Connect with us

Features

New York Film Festival 2016

This year’s festival is chockablock with studies of human relations that are connected to a soulful sense of consciousness-raising.

Published

on

New York Film Festival 2016
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

The 54th edition of the New York Film Festival will kick off on September 30 not with a studio-backed film with dreams of Oscar, but with a cri de coeur that exists to rebuke the status quo: 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865. The documentary, the first to open the festival in its history, illustrates the trajectory of racial inequality in the U.S. by tracing a line from the passing of the amendment to our present-day reality as the world’s number one incarcerator, with the majority of those being African-American.

DuVernay’s film, though, is only one of many in this year’s lineup to be in conversation with the social issues of our day. Among them are Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, which collages snapshots from a boy’s coming of age on Lampedusa with the realities faced by African refugees traversing the waters surrounding the Italian island; Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake, which tells the story of a disabled man trying to find a shred of happiness while navigating the red tape of his country’s benefits system; and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, which follows a doctor as she seeks to absolve her guilt after refusing to answer an immigrant prostitute’s late-night knock on her clinic door and subsequently learning of the woman’s death.

These studies of human relations are all connected to a soulful sense of consciousness-raising. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, about a retired music critic (played by Sonia Braga) who refuses to accept a buy-out from land developers for her apartment, made a splash earlier this year at Cannes, and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, which chronicles the struggle of a young black man to find himself across three defining, heavily aestheticized chapters in his life, plays at the festival exactly one month after its premiere at Telluride. Which is also to say that the New York Film Festival continues to thrive, and impeccably so, as a showcase that compiles a best-of from the festival circuit.

And in addition to new works by Pedro Almodóvar (Julieta), Paul Verhoeven (Elle), Cristian Mungiu (Graduation), Matías Piñeiro (Hermia & Helena), James Gray (The Lost City of Z, the closing-night film), Mia Hansen-Løve (Things to Come), and Oliver Assayas (Personal Shopper), among others, the festival is once again rich in sidebars and special events that aren’t to be missed.

Among the noteworthy programs are Spotlight on Documentary, which includes new works by Steve James (Abacus: Small Enough to Jail), Errol Morris (The B-Side: Elsa Dorman’s Portraight Photography), Bill Morrison (Dawson City: Frozen Time), and Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro); Explorations, which features the latest films from rising auteurs Albert Serra (The Death of Louis XIV) and João Pedro Rodrigues (The Ornithologist); and Projections, sponsored by MUBI, which gathers predominantly short and experimental film and video work from budding filmmakers all over the world.

Starting September 28, check back daily for a review of each main-slate title (additional coverage can be found on The House Next Door. The 54th New York Film Festival will run from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site. Ed Gonzalez


New York Film Festival 2016

13th

Ava DuVernay’s careers in activism, publicity, and filmmaking have demonstrated a defiant belief that not only can Hollywood change in a short span of time, but also popular opinion. 13th will leave you hoping, at the very least, that she’s right: As with Selma, DuVernay has fashioned a work of pummeling and clear-eyed intelligence, tracing an undeniable disparity between legislative and de facto rights for black Americans from the end of the Civil War to the present. How and why the United States ended up housing 2.5 million prison inmates is a paradox posed by none other than President Obama in the film’s first minutes, and 13th spells it out with the enraged mettle of an extralegal filibuster. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery except as punishment for a convicted crime; “criminal” is thus the noun into which 13th digs its analyses, while an upward ticker sees the number of prison inmates mushrooming over the last few decades. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

20th Century Women

Is a person—or, for that matter, a film—more than the sum of their influences? Writer-director Mike Mills’s autobiographical coming-of-age tale 20th Century Women hinges on that question, while dominated by Annette Bening’s leading turn as Dorothea Fields—a chain-smoking feminist who had her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), at the age of 40 and decided to raise him alone after his father abandoned them. Mills’s screenplay takes place in Santa Barbara, California, centering on the summer of 1979, when Jamie is 15 and beginning to bask in the freeing energy of punk music, all the while grappling with the pitfalls of romantic infatuation. Dorothea is the kind of woman who nods empathetically while shaking her head at the same time, deftly portrayed by Bening as both proud and apprehensive, the self-image of her motherhood stuck between past and present tenses. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Aquarius

Throughout the gorgeous, erotic, seemingly intuitively staged Aquarius, Kleber Mendonça Filho merges two distinct tonalities: inviting, empathetic romanticism and subtly submerged criticality that leaves the slightest copper aftertaste of bitterness. Clara (Sonia Braga) is admirable and desirable in many fashions, but Mendonça Filho never allows us to forget that she, like most of us reading this, exists essentially unquestioningly within a social structure toward which she indulges feelings of superiority. Clara is in a battle with contractors over the Aquarius, as she’s the only person still residing in the complex after everyone else has sold out. But this gesture is strikingly positioned as an act of stubbornness rather than heroism, as Mendonça Filho often allows supporting characters to assume the stage and voice concerns with what they lose due to Clara’s nostalgic death grip on her residence. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Certain Women

Writer-director Kelly Reichardt returns to the American frontier with Certain Women, though the bleak, unforgiving plains featured in her 2011 western Meek’s Cutoff are now encrusted with Starbucks and Jiffy Lube and and Pizza Hut, beacons of capitalism peppered across the howling void. But if it’s too easy to toy with the idea that Reichardt’s new film is some kind of a long-distance spiritual sequel to her offbeat wagon-trail epic, a study in what’s changed in the intervening century and a half can be fruitful in understanding the filmmaker’s larger project. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Elle

Who else but Isabelle Huppert could have played Michèle Leblanc, the eponymous heroine of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle? The exuberant gravitas, the unapologetic condescension, the classily managed aggression that only the most French of faces could ever entertain—Huppert reduces us to our prosaic mortality with a glance, the pursing of her lips, the nearly imperceptible raising of an eyebrow, or the perverse delivery of a syllable. Perhaps a syllable like “oh…,” the title of the Philippe Djian novel on which the film is based. This is the “oh…” of deflating disappointment, but also of the most calculating seductions; the feminine “oh…” of flirtation; the theatrical “oh…” of predators posing as prey; the “oh…” of orgasms authentic and feigned. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Fire at Sea

Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi makes documentaries about individuals at different junctures in the process of traumatic recovery. Fire at Sea follows two groups of subjects, one whose past traditions are in question and one whose present geographical placement is unknown. Set on and around Lampedusa, an island 70 miles east from the African coast and 120 miles south from Sicily, the film juxtaposes the islanders’ quotidian lives with those of the African refugees traversing the surrounding, often torrential waters of the Mediterranean Sea. These dual threads constitute parallel trajectories that invite the viewer to ponder their relationship with one another. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Graduation

Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation may not exude the visceral power of 4 Month, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills, but it may be more incisive and powerful as social commentary because of its more subtle observation of the world. Mungiu’s film is more than just a cry of despair toward the hopelessness of life in modern-day Romania, but a close examination of a character whose moral compromises ultimately make him not that much different from the societal forces he believes he’s fighting against. The filmmaker reserves his most potent gut-punch for an ending that leaves one with a sense of the sins of one generation being passed onto the next, however inadvertently. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Hermia & Helena

Matías Piñeiro’s Hermia & Helena offers an implicit rebuke to the received notion that the American debuts of eccentric international filmmakers are bids for accessibility. The film’s narrative concerns the residency of a young, Bueno Aires-based theater director, Camila (Agustina Muñoz), in New York City, where she’s been invited to translate A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Spanish for a new take on Shakespeare’s canonical comedy. And while her adventures feature rekindled romances and a familial reunion, Piñeiro takes considered measures to steer clear of saccharine self-discovery drama. In utilizing a temporally and geographically jumpy structure, a series of detours and doublings that frustrate Camila’s centrality in the story, and a visual surface that delights in non-narrative distractions, he even goes so far as to obfuscate whatever crowd-pleasing qualities may have existed in the material. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, the story of Irish communist leader James Gralton, was rumored to be the socialist-leaning filmmaker’s swan song. But the following year, Loach watched as the Conservative Party took power and the lifelong Labour supporter went back to work. It should surprise no one, then, that the Palm d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake, which heralds Loach’s return from the briefest of retirements, is a staunch antagonism of bureaucratic institutions that prevent blue-collar Brits from earning the livable wages they deserve. But it should also come as not much of a surprise, sadly, that the filmmaker’s latest is pockmarked by a lot of the same conservative dramatic conventions and overt political gestures that have marred much of his work over the years, but particularly his recent output. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Julieta

Focused on recurrence as a visual and narrative motif, Julieta follows the title character (played alternately by Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez) as she encounters parallel scenarios in progressive dealings with her one true love, her aging parents, and her daughter, recounting these stories from the perspective of lonely middle age. Abandoning a career in academia after being impregnated by a married man, Julieta finds happiness in a quaint Galician fishing village, a state of domestic contentment that sours after a tragedy scars her relationship with her beloved child. Positioned at the center of a variety of romantic and inter-generational junctures, the once-fresh-faced Julieta finds herself battered by one calamity after another, functioning as the unwitting conduit for the film’s maelstrom of transferred trauma. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

The Lost City of Z

One of the quiet triumphs of James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is how it posits artillery officer, archaeologist, and explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam)—who disappeared along with his son, Jack (Tom Holland), in 1925 while searching for a fabled civilization in the Amazon rainforest—as a kindred spirit of The Immigrant’s Ewa Cybulski. If the exact nature of Fawcett’s obsession with Z remains frustratingly ineffable, that’s by design, as Gray understands that the explorer sailed toward a new world, not unlike many immigrants who arrived in America around the same time, in chase of a dream that would remain just that. Fawcett “seemed to approach each journey as if it were a Buddhist rite of purification,” wrote David Grann in the nonfiction bestseller on which this film is based, and indeed, as Gray brings Fawcett’s story to a culmination, the mystery of the man’s demise is exalted as a moment of transcendence: of a mind being freed from the shackles of obsession. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea gradually comes to its sense of exquisitely calibrated, hardened intimacy. Every flashback and uncomfortable reunion draws out another vagary of the mourning process, and the film comes to incorporate a full community of souls, and their attempts to communicate their wounds and regrets to one another. Some reach out, others withdraw, and the rest aren’t sure what to do but crack jokes and conjure better times. And this comprehensive emotional sweep is achieved with minimal exposition: Lee (Casey Affleck) is revealed to be somewhat of a local pariah without any catty scenes of small-town gossip, and details about the dissolution of his marriage are withheld simply because they’re abundantly clear on the alternately desolate and anguished faces of Affleck and Michelle Williams. Lee and Randi’s exchanges, a symphony of agonizingly incomplete thoughts and gestures, serve as the film’s emotional sledgehammer. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Moonlight

The best scene in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is also its longest. It depicts two men who, in their boyhood days, shared both a sexual experience and a violent episode and meet again after years apart at a close-to-empty diner, hesitantly exchanging information about the lives they’ve lived in the interim. Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) grits through his grillz that, after a stint in juvenile detention, he’s “trappin’”; Kevin (André Holland) talks of a marriage, kids, and an amiable divorce. Throughout, Jenkins negotiates a hybrid of the patient, real-time conversational moments recognizable in Andrew Haigh and Richard Linklater’s films, and the aesthetic sensualism favored by Wong Kar-wai and Pedro Almodóvar. It’s the one occasion here that Jenkins gets that balance just right, allowing for both an interpersonal intimacy with his characters and a sensory understanding of their unspoken desires. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

Graphic novelist Dash Shaw’s debut feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, is an Irwin Allen-style catastrophe parable that doubles as a maturation tale for the artist as a young blowhard (voiced by Jason Schwartzman). With the film, Shaw creates a self-effacing sketch of his adolescent self that’s comparable to Bill Watterson’s Calvin on his most obnoxious days, a worthy upgrade of such teenage man-children as Archie Andrews and Henry Aldrich. The whole thing buzzes with hand-drawn creativity that’s precious in both the pop-cultural and material senses: Schwartzman’s performance is of a piece with his work in Wes Anderson’s films, while Shaw’s animations snap from fearlessly cursory scribbles to seamless, fluid spurts of movement—drawing influence from the aggro-modernist “limited animation” of 1960s and ‘70s animes. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Neruda

Director Pablo Larraín has described Neruda as being more a “Nerudian” film than it is a film about Pablo Neruda, hinting at the postmodern character of this overtly fictionalized biopic of Chile’s greatest poet. In both examining and exemplifying the way facts and legends have a way of conflating around famous figures, Neruda is simultaneously flippant and deadly earnest in its attempt to bring the poet’s protean life to the screen. The screenplay by Guillermo Calderón half-acknowledges its own fictionality while nevertheless maintaining a straight face about the events it depicts. In doing so, it follows in the tradition of similar Latin American literary masterworks that used magical realism, an allusive blend of reality and fantasy, to make sense of the region’s seemingly unceasing history of violence, from the genocidal subjugation of the native population to the various totalitarian governments from both ends of the political spectrum that instilled martial law across the continent during the Cold War. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Paterson

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson represents a skewing of the cool that’s been synonymous with the filmmaker for almost four decades. Jarmusch’s films have always felt like loft spaces, the motion-picture equivalent of a cheap room at the Chelsea Hotel, with icons, starving artists, and aficionados all rubbing elbows while jockeying for the only bathroom on the entire floor. His latest is every bit as informed by the artistic impulses and wandering souls that inform the rest of his oeuvre, but the film concerns the humbler creative expressions of everyday life, where one creates art not for notoriety or superiority, but for the simple pleasure of making it. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Personal Shopper

In some respects, Olivier Assayas has been making ghost stories for years. No other filmmaker has demonstrated so profound an ability to infuse ordinary objects, such as furniture and artwork, with a sense of their own lived past. This is most clearly born out in 2008’s Summer Hours, where family heirlooms seem to contain some essence of their past owners. Personal Shopper actualizes that thematic undercurrent of the filmmaker’s oeuvre: Filled with spirits both malevolent and inscrutable, the film explores the extent to which Assayas’s characters have always found, and lost, their identities through the aid of their surroundings. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

The Rehearsal

Alison Maclean’s The Rehearsal begins as an intriguing study of young actors as emotional parasites who drain experience from others to compensate for their relative greenness in life. Stanley (James Rolleston) is a handsome 18-year-old who’s been accepted into the Institute, a drama school that has a reputation for forging not only actors but actors’ careers. Stanley is painfully shy, unformed, and out of sync with who he is and what he wants—a demeanor which contrasts, not altogether unappealingly, against the seen-it-all pretenses his classmates have already learned to affect. A morality tale, The Rehearsal eventually concerns Stanley’s efforts to discern how far he’s willing to go to become recognized as an actor, and how long he’s willing to play the political game necessary for getting his art seen. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Son of Joseph

If films were measured primarily by the degree to which they hit upon the hippest contemporary trends, those of the French-American Eugène Green might languish in some dustbin of stodgy earnestness. Green tells nakedly archetypal, unabashedly non-ironic tales of personal and spiritual awakening that take on familiar shapes (the midlife-crisis drama, the Oedipal saga) while explicitly conversing with centuries-old texts, and, perhaps least zeitgeist-baiting of all, he’s inescapably preoccupied with the goodness in people. Green’s latest, Son of Joseph, is no cooler than what we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker and dramatist, as it riffs starkly on the Old Testament and utilizes the same highly formal approach to staging and editing employed in his prior La Sapienza. But Green is so committed to his seemingly old-fashioned tics that his work can look positively avant-garde alongside those of more ecstatically welcomed arthouse trailblazers. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Sieranevada

Right from its prologue, which consists of a seemingly interminable unedited long shot of a middle-aged couple navigating a crowded Bucharest street, Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada announces itself as a slow burn. This unknown couple is eventually identified as Lary (Mimi Branescu) and his wife, Laura (Catalina Moga), who are on their way to commemorate the recent death of Lary’s father with the rest of his family. While the prologue doesn’t further the plot and might initially come off as time-consuming filler, it’s firmly in line with Puiu’s vision of contemporary Romania as a kind of purgatory. The characters in this film thrash about in a rage of meaningless sound and fury to mask the spiritual emptiness at the core of their existence. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Staying Vertical

On paper, Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical sounds like a great many relationship dramas. Léo (Damien Bonnard) is a drifting screenwriter who alternatingly resides in hotel rooms and crashes with strangers, becoming involved with Marie (India Hair), a woman living somewhere in the French countryside. They have a child together, and Marie leaves Léo and the baby, which inspires the man to grapple with his selfishness as he struggles to raise his son and come up with a screenplay adequate enough to pay his mounting expenses. But little is ordinary about Staying Vertical, which has more in common with Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake than is initially apparent. Both exhibit a powerfully tactile understanding of sexual relationships as universes onto themselves, both overwhelmingly concern stifled male sexuality, and both pivot on heroes who are essentially and existentially displaced voyeurs. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Things to Come

As Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) walks along the Grand Bé tidal island near Saint-Malo, France while on vacation during the opening of Things to Come, writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve locates her mid-conversation with Heinz (André Marcon), her husband, discussing music as a visual medium. After Nathalie says she wouldn’t listen to a certain piece of music at home (the piece in question isn’t clear), Heinz counters, “You’ll have to see it performed…it’s meant to be seen, not just heard.” Heinz’s statement doubles as a covert imperative to the viewer, though its implication should be taken in reverse: If we’re to fully understand Things to Come, we’ll have to listen for its rhythms in addition to perceiving Nathalie’s loosening grip on her environment, and feel its pulsating force to comprehend the totality of its sensorial value. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Toni Erdmann

The ironic thing about self-awareness is that it’s bound up in other people. It’s less about how we understand ourselves than about how we use the perceptions of others to train us to modulate our behavior and tame our impulses. Now three films into an entirely distinctive oeuvre, Maren Ade has become one of cinema’s great sociologists, exploring different shades of self-knowledge and companionship. Her debut, The Forest for the Trees, was about a teacher so desperately lonely that her attempts to make friends only frightened and alienated, while her lacerating sophomore feature, Everyone Else, chronicled the dissolution of a romance after its young couple realize they’re no longer capable of surprising one another. Toni Erdmann is a broader affair, asking what our families are to make of the guises we adopt when we’re trying to succeed, fit in, or achieve some mythical state of self-actualization. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

The Unknown Girl

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been making neorealist morality plays since their first feature, 1996’s La Promesse, yet their formula has continued to yield surprising, effective works that have kept the sibling filmmakers in regular critical conversation. The Unknown Girl, however, represents a rupture in the Dardennes’ ordinarily solid output, a work so left-footed and clumsily insistent that it exposes the worst aspects inherent to their style. The film’s didacticism is evident from the outset. A humble clinic doctor, Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), secures a cushy position at a large medical facility that will set her up for a lucrative career. Almost literally on her way out the door of her old life, however, she ignores a patient who tries to enter the clinic after hours, only to discover the next morning that the young woman seeking care, an immigrant prostitute, has been found dead of a blow to the head. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Yourself and Yours

Hong Sang-soo has claimed Luis Buñuel’s 1977 swan song That Obscure Object of Desire as an inspiration for Yourself and Yours, but whatever clues that might provide as to his intentions are largely mitigated due to major differences between the two films (the doubled woman in the Buñuel film is played by two separate actresses as opposed to one, and her relationship with her confused lover is complicated by age, class, culture, and political commentary). There should actually be a great deal of suspicion that all the incongruence here leads to no concrete answers at all—that, instead, Hong’s latest is a construct, a work whose only integrity is to the act of confounding any particular interpretation of it. >>

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Advertisement
Comments

Features

Every Kanye West Album Ranked

Looking back at the emotional exhibitionism that defines the rapper’s work, it’s starkly clear how much of himself he’s put into it.

Published

on

Kanye West
Photo: Def Jam

Kanye West has come back from the precipice of what feels like certain career suicide more than just about any other popular music artist. But his tendency toward self-feat—on full display during our cruel summer, which saw him pursuing a dubious presidential bid, announcing another new album that never materialized, and waging “war” against record labels that led to him tweeting out his entire contract with Universal Music Group—is an essential part of the divisive, frequently infuriating, and resolutely genius work that he’s amassed over the last 15-plus years. West’s magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, would only have half a title if things were otherwise; the Black Power lingua franca of Yeezus wouldn’t be nearly as galvanizing without the juxtaposition of base carnality that shocks its politics into a realm of raw human expression; and The Life of Pablo, West’s most uninhibited and soul-baring album, reaches its highs through knotting grace and grotesquery into a mercurial self-portrait that’s rarely flattering but always magnetic.

The path from “Jesus Walks” to Jesus Is King has been a willfully discursive one, a journey from hip-hop’s hard beats to gliding electro-rap, from 808s & Heartbreak’s Auto-Tune croon to the industrial rave soundtrack of Yeezus to, ugh, the #MAGA hat. And in recent years, ever since West’s bipolar diagnosis became public knowledge, every volatile career move that he makes is necessarily met with an earnest concern for the man’s mental health. That concern has steadily been occupying more and more real estate in fans’ minds this summer, especially without any artistic output to counterbalance it. And maybe that’s a good thing: Looking back at the emotional exhibitionism that defines West’s incredible work, it’s starkly clear how much of himself he’s put into his art, but less clear how much more he can afford to give. Sam C. Mac



Ye

10. Ye (2018)

Ye’s emotional claustrophobia is at times effective: As a chronicle of living with mental illness, this is Kanye’s most unsparing work to date. “Sometimes I think really bad things,” he confesses on the stark, harrowing opener “I Thought About Killing You,” his voice dipping into an artificial chopped-and-screwed baritone. “Really, really, really bad things.” But when he departs from quasi-unfiltered monologues to structured verses, the results are uninspired. “If I pull up with a Kerry Washington, that’s gon’ be an enormous scandal,” from “All Mine,” is a clunker of a line, even coming from the guy who struck internet-meme gold by rhyming “croissant” with “French-ass restaurant.” Since Yeezus, Kanye has trafficked in minimalism, paring back his once-grandiose arrangements until the seams are visible and selling the results as raw unfiltered honesty, but Ye’s slapdash construction feels less like an artistic choice and more like a cry for help. Zachary Hoskins



Jesus Is King

9. Jesus Is King (2019)

The music on Jesus Is King is as impeccably produced as that of just about any Kanye release to date, but the shift toward gospel, while occasionally captivating and even convincing, more often proves that it’s more difficult for Kanye to apply his particular narrativizing gifts to faith than it is to the exploits of outsized celebrity caricatures, or the episodes of his own tabloid-baiting life. The album’s prevailing mood is braggadocio, ever Ye’s true north, and the greatest basis for his boastfulness is, familiarly, the resilience with which he’s carried himself on the path to commercial and personal success. The particulars of this message run counter to the ostensible thesis of Jesus Is King. Kanye doesn’t seem to have quite figured out how to translate his spiritual awakening to his music as confidently as he has nearly every other experience in his life on previous albums. Mac



Yandhi

7. Yandhi (2019, unreleased)

Like Prince’s Black Album, Yandhi was pulled from release at the very last minute and shelved because its creator felt that its content was too explicit. (Apparently couplets like “New ass, new tits/New bitch, who this?” didn’t jibe with his newly rediscovered Christianity.) Thankfully for fans, all of the songs from the album’s original tracklist have leaked (either as demos or finished but unmastered tracks) along with others from the sessions, and have been configured into various bootleg compilations. If that sounds way too outside the realm of canonization, consider that Kanye burned that bridge sometime around the sixth “update” delivered to streaming services of his 2016 album The Life of Pablo, or when he replaced an entire beat on 2018’s Ye days after its release. In short, thinking of latter-day Kanye West albums as fluid is more than appropriate. Yandhi is also far from Ye’s worst album, thanks to the indelible earworm “New Body”—which features a salacious and table-turning verse from a prime-form Nicki Minaj and a beat by Ronny J that sounds like a tin whistle—along with “Hurricane” and “City in the Sky,” which both do more interesting things with their gospel influences than just about anything on Jesus Is King. Mac



Graduation

7. Graduation (2007)

Kanye’s sampling choices remained basically citational on Graduation, even as his production adopted a beefy, synth-glam sheen. “Stronger” is one of the more galvanizing moments of contrast to the filtered soul of “Through the Wire” and “Touch the Sky.” Instead of trying to placate his oft-mentioned elders with Curtis Mayfield and Chaka Khan, the menacing Vocoder samples of Daft Punk cut through the hazard tape of “Stronger” and, if nothing else, form a much more appropriate match for Kanye’s blustering hubris. Still, you couldn’t find a campus library cavernous enough to annotate “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” in which Kanye attempts to satirically undercut his supposedly self-deprecating biographical exorcism and ends up in a deep confusion, or the swooping drama queenery of “Flashing Lights,” in which he compares his media experience to what it must’ve felt like to be “Katrina with no FEMA.” Eric Henderson



808s & Heartbreak

6. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)

After a series of micro-evolutions, 808s & Heartbreak marked Kanye’s first hard pivot away from his soul-sample-heavy brand of hip-hop. The album’s narrow aesthetic boundaries—including minimalist keyboards, steely string passages, and, of course, tribal 808s—highlight Kanye’s limitations as a vocalist. But while Auto-Tune might be the worst thing to happen to popular music since Kanye’s ego, it makes his pitiful crooning sound like that of a despondent robot. And that ego, like the singing rapper’s heart, isn’t so much broken as it is deflated like the balloon on the album’s cover, making for purposeful (mis)use of the pitch-correction software as a symptom of said heart defect. Sal Cinquemani



The College Dropout

5. The College Dropout (2004)

Who says rap can’t be insecure and hopelessly neurotic? Kanye proved the possibility of this kind of finicky introspection without losing a hint of swagger, hopping from big issues to self-involved bluster, always with one eye on the mirror, second-guessing himself all the way to the top. Before the ego-infused outbursts, before the anti-academic motifs became hopelessly stale, The College Dropout found Kanye as a relatively blank slate, as well as the first rapper to score a hit single with his jaw wired shut. Jesse Cataldo



The Life of Pablo

4. The Life of Pablo (2016)

“We don’t want no devils in the house,” squeaks a sampled Christ-worshipping pipsqueak in the first seconds of The Life of Pablo, and unsurprisingly her words go unheeded: After the benedictory blessing of “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye is back to his sinning ways. The Kanye of this album is the least likable one yet, and even more repelling for his apparent proximity to the real Kanye: Unlike those of the “monster” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or the “god” on Yeezus, there’s always a sense that the narratives here—the one about Taylor Swift, the shot at Ray J, etc.—are his own. But the thing is, amplification is Kanye’s art: Sounds are always getting bigger and sharper, production progressively more expansive and diverse, and emotional honesty is taken to the most vivid of extremes. The Life of Pablo is a masterwork because it pairs Kanye’s best executed musical ideas with the most revealing expression of his character. Mac



Yeezus

3. Yeezus (2013)

As raw and straightforward as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is sparkling and expansive, Yeezus is another self-deifying shrine to an artist so much more sensitive than his stature should allow, turning everything he releases into a messy blend of the personal and the political. Never has this been clearer than on stellar songs like “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves,” which conflate personal and historical traumas into one chaotic mixture, communicating both the insidious, lingering effects of a racist culture and the unmistakable imprint of an artist who refuses to be quieted by his own insecurities. Cataldo



Late Registration

2. Late Registration (2005)

Though his public appearances and constant blogging demonstrated an ego run so amuck it headed right into South Park fish-in-a-barrel territory, signing up to co-produce a rap record with Jon Brion was a pretty genius move. Brion’s strings and general sense of kooky bombast make for a consistently challenging album that never forgets that it’s still a pop record. Despite a tinge of melancholy on tracks like “Hey Mama” and “Roses,” or the outrage of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” Late Registration mostly captures the joy that can only be found in creative invention. Jimmy Newlin



My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

Insisting, on whatever grounds, that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of rap’s great milestone’s doesn’t do the album justice, at least insofar as doing so invites impossible challenges (is it really better than Fear of a Black Planet or Illmatic? Who could definitively say?) without drawing due attention to the strengths on which the album might meet them. So let me offer the following, slightly less generous superlative: No rap album I’ve heard can boast better production than this one. The music is exhilarating, often abrasive, never predictable, at times stunningly gorgeous. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy allows Kanye a thematic palette broad enough to confront his pride and anguish. The album dwells on the surreal (“Dark Fantasy” imagines a shopping-mall séance and a sky eclipsed by herons) and the religious (next to Kanye himself, it’s Satan who gets the most name-drops here). It’s all in the service of an exhausting contest between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, Kanye embracing his singular pop-star/super-villain persona while struggling to connect with the creative potential that made him worth our attention to begin with. Matthew Cole

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading

Features

Interview: Miranda July on Kajillionaire and the Malleability of Movies

The multihyphenate artist discusses why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas.

Published

on

Miranda July
Photo: Focus Features

Prior to chatting with Miranda July last week, I was assigned homework—a first in my experience as an interviewer. The multihyphenate artist’s team sent over a copy of her decades-spanning monograph (titled, perhaps naturally, Miranda July), which is both a compilation of her output across mediums and a clear line of sight into her creative and collaborative process. And if you’ve had the chance to read the tome, released by Prestel in April, you will know that July’s continued artistic endeavors have rendered it outdated.

July’s third feature, Kajillionaire, only represents the tip of the iceberg of her recent interdisciplinary efforts. Over the course of November and December 2019, she crafted a “movie” on Instagram with actress Margaret Qualley. In March, she curated the “Covid International Arts Festival,” a celebration of art during quarantine. That was followed by a more self-contained short film, Jopie, edited together from footage she crowdsourced from her Instagram followers during pandemic-related lockdown. And her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, joined the Criterion Collection this year.

While Kajillionaire might be July’s most expensive feature to date, the extra bells and whistles don’t come at the expense of her singularly off-kilter perspective. The premise alone, about a family of eccentric thieves living in the margins of Los Angeles, makes the film feel of a piece with a recent wave of cinematic scammers both real (Fyre Festival and Theranos) and imagined (Parasite and Shoplifters). Yet, as filtered through July’s unconventional lens, the grift is never the goal of the narrative. The film goes in surprising and poignant directions once the tight-knit team welcomes an affably green newcomer, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), into their fold, exposing long-simmering tensions between the emotionally stunted Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) and her eccentric parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger).

I spoke to July over the phone as Kajillionaire prepared for a theatrical run prior to hitting VOD in October. Our conversation covered the porous boundaries of what constitutes a movie, why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas, as well as why she’s confounded by reactions to her latest feature as a work of “genre.”

You’ve been on my side of this exchange before, interviewing Rihanna for The New York Times. I watched the video in the profile where you talked about worrying you might start acting like her? I have a lot of fears when interviewing, but that’s not one of them. Where does that stem from exactly?

You’re used to watching someone who’s such a star like that without them being able to see you. You’re just unclear on what you look like, or what you might unconsciously do in front of their face. I sing along to her! Obviously, I’m not going to do that in the moment, but I guess it’s just a way of describing the fear being looked back at by someone who really should only go one way.

Cinema as practiced in the traditional model of a narrative feature like Kajillionaire is very much a one-way conversation between you and the audience. But the Instagram project you did with Margaret Qualley is a little more of a two-way conversation because it allows the audience to become a part of it. Especially as so many American cinemas remain closed, do you think this kind of social media cinema could start to kind of supplant or substitute what we traditionally think of as cinema?

Yeah! I feel like we have such insane tools, our phones are really such good cameras. And the means for sharing things. I’m sort of surprised more hasn’t been done. I remember right before the pandemic actually saying to someone, “No one’s using Live stories [on Instagram]. Like, that’s weird! Why is that feature not being used more? Because there’s so much that can be done!” Now, that’s an example, the pandemic has pushed that forward. I mean, it’s a terrible time politically for a pandemic. But in terms of filmmaking and tools [laughs], we are better equipped than we would have been even a few years ago.

As an artist, you seem ahead of the curve in recognizing that social media is a venue for entertainment and storytelling as much as it is for messaging and advertising. As someone who’s created art for both social media platforms and traditional cinema, how do you regard them in relation to each other as audiovisual entertainment?

I guess one thing to keep in mind is I’m working in so many mediums. I mean, I used to call my performances “live movies,” so I’m not a purist. I’m sort of the opposite of that as far as cinema goes. What I loved about doing that project with Margaret was that it was very immediate and spontaneous. It allowed her a little more agency than an actor would usually have on a set. I couldn’t have, like, perfect control over her because she was also living her life. And I would ask, “What are you doing?” She’d be like, “Okay, I’m gonna be at Paris Fashion Week,” and we were kind of building things around her real life to some degree. And then, also, it’s porous. Like, Jaden [Smith] became involved because I noticed he was following it. He had commented on posts. So I just DMed him, and I said, “Do you want to be part of it? Imagine that, that’d be like a Purple Rose of Cairo-level of cinema if that happened!” It’s amazing.

The way you have described your process makes it seem almost cyclical—as if you could never follow making a movie with another movie. What’s behind that impulse?

I should say, actually, I do often want to make another movie right away. I think the Margaret thing was a little bit like my muscles are still warm from this. But each of those disciplines is really important to me. And if I don’t write another book, I won’t keep growing as a writer. I’m really interested in figuring out how to write. It sounds so boring but, like, I don’t want to do another movie because that’s too long. It’s too many years in between, and I’m aware of how finite this life is. I’m really just trying to get to do both.

Is the medium you want to work in where the germ of a project starts? Or does the idea itself determine how it’s going to be expressed?

Usually it’s the medium because, in a dumb way, I know I need a movie idea when I’m done with a book. So, I’m just kind of a mercenary or something. But then, also, the mediums themselves have different energies and capacities, and they inspire me. If you think of Instagram as a medium, I’m having fun thinking, “What can you actually do there that I couldn’t do just now in Kajillionaire?” Or, “What can I do in fiction that would be just terrifying to do if there had to be real people involved?”

I was struck by a quote about Kajillionaire in your monograph that was attributed to Richard Jenkins, but apparently you repeated frequently: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be right, it just has to be alive.” What does “alive” mean in the context of this film or your art in general?

I think he partly said that to me because I, as a writer-actor, get pretty hung up on my words [being] said exactly how I pictured them. Because I’ve already acted out all these parts, and I think they know it and can feel it on some level. But that can also go both ways. It makes me really precise, clear, and able to communicate to my crew. I know what I want, but at the same time, there’s something that has to be out of your control, free, and kind of unhinged to take flight. I know that even as just a writer: You gotta let go, even of yourself. That was that was so powerful because it’s not like I changed my process from the day he said that on, but it emboldened to me to do things that were almost counterintuitive. Just to see what would happen if I could be more alive.

Your previous features have been explicitly about lonely or isolated humans interfacing with technology and contemporary society. That element isn’t entirely absent in Kajillionaire, but it seems a little more in the background. Were you consciously trying to approach these themes in a more oblique way?

Well, I’m never thinking that there’s a theme that I have interest [in]. But I had become a mother since my last movie, that was influencing me and making me a little more conscious of what parenting means, the sort of inherent tyranny within family structures. I think I was influenced by writing a novel that, while it wasn’t like a heist story, did have sort of twists, turns, and reveals. I knew I wanted to do that in a feature film.

You’ve talked about the narcissism of the Dyne parents being one of their defining characteristics, and it got me thinking about how the trait seems to be generational. When people say millennials are narcissists, for example, that’s largely a reflection of the fact that they were raised by boomers, who are often categorized as narcissists. Was that something you were looking to explore through the film?

When you’re only a daughter, if you’re not yet—or are never going to be—a mother, then you just have this sense of parenting as almost like God or something. It’s only something you can shake your fist at. And then, once you’re on the other side of it, it’s like, “Well, hold on this thing that’s your whole childhood, this was just like a series of decisions I made because I was in a weird place in my life—some of them conscious, some of them accidental.” The whole thing doesn’t hold water so tightly as it does when you’re on the other side of it. That seemed kind of criminal to me. I mean, not to be too literal. And then also it seems like the child’s job is to betray the parents, like that’s inherent and will always happen. Yes, all these things are made more explicit and heightened in the movie, but I think I was feeling them in a gut, new way in the years that I was conceiving of the movie.

I’ve noticed a repeated sticking point of yours: female directors are so often asked about whether their work is autobiographical because people, consciously or not, presume that men create while women just reflect. With Kajillionaire, where you aren’t in front of the camera as a performer, has that experience changed at all?

Yeah, maybe it helps that I’m not in it. But people love saying I’ve made a genre movie, and that seems really male. Which, to me, is so funny because it’s a pretty emo heist movie. It becomes abundantly female by the end. But, yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think I’m getting asked probably a lot more about, like, “Is that my family?” than the Ocean’s 11 people are being asked that. The funny thing is it’s not that I don’t think personal stuff is interesting. You just want men to be asked the same thing.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading

Features

The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

Published

on

The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: New Line Cinema

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins


The Blackcoat’s Daughter

10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen


1922

9. 1922 (2017)

In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen


The Invitation

8. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Sinister

7. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Session 9

6. Session 9 (2001)

As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins


Before I Wake

5. Before I Wake (2016)

Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen


The Evil Dead

4. The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez


The Guest

3. The Guest (2014)

The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen


Poltergeist

2. Poltergeist (1982)

Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das


The Silence of the Lambs

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving brilliant investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed and ruined over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle. Bowen

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading

Features

New York Film Festival 2020

There’s something equal parts twisted and romantic about the left-for-dead format of the drive-in theater uniting with theater-killing streaming technology to preserve the institution of the film festival.

Published

on

New York Film Festival 2020
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Film festivals, like the rest of us, are still adapting to the unique challenges posed by the Covid pandemic, with major ones drastically scaling back their lineups or devising a hybrid physical-virtual screening schedules. The 58th New York Film Festival will kick off on September 17 with simultaneous screenings of Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock at two drive-in theaters in Brooklyn and Queens (the festival will also be using another drive-in in the Bronx for further screenings). Lovers Rock is the first episode of McQueen’s five-part Small Axe miniseries, set among London’s West Indian community; the “film,” along with two others in the anthology (Mangrove and Red, White And Blue) will also be available to ticket-holders for designated four-hour windows online. After the cancellation of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s been encouraging to see so many festivals coping with the impacts of the pandemic, even if it seems somewhat antithetical for a film festival like this one to be effectively dispersed across the globe rather than concentrated in a single communal event.

The festival’s socially minded main slate features a wealth of new works from master documentarians like Fredrick Wiseman (City Hall), Jia Zhang-ke (Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue), and Gianfranco Rossi (Notturno). And particularly notable among the works of nonfiction in this year’s slate is Garrett Bradley’s Time, a stirring look at 21 years in the life of a family that’s been irrevocably altered by the prison-industrial complex. On the fiction side, the lineup is no less auteur-friendly, with the festival presenting the latest works by Christian Petzold (Undine), Tsai Ming-Liang (Days), Hong Sang-soo (The Woman Who Ran), Cristi Puiu (Malmkrog), and more. And this year’s much-anticipated centerpiece selection is Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to The Rider, Nomadland, about a woman (played by Frances MacDormand) who lost everything in the Great Recession and travels the country in a camper in the wake of her husband’s death.

This mix of socio-politically engaged documentaries and auteurist cinema also marks the festival’s Spotlight section. There, you’ll find new films by Pedro Almodóvar (the short drama The Human Voice starring Tilda Swinton), Sofia Coppola (On the Rocks), and the prolific-in-death Orson Welles (Hopper/Welles), as well as David Dufresne’s The Monopoly of Violence, about police violence in France, and Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus’s All In: The Fight for Democracy, which is concerned with the history and current activism against voter suppression and is based around interviews with American politician Stacey Abrams.

Elsewhere, 59 films with a more experimental bent, interweaving fiction and nonfiction, will screen as part of the Currents program. Of particular note is the latest from Nicolás Pereda (Fauna) and another dispatch from beyond the grave by Raúl Ruiz (The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, co-directed by his widow and collaborator, Valeria Sarmiento). And among the notable titles slotted in the Revivals section, which “connects cinema’s rich past to its dynamic present through an eclectic assortment of new restorations,” are Béla Tarr’s Damnation, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, and Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct.

Right now, even the films most engaged with reality can feel out of date if they happen to have been shot more than eight months ago; seeing everyday people on screen shaking hands or standing in lines can have an uncanny effect. But then, watching art flicks at a drive-in might serve as a constant reminder to festivalgoers how much stranger the world has gotten than last year’s already-unnerving status quo. There’s something equal parts twisted and romantic about the left-for-dead format of the drive-in theater uniting with theater-killing streaming technology to preserve the institution of the film festival. It’s like temporal streams have been crossed, the mid-20th-century society of the auto hybridized with the 21st-century society of the mobile phone. The erstwhile downsides of these formats—the isolation of the home theater or hermetically sealed family car—turn out to be their primary advantages in our current context. Pat Brown

For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center. Capsule reviews of films in the main slate appear below; check back as more titles are added, with links to full reviews.


Beginning

Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili)

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning centers around a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who lives with her husband, David (Rati Oneli), and young son in a remote village in the mountains outside of Tbilisi. The close-knit community they tend to faces extreme prejudice and persecution from the local Orthodox Christian majority, as illustrated in the film’s startling opening. Foreshadowing another shocking event late in the film, one that shows the imperceptible force of religious scripture weighing on the characters, this opening’s blurring of boundaries between spiritual imagination and reality reveals itself to be a key theme of the narrative. Though a strictly minimalist approach means that her visual motifs emerge organically from the action, Kulumbegashvili makes a few unexpected, rather Hanekian compositional choices that break with the film’s sense of naturalism to more explicitly wring allegorical significance from certain sequences. Demonstrating the extent of Yana’s resilience in facing the most extreme and personal tests of faith, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her community, Kulumbegashvili vividly imagines powerlessness and despair being transformed into a supernatural, redemptive force. David Robb


The Calming

The Calming (Song Fang)

The meticulousness and control of Song Fang’s feature-length directorial debut, Memories Look at Me, gave the film a specific conceptual focus. The Chinese actress and filmmaker’s follow-up feature, The Calming, places a similar emphasis on technique, but its scrupulously shot and staged compositions tend to suck the life out of every frame. The narrative is simple, and again loosely autobiographical: Song surrogate Lin Tong (Qi Xi), a documentary filmmaker who we learn early on has recently been through a breakup, drifts between Japan, China, and Hong Kong—locations with stated sentimental value to Song, who drew on her memories of visiting them during the film festival run of Memories Look at Me. That sense of personal meaning is meant to be conveyed through a film’s worth of immaculate long takes of Lin inhabiting different spaces, from bustling cityscapes to minimally furnished apartments, to lush, sprawling natural environments. But as a result of Song’s seeming unwillingness to give us much understanding of this character and her limited formalist vocabulary, The Calming is left unable to connect angst to anything significantly deeper. Sam C. Mac


City Hall

City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)

Frederick Wiseman never steps in the same river twice, though the methods of this prolific, preeminent documentarian are, with rare exception, unchanging. So it is with City Hall, Wiseman’s formidable and incisive exploration of local government in Boston, Massachusetts. Non-diegetic score and identifying on-screen titles are eschewed throughout, while the film’s duration is well past the feature-length norm—in this case, four-and-a-half engrossing hours. The camerawork, courtesy of Wiseman’s longtime collaborator John Davey, is mostly fly-on-the-wall, swish-panning between or settling for extended periods on a given scene’s subjects. Mundanities that many other artists would turn away from are manna to Wiseman. He gets as much poetic and provocative mileage out of a budget meeting that projects the fiscal year to come as he does a glass skyscraper reflecting a magic-hour sunset. The film’s provocations can seem savage at a glance, but they emerge from an observational tranquility that is uniquely Wiseman’s own, and which leave room for individual interpretation. What each of us sees is what each of us gets. But how do we arrive at our respective ideological terminus? City Hall isn’t an incitement, so much as an invitation to serenely reflect on and think through systems of power that are, like the people who labor within them, constantly evolving—for better and for worse. Keith Uhlich


Days

Days (Tsai Ming-liang)

Centered on the quotidian lives of two unnamed men (played by Lee Kang-sheng and Anong Houngheuangsy), Days finds Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang reflecting once again on people’s unspeakable loneliness and alienation in a world lacking in reciprocity. In a series of tableaux vivants, where the camera remains mostly still and sound is entirely diegetic, the uneventful days of the two men unfold, or, considering the film’s meticulous attention to such elements as water and fire, you could say that they burn slowly. Indeed, the younger man (Houngheuangsy) stokes the embers of a fire so he can methodically make his lunch, washing vegetables and fish in buckets inside his bathroom and concocting a makeshift stove by placing a pot on top of the other one containing the embers. The older man (Lee), in turn, is seen taking a bath, stretching his sore body in the woods, and staring out a window for what feels like an entire afternoon, as he listens to the sound of water. Were Lee facing the lens, the sequence would belong to the same documentary universe of Wang Xiaoshuai or Sergei Loznitsa—of evidence through dogged visual persistence. Diego Semerene


The Disciple

The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane)

Like the destitute musician at the center of Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star, Sharad (Aditya Modak) sees singing as more than just a profession; for him, it’s a heightened state of being. And even as we see him become weathered and pudgy as time, along with a lack of success and, naturally, money, wears him down, he remains determined to teach raag at a local school, while still performing and trying to sell CDs of rare raag musicians on the side. Given the philosophical nature of the guru Maai’s interview snippets and the remarkably beautiful musical performances of Sharad and his guru, Sindhubai (Dr. Arun Dravid), writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane appears, for much of The Disciple, to be fully celebrating the asceticism and endless struggle that Sharad has committed himself to. But as time goes on, we not only see the costs of pursuing perfection, but also the isolation that results from his strict and limiting adherence to practicing and teaching only raag. It’s a single-minded focus that is, in large part, passed down from his own gurus, though when he berates one of his students for wanting to sing raag in a fusion band, it reveals not a love for the artform to which he’s devoted his life, but a domineering spirit that arises from his musical monomania. Derek Smith


Gunda

Gunda (Victor Kossakovsky)

On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead. The newborn piglets in the film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human. Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimlessly roaming around a farm. And by the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths. Keith Watson


I Carry You with Me

I Carry You with Me (Heidi Ewing)

Across I Carry You with Me, director and co-screenwriter Heidi Ewing devotes herself to championing a cause above all else. Which is to say, she doesn’t attest to a belief in cinema as art of nuance and ambiguity. Hers is a kind of pedagogical, if not exactly activist, filmmaking style that’s not without its commendable intentions or political urgency, but it ends up feeling like a one-dimensional PSA. Ewing’s tale of immigration and deportation afflicting the lives of a Mexican gay couple flashes its reason for being at every turn, robbing the spectator of the experience of doubt—of wandering and of wonder. Perhaps inevitably, this approach reduces Iván (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo’s (Christian Vazquez) life in Mexico to the tropes to queer victimhood: the sissy boy whose father catches him wearing make-up and teaches him a lesson so he can become a “real man,” the gay couple who’s attacked by rowdy straight men on an empty street. Iván and Gerardo are flattened into spokespeople for a preconceived idea that’s imposed on us instead of richly developed—that is, whether the most suffocating closet is the one where you live in the shadows as an illegal immigrant or as queer person afraid of being outed. By the time Ewing changes aesthetic course in the end, the rawness of the filmic style feels contrived and unearned, unable to retroactively grant lifeblood into archetypes. Semerene


Isabella

Isabella (Matías Piñeiro)

Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, a cubist riddle composed of elliptical scenes that hint at conflict, finds the Argentine writer-director sliding further into abstraction than ever before. The film cloaks its muted, wispy narrative in symbolic digressions and repetitive formal gestures that imply some grand design just beyond comprehension—a fitting analogy given the recurring presence of an overhead shot of hands arranging a puzzle consisting only of differently shaded notecards. Piñeiro remains a superlative director of actors and a careful modulator of rhythm, and part of the film’s longueurs have to do with an effort to provide respite from just how fast everyone talks and walks. But the drama of external turbulence and internal reckoning being sketched in the film, particularly as it relates to emerging motherhood, feels emotionally distinct from the amorous entanglements that Piñeiro was reveling in just half a decade ago, and if he’s indeed entering a phase of middle-aged concerns, it’s easy to feel primed for something deeply moving to come next. If that’s the case, then Isabella feels like a stylistic and thematic trial run. Carson Lund


Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

One of three episodes from his upcoming miniseries, Small Axe, that will world premiere at the New York Film Festival, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock is nothing if not a mood piece. For McQueen, who’s of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent, the series is his most personal project to date, weaving together various stories within London’s West Indian community in the 1980s. Set largely over one night at a house party and gently tracing the growing attraction between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and the mysterious Franklyn (Micheal Ward), Lovers Rock lovingly captures the sense of community that’s fostered within the house right out the gate, as the musicians set up the sound system and the jolly cooks in the kitchen start banging out curry goat and ackee and saltfish. The film’s centerpiece, set to Janet Kay’s lovers rock hit “Silly Games,” plays out across a sea of polyester, beautiful Black bodies rapturously entwined. The social world that McQueen envisions is lived-in, tactile, and especially wondrous across scenes that fixate on the temperature of a song (from Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” to the Revolutionaries “Kunta Kinte”) turning the dial up on people’s libidos. Luckily that’s the better part of Lovers Rock’s 70-minute runtime, because whenever it follows Martha out of the house and puts her in the crosshairs of a potential threat or generally catches her in a moment of confusion about some incident that feels every bit as alien to us, it’s difficult to not see the film’s episodic roots. Ed Gonzalez


Malmkrog

Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air. That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Ben Flanagan


Mangrove

Mangrove (Steve McQueen)

Though set in 1960s London, Steve McQueen’s Mangrove is very much pitched to the contemporary moment, specifically the global movement against racism and police brutality. The first of five episodes in McQueen’s Small Axe miniseries (though, oddly, the second to screen at this year’s festival), the film is a docudrama-style retelling of the case of the Mangrove Nine, a group of protesters who were arrested and put on trial for demonstrating against the local police’s relentless harassment and intimidation of Notting Hill’s Black community. Unfortunately, McQueen never quite finds his footing with this rich historical material, packing the script (co-written with Alastair Siddons) with so much leaden exposition and impassioned though repetitious speechifying that there’s little room left for the characters to breathe. The trajectory of Caribbean restaurant proprietor Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), an at-first reluctant member of the emerging resistance who comes to embrace his role as a movement leader, ostensibly forms the emotional core of the story, but Crichlow is too aloof and vaguely drawn for his arc to leave much impact. In contrast to the intoxicating late-night groove of Lovers Rock, which showcased the loosest, funkiest filmmaking of McQueen’s career, Mangrove finds the director at his most formally conservative, wrapping this story of resistance, rebellion, and racial terror in a disappointingly stuffy package. Watson


MLK/FBI

MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard)

Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI is an impressive reassessment of an American icon, approaching sensational material in forthright terms and without devolving into sensationalism. Based largely on Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow’s 2015 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, this knotty and compelling documentary threads together the story of the F.B.I.’s obsession with finding compromising secrets about King with an unusually frank accounting of what some of those secrets were. When Garrow published a blockbuster story in 2019 alleging that King had witnessed or potentially even taken part in a 1964 rape at a hotel, it caused a brief flutter but was largely overlooked in the mainstream media. Pollard handles this explosive issue with restraint and intelligence. The film shows no illusions about the extent of King’s affairs. But it also refrains from any dubious moral calculations by giving his personal deceptions the same weight as his public morality. Pollard also deals carefully with Garrow’s most damning allegation, giving the thinly documented charge its due but carving out space around it for uncertainty. While the film doesn’t try to elevate King’s pedestal any higher, it also doesn’t try to knock him off of it. Chris Barsanti


Night of the Kings

Night of the Kings (Philippe Lacôte)

Inside the La MACA prison in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a newly arrived prisoner (Bakary Koné) becomes a “Roman,” a storyteller tasked with spinning yarns as entertainment, with the threat of being hung on an iron hook if he fails to hold everyone’s attention. This unlucky Scheherazade-like character thus finds himself at the center of an explosion of activity as the other prisoners prepare for this ritualistic evening. The most striking aspect of Night of the Kings is the way in which the prisoners begin to act out Roman’s story, voicing characters and even engaging in interpretive song and dance as if possessed by the spirit to act. The camera regularly shifts away from Roman to move in lockstep with the prisoners’ contortions and twirling movements, resulting in a poetry of motion that illuminates his improvised tale better than the actual depictions of it. Despite its bleak context, the film is a celebration of oral traditions as a means of giving purpose to even the most hopeless of lives. That a film so frequently harrowing can so often feel joyous without every trivializing the state of its characters’ imprisonment is a testament to the way that writer-director Philippe Lacôte resolutely finds the meaning embedded within ritual, and how the activities of the inmates, however strange, constitute routines every bit as normalizing as the daily tasks of those living their lives outside the walls of the prison. Jake Cole


Nomadland

Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)

“I’m not homeless,” Fern (Frances McDormand) says in response to the concerned query of an old friend in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. “I’m just houseless.” And she says it in a distinctly sharp, guarded, and prideful tone that McDormand expertly deploys throughout the film. I’m fine, her voice and slightly narrowed eyes say, but don’t come any closer. Her standoffishness points to the pride of a van-dwelling and only occasionally employed woman who spurns pity while trying to carve out a place for herself in a society that doesn’t leave space for people not defined by steady careers or well-rooted homes. Using a minimal and improvised-feeling script that emphasizes interaction and happenstance over story, Zhao places Fern and the gorgeous landscapes she travels through at the forefront of the film. There are times when Joshua James Richards’s sweeping cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi’s gently emotive music point to a far more romantic vision than that suggested by Fern’s hard-bitten attitude. But by juxtaposing beautiful vistas filled with promise, a rotted social safety net, and the scrappy itinerant workers navigating the space in between, Zhao generates a gradually swelling tension underneath her film’s somewhat placid surface. In the end, whether Fern roams the desert or returns to housed life, the unfulfilled promise of America will keep pushing her back to the horizon. Barsanti


Notturno

Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi)

The common understanding of documentaries is that they’re intended to inform in particular ways: candid footage often complemented by explanatory text and graphics, testimony of witnesses and experts who frame and flesh out the events in question, contemplative pans across archival evidence, and, in the age of reality TV, extended interviews with the subjects themselves in close-up, providing a kind of running interior monologue. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentaries, though they take on topics of great socio-political import, eschew virtually all of these conventions and thus demand a different kind of engagement—one rooted in empathy for the experiences of his essentially anonymous human subjects. His refusal to firmly place the segments of life that he captures within an explicit broader framework might be seen as an effort to keep his images resolutely in the present. The unpredictable power outages and food shortages in major cities, the unsettling presence of foreign armies, the mental and physical suffering of children whose families and neighbors have been slaughtered by ISIS—the dreadful beauty of Notturno’s experiential approach to cinema emphasizes that these aren’t impersonal events on a timeline, but the current life as lived by millions in the Near East. Brown



The Salt of Tears

The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel)

Despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Scenes from a Marriage to A Summer’s Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Philippe Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrel’s use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe it’s in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity. Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc (Logann Antuofermo), he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride. Semerene


Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhang-ke)

Divided into 18 titled chapters, Jia Zhang-ke’s documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is a quietly reflective, intermittently rambling rumination on an explosively momentous period in history. In the film, a 2019 literary festival in Jia’s home province of Shanxi is the springboard for three writers’ takes on how China has been transformed since the 1940s. Although the style and manner of the writers vary widely, they each describe a time of radical change, particularly how small villages like Jia’s were rocked by the tumult of the Communist Party takeover in 1949, then the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and then the turbo-charged urbanization of the new millennium. Taking a quieter and less barbed approach to addressing the state of modern China than fans of his work are likely used to from such politically pointed dramas as A Touch of Sin, Jia refers to the documentary as a “symphony.” As such, it features discrete movements and some repeated themes, like the beautiful interludes in which farm workers recite short snippets from the books being discussed. What it doesn’t have, however, is much of a crescendo. Barsanti


Time

Time (Garrett Bradley)

In 1997, Robert Richardson was convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole. Time doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. That’s because director Garrett Bradley has the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time. Brown


Tragic Jungle

Tragic Jungle (Yulene Olaizola)

Set in the 1920s on the border between Mexico and Belize, Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle initially tracks the clandestine movement of Agnes (Indira Andrewin) as she runs away from an arranged marriage to a white settler. This narrative arc plays out as a vicious critique of colonialism, but the film takes a dramatic turn when an unconscious Agnes is found by a group of chicleros. Agnes, who earlier acknowledged her sexual inexperience and curiosity to her sister (Shantai Obispo), is at once apprehensive and receptive to the callous advances of the more aggressive workers. And the convoluted sexual politics that arise from her excitement and fear complicate scenes where sexual violation becomes indistinguishable from fantasy. Tragic Jungle never becomes a full-on horror film, but Olaizola engages with indigenous legends and colonial history across a story where misogyny is turned against the patriarchy in ways that recall recent genre offerings like The Witch. Compared to that film’s turn toward the outright macabre, though, Tragic Jungle operates in a dreamier, more ambiguous register. It suggests that Agnes is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation against men who second-guess their fears and superstitions until they realize too late they should have trusted their instincts from the start. Cole


The Truffle Hunters

The Truffle Hunters (Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw)

Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of their subjects—a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region—and their resistance to nosy profiteers, The Truffle Hunters seems driven by a desire to enshrine the men in a timeless tableaux. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between the film’s different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic. The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forests and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself. This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. Lund



Undine

Undine (Christian Petzold)

Throughout his increasingly formidable oeuvre, Christian Petzold has nested stories of doomed love in surveys of his home nation’s reaction to economic or historical upheavals. Though at once lighter and stranger than any of his earlier work, Undine makes the melodramatic trappings of the director’s previous films its explicit subject, questioning the fixed nature of human behavior in a world whose borders are constantly shifting. It’s ironic and puzzling, then, that Undine’s eponymous character (Paula Beer) is both human and a water sprite. As this typically compact but deceptively rich film moves along, flashes of dislocation proliferate, undermining its seemingly contemporary setting and leaving us to wonder whether love and logic are compatible. As Petzold ushers his lovers toward doom, the film almost seems to rewind, revisiting most of its settings and turning sites of passion into mausoleums of aching and regret. “Form follows function,” Undine says at one point, and with minor alterations in framing and presentation Petzold fundamentally shifts our sense of these locations. Apparently the first in a trilogy of modern stories based on fables, Undine is a striking change of pace that sacrifices none of the director’s intellect or ambition. Christopher Gray



The Woman Who Ran

The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)

Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran is defined by absences: by who isn’t in the frame and by what isn’t said throughout conversations that appear to be determinedly trivial. Returning to Seoul after years away, Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) reconnects with a trio of female friends, and they talk of the food they eat and indulge in local gossip, repeating observations with a fervor that feels obsessive and mindless, as if these women have gotten too calcified in their own lives to utter anything but mantras. Yet Hong and his actors communicate the disappointment and sadness that’s being suppressed by well-practiced politeness, offering anecdotes that abound in pointed loose ends. Throughout, you may recall that audacious sequence in Grass in which a woman repeatedly went up and down a flight of stairs, as Hong fashions a similar yet subtler portrait of stasis with his latest. Many Hong films examine romantic pressures from the POV of a surrogate for the director himself, while The Woman Who Ran suggests Hong’s fantasy of how women discuss him when he’s not around. Chuck Bowen

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading

Features

Every Song on Taylor Swift’s Folklore Ranked

We’ve ranked all 17 songs from the singer-songwriter’s watershed eighth album.

Published

on

Taylor Swift
Photo: Beth Garrabrant

Over the course of the four releases preceding Folklore, Taylor Swift developed a model of pop album that was seemingly machine-calibrated to please just about everyone. For each fan-favorite deep cut (“All Too Well,” “New Romantics”) there was an equal and opposite radio hit (“22,” “Shake It Off”). The conflict inherent in this structure came to a head on last year’s Lover, which produced pop-centric, radio-friendly singles like “ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down,” as well as the rootsier title track and the lilting “Afterglow.”

Folklore, by contrast, finds Swift at her most masterful and consistent, which makes comparing its songs all the more challenging. None of these songs reach overtly for the theatrics or immediate pop appeal of earlier singles such as “Look What You Made Me Do.” Instead, Swift foregrounds her narrative sensibility and her eye for detail, reminding us of—in case we somehow forgot—her voice-of-a-generation status. See below for our ranking of every song on the singer’s watershed eighth album.


17. “Epiphany”

It’s commendable that Swift would take a moment on an otherwise introspective album to pay tribute to essential workers and to remind her listeners to wear a mask. The conciseness with which she draws a parallel between medical professionals and soldiers is persuasive, but the device’s neatness and sincerity can feel a bit simple. Still, on such a consistent album, last place isn’t so much a slight as it is a credit to the rest of the album’s songs.


16. “Cardigan”

For a song about a conventionally comfy piece of clothing, “Cardigan” is surprisingly slinky, its swaying melody and Swift’s gasping vocals elaborating nicely on the dark pop of 2017’s Reputation. The song’s protracted central metaphor, fairy-tale imagery, and idealistic mentions of scars and tattoos risk being uncomplicatedly wide-eyed, but it’s Swift’s established style to employ childlike concepts with a sense of irony. “Cardigan” avoids becoming saccharine when Swift allows it to be sensual, possibly name-dropping one of Rihanna’s steamiest singles (“Kiss It Better”) to seal the whole thing with a kiss.


15. “Mad Woman”

Swift’s most credible expressions of resentment are typically couched in a tangible conflict (“Mean”) or balanced against self-examination (“Innocent”), but “Mad Woman” is a declaration of anger justified mostly by an interrogation of gender norms. Its lyrics about the weaponization of internalized misogyny signal that Swift has grown since she wrote “You Belong with Me” and “Better Than Revenge,” but her best songs are even more nuanced and tangible than this.


14. “The Lakes”

Folklore’s tender, self-referential bonus track reveals an important element of the album’s ethos, namely that Swift aims to be remembered as a poet. She seeks to do so here through meta-poetics, naming writerly forms (“Is it romantic how all my elegies eulogize me?”) and building puns around great writers’ names (“I’ve come too far to watch some namedropping sleaze/Tell me what are my words worth”). The song might skew capital-R romantic (“A red rose grew up out of ice-frozen ground/With no one around to tweet it”), but it’s an affectionately detailed testament to the fact that readers can become writers, and writers can become icons.


13. “This Is Me Trying”

This is one of a small handful of tracks on Folklore that feel less like distinct story beats and more like summations of the album’s broader emotional arc. In fact, “This Is Me Trying” is a fitting coda to Swift’s entire discography, mining both her vulnerability and her ability to do harm on a serene mid-album respite from the lyrical density of “Seven” and “August.” The image of a salt-rusted Swift downing a shot of whiskey between ruminations on her very public youth is jarring next to her self-titled debut, but it feels like an honest comedown from Lover’s shine.


12. “My Tears Ricochet”

Like “Mad Woman,” “My Tears Ricochet” tells one of Folklore’s most straightforwardly resentful stories, this time grounded narratively in the idea of a toxic lover showing up at their ex’s funeral. Jack Antonoff’s production touches are stirring: The sharp beats of strings on the chorus recall the bridges of early-2010s Swift songs, and the warm echo of Swift “screaming at the sky” on the bridge evokes the thrill of “He looks up, grinning like a devil.”


11. “The 1”

As one of Folklore’s peppiest tracks, “The 1” is a fitting opener and a smooth transition from Lover’s effervescence. It tells us immediately that Swift’s preoccupation with regret has lasted since Fearless and Speak Now, but she’s got the age and experience to reassure her lover (and herself), that “it’s all right now.” Whereas heartbreak was fresh and monumental on “Fifteen,” nowadays Swift’s approach to love and dating is candid and mature—but wistful enough to avoid being blasé.


10. “Peace”

“Peace” is among Swift’s most spacious and gorgeous songs, leaving the impression of pillow talk deepened by promises—or threats—of loyalty. While the song deflates somewhat from the predominance of lyrical clichés (“The devil’s in the details, but you got a friend in me,” “I’d swing with you for the fences/Sit with you in the trenches”), Swift delivers every word with intimate urgency. It’s a fitting summation of the tension between the thrill of love and the knowledge that it’s never truly promised, a conflict that’s motivated much of Swift’s music.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading

Features

Every Britney Spears Album Ranked

We decided to reevaluate the singer’s discography and discovered that her trajectory as an artist has been far from linear.

Published

on

Britney Spears
Photo: RCA Records

Over two decades into her career, Britney Spears is less likely to make headlines for her music than her personal and legal battles, which have resulted in the #FreeBritney movement. So it’s easy to forget that, against all odds, the pop singer has amassed an impressive body of hits—from her iconic debut, “…Baby One More Time,” to later earworms like “Till the World Ends” (see our list of Britney’s best singles here).

With the exception of cult favorite Blackout, Britney has never been considered an “album artist.” There’s nothing more satisfying, though, than someone who forces us to recalibrate our expectations, and Britney did just that with 2016’s Glory: By eschewing EDM and embracing subtler pop and R&B sounds, she made her most daring, mature album to date.

Earlier this year, fans launched another social media campaign, #JusticeForGlory, and the album was subsequently reissued, nearly four years after its initial release, with a new track, “Mood Ring,” previously only available in Japan. We decided to reevaluate Britney’s discography and discovered that, defying yet another expectation, her trajectory as an artist has been far from linear. See below for our ranking of all nine of Britney’s studio albums.



Oops!...I Did It Again

9. Oops!…I Did It Again (2000)

“My loneliness ain’t killin’ me no more!” Britney belts on “Stronger,” referencing a key phrase from her debut single, “…Baby One More Time.” The track is, in retrospect, a standout among Max Martin’s many teen-pop productions from the era, boasting an ABBA-esque hook, robust dance beat, and a menacing foghorn that announced a sexier, more sophisticated, and yes, stronger, Britney. But while the singer’s sophomore effort, the cheekily titled Oops!…I Did It Again, doubled down on the Swedish producer’s formula, it also magnified the worst of both teen-pop’s ticks and Britney’s vocal hiccups. A limp cover of the Rolling Stones’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” makes Samantha Fox’s 1987 rendition sound positively electric, while the molasses-slow “Where Are You Now” and the treacly closing ballad “Dear Diary” could rot the teeth right out of your skull. Sal Cinquemani



Britney Jean

8. Britney Jean (2013)

Designed by committee, with up to six producers and nine songwriters per track, Britney Jean is sonically all over the place, stocked with a mix of the most garish presets from the EDM era and flaccid midtempo pop. The filtered synths featured throughout the album (courtesy of producers like will.i.am and David Guetta) are most forgivable on the catchy “Til It’s Gone,” which is as close as Britney Jean gets to earworms like Femme Fatale’s “Till the World Ends” and “Hold It Against Me.” Lead single “Work Bitch” is the aural equivalent of bath salts, a shrill and mechanical assault on the brain, while “Tik Tik Boom” is by far Britney Jean and company’s most egregious lapse in judgment, with T.I. offering tripe like “She like the way I eat her/Beat her, beat her/Treat her like an animal, somebody call PETA.” Uh, somebody call Tip’s probation officer. Cinquemani



…Baby One More Time

7. …Baby One More Time (1999)

When Britney burst onto the scene with “…Baby One More Time,” her adenoidal, childlike vocals suggested an innocence belied by the image of the then-16-year-old on the album’s cover, kneeling in a short denim skirt, her schoolgirl blouse unbuttoned, her head cocked to the side. Prior to 1998, teen pop had been an innocuous, perennial nuisance, but those big, pounding piano chords and processed squawks of “Oh, bay-ba, bay-ba,” followed by the singer’s full-throated delivery of the song’s hook—“My loneliness is killing me!”—signaled the christening of the genre’s very first Lolita. That the rest of …Baby One More Time plays like a glorified Kidz Bop album is neither surprising nor, frankly, inappropriate. The uptempo highlights—the hit “(You Drive Me) Crazy” and the house-influenced “Deep in My Heart”—feel lyrically and sonically chaste compared to the title track, while the ballads alternate between inane (“Email My Heart”) and interminable (“From the Bottom of My Broken Heart”). Cinquemani



Britney

6. Britney (2001)

There’s a learning curve in pop superstardom and Britney’s development always seemed comparatively stunted, if only because she rush-released three albums in as many years—and all before the age of 20. The media generously, if inexplicably, dubbed Britney the next Madonna, but her interpretations of classics like “I Love Rock N’ Roll,” from 2001’s Britney, lacked the irony and grit of a more seasoned and self-aware artist. The album, her best to date at the time, proved she owed much more to the likes of Paula Abdul and, especially, Janet Jackson than the Queen of Pop. The most successful songs here deviate from the Max Martin formula of Britney’s early hits, including the saccharine disco bop “Anticipating” and the Neptunes-produced “I’m a Slave 4 U,” whose skittering synths and heavy breathing served as a preview of what would become Britney’s career m.o. Cinquemani



Femme Fatale

5. Femme Fatale (2011)

In my review of 2011’s Femme Fatale, I lamented its lead single’s “cheesy pickup lines” and “generic Eurotrash beats and dated trance synths.” By the time the album dropped a couple of weeks later, though, “Hold It Against Me,” in all its generic glory, had burrowed its way into my psyche like a brain-eating amoeba. Released at the height of the EDM explosion, Femme Fatale is, like that single, a gaudy, unrepentant attempt to cash in on a subgenre with a looming expiration date. So it’s no surprise that some of the album’s most enduring tracks pivot back toward Britney’s earlier hits, including the bubbly “How I Roll” and “Trip to Your Heart,” which finds frequent collaborators Bloodshy & Avant seamlessly applying their glitchy, pitch-incorrected synth-pop to the fad of the era. Cinquemani



Circus

4. Circus (2008)

With Circus, Britney dropped the richly self-referential posture she almost reluctantly adopted on Blackout in favor of a far more risky mode: self-actualization. Instead of wallowing in the great drama that was her train-wreck quarter-life crisis, Circus represents the rebirth of regression. It’s a dozen-plus songs of blithe denial—one of which, “Radar,” is curiously recycled from the earlier album—that seems to be saying, “Hey, I’m still young enough to eat hard candy without it being a sad anachronism. So let’s get nekkid.” Biographical details are suppressed in favor of shopping lists (“Lace and Leather”), while confessionals step aside and make way for lewd double-entendres (“If U Seek Amy”). Hell, actual lyrics are eschewed in favor of syllables. Because it’s Britney, however, it all seems to work: Ridiculousness comes naturally, and her cooing break, “Ooh lolly, ooh papi,” on “Mmm Papi” is the nexus of cock-hungriness. If the album is a psychological step backward, well, you can’t say Britney doesn’t sound at home in the womb. Eric Henderson



In the Zone

3. In the Zone (2003)

Britney’s fourth album, In the Zone, found the former pop tart coming of age with a bold mix of dance and hip-hop beats, wiping clean the last traces of her bubblegum past. Britney’s unabashed devotion to dance-pop is, perhaps, the one thing that truly links her to Madonna, who—lamentably—appears on the opening track “Me Against the Music.” Britney beckons to an anonymous dance partner on “Breathe on Me,” exploring the eroticism of restraint: “We don’t need to touch/Just breathe on me.” After a night at the club—and little actual physical contact—she passes out on the couch in the “Early Mornin’” (produced by Moby) and finds some self-gratification on the Middle Eastern-hued ode to masturbation “Touch of My Hand.” Lest you start to believe that the girl who began her career by teasing her barely legal status is finally “in the zone,” “Outrageous” finds her singing “my sex drive” and “my shopping spree” with the same dripping gusto. Cinquemani



Blackout

2. Blackout (2007)

One thing latter-day Britney doesn’t lack is self-awareness. “I’m Mrs. ‘Extra! Extra! This just in!’/I’m Mrs. ‘She’s too big, now she’s too thin’,” she quips on “Piece of Me,” the second single from her 2007 album Blackout. Listening to it now, it’s easy to forget there was anything wrong in her starry world at the time. The album is remarkably cohesive, riding the Timbaland renaissance without the man himself (half the album was produced by Timbo cohort Danja). “Gimme More” and “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” hold their own alongside the likes of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” and Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous.” But it’s Bloodshy & Avant who hog the spotlight here, ponying up the beats on the glitchy “Piece of Me”—which sounds like robots hate-fucking—and the spunky, Kylie-esque “Toy Soldier.” “No wonder there’s panic in the industry. I mean, please,” Britney sneers on the former. Was that a sly comment on our misplaced gaze? Cinquemani



Glory

1. Glory (2016)

From Glory’s opening “Invitation” to its closer, “Coupure Electrique,” it’s no surprise that Britney stocks her latest album with expressions of uncontainable horniness. What is surprising is the degree to which her agency in the act is emphasized, and how sex here is rarely an act of exhibition. Songs like “Private Show” and “Do You Wanna Come Over?” yearn for a specific intimacy, a moving expression from an artist whose public relationship with sexuality once seemed disturbingly out of her control. The album’s key lyric comes from the single “Slumber Party”: “We use our bodies to make our own videos.” Glory is an album-length reclamation of Britney’s autonomy. Sam C. Mac

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading

Features

The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now

These films show us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed.

Published

on

The Best Sci-Fi Films on Netflix Right Now
Photo: Universal Pictures

“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by some of the imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles below (all presently streaming on Netflix) have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson


Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

10. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow, 2003)

A naked man. A naked woman. A slithering snake. A burning bush. No one scene in Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines comes close to approximating the feral apocalyptic swell of James Cameron’s Judgment Day, but it’s certainly drunk on bibilical allegory. The film is most notable for a a series of exciting and ridiculously over-the-top set pieces, none better than an elongated road chase that pits the T-X (Kristanna Loken), a crane, and a horde of unmanned police cars against John Connor (Nick Stahl) and his future wife, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), inside an animal hospital van. Both T-X and Brewster are very much in control of the film’s chaos, and the combination of Loken’s deadly catwalk strut and Danes’s gut-busting one-liners almost makes up for the fact that neither woman is remotely as ferocious as Linda Hamilton. When the shit hits the fan, the dust settles in a somber art deco purgatory. Predicated on all sorts of chance encounters and somber resignations, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines reimagines the Adam and Eve myth but with a post-industrial edge and a distinctly feminist slant. Ed Gonzalez


Elizabeth Harvest

9. April and the Extraordinary World (Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, 2015)

Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci’s April and the Extraordinary World is a steampunk mystery that follows its eponymous heroine through an alternate history of modern France. Adapted from a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, this animated film plays like a fortuitous mashup of Hergé’s Tintin comics and the films of Hayao Miyazaki, what with its indomitable heroine, talking animals, fantastical fortresses and flying machines, valorization of scientists, and weighty ecological themes. In addition to its ecological commentary, the film offers the simpler, standard steampunk pleasure that comes with constructing an alternate past parallel to our own, full of ingenious gadgets and inventions that could only exist in such a world. Bicycle-powered blimps, suspended railroads (where trains hang down from the tracks instead of running on them), and rodent surveillance cyborgs (serving the same purpose as our modern closed-circuit security cameras) transform this unique, smog-drenched vision of turn-of-the-century France, despite the gray and brown palette, into a visual wonderland. Oleg Ivanov


Elizabeth Harvest

8. Elizabeth Harvest (Sebastian Gutierrez, 2018)

The plot convolutions of Elizabeth Harvest conjoin with director Sebastian Gutierrez’s stylistic bravura—blasts of red and blue in Cale Finot’s cinematography that connote a spiritual as well as physical sense of ultraviolence—to create an incestuous atmosphere that’s reminiscent of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Henry is a memorable monster, played by Ciarán Hinds with a bravura mixture of smug entitlement and oily needfulness that’s weirdly and unexpectedly poignant. In one of the greatest mad-scientist speeches ever delivered by a character in a horror film, Henry explains that his cloned wife (Abbey Lee) is only real to him when he destroys her. This admission chillingly crystallizes the thin line, within the male gaze, between adoration and contempt. Bowen


Hardcore Henry

7. Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, 2015)

The film’s first-person perspective is so ingeniously sustained throughout the lean 96-minute running time that you’re liable to swat at your face when a man covered in steel and wielding a flamethrower sets Henry (Andrey Dementyev) on fire, or hold on to the edge of your seat when he battles the telekinetic warlord Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) atop a skyscraper from which a free fall seems inevitable. The film’s singular ambition is to immerse the viewer in the thick of a frenzied drive toward the promise of a lover’s touch and a few more minutes of life. Our aesthetic perception is linked to our perception of Henry himself, so that the film becomes a study of empathy through aesthetics. It’s not for nothing that Henry is made to have no voice, as Hardcore Henry’s unbelievably precise choreography of action seeks to tap into a universal feeling of powerlessness. Gonzalez


Jurassic Park

6. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Even detached from the fuzzy flow of nostalgia, Jurassic Park‘s splendor remains firmly rooted in a fixed set of attributes, particularly the way Steven Spielberg girds his high-flown fantasy within a context of concise, carefully constructed filmmaking. It’s this combination of flashy thrills and solid fundamentals that makes for what’s perhaps the most perfect distillation of the Spielberg brand, with its giddy embrace of the fringe possibilities of special effects, its blending of swashbuckling adventure with overtones of genuine terror, the fondness for small personal stories couched within impossibly large narratives. While even his best films involve a certain measure of hokey schmaltz, he should be equally noted for the precise craftsmanlike qualities that turn them into uniquely rewarding experiences, his insistent focus on assembling worlds from the ground up, accounting for visceral details, no matter how ridiculously fantastical the story may be otherwise. In Jurassic Park this means building an outlandish dream kingdom on a bedrock of scientific detail, on a narrative level, and mixing still-shaky CGI effects with more large-scale models, on a visual one, qualities which help make that grandiosity tactile. Jesse Cataldo


Back to the Future

5. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1986)

Long before Robert Zemeckis re-envisioned the 1960s as the era America gave itself over to stupidity (to the delight of Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads nationwide), he blasted the 1980s back into the 1950s with Back to the Future. Or, rather, he blasted the 1980s specifically for its return to a 1950s-reminiscent moral and political agenda. Looking back on it with the same sense of from-the-future assurance that informed the movie’s own creation, Back to the Future is a logistically beautiful but almost inhumanly perfect confluence of internal logic and external forces. It stands up on its own as a well-oiled, brilliantly edited example of new-school, Spielberg-cultivated thrill-craft, one that endures even now that its visual effects and haw-haw references to Pepsi Free and reruns seem as dated as full-service gas stations apparently did in 1985. Its schematic organization of what Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) need to accomplish and its steadily mounting series of mishaps demonstrating how they can go wrong represent probably the most carefully scripted blockbuster in Hollywood history, but the film’s real coup (and what separates it from the increasingly fluent pack of Spielberg knockoffs) is in how it subtly mocks the political pretensions of the era—not the 1950s, but rather the 1980s. Eric Henderson


The End of Evangelion

4. The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, 1997)

When Hideaki Anno ended Neon Genesis Evangelion, his elaborate analogy for his own untreated depression, with a moment of calming, redemptive group therapy, the backlash he received from fans who wanted a cataclysmic climax was overwhelming. In response, Anno crafted this theatrical alternate ending, in which he brutally and unsparingly gave fans all the nihilistic chaos they could ever want. If the anime series’s finale was a psychological breakthrough, End of Evangelion is the relapse, an implosion of self-annihilating revulsion and anger rendered in cosmic terms. Religious, sci-fi, and psychosexual imagery intersect in chaotic, kaleidoscopic visions of personal and global hell, all passing through the shattered mind of the show’s child soldier protagonist. Its finale is the most fully annihilative visualization of the Rapture ever put to screen, a mass death rendered as cathartic release from the hell of existence that, in a parting act of cruelty, leaves the broken, suicidal protagonist alive to bear witness to oblivion. Jake Cole


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Introverted nice guy Joel (Jim Carrey) hears of an experimental procedure to erase troubling memories, and dives right in when his impulsive girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), washes her brain clean of their love-shattered relationship. Joel’s memories go backward in time from the last gasp of their love to their initial spark, but there are sideways detours along the way that take him to infancy and memories of his first childhood humiliation. James Joyce might have applauded this Phil Dick-caustic/Gnostic rendition of his Nighttown from Ulysses, with Clementine as Joel’s face-changing Penelope/Molly Bloom. Joel attempts to fight the erasure in his own mind, and the film admits early on that it’s a fight he cannot win. That he keeps on fighting anyway is the crux of Eternal Sunshine, and a breakthrough for Charlie Kaufman—writing about the human condition more than questioning our lives as self-made fictions. The fantasies of the film are more “real” than anything he’d written before, because they define who we think we are. Joel rediscovers his love for Clementine through fantasy, which is to say through his clouded memories of her. Such things are precious, and Gondry revels in that world in all its fleeting, flickering, ever-mutating joys. Jeremiah Kipp


Total Recall

2. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

An imaginative expansion of the brisk Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” this film about fake memories and a real interplanetary crisis now stands redolent with nostalgia, both for its time, as well as for itself. Beneath its show of smoke and mirrors, mercenary babes, and treacherous holograms, Total Recall is a story about a man who must choose between two possible, contradictory realities. In one timeline, he’s an earthbound schmuck; in the far less likely one, he’s a hero who must save an oppressed people on a faraway planet. He can’t afford to waver, but it’s our privilege to do so. As viewers, we’re welcome to consider the persistent motif of walls collapsing, subterfuges dissolving, and rugs being pulled out from still more rugs. The film now exists in a twilight of an era in which factory-produced entertainment could still serve as a keyhole into a dimension of weird, through which we might glimpse the otherworldly, and contemplate fondling the third breast. Jaime Christley


Starship Troopers

1. Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)

It seems fitting that it took stumbling upon an obscure Soviet-era concept for me to feel like I had the vocabulary to talk about Paul Verhoeven with any degree of accuracy. That concept is stiob, which I’ll crudely define as a form of parody requiring such a degree of over-identification with the subject being parodied that it becomes impossible to tell where the love for that subject ends and the parody begins. And so there, in 32 words, is the Hollywood cinema of Paul Verhoeven. Starship Troopers then has to be a bad movie, insofar as that means that the acting is not dramatically convincing, the story is hopelessly contrived, the special effects are distractingly garish in their limb-ripping and bone-crunching, because the point isn’t to do better than Hollywood (that would run counter to Verhoeven’s obvious love of these cheap popular forms), but to do more of Hollywood, to push every element to its breaking point without caving to the lazy lure of ridicule. The result is a style that embraces a form as fully as possible only to turn it back against the content, and one of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films. Phil Coldiron

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading

Features

The 20 Best Horror Movies on the Criterion Channel

Here’s some of our favorite horror films currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Published

on

The Best Horror Movies on the Criterion Channel

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on the Criterion Channel. Budd Wilkins


Sisters

20. Sisters (1977)

Though Brian De Palma had directed several accomplished features before it, Sisters feels in many ways like a debut film. It’s certainly De Palma’s first attempt to marry the edgy satirical textures of his earlier work with a recognizable genre narrative. Or, more bluntly, Sisters is De Palma’s first horror thriller, which is the genre that has allowed him to express himself fully. Like many debut films, Sisters is self-conscious and intellectually guarded, lacking the emotional vibrancy of its creator’s future productions, but it’s also a stunning work of style that erupts into ferocious madness. Chuck Bowen


Cronos

19. Cronos (1993)

The ticking of multiple clocks overlapping with a series of loud gongs introduces Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature, Cronos, as a forceful mechanism with a built-in timer for sudden bursts of disintegration. Layers of sound resonate over black, giving the yellow credits an eerily present yet menacing feel. The audible dynamism gives way to a familiar dose of historical reflection, with an omniscient voiceover telling of a famous 16th-century Spanish watchmaker/alchemist who dreamt of creating a device that could spring eternal life. After the man is found dead with a stake through his heart among a random building collapse hundreds of years later, it appears he succeeded as a vampire. With this prologue, del Toro introduces the transcendence of manmade supernatural desires, positioning the consequences of abusing myth and legend in a modern-day setting. The tension between history, science, and religion becomes increasingly palpable throughout Cronos, forging ideas concerning mortality and erosion that will evolve in his later films like the Hellboy series and Pan’s Labyrinth. Glenn Heath Jr.


Häxan

18. Häxan (1922)

Near the conclusion of Häxan, an intertitle asks: “The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops, but isn’t superstition still rampant among us?” Such a rhetorical question is in keeping with the implications of Benjamin Christensen’s eccentric historical crawl through representations of evil. Though the film begins as something of a lecture on the topic of women’s bodies as a threat, it morphs into an array of sketches, images, and dramatizations of mankind’s fundamental inability to conceive itself outside of power and difference. Contemporary footage of insane asylums and women being treated for hysteria confirms a truth that’s still with us, nearly a century later: that the horrors of the past are never so far away. Clayton Dillard


Antichrist

17. Antichrist (2009)

Lars von Trier’s two-hander psychodrama Antichrist draws heavily from a rich tradition of “Nordic horror,” stretching back to silent-era groundbreakers like Häxan and Vampyr (and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s later Day of Wrath), in particular their interrogation of moral strictures and assumptions of normalcy. In the wake of their son’s death, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) follow a course of radical psychotherapy, retreating to their wilderness redoubt, Eden, where they act out (and on) their mutual resentment and recrimination, culminating in switchback brutal attacks and His and Her genital mutilations. Conventional wisdom has it that von Trier’s a faux provocateur, but that misses his theme and variation engagement with genre and symbolism throughout, which renders Antichrist one of the most bracingly personal, as well as national cinema-indebted, films to come along in a while. It’s heartening to see that real provocation still has a place in the forum of international cinema. Bill Weber


Diabolique

16. Diabolique (1955)

Henri-Georges Clouzot was somehow a realist and expressionist in roughly disconcertingly equal measure. Diabolique’s boarding school is portrayed with the stressed and rumble-ready textures of a real school, yet it also appears to exist in a realm of otherworldly myth that’s particularly embodied by the creepy pool into which Christina (Vera Clouzot) and Nicole (Simone Signoret) eventually decide to dump Michel’s (Paul Meurisse) body. The tedium of murder seems to be conveyed in unusually specific terms, such as the logistics of lifting a chest containing a body up into the back of a car, while other scenes make sense only in symbolic fantasy terms, such as the classic moment where Michel slowly unexpectedly rises out of the cold bathtub. Like much of Clouzot’s work, Diabolique is really a caustic, despairing character study masquerading as a thriller. It conjures an atmosphere of suffocating rot that’s so palpable, in fact, that the murder plot is in many ways its least disturbing element. Bowen


Kwaidan

15. Kwaidan (1964)

Working from source material by Lafcadio Hearn, Masaki Kobayashi treats his four adaptations to mighty doses of studio artifice to achieve a painterly hyper-reality. Kobayashi’s directorial control of the milieus is total, which is apropos given the fact that Hearn’s stories feature characters in thrall to the whims of outside forces. For what ultimately amounts to slim (in incident, if not necessarily in length) and predictable tales of ghostly infringement on quotidian life whereby the arcs and the outcomes are more or less the same, it’s the complete harmoniousness of the mise-en-scène that keeps them engrossing on a moment-to-moment level, unfolding less like crescendos to narrative surprises than wades through persistent and inexorable hauntedness. Carson Lund


Onibaba

14. Onibaba (1964)

Long identified with either the epic samurai saga or intimate domestic drama, Japan has staked a more contemporary international claim on the horror genre. But these roots stretch back as far as any larger trend. Kaneto Shindô‘s Onibaba, for one, is something of a mid-century classic, a stylistically influential dramatization of a bygone Buddhist folktale wherein a mother and daughter-in-law sacrifice wandering swordsmen, stripping them of their possessions before depositing their corpses in a nearby pit. It’s the game of sexual cat and mouse that results from the appearance of a mysterious mask, however, that renders the film both feminist polemic and unnerving fable of moral comeuppance. Jordan Cronk


The Brood

13. The Brood (1979)

A film that externalizes all its subtexts like nervous welts in order to mock the burgeoning self-help and divorce crazes that had parents everywhere willfully unable to look beyond their own navels, David Cronenberg’s dark comedy The Brood is as perverse as it is incisive. The message that, no matter what parents try to do to internalize their own therapies and protect their loved ones from the messes they’re inside, there’s no possibility for a clean separation from the beds they make coincided with Cronenberg’s own divorce, which may account for the film’s transitional tone, alternately savage and chilly. Eric Henderson


Eyes Without a Face

12. Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Robin Wood, that great analyzer of screen frissons, once noted that “terrible buildings” were the recurring theme in the films of Georges Franju, and perhaps none is more terrible than the mansion-clinic presided over by Prof. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) in the French surrealist’s masterpiece Eyes Without a Face. As the surgeon operates on captive young women in hopes of restoring the face of his disfigured daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), an unforgettable portrait of subverted normalcy emerges—one where angelic doves and grisly hounds, obsessive love and appalling violence, the gruesome and the poetic, are all perpetually leaking into one another. Fernando F. Croce


The Vanishing

11. The Vanishing (1988)

A disquieting expression of pragmatism as proof of godlessness. Director George Sluizer devises a mystery that very purposefully collapses in on itself, as the terror of The Vanishing resides in its ultimate revelation that there isn’t any mystery at all, a development that carries obviously existential notes of despair. There’s no guiding motivation behind the disappearance that drives the film, and no cathartic purging of guilt or triumph of good; there isn’t even really a triumph of evil. A few things randomly happen, then a few more things, then nothing. The end. That non-ending, though, is one of the greatest in all of cinema and the source of many a nightmare. Bowen

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading

Features

Every Lady Gaga Album Ranked

Even if the singer’s creative trajectory has seemed erratic, her skill for crafting sublime pop is undeniable.

Published

on

Lady Gaga
Photo: Norbert Schoerner/Interscope

Despite throwing herself into jazz standards with Tony Bennett or belting Americana ballads with Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga’s heart belongs to pop music. Even if her creative trajectory has seemed erratic at times, zigging when it should have zagged, her skill for crafting sublime pop songs like “Poker Face,” “Bad Romance,” and “The Edge of Glory” is undeniable. From the singer’s very first hit, “Just Dance,” to the house-influenced throwbacks of her latest album, Chromatica, dance-pop in particular is a well Gaga has returned to again and again throughout her career.

Chromatica became Gaga’s fifth #1 album on the Billboard chart (not including the A Star Is Born soundtrack), giving her a chart-topper in each of the last three decades. And last night, she took home five awards at the MTV Video Music Awards, making her one of the most decorated VMA winners ever, behind only Beyoncé and Madonna. To celebrate, we took a look back and ranked each of Gaga’s seven studio albums. Alexa Camp



Cheek to Cheek

7. Cheek to Cheek (2014)

Despite her claims that she grew up listening to the jazz greats, Gaga comes off more as a dilettante than an aficionado on Cheek to Cheek, a collection of duets with veteran crooner Tony Bennett. On songs like the Cole Porter standard “Anything Goes” and the title track, Gaga sounds like what she thinks a jazz singer should sound like; her performances are affected, marred by shouting and clichéd phrasing. She lacks the vocal precision and enunciation that made her so-called idols the masters they were: Her timbre on a cover of eden ahbez’s “Nature Boy” is wildly inconsistent, shifting from soft and almost pleasant to parodic and comical, often within just a few short bars. If not for the session musicians’ top-notch work, including Joe Lovano’s virtuosic tenor sax solos, much of Cheek to Cheek would sound like glorified karaoke. Camp



Artpop

6. Artpop (2013)

“Artpop could be anything!” Lady Gaga declares on the title track to her third album, Artpop. This muddled creative vision can be heard in the music itself, which vies for versatility—from the dreary, trap-inspired “Jewels n’ Drugs” to “G.U.Y.,” “Mary Jane Holland,” and “Gypsy,” which are all carbon copies of better songs on her first two albums—but ends up revealing a lack of a coherent artistic vision. Silly, seemingly nonsensical lyrics like “Aphrodite lady seashell bikini garden panty” recall Gaga’s early hits, but “Uranus!/Don’t you know my ass is famous?” is no “I’m bluffin’ with my muffin.” Artpop’s best song, “Do What You Want”—a duet with R. Kelly that has since been scrubbed from the album’s digital editions—is a measured electro banger that smartly doubles as a love song and finds Gaga lashing out at critics while doing her best impression of Christina Aguilera. But Artpop was a strategic (mis)step backward, the sound of an artist scrambling to maintain, if not reclaim, her position among pop’s elite. Camp



Chromatica

5. Chromatica (2020)

Gaga displays only a superficial understanding of the music she seeks to emulate on Chromatica. There’s an effortlessness to Dua Lipa’s recent Future Nostalgia and Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? that puts Gaga’s white-knuckled recreations of 1990s-era house-pop into stark relief. The vast majority of the songs clock in at under three minutes; the pure, if unwieldy, ambition of Born This Way is replaced by SEA-boosting tactics that, fair game or not, chip away at the album’s few creative merits. Orchestral interludes similarly serve little purpose beyond breaking up the sonic monotony into a three-act structure. When strings begin to swirl around in the background of “Enigma,” you can imagine the symphonic electro-pop album that might have been. Like 2013’s Artpop, Chromatica isn’t so much a collection of songs in search of a theme as it is a theme in search of an album. Cinquemani



The Fame

4. The Fame (2008)

Though Lady Gaga was almost instantaneously coronated by the media as the latest in an exhausting parade of Madonna wannabes, her early visual style cribbed more from Grace Jones and Róisín Murphy, while her debut, The Fame, aped a cross-section of mid-aughts female artists. Lady Gaga was initially a vacant pop avatar, at turns channeling Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, and Fergie but rarely giving us a glimpse of the real Stefani Germanotta. Throughout the album, she relies on nonsensical drivel—“Drive it, clean it Lysol, bleed it/Spend the last dough in your pocko!”—and displays nary an ounce of irony on tracks like “The Fame” and “Money Honey.” The album’s final single, “Paparazzi,” hints at the more fully developed persona Gaga would soon go on to cultivate, but The Fame remains an empty artifact of its time, flaunting the crass commercialism that gripped the zeitgeist in the years leading up to the 2008 economic collapse. Cinquemani



Joanne

3. Joanne (2016)

She may have eschewed the outlandish costumes for 2016’s Joanne, but Lady Gaga merely replaced them with a different kind of pretense. “Young wild American/Lookin’ to be somethin’/Out of school go-go’n/For a hundred or two,” she sings on the opening track, “Diamond Heart.” The problem with this rags-to-riches narrative is that her stint as a go-go dancer was, by her own account, more of an anthropological experiment than a means of survival. But while her reincarnation as an Americana troubadour, traveling from one sticky-floored dive bar to the next with her trusty guitar in hand, felt unearned, she does play the part convincingly enough on songs like “Sinner’s Prayer” and the title track. And whether it’s Josh Homme’s snaky guitar licks on “John Wayne” or the backward loops and dreamy psychedelic flourishes of “Angel Down,” Joanne’s real stars are its guest musicians and producers, who help Gaga craft a sonically cohesive and otherwise convincing facsimile of roots-rock. Cinquemani



The Fame Monster

2. The Fame Monster (2009)

Originally conceived of as a bonus disc for the re-release of The Fame, this eight-song mini-album has earned its lofty place in Lady Gaga’s canon. The Fame Monster wasn’t a huge leap forward for her—several songs ape the sound of hits like “Just Dance” and “Poker Face”—but it did provide some fleeting glimpses of the artist behind the pretense. There’s something instructive about the way Gaga rejects any and all intimacy with others throughout. “So Happy I Could Die” is ostensibly a love song, but the object of her affection is herself—looking at herself, drinking with herself, dancing with herself, touching herself. “Alejandro” finds the singer fending off a harem of Latin men, while she opts for the dance floor rather than answer a lover’s calls on “Telephone.” When she does finally let someone in (or near), it’s a “bad romance,” or he’s a “monster.” That the closest Gaga gets to another human being involves being tied up and bitten says it all. Cinquemani



Born This Way

1. Born This Way (2011)

A self-consciously, some might say Warholian, act of re-appropriation, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way rises cannily and hilariously phoenix-like from its primordial soup of influences, which includes chunks of Cher, Madonna, David Bowie, Queen, Klaus Nomi, Billy Idol, even Dead or Alive. With its relentlessly throbbing beats (“Americano”) and plethora of fierce breakdowns (“Scheibe,” “Heavy Metal Lover”), this resuscitated vintage would be perfectly content as the soundtrack to fashion weeks and underground sex dungeons the world over, though really it’s intended as a sincere ode to the bedazzled hearts of outsiders past and present, real and imagined. Ed Gonzalez

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading

Features

Christopher Nolan’s Films Ranked

There’s an engimatic quality to the role of Christopher Nolan in the current filmmaking landscape.

Published

on

Christopher Nolan's Films Ranked

There’s an enigmatic quality to the role of Christopher Nolan in the current filmmaking landscape, and one that stands apart from the fact that his films so often court ambiguity with explicit intent. From the Russian-nesting-doll antics of Inception to the magicians-as-filmmakers commentary of The Prestige, Nolan’s ambition within the realm of big-budget, broad audience spectacle is comparable to the likes of few. Among those, James Cameron comes to mind, and now Nolan joins the Avatar director with his own film about interplanetary travel, the logical next step for a filmmaker so concerned with world-building, literal and otherwise. Looking back at his work thus far, what emerges—apart from his obsession with identity, reality, community, and obsession itself—is an artist who, heedless of his own shortcomings, is intent on challenging himself, a quality that salvages and even inverts a great many of his otherwise pedestrian choices. One suspects that this is an artist still in his pupa stage, and one is also fearful that the near-unanimous praise heaped upon his work since his breakout hit, Memento, will only serve to keep him there. To wit, his latest film, Tenet, employs the kind of chronology-bending antics that epitomize Memento and Inception. Rob Humanick

Editor’s Note: This updated list was originally published on November 5, 2014.


Inception

11. Inception (2010)

The purported originality of Inception, from concept to execution, says infinitely more about the cinematic vocabulary of those describing it as such than it does about the film itself. Alas, a promising premise and some impressive zero-gravity imagery does not a mind-bending sci-fi spectacle make, and Nolan’s torrentially graceless exposition makes this experience akin to what Nick Schager described upon the film’s release as “instruction manual cinema.” Here, Nolan’s better instincts are strangled by his apparent fear that audiences wouldn’t “get it,” and the result is a minor tragedy of wasted opportunities and verbose bombast that frequently collapses into self-parody. Humanick


Tenet

10. Tenet (2020)

In keeping with Tenet’s allegiance to the world of James Bond, Kenneth Branagh’s villain, Sator, almost itches to prove how bad he is (think of Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre bleeding from his eyes in Casino Royale). Sator constantly checks his pulse, which never rises above 130. “Each generation looks out for its own survival,” the Protagonist (John David Washington) says, and it seems like Nolan is trying to acquit himself of not taking his 007 riff further. Bond has been pilfered, reworked, and parodied, but Nolan’s self-seriousness is such that he’s loath to subvert the tropes of Ian Fleming’s spy universe. Yes, Tenet knows how to go full throttle. There’s fun to those explosions, and Ludwig Göransson’s throbbing score, which gets the blood pumping higher than Branagh’s pulse counter will allow. But every time it stops to speak, it only emphasizes a hollowness within: how enamored it is of its own cleverness. Ben Flanagan


Dunkirk

9. Dunkirk (2017)

The metronomic precision of Nolan’s cinema, which often trades in crafty puzzles, is foregrounded in Dunkirk, with the sound of a ticking stopwatch embedded deeply into Hans Zimmer’s score. The editing is meant to heighten the sense of bewilderment facing the Allies, but in the end the film’s confusing structure ensures that the any bewilderment is the audience’s own. In devoting so much time to the dull, counterproductive mechanics of the action assembly, Dunkirk dispenses with nearly all other elements of drama. At first, this is to the film’s credit; the characters don’t waste time offering backstory or personality quirks, too focused on the immediacy of survival. After a time, however, the blurred lines between characters only exacerbate the editing’s cold, distancing effect. That Nolan wrenches grace notes out of such fleeting bits of horror is a testament to his intermittent skills as an image-maker. As with his recent spate of blockbusters, however, his fussy ambition ultimately results in aesthetic and thematic sloppiness. Jake Cole


Following

8. Following (1998)

Christopher Nolan’s debut feature, Following, is an intriguing mix of narrative trickery, ponderous psychology, and borderline-hallucinatory chiaroscuro imagery. Jeremy Theobald, credited as “the young man,” is a struggling writer who likes to follow people for creative inspiration, yet this mostly harmless behavior turns into something darker when he starts to break his own self-imposed rules. Nolan’s trademarks are all present in this outing, already replete with hidden identities, plot twists, and shuffled chronology, while even his limitations—thematically on-the-nose dialogue and too much implied connective tissue from scene to scene, or even shot to shot—speak implicitly to the untrustworthiness of the material at hand. Humanick


Batman Begins

7. Batman Begins (2005)

Nearly a decade out, Nolan’s first chapter in his Dark Knight trilogy, Batman Begins, remains a passionate love letter to the caped crusader, albeit one severely undercut by a visual palate that only intermittently captures the brooding qualities of its illustrated source material. Hans Zimmer’s score is a standalone achievement that, paired with an excellent Hollywood cast and a production designed to forgo CGI whenever possible, makes it easier in the moment to overlook the film’s stultifying reliance on pedestrian compositions and manifesto-like exposition. Nolan’s deliberately adult approach to the material was a refreshing reprieve from Joel Schumacher’s camp spectacles, even as it retreated from the visual exuberance established by Tim Burton’s underrated Batman Returns. Humanick


Insomnia

6. Insomnia (2002)

While lacking the sublime existentialism of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s original film of the same name, Insomnia marked Chistopher Nolan as a reliable dramatic filmmaker, divorced from the usual mindfuck hijinks he had already made synonymous with his work. The relationship between Al Pacino’s Detective Dormer and Robin Williams’s Walter Finch is a potent one despite existing mostly off screen, and while it’s disappointing that the film ends in predictable fashion with guns blazing, it’s a small comedown from an otherwise incisive look at the nature of personal will, brilliantly repurposed here in a small Alaskan fishing town where the sun shines even at night. Humanick

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Giveaways

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending