Given the richness his career as a journalist brought to his previous works of narrative TV fiction (Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner, The Wire, and Generation Kill), critical expectations for David Simon’s new series, HBO’s New Orleans drama Treme, were understandably high. And while Treme is an entirely different kind of television drama than what audiences may have come to expect from Simon, it nevertheless represents a logical progression of his vision, branching out from political and economic analysis of urban America to address questions of culture, community, and creativity. Simon spoke with Slant about the challenges and rewards of telling stories from the inside out, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of writing for the small screen in general.
You began transitioning out of Baltimore-based shows with Generation Kill a couple summers ago. What was it like shooting in Africa, and now working on Treme in New Orleans?
It’s the same as filming in Baltimore. The truth is, filming in poor or working-class neighborhoods anywhere in the world is benign. As long as you’re honest with people, as long as you don’t take advantage, as long as your crew is careful not to disrespect people and not leave a mess behind, people are really very accommodating. It’s when you get into affluent areas that it’s a pain in the ass. It was true in Baltimore and it’s true in New Orleans. It doesn’t matter if you have a permit, it doesn’t matter if you’re paying money to the city, it doesn’t matter if you’re making a donation to a local community center. Whatever you’re doing, it’s not enough. You try not to stay so long [in working-class areas] that you become an irritant. You move around the city, you don’t come back to a location for a couple weeks. And if they see you’re trying to get something a little bit right, they become even more tolerant. So it’s been very easy.
One of the things that excited me most about The Wire and also Generation Kill was the realism that you brought to your dialogue, the way you respected Black American English and corner slang and Marine speech patterns. With Treme, it seems like this respect for maintaining the integrity of dialogue is directed more at the way New Orleans musicians talk about music.
We try to get interior dialogue wherever we can. Mostly we’re working off people we know. [Series co-creator] Eric [Overmyer]’s lived down there for a couple decades and I’ve been visiting since the late ‘80s. We obviously have spent a lot of time talking to people who are in many ways—I guess “muse” is probably too strong of a word, but templates for some of the characters—and how they talk, and trying to avoid vernacular that is Baltimore-y, or from somewhere else in the country. On the other hand, everyone makes a big deal about how New Orleanians talk, but the truth is, there are some distinct accents. There’s a Yat accent that sounds like deep Brooklyn. Louis Primo had that accent. He was from the Irish channel of New Orleans. But a lot people in New Orleans are from somewhere else. There’s a lot of people who are transplants, and there’s a lot of people who have no accent. You walk around the city and you hear a variety of different accents.
But as to how the musicians speak about their gigs and stuff, any time you hear something, you’re writing stuff on a cocktail napkin, going, “Oh, man, I gotta use that.” I think novelists do that, [as do] journalists if they’re working on a feature story. If there’s anything immersive about what they’re doing, they do that. It’s about getting what you can from life.
It seems like when a lot of the musicians start to talk about music, it’s insular in some ways, or it indicates belonging to a certain kind of group, being able to speak about music in certain ways, being able to describe time signatures or refer to certain performers. Did you consciously choose to maintain a fidelity to that?
You want people to speak as they would speak. You want them to be in their world. That doesn’t mean the writers are musicians who can access it at the drop of a hat or always get it right. Beginning from [our 2000 miniseries] The Corner, the TV that we’ve tried to do is from an interior point of view. It allows for a certain kind of tourism on the part of viewers, but only if viewers are willing to extend themselves. What we perceive of people from the outside can only take you so far. When you walk into a bar and you start meeting people on their own terms, and talking to them in their own vernacular, and trying to understand them, you don’t understand everything right away. And you’re a little confused, or a lot confused. And the next day you understand a little bit more and you go back to the same bar three days later and all of a sudden you’re sort of immersed in a place in a way that tourism doesn’t often allow. And that’s the kind of storytelling that interests me, and it’s from that logic that we’ve preceded.
It’s a mistake on the part of some critics at times to think that if you’re writing from the point of view of a recon Marine, everything the recon Marine says ergo is what the writer wishes to say. That’s insane, and yet you see that, you see people—they believe that because you’re allowing the characters to voice in an interior fashion that you’re embracing that, so the benefit of writing that way is that people really feel as if they’re experiencing some other world, other than their own. That’s a wonderful journey.
I’m currently working on an ethnography on urban culture in Mexico City, so I can relate to what you’re saying.
I have a very funny story about this. When The Corner came out, I [was getting] good reviews, but the book was sort of quietly slipping below the waves, except for anthropologists and sociologists. They wanted to discuss ethnography. Sociology Today wanted to write something on the book.
I also teach an introductory class on ethnography, and we watch the first two episodes of Generation Kill because I feel like the Evan Wright character makes it very explicitly clear what the job of an ethnographer is.
That’s right. And Evan was brilliant at it. Which is to say, your job is to get out of the way as much as you can and sometimes the way to do that is to let everybody get it out of their system that there’s a funny guy standing in the middle of them with a notepad. He was great at that. “I’ll make myself the butt of the joke and then you’ll move on to other business and I get to watch you.” He was great. Even the Marines I met afterwards were like, “He fuckin’ really wrote that book, we thought he was goofin’.”
So, I want to come back to the question of music a little bit. More than just being a source of livelihood for these characters, and more even than being a kind of national heritage, which you’ve alluded to previously, it almost seems like music—and then, to a lesser extent, cuisine—act as sources of a kind of transcendence in the series, at least for those who are initiated in these cultures or subcultures. So, for instance, when Kermit Ruffins laughs at Davis MacAlary’s suggestion that his talent be reason enough for him to tour with Elvis Costello, is the idea that music should be its own reward? Or that these musicians have a kind of social responsibility to the community that gave birth to them?
That moment actually happened, although it didn’t happen with Elvis Costello. It happened with, I think, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, who came into Vaughn’s. And Kermit didn’t know who the Rolling Stones were, or had not experienced them on the level the rest of America might have. For him, they were a couple of musicians who came in, “That’s nice, you’re in a band, that’s great,” and somebody was urging him to go make a friend and he just sort of shrugged. So, in some ways, we were referencing a legendary moment of Kermitism. He is his own unique character.
But you’re on to something, which is that down there, the act of culture becomes, by default, political. That’s not to say that people are aware they’re committing a political act when they play a song or go out and listen to a song or dance. They’re just living. They’re being as New Orleanians. And yet, the truth is, it was culture that brought that city back from a near-death experience. It wasn’t political leadership, because there was none. It wasn’t significant urban planning, because there was no plan. What brought New Orleans back, to the extent that it’s come back in five years is, people couldn’t figure out how to live any other way than the way they’ve been living there for years and years and generations and generations. And there’s something beautiful in that. Because American culture is not exactly a heralded thing. And as most of the country becomes more and more homogenized, and as more of a chain-store ethos pervades our culture, this one strange little island has given the world something that the world didn’t have before America, which is to say African-American music. And it was in danger of dying out. And it didn’t die out because of hundreds of thousands of individual acts of ordinary life.
In a way, it would be enough if we were writing the show just to be a celebration of American roots music, which is reason enough to pause and enjoy a drama, perhaps. But actually, to me, in the wake of Katrina, it’s a political story. And it’s about what Americans are capable of, in the best possible way, when left to our own devices.
I think I know what you’re referring to when you say culture, but it seems like you’re specifically referring to maybe three different things. Cuisine and music seem to be linked up as being part of this culture that you’re talking about, but then there’s also a sort of sense of community. So if The Wire was organized by an impersonal concept of political economy—
It was “Follow the money.” Follow the money, follow the power. Yeah.
But Treme seems to be organized by something more like a concept of solidarity, of community. Is this a function of actual qualitative differences between Baltimore and New Orleans or does it indicate a different vision of your own as to how to approach urban life in America?
Listen, community as an experience, communal living and how Americans learn to live in cities together—that’s the question for the 21st century. We are never again going to be a rural people. Forgive me, Republican National Convention, but small-town values do not matter in the grand scheme of things. What matters is quite the opposite: how we learn to live together as an urban people, because we forever more are going to be an urban people, with all those attendant problems and opportunities.
Now, when we were doing The Wire, we were speaking directly to the country’s political priorities, to its hypocrisies and frauds vis-à-vis the drug war, and to its economic priorities. You watch The Wire by following the money, following the power and the votes, and by acknowledging the dissonance between policy and reality on the street, and how power and money moved around that dissonance. It was a political story, overtly. The one thing it didn’t deal with—there was no room for it, and there was also no opportunity—was the idea of community and culture. The Wire was never trying to say that human beings are completely without agency. It was saying that our political agency is marginalized, our economic agency is marginalized in this country, but not our humanity, and not our ability to act as individuals and to assert our own dignity. I was not interested in burdening that piece, which was already as complicated as complicated could be, with an overt discussion with what was at stake. What was at stake in The Wire was implied: the life of a city, our ability to live decent lives together, compacted as we are in places like Baltimore or St. Louis or Cleveland.
The one piece that was missing was culture and community. Culture in the sense of what a community’s creative output might be. What I was really interested in was, in New Orleans, unlike anywhere else in America, including Baltimore, the creative impulse of community is overt, it’s in the street. In Baltimore it might be in an art museum. It might be in how people go down to the Christmas parade once a year or go to an Orioles game. In New Orleans, culture is the raison d’être for the city being at this point. There’s no manufacturing base, the port could move up to Baton Rouge in a heartbeat. The reason the city exists is because it reaches our imaginations, generations of imaginations. Musically, aesthetically, in terms of its architecture, in terms of its dance. There’s something about what happened in New Orleans in terms of their retaining these very dramatic, very visual elements of culture that gives us the opportunity to tell the story there and to have the power of culture understood in a way that they wouldn’t understand it if I did it in Minneapolis or Baltimore or St. Louis. New Orleans was the best possible opportunity to speak to American culture and what it’s capable of.
When you were talking about The Corner, you mentioned these moments of tourism. I’m curious about the role of these uninitiated, tasteless, uncultured people who show up in the series, these naïve, ignorant tourists who go on the Katrina tour, or who want to experience the “authentic” New Orleans. To what extent are your non-New Orleanian viewers meant to identify with these characters? Are we all that different from them, by consuming these visual and narrative riches of the city from the safety and comfort of our homes?
I think most of what America understands about New Orleans is very surface-level and very crude. It’s Bourbon Street, it’s some mansions in the Garden District, it’s some fattening food cooked with a lot of butter and sauce, and it’s somebody playing in a Dixieland band. If seeing that New Orleanians from the inside have a different perception of tourists than the tourists would like them to have, if that’s so off-putting that I’m going to lose viewers, I’m going to lose viewers. I don’t want [the tourists] to be caricatures. I wouldn’t want the kids from Wisconsin to go to Bullet’s Bar and see some black guy with a chicken foot around his head and a gold tooth and get all scared and go running back to their hotel. I wanted them to be human about it and to enjoy it and to have a good night in New Orleans. There were Katrina tours and they did stop and hostile moments like that did happen in the lower Ninth Ward, [so] I wanted the bus driver to perceive that he had crossed some boundary, not thinking about it, and I wanted his last moment to be of great humanity, when he says “You’re right, I’m sorry.”
So, I guess my feeling is, if I was going lose anybody because they feel alienated because they’re not an instant expert on New Orleans and they’re being told that, fuck ’em. I was never going hold on to them anyway. And I’m not sure I can write for somebody who’s that self-absorbed. And typically the reviewers who have the hardest time with it— which I took some private delight in—were from New York. You know [that great New Yorker cover from 1976]—it’s a map of New York and then there’s the Hudson River and then there’s Jersey, then Kansas and then China? Nothing was ever truer than that poster.
That raises another of the questions that I had about the nature of your audience, and whether you feel like you’re accomplishing more as a television writer than you did as a journalist, or whether you feel like you’re affecting your audience on a different level than you did as a journalist, and whether or not the entertainment value of the stories that you’re telling ever comes into conflict with the kinds of cultural critiques that you’re elaborating.
Well, television is shorthand, even with 10 or 12 hours of storytelling, which is extraordinary in terms of the length of film narrative. The Godfather series, including the last film, was nine hours. So just think about the storytelling that got done in The Godfather. If somebody gives me 10, 12 hours to make a television show, I’m not suggesting it’s insubstantial. It is substantial, and I get to say a lot. But I know one thing: I can’t tell the story of New Orleans after the storm. There’s too much. Next season I’ll get to when the schools open up. We’re going to bite off what we can chew.
Television references things and moves on, hits a few points hard, but it’s not comprehensive in the way that journalism or history can be, if it’s properly told. I’m aware of the limitations of the form. I’m also aware that I’m making stuff up. I have too much respect for journalism and for research to claim that I’m doing any more of it than I need to tell a story that we, the writers of the show, want to tell. So, I think it’s a story that ought to be told, I think it’s rooted in the real, I think we’ve parsed what is interesting in the five years since Katrina in terms of why New Orleans came back and what it felt like. But it’s just an opinion, and I’m very aware of that. I’m cautious of what I claim for this reality-rooted fiction that I’m pursuing.
But in answer to your question, by economy of scale, by the time they get done with the On Demand numbers, four or five million people will watch Treme. By the time they get done with the DVDs, 10 million people will watch over the next five, six years, whatever. For me to get a hundred thousand people to buy a copy of [my book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets or The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood] would have made it a New York Times bestseller. It’s epic. So, by the economies of scale, I’m certainly having more impact than if I’d pursued journalism, even in comprehensive form like the nonfiction narrative. That’s just the storytelling nature of our age. People watch movies, they don’t read books anymore. They don’t read newspapers. They read a smattering of stuff online. We’re a nation of watchers, not readers. Clearly, there’s been so much more discussion about urban issues or the drug war or any of that stuff because of The Wire than I managed to achieve with The Corner as a book. And I’m aware of that. On the other hand, I’m very proud of The Corner. It was a story of real people’s lives and it was carefully done and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.
The other problem with doing this, as you noted, is that it’s an entertainment. And so a lot of people watch this and some of them may have discussions about the drug war, about New Orleans or culture or the nature of our misadventure in Iraq. They may just say, “That was cool as shit, I thought it was funny when the guy said this.” That may be all they get out of it and I can’t prevent that, can I?
I think that the nature of the kind of stories that television tells affects us when we identify with characters, when we laugh with characters. I think that the kinds of resolutions that those characters experience, we tend to internalize them without necessarily even being conscious of it.
I hope you’re right. That’s about as much as you can hope for, honestly. Listen, I’m a didactic person. But you can’t be too didactic with the story you’re telling or you’re insulting your characters and your audience. You can only say what the characters would say at a given moment. And that’s part of the problem. Again, it’s not an op-ed. The Wire has to succeed or Treme has to succeed as entertainment. On top of that, you get to graft a message or two. If it’s subtler than that, if it permeates the way you’re saying, that’s okay. I guess I’ll take that.
Treme’s the riskiest thing yet because nobody has a gun. They’re not wheeling bodies to an emergency room, nobody’s the mayor or the president deciding what to do. It’s guys deciding what key they’re going to play a song in, and what song they choose to play and why, and what they do after the song. It’s drama in very small moments, on a human scale.
You’ve often described The Wire as being a Greek tragedy and you also used the category of tragedy to describe the Iraq War as it was portrayed in Generation Kill. And you seem to have abandoned the mode of tragedy here, as you’re saying. You seem to be pursuing a kind of everyday drama.
There’s certainly elements of tragedy in what New Orleans went through and is still going through. Everything dystopic about the urban environment with The Wire is still dystopic in Treme. The school system’s still fucked, the police department is even worse than in Baltimore, civic leadership is at a minimum. There’s a racial dynamic that is at points good but at points appalling. It’s got all the attendant problems of urban America that were depicted in The Wire and yet the people have this capacity to assert their own meaning and dignity through individual acts of community and culture. And that’s what this story’s about. We’ve taken the camera and we’ve put it on the street level to look at culture.
That’s a really hard story to tell. [laughs]
It is a hard story to tell, but that doesn’t suggest that “Oh, because people can manufacture a second line and because she’s cooking her ass off and because the music sounds sweet,” because of all that, all of our problems are solved. That’s not what Treme is saying.
You were renewed for a second season almost right away.
Yeah. That happened pretty quick. It almost took the fun out of it. [laughs]
For being something so different from what we have come to expect from you in terms of the sort of microdrama that you’re pursuing here, it seemed kind of ballsy for HBO to say, after one episode, “We’re into it.”
It did. I was surprised by it, but they’ve seen through the Mardi Gras episode. We sent them the producer’s cut of episode eight and they renewed us. It was a genuinely pure response. In some ways—dare I say it?—it was from the heart. You vote for the show with your heart, because it doesn’t explain itself through the head. Again, it’s not an easy show to discuss, the nature of creativity in human beings in the city. It doesn’t lend itself to the obvious tropes of serialized drama. You could do a movie on that. That’s fine. There are lots of movies about time and place and spirit that don’t involve violence or politics or the fantastical. But as a sustained drama it is pretty tricky.
People ask me what the show’s about, and sometimes I’m tempted to say, “If I could explain that to your satisfaction, I wouldn’t have to do it.” It’s so delicate that it can’t be explained, it has to be experienced. I have to make people feel like they’re on those streets, like they wake up in New Orleans every day, that they’re part of a city that they’re not actually a part of. And that because they’re a part of that city they’re going to feel differently, perhaps, about who we are, about what Americans are capable of. I’m not ashamed that it has a warm place in its heart for people.
I’ve read that you have another miniseries project planned, about Abraham Lincoln?
Yeah, there’s a couple things on the boards actually, but that’s one of them.
Is the renewal of the second season of Treme going to push that back or affect that in any way?
No, I’m doing that with Tom Fontana and he has the capacity to make stuff himself, in the event that it got picked up. We turned in two scripts and they ordered all of them. I’ll get back to it in probably about two weeks now after I finish up post on Treme. We’ll turn in the rest of the scripts and then it’s about them finding the money for it. HBO has to decide when to give it a green light and if they have the money to make nine hours of a 19th-century period piece. I find it interesting because there are a lot of parallels between April 1865 and the post-9/11 moment in terms of terrorism in the country.
Will you be telling the story thinking in explicitly allegorical terms then?
At points, yeah, I will be. In my head. Whether or not it plays well, I don’t know. [laughs] But yeah, I’m a little down on doing just history for history’s sake. I feel like HBO’s a unique venue and they should concentrate on doing things that no other channel can do. They should do the things that are politically and socially provocative, because I think we need a little more provocation than we have in our mass-media culture. I thought it was a relevant piece, so I signed up for it. That doesn’t mean it gets made. We’ll see.
I was very sorry to read that Treme co-writer David Mills passed away last month. Could you tell me a little about his contributions to the various collaborations you guys have worked on, what it was like working with him?
I wouldn’t be in TV if it wasn’t for David Mills. When Tom Fontana offered me a script on Homicide, I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. At the time, I really didn’t watch a lot of televised drama, but David Mills did. And I’d worked on my college paper with him and I knew how much he loved shows like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, and so I called him and we wrote the script together. His sensibility was such that he could probably write anybody, write any situation and be able to find commonalities. One of my happiest memories of working with David is, he did an episode the last season of Homicide that starred Charles Durning as a white, retired, racist detective in Baltimore and David gave Durning’s character a lot of the attributes of David’s own father, David being African-American. David wrote a love letter to his father and buried it in the context of this white, retired, racist, sexist detective. It was a beautiful character. It taught me something about writing that I’ll never forget. He made something transcendent out of his best memories and out of a character that could have become a stereotype villain. And that’s who he was. He was a guy who had no interest in cant, or ideology. He was just interested in story, and telling stories about interesting people. He was great at it.
Interview: Nadav Lapid on Synonyms and Our Conflict with Existence
Lapid discusses how he sought to confront audiences with questions about belonging, nationalism, and identity.
Nadav Lapid is one of the most exciting Israeli filmmakers to emerge in recent years. His first two features, Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher, are hypnotic studies of the nature of power and resistance. His latest, Synonyms, tackles similar issues, but Lapid’s approach to his material here is almost as obfuscating as it is illuminating.
Tom Mercier, in a phenomenal screen debut, plays Yoav, a twentysomething Israeli who exiles himself to Paris, refusing to speak Hebrew or return to his homeland. Yoav is intense and enigmatic, whether sharing stories of his military experiences or practicing a form of wordplay while walking, head down, through the streets of the French capital. Whether he wants to or not, everyone is drawn into his orbit, from the young couple (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte) who finding him naked and helpless in the bathtub of an apartment adjacent to theirs, to the various men who work security at the Israeli embassy.
At this year’s New York Film Festival, Lapid sat down with me to discuss Synonyms and how he sought to confront audiences with questions about belonging, nationalism, and identity.
While there’s a narrative to Synonyms, it feels deliberately very episodic, creating emotions and moments of high drama but also ambiguity. What was your approach or purpose to tell this story in this way?
I arrived at the conclusion that I might be a strange person, because people find unusual and irregular things in the way I construct my movies. Policeman was divided into two parts, which was normal to me, but people found that strange. I try to be as close as I can to what I see as existence. And existence, as I see it, is composed as a series of events, and these events are composed of one single melody. Synonyms doesn’t have a classic narrative line, though its narrative is simple: Yoav gets to a place that he thinks will be his salvation and he’s disappointed. But even if the narrative structure isn’t classical, the film is one movement, or melody, even though it has a thousand variations.
I admire how deliberate the film is in its depiction of and ideas about storytelling. Yoav narrates photos, and he gives—and takes—stories from Emile, Quentin Dolmaire’s character. How do you find meaning in art, or inject meaning into it?
When we create art, there’s this desperate attempt to create stories that, on one hand, are full of beautiful storytelling moments. They may be the only way we have to communicate ourselves, our essence, and our past. On the other hand, there’s something very artificial in the way art and life tell stories. It’s as if we treat the world as if it has suddenly stopped and nothing is happening except for the stories we tell. The other person is only the ears. As we know in real life, everything is mixed, so we can tell a story with only words. Our body will deconstruct it, or reconstruct it, or give it another meaning. There’s something artificial in this desire to detach this moment of storytelling from the person.
In cinema, there are stories, but they have a peculiar relationship with the actual moment. Maybe this is also true of the storytelling of my film. It’s a classical narrative: Yoav arrives in the big city, tries to find success, and in the end is rejected. Maybe this is the peculiar, unique, singular thing, and it’s the film interfering with this simple narrative line? It spoils this naïve attempt to just tell the story. There’s something naïve and interesting that movies that are applauding their own stories. It touches only a thin layer of life.
There’s a specific emphasis on language, words, contrasts, and meanings in Synonyms. How did you land on the specific words you incorporated into the film.
I think that I tried to keep a certain balance between accidental and instinctive choices. I had this picture of Jackson Pollock hitting a painting in an accidental, or automatic, way, like the surrealists. I was also interested in the texture of words. Words have bodies and organs. I was walking, and talking to myself, and I can’t imagine how people looked at me! But I tried to feel and let my tongue lead me. And at the same time—and this is the nice thing about words—you can’t only reduce them to syllables. They have meanings, and the meanings have choices.
Are you into wordplay? Do you do crossword puzzles or other word games?
No. I read, and when I read books, I’m fascinated by words. I can’t bear the idea that people say that art cinema should be without words, and that words aren’t cinematic. There are films of acts and films of words. I think it comes from the fact that people treat words on a content level, and their only role is to mean or represent something. If you detach words from the story, or don’t want to say something by using words, then life changes.
Do you, as Emile suggests in the film, drink before writing to ward off the fear?
I drink when I write my shooting plan. I encourage myself to be courageous—to not to fall to convention.
I loved the dancing in the film. The women outside the bar, the nightclub scene with Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam,” and even a scene of Yoav dancing alone in his apartment, though he almost looks like he’s fighting. A scene of Michel and Yaron fighting is like a form of dancing, too, no?
I like when people dance by themselves for the audience in films. They come to the camera and say, “Here I am, look at me!” On another level, Synonyms goes further; it dances by itself with complicated mise-en-scène and trashy music. You cannot classify me! I am this and I am that. I’m fancy mise-en-scène and “Pump Up the Jam.”
Your film is, of course, erotic, not just because of Yoav’s often naked body, but his relationship with Emile is homoerotic, and his passion for Louise Chevillotte’s Caroline is palpable. She’s so sexy just sitting on the couch looking at Yoav or playing her oboe. How did you approach this element of desire?
When I think about desire, I’m guided by the idea that we all have a body. I’m trying to create movies where the existence of sex and the possibility of sex is in each and every second—rather than creating a film where there are sex scenes. There are sex scenes in my films, but they’re not the hottest scenes in my movies. There’s a permanent existence of the body, and that has a sexual potential. I sound like a new French philosopher! I’m not like this at all!
Speaking of bodies, how did you work with Thomas Mercier on the role of Yoav? Was there guidance you gave him to elicit this remarkable, full-bodied performance?
Tom was like a miracle. The work was intense but easy once he was cast. I bought him a French dictionary and I wanted him to study five new words each day and five new synonyms for each word. That was the work. He understood it so well. He prepared for a year because he was the thing itself. He was a judo champion and then became a dancer. He had a tenderness and fragility, and was very sexual, but he also had a violence and fury. You feel it. He could explode at any second. He was limitless.
All of your films address issues of desolation and madness. Why are these such key themes in your work?
I think my films are about people that take themselves very seriously—not in an ego way, or a stupid way, but in a way where they feel as if they understand or grasp something and follow these things until they find hell in paradise. They follow it until they recognize the deeper truth. But when you follow a principle to the end, it puts you in conflict with existence. And in odd moments, you lose your sense of humor and why life has humor.
You also explore issues of identity and nationality. There are ideas here about birth and corruption, the individual versus the masses, citizenship and rights. It seems like you deliberately set out to make viewers puzzle over lots of things.
I think Synonyms is broadly a political film. For Yoav, his national identity and Israel is like a dragon that he should kill and destroy and fight against—this mythological enemy. And, as you know, these mythological enemies are always yourself. Like Rosemary’s baby—the devil is inside you. But the film is attracted and seduced and fascinated by all the elements of nationalism. I read somewhere that Synonyms is anti-nationalist, but I wouldn’t define the film so easily. The moment in the metro where Yaron is humming the Israeli national theme—it creates a polemic in Israel, but [Yaron] has his problems. At the same time, it’s a powerfully charismatic, embracing moment. He’s humming the hymn of a nation that was annihilated. Whatever it means, I’m on the opposite political pole. I think the film has a right to flirt with nationalism while condemning it. You can’t hate a country if you’re not attracted to it.
The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time
If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.
Zombie movies not only endure, but persist at the height of their popularity, neck and neck with vampire stories in a cultural race to the bottom, their respective “twists” on generic boilerplate masking a dead-eyed derivativeness. For the zombie film (or comic book, or cable TV drama), that boilerplate was struck by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and its subsequent sequels established a loose conception of the undead threat: lumbering, beholden to no centralized authority, sensitive to headshots and decapitations.
If, according to Franco Moretti’s “The Dialectic of Fear,” the vampiric threat (at least as embodied in Count Dracula) operates chiefly as a metaphor for monopoly capital, binding those English bourgeois interlopers to his spell and extracting the blood of their industry, then the zombie poses a more anarchic, horizontalized threat. In post-Romero, hyper-allegorized zombie cinema, the hulking undead mass can be generally understood as the anti-Draculean annihilation of capital. Flesh and blood are acquired but not retained; civilization is destroyed but not remodeled. If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories for this or that, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.
At their apex of their allegorical authority, zombies may fundamentally destroy, as attested by our favorite zombie films of all time. But that doesn’t mean their inexhaustible popularity as monster du jour can’t be harnessed to the whims of real-deal market maneuvering, their principally anarchic menace yoked to the proverbial voodoo master of capital. John Semley
20. Night of the Comet (1984)
Night of the Comet’s scenario reads like the bastard child of countless drive-in movies, in which most of humanity is instantly reduced to colored piles of dust when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet that last came around—you guessed it—right about the time the dinosaurs went belly-up. Then again, just so you know he’s not adhering too closely to generic procedures, writer-director Thom Eberhardt irreverently elects a couple of pretty vacant valley girls—tomboyish arcade addict Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her blond cheerleader sister, Sam (Kelli Maroney)—and a Mexican truck driver, Hector (Robert Beltran), to stand in for the last remnants of humanity. With regard to its bubbly protagonists, the film vacillates between poking not-so-gentle fun at their vapid mindset, as in the Dawn of the Dead-indebted shopping spree (obligingly scored to Cindi Lauper’s anthemic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and taking them seriously as agents of their own destiny. Lucky for them, as it happens, that their hard-ass old man taught them how to shoot the shit out of an Uzi—and look adorable doing it. It also doesn’t hurt that Eberhardt filigrees his absurd premise with grace notes like the cheeky cinephilia informing early scenes set in an all-night movie theater. Budd Wilkins
19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)
In The Living Dead Girl, the gothic ambience that elsewhere suffuses Jean Rollin’s work smashes headlong against the inexorable advance of modernity. The film opens with the vision of bucolic scenery blighted by the scourge of industrialization: rolling hills sliced up by concertina-capped fences, billowing smokestacks visible in the hazy distance. When some dicey movers deposit barrels of chemical waste in the family vault beneath the dilapidated Valmont chateau, a sudden tremor causes the barrels to spring a leak, reanimating the corpse of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard) in the process. Despite the gruesome carnage she inflicts on hapless and not-so-hapless victims alike, it’s clear that Rollin sees the angelic Catherine, with her flowing blond tresses and clinging white burial weeds, as an undead innocent abroad in a world she can no longer comprehend. The flm builds to a climax of Grand Guignol gruesomeness as Hélène (Marina Pierro), Catherine’s girlhood friend, makes the ultimate sacrifice for her blood sister. It’s an altogether remarkable scene, tinged with melancholy and possessed of a ferocious integrity that’s especially apparent in Blanchard’s unhinged performance. The film’s blood-spattered descent into positively Jacobean tragedy helps to make it one of Rollin’s strongest, most disturbing efforts. Wilkins
18. Messiah of Evil (1976)
This debut feature from future Lucasfilm writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz stars Mariana Hill as Arletty, the emotionally vacant daughter of a disappeared artist (Royal Dano). There’s a hushed quality to Messiah of Evil, all the better to hear the waves crashing in the distance. Nobody shouts until they’re about to die, usually at the hands of cannibal mobs. A super-chill dandy, Thom (Michael Greer), and his two girlfriends, Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang), join Arletty in an attempt to unravel the mysteries afoot in this secluded, unfriendly location, and as Thom busts a move on Arletty, the girlfriends disappear into the ominous blackness. Among the film’s more haunting elements: photorealist faces peering through windows and a wall weirdly painted with a full-size escalator. At any moment, this empty house seems as if it could warp into a nightmarish shopping mall—one of many bizarre evocations of a film that cannily mixes Lovecraftian dread with Antonioni-esque alienation. Erich Kuersten
17. They Came Back (2004)
They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez
16. Zombi (1979)
Zombie lacks Romero’s allegorical undercurrents and horror-comedy hybridization, substituting instead a streamlined narrative that owes a substantial debt to H.G. Wells’s Island of Doctor Moreau and an all-encompassing mood of claustrophobic desolation. Taken on its own terms, it works quite agreeably as a visceral blow to the breadbasket, with one of the most outrageous and apocalyptic final scenes in the entirety of the subgenre. Some of the film’s most inventive shots are from zombie-cam POV, as the dead rise, shake off clods of dirt, and slouch toward the mission church. Attacks come fast and furious now, setting a frenzied pace that later zombie films like Evil Dead II and Dead Alive will utilize to infinitely more comic effect. By film’s end, only one couple remains, fighting their way back to a crippled ship. Adrift on the open sea, they catch a radio broadcast from New York. As it will in every mid-period Fulci film, hell has broken loose, and zombie hordes have overrun the outlying boroughs. In the fantastic final shots, as the panic-stricken newscaster narrates the zombie invasion of his radio station, a mass of zombies cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. Wilkins
The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.
Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”
At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins
50. Them (2006)
Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them after seeing it because it’s scary without being grisly or full of cheap jump scares. Instead, it’s a marvel of precise timing and action choreography. The silence that deadens the air between each new assault becomes more and more disquieting as the film goes on. Likewise, the house where Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams
49. Black Death (2010)
Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Nick Schager
48. The Invitation (2015)
The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan
47. Midsommar (2019)
Anybody who’s seen Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man or similar folk horror films will hardly be surprised by any of the plot turns in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. From early on, there’s no doubt that the pagan rituals at the film’s center will spell doom for the group of friends who visit rural Sweden in a quasi-anthropological attempt to observe a cult’s summer solstice festival. The film masterfully builds itself around the inevitability of a mass terror, aligning our foreknowledge of that with the anxiety felt by the main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), in the wake of a recent family tragedy. The result is a deeply unnerving film about the indissoluble, somehow archaic bond between self and family—one more psychologically robust than Aster’s similarly themed Hereditary. And it’s also very funny. Pat Brown
46. Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Ed Gonzalez
45. Sinister (2012)
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh
44. Maniac (2012)
Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez
43. Depraved (2019)
What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife
42. 28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is a post-apocalyptic zombie movie indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham and George A. Romero, opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out “Hello! Hello!” into the void. A marvel of economic storytelling, the film follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” virus that tore across England, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen King’s The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts. The Rage virus itself feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone who’s struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey. Jeremiah Kipp
41. Piranha 3D (2010)
Piranha 3D tips its cap to Jaws with an opening appearance by Richard Dreyfuss, yet the true ancestors of Alexandre Aja’s latest are less Steven Spielberg’s classic (and Joe Dante and Roger Corman’s more politically inclined 1978 original Piranha) than 1980s-era slasher films. Unapologetically giddy about its gratuitous crassness, Aja’s B movie operates by constantly winking at its audience, and while such self-consciousness diffuses any serious sense of terror, it also amplifies the rollicking comedy of its over-the-top insanity. Aja’s gimmicky use of 3D is self-aware, and the obscene gore of the proceedings is, like its softcore jokiness, so extreme and campy—epitomized by a hair-caught-in-propeller scalping—that the trashy, merciless Piranha 3D proves a worthy heir to its brazen exploitation-cinema forefathers. Schager
Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings
The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.
Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.
Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”
Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.
Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.
It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:
“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”
Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.
Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.
The Best Netflix Original Series to Watch Right Now, Ranked
These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality.
Like Google, Netflix has evolved over two decades from a Silicon Valley venture to a legitimate verb in the cultural lexicon. Ten years after expanding from DVD-by-mail to streaming service, and four since debuting its first original series with House of Cards, Netflix all but dominates the online TV landscape. While competitors like Amazon Prime and Hulu certainly vie for our time with their own in-house programs, the sheer inundation of Netflix originals requires its very own examination. The animated seriocomic genius of BoJack Horseman, the tech horrors that Black Mirror situates on the near horizon, and the earnestness and dramatic sprawl of Sense8 are merely a few of the storytelling pleasures available to anyone with a WiFi connection and a (potentially borrowed) Netflix login. These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality. Nathan Frontiero
25. Santa Clarita Diet
Zomedies thrive on a delicate alchemy between violence and humor. When the balance is off, the results are smug and self-congratulatory, as in Zomebieland. But in Santa Clarita Diet, creator Victor Fresco and his collaborators exhibit a flair for slapstick violence that’s staged with a surprisingly light and deft touch. The best bits are nearly impossible to rationalize (its punchlines are tossed off with confident casualness), but the series thrives on its refusal to take even its theme of yuppie conformity seriously, recognizing that it’s so obvious as to be inherently self-critical. Chuck Bowen
24. Luke Cage
The way Luke Cage at once embraces blaxploitation tropes and transcends them completely isn’t necessarily its triumph. It is, however, the element that speaks most directly to what the series, based on the Marvel Comics character that first appeared back in 1972 with Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, is attempting to accomplish. Cage, as portrayed by Mike Colter, is a wrongly convicted ex-con and certified ladies’ man who makes rent and some meager pocket change by sweeping up hair at a barber shop and doing dishes at the restaurant owned by Harlem crime lord Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). He’s also attempting to be a role model and a hard-working member of his local community in the aftermath of his time in jail and the life he left behind when his wife was murdered. Above all else, Luke Cage is about what, if any, qualifications there are for being a hero. Chris Cabin
23. Lady Dynamite
Her endearing eagerness to please, extreme social awkwardness, and hopeless inability to camouflage her feelings makes the semi-fictionalized version of her bipolar self that actor-writer-comedian Maria Bamford plays in Lady Dynamite a kind of human emoji factory, her unguarded face expressing a kaleidoscope of comically intense emotions. Her bafflement and improvised solutions to uncomfortable situations make things we have all struggled with, like dating, feel as freshly and insightfully witnessed as her wide-eyed adventures in Hollywood. Though she’s anything but a stone face, Bamford has more than a little Buster Keaton in her, her cosmic befuddlement and heroic efforts to navigate even the simplest situation highlighting the absurdity in just about everything. Elise Nakhnikian
22. The Crown
Once again, The Queen‘s Peter Morgan combines extensive research with a highly empathetic understanding of human nature to create a fascinating exploration of the capabilities and limitations of Britain’s monarchy in the 20th century, the enormous personal sacrifices that monarchy required of Elizabeth II, and the strains it exerted on her family. The Crown opens with Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) beloved father, king George (Jared Harris), another reluctant monarch who inherited the role only after his older brother renounced it. It then follows the young queen as, forced to give up her cherished private life after her father’s demise, she grows into the role of queen—and into a form of greatness distinguished by genuine humility and common-sense values. A feminist tale of a patronized, undereducated, and perpetually underestimated young woman who learns to rely on her native intelligence and good sense to help lead a besieged country through perilous times, The Crown makes the case that the best rulers may be those who never wanted the role. Nakhnikian
21. Seven Seconds
The dichotomy between Isaiah (Russell Hornsby) and Latrice Butler (Regina King) and the police is rooted in privilege, and while Seven Seconds resists a systemic view of Jersey City’s racial landscape, it’s thorough in its outlining of the biases that affect the Butlers’ lives. And none is more insulting than the way Brenton, even in death, is denied the same benefit of the doubt that’s readily afforded to his killer. The series presents a sympathetic likeness of real-world victims of police brutality, but by eschewing a broad view of race relations in our nation, it risks affirming the ubiquitous “few bad apples” apologia that’s often put forward when police wrongdoing comes to light. Ultimately, though, the detailed character portrayals at the heart of Seven Seconds invest us into the Butlers’ search for justice, while poignantly illustrating that in the real world, that justice is rare. Haigis
The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked
Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.
Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. In each case, the supposed science of the issue at hand is often short-circuited by impatience. Lest the comparison seem too glib, Almodóvar’s entire filmography is, to varying degrees, about the performance of taste, where characters often relate to one another not through their minds, but through their fingers, eyes, and teeth. Sweet tooths are more than a matter of dental hygiene; they’re a means of defining personal placement within the broader spectrum of vivid characters and self-serving interests. The bright color scheme of Almodóvar’s mise-en-scène redoubles these matters by problematizing realism as a dissenting faction amid otherwise psychologically defined characters, whose motivations are typically for sustenance of a rather short-order sort. On that note, Almodóvar’s oeuvre, and the characters that comprise it, can perhaps be best summarized by Carmen Maura’s character in Matador, who says near the film’s end: “Some things are beyond reason. This is one of them.” Clayton Dillard
On the occasion of the release of Almodóvar’s latest, Pain and Glory, we ranked the Spanish auteur’s films from worst to best.
21. I’m So Excited! (2013)
The broad comedy of I’m So Excited! stays too comfortably on airplane mode throughout the film’s brisk runtime. It’s a deliberately frivolous, tossed-off effort, with middling jokes about barbiturates and musical numbers that pander, and too nakedly appeal, to camp impulses. These shortcomings are partially assuaged by the film’s sheer pep, especially as it becomes evident that actors like Javier Cámara and Carlos Areces are having a great deal of fun in their roles as unperturbed flight attendants. Still, these fairly meager pleasures are unsatisfying consolation prizes when stacked against Almodóvar’s finest films, where there’s no evidence of an in-flight creative nap. Dillard
20. Julieta (2016)
Arguably the most conventional film of Almodóvar’s career, Julieta consistently renders its titular character’s recollections in explicit terms as those of a conflicted woman whose life has been spent in the throes of filial grief. Lacking an exuberant production design, the film settles for a predictably varied visual palette that, at this point, operates only as a commercial selling point for Almodóvar’s directorial style. The screenplay’s unimaginative frame narrative isn’t helping matters either; instead of reconfiguring memory into emotionally resonant bursts or revelations of desire as in All About My Mother, Almodóvar opts for template melodrama, with cutaways to Julieta (Emma Suárez) literally scribing her recollections in the present tense. In a career defined by inventive methods of access to his characters’ lingering duress, Julieta is an unfortunately flat-footed step toward complacency. Dillard
19. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)
More compelling in theory than practice, What Have I Done to Deserve This? finds Almodóvar forgoing the punkish abandon of his earlier work for a calmer, if still rambunctious, domestic drama starring Carmen Maura as Gloria, a housewife whose husband and children have little respect for her. Almodóvar regular Chus Lampreave stands out as Gloria’s cupcake-hoarding mother-in-law, whose mitigating presence within the patriarchal family recalls a similar figure in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Master of the House, but several of the gags, whether a lizard being the only witness to a murder or a man’s demand for “elegant, sophisticated sadism…like in French films,” don’t resound with the same resourcefulness of those from Almodóvar’s sharpest farces. Dillard
18. Broken Embraces (2009)
After the popular and critical success of Talk to Her and Volver, Almodóvar opted for a decidedly reflexive opus (Broken Embraces boasts the longest runtime in his oeuvre at 127 minutes) of self-indulgence, guided through time by the memories of Mateo (Lluís Homar), a blind filmmaker whose newfound creative partnership with the much younger Diego (Tamar Novas) breeds a series of episodes detailing past love affairs. Unwieldy by nature, Broken Embraces is in some sense the most sprawling presentation of Almodóvar’s telenovella revisionism, but the narrative net is cast so wide, and with such a decided but superficial emphasis on the tortured process of an artist, that few of the passages, let alone characters, are given the necessary affective space to blossom. Dillard
17. Kika (1993)
By the early 1990s, the stakes of both Almodóvar’s perceptions on contemporary sexuality and intertextual play with film history had necessarily reached a point of no return. If the director’s films were still going to be capable of shocking or at least surprising audiences, they would require a refreshed template, one informed by but not beholden to his films of the past decade. The first of those three efforts was Kika, a wholly postmodern experiment that collages bits and pieces of classical Hollywood with Almodóvar’s fearless bid to fuse rape, cunnilingus, and the music of Bernard Herrmann into a whirligig of excesses. While there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the film’s sheer energy, there’s also a fundamental hole at its emotional core, with flattened characters and meandering visual motifs. Dillard
New York Film Festival 2019
If cinema is, indeed, the domain of freedom, then the festival doesn’t see Netflix as the villain in that struggle.
“Cinema is the domain of freedom, and it’s an ongoing struggle to maintain that freedom,” said New York Film Festival director and selection committee chair Kent Jones in a statement last month accompanying the announcement of the films that will screen as part of the main slate of the 57th edition of the festival. And depending on who you ask, Netflix is either the hero or villain in that struggle.
More than half of the 29 titles in the main slate enjoyed their world premiere earlier this year at Cannes, where Netflix had no film in competition, as its battle with festival director Thierry Frémaux, who requires a theatrical run for any Cannes entrant, continues unabated. (The streaming giant did walk away from the festival with acquisition rights to Jérémy Clapin’s I Lost My Body and Mati Diop’s Grand Prix winner Atlantics.) There’s no right or wrong here per se, though it’s clear that Frémaux’s edict is an extension of his nostalgia for the golden age of cinema, which he sees as sacrosanct as the length of the theatrical window, and just how steadfastly he sticks to his guns may determine the fate of the world’s most important film festival.
The New York Film Festival opens on Friday, September 27 with the world premiere of Martin Scorsese’s hotly anticipated The Irishman, almost one month to the day that it was announced that Netflix could not reach a distribution deal with major theater chains, including AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. The film will drop on Netflix less than a month after opening in some theaters across the country—a non-traditional distribution strategy that will continue to be seen as short-circuiting a Netflix film’s best picture chances at the Academy Awards, at least until one comes along and does what Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma couldn’t last year.
It remains to be seen if The Irishman will be that film. But this much is also clear, and the New York Film Festival is making no bones about it: This streamable movie is very much a movie, and to be able to see a new Scorsese film that might not have run three hours and 30 minutes had it been released by a traditional distributor is very much a win for freedom—or, at least, a certain stripe of cinephile’s idea of freedom.
In addition to The Irishman and Atlantics, Netflix also has Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, at the festival (the centerpiece selection no less). Baumbach’s divorce drama bowed last month at the Venice Film Festival, alongside Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s first feature since Lost and Beautiful, and The Wasp Network, which marks Olivier Assayas’s 10th appearance at the New York Film Festival. Among the returning auteurs are Kleber Mendonça Filho (Bacurau, co-directed with Juliano Dornelles), Kelly Reichardt (First Cow), Albert Serra (Liberté), Arnaud Desplechin (Oh Mercy!), Pedro Almodóvar (Pain and Glory), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Young Ahmed), and the greatest of the great, Agnès Varda, whose Varda by Agnès premiered earlier this year at Berlinale alongside Nadav Lapid’s Golden Bear winner Synonyms and Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…
Among the festival’s noteworthy sidebars are Spotlight on Documentary, which includes new works by Tim Robbins (45 Seconds of Laughter, about inmates at the Calipatria State maximum-security facility taking part in acting exercises), Michael Apted (63 Up, the latest entry in the filmmaker’s iconic, one-of-a-kind British film series), and Alla Kovgan (Cunningham, a 3D portrait of the artistic evolution of choreographer Merce Cunningham); the MUBI-sponsored Projections, which features the latest films from Éric Baudelaire (Un Film Dramatique) and Thomas Heise (Heimat Is a Space in Time); and a Special Events section that includes Todd Phillips’s surprise Golden Lion winner Joker and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club Encore, which brings the 1984 period film back to its original length and luster. Ed Gonzalez
For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center.
Atlantics (Mati Diop)
Starved for work after the depletion of Senegal’s local fishing industry, thousands of young men take to the sea every year aboard pirogues, or small boats, fleeing their country for Spain. Those who have emigrated, died, or been incarcerated as part of the “pirogue phenomenon”—referred to colloquially as “Barcelona or death” in Senegalese communities—are the ghosts that haunt Atlantics. The forms those spirits take in the film represent just some of what’s so extraordinary about Mati Diop’s first feature as a director, a work of disparate influences and genres that pulses on its own oblique wavelength. Atlantics transitions into oblique genre fare in a manner reminiscent of Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, with electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri’s multifaceted score adding ghostly strings and pop guitar riffs over spiritual, syncopated Middle Eastern arrangements. Despite its wild narrative leaps, the film is undergirded with a holistic mix of serenity and trauma that recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour. Christopher Gray
Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)
Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac
Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)
Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting—and it’s the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole’s grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov’s hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya’s PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole
Fire Will Come (Olivier Laxe)
Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such “fiction,” the film’s delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we’re almost convinced that there’s no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape. This is a film where the characters’ names coincide with those of the actors playing them. It’s at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a person—namely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. Diego Semerene
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
First Cow is one of Kelly Reichardt’s shakier efforts. The film begins with an especially incisive William Blake quote (“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”), and its themes of systemic exploitation, the enduring vagaries of the free market, and the alternately tender and tempestuous bonds of male camaraderie are propped up by characters who come off as half-formed avatars rather than flesh-and-blood human beings. That isn’t to say Reichardt, who’s edited all of her films since Old Joy, has lost the ability to create multilayered, gently provocative imagery. There’s a beauty of a shot in First Cow’s first scene, set in the present day, of a young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog and uncovering a pair of skeletons beside an Oregon river. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt frames the bones in a steady, un-showy composition (the film is photographed in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio) so that it takes a few seconds to realize what you’re looking at. The slow-dawning revelation of the moment epitomizes Reichardt’s tendency in First Cow, as well as in many of her other films, to let drama emerge steadily and organically. Keith Uhlich
A Girl Missing (Kôji Fukada)
Throughout his 2016 film Harmonium, Kôji Fukada favored ambiguous, emotionally charged tableaux over narrative mechanics, and he continues that emphasis in A Girl Missing to ambitious, evocative, and troubling effect. The film is a story driven by kidnapping that’s almost entirely disinterested in the motivations of the kidnapper and the pain of the victim and her family. Instead, the film is attached, to a consciously insular degree, to a nurse, Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui), whose life is ruined peripherally by the kidnapping due to one peculiarly bad choice on her part. As austere as Harmonium could be, the characters were in their way dynamic and made sense. With A Girl Missing, Fukada may believe that he’s transcended the melodramatic strictures of a regular crime film or of the kind of woman’s martyr vehicle in which Joan Crawford used to specialize. Instead, he’s fashioned an occasionally haunting art object with miserable stick figures. Chuck Bowen
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
More so than Goodfellas or Casino, Martin Scorsese’s two other told-in-retrospect gangster films, The Irishman—at least for the first two hours of its riveting three-and-a-half-hour runtime—feels composed of burnished, often blackly funny, fragments of erratic memory. The elderly, wheelchair-bound labor union official and mobster Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro) glosses over the truth even when he’s telling it, recalling the past, even at its most violent, with a propulsive, rosy cheer that plays at a cursory glance like Goodfellas-lite. Scorsese knows what his audience is hoping for: glory days, resurrected. But he also understands the impossibility of anyone being exactly as they once were. So he weaves that longing into both The Irishman’s text and its technique, presenting Sheeran’s youthful recollections—his rise in rank with Russell Bufalino’s (Joe Pesci) crew, his work with a beleaguered Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) during the era when Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston) worked hard to bring down organized crime—as augmented hoodlum reveries that will soon catch up with the character’s spiritually impoverished present. Uhlich
I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)
Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But… take a fairly simple premise and builds a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as it’s experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isn’t complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function. The film is at its in moments when Schanalec’s insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. It’s less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between the story of Hamlet and a troubled fortysomething mother’s (Maren Eggert) life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving a dog and a donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so it’s telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, But… configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut. Carson Lund
Liberté (Albert Serra)
As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra’s films don’t crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it’s the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra’s new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Liberté, doesn’t give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Liberté’s duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. But as the initially amicable split between a playwright, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of old magazine profile of the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to Ingmar Bergman that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come. But even at its most blistering, the film contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place. Cole
Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)
Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement. Marcello and Luca Marinelli, as the handsome, uneducated sailor of the film’s title, don’t make the difference between Martin at the beginning and Martin at the end distinct enough for viewers to really appreciate the character’s transmogrification. But as a piece of filmmaking that’s about the craft of filmmaking, Martin Eden, which was shot on 16mm, is occasionally brilliant. It’s an amalgamation of epochal aesthetics and formal styles, from drifty handheld shots and grainy close-ups of emotional faces that recall the French and Italian films of the late-‘60s, to static compositions and inky-black shadows that threaten to swallow Martin and the bourgeoisie. The color grading lends an ethereal air to the landscape shots (the ocean, blue and writhing, looks especially beautiful). Marcello splices in clips of silent films and footage of workers in Naples, which further emphasizes the timelessness of the film’s themes. Greg Cwik
The Moneychanger (Federico Veiroj)
Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger charts the prosperous, morally rotten career of Humberto Brause (Daniel Handler), a prominent money changer for all manner of ne’er-do-wells. Much is made of gestures like hand-tailoring suits to transport money, but the movement of cash—from client to Humberto to various far-flung locations around the globe—is by and large curtly presented. The film eventually verges on the farcical, with Humberto engaging in a Force Majeure-esque act of cowardice during a shooting while driving with his wife (Dolores Fonzi) in Argentina and a rushed scheme to steal from a dead man before he’s interred, among other indiscretions. While these scenarios are somewhat absurd and funny, they feel calculated in their attempts to stress just how pitiful Humberto has become that he has to turn to such pathetic ploys to stay afloat. It’s apparent that Veiroj disdains no one so much as Humberto, but the film makes little of the man’s undoubtedly twisted psyche. Throughout, The Moneychanger maintains a monolithic meanness, skirting even the smallest gesture of sympathy for Humberto and bulldozing him with further proofs of his depravity. Peter Goldberg
Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)
Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by Edward Norton’s decision to change the novel’s time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Norton’s popping of the novel’s anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the ‘50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genre’s best films. Throughout, Norton’s too-neat visual coverage is indicative of his film’s greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre. Cole
Oh Mercy! (Arnaud Desplechin)
Based on a 2008 documentary, Oh Mercy! follows a police precinct in Roubaix as it pursues various cases. Throughout, director Arnaud Desplechin is bracingly concerned less with any isolated crime or character than he is in conveying simultaneousness by seizing on stray details. There’s a sense here of the dwarfing mechanics of maintaining process amid chaos, which is rare for films and common of perfunctory crime novels. Before the authorities in Oh Mercy! can comprehend an act of arson, a serial rapist commits another assault in a subway. And before someone can make sense of that action, a girl runs away. Presiding over the madness is a police captain, Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), who’s a quiet and dignified model of patience and sobriety, who must navigate nesting strands of social tensions, on the personal as well as the political level. Oh Mercy! is a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin. By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismael’s Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Bowen
Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)
A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined Law of Desire and Bad Education. Still, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever. Mac
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
Parasite finds Bong Joon-ho scaling back the high-concept ambitions of Snowpiercer and Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people. Parasite is an excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture, mounted by Bong with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. The film is also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent. Mac
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a taxonomy of gazes that’s also a discourse on them. This sweeping portrayal of a romance doomed to brevity asks how to memorialize an image, but also how to keep it eternally alive. Sciamma isn’t out to question the gazes exchanged between Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), but to point out that one gaze is always met by another, and what’s most stirring about her film is the lack of artifice in Héloïse and Marianne’s feelings for one another. The film frustrates when it feels compelled to elucidate those struggles in words, or through a hokey flashback structure (that, it should be said, yields to an ecstatic final shot). Sciamma’s script has more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but it’s also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance that’s assuredly timeless. Where her prior films have excelled in situating their protagonists in complex, sometimes hostile societies, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away. Gray
Saturday Fiction (Lou Ye)
With Saturday Fiction, divisive Chinese director Lou Ye applies a distinctly modern film vernacular to an anachronistic period setting. As in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, the digital image, disjunctive editing, and a roving handheld camera serve to tether the filmmaking of the present to more remote events of the past, lending immediacy to the action. In Public Enemies, this served to frame what we’re watching as a construct of media—history bleeding into myth and articulated through a modern-day understanding of celebrity. But in this film, the artifice also exists to complement his World War II spy narrative’s preoccupation with different modes of performativity. And at the center of all this is screen legend Gong Li, who, in her first film role in three years, gradually undergoes a transformation from passive observer into gun-wielding firebrand, resulting in the most truly iconic performance that the actress has delivered in decades. Mac
Sibyl (Justine Triet)
Justine Triet uses the relationship between the creative process and the work of psychoanalysis, or its simplified cinematic version, as raw material for her latest dramedy. Sibyl follows the madcap efforts and subterfuges that the eponymous alcoholic therapist (Virginie Efira) deploys in order to finally write a novel. And the first step she takes is to get rid of most of her patients—most, not all, so that there’s always a lifeline connecting the new Sibyl to the old one. That is, so Sibyl never has to truly let go of anything at all. This tactic, beyond mere plot device, is the first crucial clue, or symptom, that Triet discloses about Sibyl as the filmmaker smartly humanizes the figure of the therapist as someone in desperate need of a therapist herself. The initial line in Sibyl’s (non-)emancipatory equation, to start anew by keeping her old life handy, is one of the film’s many instances of mirroring, as some viewers will easily recognize in Sibyl’s pursuits their own tendency to make half-decisions. Which is to say, the way we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’re pursuing something whereas we’re secretly pursuing something else—something less avowable. Semerene
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)
Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms doesn’t hew to a steadily progressing plot. The attraction Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) feel to Yoav (Tom Mercier), and the tensions that drove Yoav away from Israel, will come full circle, but only after the film takes a circuitous route through Yoav’s brief employment in security at the Israeli embassy; his friendship with a militant Zionist who tries to provoke fights he can claim as anti-Semitic attacks; and a required assimilation class he takes as he attempts to legitimately immigrate. A certain calculated inconsistency in style and pacing also makes the film feel elusive and estranging, but that’s most likely the point. Certainly one concern of Synonyms is the irrational sickness that’s nationalism: At times it appears that Israeli nationalism has driven Yoav mad, given him his detached affect and his habit of obsessively reciting synonyms in the street. Funny, frustrating, and stealthily sad, Synonyms is a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another. Pat Brown
To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest is a radical departure for the auteur, as it isn’t beholden to a taut narrative. Instead, it’s squarely focused on character—a strategy that results in his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrives in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and becomes increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior. Mac
The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)
Though Pierfrancesco Favino plays Sicilian mob boss turned informant Tommaso Buscetta with the stern poise of a criminal boss, the gangster easily, almost comically buckles under the slightest pressure from the state. But it’s in director Marco Bellocchio’s depiction of the “Maxi Trial” in a heavily fortified courtroom in Palermo that The Traitor completes its metamorphosis from a grisly, stone-faced drama about mob violence into an almost farcical satire of Italy’s justice system. Unfortunately, as is often the case with contemporary Italian genre pieces, the film is too brutish by half, as well as 40 minutes too long. The comic brio of Bellocchio’s staging of the “Maxi Trial” invigorates The Traitor, but he surprisingly wraps up that arc with close to an hour left in the film’s running time. The extended final act, which follows Tommaso and his family as they enter into American witness protection before ultimately returning to Italy for a series of follow-up trials, drifts along without clear purpose, unevenly oscillating between the comedic and the somber. Cole
Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda)
Agnès Varda’s final film is essentially a lecture, with the iconic filmmaker’s talks from multiple events threading together highlights from her oeuvre. Throughout, she shares the underlying inspiration for films like Cléo from 5 to 7 and details her creative process. While her other documentaries (among them The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, and Faces Places) have often explored the intersection between art and life, Varda by Agnès finds the filmmaker far less able to extend her gaze beyond her own work. She allows herself to go off on tangents, and, ironically, her ancillary thoughts feel a bit less navel-gazing than the film’s main thrust. For one, the story about directing Robert De Niro for one day for her final fiction film, One Hundred and One Nights, should seem an extraneous bit of boasting, but Varda’s bashfully excited tone makes it seem generous. And whenever she talks about her beloved husband, director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990, the film also approaches a kind of “sharing” not borrowed from her previous work. Brown
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects writer-director Pedro Costa wishes to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters. Yet the film is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The film’s oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalina’s personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Cole
The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Mercilessly efficient and righteously cynical, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers is nested with twists that place corrupt Bucharest policeman, corrupt Bucharest policeman, further and further from discovering who’s manipulating the byzantine plot he finds himself enmeshed within on La Gomera, the “pearl” of the Canary Islands. Cristi’s inability to make sense of his place in the very case he’s investigating is just one of the film’s cruel, quite funny jokes. Another is Silbo, a whistled register of the Spanish language that inspires the film’s title. Composed of a half dozen notes that each represent certain letters of the Spanish alphabet, the ancient language has been used by natives of La Gomera for generations. Throughout, Porumboiu largely handles The Whistlers’s persistent strain of artifice masterfully, hurtling his narrative ahead even as he’s jumbling timeframes and lingering in moments of ironic menace. Though the film is sometimes too liberal in its arsenal of references, Porumboiu executes his plot with a persistently low-key swagger, coaxing his actors into memorable but perfectly blank performances. Gray
The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)
Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake is a crackerjack genre exercise, but it’s up to a fair bit more than it might at first seem. Diao joins other contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Vivian Qu (Trap Street) and Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) in recognizing that genre movies offer a kind of smokescreen for a form of sociopolitical engagement that the Chinese censors likely wouldn’t otherwise approve. Which is to say, the heightened violence and ugliness of a crime film seems to allow for a kind of depiction of Chinese social life that wouldn’t be acceptable from a “realistic” drama. Diao takes this all a bit further, however, utilizing the sprawling geography of what’s essentially a chase film to deep-dive into the sordid underbelly of a Chinese society where lawlessness trumps order. The Wild Goose Lake’s masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them, seemingly no matter where they turn. Mac
Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
In many of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films, elliptical structures communicate the scattershot-ness of people’s lives, suggesting an endless string of calamity and confusion. But in Young Ahmed, the ellipses suggest an unwillingness to imagine an aspiring radical’s inner life. Initially, the Dardennes don’t exactly engender pity for Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), as that response would compromise their fetishizing of his impenetrability as a testament to their own humanist bona fides. They maintain a distance from the Belgian teen as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to a signifier of their virtue. Yet Ahmed’s seduction by a manipulative mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Mouman), is still fleetingly “explained” with references to family trauma that unsurprisingly suggest that Ahmed has daddy issues and is looking for a mentor. The Dardennes don’t dramatize these traumas, as such events might destabilize the plaintive quotidian mood they cultivate throughout and require them to stretch and challenge the strict boundaries they’ve applied to this subject matter. Bowen
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)
Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. Mac
Interview: Rob Zombie on 3 from Hell, Manson, and the Charisma of Evil
Zombie discusses how he corrals his films’ furious sense of energy and how sex appeal can trump common moral sense.
Musician Rob Zombie is also one of the most original and distinctive of modern horror directors, having fused the theatricality of his concerts and videos with the tropes of Southern-fried slasher films to arrive at an aesthetic that captures the narcotic pull of violence. His films, which include House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, The Lords of Salem, and the dramatically underrated Halloween II, often feature characters who are gutter poets and expert tenders to their own mythology in the tradition of Charles Manson.
Zombie’s villains also often suggest musicians themselves, as they’re elaborately outfitted and self-conscious of their murder sprees as a kind of performance art, which Zombie films up close with piercing intimacy, fetishizing power while also dramatizing the pain and humiliation of death in extremis. At their best, Zombie’s films are so unnerving because he plunges you unapologetically into their aggression and squalor, which he laces with shards of dark and even unexpectedly loony comedy. (In The Devil’s Rejects, a band of killers has an elaborate argument over whether or not to stop for ice cream.)
Zombie’s latest, 3 from Hell, continues the story of the filmmaker’s most famous characters, the Firefly clan of House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, played by Sid Haig, Bill Mosley, and Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Last seen going out in a blaze of glory, the Firefly Clan, newly revived and captured by the law, of course embarks on another bender of ultraviolence. Richard Brake, the MVP of Zombie’s 31, plays a new killer who joins the clan, which eventually winds up in a Mexican town that bears a resemblance to the climactic setting of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Speaking on the phone with Zombie last week, we discussed how he corrals his films’ furious sense of energy, his love of screwing with typecasting, and how sex appeal can trump common moral sense.
Your films have a volatile and intimate style, and I’m curious about how you achieve that tone. Is there a rehearsal process? Do your actors need to work themselves up?
Well, we do try to rehearse whenever possible. Rehearsal time seems to be harder and harder these days for films. Have you seen 3 from Hell?
Okay, one scene in particular was difficult: the one where everybody’s held captive in the house, and the warden comes back with Baby. That scene was very difficult because in one room we have, I don’t know, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight actors. First of all, it’s a nightmare to block, because you got people going every which way and in every which direction. And it was just falling flat. The actors kept rehearsing and rehearsing and we could just not energize it. It just kept feeling stagey, and we were all confused because everybody was doing it right. And it was like, “What is the element that’s missing? Why is this not igniting the way it should?” It was driving us all crazy.
Was there any decisive “wrong” thing or was it a matter of fine-tuning everything?
It just wasn’t kicking off on the right foot. And we changed it so that Baby comes through the door, she’s excited at what’s going on and it was just something about that moment. We made one little tweak to how someone was going to do a line of dialogue, and it’s amazing how it created this domino effect and sent this energy through the room, and the whole scene just became crazy. But it’s really frustrating sometimes when you’re trying to figure things out because we’re all working on such a time constraint. It’s not like, “Ah, we got together and rehearsed for 12 weeks.” That was the first time those eight people had ever been in a room together you know, and we’re trying to make this explosive, very complicated scene happen. You keep searching until you figure it out.
I remember watching that long making-of extra on The Devil’s Rejects DVD, and it seemed then like that tight schedule was a source of inspiration. Is that fair to say?
The tight schedule is a blessing and a curse. But I think the curse part would’ve happened no matter what. I’ve made movies with much longer schedules and there’s never enough time. I’m sure when they were shooting Jaws on day 500 they were like, “We need more time!” I don’t think it matters how much time you have, you still don’t have enough time because you always think you can make it better. On most movies, actors shoot something and then go back to their trailer, they play video games, they take a nap, they read a book, they chit chat, have a cigarette. Nobody leaves the set when I’m shooting, because we never have enough down time for them to go anywhere. And that way, they’re always there and in the moment. And that’s what you need: You need to yell “action” and they’re still there. Because it’s really hard when you start a scene, whether it’s a high-energy scene or a low-energy scene, and then people break it down for a half hour while they change the lights. Actors just lose the vibe, and then they come back in and are like, “Ah, man, where was I? What was happening?” And whenever you break for lunch, it’s like, “Ah, crap.” There’s that after lunch lull where everybody comes back full and you gotta ramp everybody’s energy up. So the short schedule works, because we never stop, we never stop, we never stop. And I think the actors like it better because they don’t want to sit by themselves all day in a trailer. They wanna act. It’s like a play.
In 3 from Hell, I like the energy of Baby’s prison scenes, and I love Dee Wallace. Her role is a great bit of anti-typecasting.
Well, I like anti-typecasting. We’ve worked with Dee several times, and Sheri had worked with Dee quite a bit on Lords of Salem. So, I like when I know that actors have a good working energy together, because sometimes they don’t and that can be problematic. When I first offered Dee the role, she didn’t say yes right away. She was like, “Oh God, this is so different, I gotta think about it.” And then the next day she said yes. Because, you know, she usually plays the nice mom or the nice whatever, I guess she’s been typecast since E.T. But, you know, now you can be the mean, shitty lesbian prison guard. You’re an actor, you got it. [laughs]
What makes Dee really pop in this role is that the niceness isn’t entirely gone. The character is chilling because she has a strange vulnerability.
There’s a weird dynamic we wanted to create, where she’s not just this prison guard from something like The Big Bird Cage. Dee’s character is in awe of Baby and in love with her but hates her guts at the same time. I always like creating these weird relationships between the characters. Baby’s in Dee’s head and she knows it. To diverge for a second, I remember seeing this footage of Charles Manson. He was coming in to sit down to be interviewed by Tom Snyder or whoever. In the outtakes before the interview started, Manson was standing there bullshitting with the film crew. It’s so weird. He’s like, “Hey, man, where you from? Oh shit, man, I’ve been there before.” The crew doesn’t think of Manson as a murderer, he’s like a rock star to them. There’s this weird fascination because he’s so fucking famous. It’s a sick thing.
Your films have an edge because they’re willing to tap that fascination. You’re willing to leave moralism behind and groove on the charisma of these evil people. You’re honest about the cultural attraction to killers. Do you think of it that way?
Yeah, I totally do. The reason I can get away with the Fireflies doing what they do in these movies, and people liking them, is because they’re cool and charismatic and sexy. That’s who people are drawn to. If they were like hideous to look at and disgusting, audiences would say they’re horrible. But this guy looks like he’s, you know, Gregg Allman, and this girl looks like she’s like Farrah Fawcett, these guys are awesome! People are into them.
You have a good point. People don’t quite worship David Berkowitz the way they do Charles Manson. One has the sex factor.
Yeah, there’s a cool factor. Manson does look like Dennis Wilson or John Lennon. Though when you research, when Manson and the family shaved their heads and put the swastikas on their foreheads, they lost the youth culture. Before, people were outside the courthouse in L.A., and they were interviewing people, and some of them were wearing “free Manson” shirts. The Family was on the cover of Rolling Stone and all the hippie rags. But the swastikas made people think, “Okay, he’s not the cool hippie dude we thought he was.” Would Jimi Hendrix have been who he was if he was a big fat bald guy? No, it’s because he was fucking cool. Would the Beatles have been the Beatles if they were all ugly, stupid-looking dudes? No, it’s because everyone thought they were good-looking. That goes so far in the world. More now than ever.
The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked
We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.
10. Stand by Me (1986)
Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
9. Creepshow (1982)
Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.
8. Silver Bullet (1985)
A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.
7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.
6. Misery (1990)
No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.
Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year
A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.
Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe’s most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as João Nicolau’s Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcé, Luís (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as he’s past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.
Luís, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.
Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive who’s frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bum’s dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year’s special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.
Runar Runarsson’s Echo isn’t exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child’s funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it’s delightful to behold Runarsson’s sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the country’s collective mental health.
Yet while the film’s underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of “Jingle Bells” amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that we’re looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids’ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.
However, it’s Echo’s sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland that’s equal parts bleak and beguiling.
A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.
Köhler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, it’s easy to share Urs’s disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy’s earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he’s the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.
While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Ade’s masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year’s nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.
The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.
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