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The 25 Best Singles of 2017

The resilience of retroism was, this year, tinged with the irony of watching those not knowing the past being doomed to repeat it.

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The 25 Best Singles of 2017
Photo: Glassnote Records

The urge to whistle past the graveyard was unavoidable in 2017. No news was good news in a year that plunged every non-deplorable soul deeper and deeper into the abyss of despair with each passing tweet. Lil Uzi Vert’s chilling refrain “All my friends are dead” just about cuts to the feeling we all shared while those more optimistic than us kneeled, praying along with the now dollar sign-shorn Kesha. Well, more accurately, fantasizing about those who ought to be praying when the sowing turns into reaping.

Prayers come cheap, however, when the powerless find themselves with no other weapons on hand other than self-immolation. Father John Misty’s mordantly offered lament for the passing of the torch in a TL;DR era finds him wryly musing: “What he’d give for one more day to rate and analyze the world made in his image as of yet/To realize what a mess to leave behind.” He and the rest of us, Father. Or, as a certain champion of her own debased reputation put it, look what you made us do.

Even the resilience of retroism was, this year, tinged with the irony of watching those not knowing the past being doomed to repeat it. But in a grasping-at-straws moment, grim reality checks, bubblicious-pop contraptions, stripped-down folk-soul, and, yes, Old Music 2.0 seemed to coexist on a playlist sending signals of life from the Upside Down, or at least one designed to help us feel some type of way. So even though, as our list of the year’s top singles reveals, we more often than not had to travel all the way to Japan and England to satisfy our memories of hip-thrusting better days that we may never see return, the pleasure of the perfect three- or four-minute escape will never be quashed. Though we’re at the point where even Katy Perry knows we’re all metaphorically in chains. Eric Henderson


25. Hercules and Love Affair, “Rejoice”

The connection between gay dance music and African-American gospel goes back a long way, to the disco era and beyond. It’s a connection that clearly isn’t lost on Andy Butler, the DJ behind American-Belgian house project Hercules and Love Affair. With “Rejoice,” Butler recasts the dance floor as a sweaty, secular alternative church, offering salvation not in the spiritual afterlife, but in a life lived “with joy.” Like any good gospel song, it’s propulsive and transportive, as guest vocalist Rouge Mary howls out her testimony with a ragged, punkish edge: “Rejoice from this very day/Rejoice, don’t let life pass you by.” Butler, meanwhile, turns up the distortion on the bassline for an almost industrial undertone. “Rejoice” won’t sound radically new to anyone who’s listened to house music before, but then, that’s the point: Like any ritual, songs of praise find power in familiarity, and “Rejoice” is nothing if not powerful. Zachary Hoskins


24. SZA, “Drew Barrymore”

A not-quite-love song attuned to the everyday rhythms of attraction rather than its soaring dramatic glories, “Drew Barrymore” reflects the unsteady tenor of modern relationships, in which statuses are often up in the air. Befitting this approach, the track uses a low-stakes scenario as the impetus to explore feelings of abandonment, loss, and diminished self-worth. “Why’s it so hard to accept the party is over?” SZA intones in her signature clipped-but-precise delivery. Detailing a casual group hangout in which an old flame makes an appearance, “Drew Barrymore” functions as a survey of wreckage, both personal and cultural. Accompanied by a plaintive underwater guitar strum, the narrator undergoes a crisis of confidence that swells into a listing of personal failings, a piercing note of nostalgia bringing up sorrow and regret. Rather than build to any concrete resolution, the song instead hands things over to the warm burble of a circular, self-validating chorus, just another bout of feelings subsumed in the hazy afterglow of a routine night out. Jesse Cataldo


23. Mondo Grosso, “ラビリンス” (“Labyrinth”)

The party’s over, but at least a few people are still dancing like there’s no tomorrow. (Conveniently so.) Back in 1993, Mondo Grosso’s acid-jazz-lite “Mondo Grosso” was transformed by Masters at Work into a four-on-the-floor house masterpiece, an immaculately produced tribute to the power of piano, bass, and kick drums. Mondo Grosso’s Shinichi Osawa has evidently taken MAW’s attention to detail to heart, because the sunny geniality of his new deep house cut “Labyrinth” fosters an immaculately classy high. Nothing feels remotely out of balance amid the tune’s fluffy little clouds, from the delicacy of Hikari Mitsushima’s vocals to the toy-train chug of its rhythm track. And if it all feels maybe a touch too ephemeral to stand the test of time, in this specific moment and in direct comparison to the spikiness of Japanese future funk, it sounds exactly like utopia. Henderson


22. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, “If We Were Vampires”

Jason Isbell is a man of versatile talents, having seamlessly evolved from a hell-raising guitar slinger in Drive-By Truckers into a tender-hearted messiah for latte-sipping NPR listeners. But as “If We Were Vampires” once again proves, by far his most prodigious gift—one virtually unequaled by either his peers or predecessors—is for writing moving love songs that truly capture what it means to devote oneself to a life partnership without ever succumbing to cliché. Given the sheer volume of love songs that exist, this seems impossible, but “If We Were Vampires,” like “Flagship” and “Cover Me Up” before it, is as quiet and pretty as it is emotionally devastating. Isbell’s gentle finger-picking provides a hymn-like atmosphere as he admits a thought that most of us try to push to the backs of our minds as quickly as possible: “Maybe we’ll get 40 years together/But one day I’ll be gone/Or one day you’ll be gone.” At times, the idea sounds like too much for Isbell to bear, his voice cracking as he delivers the song’s most heartbreaking line: “And give you every second I can find/And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.” Jeremy Winograd


21. Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Living in the City”

“Living in the City” is a folk rock song about, well, living in the city, and with that in mind, the touchstones that Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra drew on to compose it are very evident. You can hear the ghost of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground in the scratchy lead guitar and the way Segarra’s vocals come tumbling out of her mouth in a conversational sneer. And you can hear early Bruce Springsteen in her gritty lyrics about streetwise, idealistic city kids with dumb nicknames like “Big Danny” and “Gypsy.” Segarra’s challenge wasn’t merely following in the footsteps of such titans. As the first full song on the concept album The Navigator, “Living in the City” needed to establish an entire world: a setting, its inhabitants, their lives. She succeeded completely in that, capturing the drugs, the leering men, the revelers that populate “Fourteen floors a’birthin/And 14 floors a’dying” (a reference to the apartment building where Segarra grew up in the Bronx). It’s because of this that, ultimately, only Segarra could have written this song. Winograd

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Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.

If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

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What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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Interview: Terrence McNally on the Timeless Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

The dramatist and his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy, discuss what makes Frankie and Johnny so enduring.

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Terrence McNally
Photo: Miller Mobley

It takes a romantic like Terrence McNally to infuse so much warmth into a one-night stand. That’s what you sense as you watch Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Well known for his ability to soothe the pain and anguish of his characters, and our own, with the balm of laughter, McNally takes a gentle approach in this romantic comedy about a waitress and a short-order cook whose first night of passionate sex looks as if it may blossom into something even more intense. The new Broadway revival of McNally’s 1987 play is directed by Arin Arbus and stars Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon as the pair of working-class loners who get swept up in something beyond their expectations.

McNally’s belief in true romance is fulfilled in his own life as well. Now 80 years old, he’s been together with his husband, lawyer and theater producer Tom Kirdahy, for nearly two decades. Next month, the eminent playwright will receive his fifth Tony Award—for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre—and PBS will air Every Act of Life, Jeff Kaufman’s documentary on his life and six-decade writing career. I recently sat down with McNally and Kirdahy in their New York apartment to talk about the Frankie and Johnny revival, McNally’s wonderful new lease on life, and the celebration of his career on Broadway.

Why revive Frankie and Johnny now?

Terrence McNally: I think the play still has lot to say to people. I’m delighted to have it back on Broadway with two magnificent actors. That’s the easy answer!

Tom Kirdahy: The play is timely and timeless. It’s better doing it now than it might have been even a year ago, because I think people are feeling very disconnected from one another. In the age of social media, people have the illusion of being connected with others, but, in many ways, we’re less connected than we’ve ever been before. Our country is very fractured, we have so many walls between us. Johnny is determined to tear down the walls that separate people, and Frankie, I think, wants those walls torn down but has shielded herself from the pain of rendering herself vulnerable. This is a play about two people taking a leap across the void of loneliness and trying to connect with one another. It feels so fresh and urgent, so “now.”

There was no social media in the ‘80s when you wrote the play, but you’ve noted how the availability of movies on VHS provided a similar obstacle to social interaction.

McNally: People were afraid to make any kind connection with strangers because AIDS was on everybody’s mind—gay and straight alike—and they were spending a lot of time alone on weekends. What kicked off the play, actually, was that I noticed these crowds at—was it called Blockbusters? I noticed them checking out 20 movies at a time because they had no intention to set foot out of their apartment once Friday night came. They would watch videos instead.

You’ve said that this is the first play of the second act of your life. Can you tell us something about that time when you began writing Frankie and Johnny?

McNally: Well, I was about to turn 50. I was at the end of a relationship and a good friend told me, “You’ve had your last cookie.” That was how they put it, which was rather harsh, but I know what they meant. It was the New York of graffiti and it seemed gray all the time. There were a lot of homeless [people]. There were a lot of people with greasy rags and squeegees who’d approach your car when you got to an intersection. You could rent any theater on Broadway, practically; they were all empty, gathering dust. It was the bleakest period I remember of New York. I’m not a bleak person and I wanted to imagine something positive. I’m a bit like Johnny that way. There’s a little of me in each character. This is the kind of play where you go, “No one is ever going to want to do this. Only middle-aged people would remotely be interested in it.” But I just wanted to write it. It was kind of my personal SOS. It was to connect to someone—and it turned out to be with an audience.

Only connect. Would you say that’s a theme through the plays you’ve written?

McNally: Probably. And people thinking they’re the only person in the world—never more acutely than in this play.

Did you have to do any updates or revisions for this revival?

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McNally: No. We decided to leave it in period. Giving them cellphones and devices like that doesn’t make a play up to date. I will try to fix plays that I didn’t quite get right the first time. I’m 30 years older, and the play is 30 years older, so it surprised me in a way how much it moved me and how relevant it still is. What it is truly about is the distance between people. That stayed with us. Maybe that was my big theme in all my work: connection, which is so difficult. We have substitutes for it—like getting the Maria Callas [recording of] Lisbon performance of La Traviata—but people still want the real thing.

Do you think that audiences may be unprepared for the frank language and nudity in the play—more so than they were 30 years ago?

Kirdahy: I think so. At the first preview, the audience was so electric and so startled by the frank sexuality. I do think we might be entering almost more puritanical times, and I feel like this is a good antidote to that as well. We’re using an intimacy director for the first time on Broadway. Her name is Claire Warden. Working with her has allowed us to bring great reality to the sex in the play, and also ensure a safe space for our actors.

Now you’re speaking in the language of today.

Kirdahy: That’s correct. And in doing that I think we’re marrying the present with the past, but I do think the play’s comfort with sexuality and frank talk about sex is a bit startling and very, very exciting too.

If we say you’re now in your third act, would you agree that it started when you and Tom first got together 18 years ago?

McNally: I certainly don’t think I’d be sitting here if Tom had not come into my life. It was a very strong flash of lightning that went off when I met him, as something profoundly important happened. And to add to the drama, by our third date, literally, I found out I had lung cancer. That used to be a death sentence, but I’ve managed it for all these years. We also have an important professional relationship together. He’s easily the best producer I’ve ever worked with. He’s smart, he knows how to talk to creative people. He doesn’t operate out of fear, and he gets things done. And everybody likes him. It’s kind of extraordinary.

Congratulations on receiving the Tony for lifetime achievement. How do you feel about being recognized for six decades of work?

McNally: I feel pretty wonderful. I won’t pretend false modesty. To think how reviled my first play was. One review began: “The American theater would be a better place this morning if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his cradle.” That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?

Indeed it is. What’s remarkable is that in that play And Things That Go Bump in the Night, you portrayed gay sexuality openly on Broadway in 1965. And this was three years before The Boys in the Band made its landmark appearance off-Broadway.

McNally: I’m of the school “write what you know about,” so I didn’t think I was doing a breakthrough. Also, when you write a play, you don’t write a Broadway play differently than you write an off-Broadway one. You still have to bring the best you can to the project with honesty, develop interesting characters. I think what was innovative about And Things That Go Bump in the Night was that they were two men who had an active sex life. Because before that, gay men in plays were always the next-door neighbor comic-relief character, or the sad alcoholic who you’d find out in the third act had committed suicide. They were tragic and lonely and desperate, and were dead by the end—or they went on decorating, or fixing women’s hair, saying witty things about people. What The Boys in the Band did—that was a first I believe—was that all the characters were out gay men, with varying degrees of comfortableness with being gay. That was a seminal play, and it was great that it was revived last year with an all-star famous cast. Originally, they had trouble getting actors to be in it.

What do you think of when you look back to that era?

McNally: The changes we’ve seen are extraordinary. From men furtively darting down staircases into little bars to now—we have many friends with lovely children, male couples who have adopted. And it’s extraordinary that this has all happened in my lifetime. I remember when I went to Columbia [in 1956], almost the first time I went to a gay bar I saw my advisor there. He was startled to see me, and I never saw him there again. And for the four years he was my advisor, we never mentioned that we’d seen each other there. I think it could have been the basis of some kind of relationship, a friendship, who knows? But instead, it was this thing you never acknowledged. I never expected as a young man that I would be married one day. I expected to be in love and be loved by another man, but not publicly—that we could own a home together, adopt a child, do anything like that.

Yet, unlike many of your contemporaries, you were out from the start of your career.

McNally: Yeah. I was reviewed as a gay playwright in my first play and that’s simply because I was partners with Edward Albee and they all knew that. On the opening night of Bump—this was when everyone used to smoke in theaters—we had eight daily papers, and the eight critics, they were the last ones in because their seats were in the aisles and they could smoke until the very last second. And the lights were blinking, they put out their cigarettes, and as they went in, one of them said to the other: “Well, let’s go see what his boyfriend has come up with.” I just felt sick to my stomach when I heard that. It made me sad and angry. I thought in that second how they’re not reviewing a new writer, but reviewing a play by Edward Albee’s boyfriend. I wasn’t a person, I was bit of theater gossip.

That play, I knew it wasn’t a triumph at previews, but there were people who liked it. But the venom of the press—almost every negative review had words like “obscene,” “disgusting,” “immoral,” “vile,” and it was only because of the relationship between the two men, because they’d just had sex. But that didn’t deter me. I read the other day someone said that part of being a success at anything is starting over again after you fail. It’s when you give up—then you’re the failure. I never thought of giving up playwriting and, as I said to Tom the other day, I think I’d rather receive an award like this now than be praised too much when you’re in your 20s and 30s. The timing is right. I consider it the nicest 80th birthday present I could have.

The Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.

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Interview: Mary Harron on Charlie Says and Correcting the Record on Manson

Harron’s background as a journalist and critic was apparent as we discussed her latest film.

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Mary Harron
Photo: IFC Films

We are in the midst of a reappraisal of the legacy of the gruesome murder spree perpetrated by Charles Manson and his family. It’s a discourse that got off to a quite rocky start with Daniel Farrands’s schlocky The Haunting of Sharon Tate, a counterfactual recounting of Sharon Tate’s final days that imagined her as being consumed by premonitions of her own death. And we’ll have to wait another two weeks to see if Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, will similarly bring a revisionist spin to the story of Mason’s crimes.

Something we do know for sure is that Mary Harron’s new film, Charlie Says, thankfully centers the dialogue around an enduring, but still largely unrecognized, fascination at the heart of Manson’s story. It’s not just what led him and the family, a group of young devotees he attracted to follow him with religious fervor, to commit such extreme acts. It’s also how he maintained their loyalty up to and beyond the murders. Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner’s point of entry into this multifaceted saga comes through the women still under Manson’s spell long after their crimes have landed them behind bars.

Harron’s background as a journalist and critic was apparent as we discussed Charlie Says prior to the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere. She spoke with remarkable clarity about how the Manson murders were a product of their cultural moment in the late ‘60s and articulated both what attracted her to explore this story and how Charlie Says fits into a larger pattern in her filmography. To convey why extremes persist in our society, Harron understands she must present their allure along with their more controversial elements.

Who decided on the title Charlie Says?

We were talking about what we wanted the title to say, and Guinevere came up with the title Charlie Says because the women in the film are always saying, “Well, Charlie says…” Charlie says many things: go kill people, kill your ego, there’s no death. It was the idea that his voice was constantly in their head.

What led you and Guinevere to focus on the women as the main characters rather than Charles Manson? Is it all a corrective to the dominant narrative?

Yes, partly because it’s been more focused on Manson. I think the strangest aspect and the more enduring fascination is why these very young, seemingly nice girls did these terrible things. I feel like with Manson, we know why he’s a monster. Partly because of his innate character, but also his horrible childhood and the warping experience of growing up in prison. You can understand how Manson turned out the way he did and did the things he did—also being a sociopath, I guess. But the women, the family members, that’s the big mystery of what happened over a year and a half. That hippies who want to live in a world above become his acolytes who would go out and do violence if he asked them to do it.

How do you balance making a film about people who were involved in reprehensible behavior without excusing them while also explaining how they were coerced?

We knew we wanted to answer a specific question: How did he get them to do these things? What you want to do is show the appealing aspects of the ranch because they all got involved because they thought of it as this golden place of love and freedom and lack of inhibition and escape from the world of their parents, what they thought was the oppression of “straight” society. And how this freedom, which is represented by when they go up to the mountain and dance around in costumes, turned into a much worse form of oppression and terror. You have to show what’s good about it and what got them involved before you show how scary it can be. None of them, if you said, “Come join my cult, and we’ll go kill some strangers in a year and a half,” would have done that if they’d known at the outset what it would lead to.

Is that task any different than Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, walking the thin line between depicting but not endorsing? Obviously, satire makes it a little different.

Obviously, when you do a type of character, the audience in some way is going to be with them because you’re following their story. That doesn’t mean you’re endorsing them, but you’re kind of compelled by them. It’s a different question because the question is about how they got there, the process of mind control. It’s how do they lose themselves, and as Karlene says, “I want to give them back themselves.” How do they come to abandon their own conscience and voice of reason? I wanted to show the gradual process of the erosion of your will. Just like people in abusive relationships, it’s a gradual process of losing their will.

I’ve read Jeff Guinn’s biography of Manson, which talked about how he used pimp logic to gain control over women.

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In some ways, it’s a seduction. It’s a bizarre version of a relationship. It’s why we wanted to tell the story of Leslie Van Houten—to show her from being brought into it, the things she saw, why she wanted to stay, and then how she became a full-on convert. She’s since silenced those doubts. She gets more committed not just to Charlie, but also to Patricia Krenwinkle, another friend in the cult. When you start totally losing your perspective, you become more and more detached from the outside world. This is true of the terrible things people do during wartime as well, you lose your wider perspective from only seeing the reality you’re told to believe in. That’s your enemy, these are the good people, those are the bad people.

That moment in the film where Karlene brings in the TV and breaks the feedback loop for the women in jail really feels like such a breakthrough.

For all the atrocities [they committed], the victims are depersonalized. It’s very hard to hurt someone if you see their humanity and have any empathy for them. And these people were complete strangers. They didn’t even know who Sharon Tate was. I mean, they knew her as a movie star, but they had no connection to these people—particularly Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, whose murders are the ones we show in detail. They had no idea who these people were! Charlie chose those people at random. When they see the Sharon Tate thing, they had to see, this was the person whose life we took.

Didn’t the family choose the home where they murdered Sharon Tate just because it was a place they knew how to drive to at night?

They knew how to get there, Tex Watson [a family member involved in the Tate murder] had been there once before, but we don’t show it in the film. I think they knew it was where some rich Hollywood types would be because Charlie wanted to kill some rich white piggies, and that seemed to be a place. But there was definitely a randomness about it.

Like you said, it’s depersonalized. Even if they knew it was some kind of rich, white, famous person, there was no name or identity to go with it.

Charlie could have tracked down Terry Melcher [the record producer who auditioned but didn’t sign Manson to his label] if he really wanted to kill him, but he knew he wasn’t there anymore.

There’s a conception in culture of Manson as this kind of terrifying criminal mastermind, but in your film, he’s really just a garden variety predator with higher profile victims. Is there at all an element of correcting the record here?

Yes, I mean, Guinevere described him as a charismatic loser. He had some gifts, a real animal cunning as he chose his followers. He would home in on people who had a vulnerability or weakness. After he got out of prison, he was a pimp and had that kind of skill of drawing someone in and making girls feel he saw and cared about them. He would also then be somewhat abusive and reject them, which would make them want his approval more. And he did that kind of giving people attention and then switching it off with both men and women to keep them off balance and maintain control over them. He was skilled, but he couldn’t function even outside society. Kind of feral, you know. And preying on these middle-class kids with his prison credibility, like, “I’ve suffered, you don’t know.” In the scene by the fire when he gets Sandra Good to take her clothes off, he says, “You all had childhoods, I didn’t have a childhood, I’m tougher, I’m more real, I know more.”

The other thing, when I was asking Guinevere about the script early on, I asked what the family members had in common. They all came from such different backgrounds, so there’s no common denominator you can say with any of them. Except that a number of them came from religious backgrounds or the church. Like Tex, from a Christian small town. He was playing on a thing as presenting himself as Jesus, playing into Christian mythology.

Joan Didion’s famous quote about how the ‘60s ended abruptly on the night of Sharon Tate’s murder, which you use to open Charlie Says, made me think about your films as encapsulations of decades: the hedonism of the ‘80s in American Psycho, the post-war puritanism of the ‘50s in The Notorious Bettie Page, and now the dissolution of the free-spirited ‘60s into the malaise of the ‘70s in Charlie Says. Is the decade a unit in which you often view history? Why analyze the past in this way?

I think so. I’m very interested in personal stories set against history and how history informs what happens. It’s not just their characters or emotions, it’s the way the time they’re living in has an impact and effect on them. And I’m particularly interested in that with women, being a woman [laughs] born in the second half of the 20th century. Women’s lives changed so unbelievably in the second half of the 20th century, more rapidly and more extraordinary changes than any other time in history. What decade you were born in really affected how your life might go in the 20th century, even the 21st century.

There’s a quote I love from Newsweek from November 2007 where they declared that “America was still in the grip of the sixties, unable to wish the decade away or fulfill its promise.” Do you think that’s still true? Or have we moved on?

No, I don’t think we have at all. Even the war between Trump and the left, or progressives, is so much a battle that was happening in the ‘60s. Trump is such a throwback. And we’re still trying to convulse our way through this cultural civil war that opened up. But at the same time, the idea of the ‘60s looms, but there have been these great gains as well which are happening now. Ecology, civil rights, position of women, gay rights—all those battles from the ‘60s and early ‘70s are still being worked through.

By coincidence, I read a Manson biography in the summer of 2015 when Donald Trump began his run for the presidency, and I’ve always viewed his rise through the lens of Manson. There are so many parallels—empowerment through submission, idolatry of an infallible strongman, a vindictive quest for fame and recognition that targets anyone in his way. Not to draw a complete parallel, but do you hear similar echoes?

Yeah, and it’s also that thing of finding weakness and being a bully, which is what Manson was. For sure.

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Jeonju 2019: The Grand Bizarre, Up the Mountain, & Germany. A Winter’s Tale

Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny.

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The Grand Bizarre
Photo: Jeonju International Film Festival

A bustling, overstuffed cinephile jamboree, the Jeonju International Film Festival features a dizzying array of competition selections, sidebars, master classes, student films, and expanded cinematic offerings, such as a VR program and a gallery full of installations. One could spend the entire festival watching nothing but new Korean films, taking in only the best of contemporary European art cinema, or simply watching all the Star Wars movies back to back. And no matter how much you decide to take in, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve only scratched the surface of what the festival has to offer. Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny, three very different artists united by their willingness to push the boundaries of cinema for their own idiosyncratic ends.

A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is, like Jeonju IFF! itself, a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism.

Though it runs just over an hour, The Grand Bizarre is epic by the standards of Mack’s oeuvre, which has mostly consisted of shorts, and so it’s no surprise that the documentary is essentially a series of vignettes providing endless variations on the same themes: globalization, the interconnectedness of culture, and the beauty of traditional textiles. Repeatedly, Mack emphasizes the thing-ness of these fabrics. These are items that were made—some by hand, others by machine—before they were subsequently packed up and shipped off to different corners of the world. Each one originated in the artisanal traditions of a particular place and people, to which they are just as deeply rooted as the music and language of these cultures, parallels that Mack draws with a uniquely jaunty sense of style and wit.

For better and worse, these traditional designs now belong to the world. For examples of the “worse,” simply look to the film’s montage of horrible tattoos of ankhs and tribal patterns emblazoned on white people’s backs—a hilarious sampling of cultural appropriation at its most oblivious and inept. But The Grand Bizarre isn’t really an indictment of this tendency to wrest cultural artifacts out of their historical contexts. (After all, Mack herself doesn’t specify the origins of these fabrics, nor does the English-born American experimental filmmaker identify the varied locations in which she shoots.) The film is, rather, a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century.

Chinese auteur Zhang Yang offers a far more tonally subdued yet no less pleasurable exploration of artmaking and traditional culture in Up the Mountain, a Zen-like portrait of the mountaintop studio of Shen Jianhua, where the artist lives with his family and trains a group of elderly ladies in the ways of folk painting. The film straddles the line between documentary and fiction, with everyone playing versions of themselves. Some scenes seem to have been reconstructed, while others appear to capture candid moments in the studio and in a nearby village. Zhang never clues us in to how much of Up the Mountain is fictionalized, but it scarcely matters. Zhang isn’t particularly interested in interrogating the endlessly fuzzy line between fiction and reality, as his methods are aimed at something richer and deeper: capturing the serene, gentle spirit of Shen’s studio.

The film is like a gentle stream, always moving forward while maintaining an implacable, inviting quietude. Little of dramatic consequence occurs here—there’s no real conflict or character development or traditional plotting of any kind. People paint and chat, Shen and his wife sit around listening to opera, people work in the fields. Time is marked by gradual changes: a painting slowly developing, a baby being born and growing older, Shen’s daughter slowly improving at the accordion. If this all sounds a bit dull on paper, in practice it’s captivating because the film is infused with rich sensory details like the warmth of a fire, the smell of a well-cooked meal, and the celebratory chaos of a New Year’s festival.

With the exception of a roving final tracking shot, Up the Mountain consists entirely of static camera setups composed in a boxy aspect ratio that mimics the canvasses used by Shen’s students. It may be a tired cliché to liken a film’s compositions to that of a painting, but Zhang invites the comparison here. Shooting in digital and manipulating the footage in post-production, Zhang has colored the film like a painting, amplifying a pop of red here, a splash of orange there. Art in Up the Mountain is an extension of life, as Shen’s pupils take the world around them—cats, fields, local gatherings—as the subject matter of their vibrantly colored, highly stylized work. So, too, does Zhang: Rather than simply recording the goings-on at Shen’s studio, he transforms them into a work of contemplative, deeply humane art.

The tranquility of Zhang’s elegant still frames could scarcely be farther from the muddy handheld camerawork of Jan Bonny’s Germany. A Winter’s Tale, one of the most unremittingly ugly films in recent memory. A claustrophobic examination of the sex lives and death drives of a trio of vicious, stupid, horned-up racists (Judith Bohle, Jean-Luc Bubert, and Peter Eberst) who embark on an anti-immigrant killing spree, the film admirably resists even the slightest romanticization of the anti-immigrant killing spree they embark upon. But Bonny also fails to give us any particular reason to care about the vicious antics of these thoroughly hate-able individuals who fancy themselves the vanguard of a right-wing terror movement.

Germany. A Winter’s Tale resists offering context for or commentary about its characters’ actions, save for a bizarrely on-the-nose end-credits song that features lines like “Your violence is only a silent cry for love.” And perhaps that’s the appropriate artistic response to a dangerously atavistic movement that cries out less for explication than annihilation. Even so, Bonny’s attempt to indict his nation’s racism—from the inflated title drawn from Heinrich Heine’s famous satirical poem to the characters’ toasting to Germany just after making some particularly vicious remark—come off as ham-handed and lame. That also goes for the filmmaker’s deliberately off-putting aesthetic: Severely underlit with a harsh, clattering sound design, the film attempts to evoke the feeling of living with such hatred and misdirected anger. But as the characters oscillate constantly between screaming matches and bouts of savage love-making, their antics ultimately feel less like the distressing seeds of a nascent revival of German herrenvolk fascism than the cartoonish spectacle of a Jerry Springer episode.

The Jeonju International Film Festival runs from May 2—11.

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The Nation of “Electric Youth”: Debbie Gibson’s Bonkers Teen-Pop Hit Turns 30

Looking back at the song 30 years later, what stands out most is its bonkers musical arrangement and video.

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Electric Youth
Photo: YouTube

In 1991, when Debbie Gibson’s underrated third album, Anything Is Possible, stalled at #41 on the charts, the New York Times printed a full-page obituary for her relatively brief career titled “The Perils and Perishability of a Teen Idol.” In just a few short years, Gibson had gone from America’s sweetheart—anointed the youngest artist to write, produce, and perform a #1 hit—to being declared a pop casualty by the nation’s newspaper of record.

Only two years earlier, the Long Island teen had scored her biggest hit, “Lost in Your Eyes,” the lead single from her sophomore effort, Electric Youth. The album was arguably the weakest of Gibson’s four Atlantic releases, largely eschewing the sleek dance-pop and of-the-moment freestyle and hi-NRG stylings of 1987’s Out of the Blue in favor of ostensibly more mature piano ballads and Motown-lite, which zapped her music of the exuberance that made her debut so charming.

The sole exception was the title track, a peppy call to arms for “the next generation,” released as Electric Youth’s second single in the summer of 1989. Before Beck’s “Loser” and Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites defined Generation X as a bunch of disaffected slackers, “Electric Youth” dispatched a completely un-cynical, preemptive defense of America’s now-neglected “middle child.” Looking back at the song 30 years later, though, what stands out most is producer Fred Zarr’s bonkers musical arrangement—a frenetic mix of faux horns, “Planet Rock”-inspired lasers, spooky sci-fi synths, and squealing electric guitars—and its even more batshit-crazy music video.

The clip, co-directed by Gibson (seen awkwardly wielding a giant prop camera throughout), finds the singer leading a troupe of young dancers dressed in floral prints, acid-washed denim, and vests—lots and lots of vests. The group assembles in front of what appears to be Castle Grayskull and proceeds to blow through the entire canon of ‘80s dance moves, from the cabbage patch to the running man to what can only be described as an early fusion of the Macarena and voguing.

Halfway through, the video inexplicably cuts to shots of Gibson performing in concert, old men in Kangol hats dancing near a wooded area, and a pedestrian signal (recklessly!) urging Debbie to “RUN.” During the track’s instrumental break, the band is seen floating across the screen before the clip cuts to both a shot of Gibson giddily crumbling a piece of paper—her former manager’s contract, perhaps?—and a random photo of Michael Jordan. And just when you think it couldn’t get any damn weirder, a fortuneteller summons Deb’s face in a crystal ball, portending that the future is “electric.”

Despite the video’s copious blue laser beams and unnecessary foliage, “Electric Youth” was nominated for Best Art Direction at the MTV Video Music Awards, sensibly losing out to Madonna’s iconic “Express Yourself,” which was directed by David Fincher. (Notably, a few shots of Gibson striking a pose in silhouette recall similar set pieces from Fincher’s distinctive videos for Paula Abdul and Jody Watley from earlier that year.)

“Electric Youth” spawned a perfume of the same name, hawked to mallrats across the country, but the single just missed the Top 10 and would be Gibson’s last major hit. Since then, the boomers have poisoned both the planet and politics, millennials have self-medicated on social media and ‘80s nostalgia, and Gen-Xers are sitting on the front porch, popping CBD gummies, and quietly watching it all burn. Electric, indeed.

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Interview: Eljiah Wood, Stephen McHattie, and Ant Timpson Talk Come to Daddy

The actors and filmmaker discuss the father-son relationship at the heart of the film.

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Eljiah Wood, Stephen McHattie, and Ant Timpson
Photo: Daniel Katz

Ant Timpson is best known for his work as a producer of horror films, most notably the The ABCs of Death series. But if fortune favors the brave, then Timpson is poised to be recognized as a different kind of visionary for his first directorial feature, the anarchically constructed Come to Daddy, which made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival a few days ago. In the film, thirtysomething Norval (Elijah Wood) arrives at a secluded coastal home—which one character likens to a UFO from the ‘60s—to reconnect with his father. However, his dad (Stephen McHattie) consistently humiliates him, making Norval anxious to walk out on him, just as the old man walked out on Norval 30 years ago.

Of course, Come to Daddy has a few surprises in store for Norval and his father, as well as audiences. As Norval, Wood displays the same gusto for the gonzo that he’s brought to a recent string of action- and horror-driven genre films, most notably Wayne Kramer’s underseen Pawn Shop Chronicles and Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac remake. And the actor is well-matched by McHattie, who brings to his role that same sense of snaky power that has defined some of his best work. While it’s almost a spoiler to say that Timpson’s film isn’t a two-hander, it’s best left to audiences to see how things play out between Norval and his pops.

In a conversation following Come to Daddy’s world premiere, Timpson, Wood, and McHattie discussed the father-son relationship at the heart of the film.

Ant, I’m curious to know about your relationship with your father?

Timpson: This whole film came about from the passing of my dad. I was there in front of him when he died. It was kind of traumatic. His partner thought it would be great to have a grieving process with his embalmed corpse in a coffin near us for a week. I wasn’t working on anything at the time, so I ended up spending a lot of time alone with him in the house all night. I was sleeping in his bed, wearing his pajamas, going down to look at him at night and thinking of unresolved things I should have said to him in life that I didn’t. During the rest of the week, people came and paid their respects, and they were telling stories I had never heard. I thought that was unusual, and wondered if I really knew everything about this man.

It was a beautiful, cathartic experience, but also, the way that my mind works, it started going to strange places. Suddenly life felt really short [laughs]. I thought that I need to fucking do what I should have been doing for the last 25 years, which is to go back to directing. This felt like the biggest kick in my ass of all time. But I had no script and I didn’t want to look around at shit. As a producer, I’m inundated with scripts. So why don’t I use this experience to come up with something? So, it became a tribute to my dad to make this film that we would have watched together when I was younger. We both loved British thrillers, character-based gritty dramas with a really dark sense of humor interlaced in them, chamber pieces like Sleuth.

I wrote to Toby Harvard and said that I had an idea based on what I had just gone through. I really want to make something, and I said that I was going to find the money and shoot it—maybe in the house where we were before it gets sold. He said that wasn’t a film I could find in my bank account [Elijah cackles], but that the idea is crazy good, so we kept going—coming up with amazing ways to keep it surprising. And it just evolved from there. Eventually, it got to a shape where I wanted to send it out and Elijah read it and soon we were off and running.

What about casting Stephen?

Timpson: I’ve been a lifelong fan of Stephens’s work. I’ve always found him super compelling on screen. He doesn’t need to say a word for me to emote. Those piercing eyes!

Stephen, what about your relationship with your father?

Stephen McHattie: My dad was blind and a miner. He lived way out in the country in Nova Scotia. He used to carry me on his shoulders to watch movies. He loved movies. I had no idea he was blind until I was six years old. We’d talk about the movies. I thought he could see them.

Timpson: So, you were his eyes?

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McHattie: No! I thought he was watching them!

Timspon: But as a kid did you ever…communicate, if you can remember…

McHattie: Yeah, we would talk about the films.

Timpson: That is so cool.

McHattie: I was young, very young, and we would talk in a very elementary way. He would talk about what he enjoyed in them, so I was absolutely convinced he was watching them. Man, it was a shock to me when I realized he was blind.

So, Elijah, how are you going to top that?

Wood: I can’t top that. Yeah, I can’t top that! My parents were…I’m a product of divorce, which wasn’t uncommon. They divorced when I was 15. So, I was essentially estranged from my father for almost 20 years, a little bit over 20 years. I reconnected with him in my 30s.

Sounds like Come to Daddy.

Wood: [laughs] That’s kind of funny. Except I obviously knew my dad and extended family as well. It wasn’t quite the reunion that Norval experiences with his father.

There are some, let’s say, unsettling moments in the film. I like the deadpan tone. For one, the surreal situations are treated almost as perfectly ordinary. Could you speak to how you handle odd, uncomfortable, or strange moments in life?

McHattie: You try to figure it out, which is kind of the situation my character is in in the movie—trying to add things up and stay a little ahead of the game, but every situation is kind of a game if you look at it that way.

Wood: I think I take stuff at face value.

Timpson: Oh man, I’m like a moth to a flame.

Wood: You really are, actually! Your stories are crazy!

Timpson: I’m like a voyeur. Life is full of the mundane, so when anything strange happens, I’m going to soak it up and absorb it. Otherwise, you’re walking through a banal haze.

Wood: Fuck, yeah!

Timpson: Not that I want to be directly involved in it—I’m not that brave—but I want to take it all in and I’ll process it later, and it will pop up somewhere else down the line.

Wood: You’ve had a series of extraordinary things happen to you.

Timpson: When I tell crazy stories about stuff that happens in my life and people say, “That’s really unusual,” but I think it’s normal.

Wood: Right. Weird is so subjective. It’s different. When it’s something happening to you, it may not seem as odd.

Timpson: And I amplify stuff…

Wood: …in the telling of the story?

Timpson: Yeah, I like telling stories. Otherwise, it’s like, “I went and bought a glass of Coke and sat down.” You’ve got to give the audience something! [Wood laughs]

For Stephen and Elijah, how did you calibrate your performances? I love the tensions that play out between your characters. What observations do you have about the transformations both of your characters go through—because they are extreme.

McHattie: I was trying to be true to his drunkenness. I’ve always found that hard to play—and hard to watch. I was trying to keep him drunk, to give him a hurdle to cross when he was trying to interpret things.

Wood: That’s great.

McHattie: He’s got a [fog] he has to get through to get to the “What is going on here?”

Timpson: Yeah, you do that so well. He’s asking you, demanding stuff from you and you’re like, “Oh man, I haven’t got it!”

Wood: He looks so hungover, it’s so painful! But there’s an internal thing happening with each character that the other character isn’t aware of. Norval has this whole life he’s coming from that his dad doesn’t know about. Norval has expectations of him and he has a whole secret life that Norval isn’t aware of. So, it’s what’s happening in between based on these two people’s own internal life that’s the kind of the kinetic meat. That dynamic is established because these two people are existing in their own spheres, wanting something from the other—or not.

Yes, the phone call for example. Both of your characters guzzle wine hungrily. They also lie on occasion. On what occasions do you lie? Or do you lie to protect yourself?

Wood: I can’t lie. I find lying impossible and really difficult for me. It was drilled into me from a young age, or maybe it was just in the fabric I was born with, but it’s very hard for me to be dishonest.

Did something happen as a child?

Wood: No, it was never [anything in particular]. I never used it to manipulate or try to get something. That’s fine. Everyone is figuring out as a kid what their boundaries are, and what they’re capable of, and what they can get away with. And certainly, everyone goes through it. For me, dishonesty wasn’t a part of that. I remember I ate peanuts at a supermarket, and I thought I’d stolen something. I had a complex about it. Less so now.

McHattie: When I was a kid, I had a great ability and tendency to elaborate on stories and just bullshit my way through everything. I had a brother who was about 10 years older than me, and he was a banker. My dad had died, and my mom said to my brother, “You’ve got to do something about him.” He would do a catechism with me on everything I said, calling me out on being a liar.

Wood: Wow!

McHattie: I have a hard time with lying. He was a little brutal.

Ant, I want to ask about the film’s distinctive style, which is claustrophobic even in the widest spaces. How did you land on your visual approach?

Timpson: I used to talk to cinephile friends, and we used to ask first-time directors shooting film with anamorphic lenses that don’t require them, “Why are you using anamorphic in a haunted house? Get out of here! Where’s the claustrophobia in that?” But I wanted the character to feel isolated in the frame more than anything and I felt if we were boxed, it wouldn’t be as impressive a canvas in terms of really making them feel as small and as insignificant as possible. It gives you different things to play with, and in a film where you shift gears, it’s nice to have those framing things that hint at what might be coming. I found it freeing.

Wood: You can be very claustrophobic with anamorphic. Look at John Carpenter’s The Thing. There’s isolation in those wide frames. You put something small in those frames and they feel more isolated and alone.

The characters make some foolish or perhaps bad decisions. What are your thoughts about regrets, or bad ideas or decisions you’ve made?

Wood: I don’t know if I have any regrets. We are a combination of all of our life experiences in the present and I wouldn’t take away the choices, right or wrong that I’ve made, because I’m happy with who I am and where I am now. It’s all part of the fabric of who we are. We are the combination of those choices.

McHattie: Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention. I don’t have any regrets, except…actually, no.

Timpson: Hundreds!

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The Criterion Channel Is Your Antidote to Algorithm-Driven Streaming

Below are some of the films, collections, and series that have already made the channel a vital service.

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Touki Bouki
Photo: World Cinema Foundation

When the Turner Classic Movies-operated film streaming service FilmStruck, the one-time exclusive online streaming home of the Criterion Collection, announced it was folding last November, an entire section of the internet went prostrate with despair. The bereaved included actor Bill Hader, who pled for FilmStruck’s rescue on stage at the IndieWire Honors in Los Angeles, and was one of several celebrity signatories on a petition to revive the service. Those curious about the contours of Hader’s cinephilia can now watch his multipart interview on the new Criterion Channel, part of a series of conversations with filmmakers about their favorite films the channel calls “Adventures in Moviegoing.”

The series, which features Hader discussing art-house classics like Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and one-time Bruce Lee co-star Kareem Abdul-Jabar holding forth on samurai films, is one major feature that distinguishes the Criterion Channel from other major streaming services: It’s not just the quantity or even the selection of films available, but the sense that the service is curated by more than an algorithm. The automated suggestions of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon confine their users to pathways they’re already on. If you watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on Amazon Prime, the site will probably recommend you try out Jacques Demy’s subsequent The Little Girls of Rochefort—rather than the recently rediscovered and restored John Woo-directed kung-fu film Last Hurrah for Chivalry, as Criterion’s series “Double Features” does.

There’s value in such counterintuitive recommendations: Drawing a line between the rhythms of dance and of the wuxia film’s choreographed conflict invites users to take part in a broader contemplation of the cinema’s capturing of bodies in motion. And if, with such esoteric films and unexpected pairings, the Criterion Channel appears as an “offbeat” film service, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. The service pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or historical context: Even its already celebrated “Columbia Noir Collection” focuses us on a particular historical moment in which the small studio produced “some of the finest noirs of the studio era.”

The selection is highly curated, but like any streaming service, the channel is also built around users’ ability to navigate and compile their own experiences. Perhaps recognizing that even people willing to dedicate more than three hours to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman also use streaming services to fill a day’s interstitial moments, the site launched with a number of shorts and video essays—many of them extras on the Criterion Collection’s disc releases, but some unique to the streaming site. Grouped under “10 Minutes or Less” are such shorts as “Stan Lee on Alain Resnais,” a mind-blowing interview with the recently deceased comic giant in which he casually reveals his close friendship with the Last Year at Marienbad director, recounting the abortive film project they collaborated on—as well as Resnais’s longtime desire to direct a Spider-Man film.

With the recent announcement of Disney+, and given the numerous subscription-streaming services that are already threatening to glut the market, the streaming era is probably headed toward some kind of reckoning or realignment. Now that Janus Films has struck out on their own with the Criterion Channel, hopefully the distributor can find a durable niche online. Below are some of the further films, collections, and series that have already made the channel a vital service.

“The Agnés Varda Collection”

The Criterion Channel’s April 8 launch came in the immediate wake of the passing of French filmmaking giant Agnés Varda on March 29, and appropriately, the service’s front page offers “The Agnés Varda Collection,” assembling the fiction features, documentaries, and shorts that the channel’s disc label has been releasing since the middle of the last decade. Vital, canonical masterworks like Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagaband are available on the service, but a discovery for many may be the shorts and docs the director made during her sojourns in California in the ‘60s and the ‘80s. Shades of the playful Varda we know from late-period essay films are apparent in her Uncle Yanco, to which Black Panthers, which evinces the social commitments that would always mingle with Varda’s aesthetic curiosity, makes a compelling companion piece.

“Directed by Vera Chytilova”

For years, the new waves that emerged from many countries reproduced the male-centric discourse of many of the films themselves, relegating the women associated with these movements, such as Varda in France, to secondary roles. Among the directors of the Czech New Wave, Milos Foreman is still undoubtedly the towering figure, but it’s safe to say, in large part because of Criterion’s release of her films in the United States, that the voice of Vera Chytilová has been rediscovered in recent years. The “Directed by Véra Chytilová” collection on the Criterion Channel offers a considerably smaller assemblage of films than the Varda collection, but the director’s Daisies, a color-soaked, surrealist classic about two young women playing (often meta-cinematic) pranks on the patriarchy, is a landmark both of feminist cinema and of the all too brief Czech New Wave.

“The Kids Aren’t All Right”

In an entry of the Criterion Channel’s “Short + Feature” series titled “The Kids Aren’t All Right,” dancer Lily Baldwin’s 2016 short film “Swallowed” is paired with the David Cronenberg body-horror classic The Brood, and each deals in their own unsettling way with the uncanniness of motherhood, when one’s body becomes more than just a shell for the self, but a conduit for other lifeforms. Baldwin stars in her own dialogue-light film as a recent, breastfeeding mother who feels increasingly as if a parasite has invaded her body, expressed through the contortions of modern dance and including a very messy scene that involves dairy products. Baldwin incorporates the contortions of modern dance to represent her character’s gnarly bodily transformation—as well as the dance troupe of parasites residing in the Grand Central Station of her soul. The short isn’t as bracing a depiction of mutated motherhood as Cronenberg’s The Brood, but it’s a suitable warm-up.

Senegalese Cinema: Black Girl and Touki Bouki

Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl is perhaps the only Sengalese film firmly in the canon, and is easy to find on the Criterion Channel within the category “Criterion Editions.” But under its Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project sublabel, the service offers at least one other feature from the West African country: Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, a film that’s often compared to early Godard films such as Breathless and Pierrot le Fou for the way it combines a romantic story of an outcast couple with a deconstructive take on narrative. Such a comparison risks lapsing into a colonial perspective, as if Senegal cinema is necessarily derived from that of France. But if there’s a correspondence between Godard’s rebellious New Wave films and Touki Bouki’s defiant disregard of narrative space through energetic and confrontational montage, it should be understood as a kind of critique. The archetype of the young, disaffected, postwar man doesn’t have to look like Jean-Paul Belmondo, as he can also resemble Magaye Niang, the Senegalese actor who plays Mory in Touki Bouki.

Cruising around Dakar on his bull-horn-mounted motorcycle, Mory dreams of leaving Senegal for Paris with his girlfriend (Mareme Niang). But Touki Bouki takes its time getting to the meat of its heroes’ quest, seeking out other sights from early-‘70s Dakar—including, in some difficult-to-watch sequences, the actual production of meat. With images that transfix through both beauty and their visceral horror—and not without a healthy share of humor—Touki Bouki contains multitudes; it’s a film that deserves a place among the best of global New Wave cinema.

“Observations on Film Art”

Under the title “Observations on Film Art,” the Criterion Channel assembles video essays on films from the Criterion Collection by major film scholars and critics. One highlight is film historian Kristin Thompson on the use of color in Black Narcissus, the classic Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film photographed by Jack Cardiff. Black Narcissus is a dark, sensual fantasy about a convent of nuns facing temptation in the Himalayas that would be pure camp if its expressionist use of color didn’t still have the power to provoke tension and anxiety. Thompson, an expert on film production in the studio era, meticulously constructs her argument about the film’s use of color both as mood and as symbol, beginning with a summary of the technical possibilities and limitations of the late ‘40s, showing how a stable set of film-production methods were built upon them, and then illustrating how Cardiff, Powell, and Pressburger defied these standards with their hypnotic film. Elsewhere in “Observations on Film Art,” Thompson’s husband, the film scholar David Bordwell, can be found analyzing narrative parallels in Chungking Express, Jeff Smith discusses framing in Shoot the Piano Player, and Thompson again elaborates on the use of sound in M.

Silent Cinema

Criterion’s library of silent films is mostly focused on comedy. Over the last few years, they’ve been releasing the films of Harold Lloyd, who today figures as the most minor of the “big three” silent comedians that also includes Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but who in the ‘20s was the most commercially successful. A few years ago, Janus also landed the rights to distribute most of the films that Chaplin made after 1917—the point from which the Chaplin estate owns the films’ copyrights. The channel’s assemblage of restored Chaplin films, from 1918’s A Dog’s Life to 1957’s A King in New York, are up on the streaming service under the “Directed by Charlie Chaplin” collection. The film largely regarded as Chaplin’s first feature-length masterpiece is 1921’s The Kid, which was recently released on the Criterion Collection.

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Chaplin’s silent features are basically the foundation of the cinematic canon, but Criterion’s comprehensive rights to the catalogue means the channel features films from the era that are too commonly overlooked. His 1923 melodrama A Woman of Paris starring Edna Purviance is a subtle and sophisticated film, and his 1928 silent film The Circus is a rambunctious masterpiece of pantomimic hijinks, less sentimental than most of his features from the period, but just as smart. (And among his later, Tramp-less sound films, Monsieur Verdoux is a stirring, still-relevant morality play, the darkest of postwar Hollywood comedies.)

In addition to Hollywood comedy, classics of the silent Scandanavian screen also turn out to be a specialty of the Criterion Channel. The Danish Häxan, Benjamin Christensen’s deliciously twisted quasi-documentary about witches, is available on the service in its full, color-tinted glory. Also available for streaming are several early films by Swedish auteur Victor Sjöström. A Man There Was and The Outlaw and His Wife, both from 1917, exhibit an advanced grasp of cinema’s expressive powers, as well as the filmmaker’s most well-known Swedish film, the mortality drama The Phantom Carriage, and one of the great horror films of all time.

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Interview: Ralph Fiennes on The White Crow and the Ferocity of Rudolf Nureyev

Fiennes discusses his affinity for Russian culture and exploring Nureyev’s life in nonlinear fashion.

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Ralph Fiennes
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

English actor Ralph Fiennes moved with great ease from performing on the London stage, mostly as a Shakespeare interpreter, to the world of film, winning early acclaim for his performance as a sadistic Nazi prison commandant in Schindler’s List. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s film, and again for his soulful turn in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient. Fiennes possesses an innate gift for creating intimacy between himself and his co-stars, which he channeled into his first film as a director in 2011, an ambitious adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which he shortly followed up with an adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s 1990 novel The Invisible Woman.

Fiennes’s latest film as a director is The White Crow, the first biopic about Russian ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev. The title refers to the name the young Nureyev was given in school when he was growing up, identifying him as the odd one out among his fellow classmates. Starring Ukrainian-born dancer Oleg Ivenko as the adult Nureyev (and Fiennes himself as Nureyev’s teacher, Alexander Pushkin), the film, based on Julie Kavanagh’s 2011 biography Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, switches back and forth between the dancer’s childhood in the central Russian city of Ufa, his student days in Leningrad (today St. Petersburg), and Paris, where he made his dramatic defection to the West in 1961.

In a recent conversation, Fiennes discussed the making of The White Crow, his affinity for Russian culture, and exploring Nureyev’s life in nonlinear fashion.

What drew you to tell the story of Rudolf Nureyev’s life on screen?

Julie [Kavanagh] sent me the first five chapters of her book in proof copy—about 1999 I think it was. At the time, I had no conscious desire to direct. I just thought this was an extraordinary story. I didn’t have the other chapters to finish until later when the book was published, but it sat with me. Some years later, I had made two films and producer Gabrielle Tana—she has a background in ballet—asked if I wanted to move forward on this for a film. It was then that we approached David Hare to write it.

Why did you approach Hare specifically?

I know David is very good at writing what I call provocative, high-definition characters. I knew he relishes writing with wit and compassion. Also, his instinct about the world and the social political context in which dramas can happen is very strong. I love his plays, but I think he’s a brilliant screenwriter. He loves film, and he thinks very filmicly. He said he remembered reading the biography and it moved him very much. He completely got pleasure out of the size of Nureyev’s character—his vulnerabilities and then his ego.

I thought of this as the story of the emergent young Nureyev. David was interested in the Paris aspect and I came advocating the Russian background. We both felt that we wanted to explore it in a nonlinear way, with three different time frames interacting, jostling against each other. We wanted this exciting dynamic as you go from one time frame to the next.

I’m curious if you have an affinity for all things Russian?

It’s an affinity and a curiosity, and something of an infatuation, which I recognize is sometimes a bit naïve, because Russia is complicated and not an easy country in so many ways. But I’ve been there over the years, and I actually made a film in Russia in 2013: Two Women, directed by Vera Glagoleva, an adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. There’s a connective warmth I feel from the people and a shared interest in Russian culture. I guess life takes you somewhere and you make connections and want to continue keeping them. Sometimes there are things, you know, that politically are disturbing and hard to accept. There are definitely worrying things that go on in the way the state curates its artists. But I have these friendships there and I’ve had experiences that I felt to be very rewarding.

But the Russian ballet stuff was a whole new thing. I came to this story because of the ferocity of who Nureyev needed to be. That was compelling to me, like some Greek story, of a kind of god-man who challenges the gods. I responded to it in some kind of Jungian way, I suppose. And then I had to get to grips with the ballet. And that was scary, out of my comfort zone. I had to do major immersion and surround myself with people advising me on it.

Did you specifically want to cast a dancer in the role of Nureyev?

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I wanted it to be authentic and shoot it in the Russian and the French language. So, I wanted a Russian in the lead. And I started to feel very strongly that it should be an unknown person that the audience couldn’t project any baggage onto. I wanted a face that was totally new. I knew if I was going to get a dancer, I wouldn’t have the resources to do face replacement or body doubling. I could see my head spinning, being taken up by these technical challenges. So, I thought if I could get a dancer who could act, that would be great. My producer asked, “Should we not get an actor?” And I said that if I did, the moment they raise their arm or something, the world is going to know. This is Nureyev, so he’s got to have it in his body. And also, the way dancers carry themselves, the whole way they’re formed, is different. So, I thought I just couldn’t make a film about a leading dancer and not have a dancer.

Anyway, we set a big casting sweep through the Russian-speaking ballet world and Oleg was very quickly on the list. He has a real ease about him when he’s in front of the camera. I had to guide him a little bit into my sense of Nureyev’s attitude—his hauteur, and that slightly “fuck you” quality in his demeanor. Oleg is very smiley and lovely and warm, but he got it very quickly. He weirdly had an experienced actor’s confidence. In fact, some experienced actors are full of nerves on their first day of a new film. I know I’ve been full of nerves. With Oleg, maybe it’s because he didn’t know what he had to be afraid of. He didn’t come with an actor’s ambition, asking, “What if I fail, what if don’t succeed,” all the wrong crap that you put in your head. He just said, “I’m very lucky I’m here,” and it gave him a sort of openness and flexibility.

What about you taking on the role of Nureyev’s ballet teacher, Alexander Pushkin?

I wanted to have a Russian actor playing Pushkin, but there was a point where the commercial element came in. It was a Russian producer who said to me, “Ralph, if you’re going to get Russian money in your film, why are you not in it?”

You sound very fluent when you speak Russian in the film.

Well, I had to work very hard to achieve that. I had made a film before in Russian. My Russian is quite limited, actually, but it wasn’t alien to me. I can assimilate a new word relatively quickly because I have a little foothold in the language. But also, now there’s the magic of modern technology. I would run off like 20 of the same vowel sounds with my Russian teacher and the Russian sound editor going, “No, no, no, yes, no, no, yes”—and then they would pick the best one. You can literally stitch it in because the sound technology is so sophisticated. It mattered to me that to Russian ears it was plausible. Even so, I think I’ve got a slight accent.

Do you think Pushkin was aware of his wife’s affair with Nureyev?

Well, no one knows what he thought about it. Julie actually gave me all the tapes of the interviews with the people she met in her research and there’s one person who says it was clear that Pushkin’s wife, Xenia, had a predilection for young male dancers. And Pushkin seemed to accept this. There are people who say that he may himself have been gay. But the two of them had a very strong marriage and very strong bond.

Pushkin’s whole world was the dance. He came from a very humble background and was sort of a self-cultivated man. He was a dancer before he went into teaching in the mid to late 1930s. He was known to be incredibly sensitive and very, very kind. And quiet. He was loved, and he obviously got results. His whole mode of teaching—people say that he would just look and make a comment and allow the dancers to discover and correct their mistakes themselves. There is an interview with the older Nureyev saying that every time Pushkin gave you a combination of steps, it all made sense. Pushkin was very protective of Nureyev. People thought he gave Rudolf too much attention.

Almost like he was in love with him?

I think a bit, yeah.

Is directing movies something you now wish to pursue more than acting?

I know I need a bit of time to find the next thing. What I love about directing is that another part of my brain is being challenged. I love the interaction and the people who are there to help me realize something and, indeed, bring their own talent and artistic ideas to the table. It was thrilling talking with David about creating the piece, and then putting it together with a cinematographer, and then the editor. And then the actors—I just love the process of nurturing a process with an actor. I find it rewarding to see how a character can evolve. I think a lot about Anthony Minghella. Of all the directors I worked with, he was the one who gave a lot of time to actors and was most curious about what actors would reveal. He’s often in my head as a sort of spiritual mentor.

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Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked

On the eve of Avengers: Endgame’s release, we ranked the 22 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.


The Incredible Hulk

22. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager


Iron Man 2

21. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager


Captain Marvel

20. Captain Marvel (2018)

As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti


Avengers: Endgame

19. Avengers: Endgame (2019)

There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Avengers: Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness. Keith Uhlich


Avengers: Infinity War

18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith


Thor

17. Thor (2011)

With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams


Captain America: The First Avenger

16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager


Avengers: Age of Ultron

15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin

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The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.

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TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: John Nowak

In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.

If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.

Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.

For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”

My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.

Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.

However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.

The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.

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