing of the air. Later, when the dancers succumb to the effects of LSD-spiked sangria, Climax becomes a brilliant fever dream, an orgy of raw, flamboyantly colored psychosis that’s truer to the spirit of Dario Argento’s Suspiria than Luca Guadignino’s recent remake. Above all else, Climax feels pure, as Noé cuts to the root of his obsession with the intersection between sex, violence, and power. It’s a horror musical of hard, beautiful nihilism. Bowen
Slant’s Best Films of 2019: The Runners-Up and Individual Ballots
These are the films that just missed making it onto our list of the best films of 2019, and our contributors’ individual ballots.
From Chuck Bowen’s introduction to Slant Magazine’s Top 25 Films of 2019: “This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.” Click here to read the feature and see if your favorite films of the year made our list. And see below for a list of the films that just missed making it onto our list, followed by our contributors’ individual ballots.
26. The Plagiarists
27. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
28. The Lighthouse
29. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
30. End of the Century
31. Ray & Liz
32. The Wild Pear Tree
34. In My Room
35. Agnès by Varda
36. Her Smell
37. Dragged Across Concrete
38. The Image Book
40. Asako I & II
41. I Lost My Body
42. Gemini Man
44. In Fabric
46. The Mountain
47. Our Time
48. Little Women
49. The Dead Don’t Die
1. The Irishman
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Her Smell
4. The Beach Bum
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
7. Marriage Story
8. Pain and Glory
10. The Competition
Honorable Mention: High Flying Bird, One Child Nation, American Factory, The Souvenir, Grass, Ray & Liz, Dragged Agaainst Concrete, Uncut Gems, The Gospel of Eureka, Ash Is Purest White
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
2. Uncut Gems
4. Marriage Story
6. The Gospel of Eureka
7. The Farewell
8. The Souvenir
10. Ad Astra
Honorable Mention: Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Irishman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ash Is Purest White, John Wick 3: Parabellum, The Beach Bum, Knives Out, Luce, Synonyms, Us
1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Irishman
4. High Life
5. La Flor
6. The Souvenir
7. An Elephant Sitting Still
10. Black Mother
Honorable Mention: I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Ad Astra, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Pain & Glory, A Hidden Life, Asako I & II, The Wild Pear Tree, Little Women, End of the Century, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
1. Uncut Gems
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
5. High Life
6. Ash is Purest White
7. Pain & Glory
8. In My Room
9. Gemini Man
10. The Competition
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Atlantics, The Beach Bum, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, Diamantino, Marriage Story, Ray & Liz, The Silence of Others, Under the Silver Lake
2. Long Day’s Journey into Night
3. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
4. Black Mother
5. Ad Astra
7. The Competition
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Irishman
Honorable Mention: The Souvenir, An Elephant Sitting Still, Parasite, Asako I & II, End of the Century, Marriage Story, The Gospel of Eureka, The Beach Bum, Dragged Across Concrete, The Plagiarists
4. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. End of the Century
9. Ash is Purest White
10. Dark Waters
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Asako I & II, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, An Elephant Sitting Still, La Flor, Gemini Man, The Irishman, The Souvenir, Uncut Gems
1. Uncut Gems
2. Marriage Story
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
6. A Hidden Life
7. In My Room
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
9. End of the Century
10. Ash Is Purest White
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Diane, An Elephant Sitting Still, Her Smell, The Image Book, Parasite, Peterloo, The Plagiarists, The Souvenir, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
1. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
2. The Lighthouse
3. A Hidden Life
4. To Dust
6. In Fabric
7. Pain & Glory
10. Rolling Thunder Revue
Honorable Mention: The Mountain, Diamantino, Rezo, The Wild Pear Tree, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, Her Smell, Birds of Passage, Hail Satan?, Leto, The Silence of Others
Joshua Minsoo Kim
1. The Plagiarists
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Chinese Portrait
4. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
5. Uncut Gems
6. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. Suburban Birds
9. Black Mother
10. Marriage Story
Honorable Mention: Atlantics, Grass, Honeyland, The Irishman, The Lighthouse, Non-Fiction, Our Time, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ray & Liz, Varda by Agnes
2. The Irishman
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
6. The Plagiarists
7. The Mountain
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Beach Bum
10. Dragged Across Concrete
Honorable Mention: The Hottest August, Dark Waters, Marriage Story, Atlantics, Empty Metal, Uncut Gems, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ad Astra, High Life, Our Time
Sam C. Mac
1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. Chinese Portrait
5. The Beach Bum
6. Uncut Gems
7. Asako I & II
8. The Gospel of Eureka
9. A Hidden Life
Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, Grass, 3 Faces, Peterloo, Our Time, Transit, The Plagiarists, Shadow, In Fabric, Suburban Birds
1. The Irishman
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. Pain & Glory
9. The Dead Don’t Die
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Black Mother, Diane, Dragged Across Concrete, High Flying Bird, Marriage Story, Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Rolling Thunder Revue, Uncut Gems
1. Agnès by Varda
2. The Wild Pear Tree
3. I Lost My Body
4. Ash is Purest White
5. The Competition
6. Chinese Portrait
9. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, 3 Faces, Atlantics, What You Gonna Do When the World Is on Fire?, Knife + Heart, Non-Fiction, Celebration, The Image Book, Black Mother, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
1. Uncut Gems
2. La Flor
4. The Souvenir
7. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
8. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
9. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
10. The Beach Bum
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Ash is the Purest White, Black Mother, Diamantino, A Hidden Life, High Life, Honeyland, The Hottest August, The Irishman, Marriage Story
2. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
3. La Flor
4. The Irishman
5. Pain & Glory
7. The Gospel of Eureka
8. Chained for Life
9. Under the Silver Lake
Honorable Mention: The Dead Don’t Die, The Farewell, Gemini Man, A Hidden Life, High Flying Bird, Knives Out, In Fabric, Our Time, Shadow, Transit
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Image Book
4. The Lighthouse
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. High Life
7. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. The Irishman
9. The Gospel of Eureka
Honorable Mention: Ash Is Purest White, Chinese Portrait, Climax, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Hustlers, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Mountain, Our Time, Los Reyes, The Souvenir
Review: Seberg Is an Ill-Defined Ode to an Icon of the French New Wave
Throughout, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of Jean Seberg’s history.2
During her return to Hollywood in the late 1960s, Jean Seberg became a visible supporter of the Black Panther Party. This put her on the watch list of J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., and, hounded by their surveillance and muckraking, she would die of an apparent suicide in 1979. It’s a tragic story, but on its face, it’s not material for a political thriller, even if Benedict Andrews’s Seberg tries halfheartedly to make it one.
In transforming Seberg’s life into a plot-heavy narrative of secrets, intrigue, and betrayals, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of her history. And, along the way, they do something of a disservice to the actress’s memory by stopping short of depicting her tragic end—concluding the film, of all places, at the end of a redemptive arc for Jack Solomon, an F.B.I. agent played by Jack O’Connell.
Kristen Stewart plays Seberg as a basically honest but somewhat impulsive woman whose fragility is almost always apparent, given the unsteady gazes and fidgety movements that are Stewart’s trademarks as an actor. It’s a performance that lacks a certain specificity. Even if Seberg suffered from doubts, she could put on a certain small-town Midwestern solidness, as is apparent in interviews from the ‘60s. Stewart’s indifferent imitation of the real Seberg’s diction-coach-inflected Midwestern accent also sticks out for its inconsistency, constantly pulling the viewer out of 1968 and muddling our sense of who this woman is meant to be.
But if Stewart’s Seberg is vaguely drawn, she’s a Rembrandt portrait in comparison to the cardboard F.B.I. agent that Andrews and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse construct as the secondary main character. The film constantly intercuts between Seberg’s activism and bid for Hollywood stardom and Solomon’s surveillance of and growing sympathy for her. A decent, milquetoast G-man, Solomon essentially exists here to recuperate the image of the F.B.I., even as he’s portrayed as being in charge of the campaign against Seberg. While his hypermasculine colleagues trade racist jokes and exploit their male privilege—patently illustrated in an extraneous scene in which his partner, Carl (Vince Vaughn), essentially commits domestic abuse over dinner—Solomon is set up as the idealized model of an F.B.I. agent, a consummate professional interested only in uncovering crimes.
Admittedly, some of the more interesting parts of Seberg come from Solomon’s research: As he watches iconic moments from the actress’s career, recreated by Stewart, he begins to assemble a portrait of a woman damaged by both Hollywood’s and the federal government’s efforts to control her life. In scenes that might have had more impact if either character had more definition, Seberg imprints herself on Solomon through black-and-white footage and surveillance tapes, and, at times, Seberg gestures toward a Hollywoodized version of The Lives of Others. Eventually, Solomon begins informing on himself, making anonymous phone calls to Seberg to tell her she’s under watch. But Solomon is too conveniently good, too isolated from the reactionary “boy’s club” culture of the F.B.I., for his transformation to carry much weight. Furthermore, this fabricated character functions to glom a handy moral redemption onto a story that would not appear to have many good feels readily available to it.
In fact, there’s much here that feels too convenient. For one, the filmmakers downplay the radicalness of supporting the Black Panther Party and their allies in 1968. The story is told from a perspective in which lending such support is almost transparently the right thing to do, even if it flies in the face of Hoover’s F.B.I. This is admirable, in a sense, but it gives us little impression of the tumult and uncertainty of American society in the late ‘60s. For a film about a period of unrest and the icon at the center of Godard’s aesthetically groundbreaking Breathless, it’s also markedly conventional. Andrews plays it safe with his framing and storytelling, not capturing much of a sense of atmosphere in his depiction of a society and a Hollywood institution undergoing waves of turmoil and reorganization.
Furthermore, the filmmakers’ choices regarding narrative focus are telling: Solomon’s half of the story drives the most important pieces of the plot—since it’s the surveillance that ruins Seberg’s relationships and fractures her sanity. Meanwhile, her lover, the black radical Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), and his wife (Zazie Beetz) are turned into functionaries of the main white characters. Surely these historical figures, too, experienced mental anguish at the hands of the F.B.I.’s surveillance apparatus, but their oppression, when discussed here, becomes mere background to Seberg’s breakdown. Once again, black liberation becomes white people’s story, as Seberg’s connection with a movement composed principally of black people is subordinated to the film’s gratuitous interest in planting a good man in the F.B.I. Unable to imagine and unwilling to explore what oppression truly feels like, it contents itself with saying the right things and centering white people as the sole agents of history.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Anthony Mackie, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Yvan Attal, Vince Vaughn, Stephen Root, Colm Meaney, Gabriel Sky Director: Benedict Andrews Screenwriter: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Black Christmas Takes a Simplistic Stab at the Battle of the Sexes
Sophia Takal’s remake elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics.1.5
Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian horror classic Black Christmas depends, for effect, on the terrifying unknowability of its killer, and delights in a twisted web of psychosexual tensions. As a proto-slasher film set in a sorority house, it’s also surprisingly celebratory of female agency and empowerment, particularly through its normalized depiction of women discussing abortion a mere five years after Canada officially legalized the procedure. Sophia Takal’s remake, however, elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics, transforming what was once a terrifyingly ambiguous male threat upon unsuspecting women into an explicit and hackneyed embodiment of the patriarchy itself in the form of a fraternity of hooded, Skull and Bones-esque alpha males.
Takal and co-screenwriter April Wolfe obviously aim to update Black Christmas for the Me Too era, but they settle for hollow wish fulfillment rather than meaningful social critique. When Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the most politically active of the core group of sorority girls in the film, steps up to a group of emphatically evil frat boys—“You messed with the wrong sisters!”—it’s apparent that the filmmakers are less interested in actually dissecting the precepts and effects of college rape culture and the patriarchal dominance still coursing through our institutions of higher learning than they are in clumsily upending that male authority with increasingly pedantic signposts of “don’t tread on me” girl power.
It’s a shame because Takal exhibits a deep sensitivity toward her main protagonist, Riley (Imogen Poots), which is particularly evident in the film’s depiction of the young woman’s trauma from being drugged and raped three years ago by Brian (Ryan McIntyre), the former president of DKO, Hawthorne College’s most prestigious fraternity. It’s both moving and amusing to see Riley, after years of not being believed, and several of her sorority sisters perform a clever twist on “Up on the Housetop” at DKO’s Christmas party, for the way it calls out rape culture and deliberately embarrasses Brian upon his return to campus. But following this scene, Black Christmas’s condemnation of toxic masculinity is dulled as it goes about painting both its male and female characters in broader and broader strokes.
Carey Elwes’s misogynist Professor Gelson, who’d be twirling his mustache if he had one, is a virtual clone of acclaimed psychologist Jordan Peterson, and he’s surrounded by a fleet of interchangeable, cartoonishly villainous dudebros involved in some shady dealings at DKO that shift from the harmlessly cliché to the patently absurd. The women of this remake don’t exactly fare much better, as they’re constantly lauded for their strength and loyalty—most ridiculously in a lengthy digression during which the sorority sisters are compared to ants—yet with the exception of Riley, they never rise above their paper-thin conceptions.
The filmmakers’ overly simplistic depiction of good and evil is mitigated to some degree by the presence of Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), the awkward white-knight character whose compassion and respect for Riley serves as a much-needed, though muted, contrast to the rampant machismo and fragility that defines so many of the film’s other male characters. But as the large horde of black-masked and hooded men spread across campus, slaughtering sorority girls with reckless abandon, Black Christmas builds to a strained confrontation between the sexes that doesn’t fall into any sort of gray area when it comes to its depiction of male-female conflict. Instead, the film hammers home the same simplistic, however valid, points about male sovereignty on college campuses that it’s already made at least a dozen times.
With this third act’s introduction of supernatural elements linked to a mysteriously powerful black liquid that leaks from within the college founder’s bust, Black Christmas goes completely off the rails, setting up an action set piece that makes the “Marvel Women assemble” moment from Avengers: Endgame seem slyly deployed by comparison. Takal is gleeful in her depiction of the patriarchy getting its comeuppance, but her expression of female empowerment is misguided for succumbing to revenge fantasy, suggesting that the path toward equality lies in the very same forms of violence that men have enacted upon women for centuries.
Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Madelaine Adams, Zoë Robins, Ryan McIntyre Director: Sophia Takal Screenwriter: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 92 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jumanji: The Next Level Finds a Series Stuck in Repeat Mode
The moments in which the film’s blockbuster stars play memorably against type are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action.1
Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: The Next Level visibly strains to justify its existence beyond the desire for profit. The wild success of its predecessor guaranteed another entry in the series, but there’s so little reason for its characters to return to the video game world of Jumanji that this film struggles to orient them toward a collision course with destiny.
Now scattered to the winds of collegiate life, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) keep in touch via group text as they plan a reunion over winter break. Kasdan shoots these moments with excruciating pauses that would seem a deliberate reflection of the awkward cadences of texting were the characters’ in-person conversations not every bit as stilted and arrhythmic. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that Spencer, already so anxiety-ridden, is driven to such insecurity over the possibility that the members of his friend group went their separate ways that he reassembles the destroyed Jumanji game in order to feel some of the heroism he did during the gang’s earlier adventure.
Soon, Spencer’s friends discover what he did and go into Jumanji to get him, the twist this time being that everyone gets assigned to a different player than they were last time, complicating their grasp of the game’s mechanics. But making matters worse is that Jumanji also sucks in Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), who gets assigned Spencer’s old hero, Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), as well as Eddie’s estranged business partner and friend, Milo (Danny Glover), who’s placed into the body of zoologist Frankling Finbar (Kevin Hart).
The sight of Johnson and Hart shaking up their stale partnership by play-acting as old men briefly enlivens The Next Level after 40 minutes of laborious setup and leaden jokes. Watching the Rock scrunch up his face as he strains to hear anyone and speaking every line in a high, nasal whine with halting confusion does get old after a while, but there’s an agreeable hint of his tetchy, anxious performance in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales to be found here.
Hart may be even better, tempering his exhausting manic energy by running to the other extreme to parody Glover’s deliberate manner of speaking. The actor draws out every sentence into lugubrious asides and warm pleasantries even in the midst of danger. In the film’s only laugh-out-loud moment, Milo spends so much time spouting asinine facts that he fails to prevent Eddie from losing a player life, prompting a baffled and anguished Milo to lament, “Did I kill Eddie by talking too slow, just like he always said I would?”
But such moments, in which the film’s blockbuster stars play against type, are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action. There’s no sense of escalation to The Next Level, with each set piece almost instantly collapsing into a busy spectacle of eluding stampeding animals, running across rope bridges, and taking on waves of enemies. There’s no weight to any of these sequences, nor to the game’s new villain, a brutal conqueror (Rory McCann) who embodies all the laziness of the writing of antagonists for hastily assembled sequels.
Likewise, for all the emphasis on video game characters who can be swapped out on a whim, it’s the players themselves who come across as the most thinly drawn and interchangeable beneath their avatars. None of the kids have any real personality, merely a single defining quirk that makes it easy to identify them when their avatars mimic them. And when the film pauses to address some kind of character conflict, be it Spencer and Martha’s ambiguous relationship or Eddie and Milo’s attempts at reconciliation, it only further exposes the film’s meaninglessness. The original 1995 film, disposable as it may be, finds actual pathos in its menacing escalation of horrors and the existential terror of contemplating a lifetime stuck in the game as the world moved on. The Next Level, on the other hand, is a moribund, hollow exercise, dutifully recycling blockbuster and video game tropes without complicating either.
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Awkwafina, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann Director: Jake Kasdan Screenwriter: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 123 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Chinese Portrait Is a Grand Reckoning with the Passage of Time
The drama here is in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t.3.5
As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged.
The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions.
The drama here is also in Chinese Portrait’s very concept, which is similar to that of Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, where motion is born out of prolonged stillness, and to that of Susana de Sousa Dias’s works on the effects of Portuguese dictatorship, Obscure Light and 48, where stillness is all there is, photographs namely, and yet so much moves. Wang’s film also bears a kinship with Agnès Varda’s later work, where a human being is made singular in a fast-moving world by standing still and recognizing the device that records them. Both Varda and Wang seem to see sacrilege in taking the camera for granted. A couple of tableaux in Chinese Portrait derail the notion of the individual embossed from their habitat by the camera’s insistent gaze, as in a group of men kneeling down to pray, their backs to the audience, and a later segment of a crowd standing entirely motionless in the middle of an abandoned construction site, sporting scarves and winter jackets, staring at the camera in unison.
Something remains quite alive and oddly “natural” within the documentary’s portraits as Wang’s mostly still subjects inhabit the gap between staging and posing by appearing disaffected. Or perhaps they’re stunned by modernity’s deadlock. Everyone seems perpetually in transit yet perpetually stuck. Wang’s fleeting portraits feature Chinese folk confronting the lens in their everyday environments, but not all of them react to the camera’s might in the same way. Some stand still and stare while others look away, but they’re all largely aware of the recording device singling them out as muses of the landscape.
The portraits offer evidence of differing temporalities in this numbingly fast world, too convinced of its universal globalism. Evidence of conflicting temporalities within worlds, too, as some subjects in the same frame bother to stop and others go on about their lives. In a provincial alleyway, various men sit on stoops from foreground to background. Some stare into the horizon—that is, a cemented wall, the film’s most recurring motif. Others refuse to allow the viewers to be the only ones looking. Several bathers on a sandy beach stare at the off-camera ocean, except for one man wearing a large fanny pack, certainly staring at us behind his shades. At a construction site, an excavator digs while another worker sits on a slab of concrete, gawking at us as we gawk at them. A man rests his hands on his hoe to look at the camera with a half-smile, like someone from the 1980s, who may approach the cameraperson to ask what channel this is for and when he can expect to be on television.
Through the sheer power of blocking, the methodical positioning of elements in the frame, Wang reaches back to a time when there was an interval, a space for waiting and wondering, between an image being taken and an image being seen. Another temporality, indeed, captured by cameras, not telephones. That was back when sharpie scribbles would don the tail end of film reels, which are kept in the frame here by Wang, as one portrait transitions into the next. The filmmaker’s urgent reminder seems to be that it’s not all just one continual flow. Time can actually stop, and we can choose to look or to look away.
Director: Xiaoshuai Wang Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 79 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism
The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.1.5
With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.
The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.
Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.
Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.
Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.
And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.
Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.
The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019