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Interview: Will Oldham Talks Songs of Love and Horror

Oldham chats about his methodology, “objective truth” in songwriting, and politics in music.



Interview: Will Oldham Talks Songs of Love and Horror
Photo: Ryo Mitamura/Drag City

Listening to Songs of Love and Horror, the latest album from Will Oldham—better known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy—one feels very much alone with the songs. They’re spare, with minimal instrumentation, and Oldham’s vocal performances are intimate and close. A mix of old and new songs, covers, and outtakes, the album is a companion to a book of the same name released in October. The songs are about interaction, either with oneself or others, and they all have a winding interrogative quality, seemingly straightforward but also in defiance of the outer structures they present—at one moment bluesy, at another almost prayer-like, and at another gently rollicking.

I recently chatted with Oldham about his methodology, “objective truth” in songwriting, and politics in music. Our conversation was every bit as complex and surprising as Songs of Love and Horror.

The book is a large volume, and the album is fairly brief. How do you see them relating to each other?

The record was made when we were figuring that [book publisher] W. W. Norton was going to have a different kind of exposure, different kind of reach, than the record companies that I’ve worked with. It just seemed practical to put out a little volume that was a kind of musical sampler, just in case, for someone who saw the book or heard about the book and didn’t really have a concept of what it was referring to. And because the book is a Will Oldham book, we figured we’d put out a Will Oldham record again to sort of grease the wheel, clear the path for those readers who were curious.

What does the title signify for you?

It came from a conversation with my editor at Norton. We were speaking about the book in general, maybe a year or two ago, and at one point I described the contents as songs of love and horror, and he said, “You know what, that wouldn’t be a bad title for the book!”

Did that at all shape what songs you chose for the record?

No. Not at all. I mean, they all fit under that, they’re all songs of love and/or horror, so any of the songs would have fit. Songs for the record were chosen based on things I felt I had a specific kind of access to.

How do you feel your writing process has changed over time? Have there been shifts in the way you approach songs?

I’m still trying to write, you know, hits for the kids. I think one goes in and out of focus, in terms of taking in information from the outside world about what a song needs to be or ought to be, and at the phase I’m in now, more is coming from the inside as opposed to the outside. I’m not considering what’s happening musically on a grand scheme, but more taking stock of what’s been piled up and what’s been decomposing in a positive way, while creating potential organic energy that ought to come out on the page and into a song.

Do you have a lot of backup material, like a backlog or filing system?

I don’t think of it as such, but recently an old friend of my wife’s who is an archivist came and stayed with us for a while. He went through things that have accumulated, including old notebooks with song lyrics in them. And we tried together to arrange them chronologically. And when I got into them, and some of these would be from maybe 15 or 20 years ago, I would see that putting these notebooks into some kind of chronological order was more difficult than I had thought, because I figured that all the songs from a given record would be found in one notebook. And sometimes they would be, but sometimes they would be spread across three or four notebooks, and they might exist sometimes in fragments. I would think, this song must have sort of come together all at once, and then I would find, no, the bridge for the song is two notebooks away from the rest of the song. And so I must have been keeping a well or a trove of material that is constantly being dipped into and dug into in order to complete songs. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like the songs sort of make themselves known, you know? They sort of pull their head above the surface, and then it feels like it’s just very focused and direct work, but it may be much less so. At least, from the outside looking in, you might look at it and say it was a completely random process. But it doesn’t feel like it at the time, it feels like pulling a figure out of a piece of stone. You see the figure and just cut the excess away in order to reveal it.

Do you feel that the songs transform a lot when you’re recording them?

The recording studio is often the last real rewrite of what a song objectively is. We’ll re-approach things based on how they end up in the recording: the structure, the chords, the lyrics. But until the take that is the take, there are certain things that tend to be up in the air. A line here, or a line there, or the key for a song, or often in the recording studio I will gradually simplify a song, get it down to an essence, simply because recording studios are such high-pressure laboratories that it feels safest to eliminate the frills and just go with what I know is crucial to the life of any given song.

While I was listening to the album, my first response was that a lot of the songs have a feeling of real honesty to them, and I was wondering what honesty means to you, as far as composition goes, given that you’ve done so many albums in different personae and with different names.

Yeah, it is an interesting question that gets raised sometimes. I wonder how a question like that applies to such classics as say, “Jingle Bells,” which is a song that I love, or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” How to apply a question of honesty or authenticity to either of those songs—I wouldn’t know where to begin. I think when it becomes a question, it becomes a medium that I don’t relate to anymore, because the question of honesty or truth is as much the listener’s responsibility as that of the singer and/or originator of the material of the song. It’s important to me that the idea of honesty works on the smallest of levels— between the material, the singer, and the listener. There should be an understanding that nobody is trying to fleece somebody else, or no one is trying to be dishonest with somebody else. So, if Moe Bandy sings about being Bandy the Rodeo Clown, he’s not trying to fool people into thinking he’s a rodeo clown. He’s a country singer. But immediately we understand the level of literal honesty you’re dealing with, and you can then give yourself over to the song, knowing that this is a professional singer who created a character, and you can identify with the character in the same way that the singer is identifying with the character, even though he’s also creating a product that he’s hoping is gonna climb the charts. Which it did.

One of the first things you learn when you’re reading poetry seriously is that you shouldn’t assume that poets are speaking for themselves when they express an opinion or a feeling. They’re actually speaking for a persona. Is that something you’re thinking about a lot when you’re writing these songs or is that sort of under the surface?

I don’t think it’s under the surface. I think it’s evident. I believe that it’s an understanding. It isn’t something that needs to be thought about, unless you do veer intentionally or passively into things that connect to what we might call objective facts or objective truths. Then there’s another layer of performance awareness that comes with the songs. You know, if you sing about an actual person publicly known or privately known, or an actual event, publicly experienced or privately experienced, that opens things up to new realities that need to be dealt with.

I was talking to a performance artist recently who said that she felt over the last couple of years she’d been “called to serve,” in terms of awareness of what’s going on around her in the world. Is that something you’ve ever considered or that you’re intellectually involved with?

Well, my form of engagement has more to do with practice and process than with lyrical content. The words that are sung are intended to be content that’s shared between creator and audience, and then the practice and process are things that start to get into what you might call political. And those decisions govern everything when it comes to making records, playing shows, interacting with musicians, interacting with audiences, interacting with record companies or distributors or other musicians. It does seem like there’s nothing I can do to stray from that calling. Rather than have a song that’s about local accountability, I would distill that into my practice and then have the song be about something else.

Now when you say “practice” and “process,” what specifically do you mean?

Well, it depends on which aspect of this work we’d be talking about.

If we’re talking about referencing the present, or the world, and you’re saying you address it through practice and process, how do you mean that?

Okay, for example, right now I’m in a days-long—maybe over a week—email exchange with somebody in Ireland, who wants to buy a t-shirt. And we could have, at this point, put in place a page where you push a button and you get your t-shirt, right? But we aren’t doing that. Instead, rather than farming out jobs or responsibilities to other people, it’s important for me to, within reason, retain a degree of connectivity to the audience, or to other musicians and to not move into a bubble—a musical, political, or social bubble.

When we play shows, and we show up at a venue, and there’s a barrier placed in front of the stage, we will ask that that barrier be removed. Or if my booking agent says it’s a venue where I know that there will be 300-pound men frisking people, I’ll say, let’s not play that venue, let’s play a different venue. Any artist can do that, but most artists for some reason don’t seem to care where they play. They’ll say, it’s not my job, it’s not my responsibility to pay attention to something like that. Which is just lazy, bordering on evil.

It’s passively saying, all I’m supposed to do is show up and collect the money. How much money? Oh, I don’t care, somebody else decided that. And that’s lazy bordering on evil. Because what is your responsibility? If it’s not your responsibility how much money is being charged at these forums, what is your responsibility? If it’s not your responsibility that you play at a venue owned by a multinational corporation that employs potentially violent people to search your audience for nobody’s safety, but just because it’s an accepted practice that helps cover the venue owner or the corporation’s assets because they have insurance policies that require them to have evidence that they’re protecting their assets, whose responsibility is that? It is the performer’s responsibility. If you have the power to make something happen, then you have the responsibility to make it happen.

So you’re addressing the world around you through the form, but the content might well be something different? Would that be an oversimplification?

Everything is content, right? At the same time, I’m creating something that, on a smaller scale, is content, which is songs, and includes lyrics and melody and involves an interpersonal, intermusical dynamic that usually goes universally unrecognized or uncommented upon by most listeners. Because, you know, a song is a song is a song is a song. But beyond that, what people are unaware of is that the way that the song gets from the maker/creator/producer to the outside world is also content. But people don’t realize that it’s content because, if someone keeps something hidden from you, we’re trained to say, okay, that must be hidden for a reason—like the inner workings of a social media website, or how or why a record is reviewed the way it’s reviewed.

You could just say, well, I’m receiving these words from this reviewer. That’s straightforward. Obviously, this reviewer, plainly and clearly, with no agenda, thinks this is a really good record. And you and I know that that’s not true. So that is content. A magazine can say, well, we didn’t say that there was no agenda, we assumed you knew. But because this record company paid for an ad on the back cover on our magazine, we’re going to give four or five stars to this record in our review section. And we assumed that you knew that.

But no, people don’t know that. And the more that you hide from people, you’re just hiding. That’s content. You know, the absence of content is content. And it’s a $10 ticket versus a $20 ticket versus a $150 ticket, that’s content too. If the Who are playing, and they’re charging $150 for a list-price ticket, not counting what people actually end up paying for it, that’s part of the content of the show. The content is defined in the audience, and it creates new meaning for the lyrics based on the monetary value of any individual, and the monetary value represented by a full house. It re-contextualizes everything.



Interview: Mary Kay Place on the Emotional Journey of Kent Jones’s Diane

The actress speaks at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character.



Mary Kay Place
Photo: IFC Films

Diane, the eponymous character of film critic, programmer, and documentarian
Kent Jones’s narrative directorial debut, provides Mary Kay Place with a rare leading role that the character actress inhabits with customary nuance. Diane is a woman grappling with countless burdens, none bigger than her struggle to bridge the gap between herself and her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), who’s battling addiction. Place is in every scene of the film, and she’s mesmerizing in each one, for showing how Diane’s routines, from volunteering at a soup kitchen to caring for a dying cousin, takes some kind of toll on her mind.

Place has delivered many memorable performances throughout her long career, most notably in The Big Chill and Manny & Lo. She became reliable for playing folksy, no-nonsense women—often mothers—who’re predisposed to putting others first and leading from the heart. Maybe that’s why Diane felt like a perfect fit for the actress. Throughout Jones’s film, Diane drops by houses and hospital rooms, looking to stay “only but for a minute.” But her business masks a deeper pain and loneliness, and the film allows Kay to bring to the surface certain rhythms that she hasn’t often been allowed to channel in her previous work.

In a recent conversation with Place about Diane, the actress spoke to me at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character, how she expresses her own anger, and why she considers herself a “kitchen dancer.”

Diane is selfless, lonely, ashamed, tough. Do you see yourself in her?

Yes, because she lives in a small community, and my parents came from small towns in Texas, and because I went to these towns my whole life to visit my grandparents with my family. The casserole exchange, and the experiences that take place in small communities—they resonated with me. Many of us in our families have addiction issues; we can all relate to that aspect of Diane. And many of us have said things we regret or feel ashamed about and hold on to, though maybe not for as long as Diane does. As members of her family pass away, that family loss is an initiation into a new dimension of your life. I could relate to that as well. She takes a turn into a deeper exploration of her own needs and wants because she has time to reflect.

Diane’s well-meaning is an attempt to compensate for her failures. Why do you think Diane is the way she is, so hard on herself?

Because some people just are. She’s a sensitive person. She busies herself with lists to distract her from thinking about the things she carries around as a burden. But as the film moves on, she has more time for reflection and goes through a transformation in small, tiny ways.

Much of your performance as Diane is internal. Can you describe your process in playing those moments?

It flowed naturally because of the script. There was an inner dialogue going on and that was reflected on my face. I was aware of subtext. Even though it wasn’t written, my imagination found the rhythm and flow that occurred. Once you get into shooting, being in every scene helped that development. There was an inner and outer dialogue. We go through this whole time period and as she has more time alone and once her son gets sober—that’s a huge weight off her shoulders—she doesn’t know what to do with herself.

Diane’s relationship with her son is interesting. He lies to her, he bullies her, and at times she stands up to him. She’s no-nonsense in dealing with him. I’m curious to know your personal thoughts about this dynamic of their relationship?

She’s definitely codependent and enabling her son by doing his laundry. She doesn’t know how to let go. Maybe she’s never been to an Al-Anon meeting—or has and rejected it. So, they have this dynamic, and they feed off each other. They’re hooked in. She’s not able to break free of it.

How do you personally cope with the ups and downs of life?

Well, I do centering prayer, and mindful meditation, exercise. I think the prayer and meditation have always been important coping mechanisms.

There’s a scene in a bar where Diane goes drinking, puts on the jukebox and dances. It made me remember your dancing in the kitchen to “Handyman” in Smooth Talk.

I’m a big kitchen dancer—with other people or by myself. I have all kinds of playlists and I love to dance. I really wanted to do that bar scene. I picked the song—Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods”—because it’s fun to dance to, and the lyrics were appropriate for Diane. Kent was game for that. It showed another side of Diane that we hadn’t seen. It was from when she was at a simpler time in her life and didn’t have shameful thoughts and was just out having fun.

We see what makes Diane come undone. So I guess I’m also curious to know what makes you lose your temper or patience?

I come from a family that doesn’t hold things in. We let the freak flag fly and then it’s totally over and done with. Explosions and then we’re through! I lose patience with people being oblivious to the feeling of others, and I have no tolerance for meanness. None. I might lash out, depend on the circumstances—and I can if called upon—but I generally don’t.

Diane appears to be a creature of habit, living a life that consists of routine. Are you in that mold, or more peripatetic or free-spirited?

I’m “both/and” instead of “either/or.” I get real orderly and then I get real spontaneous and have to start all over again. Diane’s driving connects the scenes and shows that monotony that she experiences. Oh my God, we’re back in that car again driving to someone’s house! It’s not a walking community. And it’s a different rhythm driving on country roads than in L.A.

We also see how patient Diane can be. Where do you think she gets that quality, and do you share it?

Sometimes she’s not patient. I strive to be more patient. I can be patient and sometimes I can be very impatient. Once again, it’s a “both/and” kind of thing.

Your career has been as an in-demand character actress. This is a rare leading role for you. Watching Diane, I kept thinking: “It’s long overdue that you were the star!”

Thank you for saying it’s long overdue. I enjoy every minute of it, but I love ensemble work. It’s interesting to find a rhythm and exchange words and movement with other people. It’s fun. It’s been interesting to have this leading part, but I love the other work as well.

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Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China

Jia discusses what he likes about digital video and how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life.



Jia Zhang-ke
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese government’s censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.

Jia’s films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.

In a conversation before Ash Is Purest White’s debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his government’s suppression of his work.

The music in your films is always an important part of the story. Can you talk about how you picked the songs for this one, starting with “Y.M.C.A.”?

Since I wanted to set the story starting in 2001, I wanted to find a piece of music that can trigger that particular era very authentically. And back in the day, in 2001, the younger generation, they didn’t have a lot of sources of entertainment. They might have had a disco club and karaoke, and that was about it. Two songs very popular at that time were “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jia’s Mountains May Depart].

The reason that we liked “Y.M.C.A.” was not because we understood the lyrics or understood who sang them or who was involved in the production. We had no idea what they were singing about. But we did enjoy the rhythm, the melody, and the beat, which is matching the heartbeat of the young people. It really got you going and brought up the energy of the room.

Another song that is particularly important in the film—you hear it again and again—is “Drunk for Life” by Sally Yeh, a Cantonese pop singer. This is a song I listened to when I was in junior high. At the time, young people tended to hang out in the video arcade, and this was one of the songs heard there. It was also a theme song for John Woo’s The Killer. That film, in the triad genre, is very similar to the John Woo motif that I want to evoke in this film.

The third song in this film is “How Much Love Can Be Repeated?” This sequence was actually shot 12 years ago in Three Gorges, when I made Still Life. I think the reason why I wanted to use it was that it could create this interesting contrast between what was happening on stage and Zhao’s character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhao’s part was shot last year. Hopefully, you cannot tell that these two footages were from two different times and spaces.

Was any of the other Three Gorges footage shot for Still Life, or shot when you were making that film? I know you shot a lot of documentary footage there at the time.

Only that particular clip was shot 12 years ago. The rest, we went back to the same location and tried to capture what we did in Still Life. But, unlike in other parts of the film, where we tend to use digital video, for the Three Gorges part we use film stock. That’s why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.

You’ve worked in digital video for a long time, partly because it allowed you to bypass processing labs, which would not have developed your films because they weren’t government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they weren’t being played in theaters. Are there also things that you prefer artistically about using digital video, especially now that it can do so much more than it could early on?

Starting in 2001, using DV to shoot Unknown Pleasures, I didn’t think of it just for practical purposes. DV as a medium has its own aesthetics that I can really explore and develop. Using DV you can create a close proximity between the camera and the actors and actresses, a kind of intimacy that cannot be done through the traditional camera.

The other thing is, things that happen unexpectedly can be easily captured with DV cameras. With cameras that use film stock, things are usually highly scripted in a contained, particular environment. With DV you tend to have a lot of spontaneity and a lot of impromptu happenstances that can be easily captured.

It’s so important for people to share their stories and learn from history. To me, one of the most important forms of disruption in China since Mao is the way people have been barred from telling their stories, or made to alter what they say to fit some official narrative. So you’re performing an important service by writing history with your films, recording the story of the present and the recent past for the people of tomorrow.

I think that’s also why I rely a lot on DV. I joke that only the pace of the evolution of DV equipment can keep up with the pace of the development of China. For me, this film is very much about how, in this time span of 17 years, human connections and human emotions—the interpersonal relationships between people—evolves and changes as a result of all that. On the surface, you can see very clearly the changes pre-internet era and post-internet era, [things like how] in the past you had slow trains and now you have high-speed trains. But that is on the surface level. What I’m interested in exploring is what happened in terms of the inner world of those people in this particular historical context, how their relationships evolved or dissolved and the reasons for the dissolutions and the evolutions of their relationships.

You’ve said you like working with your wife partly because she becomes a kind of second author of your screenplays, adding detail to what you have written. Can you give an example of what she brought to this movie?

When she was in the cabin of the boat and the lady in black [a cabinmate] came in, she just, almost as a kneejerk reaction, stood up, suddenly and immediately. She was trying to capture what it would be like for someone who has been in prison for five years, how she would have reacted to a security guard entering the jail cell and how she would react the same way when this lady in black entered her cabin.

I see her training as a dancer a lot in the physicality of her acting.

Yes. Another example would be the water bottle in this film. It was used to evoke this same character in Still Life, and she carried that water bottle there too. It makes sense because of the weather; it was very hot so she would need to drink. But the water bottle also came in handy to enhance the mood I was trying to create. Zhao Tao took this on and really went for it. She used it as a weapon, she used it as a way to stop the door from closing,

And to avoid holding hands with the man she met on the train.

Exactly. She was using this bottle as a kind of third character in the film, thinking about how this can be expanded and explored.

Your work has faced such strong resistance from the Chinese government. What is the government’s response to your films these days, and how does that affect how you work or how your films are seen?

I make films based on my own ecology, my own tempo and rhythm. I don’t really think too much about whether or not the film can be shown in China. Of course, I would love if my film could be shown in China, but that’s not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that that’s not the end goal, so I don’t need to somehow sacrifice and change the way I make films in order to be shown in China.

I will make the film I want to make, and if it can be shown in China, great. If not, so be it. That’s the way I interact with this particular censorship system. But I have to say that the situation has improved in terms of the communication channels. Those have opened up a lot more, so after I finish the film, I will do my best as a director to communicate to the censor bureau why this film should be shown in China. That I am willing to do. But I will not compromise the quality or any subject matter.

Translation by Vincent Cheng

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Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.



Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
Photo: Wild Bunch

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, we’ll see if Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.

You’ll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannes’s competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme d’Or winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.

The Son’s Room

19. The Son’s Room (2001)

Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanni’s work, focus is shifted away from the family arena. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher throughout. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez

Fahrenheit 911

18. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)

A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez


17. Amour (2012)

There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh

I, Daniel Blake

16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac

The Class

15. The Class (2008)

When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps

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