Jason Bellamy: In David Cronenberg’s Crash we are given a collection of characters with often overlapping but not always similar sexual fetishes. There are characters turned on by automobile crashes—either as foreplay or as self-contained experiences. There are characters turned on by pain. There are characters turned on by scars and disfigurement. There are characters turned on by the turn-ons of others. There are characters turned on by the prospect of being caught having sex in public and there are others turned on just by having sex in cars in public places, seemingly oblivious to whether anyone will notice. The film has sex. The film has nudity. The film has oddity. This is what Crash is. But what is Crash about?
Seeing the film for the first time since its 1997 release, that’s the question I asked myself over and over. What is this about? What is the meaning of this? Are these demonstrations of peculiar eroticism an ingenious metaphor or are they self-evident? Is Crash an examination of something or simply an exhibition? I suspect that our discussion of this film will repeatedly come back to these questions, but it seems this is where we must begin. And so I repeat: What is Crash about?
Ed Howard: That’s a good question to start with, though I’m not sure it has a single right answer, or even a right answer at all. The most challenging aspect of Crash, for me, is its utter refusal to express its ideology in unambiguous terms. Sure, there are expressions of ideology, mostly from Elias Koteas’ Vaughan, but it’s by no means clear what the film’s perspective on him is, either. He even contradicts himself, first maintaining that he’s interested in remolding the human body through technology and then later saying that mantra was just a ruse, and what he’s really after is unleashing the sexuality of the car crash. In a way, the two purposes of Vaughan reveal the film’s true roots, in the dialectic between the worldviews of author J.G. Ballard, whose novel is being adapted here, and David Cronenberg, who’s adapting it. Reshaping the human body through science and technology is of course a central theme of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, from the head-exploding telepathy of Scanners to the televisual mutations of Videodrome to the species shift of The Fly. Cronenberg continually returns to this idea: the ways in which our very minds and physiology have been drastically altered by the tireless advance of modernity. On the other hand, Ballard, though also concerned with the changes wrought by modernity, is more interested in the sexual component of this material: the extremes that people are willing to go to in search of eroticism in a media-saturated, spectacle-numbed age. These two tendencies, not unrelated but not entirely overlapping either, create the film’s central tension.
That tension, I submit, is one reason why the film is so hard to figure out. That’s not to say that the film isn’t also anchored by an elegant metaphor—I’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s “ingenious”—that makes its sexual excesses more than mere exhibition. That metaphor is the film’s most common occurrence (besides sex, maybe): the car crash. For Cronenberg, as for Ballard, the car crash is an emotionally and thematically rich event, a moment fraught with multiple possibilities and meanings. It’s the moment, most notably, when the modern technology we rely on the most betrays us in a profound and disturbing way, not only in the most obvious sense, but because it shatters the barriers of isolation that technology places between us. As you point out, the film’s characters have different fetishes and obsessions, but one thing they share is the sense that they’re alienated from normal sexual, romantic and interpersonal relationships. Even before they become involved in Vaughan’s car crash manias, James Ballard (James Spader, playing the novelist’s stand-in) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) have an abstracted, stylized sexual relationship based on telling each other stories about their adulterous trysts. These people are at a remove from their sexuality; in the opening scene, Catherine seems as aroused by the cold, sleek surface of a phallic airplane nose as by her lover’s caresses.
The car, and the highway, is a perfect metaphor for this disconnection: all those people encased in metal, speeding across the pavement, surrounded by others like them but with no possibility of ever making a connection with any of them. No possibility, that is, but a car crash. That’s why the crash between Ballard and Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) is staged as a moment of startling, uncomfortable intimacy, their eyes locked, Remington inadvertently flashing her breast as she struggles to remove her seatbelt. The car crash is so important to these people because it’s an escape from their isolation and lack of affect, a way to feel something, even if it’s pain and perverse arousal.
JB: Yeah, I’ve considered that reading, but it doesn’t quite work for me. The problem I have with it is that we don’t really have any on-screen evidence that these characters are lost or isolated, at least not in any painful or unwilling way. Yes, the characters of this film seem removed from the world around them, to the point that we almost have to remind ourselves that a larger world exists, but that’s true of most films. Crash is about its characters; there’s nothing unusual there. And so I’m left searching for a moment that shows these characters looking at the world around them and feeling like they don’t belong or can’t connect, and I can’t find it.
Of course, your reading is tempting because it’s the best way to rationalize—to whatever degree it’s possible—the peculiarity of the characters’ fetishes, obsessions and behaviors. “Why would these people go to these extremes?” “It must be because they can’t connect otherwise.” But as convenient as that answer is, and as logical as it feels, I don’t think it’s earned. I don’t think it’s in the “text” of the film. Instead I think it’s an understandable knee-jerk attempt to try to place Crash into a somewhat familiar dramatic arc or genre type. Because, again, I don’t think Cronenberg actually establishes that these people can’t connect. In fact, I’d argue he does the opposite. All we see are these characters connecting, again and again and again. They just happen to connect with each other in what happens to be a niche group. As a result, since Cronenberg doesn’t develop this loneliness, longing or isolation, when we suggest that these characters resort to this behavior because they can’t connect we are dismissing their urges as the product of some kind of deficiency. And the problem I have with that is that it puts us in the same position as the bigot who assumes that homosexuals couldn’t possibly be born with homosexual urges and so must have suffered a childhood trauma or lacked proper parenting. (Ditto bisexuality or sadomasochism or any other sexual orientation or behavior that’s outside of the heterosexual-missionary-position “norm.”)
A somewhat similar but different way to look at the film is provided in a particularly good review by Roger Ebert, who suggests that Crash is, in effect, “a dissection of the mechanics of pornography.” He argues that by presenting characters who are “entranced by a sexual fetish that, in fact, no one has,” and “by deliberately removing anything that an audience member is likely to find even remotely erotic, Cronenberg has brought a kind of icy, abstract purity to his subject.” In other words, rather than getting consumed by our own arousal, we are able to analyze arousal itself.
Now, I have some problems with this, too, because Crash of course does include things that many audience members will find incredibly erotic. For starters, there’s nudity—and if we’re not supposed to be in any way turned on by what we see, Cronenberg wouldn’t cast someone with the body of Deborah Kara Unger. Secondly, there’s arousal; seeing people sexually stimulated is often sexually stimulating in itself. Furthermore, deviance, or any behavior outside of the politically correct “norm” (whatever that is), is for many people a significant source of arousal (which is partly what’s on display in this film). Sure, the car crash stimulus might be impossible for almost anyone to relate to, but some of the other fetishistic arousals portrayed here aren’t that far outside of fairly standard sexual urges. Just as I suspect there are more men who consume pornography showing women being simultaneously penetrated by multiple men than there are men would actually feel comfortable engaging in that kind of activity, I suspect that many people would feel aroused by James Ballard’s ogling of the vagina-esque scars of Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), even if they don’t share his specific arousal. Nevertheless, Ebert’s analogy at least explains the, um, auto(mobile) eroticism in a somewhat more satisfying way. What do you think?
EH: I think that’s all very interesting and relevant, all part of a film that can be read and understood in multiple ways that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s possible that in talking about the film in terms of isolation, I’m carrying over my impressions of Ballard’s Crash rather than looking solely at the text of Cronenberg’s film. Cronenberg adapts a lot of his dialogue from Ballard but of course elides the narrator’s interior monologues, which communicate much of the novel’s thematic core.
Nevertheless, there is evidence that these characters feel disconnected even in Cronenberg’s film. Before James’ crash, he and Catherine have a chilly and abstracted relationship where most of the sex occurs outside the marriage. They talk to each other in flat, affectless tones about their indiscretions, and seem more turned on by ideas, by words, than by anything concrete. I’d say that’s the definition of disconnection from the world: a preference for the abstract over the tangible. The crash seems to awaken them both to other erotic possibilities, as a continuation of the games they were previously playing to keep themselves at a distance from one another. It’s a step towards the world, though not all the way. Instead of getting aroused by abstractions, they’re aroused by inanimate objects, but they’re still not exactly connecting with other people except in ways mediated by technology, by cold metal and pavement. In saying this, I don’t want to judge the characters, and I don’t think Cronenberg or Ballard want to either. If there are “deficiencies” in these characters, they’re shared by the whole of our media-saturated, stimulation-numbed modern society.
Anyway, I hadn’t read Ebert’s review previously, but I’ve also always thought of this film as being closely modeled on pornography. It even follows the structure of porn: a scene, often brief, establishing some hint of character motivation or narrative advancement, followed by a sex scene. Orgasm, then repeat. The film cycles through most of the possible pairings by the time it’s through, and there’s a degree of mechanism in this exchange of partners: Catherine with a lover, then James with a lover, then James and Catherine, then James and Helen, James and Catherine again, then Vaughan and Gabrielle are added to the mix as well. There are even gay encounters between Vaughan and James, and between Helen and Gabrielle, though these are curiously chaste in comparison to the heterosexual matches. At one point there’s a ménage a trois of fondling between Gabrielle, Helen and James. In other scenes, James takes on a voyeuristic role watching Vaughan with a prostitute or Vaughan with Catherine. It’s as though Cronenberg is systematically examining the possibilities of the porn form and the sex act, parodying the rote set-up/sex scene structure of the average porn feature.
Porn was of course very much on Ballard’s mind in writing the novel, as well. In his 1990 annotations to his pre-Crash collage novel The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard writes:
”[S]exual imagination is unlimited in scope and metaphoric power, and can never be successfully repressed. In many ways pornography is the most literary form of fiction—a verbal text with the smallest attachment to external reality, and with only its own resources to create a complex and exhilarating narrative… Pornography is a powerful catalyst for social change, and its periods of greatest availability have frequently coincided with times of greatest economic and scientific advance.”
In some ways, that sounds like a good description of Cronenberg’s Crash, especially the part about the disconnect from “external reality.” I’m more doubtful about whether Cronenberg would agree with the last sentence: his Crash is many things, but a “catalyst for social change”? So if Cronenberg’s film mimics the form of pornography, as I agree it does, what’s the purpose of this mimicry?
JB: That’s a good question. But before we get into that, I’d like to talk more about the characters and how they connect with one another, or don’t. Because while I wholeheartedly agree with you that the relationship between James and Catherine is “chilly and abstracted” at the start of the film, I would disagree with any implication that their relationship ever evolves from that point (or even that they evolve individually). Sure, James and Catherine have a passionate looking sex scene near the middle of the film, but even in that scene they are essentially fucking someone else. Their arousal is just as individual as it was before and is just as tied to one another’s other sexual pursuits as it was before. (Catherine spends the whole time getting turned on, and turning on James, by describing him having sex with Vaughan.) One could say that they are having intercourse with one another but having sex with someone else, if you know what I mean. And this isn’t unique to James and Catherine. Over the course of the film we see these characters continue to explore their sexual desires, but do we ever see them connecting? In the backseat of a car, James and Helen have sex in which he’s little more than an apparatus—both in emotion and in use. James has sex in a car with Gabrielle, but he’s attracted to her scars, not to her, and she’s turned on by his attraction to her deformities, not by him. The most engaged sex in the film, “curiously chaste” though it is, might be between James and Vaughan, in that they both of them seem to desire one another—rather than using one another as stand-ins for someone or something else. But maybe I only think that because Cronenberg stays at a distance, not allowing me to observe their vacant expressions during intercourse.
All of this indeed means Crash is very much like porn, because there’s little evidence that there’s any engagement between partners beyond the explicit pursuit of sexual gratification. That is, these individuals aren’t looking to connect with one another; they’re looking to be aroused by whatever means necessary. This is significant because the scenes that would be used to suggest connection are hard to distinguish from the ones that would suggest disconnection, which leads me to one of my problems with this film: I fail to detect any interesting evolution. The characters don’t change. Only the specific focus of their arousal changes, from having sex in public places in the beginning to car crashes by the end, plus some other harder to define stuff in between. There’s no real metamorphosis here. Instead it’s like watching a drug user switch from heroin to crack. At the root, there’s no difference in impulse, desire or behavior.
I don’t mean to imply that films need to be about characters growing, learning or evolving. But when I find no deeper significance in Crash’s fifth sexual encounter than in its second, it feels all too close to porn to me, but in all the wrong ways—repetitive, empty, untitillating.
EH: Well, I never said any of the film’s characters actually succeed in overcoming their disconnection, just that all these car crashes and fetishes are ways of trying to find something more authentic, more satisfying. James’ car crash is a triggering event that unleashes some new sexual possibilities, but nothing that happens here necessarily constitutes a deep human bond. I think you’re right that throughout the film, none of these people experience a true emotional connection to another person, though the mutual fascination between Vaughan and James comes close. So does the enigmatic last scene, which has more than a hint of nihilistic, apocalyptic finality, but also contains, in James’ urgently repeated “maybe the next one,” a faintly optimistic suggestion that they’ll keep trying: to feel something, to connect to each other, to kill each other? Who knows? The point is they’re trying; they haven’t given in to the general deadening of sensation and instead keep looking for increasingly outlandish ways to reawaken their numbed sensibilities.
In The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard writes a great deal about this distanced modern condition. After listing a number of body parts and isolated descriptive details about a woman, one of that book’s characters says:
“There are one or two other bits and pieces, but together the inventory is an adequate picture of a woman, who could easily be reconstituted from it. In fact, such a list may well be more stimulating than the real thing. Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions…[C]heap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.”
I think this is the spirit of Cronenberg’s film and his sex scenes, portraying people who have become numb to conventional emotional and sexual pleasures, and thus turn to inventive extremes for some satisfaction. The film, like Ballard’s fiction, documents a world where sex, like every other aspect of human experience, has been obsessively catalogued into lists, charts, data and words rather than feelings and sensations. Ballard compares this situation to the pop art of Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann, the latter of whom is especially relevant, with his paintings of plastic-looking nudes, like desexualized naked Barbie dolls. It sounds, though, like you believe Cronenberg’s film is simply a surface presentation of this phenomenon, a reflection of the flat colors and slick surfaces in Wesselmann’s work rather than any kind of commentary on or response to the situation.
JB: Yeah, I suppose that’s what I’m saying. See, we still disagree about what we’re actually looking at here. You say that the characters are “trying to find something more.” And that’s true, to a point. But I see characters who just want more, and I think there’s a difference. The way you describe the movie implies that these characters are reaching for something, as if they’re on a quest, as if their search might actually have a destination that will leave them satisfied. The way I see the film, these characters just want roughly the same sensation over and over again, and the only reason their interests or desires might seem to evolve is because their satisfaction requires them to push their limits just to stay in the same place. They’re like the drinker who used to be able to get drunk on two beers who now needs five shots just to feel buzzed. That drinker isn’t trying to connect. There’s no deep significance to the drinking. There’s no attempt at growth. The significance is only that they want to get drunk. They want to satisfy an itch.
Now, it’s here that I find Ebert’s analysis applies well. He writes, “There are no moments of healing sanity because the characters are comatose with lust and fascination. They follow their self-destructive courses because they do not want to stop. If you seek to understand them, ignore their turn-ons and substitute your own.” Using this logic, Crash could be seen as metaphor for any destructive activity, particularly drug abuse. “Why would someone risk injury to their family, their job, their reputation, their body, etc, to abuse a drug?” “Because when the compulsion to scratch that itch is so overpowering, everything else is irrelevant.” The trouble is, I find Ebert’s description of the film more fascinating than the film itself. And just because depth can be implanted into this film, I’m not sure that means the film has much if anything to say on these themes. I think it might be telling that in order to find rewarding complexity in Cronenberg’s film we’ve had to draw upon the written work of Ballard (not to mention Ebert). On screen I don’t find much there. So what I am I missing?
EH: Fair enough. I keep returning to the Ballard novel because, frankly, the film is most interesting to me in relation to its source (and to other texts and films), and even Cronenberg seems to know it: it only takes until the film’s second scene before somebody asks, “has anybody seen James Ballard?” So, yeah, maybe that’s damning. Regardless, I certainly think there’s a lot of interest right up there on the screen. Cronenberg removes the novel’s intensely internal focus, taking away our ability to see within the mind of James Ballard, who narrates the book. The result is that the film is resolutely concerned with exteriors. How you feel about the film probably depends on how you feel about this refusal to get inside these chilly, distant characters. For me, this decision makes the film more abstract than conventionally narrative. Because in normal terms, you’re right, there’s not much character development here, there’s not much of a dramatic arc.
Instead, Cronenberg presents these bizarre porn scenarios with a deadpan lack of commentary, watching with the same mechanical fascination that we see in James Spader’s eyes as he arranges Gabrielle’s stiff, metal-encased limbs in the confined space of her car. In that scene especially, Cronenberg’s perspective on this material is clear. He’s subtly warping it to his own interests, examining the ways in which the technology of the car, and of advanced reconstructive surgeries, have created new hybrid forms for the human body. In the midst of Gabrielle and James’ grappling, Cronenberg inserts a shot of the complicated system of metal rods and levers under the steering column, the special tools Gabrielle needs to be able to drive. It visually rhymes, not only with phallic imagery (another current running through the film) and with the metal surrounding the woman’s legs, but with the similar system of metal rods that had earlier been digging into and supporting James’ own post-crash leg wounds. By highlighting these images, Cronenberg makes these characters look like cyborgs, merging with the metal that’s holding their bodies together and which allows them to get around. As a result, they come to identify as much with steel and electronics as with other people.
Later, James caresses a vagina-like wound in the surface of his wife’s car in exactly the same way as he had with the scars on Gabrielle’s legs: this sign of Vaughan’s presence is as sexual for him as anything organic. The film is packed with subtle parallels like this, linkages between the organic and the artificial, like the way, during the car wash scene, Cronenberg draws a connection between the white foamy liquid streaming across the windshield, and Catherine’s cum-sticky hand after her violent sexual encounter with Vaughan. Cronenberg’s images consistently bring together messy human exigency with mechanical and artificial cleanliness: Rosanna Arquette, delivering the film’s best and most playful performance, seeming to have sex with a showroom car, rubbing her ass against its sleek surface and suggestively spreading her stiff legs as she leans against it. Visually, the film is all about these kinds of junction points between human softness and the hard lines of the objects and technology surrounding us.
So what are you missing? In focusing on the film’s undeniable lack of affect and pornographic structure, you’re maybe missing out on the ways in which Cronenberg’s imagery cleverly plays with the themes and ideas at the film’s core. There’s a streak of perverse playfulness running beneath its icy exterior, like the way James’ time spent as an invalid on his balcony, watching cars go by through binoculars with an elegant blonde by his side, mirrors the basic set-up of Rear Window—with the obvious and thematically important difference that Hitchcock’s voyeur was watching his fellow humans, while James’ voyeurism is directed at cars.
There’s also the great scene where Catherine, James and Vaughan are wandering through the dreamlike, fog-shrouded scene of a car crash, curiously unhindered amidst all the chaos. At one point, Catherine sits down next to a female accident victim, smoking, and Cronenberg shoots both women in profile, the accident victim slightly blurry in the foreground, turning to the camera to reveal her scarred visage, offsetting Catherine’s blank, perfect features in the background. By framing the two women like this, Cronenberg makes it look like a before-and-after photo, foreshadowing Catherine’s future and suggesting the fragility of her flawless, plastic beauty.
Basically, I think the film opens up and becomes far richer when considered on a shot-by-shot basis like this rather than looking at the big picture. Cronenberg’s film is precise and very formalist: he carefully frames his images, carrying certain visual motifs through the film in order to express the thematic undercurrents of this material. As much as I love thinking about the film in relation to Ballard and American car culture and other outside reference points, this shouldn’t obscure the extent to which Cronenberg explores his ideas, subtly and without exposition, in the visual choices he makes.
JB: What’s interesting about your latest comments is that they contrast with what was going to be my next complaint: I don’t think the film is visually interesting. If it were, the lack of character (never mind character development, because there’s hardly character establishment) and the lack of interesting commentary within the film (in my opinion) wouldn’t be such a problem. As before, I found your latest descriptions of what Crash does to be more interesting than Crash itself. That said, I don’t want this to come off like a slam of your analysis, but in large part couldn’t we narrow down many of your observations to a single sentence? Couldn’t we simply say that Cronenberg eroticizes car parts (or the scars of car crashes) in all the places where we’d usually see body parts? So instead of caressing a breast, someone caresses the hood of a car. Instead of semen, we get car-wash foam. Instead of jerking off to porn movies, people get off to car crash videos. Instead of role-playing human sexual encounters, we get reenactments of car crashes. And so on.
Is this clever? Sure. More on that in a bit. But it’s also the same technique/gimmick/joke over and over again, which makes Crash like a stationary bicycle. We go round and round but we don’t get anywhere. You would disagree, obviously, because you’re fascinated by how Crash falls in line with “Cronenberg’s own interests,” as established by looking at his career as a whole. I get that, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that’s invalid. Context is significant. Awareness should be rewarded. But there’s a difference between saying that the best way to appreciate Crash is to see how it fits within Cronenberg’s oeuvre and saying that an understanding of Cronenberg’s oeuvre is essential to one’s appreciation of this film. Because within Crash itself I don’t see much exploration of, or comment on, Cronenberg’s interest with “new hybrid forms for the human body.” I see where you see it. I realize how Crash overlaps with, say, The Fly, and I assume that’s what drew Cronenberg to the project. And so if we were examining Cronenberg’s career, I’d say that’s an important thread weaving through his filmography. But, within Crash itself, do I think that subject is confronted in any compelling way? No. Within Crash itself it’s an irrelevant byproduct of the technology-for-flesh eroticization swap.
In terms of that swap, Crash is indeed quite successful. As I said earlier, there is cleverness in the number of ways that traditional human eroticism can be translated into automobile form, which is why I’d like to propose that Crash is best enjoyed as a comedy. Except I’m hesitant to do so. Though I have no doubt that there is some very intentional humor here, I’m a little unclear about how much. There are times when I wanted to be laughing with Crash but had a guilty feeling that I was laughing at it instead.
EH: Well, if you don’t find the film visually interesting, we’ll have to agree to disagree on that front. I think of the most prolonged sex scene between James and Catherine—the one where she dispassionately monologues about her husband having anal sex with Vaughan—and I can only marvel at Cronenberg’s formal precision. The scene opens with a tracking shot where the copulating couple is first seen through a segmented window that chops up their naked bodies into Cubist fragments and overlays the sex with a lit-up urban skyline, phallic skyscrapers layered over the jumble of limbs, which blend together with the tangled sheets and pillows. We hardly know what we’re seeing at first. Then throughout most of the sex the camera remains in closeup on one partner or the other, capturing their unreadable facial expressions, before Cronenberg brings them together into the same shot for the, ahem, climax. The shot sequence implies a coming-together, a connection, but of course the running dialogue throughout the scene only reinforces the couple’s isolation from one another, the extent to which their marital sexuality is still defined through stories and fantasies about other people and objects. There’s a push-and-pull tension here between connection and disconnection, just as there is in the film as a whole. Scenes like this, with these meaning-charged compositions and the interplay between dialogue and image, belie the idea that Crash is lacking in visual or thematic complexity.
Maybe Cronenberg does return to the same well again and again throughout this film, consistently substituting technological eroticization for more conventional erotic images. Must we fault the film for this single-mindedness? It’s a film about sex in the modern, technological era becoming increasingly disconnected from human feeling, so of course it keeps returning to these images where people feel more of a connection with metal constructs than with other people. It’s almost like you’re dismissing the film’s whole central concept—that sex in the age of technology is wound up as much with our surroundings as with the people involved—and then asking what’s left. Any film or idea can be reduced to a single reductive sentence, like your accurate summary that “Cronenberg eroticizes car parts… in all the places where we’d usually see body parts.” The film is concerned with the examination of this one idea in detail, and personally I find a great deal of interest in Cronenberg’s relentless exploration of this theme.
As for Crash’s place in Cronenberg’s career, as I’ve suggested, I think this film is best understood as a junction point between Cronenberg and Ballard, which perhaps accounts for some of its more schizophrenic tendencies. There isn’t the purity of The Fly and Videodrome, both films where the hero literally transforms under the influence of modern technology, at first unwillingly but eventually with the eagerness and passion of a convert. The ending of Videodrome, in particular, is inflected with a strain of apocalyptic optimism, a cathartic celebration of the way the hero takes what’s violent and ugly in our televisual culture and appropriates it into a new sense of identity. In Crash, Cronenberg’s enthusiasm for this kind of spectacle is tempered by Ballard’s influence, which encourages more of an observational, coldly voyeuristic perspective. Both Ballard’s Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition are full of lists, clinical recitations of various possibilities for car crash injuries and sexual experiences. It’s this emphasis on pseudo-scientific jargon and structural repetition that gives the film its form, shaping Cronenberg’s examinations of sexual perversion and relational disconnect.
All of which would probably be rather dry and formalist if not for, yes, the film’s darkly humorous streak. I’m with you there, though for me it’s unquestionable that Cronenberg (and Ballard, for that matter) recognizes the humor in this material and intentionally plays to it. The scene where Gabrielle toys with a nerdy car salesman is a perfect case in point: she intentionally flaunts her unconventional sexuality, getting into the car in an awkward way that hikes her skirt up to reveal the black panties beneath, then penetrating the vinyl seat with one of her leg brace’s metal hooks. It’s played as sexual comedy, no question about it, and Arquette’s broad, smirking performance only drives home the humor. The same goes for the sudden insert of the stunt man Seagrave (Peter MacNeill) feeling up his fake, bra-clad breasts, or the sardonic look on the face of a tattoo artist after James asks her where he should put his tattoo (“where the sun don’t shine,” is the answer implied in her deadpan expression). By the same token, I don’t think Cronenberg takes Vaughan’s ranting, apocalyptic speeches nearly as seriously as Ballard does; by chopping up Ballard’s prose into bite-size fragments and having Vaughan spit out pretentious monologues at every opportunity, Cronenberg makes him a vaguely silly and ludicrous figure, less menacing than absurd. There are signs here that Cronenberg recognizes the absurdity of his premise, that while these people’s obsessions might be deadly-serious for them, they are, after all, getting hard from watching car crashes.
JB: Oh, I have no doubt that Cronenberg is having fun with the material. My favorite moment of obvious humor comes just after that sex scene between James and Catherine, when Cronenberg leaps from one of the film’s longest and most passionate sexual encounters to one of its shortest and blandest. We see Hunter’s Helen, centered in the frame and staring straight at us, writhing up and down as if we’re the person she’s straddling. “Have you cum?” she asks a then-anonymous partner behind her, clearly lost to her own interests. “I’m alright,” an obscured and utterly disinterested James responds from the shadows, as if he’s turning down the offer of a sandwich. That’s great stuff, and clearly it’s comedy by design. But other times I’m not so sure. For example, that sex scene between Catherine and James, when she informs him that “some semen is saltier than others.” Is that eroticism or humor or just casual conversation? I can’t decide.
While we’re here, I want to stick with that Catherine-and-James sex scene for a bit to get back to your praise for Cronenberg’s “formal precision.” I will agree with you that the initial through-the-window shot of the couple that bathes them in light from the cityscape behind them is absolutely gorgeous. Beyond that, however, the scene you describe isn’t the scene I see. According to your description, the couple is apart and then comes together at the moment of climax. But that’s only half true. Yes, at the start of the scene both James and Catherine get their own closeups. Yes, at the end they share the same shot. But in between Cronenberg uses several wide shots of the couple fucking that suggest they are connecting, and he goes to the two-shot closeup of them rather quickly. So where you see “visual and thematic complexity,” I see a director who goes wide-shot, closeup, wide-shot, closeup, wide-shot, closeup, etc. Pretty standard. The best compliment I can give to that scene’s design is that by using only about four shots—Catherine closeup, James closeup, Catherine-and-James wide shot and Catherine-and-James closeup—within a four-minute scene, Cronenberg keeps us at a scientific distance from which we are more likely to study these actions rather than get swept up in their passion. Other scenes have even fewer camera movements, like the one in which James inspects the body of a bruised Catherine after her tumble with Vaughan, which is little more than a zoom.
In your last response you suggested that I am unfairly dismissing the film for single-mindedly focusing on exactly what it’s about—dismissing its central concept and asking what’s left. Looking back, I admit I’m guilty as charged. I agree that most movies are as single-minded as Crash, but it seems to me that few movies are so flat and vacant, and that’s where the problem lies. We agree there is little character development. In fact, as I said, there’s hardly any character establishment. Spader and Unger strip out as much emotion as possible, even in the throes of passion. Hunter is almost equally robotic. Koteas provides a demonstration of postures more than a performance. And that leaves Arquette, whose smirk constitutes the majority of her portrayal. This is all by design, I realize. Fair enough. But studying the faces of these characters is like getting lost in the expressions of mannequins, and to this we add Cronenberg’s minimalist camera movements. The result is that just about the only thing worth sinking our teeth into is the film’s theme. But I didn’t find my bites very savory, and by the midpoint I was full.
EH: That’s admittedly an understandable reaction. Though I’ve been defending the film thus far, I realize that it’s not without its problems and limitations. As much as I enjoy its rigidly framed imagery, and as stimulated as I am by its thematic depths, I recognize that it’s intentionally working within a very narrow range. Cronenberg, there’s no doubt, has made richer and better films, films where his own sensibility is undiluted and raw. As in his adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, seeing Cronenberg confront another equally strong artist head-on is fascinating, but doesn’t necessarily lead to a fully satisfying film that can stand up with the director’s masterpieces like Videodrome,
This brings me to one of my problems with the film, essentially the same problem that Iain Sinclair highlights in his deeply ambivalent BFI book. Sinclair shifts, throughout his book, back and forth between the Ballard original and the Cronenberg film, and ultimately concludes that Cronenberg’s Crash “depoliticizes Ballard’s frenzied satire,” making its “pornography safe and elegant.” As much as I admire Cronenberg’s chilly, abstract take on this material, I think that’s a fair criticism. Earlier I brought up Ballard’s quote about pornography being “a catalyst for social change,” but we kind of got detoured into other subjects. I want to bring it back up because this political context, this sense of revolutionary provocation, is arguably what’s missing from Cronenberg’s Crash.
For Sinclair, Cronenberg’s Crash is a more conservative work than its source novel, and not only because it sanitizes and downplays much of the homoerotic content, shifting the central relationship of the work from James/Vaughan to James/Catherine. (Cronenberg would also remove the homosexual content, with much more questionable results, from Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.) More than this process of sanitization, though, the film is somewhat lessened by its lack of context. Some sense of Ballard’s radical political screeds would likely go a long way towards making the work’s “point” clearer to those, like you, who find it mostly pointless as is. In his annotations for The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard writes:
“A huge volume of sensational and often toxic imagery inundates our minds, much of it fictional in content. How do we make sense of this ceaseless flow of advertising and publicity, news and entertainment, where presidential campaigns and moon voyages are presented in terms indistinguishable from the launch of a new candy bar or deodorant? What actually happens on the level of our unconscious minds when, within minutes on the same TV screen, a prime minister is assassinated, an actress makes love, an injured child is carried from a car crash?”
These ideas, so vital to Ballard, are at best an undercurrent in Cronenberg’s Crash. The interest in celebrities and media still percolates in the background, especially in the hauntingly staged scene where Vaughan re-enacts James Dean’s death, or in Seagrave’s cross-dressing Jayne Mansfield fantasies, but it’s not the driving force of the film the way it is for Ballard in his novel. That’s OK, of course, since Cronenberg’s interests lie elsewhere. But it still creates a sense of absence at the film’s core, which Cronenberg’s more formalist engagement with this story can’t quite fill.
JB: I think all of that folds into my previous complaints that the film, in and of itself, doesn’t have much of anything to say. That passage you cite from The Atrocity Exhibition ponders how the “ceaseless flow” of stimuli might cause the barriers between non-homogenized elements to disintegrate, to alarming results. And that’s interesting. But that’s not Cronenberg’s Crash. Instead of focusing on the “problem,” Cronenberg only shows one result. The damage, if you will, has already been done. James and Catherine wander through this netherworld of automobile erotica, but there’s no glimpse of what their life might have been otherwise, no sense that a world exists beyond this one. To go back to something I said earlier, James and Catherine are users searching for an erotic high from the very start, and all that changes is their drug of choice. My complaint isn’t that Cronenberg eschews a conventional conflict-and-resolution arc—though that might give the film some needed lift. My complaint is that, as you said, this film is without context. It’s like watching Planet of the Apes without Charlton Heston. If all we see are apes, the unusual is usual, and so what’s the point?
This lack of context or sensationalism, this suggestion that these characters are essentially as normal or abnormal as the rest of us, works quite well along the lines of Ebert’s analysis, because by failing to relate to these characters we can better study their behaviors. But it hurts Cronenberg’s film at the same time because we have nothing to compare these actions against. Are we supposed to be horrified by what we see here? Why? These characters partake in activities that seem to improve their happiness and that endanger only them. Their actions are so extreme that we can take them seriously but not personally.
If this is a cautionary tale, it’s one I don’t need. There’s very little in Crash that suggests this could be my destiny. (You might as well tell me to beware becoming the best golfer in the world and having multiple affairs with waitresses because my Swedish model wife might someday chase me out of our house with a golf club. It’s all so alien to me.) I do find Crash interesting on some level, but it’s a lot like watching expressionless fish swim by at an aquarium. I sometimes enjoy the view, but I never worry I’m going to end up in the tank or think that their experiences on the other side of the glass say much about the world I live in.
EH: I don’t know. Is Cronenberg’s film as thematically rich as Ballard’s novel? No, definitely not. And I can understand if you don’t see yourself in these characters; if I remember correctly, you had the same reservations about Trouble Every Day, albeit not as strongly in that case. I don’t think Cronenberg is presenting a “cautionary tale” here—that’s not his style. The more important question is whether it’s really so important that we see ourselves in these characters. The film presents the characters’ sexual perversions and their icy disconnection without telling us how to feel about them, without providing a definitive interpretation. Maybe that’s OK; maybe we don’t need to settle on one interpretation or feel like we’re seeing our possible future selves on the screen.
Throughout this conversation, we’ve wrestled with a few possible readings for Cronenberg’s film, none of them entirely satisfying and none of them necessarily exclusive. There is another possibility, of course, which is the one you’ve been advancing. Sometimes a film, or a work of art, doesn’t need to engage so directly with the world, or tell us anything about ourselves. Sometimes a work of art is, like Cronenberg’s Crash, just its own weird, self-contained object, creating its own rules and its own skewed way of looking at things. Where Ballard’s Crash engages with the world, commenting on the omnipresence of media and the warping of sexuality by modern conditions, Cronenberg’s Crash seems to exist in its own strange world, cut off from ordinary reality. It seems we agree on that much. We just disagree about whether that’s a worthwhile approach.
My question for you, then, is whether you see any value in a piece of art that simply is, that doesn’t necessarily relate directly back to reality or tell you anything about yourself. Way back in our conversation about Solaris, we talked about Stanislaw Lem’s idea that “we don’t want other worlds… we want mirrors.” So is that it? Does our art always have to give us mirrors? Or can it—should it—sometimes provide us with a puzzling, enigmatic glimpse of something else altogether, some strange alternate world that exists at right angles to our own?
JB: It’s a good topic, and it’s neat that we’ve done enough of these conversations to see them beginning to overlap. (If it hasn’t happened already, I feel like we’re only a conversation or two away from me totally contradicting myself. But I digress.) Obviously when art acts as a mirror, at least to some degree, it’s easier to identify with the material and thus be “moved” by it—cerebrally, emotionally, erotically, whatever. In my case that’s what I’m looking for: to be moved. But I don’t think I need a mirror to do that. Not at all.
I think Crash is in rare territory, because it offers an unusually low number of opportunities for connectivity or empathy or any other kind of vicarious emotion. I’m not just talking about something as specific as the characters and their interests. I’m talking about the general structure of the film. Crash is ambiguous, but it isn’t a mystery. Crash has some confrontational scenes, but it isn’t combative. Crash has scenes with life-or-death implications, and yet the film isn’t suspenseful. (Perhaps the only suspenseful moment comes in the reenactment of the James Dean car crash when we wait to see if Vaughan and his driver survived the stunt.) And so when I say that the film doesn’t move me, affect me, provoke me, my lack of identification with these characters and with the film’s themes is only part of the reason.
That said, I believe that Cronenberg intends for Crash to be chilly, distant and even boring. He’s certainly trying to avoid giving us mirrors. He doesn’t want us to identify with these characters, I don’t believe. He wants us to observe them and focus on their behavior. And so it is that Crash feels to me like some kind of cinematic experiment more than it feels like art. I am impressed that Cronenberg manages to make an explicit NC-17-rated film about sex and car crashes that is less stimulating than your average television commercial, but I’m not moved, affected or provoked. Not on the whole, at least. Crash might be inscrutable on some level, but I don’t find it puzzling. It doesn’t convince me that it contains hidden depths worth discovering.
EH: For me, on the other hand, Crash is an interesting artifact, not so much for what it has to say but for its own sake, and for its interesting resonances with other reference points, among them its own source material. The film, like the novel before it, comments on the romance of the car crash: the modern-day obsession with this most modern of deaths and the celebrity lives it has claimed. More than the novel, however, Cronenberg’s Crash also exists as a part of this continuum, as another entry in the media and artistic fascination with the car crash and its implications. Cronenberg thus draws, like Ballard, not only on real-life stories—James Dean, Grace Kelly, Jayne Mansfield, JFK (“a special kind of car accident”), Albert Camus—but on the cinematic and cultural heritage of the car crash’s representation.
In particular, Cronenberg and Ballard are heirs to Jean-Luc’s Godard’s late 60s fascination with the car crash. Brigette Bardot is referenced in both Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, inevitably recalling her appearance in Godard’s Contempt, particularly the famed scene when the actress lounges in bed while her lover expresses his affection for her as tributes to her individual body parts, enumerating one by one the individual elements that together add up to his desire and love for her. It’s sex as an equation, a concept that reverberates throughout Ballard’s work. Cronenberg echoes this scene in the one where James and Catherine have slow, mechanical sex while Catherine enumerates her fantasies about James and Vaughan. Of course, Contempt ends with an ostentatiously phony car crash, a crash where the artifice is so obvious that it’s a stylized symbol of a crash rather than the real thing. Similar scenes proliferate in Weekend as well, scenes where the audience’s only possible reaction is a distanced, clinical observation of body postures and crushed metal sculptures.
Cronenberg is crafting his own modern take on Godard’s 60s studies in alienation and disconnection, and also drawing on other New Wave-era studies in ennui—all those films, like Godard’s A Married Woman or Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad or Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura, where blank, disinterested middle class people struggle to find a way of jolting some life into their emotionally flat-lined existence. If Cronenberg’s film sometimes seems to be something of a blank slate, a mystery with no solution, maybe that’s exactly the troubling feeling the film seeks to engender.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
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.
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 (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 (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 (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 (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
Gunda (Viktor 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 aimelessly 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
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 (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
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. Ed Gonzalez
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
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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (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
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 (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 (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
Every Song on Taylor Swift’s Folklore Ranked
We’ve ranked all 17 songs from the singer-songwriter’s watershed eighth album.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
These films show us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed.
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Here’s some of our favorite horror films currently streaming on Netflix.
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
15. The Monster (2016)
In The Strangers, Bryan Bertino exhibited a masterfully lush style that owed quite a bit to the elegant camera pirouettes of John Carpenter. Here, the filmmaker utilizes his command of medium for more individualized purposes. By the time that The Monster reveals itself to be a horror film, we’re so engrossed in Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and Lizzy’s (Ella Ballentine) pain that the arrival of the titular menace strikes us as an authentic violation of normality, rather than as a ghoul arriving on demand per the dictates of the screenplay. The film has an eerily WTF arbitrariness that should be the domain of more films in the genre. Chuck Bowen
14. Under the Shadow (2016)
Like an Iranian take on The Babadook, writer-director Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow is an emotionally direct and realistic horror story centered around a socially isolated mother and child who are terrorized by eerie supernatural events. Living in Tehran under Ayatollah Khomeini’s reign and during Iran’s long war with Iraq, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) feels the world closing in on her, a suffocation that comes to feel almost tactile through the specificity with which Anvari details her day to day. The paranormal happenings are very likely a combination of the mother’s hallucinations and the child’s way of making sense of the violence the mother perpetrates as her sanity ebbs and flows, but Anvari keeps things creepy in part by leaving open the possibility that there really may be something supernatural gripping his milieu. Elise Nakhnikian
13. 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
12. Cam (2018)
When Wilhelm Reich developed the concept of “sex economy” in 1931, he had in mind something like the way societal expectations or advertising may compel someone toward compulsory masturbation. Almost 90 years later, compulsion is but one of an array of factors informing Cam, Daniel Goldhaber’s lithely satirical and startling take on the present state of online sex work. Based on screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam model, the film is neither plainly sex positive nor outright cautionary in its depiction of Alice (Madeline Brewer), an up-and-coming streamer whose account is hacked and stolen by someone appearing to be her doppelgänger. Even as Cam gives new meaning to “ghosting” when Alice watches “herself” online, the film’s strengths come from an intimate familiarity with the anxieties that accompany a life predicated on thriving in a gig economy still owned and operated by impenetrable customer service mechanisms and corporate channels of older, sweaty white men. Cam is also one of the first American films to grapple with the realities of being doxed to family and friends, further demonstrating its primary acumen as a check on the social pulse of a particular strain of U.S. conservatism that continues to think about and patrol sex work, and those who participate in it, in even pre-Reichian terms. Clayton Dillard
11. 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
10. 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
9. 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
8. 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
7. 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
6. 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
5. The Witch (2015)
Robert Eggers does an admirable job of synchronizing The Witch’s paranormal and domestic spheres, setting up a vice-grip scenario in which Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) has no possibility of escape. Her family’s restrictive religious practices are as domineering as the forlorn, featureless landscape which surrounds her, and this atmosphere only grows more stifling as the family pins blame on the girl for their mounting misfortunes. Positioning itself among a specific vein of highbrow phantasmagoric spiritualism, the film owes a serious debt to the unsettling ambiance of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, Roman Polanski’s politically tinged psychological thrillers, and Ken Russell’s gonzo period pieces. But by allowing the monster to win, the film overcomes the sense of familiarity, as its reworking of a tired horror trope into a transformed feminist symbol stands out as an impressive act of genre revisionism. Jesse Cataldo
4. Train to Busan (2016)
When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez
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
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
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
The 20 Best Horror Movies on the Criterion Channel
Here’s some of our favorite horror films currently streaming 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Every Lady Gaga Album Ranked
Even if the singer’s creative trajectory has seemed erratic, her skill for crafting sublime pop is undeniable.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Christopher Nolan’s Films Ranked
There’s an engimatic quality to the role of Christopher Nolan in the current filmmaking landscape.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Fantasia 2020: Labyrinth of Cinema, No Longer Human, Detention, Morgana, & More
The exhilaration of virtual film festivals is that they radically expand the access and means of audiences.
The Montreal-based Fantasia Film Festival, which kicked off August 20 and concludes on September 2, offers a superb illustration of the losses and—yes—the gains of having to virtualize everything in the midst of a pandemic. Lost, of course, is the traditional form of community, in which filmmakers, press, and committed fans get to interact with one another, grabbing quick drinks and food between screenings and symposiums and later sharing their impressions over loud music at after-hours get-togethers. The sense of discovery and spontaneity of film festivals, the sense they impart of a quickly formed and just as quickly dissolved society unto themselves, is reminiscent of long wedding weekends or college orientations.
The exhilaration of virtual film festivals, which could and should prove revolutionary, is that they radically expand the access and means of audiences. Travel necessities are eliminated, and speaking events can now be seen by many more people. The virtual dimensions also offer a subtler democracy, as you’re under no pressure to dress and socialize beyond your comfort zone—which is to say that the stressors associated with work have also been lifted. In short, it’s an introvert’s dream. My experience with Fantasia was less socially adventurous, by necessity, than my experience with past festivals, but I felt more of an undistracted communion with the dozen or so films I saw and with the discussions that I watched, the latter of which are currently archived and available for free on Fantasia’s website (Live post-screening Q&As were allowed to expire however, perhaps and understandably to maintain certain elements of the you-have-to-be-there festival experience.)
The new age of film festival interaction was evident in Fantasia’s Master Class with filmmaker John Carpenter, who first attended the festival in 1998 with Vampires and who was given a lifetime achievement award, the Cheval Noir, this year. Carpenter answered questions for 45 minutes, which included standbys about potential sequels and remakes in addition to new projects he might have on the burner. These were fan-centric questions, and Carpenter was good-natured yet often vague, his casual aura suiting the milieu of the homey Zoom-esque presentation. The event felt less like a class than the fulfillment of a fan’s dream to have a beer with a legend, and incisive criticism was provided in one respect, with an opening seven-minute-ish montage of Carpenter’s films that emphasized their poetry and especially their sense of loneliness, even in maligned projects like Memoirs of Invisible Man and his remake of Village of the Damned. (Other special events included a lecture on Afrofuturism and a discussion with the Rue Morgue staff about the status of the press.)
The titles I saw among the 100 movies offered this year provided a vast spectrum of tones, aesthetics, and point of views. Fantasia’s name suggests a specialty in genre flavors, which is generally the case, though the festival offers an exhilaratingly vast interpretation of this idea. In fact, I didn’t see one typical meat-and-potatoes thriller or horror film, but rather documentaries, character studios, and biographies that reinvigorated genre concepts with radical formal devices, subtexts, and empathy. The films featured in this festival are also vastly international, underscoring the voices of various genders, colors, and ages.
The most ambitious and exhausting film I saw at Fantasia was Labyrinth of Cinema, a three-hour rumination on war and cinema by Nobuhiko Obayashi, who’s most famous for the 1977 cult classic House. Imagine an even more maximalist variation of that film’s gonzo aesthetic and you’ve got an idea of Labyrinth of Cinema, in which several teenagers are whisked into a cinema screen and teleported into sequences that represent the Boshin War, the second Sino-Japanese Conflict, and, most agonizingly, the bombing of Hiroshima.
Obayashi isn’t much interested in literal coherence, especially in the dizzying 90 minutes that open the film. Instead, he fashions a slipstream of formal devices and flourishes—feverish Technicolor hues, cheekily obvious uses of blue screen, kinetic samurai battles—that suggests how war is mythologized and in the process sanitized by cinema. Obayashi complicates this mythology by emphasizing for prolonged stretches of time the dread of impending death and repeated loss, particularly as embodied by an innocent young girl who dies again and again throughout the ages. Obayashi died earlier this year at the age of 82, and Labyrinth of Cinema may eventually come to be seen as his ultimate testament to the glories and delusions of his art form. This “elder” film has an audacity that should shame many young bloods in the game.
Another Japanese film examines insidious clichés not with maximalism, a la Obayashi, but austerity. Filmmaker and photographer Mika Ninagawa’s No Longer Human, a 2019 adaptation of the oft-adapted 1948 autobiographical novel by Dazai Osamu, is a stark chamber play that conveys a painfully matter-of-fact apart-ness, recalling David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch without the surreal special effects. Mika reworks the source material, placing the author directly in his own narrative, which has been narrowed here to the late ‘40s, when Dazai (Shun Oguri) was in the final stages of his life, suffering from depression and tuberculosis and drinking himself to death while on the verge of writing his most famous novels, including No Longer Human. The film is pointedly apolitical—World War II is never mentioned—though Mika parallels the macho military notion of “dying in honor” with the stereotype of the great male writer-boozer and detonates both in the process.
Dazai drinks and screws endlessly, actions that Mika and Shun somehow manage to drain of vicarious pleasure. Dazai essentially lives at bars, spouting obnoxious jibberish that’s typical of drunks. Mika lingers on the pain of addiction, especially on the alienation that it fosters—a feeling that one, always fucked up, doesn’t belong to clockwork society. When Dazai is in the midst of a sexual conquest, Mika emphasizes less the heat of the action than the deliberate and inadvertent miscommunications that seem to be necessary to broker the act, as well as the physical limitations that come with being a sick addict. No Longer Human’s most moving moment finds Dazai alone in an alley after being caught with a woman, regarding his family as they vanish into the night. It’s a moment of unmooring loneliness, intensified by stylized colors that underscore the film’s artificiality. We’re seeing merely a reproduction of a miserable, brilliant, vanished man.
John Hsu’s Detention also explores real atrocity, which it merges with a surreal scenario. The film is set in Taiwan in 1962, when the country was governed under martial law and punished with torture and death anyone who spread left-wing ideologies. In a high school, children are secretly taught forbidden literature and, just as the stage is set for a higher-stakes Dead Poets Society, Hsu jarringly upends the film’s sense of reality. Suddenly, two children wake up in a condemned version of the high school, a nightmarish realm with heightened colors and frightening monsters that suggests a Mario Bava adaptation of Silent Hill. The disorientation Hsu nurtures is more than cinematic game-playing, as this irrational hellscape suggests the confusion that totalitarian regimes sow in their populaces with cruel, nonsensical rules that ultimately serve to inspire terror and accommodation. Resonantly, the ghosts and monsters of Detention have no eyes, as they are products of a government that destroys free will and most of history.
The documentary Morgana focuses on an overweight, middle-aged Australian woman as she reinvents herself as a porn star named Morgana Muses. Filmmakers Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard interview Morgana as she recalls her weight gain and her husband’s increasing hostility and shame. Yearning to be touched again, she eventually hired a male prostitute for a sexual encounter that was to be her last before suicide. There’s no sense of canned recitation in these recollections. Morgana is still viscerally haunted by her past rejections, continued feelings of inadequacy, and convictions that she’s worthless and should die unmissed by husband, children, or friends. Anyone whose experienced depression, or addiction, knows that such demons never leave you; they abide, perhaps starved, waiting for an opportunity to regain dominion. Or least that’s how recovery feels, and Morgana fearlessly conjures these emotional currents for the filmmakers.
A sensitivity to pain and the perils of fearlessness prevent Morgana from becoming a fashionable totem of pop “empowerment,” even as Morgana’s fling offers her an unexpected catharsis. This film isn’t comfortably progressive in certain fashions, as Morgana’s productions occasionally center on fantasies of rape and domestic violence, drawing the ire of feminists who believe in a singular, approved-in-advanced form of freedom of expression. No, Morgana’s central, forgivable problem is its brevity. In 70 scant minutes, we’re given an origin story, a rebirth, a move from Australia to Berlin as a cult celebrity, a relapse into depression, and eventually a qualified happy ending. There should be much more footage of Morgana’s films, which are truly erotic and show that notions of hotness and sexual democracy needn’t be mutually exclusive.
Martin Kraut’s La Dosis features another middle-aged, overweight, lonely person whose perilous connection to society is challenged. Marcos (Carlos Portaluppi) is a veteran nurse at a hospital who’s both beloved and resented in the manner of many people who live only for their job and subtly lord it over everyone else. Kraut captures realistic tremors of physical tension among the characters, and much of the film’s first half is a captivating, slow-burn study of the protagonist in his setting. Marcos’s principal co-worker, Noelia (Lorena Vega), regards the man with a mixture of tenderness and pity that’s familiar to relationships between beautiful people and lonely hearts, while other co-workers exclude Marcos from social activities. The most poignant element of these passages is Marcos’s quiet, unyielding dignity; he knows how he’s perceived and he refuses to sully himself by asking for sympathy or inclusion. Marcos’s greatest sense of connection and duty is, troublingly, is his willingness to secretly euphonize hopeless patients.
A new nurse, Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers), threatens Marcos’s sense of place in the hospital. Gabriel is younger, relatively attractive, and gets along effortlessly well with everyone on the staff, especially Noelia. Gabriel doesn’t bow down to Marcos as a neophyte often does to a veteran, treating him instead as an equal and, later, rival. There’s no need to reveal how La Dosis morphs into a thriller, as Kraut exploits that mystery for a great deal of tension. And the thriller mechanics serve to explode Marcos’s alienation—his fear of losing a life that he’s already had to settle for. Marcos’s increasing panic renders him more obnoxious and eventually stronger, willing to step up for what’s his. The film’s final shot is a tragically casual image of someone embracing, of all things, a return to stasis. It’s the sort of moment that inadvertently resonates with our Covid-addled times, during which we’re often tasked with settling for facsimiles of past ambitions and pleasures.
The Fantasia International Film Festival runs from August 20 to September 2.
Madonna’s 20 Greatest Deep Cuts
We’ve dug up some of the forgotten or unheralded gems scattered throughout the singer’s catalog.
Streaming has rendered the “single” as we know it officially dead. But in the pre-Spotify era, there was no other solo artist who dominated the singles charts like Madonna, with hits spanning a quarter of a century. She still holds the title for the female artist with the most Top 10 singles in the United States, but it’s the deep cuts that never charted that helped make her one of the most beloved pop artists of all time. We’ve dug up some of the forgotten or unheralded gems scattered liberally throughout her nearly four-decade-spanning catalog. With the exception of one B-side, one compilation cut, and one guest appearance, all of our picks can be found on a Madonna studio album—a testament to the singer’s strength as an album artist, particularly in the 1990s. These are songs that, in a more adventurous world, could have been hits, and in some cases where the releases were nixed last minute, almost were.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on July 26, 2013.
20. “Devil Pray”
Madonna’s 21st-century output has been largely hit or miss, but there are moments throughout 2015’s Rebel Heart that recall the singer at her creative zenith while simultaneously carving out new, exhilarating territory for her as an artist. One such moment, “Devil Pray,” reimagines the Animals as a folktronica band with witch-house tendencies, as Madonna’s ruminations on salvation and the existential pitfalls of huffing ride an unexpected low-end groove. Sal Cinquemani
19. “Physical Attraction”
“Maybe we were meant to be together/Even though we never met before.” If that doesn’t sum up the relationship between Madonna and her instant fanbase circa her self-titled debut, I don’t know what does. “Physical Attraction” finds Madonna, still believably coquettish and naïve at this early point, tellingly offering her permission to take things to the next level. The woman was in the driver’s seat from day one, and never slid aside for anyone. Eric Henderson
18. “Guilty by Association”
The story goes that folk singer Vic Chestnutt tricked Michael Stipe into singing backup on “Guilty by Association,” a song he wrote about living in the shadow of his famous friend and collaborator. A few years later, Joe Henry invited his sister-in-law, Madonna, to sing on a cover of the song for a charity album, the irony of which reportedly wasn’t lost on the pop star. The result is an intimate, poignant meta-commentary on celebrity that found the most famous woman in the world singing straight-faced about sniffing Sharpies. Cinquemani
17. “Easy Ride”
The literal and figurative denouement to both 2003’s divisive American Life and, more broadly, Madonna’s folktronica period, “Easy Ride” is the ultimate exemplar of Madge and Mirwais’s obsession with marrying acoustic guitars, squelchy synths, and deconstructed orchestral arrangements (this one an approximation of Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten”). Her vocals start off raw, nearly unrecognizable, and eventually grow fuller and richer until she admits what nearly every move of her decades-long career attests to: “What I want is to live forever.” Cinquemani
16. “Beat Goes On”
Madonna may have seemed like a trend-chaser when she enlisted Timbaland and the Neptunes to produce her 2008 album Hard Candy, but “Beat Goes On”—a note-perfect hybrid of disco and tech-hop featuring a clever verse by Kanye West—practically predicted the mega-success of the Pharrell-assisted disco throwbacks “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” five years later. Despite not being officially released as a single, the track garnered airplay on the biggest dance station in the country, a testament to Madonna’s devotion to dance music even when she’s supposedly pandering to America’s fickle tastes. Cinquemani
15. “God Control”
The six-minute “God Control,” a track from 2019’s Madame X, begins with the queen of pop conjuring the spirit and disaffected monotone of Kurt Cobain—“I think I understand why people get a gun/I think I understand why we all give up,” she sings through clenched teeth—before the whole thing implodes into a euphoric, densely layered samba-disco-gospel mash-up. Madonna’s vocals alternate between Auto-Tuned belting, urgent whispers, and Tom Tom Club-style rapping as she takes on the gaslight industrial complex and so-called political reformers. On paper, it might sound like the ingredients for a musical Hindenburg, but—somewhere around the midpoint, when she declares, “It’s a con, it’s a hustle, it’s a weird kind of energy!”—it all coheres into the most exhilaratingly batshit thing she’s done in years. Cinquemani
14. “Over and Over”
This hi-NRG track from Like a Virgin is an early snapshot of a larger-than-life personality, introducing themes—racing against time, perseverance, and overall (blond) ambition—that would grow ever more pervasive in Madonna’s lyrics as she got older and more famous. The frenetic extended version, from 1987’s You Can Dance remix album, amps up Nile Rodgers’s original production with supersonic synth washes, time-stamped keyboard percussion fills, and—because why the hell not?—ringing alarm clocks. Cinquemani
Titled in honor of guest vocalist Yitzhak Sinwani, this track from 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor finds Madonna, in characteristic form, blending the mystical with the corporal, the traditional with the contemporary, and the sacred with the profane. Futuristic dance beats swirl as Sinwani recites a Yemenite poem and Madonna wrestles with the influence of light and dark. Ever the visual dramatist, she brought the song’s themes of spiritual captivity to exhilarating life during her 2006 Confessions Tour (above). Cinquemani
12. “Has to Be”
The Grammy-winning Ray of Light may have marked the queen’s return to her throne, but it was her reunion with longtime songwriting partner Patrick Leonard, as well as producer William Orbit’s more subdued ambient soundscapes, that elevated the project above a mere electronica cash-in. Putting the law of attraction to the test, “Has to Be,” the meditative B-side to “Ray of Light,” is an anguished appeal to the gods above from the loneliest, most famous woman on Earth. Cinquemani
As I wrote in my review of Erotica upon its 15th anniversary, “Waiting” is the ultimate masochism, one that’s entered into with full knowledge of what the emotional consequences will be. The very first lyric, “Well, I know from experience that if you have to ask for something more than once or twice, it wasn’t yours in the first place,” which Madonna utters with the same amount of interest a star of her stature might apply to buying a new pair of shoes, also happens to be one of the best opening lines to a pop song since “I guess I should have known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn’t last.” Cinquemani
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