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The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

As is often the case, life during wartime proved to be the impetus for some truly great pop culture, and from the fray emerges our first-ever official TV list.

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The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011
Photo: AMC

With plenty of bodies left in the muck, plenty of sides to be chosen, and a fair number of Tolstoyan moments of transcendence, 2011 produced a veritable Hieronymus Bosch-style panorama of violence, heroism, and disgrace during wartime. Breaking Bad’s Walter White (Bryan Cranston) took it to the mattresses with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in spectacular fashion on AMC; plenty of hacked-off limbs and nude torsos flew across the screen on HBO’s Game of Thrones; Boardwalk Empire ruminated on how anticlimactic it might be to forcibly conquer Atlantic City; and Showtime’s breakout hit, Homeland, vividly dramatized the networks of shadow and innuendo that animate the now decade-long War on Terror.

And fictional humans weren’t the only ones at odds this year. Two thousand and eleven should forever be remembered as the year of the “sexposition” wars over Game of Thrones’s tendency to set significant plot points in brothels. The barbed back and forth between Mary McNamara and Matt Zoller Seitz on this score was some of the best drama of the year, even if it wasn’t put on film. Not to mention the full-scale blitzkriegs waged by TV critics against Whitney Cummings and the creators of AMC’s disappointing The Killing.

Many of this year’s best shows conscientiously objected to the tide of destruction, instead reveling in studied pacifism or depicting the fumbling slapstick of the peace process. NBC’s Parks and Recreation, for instance, was canonized for the singular generosity with which it treats its characters—in sharp distinction to the veritable BDSM dungeon of snark on shows like 2 Broke Girls. And in the most conspicuous gesture of detente, even Louis C.K.—in an episode critics loved the way Natalie Portman loves the Shins—initiated a sit-down with longtime nemesis Dane Cook. As is often the case, life during wartime proved to be the impetus for some truly great pop culture, and from the fray emerges our first-ever official TV list. Phillip Maciak


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

25. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Leave it to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to wait nine episodes before unleashing the expected flashback installment that explains, as the episode’s title implies, “How Mac Got Fat.” After the season premiere, which used Mac’s (Rob McElhenney) newly obtained girth as the propulsion device for a secondary plotline, the show’s competent group of writers opted to take the gang, and their loyal viewership, on a customarily batty journey through such scenarios as a an ill-advised youth beauty pageant, the manic preparation for an apocalyptic storm, the establishment of an online presence for Paddy’s Pub, and, most memorably, a brilliant, headache-inducing (in a good way) lengthy set up to one of the show’s best closing punchlines ever. By the time we finally see Mac, sweat-drenched and chomping doughnuts in a church confessional, blaming his weight gain on the rest of the gang’s lofty ambitions to build perfect real-life avatars for themselves, it’s clear that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is such a strong series that it never really needs to rely on a season-long gimmick like the aberrant somatic ballooning of Mac. Mike LeChevallier


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

24. Modern Family

When the Pritchett/Dunphy clan goes on vacation, they don’t need to find an ancient tiki idol. They are the tiki idol, weathered week in and week out by the emotional waves of familial love and obligation. At worst, Modern Family is beholden to formula—which would be fine if it was always its own (see—or, rather, don’t see—the Three’s Company-grade “After the Fire,” a series low-point that rested on a cruel number of contrived misunderstandings). But at its best, as in the superb “Treehouse,” in which Cam pretends to be straight in order to win a bet against Mitchell and Jay refuses to salsa with Gloria, the show continues to humanely attest to the ritual—that perfect balance of work, compromise, and fun—necessary to keeping any family feeling alive. Ed Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

23. True Blood

Witches, for the win! Adding a splash of the dark arts to HBO’s overpopulated sex zoo of shapeshifters and bloodsuckers was the exact right move for the writers of True Blood. And casting the spectacular British actress Fiona Shaw sealed the deal. While the season featured plenty of tiresomely batshit subplots (can we please cool it on the were-panthers?) and then predictably descended into an ungodly mess at the end, that kind of dissolution is True Blood’s bread and butter. And the carnivalesque chaos brought about by the new coven in town made for some of the most fun and, especially in the subplot about Eric’s temporary amnesia, most poignant episodes in years. At its best, True Blood is such a good time that you don’t care how stupid it is. Maciak


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

22. How to Make It in America

When How to Make It in America debuted, the series had more similarities than differences with HBO’s other flagship bromance, Entourage (notably, one of the worst shows of 2011). But this year, How to Make It in America stepped confidently out of the Axe-body-spray cloud left by its predecessor and emerged as a compelling, if occasionally surface-oriented, depiction of youth culture and ambition in New York. Where Entourage’s Ed Hardy cinematic house style was perennially as stale as its Jane’s Addiction title credits, How to Make It in America managed to sustain an aesthetic that felt fresh week after week. Maciak


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

21. Futurama

Futurama began its sixth season with such ease, bewitched by stories of love, star-crossed and otherwise, that it seemed as if the show had never left us. But during the second half of the season, which began seven whole months after a clunky holiday spectacular, it settled into an ongoing study of matters of life and obsolescence. Once the series seemed permanently fated for oblivion, now the oblivion was its muse. It was in the Planet Express’s struggle to rebrand itself in the wake of bankruptcy as an airline, in Fry’s belief in the supremacy of human life, even in his almost existential need to hatch an egg. But it was the episode “Overclockwise” that yielded both the season’s greatest humdingers and most poignant storyline: Bender shunning his contract of ownership and transforming into an omnipotent being. Both the robot and Futurama seem to share the same state of unrest, best summarized by the introductory words to the show’s season finale: “A wise man once said that nothing really dies, it just comes back in a new form. Then he died.” Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

20. Curb Your Enthusiasm

In what was largely a consistently solid eighth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, “Palestinian Chicken” stands out as something of a bizarre, unexpected masterpiece, even by Larry David’s high mid-lifespan Seinfeld standards. The episode was a near-flawless mishmash of bleak political comedy and the trademark uncomfortable coincidental happenstances that ultimately leave a disheveled Larry in the most precarious of pickles. Here, his less-than-devout Judaism leaves him choosing between the best chicken dish he’s ever had and another round of verbally abusive intercourse with a tight-bodied Muslim woman, entrapped between arguing mobs of opposing sides in a seemingly never-ending religious, territorial war. The episode is so insightful, in fact, that it was recently sent by Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the hopes he and incumbent Palestinian government officials could sit back, relax, and share a laugh in the wake of a decidedly tumultuous year for the headbutting nations. How’s that for a social assassination? LeChevallier


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

19. Childrens Hospital

If ever given the chance to go hang out on a show’s set for just one day, I don’t think I would hesitate in choosing Adult Swim’s exuberant Childrens Hospital. In addition to the fact the series is a massive melting pot of almost every notable “indie” comedic talent working today, it simply looks like the construction of each scene is a regular cork-popping festivity (this season even featured a Party Down reunion of sorts). The series has come far from its web-based roots, capturing in only 11 minutes what other ensemble comedies fail to do in twice the time. The expertly delivered, wide-ranging jokes come in rapid-fire succession, and while it may appear as if much of it is improvised (sans the unusually well-choreographed musical numbers), Childrens Hospital devotees will realize that there’s a surprising amount of continuity and overarching material at play here that, when the moment is right, surfaces to reveal one of the smartest, most conscientious comedies on TV. LeChevallier


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

18. Community

Dearest NBC, I must declare that you ripped out a little piece of my soul when you announced you were placing Community on extended hiatus. Admittedly, the show’s third season started out on rocky ground, but the last few episodes have been a welcome return to exemplary form, even demonstrating a marked maturation for a show that was already relatively cultured to begin with. Jim Rash’s eye-opening turn as an insanity-stricken Dean Pelton in the Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse-inspired episode “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” will undoubtedly go down as one of the show’s best, further illustrating how characters who were once considered minor have evolved into well-rounded, surprisingly sincere examinations of the type of people we’d like to know. For a series that buries itself in pop-culture homages and dense meta-ness, Community’s lessons dealing with developing dependence and fortuitous friendship hold a tremendous amount of significance in the real world. LeChevallier


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

17. Up All Night

After well-publicized rewrites kept NBC’s Up All Night up in the air until the last minute, it seemed that the sitcom might end as just another sunken vehicle for stars Christina Applegate and Will Arnett. As if by force of will, however, the stars of the show, along with clutch reliever Maya Rudolph, have managed to rescue the show from the morass of incoherence and turn it into a surprisingly incisive comedy about growing up and growing old. The performances are spot-on, the jokes are great, if a bit understated, and the situation in this situation comedy actually feels credible. In a year when a large number of new sitcoms passed off hackneyed conventions as hip cultural satire, Up All Night rang surprisingly true. Maciak

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The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

16. Homeland

Much like the erratic jazz quasi-theme song that opens each episode, Showtime’s Homeland comes equipped with an arsenal of sudden tonal shifts, played out by its tremendous cast, that come barreling at the viewer like heat-seeking projectiles. Homeland does everything right that Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa’s previous project, 24, did wrong. Although the series does require a small dose of suspension of disbelief, Homeland’s acting and climax-escalating screenwriting is among the most praiseworthy things on television this side of Breaking Bad. Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin all deserve Emmy nods for their believable, courageous portrayals of Homeland’s equally headstrong central characters, who not only keep the viewer’s eyes glued to the screen as revelation after revelation transpires, but also elicit a firm emotional investment in their inner-turmoils. As Danes’s obsessive, workaholic Carrie Mathison continually strips herself of her personal humanity for the sake of her draining, addictive C.I.A. job, we see one of the finest scripted examples of the silent, mostly non-physical effects of post-9/11 terrorism on our soil. LeChevallier


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

15. Boardwalk Empire

It’s ironic that the continued backlash at Steve Buscemi’s “miscasting” as Nucky Thompson mirrors his character’s constant ducking and dodging at the hands of a city that, for the most part, wants him out of power. The mounds of money he once stuffed into the pockets of his so-called allies is no longer satisfying, and thus sets the stage for the devious plotting and backstabbing that highlights a much improved second season. In addition to the aforementioned thrilling bloodshed, Boardwalk Empire’s sophomore season has been able to successfully delve deeper into central characters who often felt shallow the first time around. Most notably, Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, who was never given enough reason to be the brooding, angst-ridden wounded ex-soldier that chased dreams of Atlantic City underground royalty in season one, has had a new light shined on him. If my mother had birthed me after being raped and told me it was okay to have sex with her, and years later forced me into putting a hit out on the man who raised me, and then barked at me to kill my biological father with a shocking “Finish it!,” I would be perpetually brooding and angst-ridden too. LeChevallier


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

14. Archer

Though it’s an animated series, Archer boasts an ensemble cast with more comedic chemistry at any given moment than the majority of more widely praised live-action shows on TV today. The dynamic, inside-joke-laden wordplay between its stellar group of voice actors, lead by H. Jon Benjamin (who had a marvelous year with this, Bob’s Burgers, and his own live-action show on Comedy Central) as the titular, ever-conceited spy, and his eccentric ISIS co-workers is nothing short of miraculous. I honestly want to know what kind of wackadoodle brainpower-enhancing drugs creator Adam Reed must be taking in order to write and direct every single episode of this constantly hilarious, mind-blowingly shrewd show that began as a lesser espionage spoof, but has grown into a masterful exhibition of outlandish office politics, scarred lineages, and the no-holds-barred prodding and dismantling of bulbous, simultaneously self-serving and self-destructive egos. LeChevallier


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

13. Treme

Like earlier David Simon triumphs, Treme presents a dense panorama of life—in this case the struggle of New Orleans to shake off the ghost of Hurricane Katrina. The way the show tries for observational nuance remains both its strong suit and its Achilles’ heel; though its plots frequently strand together in messily poetic ways, illuminating the painful sense of stasis its myriad characters feel, at times—as in Janette’s journey to and from N’awlins in search of a restaurant gig—they seem to exist only to flaunt just how “with it” Simon is with a region’s culture, from its food to its music. (Please, no more Anthony Bourdain.) Elitism aside, though, Treme remains a remarkable study of inheritance, recognizing that the secret of redemption, as in its strongest plot of the season (Sofia trying to keep her dead father’s firebrand spirit alive), lies in remembrance. Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

12. Bob’s Burgers

The comic realist surrealism of Loren Bouchard’s petulant Sunday-night cartoon makes it a kindred spirit of both Louie and Modern Family. Week to week, the homely Bob barely struggles to make something out of a burger joint with an even less convincing business model than the divey diner at the heart of the execrable 2 Broke Girls. Like Louis C.K., Bob’s financial failure is attributable to his moral fatigue, but also to something far more exasperating to anyone’s system than the consistency of fat in the patties he flips daily for what would seem to be only two or three patrons: raising the craziest kids on network television. Of course, the anarchy of Bob’s children is as much a cause for disappointment as it is for elation, and the beauty of this hilariously performed show derives from its acknowledgement that this family would have it no other way. Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

11. Downton Abbey

Julian Fellowes’s nearly perfect improvisation with the conventions of the upstairs/downstairs period picture hit the States this January to loud critical acclaim. From the arch dialogue, to the spectacular costumes and sets, to the exceptionally restrained performances (except, of course, Dame Maggie Smith’s gleefully unrestrained one), it’s easy to see why this particular U.K. export proved to be such a sensation in America. At once a triumph of televisual realism and a relentlessly compelling soap opera, the first season of Downton Abbey was one of the rarest things on TV: a genuine surprise. Maciak


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

10. Friday Night Lights

After five extraordinary seasons, Friday Night Lights ended—twice!—this year, and the final episodes were among the show’s strongest. The elements that worked the best, however, were paradoxically those that seemed the most doomed to fail. Accomplishing something like a television miracle, the final season of Friday Night Lights remained thoroughly satisfying even as it withheld a fan favorite (Taylor Kitsch’s brilliantly blank Tim Riggins), completed major ensemble replacement surgery by reorienting the East Dillon Lions around troubled quarterback Vince (Michael B. Jordan), and, in a gorgeous final episode, actually cut away from the dramatic final play of East Dillon’s state championship game. Friday Night Lights, after all, was never really about football. The show’s true concerns—obsession, class, family—were articulated beautifully as ever in the quiet, familiar relationships between a town and its team, and a coach and his wife. Maciak


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

9. The Walking Dead

Given all the hemming and hawing about The Walking Dead not moving fast enough, about there being more talk than zombies in any given episode, you’d think that the show’s harshest critics were all meth heads. Another criticism is that the show’s characters aren’t likeable enough, but the truth is that sometimes bad, even lame, people will survive an apocalypse, and when there’s no zombie immediately lunging for your neck meat, sometimes there’s nothing better—more essential—to talk about than whether it’s worth living in a world, or bringing life into it, when you’re always running for your life. The show, essentially a running commentary on faith, doesn’t lack for grotesque shows of bloodletting, but its heart lies in small, evocative, sometimes unexpected, always richly detailed moments—a woman breaking a chicken’s legs, zombies sitting in church pews—that profoundly attest to the nature of human nurture and our capacity for goodness not only in the face of incredible hardship, but also in death. Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

8. Portlandia

Who would’ve thought that Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen and riot grrrl emeritus Carrie Brownstein would be the comedy duo of the year? On their IFC sketch comedy show Portlandia, Armisen and Brownstein, like a gender-bending, indie-rock Martin and Lewis, built on their improbable chemistry to lovingly craft a broad, hilariously detailed ethnography of the hipper-than-thou residents of a—thinly—fictionalized Portland, OR. While occasionally relying on in-crowd winks and nudges, as well as a bevy of hipster-icon cameos, Portlandia transcended its alt-sketch comedy origins to offer a madcap portrait of a city as universally recognizable and maniacally detailed as David Simon’s Baltimore. Maciak


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

7. Bored to Death

Bored to Death, the HBO series that enabled the formation of the improbably winning ensemble of Jonathan Schwartzman, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifianakis, started its life as a witty satire of Brooklyn hipsterdom and sexual neurosis couched in the conventions of film noir. While that critique has survived (Danson’s George opens a locavorian restaurant this season while Schwartzman’s Jonathan launched a quest for his sperm-donor birth father), the kinetic energy of its leads has gradually transformed Bored to Death into a perfectly pitched, modern screwball comedy. Equal parts Freud and Sturges, the series found its style and Schwartzman, Danson, and Galifianakis established themselves as some of the most nuanced comic actors in the business. Maciak


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

6. Justified

I wondered how Justified could carry on with Raylan Givens’s (Timothy Olyphant) case-of-the-week situations while Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) wallowed in a tedious routine of working at the Black Pike coal mine and periodically wooing his dead brother’s ex-wife, Ava (Joelle Carter). It’s a testament to the show’s expert character-building that, soon enough, the apparently reformed Boyd began to become a downright magnetic screen presence in his efforts to stay on the right side of the law. Yet the forces of evil and their many accompanying temptations wouldn’t loosen their grip on Boyd, and the vicarious aftermath of his inevitable return to the dark side subsequently gives way to the season’s most prominent plotline: the rise and fall of the ruthless Bennett clan. Was there a better female antagonist on TV this year than Margo Martindale’s magnificently manipulative Mags Bennett? I’ll never process the phrase “apple pie” in quite the same way again. LeChevallier


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

5. Parks and Recreation

After the post-Carell creative collapse of The Office, the bizarre triumph of the mean-spirited sinkhole Whitney, and the recent benching of Community, there’s been very little reason to celebrate NBC’s Thursday night this year, save for the consistency, humanity, and optimism of Parks and Recreation. The adventures of America’s favorite bureaucracy in 2011 showed a creative team at the peak of its powers. Trading in tired Paul Schneider for the double threat of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott and drawing surprising pathos from the implosion of Tom Haverford’s (Aziz Ansari) preposterous media empire, the series accomplished the nearly impossible feat of expanding its emotional range while actually getting funnier. Maciak


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

4. Enlightened

HBO’s Enlightened is possibly the most infuriating half hour on television. The sheer heft of the awkwardness and social toxicity that the show records week in and week out as protagonist Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) attempts to reinvent herself after a nervous breakdown, make it almost unbearable to watch. However, anchored by the lyricism of co-creator and writer Mike White, the graceful hand of guest directors like Jonathan Demme, Nicole Holofcener, and Miguel Arteta, and Dern’s brilliant and explosive central performance, Enlightened has also become one of the most rewarding shows on television. An almost operatic meditation on depression and hope set on the pettiest scale possible, the series is the magnum opus of both its creator and star, and it’s more than worth the trouble. Maciak


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

3. Game of Thrones

Viewers can be forgiven if, after watching the first several episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones, they found it a snoozy, pretentiously dense, boob-obsessed, blithely racist, engorged money pit of a show. It was all of those things. But about midway through the season, slinkily escaping the heavy shadow of expectation from fans of George R. R. Martin’s book series, the series quickly began to assert itself as one of the most exciting, audacious, and visually stunning shows on the air. As the network of rivalries and passions whirled and expanded, the show embraced, not just the books’ encyclopedic scope, but the blurry line they teased between the natural and the supernatural. And the world that started out seeming glumly pedestrian despite its splendid production values began to seem bigger and richer than we could have imagined. Problematic, to be sure, but if Game of Thrones started out trying our patience, it ended by confounding our expectations. Maciak


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

2. Breaking Bad

There’s Breaking Bad, and then there’s the rest of television. Beginning with a close-up of a lime-green utility knife and concluding with a chilling tracking shot of a certain, now surely infamous potted plant, the show’s fourth season was all about the limitations of objectivity, both of its characters and its viewers. Series creator Vince Gilligan and his team strived to throw off the audience’s perceptions of what was coming and what was not by employing sly visual quirks (shots from the perspectives of objects, like a Roomba and a shovel, for example) in conjuncture with an effectively slow-burning, chess-like narrative that resulted in some seriously awe-inspiring payoffs. Gilligan admitted that much of season three was the result of his staff writing themselves into corners and coming up with makeshift escape routes on the spot, but season four was much more calculated, taking its time putting every minute detail in place before letting loose the calamities that surface in episodes like “Cornered” and the frantic, ripple-effect aftermath that follows. By the end of “Face Off,” Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has not just broken bad, he’s thoroughly ground up its shards and blown the dust into the New Mexico winds. LeChevallier


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2011

1. Louie

It’s no shock to say that Louie is the funniest show on television. But it’s also the most frank, the most confessional, a profoundly sad yet cathartic commentary on middle-class disenchantment, the cruelties of privilege, and the joys and perils of work, which for Louis C.K. means getting people to laugh at his everyman’s disaffection, fucking Joan Rivers, stomaching being in the same room as Dane Cook, and figuring out how to excite and educate his children when he’d rather be rubbing one off. In the show’s second season, this profane comic, whose uncomfortable truths about family are essentially in the same empowering vein as Adam Mansbach’s Go the Fuck to Sleep, walked through the landmines of family and actual war, from a trip to visit a dying aunt that begins as a lesson in history and ends as a hilarious confrontation with old-fashioned racism, to the mountains of Afghanistan, where Louie’s love for country is illuminated by his love for his daughters, and vice versa. The glory of this great existentialist comedy is that Louis C.K. struggles to see light through the tangle of contradictions that grips him daily, and live to make us laugh another day. Gonzalez

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on June 21, 2013.

Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown


Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez


Cars

20. Cars (2006)

Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund


The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen


Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund


Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson

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Interview: Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails on the Friendship Behind The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Fails and Talbot live and breathe their city, even as its dominant tech industry is wiping away its offbeat majesty.

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Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails
Photo: Adam Newport-Berra/A24

The surrealistic verve of The Last Black Man in San Francisco often makes the film feel as if it exists apart from time and reality. But perhaps no facet of Joe Talbot’s film cuts against the grain of the present political climate than the form of its nostalgia. In a time where politicians on the right are weaponizing a rose-colored view of America’s past in order to rouse action in support of a whiter, more homogenous country, Talbot and co-writer/star Jimmie Fails’s story pines for a truly diverse, pluralistic society in San Francisco.

Fails and Talbot, who sports a San Francisco Giants ballcap that’s been seemingly surgically attached to his head, live and breathe their city, even as its dominant tech industry is wiping away its offbeat charms and majesty. Fails’s painfully personal biography is the backbone of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and it connects to a larger history of San Francisco. Gentrification moves beyond serving as just an empty thematic buzzword and emerges as a process that takes tangible effects in its characters. As Fails, playing a version of himself, attempts to reclaim an old Victorian home built by his grandfather, he must directly confront the social and economic forces leading to his own obsolescence in the city that made him.

I chatted with Talbot and Fails about their creative partnership over coffee in New York—and, ironically enough, at a venue in a part of town that the Urban Displacement Project classifies as having fallen victim to “super gentrification.” Our conversation began with a discussion about their early work together in scrappy short films and closed with a talk about how they hope to encourage public dialogue about gentrification in the future.

Was the 2017 short film American Paradise your first collaboration together?

Joe Talbot: No, actually, we made movies together since high school. One of our first movies was called Last Stop Livermore.

Was American Paradise a proof of concept for The Last Black Man in San Francisco at all? Or just trying to level up a bit?

JT: We did a concept trailer for Last Black Man five years ago that was closer to proof of concept for this. It was essentially Jimmie skateboarding through the city. I’m hanging out of my little brother’s car filming it, very funky, and he’s skating and telling his story that inspired the film. That was the first thing we did. Jimmie’s wearing the beanie and red plaid shirt [an outfit he wears throughout the feature]. We put it online not expecting anything to happen. We’d never done anything big like this before. But we started getting emails from people who wanted to join and help us. They became a part of our film family, and as we developed Last Black Man over the next few years, basically learning how to write a script together, because we’d never done anything like that, and we had an opportunity to do a short film that eventually became American Paradise. In American Paradise, even though Jimmie’s character bookends it, it was a completely different story for us. It was a chance for us to come together and make something en route to making the feature.

So, like a ride with training wheels beforehand?

JT: A little bit, yeah! I had never been on a set. Part of it was that I knew I was gonna fuck up in some ways, so I wanted to lessen the chance of that.

You mentioned there being a long tracking shot in the trailer, and a lot of those shots made it into the feature. Is that something you always envisioned as a key part of telling Jimmie’s story?

JT: Yeah, I think the city lends itself to them in some ways. Obviously, it’s a beautiful city, a place you keep falling back in love with, but it’s a place we’re very critical of and have a lot of problems with. That’s part of the ambivalent relationship we have with the city.

Jimmie Fails: At the time that he did it, I thought it was very well put together. He edited and scored it himself. It makes sense why people reached out when they saw it. He did a good job.

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At what point did Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company, come on board to help fund the film?

JT: Much later.

JF: Took a while! [laughs]

JT: Me, Jimmie, Khaliah, and a group of other people who saw that concept trailer became our film family. We spent these years working on it together. Then, Plan B saw our work, read the script, and we spent a little more time further developing it with them. They came on to produce it and went to A24 to finance it.

Did that change the scope at all or what you thought would be possible?

JF: We had big dreams! We can shoot it on Technicolor, we can shoot it on film—it could have cost $100 million. But we’re first-time filmmakers, so what the fuck do we know?

JT: It was an ambitious movie. And even finally getting a budget, it still required us to call in favors left and right, and a lifetime’s worth of experiences in San Francisco. It still felt in a way like a bigger version of the movies we made as teens, just with more people and more cameras. Like outdoing the same thing you’ve done for a long time.

JF: Pretty much, just more professionally.

How did you all come to determine the visual or tonal language for the film? It seems like the story came first since it has such personal roots, but was the poetic and surreal nature of the project always evident?

JF: I think that just speaks to our imaginations as people. We always try to make the best stuff kind of dreamy. Ghost World was a big influence. I think that’s important to tell that personal story, and it came first. But especially me, because it’s so personal to me, I don’t want to shove a personal story down someone’s throat without making it more magical or poetic.

JT: When Jimmie first told me the stories about his life, he always did it in that way. It always felt like he had some unique outsider’s context in the way he told it. I think he’s just naturally a really good storyteller. It was as much about the stories as the way he told them. And then, on top of that, he could take something that was true and then we could imagine. Mike Epps’s character was based on someone in Jimmie’s life, but it was funny to imagine someone who drove off with your car and coming back to pick Jimmie up. It was funny to think about Mike Epps driving around and not acknowledging that. That’s fucking funny, and Mike Epps is hilarious! A lot of it was starting with something real and then going off into our imaginations as to what we thought would be fun to watch.

I know that this project is an intense collaboration between the two of you, but Joe, as a white man conveying a very black story and history, was your job just to learn as much as you could from Jimmie and the community to be a faithful steward?

JF: I’m just gonna chime in. That’s the problem with change in San Francisco. We grew up in the same neighborhood, so we were around a lot of the same people. It was very diverse. There [were] white, black, Latino kids. Obviously, our experiences are different: His parents are white, and my family is black. He was around. It wasn’t like he had to come in and study the black community. He was already there. A lot of his friends were black. We all knew about everyone’s culture growing up in San Francisco, but not so much anymore because it’s changed so much. He’s also very well educated on San Francisco. His dad wrote a book called Season of the Witch that tells a lot of the black history that is important and central to San Francisco. He’s telling his friend’s story, and he’s black. I totally get the question, but we’ve known each other for so long that I can’t imagine anyone else telling the story.

JT: Yeah, I think that this story for us, everything we’ve made has come out of our conversations. This felt like an extension of that. That’s part of how this naturally unfolded. Had I come into a different situation, I might not be the right person to make that film. I think there are other films in San Francisco from other people in other experiences, and I’m certainly not the person to make [them] despite being a lifelong San Franciscan. Even then, it starts with us, but it’s also about the other people who are involved in the project. One of the first people to become involved, Khaliah Neal, is an East Oakland native who cut her teeth in New York producing. This was her first big leap into independent filmmaking as a lead producer, and she became our producing partner like Jimmie was my creative partner. I think that collaboration was really important because I’m a white guy, and even though we had grown up together, as many voices in the room helps in getting to a deeper truth. That way it’s not all on Jimmie, it’s on us as a group. And not even just in terms of race, some of our closest collaborators aren’t from San Francisco at all, so they don’t know the nuances of the shit we saw growing up. They don’t know what a candy house is necessarily. We see San Francisco in one way, with a very specific kind of love, but bringing in people who don’t know as much about San Francisco is important in telling a story that is going to exist outside it.

I was really struck by the “this guy fucks” moment, a reference to Silicon Valley, when Jimmie’s character sits next to a naked guy on a bench and watches a trolley full of tech bros chant the quote from the show. What inspired this scene and led you to put it in the movie?

JF: It’s supposed to speak to me coming from my dad’s house, which is a rough moment. He doesn’t respond how I wanted when I break the news that I’m back in the house. I think it’s representative of old San Francisco and new San Francisco meeting. Obviously, I’m unfazed by the naked guy because I see that all the time. I relate to him more than all the “this guy fucks” cable car. Visually, it’s old meets new. They’re listening to a newer version of “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane. They’re on a cable car on wheels, which is a contradiction. It just goes to show that the people in San Francisco don’t pass judgement, really. You meet so many different people.

Is this a nostalgic film?

JF: Yeah. We’re nostalgic people. [laughs] That would have come through either way because we just go through life that way. I’m pretty sure any film he makes would be a little nostalgic.

What role should looking back at the city’s history play as it looks forward to the future?

JF: All I want is for friendships like ours to be able to exist, and that doesn’t exist in the new San Francisco. That’s really what it’s about, getting back to that point where artists and outsiders can live there. Where weirdos who didn’t feel accepted could come because that’s what it used to be about. That’s the best San Francisco in my eyes.

Now that this project has made you all cult heroes in the city, how do you view your role in the ongoing conversation about the future of San Francisco? Activists? Storytellers? Artists? Something else entirely?

JF: I think a little bit of all of that. I think you definitely want to speak out if you can and let the voice be heard. But we’re artists first and foremost. Let our art create that conversation where there can be activism. Start the dialogue. I’m going to be in contact with Danny [Glover, who co-stars in the film].

JT: Danny is a hero to us in San Francisco, because not only is he an actor who’s been in important work, but he was an activist in the city before that. We grew up on the stories of his activism. Those two things feel like San Francisco the best: art and politics. With someone like him, you look up to him and hope you can carry on, in some very small way, the tradition that he set forward.

There’s been quite a Bay Area Renaissance recently: Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, now The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Do either of you have theories about why this is all coming to pass now?

JF: Well, those are both Oakland movies. It’s about the same sort of thing, but they’re both Oakland, which is extremely different even though it’s across the water. Hopefully somebody else makes something else so we can have two.

JT: And Fruitvale Station. It’s always Oakland!

JF: Then they got Kicks too.

JT: Kicks and Licks. It speaks to how Oakland is a place that’s always birthed incredible talent. Boots Riley, long before that, recorded music in the Bay. Oakland has a really incredible history artistically. For us, it’s really cool to see that happen across the water, but like Jimmie said, San Francisco has a different history and a different relationship to gentrification as it exists now. We feel it in different ways than they do in Oakland. I think this movie is us trying to wrestle with our own situation.

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Docaviv 2019: Comrade Dov, A Whore Like Me, & The Times of Bill Cunningham

Docaviv continues to thrive in increasingly challenging circumstances.

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The Times of Bill Cunningham
Photo: Harold Chapman

Docaviv, Tel Aviv’s biggest film festival and Israel’s most high-profile celebration of documentary cinema, continues to thrive in increasingly challenging circumstances. The festival is partially reliant on government funding, but since her appointment as minister of culture in 2015, conservative politician Miri Regev has done her best to create a nerve-racking environment for Israel’s artists, threatening to withdraw financial support for any cultural enterprise deemed to undermine Israel’s image or criticize government policy.

Yet these threats have largely proven empty, and after spending a week at the recent Docaviv, I was left with a strong sense of Tel Aviv’s film community rallying together to resist censorship and preserve their freedom of speech, albeit in a tactful manner. The festival sustains a tone of political neutrality in its presentation of films, but a striking number of titles in this year’s selection, both from Israel and abroad, centered around tenacious underdogs speaking truth to power, questioning the status quo and remaining optimistic in the face of adversity.

Freedom of artistic expression in Israel is directly addressed in Comrade Dov, Barak Heymann’s affectionate portrait of left-wing Jewish politician and activist Dov Khenin, who represented the Arab-dominated Joint List party at the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, for 12 years before retiring in April 2019. During one of the documentary’s numerous heated parliamentary exchanges, Khenin eloquently voices his outrage at a proposal by fellow member Alex Miller that funding for the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (Docaviv’s primary venue) should be cut in response to a festival commemorating the 1948 Palestinian exodus. The sequence illustrates both Khenin’s innate skill as a negotiator and his effectiveness as a stone in the Knesset’s shoe: He persuasively counters extreme-right rhetoric with an impassioned leftist stance, and deftly steers conversation towards a middle ground.

Heymann is plainly enamored with his subject, and strikes a playful, upbeat tone in the establishing scenes. As we observe Khenin silently moving around his spartan apartment, the filmmaker wryly explains, in voiceover, that “this is the first and only time I filmed him at home. I was so excited that I forgot to turn on the sound.” Shortly thereafter, Heymann remarks that “all of the activists I know are depressed. But Dov always seems to be optimistic, which is why I love being with him.” Indeed, Dov is an instantly appealing protagonist, equal parts scrappy boyish charm, intellectual rigor, and emotional honesty.

But despite Dov’s enviable personal attributes, and his impeccable track record of fighting for social justice, Heymann takes care to ensure that the film doesn’t become too blandly hagiographic. In a particularly poignant sequence, Israeli Arab activist Hana Amoury explains, calmly and respectfully, that while Dov clearly wants to improve the lives of his Palestinian constituents, his desire to simultaneously be part of the Israeli establishment ultimately makes him an ineffective ally. And several of the battles we witness Dov wage over the course of the film, including one on behalf of mistreated factory workers, end in decisive failure.

Sharon Yaish and Yael Shachar’s A Whore Like Me, another Israel-set account of a David-versus-Goliath battle, benefits from an instantly gripping, thriller-like premise. At 22 years of age, Chile was abducted in her native Hungary and sold to Israeli sex traffickers, leaving behind a young daughter. She ultimately escaped her captors, but subsequently lived on the streets for years before conquering drug addiction. Now, 20 years on from her kidnapping, her only hope for successfully appealing against the Israeli Ministry of Interior’s decision to deny her residence is to procure concrete proof of her ordeal. Thus, she hires a private detective and embarks on a quest that forces her to relive past traumas.

The film clocks in at just 60 minutes, but it offers an impressively rich portrait of a woman who’s been failed by society at every turn. The filmmakers keep the exposition succinct, focusing on the emotional cost of Chile’s decades-long ordeal. She has, by all accounts, made a remarkable recovery: When we meet her, she’s 10 years sober, and volunteering at a sexual health clinic helping other vulnerable women. Yet the odds remain depressingly stacked against her. Without permission to work in Israel, she finds herself lapsing back into prostitution to stay on top of legal costs. And in the film’s most uncomfortable scene, we’re introduced to an older man, presumably a former client, who takes complete credit for her rehabilitation and demeaningly refers to her as his pet, while she sits awkwardly by his side.

However, as the investigation into the whereabouts of her captors begins to yield promising results, Chile becomes increasingly emboldened, and uses the filmmaking process as an opportunity to reckon with the ways in which sex work has shaped her identity and sense of self-worth. At one point she begins filming encounters with clients, as if to assert authorship of her narrative. While Chile’s future hangs in the balance at the end of A Whore Like Me, one is left with a powerful sense that Yaish and Shachar have at least armed their protagonist with the tools she needs to build a better life for herself.

As if to offer respite from appalling social injustice and hot-button political issues, Docaviv lightened the tone of this year’s international selection with a host of art, fashion, and music docs. But even among these glossier picks, tales of underdogs and marginalized communities took center stage. Mark Bozek’s The Times of Bill Cunningham, a worthy companion piece to Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham, New York, is structured around a previously unseen interview with the late fashion photographer, conducted by Bozek in 1994. It’s a pleasure to hear Cunningham describe in his own words his rise from impoverished milliner to the toast of Manhattan high society; he’s an irresistible screen presence, with a wide-eyed enthusiasm for his industry, a childlike demeanor, and an occasionally eccentric turn of phrase.

Moreover, when detailing Cunningham’s work as a discreet queer activist, the film packs an emotional punch. Though by all accounts he lived a monastic existence, he clearly felt a deep personal kinship with New York’s LGBTQ+ communities, and took advantage of editorial freedom at the New York Times to celebrate them throughout the dark days of the AIDS crisis. At one point in the film, his chirpy demeanor cracks and he begins silently weeping for the friends he lost to the disease. And yet the film is ultimately celebratory, paying tribute to a headstrong individual who resolutely refused to obey his family’s orders to pursue a more “manly” career, and who pursued his passions entirely on his own terms.

The Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival ran from May 23—June 1.

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The 100 Best LGBTQ Movies of All Time

Cinema isn’t the sole mechanism for making our presence known, but it can be among the most powerful.

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The 100 Best LGBTQ Movies of All Time
Photo: Kino International

Three years ago this month, in the aftermath of the attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, one call to action rose above the din: “Say their names.” New Yorkers chanted it steps from the Stonewall Inn. The mother of a child gunned down at Sandy Hook penned it in an open letter. The Orlando Sentinel printed the names. Anderson Cooper recited them. A gunman murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others in the wee hours of that awful Sunday, massacring LGBTQ people of color and their allies in the middle of Pride Month, and the commemoration of the dead demanded knowing who they were. “These,” as MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell urged his viewers, “are the names to remember.”

The titles on our list of the best LGBTQ movies of all time are a globe-spanning, multigenerational testament to our existence in a world where our erasure is no abstraction. From Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael to Todd Haynes’s Carol, naming and seeing emerge, intertwined, as radical acts—acts of becoming (Sally Potter’s Orlando) and acts of being (Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason), acts of speech (Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied) and acts of show (Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning) that together reaffirm the revolutionary potential of the seventh art. “My name is Harvey Milk,” the San Francisco supervisor, memorialized in Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk, proclaimed in 1978, less than one year before his assassination. “And I’m here to recruit you!”

The cinema isn’t the sole mechanism for making our presence known, but it can, if the films listed below are any indication, be among the most powerful, projecting the complexities of the LGBTQ experience onto the culture’s largest, brightest mirror. There’s rage here, and also love; isolation, and communal spirit; fear, and the forthright resistance to it. These films are essential because we are essential: The work of ensuring that we aren’t erased or forgotten continues apace, and the struggle stretches into a horizon that no screen, no matter its size, can quite capture. But this is surely a place to start. Matt Brennan


Michael

Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924)

Many critics have chosen to downplay the film’s gay subtext, but to do so would deny the power of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s fastidious attention to the polarity of love’s vicissitudes. If stripped of the notion that the artist Zoret’s (Benjamin Christensen) attraction toward his titular muse (Walter Slezak), whose alleged bisexuality is clearly of a solely opportunistic strain, is physical as well as social, Michael essentially becomes an embittered (and fairly rote, despite the astonishingly suffocating mise-en-scène) tale of two cuckolds. Eric Henderson


The Blood of a Poet

The Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau, 1932)

Enrique Rivero’s shirtless torso remains the most enduring emblem of Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, whether the actor is clutching his bare chest after witnessing his palm sprout a pair of lips or peering through keyholes while drifting through a gravity-free hallway. But this surrealist masterpiece isn’t merely about flesh; rather, the body becomes an entry point to memory and art, where hands and mouths breed images to defy the mind. Decades of close readings, whether along psychological or self-reflexive lines, have been unable to diminish or demystify the film’s effervescent sensuality. Clayton Dillard


Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Much of Beauty and the Beast’s deep magic comes from Jean Cocteau’s sense of himself as a vulnerable beast in love: In his mid-50s when he made the film, Cocteau was openly gay in an often viciously homophobic post-Vichy France, an opium addict, plagued by skin-disfiguring eczema, and yet still enamored of his much younger star, the Adonis-like Jean Marais, his sometime-lover and great friend and collaborator. In Marais’s triple role—as the monstrous yet tender-hearted Beast; Avenant, the hunky but caddish suitor of Josette Day’s La Belle; and the ensorcelled Prince Ardent, whom the Beast is ultimately revealed, with some ambivalence, to be—the actor lends virtuosic as well as symbolic appeal to Cocteau’s cinematic inquiry into the complex interplay of identification and desire. Max Cavitch


Fireworks

Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)

Fireworks inaugurates not merely Kenneth Anger’s own private mythology, but also the subversive expression of gay sensuality in American film, a torch carried into the early days of the New Queer Cinema. A veritable dictionary of homoerotic iconography, it is also, literally, a home movie shot while Anger’s parents were away for the weekend, and a transfixing view of the violence and seditious rapture of being “different” in the 1940s. Fernando F. Croce


Un Chant d’Amour

Un Chant d’Amour (Jean Genet, 1950)

Jean Genet’s overpowering 1950 short, Un Chant d’Amour, is a milestone not just of gay rebellion, but also of pure sensual expression in film, a polemical vision of desire forged with the provocateur’s randy ardor and the artist’s spiritual directness. Having never made a film before or after, Genet nevertheless had an in-the-bone awareness of the medium as a procession of raptures—visual, cosmic, sensual—that could match and expand the passion of words on a page. Croce


Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)

Alfred Hitchcock knew what he was doing casting the plush-lipped Farley Granger as the straight man in his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s cruise-baiting thriller Strangers on a Train. Robert Walker’s flamboyant Bruno Anthony gets all the ink, but it’s Granger’s poker-faced, blank-slate attractiveness as Guy that captures the illicit thrill of the chase. And the consequence. Once Bruno has availed Guy of his inconvenient woman and Guy refuses to return the favor, Bruno sets out to integrate himself into Guy’s social circle and carry with him the threat of exposure and public shame. Their erotic one-upmanship reaches its breaking point in one of Hitchcock’s gaudiest set pieces, a runaway-carousel climax depicting their rough trade of blows amid contorted petrified horses whose pinions look like they’re pornographically violating their sockets. Henderson


Rebel Without a Cause

Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)

The most complicated aspect of Rebel Without a Cause, and the thing that makes it seem daring even today, is its depiction of sexuality. Nicholas Ray brings Natalie Wood’s beauty into full flowering and gets a simple, touching performance from her. And with Sal Mineo, he craftily put together a portrait of a tormented gay teenager. Stewart Stern’s script tells us that Plato is searching for a father figure in Jim (and Plato’s famed locker photo of Alan Ladd shows that he wants a Shane-type father, not a lover), but the way Mineo looks at James Dean leaves no modern audience in doubt as to what his real feelings are. Dan Callahan


Some Like It Hot

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Punchline or not, “nobody’s perfect” may as well have been the “born this way” of the Eisenhower era. Billy Wilder’s cross-dressing parfait now feels like both a relic and also a carefree throwback to an era that, for all its copious and vindictive shortcomings, was more than a tad less solemn about identity politics and popular representation. Regardless of whether you believe the “humor” behind Daphne and Josephine’s deliberately crunchy drag feeds into the same mentality that gives a shit about which bathroom someone takes a piss in, it’s impossible to miss that Wilder’s true satiric target is the pathetic fragility of machismo. In that sense, few other contemporary drag movies can claim to be so modern as Some Like It Hot. Henderson


Victim

Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961)

There’s a striking sense of fatalism that infuses Basil Dearden’s masterful Victim, a scathing examination of England’s rampant homophobia and problematic social codes. Dick Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a closeted lawyer victimized by an elaborate blackmail scheme targeting high-profile gay men. Constructed like a detective film, Victim follows Farr’s investigation into the various catacombs of the London elite, where far-reaching compromise and repression construct a pressure cooker of emotional fear. Since homosexuality is illegal in England at the time, Farr’s stake in the vexing search for the truth is both personal and professional. A duo of cops also provides an interesting dual perspective on the laws against homosexuality, with the elder being sympathetic and pragmatic and the younger entrenched in the more conservative majority opinion. Mostly, Victim is fascinating for its consistent attention to the complex emotions of its gay characters, men who often show an unwavering honesty in respect to their sexuality. “I can’t help the way I am, but the law says nature played me a dirty trick,” one particularly conflicted character says, and this type of substantive dialogue reveals Dearden as a surveyor of progressive ideologies way ahead of the norm. Heath

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Flaming Creatures

Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963)

Flaming Creatures was Jack Smith’s first finished film. Well, in truth, it’s his only finished film, since it ricocheted out of his hands when a trend of underground film raids made his opus a trophy for either side of a decency debate. Seized at the same time as Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, it made it all the way to the Supreme Court, who could detect little value in its over-exposed rumpus of genitalia, transvestitism, baroque orgies, and dance dervishry. Meanwhile, Susan Sontag and Jonas Mekas heralded the film as high art, hijacking (so Jack saw it) his vehicle to bolster their tastemaker status. Bradford Nordeen

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All 12 X-Men Movies, Ranked

On the occasion of the release of Dark Phoenix, we ranked the 12 films in the X-Men series from worst to best.

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Dark Phoenix
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Ostensibly an attempt to atone for the flaws of the much-reviled X-Men: The Last Stand, which was loosely based on “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” Simon Kinberg returns to the well with Dark Phoenix, a more direct adaptation that essentially repeats the 2006 film’s offenses, only this time with a different cast. Kinberg’s film, set a decade after the events depicted in X-Men: Apocalypse, is a stultifying affair that strips Chris Claremont’s classic story down to its basic narrative beats at the expense of the deep character relationships that give the extended X-Men storyline its emotional resonance. On the occasion of the film’s release, we ranked the 12 films in the X-Men series from worst to best. Jake Cole

X-Men: The Last Stand

12. X-Men: The Last Stand (Brett Ratner, 2006)

Throughout Brett Ranter’s X-Men: The Last Stand, issues of inclusion, intolerance, self-acceptance, and self-actualization are superficially trotted out to eat up time between the flashy, frantic set pieces and countless Marvel aficionados-directed references. The film eventually proves far more concerned with CG extravagance and big melodramatic moments full of grave soundbite-ready pronouncements than affecting relationships, thrilling conflict resolution, or a sense that the hectic proceedings are of any great consequence. Even if his animalistic Wolverine is reduced to a handful of tame one-liners, studly poses, and swift slayings, Hugh Jackman proves far more capable of transcending his goofy hairstyle than Halle Berry, unwisely given more to do this time around as dull weather woman Storm. Yet The Last Stand is ultimately a dreary species of empty pomp and circumstance, far too similar to many of its summer-movie brethren—and disappointingly dissimilar from its superior predecessors—in that, in its single-minded preference for spectacle over substance, it seems to have been put together primarily with its theatrical trailer in mind. Nick Schager

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

11. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, 2009)

Fox may have been robbed of box-office booty when a leaked workprint of X-Men Origins: Wolverine landed online a month before its release, but the real victim of theft in this ordeal seems to have been the adamantium-clawed Canuck himself. Purists will surely bristle at the alterations made by Gavin Hood’s prequel to the origin story of feral Canadian mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman). Yet far more troubling than the specifics surrounding his transformation into the nearly indestructible Wolverine is the film’s fundamentally wishy-washy characterization of its protagonist, whose inherent animalism is oft-mentioned but never witnessed. In an attempt to pay lip service to his inner struggle with unseemly bestial instincts while simultaneously maintaining his unquestionable heroism, Wolverine turns its future X-Man into a blandly brooding bore too grumpy to be a prototypical do-gooder yet too noble to be a cold-blooded antihero. Schager

Dark Phoenix

10. Dark Phoenix (Simon Kinberg, 2019)

The mounting stress of Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) powers and suppressed trauma explodes in bursts of violence that have global, if not cosmic, implications of chaos, yet Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix remains inanely fixated on the immediacy of Jean’s impact on her friends. In the comics, an unfathomably powered Jean literally consumes the energy of a star, killing billions in an entire solar system. Here, her uncontrolled powers result in the death of a comrade—an emotional loss, sure, but not one with the genocidal stakes that prompted retaliatory action in the original story. “The Dark Phoenix Saga” saga boldly asked if a group of unambiguous heroes to weigh the desire to save a beloved a friend not in her right mind against the moral imperative to protect the countless lives she could, and did, terminate. Here, those who hunt Jean want nothing more than revenge, which divorces the film further from its source than even X-Men: The Last Stand. Cole

X-Men: First Class

9. X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011)

Despite his apparent comfort with F/X-heavy projects, the obligations of duty to the brand are too much for Matthew Vaughn’s strange, singular voice, which rarely has the chance to shape the film unmolested by a curiously bland script, a dominant sense of too-much-ness, and the simple fact that such super-productions as these, with too much merchandising and cross-pollination at stake, are downright hostile to the director’s impulse to use more than a fraction of the potential of a large, diverse cast. The film is ultimately undone by that old paradox of Hollywood movie production: If you’re given an enormous budget, you have to spend every penny—a little like telling a chef he needs to use all of the spices in his cabinet, for a sauce that would be much improved by discipline and moderation. Historically, this results in modestly pleasurable films that run 20 minutes to an hour too long, distended by innumerable instances where the director is under orders to capture on film the exchange of cash for a thing of equal value (here, it’s a fleet of Soviet and U.S. battleships, a dozen massive sets, and January Jones’s eyesore of a mutation), and the fact that it’s 99% digital changes nothing about the way the slightest hint of specialness in X-Men: First Class is smothered in numbing exhibits of conspicuous consumption. Jaime N. Christley

X-Men: Apocalypse

8. X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer, 2016)

The main problem with X-Men Apocalypse isn’t, as it turns out, that the franchise left itself with too little to work with after the tidy ending of X-Men: Days of Future Past, but that Bryan Singer suggests so many possible directions to go in and still chooses the least interesting one. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) and his end-times aspirations drive the film in the direction of a disaster movie; large portions of the last act are devoted to terraforming Cairo, where the genocidal warlord plans to start his “new world.” Which is to say that instead of changing the narrative of the superhero film, as Singer’s already done for the narrative of the franchise he returned to, the filmmaker yields to its most generic, commercially viable plot progression. The final battle sequence is a twentysomething-on-one battle royale that shows just how much the film has come down from its promising start. Instead of emphasizing the dynamics of the filmmaking, or the 3D image, Singer sets up wide shots of each X-Man, in fighting stance, launching their respective assaults. All the thematic interest and character dimension that’s defined the best of this series falls away for a conventional action display. Somewhere in there, you’ll swear you hear, “Avengers, assemble.” Sam C. Mac

The Wolverine

7. The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013)

James Mangold’s The Wolverine suffers most from its plot’s eventual lack of risk, as the film proceeds to include a contrived romance, a pile-up of double-crosses, a lengthy villain’s manifesto, martyrdom, and fisticuffs with an end-level monster—because, well, that’s what happens in the finales of Hollywood flicks these days. Luckily, the film establishes an initial brute strength and uniqueness that work wonders to sustain its merit. Whereas Gavin Hood’s horrid X-Men Origins: Wolverine included foes like Sabretooth, The Wolverine almost entirely isolates its star from his popular cohorts and surroundings, and the benefits are immediately palpable. The first act is a largely muted character study, and when events shift over to Japan, which is presented with a refreshing lack of cultural condescension, there’s an invaluable appeal to the exotic locale—a colorful, history-laden, and architecturally varied realm that, for Wolverine, feels both new and natural. Mangold knows just when to ditch the dolly, when to have slain thugs fall into the camera, and when to fluidly follow a fighter as he (or she) leaps across buildings and vehicles (one sequence on the roof of a speeding train is at once ridiculous and spectacular). If The Wolverine may be remembered as the best superhero movie of its year, that’s because, for a sufficient amount of time, it doesn’t feel like a superhero movie at all. R. Kurt Osenlund

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

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

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Cannes Film Festival Ranked
Photo: Neon
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, especially in recent years, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). From time to time, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Terrence Malick’s The Three of Life), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the majority of the members on the Cannes jury can agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And if you ask those who were lucky enough to see Parasite at this year’s festival, most will tell you the film checks off more boxes then almost any other winner in recent years. Check out our ranking of all the Palme d’Or winners since 2000 to see where Bong Joon-ho’s latest lands. Sam C. Mac


The Son’s Room

20. The Son’s Room (2001)

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


Fahrenheit 911

19. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)

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


Amour

18. Amour (2012)

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


I, Daniel Blake

17. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

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


The Class

16. The Class (2008)

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

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Cannes Film Festival 2019: Oh Mercy!, Les Misérables, Young Ahmed, & Atlantics

Many of the selections at this year’s festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements.

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Oh Mercy!
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Surprisingly, many of the selections at this year’s Cannes Film Festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements. By and large, audiences recognized the influence of genre on these works in the moment, as in a UFO randomly popping into frame during Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, or the eyes of a group of women rolling back in their heads during Mati Diop’s Atlantics.

Sometimes, though, a film turned out to be exactly as advertised, and that’s for the worse in the case of Oh Mercy!, Arnaud Desplechin’s follow-up to his prismatic, semi-autobiographical Ismael’s Ghosts. Set in the director’s hometown of Roubaix, this modest film about the work of maintaining order in a community stars Days of Glory actor Roschdy Zem as a level-headed police chief in charge of overseeing a number of investigations. Captain Daoud largely farms out his duties to a phalanx of hot-headed underlings, but he takes a determined interest in one case involving the murder of an old woman, possibly at the hands of her two neighbors, Claude (Léa Seydoux) and her girlfriend, Marie (Sara Forestier).

This case paves the way for the film’s most impressive sequence: two parallel interrogations depicting the methods used to meticulously weaken Claude and Marie’s resistance to being interrogated and draw out the truth. Otherwise, there isn’t much depth to this scenario to capture the viewer’s attention. At the margins of the plot, Desplechin’s attentiveness to local color is noticeable, which at least imparts a sense that he knows this community quite well and understands how social dynamics play out within it. But it isn’t too long into its running time that Oh Mercy!, in its generally abiding faith in the effectiveness and general well-meaning of police work, comes off as undiscerning in its pro-cop stance.

Still, Oh Mercy! somehow manages to seem a lot more empathetic and realistic than Les Misérables, Ladj Ly’s police drama set in the Parisian commune of Montfermeil. Ly’s feature directorial debut pretentiously co-opts the cultural cache of its Victor Hugo-penned namesake as a means of bolstering its activist political message. A brief and promising montage opens the film, and depicts jubilant Parisians of all races in a state of revelry. (This is actually documentary footage from the aftermath of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, so not exactly the June Rebellion that closes Hugo’s opus.) From this point forward, Ly largely relies on gritty faux-doc aesthetics redolent of The Wire to maneuver through a narrative that splits its time between police on the job and embedding itself with the people they’re meant to serve.

Nonetheless, the focus remains largely on Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the newest recruit of the dubiously named Anti-Crime Squad that’s tasked with patrolling Montfermeil’s crime-ridden Les Bosquets social estate, and the way the soft-spoken man’s conscience is tested on his first day as he rides alongside two corrupt cops (Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga). Ly seems to give the cops too much latitude, or at least he muddles his condemnation of their behavior by lumping it in with a broader message about an untamable chaos in the suburbs of Paris. The film’s explosive finale, which sees the oppressed city kids rise up and start a war with law enforcement, could be interpreted as a call for revolution, but it could just as easily be read as a fortification of the idea that The Streets Aren’t Safe, and a film like this shouldn’t make the conflation of progressive and conservative politics that easy.

Les Misérables does, at the very least, lay bare the reality of an everyday form of violence and prejudice and makes some kind of attempt at responding to it, which is more than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne bother to do with Young Ahmed. In the film, the eponymous Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) puts distance between himself and his family, deciding that his Arabic teacher is a heretic before, finally, turning to violence. The Dardennes’ signature observational cinema, one that’s shaped by lightly applied genre conventions and subjected to chain reactions of dramatic incident, comes to feel exploitative in this context, as Young Ahmed demonstrates little interest in understanding the psychology or pathology of the troubled youth at its center, or even in grasping the sociocultural conditions that affect him.

As is their wont, the Dardennes start their film in medias res, which proves to be their first big mistake: Ahmed has already been radicalized, and so from here on out we observe his actions in a kind of vacuum. The film, then, becomes just an exercise in redundancy for the Dardennes, hitting as it does the same narrative beats of sin and redemption that all their character studies do, albeit with a different cultural face. This isn’t a well written or conceived narrative either, especially in its contrived and manipulative finale. But what makes the film outright offensive is its flippancy toward the Muslim faith. At one point, we get a match cut between Ahmed being kissed by a non-Muslim girl and the young man vigorously washing out his mouth—a moment that elicited much laughter at the film’s gala premiere.

In the past, the veracity and realism of the Dardennes’ aesthetic mode has made for convincing portraits of life on the margins, but here there’s an uncomfortable friction between the way their technique engenders a feeling of truthfulness and the calculated and methodical depiction of Ahmed’s actions. The only party that benefits here are the Dardennes, who’ve brazenly attached themselves to a subject that grants their film an unearned political weight.

One film at Cannes this year that got its genre inflections, its social commentary, and its understanding of race generally right was the steely and quixotic Atlantics, Mati Diop’s first feature-length fiction film. Atlantics derives some of the broader strokes of its narrative from a short of the same name that Diop directed a decade ago, about Senegalese youths discussing the possibility of crossing the Atlantic toward Europe. The feature version of Atlantics is set in Dakar and follows Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a 17-year-old who’s in love with a boy named Souleimane (Ibrahim Traore) but who’s been arranged by her parents to marry a wealthy older business man. After this ostensible love triangle ends in tragedy, Diop’s film briefly morphs into something of a procedural, as a young detective (Amadou Mbow) is called on to investigate a mysterious act of arson committed on Ada’s wedding day.

It’s the way that Atlantics pivots into the realm of the supernatural, and even flirts with the horror genre, that makes it so unique. The blend of folklore spiritualism and commitment to social realism, paired with an ethereal visual sense that emphasizes the spectral experience of the subaltern, can be imprecise in terms of its political implications, but Atlantics nonetheless evokes the palpable feelings of its characters’ displacement through its shift into ghost-movie terrain. Even Diop’s balance between a more visually poetic register and a devotion to maintaining her narrative’s momentum seems less like a compromise than a reflection of this filmmaker’s confidence in her own ability to tell complicated and unusual stories in the guise of familiar narrative form. In fact, that’s a good way to frame a lot of Cannes’ competition films this year: Many are genre-adjacent, but it’s those from filmmakers that display a sense of confidence in their approach that have tended to leave the best impression.

The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14—25.

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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

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Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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

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

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

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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

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

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Terrence McNally
Photo: Miller Mobley

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

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

Why revive Frankie and Johnny now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now you’re speaking in the language of today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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