Favorite Movies of 2019

2019 was another great year for film, as long as you weren’t going to the cineplex, where things remain bound by superheroes, the way the mainstream comics field was artistically hobbled throughout much of the 1960s-1990s.  Let us hope Hollywood movies won’t be super-enthralled for as long.  But if you went to other kinds of movies houses, checked out a film festival or two, and subscribed to one or two of the streaming services that have begun producing films, there was a lot to celebrate.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)I saw 110 movies this past year, 46 of which were new.  I usually don’t spend much time talking about movies from the past that I watched this year, but I don’t see why not.  Probably the most eye-opening film for me was Charles Burnet’s poetic, funny, beautiful, and aching portrait of Watts, 1977’s Killer of Sheep.  The acting is mostly amateur, but what Burnet is portraying, and the visual art he creates with low-grade black and white film, is nothing short of astonishing. For my money, that makes 1977 a great year for American movies.  Just off the top of my head, it gave us Annie Hall, Eraserhead, Killer of Sheep, and the movie that changed it all, for better but mainly worse, Star Wars.  For what it’s worth, I did not see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker until New Year’s Day, so it didn’t have a chance to make my list.  Of course, the way those films have been going, it really didn’t have a chance to make it on my list long before I actually saw it.

I was happy to catch three Lina Wertmüller films in our local microcinema: Seven Beauties, Love & Anarchy, and Swept Away.  I had always meant to see her films—these and The Seduction of Mimi (which the microcinema also screened, though I couldn’t attend) were staples in the old repertory theaters in town like the Uptown and the Varsity—but for one reason or another, I never did.  I found them lacerating and funny.  With the uncompromising nature of its protagonists’ comeuppance, one that basically takes the entire movie, it is hard for me to fathom Seven Beauties having been nominated for an Oscar, but it had been, for best original screenplay and best director, which made Wertmüller the first and, until 1993, only woman to have been nominated in the category (and beyond those two, only three other women directors have been nominated—shame on you AMPAS).

Rewatching Zama, Lucretia Martel’s excellent, dream-like dissection of colonialism that was released last year, I was reminded that I never saw Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, another regular in the repertory theater schedules that I somehow missed.  Its influence on Zama is unmistakeable. And the final shot of Zama reminded me of the end of Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece Dead Man, so I saw that again.  It had been a few years—it was almost better than I remembered.

Regarding films new to 2019 that didn’t make my ten favorites but came close, Jarmusch released a funny movie about how fucked up the world is right now and disguised it as a zombie movie with The Dead Don’t Die.  It stars Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny, with Murray and Driver seemingly trying to out deadpan one another, and features a fantastic supporting cast, including Steve Buscemi, Carol Kane, Tilda Swinton, RZA, Iggy Pop, and the inimitable Tom Waits.

amazing_grace_stillSpeaking of legendary musicians, a couple were prominently featured in two excellent musical non-fiction films released this past year.  First, Amazing Grace, the long-lost film documenting the recording of Aretha Franklin’s return to gospel music.  It’s amazing.  Franklin sings as if she has something to lose, and at this point in her career, perhaps at the peak of her singing skills, she had nothing to worry about.  The other film also features footage that has been sitting in a vault for decades: The Rolling Thunder Revue, ostensibly a documentary about the then infamous tour on which Bob Dylan embarked that was as much carnival as concert tour.  When I learned that a lot of the interviews in the movie were b.s., it not only cleared up some really odd moments, but it made me wonder what the hell director Martin Scorcese was up to.  Reflecting upon it, I don’t think there was a better way to capture the enigmatic creation that is Bob Dylan, especially at that point in Dylan’s career.  But it’s the concert footage that’s the star.  I’m not sure Dylan was ever more sure-footed as a singer and musician than he is on this tour.  His duets with Joan Baez are simply remarkable.

Finally, here is a list of the remaining movies that didn’t make my list but easily could have.  Seek them out.  Watch them.  Enjoy them: Ash Is Purest White, 3 Faces, Us, Ad Astra, and The Souvenir.

Here are my ten favorites in order that I saw them:

transitTransit
Transit opens with Georg desperately trying to escape a fascist state that seems to be Nazi Germany except for the contemporary trappings that make it seem as if it were taking place now—an apt befuddlement for a world besieged by right wing nationalism that callously victimizes refugees.  The problem for Georg is he doesn’t have papers allowing him safe transit; that is, until the writer he is trying to help out of the country dies.  Georg takes on the dead man’s identity, working his way to Marseilles where he again has difficulties finding transit out of the country.  While he’s in bureaucratic limbo, he falls in love with Maria, who too is trapped in Marseilles awaiting her husband, a writer who turns out to be the one Georg had been trying to help.  The plot complications arising from Georg’s fluid identity as he moves back and forth between pretending to be Maria’s husband and trying to disguise his identity as her husband deepen the film’s emotional tenor.  As he did in his previous film, Phoenix, writer and director Christian Petzold crafts richly melodramatic material that is haunted by the fragility of identity, finding in it aching questions about love and its often-devastating intersection with politics.

Hotel-by-the-RiverHotel by the River
In prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s latest film, lovingly shot in gray-saturated black and white, the aging, celebrated poet Ko Young-hwan senses he is going to die, so he invites his two long-estranged sons to visit him at a hotel where he is staying.  At first it seems that Ko wants to reconcile with his understandably skeptical sons, who haven’t seen him in decades after Ko abandoned them and their mother for a younger woman.  But we soon get the sense that, like many of the middle-aged men in earlier Hong films, Ko doesn’t seem interested in much beyond his own opinions and desires.  It leads to some wry humor in his awkward interactions with his sons and when he flirts with a couple of young women who are staying on the same floor of the hotel that he is, whose story also makes up a significant portion of the film.  Hong’s films spin fragile moods that for some might seem inconsequential—I saw it at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, and the woman sitting next to me, who’d told me how eager she was to see the film because of the buzz surrounding it at the festival, turned to me as soon as the movie ended and asked incredulously, “Did you like that?” before storming out—but there’s always more going on than meets the eye, and no less than Claire Denis declared that she takes inspiration from Hong’s work ethic and the consistent quality of his work.

an-elephant-sittingAn Elephant Sitting Still
Following events unfolding in a single day among a small group of lower-class residents in a modern city in northeastern China that seems to be in decline, An Elephant Sitting Still is an angry and sad film.  It opens with a young man leaping from a balcony to his death and ripples outward to the stories of four different but ultimately interconnected people in the same neighborhood—a teenage boy who has to face the repercussions of resisting the threats of a school bully; his classmate, a girl who starts an affair with one of her teachers; a retired gentlemen whose children want to force him from living with them; and a local thug whom we glimpse at the beginning of the film, and whose significance to the lives of the other characters becomes clear as the film develops. I love the way the film’s story unfolds, and the metaphor of the film, the thing that all the main characters of the film ultimately desire, to see the elephant in Manzhouli in northern Mongolia, along the Russian border, that can sit still even when people prick it with a fork, is both absurd and suggestive of the Buddhist welcoming of all the slings and arrows that life seems to hurl at us because they really are life and not the vicious missiles from outside that we take them to be.

Manta-RayManta Ray
Manta Ray is a Thai movie whose drama, while very personal on one level, has something much bigger in mind, addressing in its story of a fisherman who rescues and nurses back to health a mute man he finds curled up on the floor of a nearby forest the plight of Rohingya refugees in Thailand.  The Rohingya are the stateless people who are mainly Muslim and reside in Myanmar, where they have been brutally persecuted.  Some have fled to Thailand, but they are not officially recognized as refugees there, putting their lives in peril, as their non-status makes them ineligible for necessary identification cards, further making them ineligible for employment and protected housing.  The fisherman, who is unnamed, befriends the Rohingya refugee, until the fisherman suddenly disappears.  Then the refugee basically takes over the fisherman’s life.  It is a moving film, at times almost surreal in imagery, and one could imagine its story as something that might have interested Hitchcock at the height of his career, though he would have made a very different kind of movie.   Sadly, Manta Ray tells a story too resonant for America, as we perpetuate a refugee crisis on our southern border that some experts have said rivals the most dangerous refugee crises around the globe.

High-LifeHigh Life
Claire Denis’ latest film is, for those familiar with her work, surprisingly set in space.  Kind of.  (So I guess it’s not all that surprising after all.)  One could say just as accurately that it is set on death row.  Taking place in an undetermined future, the film concerns a group of death row inmates who, to be released from their sentences, have agreed to go on a space mission in a ship that looks as if a prison block had been jettisoned into space to a nearby black hole to determine if its energy could be harnessed for use on Earth.  Such a description doesn’t do justice to Denis’ occasionally beautiful, often disturbing, portrait of the human condition.  Truth be told, that condition is always carried out under a death sentence, and while it might seem purposeful as we first embark upon it, after the exhilarating and exhausting vicissitudes of life, many begin to suspect there isn’t any purpose to it at all.  In High Life, as the mission’s purpose unravels, the idiosyncratic, at times dark, urges that drive us as humans come to the surface.  If we can survive those, the film asks, what lies on the other side?  Juliet Binoche, playing against type, and Robert Pattinson are excellent, as is the supporting cast.

LongDaysJourneyIntoTheNightLong Day’s Journey into Night
Long Day’s Journey into Night is not about drug addiction or shameful family secrets.  In fact, it has nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill’s theatrical masterpiece.  Rather, it deliriously explores the entanglement of desire, memory, and dream, most thrillingly in its final hour, a single unbroken shot in 3D, in which Luo Hongwu, the protagonist, exits the movie theater in which he’d fallen asleep, descending farther and farther to try to get to the heart of the matter regarding a woman with whom he’d been in love years before and who has proven ever more difficult to recapture.  Director Bi Gan exploits the dream-like qualities of cinema, fluidly alluding to the works of Wong Kar-wai and Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as arty Hollywood films like Vertigo and Blade Runner to create a rapturous paean to bedazzlement.

parasiteParasite
Sitting in their garden-level apartment, wondering how to get rid of their stink bug infestation, learning how to fold pizza boxes quickly to make extra money, watching a local drunk once again urinating right outside their window, and stealing wi-fi when they can, something good finally happens to the Kim family: a fumigator truck comes down their alley, spraying insecticide.  Leave the windows open, Ki-taek, the family partriach, tells everyone.  That way the apartment can get fumigated for free.  It is a funny, telling opening to celebrated Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s black comedy Parasite, which explores class conflict and the ever-widening abyss between the wealthy and poor with a wild plot that takes several unexpected turns before reaching its rather emphatic climax.  At one point, as the Kims descend a narrow stairwell into a secret subterranean lair, I felt we were entering Haruki Murakami territory.  Parasite is well-crafted and entertaining with the penetrating bite of a hornet’s sting.

lighthouse-3The Lighthouse
Put two very different kind of men—one taciturn, sullen even, who recently turned toward the sea after years of working as a lumberjack; the other garrulous (gaseous, too) and bellicose, a salty old cur who may nor may not have lived a life of the sea—together in the restricting confines of a lighthouse on a rocky island off the coast of New England in the late nineteenth century for four weeks, then add to that a nasty storm that strands them for the Devil knows how much longer, but long enough to put their food reserves at risk, and you basically have the dramatic set-up for The Lighthouse, the most recent film from Robert Eggers, the mastermind behind 2015’s The Witch.  That the cur is played with relish by Willem Dafoe and the other by a brooding Robert Pattinson, who has proven himself in a number of films by highly regarded directors beginning with David Cronenberg’s vastly underrated Cosmopolis in 2012, only helps the proceedings.  If the first part of the film establishes the characters, the nature of their relationship, and the suffocating limits of their environs, the second part melts it all away in a sweaty fever dream.  It’s a mad rush of a movie, funny and intense, one part Jack London, another part Edgar Allan Poe as filmed by Ingmar Bergman in an expressionist black and white, with dialogue by Herman Melville complete with overripe allusions to fables and classical mythology.  Just what exactly do they see in that damned light?

the-irishmanThe Irishman
The Irishman is Martin Scorcese’s epic gangster film, elegiacally-paced but gripping from beginning to end.  It tells the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who was a Teamster leader throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a close associate of Jimmy Hoffa’s, and a hit man for the Mafia.  The film depicts Sheeran’s life as a gangster, from his first heists stealing the meat that he was supposed to deliver to his first association with Pennsylvania mob boss Russ Buffalino to his relationship with Jimmy Hoffa through Hoffa’s assassination and ending with Sheeran’s dotage in a nursing home.  Told through the reminiscences of an 80-year-old Sheeran that center on a road trip he took with Buffalino to Chicago, leading to what must have been the most difficult hit of Sheeran’s career, The Irishman is filled with loss and regret.  Whereas in Goodfellas Scorcese showed the drug-like exhilaration and lethality of life in the Mafia, The Irishman focuses on the Mafia’s distortion of the institutions of family and work.  Because if the Mafia pays lip service to family, it insists that the Mafia be the only family to which one should be loyal. The Irishman coldly reveals the emptiness and cruelty of the Mafia’s family, reducing everything, really, to work.  Hard bloody work.  And that ethic of family and work, with an emphasis on work, puts the Mafia right at the heart of American culture, nowhere clearer than when Frank’s daughter Peggy, disillusioned, even frightened, of her father gives a class presentation about her hero Jimmy Hoffa, a man who, unbeknownst to Peggy, is fatally embroiled with organized crime while representing the industry responsible for distributing the nation’s consumer goods. The cast is topnotch, DeNiro hasn’t been this good in years, filled with veterans who have had long careers.  The leads’ advanced age weighs heavily on the film as does its rueful tone, giving one the sense that with The Irishman, Scorcese is putting the gangster film to rest.  He could hardly end on a more cinematically graceful note.

uncut gems

Uncut Gems
Inveterate gambler, jeweler Howard Ratner, in hopefully a career-changing performance by Adam Sandler, seems incapable of being happy—whenever it appears that his problems are finally solved, he stakes his whole life on another seemingly impossible bet.  Clearly Howard is addicted to the adrenaline.  The risk thrills him.  A win brings joy, but it clearly isn’t satisfying.  The bet on which the film centers and that provides some of the movies most imaginative imagery is a rock that Howard has smuggled into the States in which are embedded a number of gorgeous black opals.  Former Timberwolves forward and all-around NBA great Kevin Garnett becomes transfixed with the rock, but he isn’t offering what Howard is sure it’s worth, so Howard refuses to sell it to Garnett directly, insisting Garnett attend the auction where it will be up for sale.  In the meantime, Howard’s marriage is on the rocks; worse, his life in danger due to unpaid debts with a loan shark, his brother-in-law Arno played with just the right amount of compassion and malice by Eric Bogosian; and colon cancer is lurking just over the horizon (hello, middle age!).  Uncut Gems is an adrenaline-charged, entertaining film, among my favorite two or three films of the year.

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Look Hard: Martin Scorcese’s The Departed

Until a few nights ago, I hadn’t seen Martin Scorcese’s The Departed since 2006, the year it was released.  At the time, I’d found it disappointing, Scorcese-lite, and wasn’t surprised that it was the movie that finally won Scorcese his long-overdue Oscar for best direction.  It’s so Hollywood to honor the wrong film, the lesser film, after years of indifference.  So watching it the other night, I was surprised to discover what a well-crafted, entertaining film The Departed actually is.

departed oneCentering on Frank Costello, a Whitey Bolger-inspired figure played with usual brio by Jack Nicholson, the movie tells the story of two Boston born and bred young men: Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), from a posh family, whose parents’ divorce led him to live, literally and figuratively, on both sides of the tracks, and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who led what we presume to be a hardscrabble childhood in South Boston.  Both eventually join the police force but with very different intentions—Costigan is so intent to do good that he is willing to disappear from the force, go to prison, and come out as an undercover cop so he can infiltrate Costello’s crime syndicate and Sullivan a “rat,” to use a term beloved by Bolger and Costello, in the police department whose allegiance is actually with Costello.  The rest of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game between Costigan and Sullivan, each aware of the other without knowing who the other is, each charged with figuring that identity out.

The engine that drives the film, then, is the troubling and troubled nature of appearances.  Desperately looking for the truth—as Costigan tries to figure out who the rat in the police department is and Sullivan tries to figure out who’s the rat in Costello’s gang, or when the police put a massive amount of surveillance equipment in a warehouse only to realize the gang is doing their business toward the rear of the building, where agents had neglected to do so—the object of scrutiny is elusive, even when it’s directly in front of us.

departed twoCostello suspects that Costigan is the rat but can’t be certain no matter how hard he looks at him or how explicitly he threatens him. At least he can actually see Costigan. In one of the most thrilling sequences in the film, Costigan finally gets Sullivan in his sights at a clandestine meeting that Sullivan arranged with Costello.  That the meeting is in a porn theater (with remarkably new, clean seats, I might add) hints at an eroticism in the relationship between the two men, a notion amplified, if somewhat obliquely, by the fact that they’re dating the same woman.  True, they don’t know they are, but in a celebrated argument, literary critic René Girard maintained that the real relationship in a love triangle wasn’t between the lovers and the beloved but in the relationship between the rivals themselves.  Regardless, in that scene in the porn theater, Costigan can never quite see Sullivan and so follows him outside into an alley.  He almost loses him, but, in one of the most elaborately conceived shots in the movie, is aided by the mirror-like surface of a wind chime hanging in front of a shop, Costigan’s eyes reflected in some of the chimes, Sullivan’s retreating back in others.  In the end, he fails to identify his quarry.

The problems of appearances corrode Costigan and Sullivan to the core of their very identity, suggesting that those identities were never really much to begin with.  For Costigan, once the jig is up and it is revealed that he was the undercover agent in Costello’s gang, he keeps nagging Sullivan that he wants his identity back.  He realizes in his heart what the narrator of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night knows only too well: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be.”  Sullivan, however, is predicated on who he pretends to be—if appearances can be deceiving, well, that’s the whole point of his existence.  Once one can see the distortions rippling his seemingly tranquil appearance, Sullivan’s house of cards threatens to crash around him.

What finally won me over is that, when all is said and done, in The Departed, the eyes have it, and they don’t.

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Nothing to Look At: Marvel Superheroes and Art-House Movie Theaters

Brute survival is not pretty.  It’s not designed to be.  It’s not undertaken to be celebrated; it’s undertaken to survive.  So I was taken aback when reading this year’s City Pages “Best of …” choice for movie theater: the Landmark’s Lagoon Theater.  It’s not that the lagoon lightsLagoon is a bad theater.  Sure, the building is fairly non-descript and the décor is baffling—I never really appreciated or even understood those “tree” light fixtures that more than anything look to me like light sabers—but they get some good movies.  I saw Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills there in 2013 and Graduation in 2017.  And films of the Romanian New Wave are not sure bets in any Twin Cities theater except during the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF).  Even then, I wouldn’t count on it.

What was confounding about their pick, though, was their reason:

“No stadium-stacked seats, just the gentle, comforting slope of yesteryear leading down to a screen showing actual great movies—not only the Oscar winners but the movies that should win all the Oscars (#SorryToBotherYou). The Lagoon is also a sneaky great place to catch blockbusters on opening weekend without throwing elbows at the comic-con set; the Lagoon often reserves one screen for the biggest Marvel or Star Wars installment, which nobody expects at this arthouse hub. But let’s keep that our secret.”

I guess it’s not their reason, it’s the emphasis in their reason—that they screen “the biggest Marvel or Star Wars installment.”  I don’t decry the Lagoon for showing these movies, but it’s hardly something to celebrate.  Screen space for “actual great movies” in the Twin Cities is at a premium.  Some excellent movies never makes it to any of the Landmark theaters, including works by Hong Sang-soo, Cristi Puiu (to my knowledge), or, when he was still releasing movies, Bela Tarr.  On the other hand, I can see the latest Marvel or Star Wars franchise practically anywhere I want to, even at the theater that houses the MSPIFF.

I understand that the Lagoon books blockbusters so they can afford to show less popular, artier fare.  I attend enough foreign language films to know they don’t always draw large lovelesscrowds.  For example, the night I saw it, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless looked like it was going to be essentially a private screening, my husband and I the only ones in the theater.  On one hand, that’s depressing.  Loveless may not be a heartwarming film, but it’s an exceptional one.  On the other hand, who doesn’t secretly thrill at the idea of a private screening in a room with hundreds of seats?  Take heart, though.  Just before the movie started, another person entered the theater.  (As we were leaving, we walked past him, and I saw he was sleeping.  I took some pleasure in the fact that while three people had attended the movie, only two saw it.)

Still, was there any reason for the Lagoon to have done what they did this weekend?  They canceled the run of every movie showing at the theater in order to show two new movies: Amazing Grace, showing on one screen, and Avenger’s: Endgame, showing on the remaining five.  If they keep that up, what nobody’s going to expect from the Lagoon is that they will show anything worth seeing.  Survival might not be pretty, but it requires some finesse.  Too many survival tactics, and the Lagoon might go the way of all those generic multiplexes that have preceded it, vanishing into dust or transformed into an antiques mall, indistinguishable from other, bigger chains that offer the same dreary fare but can survive the occasional droughts they inevitably face when people tire of it.

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Enduring Friendship: A Review of Stan & Ollie

stan and ollie 2Laurel and Hardy belong together, like peanut butter and jelly, or a suit and tie, or a shave and a haircut, or cats and dogs.  Especially like cats and dogs.  To see either of them in a film without the other is disconcerting, unwholesome, as I’m sure it had been for audiences who saw Zenobia, referred to in the new Laurel and Hardy biopic Stan & Ollie as “the elephant picture,” a comedy that Oliver Hardy made for Hal Roach Studios while Laurel was in a contract dispute with Roach at the height of the duo’s popularity.

It is also the elephant in the room, the dramatic crux at the heart of Stan & Ollie.  As the title suggests, Stan & Ollie is a behind-the-scenes drama about the legendary comedy team, a glimpse behind the names on the marquee.  Set in England in 1953, almost ten years after Laurel and Hardy made their last film together, Stan & Ollie focuses on their final tour of live performances.  The tour begins rather wanly, their booking agent Bernard Delfont either inept or a tad unscrupulous—Rufus Jones’ portrayal suggesting a little from column A and a little from column B—who seems more concerned about promoting “the next big thing,” Norman Wisdom, than drumming up audiences for a couple of has-beens.

However, after Laurel and Hardy begrudgingly agree to participate in a seemingly never-ending series of unpaid promotional events, the crowds begin to grow and soon the masters are playing to sold out houses.  And it is then, right at the beginning of their successful run, that the elephant rears its enormous head.  Except, the problem for Stan & Ollie is—it isn’t that enormous, sufficiently punctuated by a muffin thrown at the other’s head, at which a gathering of adoring fans applaud, assuming it to be another of the duo’s routines.  The storm clouds soon depart without more than a drop or two of rain.

Stan & Ollie is clearly a love letter to the genius of Laurel and Hardy, which is both a strength and liability.  Out of reverence, it seems, the drama never really heats up above the level of a tepid bath.  But leads Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, as Laurel and Hardy respectively, are amazing.  Both are excellent mimics and comic performers in their own right, and even though I’m usually leery of these kinds of assessments regarding film performances, Reilly’s makeup is truly transformative.  It’s hard to believe you’re not looking at Oliver Hardy.  The movie shines when Coogan and Reilly perform Laurel and Hardy routines.  That’s not to say the dramatic scenes aren’t well played—they are imbued with real warmth and gravitas, so the movie doesn’t prove to be a complete wash—but they don’t sustain the film.

laurel and hardyIf Stan & Ollie is a celebration of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy, it’s also a tribute to friendship.  Yet as such, it isn’t wholly convincing, in spite of the touching scene late in the film of Stan and Ollie aboard an ocean liner, simply sitting with one another, Hardy having learned he has congestive heart failure, Laurel keeping his friend and partner company.  To really honor friendship, though, is to acknowledge how it survives, perhaps even transcends, the thousand cuts we inflict on one another, the very stuff of Laurel and Hardy’s comedies.  To honor enduring friendship, one could do no better than watch their films and enter into the laughter they evoke.

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The Emperor’s New Clothes: Aesthetic Shenanigans and Avengers: Infinity War

emperor's new clothesThose who think that art needs to follow well-worn conventions of legibility and accessibility to be worthwhile—those, for example, who believe paintings need to be representative and resemble what they purport to represent (and the more they do so, the greater they are) or who feel that films should be narrative and relatively easy to follow with clearly delineated characters—too frequently fall back on the clichéd charge that what doesn’t adhere to these conventions but is celebrated by critics and aesthetes is an example of “the emperor’s new clothes.”  The accusation seems to suggest that critics are declaring garbage as art to hold power over art snobs who will drool over it because they trust what others tell them—or worse, what “experts” tell them—more than what they can see for themselves.

To my knowledge, this cliché is never applied to something like Avengers: Infinity War, perhaps because there’s a much larger and more respected juggernaut promoting it.  Let’s face it, at least in America all that is selling, say, a two-and-a-half-hour non-narrative black and white Hungarian film that keeps returning to a scene of a half-paralyzed farmer and his daughter eating a potato is a critic.  And you know how lowly they are.  Lest we forget, it is the ultimate insult in an exchange of epithets between Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, more stinging than “punctilious pig,” “morpion,” or “cretin,” when Gogo sneers at Didi: “Crritic!”  To which Didi “wilts, vanquished, and turns away.”  But what did Beckett know?  For many, he was and probably remains one of the blackguards selling the emperor a dubious bill of goods.

avengers infinity warAvengers: Infinity War, on the other hand, doesn’t have to rely on some pale-skinned, myopic snob, whose spine is curled into a question mark from being hunched in front of his computer all day (because we know they’re usually males and paunchy ones at that).  No, A:IW, and the entirety of the Marvel Universe for that matter, has money behind it.  Lots of money.  In investment and box office return.  And those who usually haul out the “emperor’s new clothes” argument also insist that box office is the true determinant of artistic worth.  If people don’t want to see it, then how could it possibly be worthwhile?  What is the value of a film unseen?  What is the sound of one hand clapping?  With that logic in mind, A:IW is an astounding masterpiece, having hauled in $2.05 billion dollars last year, the largest grossing film of 2018.

But make no mistake: though the emperor is strutting before the public in the freshly tailored attire he calls A:IW, I see his royal wang as clear as day.  I can’t imagine a more tedious way to have spent two-and-a-half hours, and I saw that Hungarian film I described.  At least that had some potatoes in it!  A:IW is mostly CGI effects.  The few humans who occupy the movie aren’t even given the opportunity to compete with them.  The story was so stupid as to inspire no effort on my part to try to understand it.  I knew the details didn’t matter—I still have no idea what Thor was doing when he seemed to be holding open some aperture so light from a nearby sun could shoot a ray through it, nor do I care.  I understood what I needed to: Thanos is evil.  Worse, the story is apparently only half over.  Or perhaps I should restate that: for everyone’s sake I hope it’s half over.  More of this nonsense should not be perpetrated against humanity.

thanosStill, that the story didn’t end after 149 minutes reveals how little the movie and the money behind it care about telling a story.  They just want people to come see the next movie and all the movies associated with it.  Because just like the Marvel comics that inspired these movies, for which no crossover would go unexploited, A: IW is just a product that brings together characters who have been part a “story” running over a slew of films for roughly three years now.  So if you’re a completist, which A:IW baddie Thanos reveals to be the key to ultimate power since it is only by collecting all six Infinity Stones that he can essentially control the universe,  then you’ve got a lot of movies to get to.

Me?  I would rather see something whose worth I wasn’t sure about.  At least it gets me thinking.  Something like A: IW makes no bones about whether or not it’s worthwhile and ends up doing not much more than inching me a few hours closer to the grave.

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Favorite Movies of 2018

Like 2017, this past year proved to be a rich one for film.  Truth be told, there were only four films that I knew for sure were going to make my list, but vying for those other six slots were at least twice as many films.

Looking over my favorite films of the year, I was reminded of the fact that I live in a city in the Midwest that is not Chicago: the first three films on my list—movies that I found quite engaging—were technically released last year in larger markets.  Still, they opened in the Twin Cities in 2018, with the third not opening until February, so they go on my list despite their having made many top ten lists for 2017.

mrs fang

Bing Wang’s Mrs. Fang

I saw a number of excellent non-fiction films in 2018, so I feel I should mention two of my favorites that didn’t make my list—Dawson City: Frozen Time and Mrs. Fang.  The former is a dense, poetic essay about capitalism, colonialism, and the early years of cinema that suffers only from having so much to say that it’s hard to take it all in at times.  It’s not a difficult film, per se, it’s just that the subtitled narration and the visuals prove to be too much to take in at the same time.  Mrs. Fang is about dying and family and poverty.  Director Bing Wang focuses his camera for long stretches on the blank face of Mrs. Fang as she dies.  The film is unsettlingly intimate while somehow remaining distant, which underscores the everydayness of death and how poverty can drain it of the fullness of feeling that goes along with and surrounds it.

Along very different lines, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Mission: Impossible—Fallout.  Granted, I’ll never need to see it again, but I was thrilled watching Ethan Hunt and his crew do the impossible in one exciting set piece after another.  And while no fan of Tom Cruise am I, I would be lying if I didn’t admit how impressed I was by the stunts he was clearly doing himself. Since seeing the film, I learned that he flew his own helicopter in those hair-raising helicopter chases.  That’s dedication.

you were never really hereI was also impressed with director Steve McQueen’s first foray into genre filmmaking, Widows.  That the way McQueen filmed some of the movie’s sequences enriched the movie’s politics gives the film a gravitas and currency that makes it more compelling than I’d anticipated (which is to say nothing of the fact that there even were politics in what is essentially a caper film).  It’s definitely worth seeing.  Another film that was dazzlingly filmed was Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.  I was smitten with how Ramsay used purely filmic means to convey the protagonist Joe’s mental state, abetted as she is by Joaquin Phoenix’s seething performance.  Still, the rather sordid story to which all of that artistry was applied frustrated me.  I’ll need to see the movie again to get a better sense of my take on it.

One oddball film I saw that received a very short run in the Cities was Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, starring the always wonderful John C. Reilly (who almost single-handedly made Kong: Skull Island actually entertaining) and Joaquin Phoenix.  It’s probably the most traditional of the westerns I saw this year, and yet the relatively familiar story unfolds in pleasantly unpredictable ways.  It’s a weird movie, and it stuck with me far longer than I’d have thought.  (Rutger Hauer, alone, is a mystery beyond my fathoming.)

Peter Bogdanovich, John Huston in Orson Wells' "The Other Side Of The Wind"Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Other Side of the Wind, the closest we’ll get to Orson Welles’s long-lost unfinished movie that Welles filmed between 1970 and 1976.  It borders on chaotic at times, and its restless editing and roving camera, picking up snatches of dialogue before moving onto something else, occasionally wore me out.  Overall, though, I found it engaging.  There’s something there in if not its critique of the artist as macho savant then its confrontation with the notion as well as in what appeared to me to be its skepticism of the new cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s as a hopeful alternative to such a figure, at least based on the almost softcore porn footage of the film within the Welles’s film that is, in part, its subject as well as the content of much of Welles’s film itself.  Still, my first viewing of the film was troubled enough that I’ll need to see it several more times to really be able to assess it.

So, onto my list.  They’re presented in the order that I saw them.  They’re not ranked, nor do I intend them to reflect the best movies of the year.  I don’t see enough new films to be able to make that claim.

faces places

Faces Places

A celebration of workers, small communities, art, and friendship, co-directed by French film legend Agnes Varda and JR, the self-described photograffeur (a photographer/graffiti artist) known for his over-sized outdoor photography installations in which he pastes paper reproductions of pictures on the various surfaces he finds.  Throughout Faces Places, Varda and JR travel to small communities across France and get to know the people there, photograph them in what is essentially a traveling photobooth, and paste enormous prints of the photos on the sides of buildings, train cars, and essentially any surface they can.  The results are both visually stunning and touching tributes to their subjects—such as the picture of a goat, full-horned, that they paste on the side of a barn when they discover that modern farming techniques tend to remove goats’ horns or Varda’s now half-blind eyes blown up to an enormous size and pasted onto a tanker car.  Every time I think of this film, I can’t shake its warmth and generosity of spirit. My favorite scenes include Varda focusing on the wives of the dock workers at Le Havre, culminating in the multi-storied images of the women on the empty shipping containers from their husbands’ jobs, each woman sitting in an opened container right where, in the pictures, their hearts would be; and, with great anticipation of visiting Jean-Luc Godard, when JR half-dances, half-runs as he speeds the elderly Varda in her wheelchair through the Louvre, an homage to the  scene from A Band of Outsiders when the “band” jubilantly runs through the museum.  And then, Godard proves to be such a pissant.  Still, see this wonderful movie.

call me by your name

Call Me by Your Name

Set “somewhere in Northern Italy,” as the opening title declares, Call Me by Your Name is a visually rapturous film—the vibrant Italian light practically another character—about teenage Elio experiencing what seems to be his first serious romantic relationship with his father’s gorgeous graduate assistant, Oliver.  The film does an excellent job evoking the swooning heights of young love—Elio can’t arrange to meet and see Oliver often enough, before and after their affair has begun, both men relishing in the joy of discovering each other—and the agonized depths it can go to as when Oliver vanishes at one point, seemingly in the company of a young woman, and Elio tortures himself every moment that Oliver is gone, writing him one anguished letter after another, which would be comic were it not coming from such an emotionally difficult place.  Director Luca Guadagnino expertly captures the awkwardness of young love that was, in the past at least, exacerbated when the object of one’s attraction was of the same sex, not least in a halting scene played out around a fountain in which Elio reveals to Oliver his love for him, his declaration so oblique that it’s practically unclear at what point he actually makes it.  One of the final scenes of the film, in which Elio’s father delivers a poignant monologue, is pitch perfect and emotionally devastating.

phantom-thread

Phantom Thread

Set in the world of haute couture in 1950s London, Phantom Thread is writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s unflinching look at the self-fashioning of love—both of ourselves and how we fashion others, or at least attempt to.  Daniel Day Lewis, in a screen performance that he has declared will be his last, plays renowned fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, who falls for waitress Alma Elson, played by Belgian actress Vicky Krieps.  Woodcock makes Alma his muse before—in a move that surprises his wary and wily controlling sister Cyril, portrayed by Lesley Manville in a fantastic performance—marrying her.  A large pleasure of the film, aside from sheer sensory pleasures of a story taking place in the world of high fashion, is watching the gamesmanship of the three characters as they jockey for control, each keenly aware of when their power is waning, though not so certain about what to do about it.  Alma’s final gambit for keeping Reynolds under her sway is as novel as it is kind of crazy.  Most of the film’s action is subtly written and played, requiring vigilant watching from the viewer, but that vigilance is rewarded in a film that ranks among the best of Anderson’s already impressive body of work.

death of stalin

The Death of Stalin

Portraying the power struggle among the Soviet elite immediately following Joseph Stalin’s death as a mordant farce is a brilliant conceit, and I can think of no one more up to the task than Veep creator Armando Iannucci, whose 2009 movie In the Loop is one of the funniest political satires that many have never heard of, let alone seen, to say nothing of the more widely acclaimed brilliance of Veep.  Iannucci has packed The Death of Stalin with talented comic actors, including Michael Palin as party stalwart Vyacheslav Molotov, who repeatedly readies himself for the execution he expects and even, perhaps, thinks he deserves; Steve Buscemi as a wily, though irascible, Nikita Krushchev; Jeffrey Tambor as the hilariously wishy-washy Georgy Malenkov, who it is assumed by most, as least to his face, will be the one to assume control of the Soviet Union; and in a bracingly funny performance, Simon Russell Beale, as the savage and calculating Lavrentiy Beria.  As with any great farce, the stakes in The Death of Stalin are life and death, something missing from most comedies these days, especially those that supposedly risk darkness.  Iannucci’s movie is a poisoned delight.

zama

Zama

Don Diego de Zama is tired of living in his backwater colonial post in late eighteenth century South America, longing instead to be transferred to Buenos Aires or, barring that, anywhere rather than where he is.  But he soon discovers that the Spanish government is indifferent to his desires, prolonging the agony of his stay with vague refusals that to Zama’s ears sound like promises, though his fear that they’re not, driving him to potentially rash persistence, eventually proves true.  He can’t even bed the woman he has been assiduously courting, discovering that her protestations that she is not that kind of woman doesn’t extend to the affair she has been having with another gentleman.  In one last desperate attempt to escape, Zama volunteers to join a group of men who set out to capture an outlaw who has been terrorizing the region, in what is essentially a do or die assignment that leads to some of the film’s most memorable sequences.  The result is something that is a cross between Waiting for Godot and a fever dream, a surreal satire of colonialism that dramatizes desire endlessly thwarted.  Under Lucrecia Martel’s expert direction, the film is an experience that no plot synopsis could ever hope to convey.  This is my favorite movie of the year.

western

Western

A German construction crew is relocated to a river in remote Bulgaria to build a hydroelectric plant that will divert water necessary for the many communities downstream.  Crew outcast and dreamer Meinhard, who claims to be a veteran of the French Foreign Legion earning him at least temporary respect from the others, begins visiting a local village, befriending some of the residents there in spite of the fact that he doesn’t speak their language.  Meinhard soon discovers that the plant is not something the Bulgarians know about or, unsurprisingly, even want.  Director Valeska Griesbach assembles a cast of non-actors who turn in relaxed, natural performances in her low-key appropriation of the Western genre—complete with horse rustling and a nervous evening at the campfire, imagined enemies lurking in the shadows just outside of the fire’s illumination.  Western, with its depiction of people warmly reaching across national identities, is a perfect antidote to the brute nationalism that is sweeping Europe and now too the U.S.

the rider

The Rider

Brady Blackburn was a young hopeful of the rodeo circuit in South Dakota—handsome, fearless, talented.  But then his career got cut short when he suffered brain damage from a nasty accident riding an unruly bronco.  The Rider focuses on Brady’s struggles coping with the new limits placed on him as he tries to figure out his place in a world that for him had once consisted only of the rodeo.  Blackburn is ably portrayed by Brady Jandreau, whom director Chloé Zhao met while filming Songs My Brother Taught Me on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and who was at the time a rising star in the rodeo circuit.  She decided at the time to make a film centering on Jandreau.  Unfortunately, a brain injury sustained while riding a bronco cut his career short, and the story of The Rider changed drastically.  The whole film is portrayed by people in Jandreau’s life, including his sister Lilly, who has autism; his father Tim (as Wayne Blackburn); and his friend Lane Scott, another young rodeo star whose career was cut short by a brain injury.  Zhao’s beautiful and touching film is an(other) update of the western genre that gains depth in its interplay of what’s real and what’s fictional.  This is a close second for my favorite movie of the year.

sorry-to-bother-you

Sorry to Bother You

At first, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You looks likes its going to be a funny satire about how African Americans have to “be white” to succeed in America, as it tells the story of Cash Green, who, hard up for gainful employment, finds himself working at a telemarketing firm where he discovers that the only way for him to succeed at the company is to adopt a “white voice”—in his case the dubbed voice of David Cross, creating an odd, funny effect as we see actor Lakeith Stanfield’s mouth moving and hear Cross’s voice.  Though Sorry to Bother You is certainly what it appears to be, it becomes so much more as Cash continues moving up the corporate ladder and it is revealed to him what his company’s master plan really is.  To be honest, the movie kind of flies off the rails in this last plot twist, but it is also in it that the movie finds some of its most memorable imagery and cutting satire.

roma

Roma

Alphonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film gets its title from the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City that, once a place for the well-heeled, by the early 1970s, when this film is set, has seen better days, not unlike the family around whom the film is centered who lives there.  Roma tells the episodic story of Cleo, a young maid who soon finds herself pregnant after a fling with the handsome, though immature and threatening, Fermín, and the family for whom she works, which comes undone after the father abandons them.  Filmed in beautiful black and white, Roma is shot through with cinematic poetry that reminded me of the best of Fellini—from the wonderfully exciting scene of two of the sons racing down the streets of Mexico City to see Marooned (the seed for Cuarón’s Gravity?) to the beautiful glow emanating behind the hills near a family ranch that turns out to be fire to the violent chaos of the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre that sweeps through Cleo’s life to the breathless scene in which Cleo struggles with the undertow of a surging surf as she tries to rescue her charges from drowning.  Roma continues and expands upon the narrative strategy Cuarón employed in Y Tu Mama Tambien—tellling a personal story that in its unfolding reveals larger political concerns.  I’ve heard from some that this is a slow movie in which not much happens, but I disagree.  For the patient viewer, there is much here.

if_beale_street_could_talk

If Beale Street Could Talk

For his follow-up to 2016’s Oscar winning Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins has adapted James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk.  Surprisingly, it is the first of Baldwin’s novels to have been turned into a film.  As with last year’s I Am Not Your Negro, If Beale Street … reveals Baldwin’s lasting significance.  Though writing about conditions against which African Americans struggled in the 1970s, especially when caught up in the legal system, which was skewed to catch them up, this story could, unfortunately, be speaking about today.   Still, for all its sobering insights—some of its best scenes have a raw honesty and vulnerability—the heart of the movie celebrates the love between Tish and Fonny and among those family members who rally around the young couple when Tish reveals she is pregnant shortly after Fonny has been arrested on trumped up rape charges.  In fact, in an interview when his novel was released, Baldwin said of his work in general, “Every poet is an optimist,” but on the way to that optimism “you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all,” an excellent description of Jenkins’ film which has great beauty and celebrates the love of the young couple without downplaying the difficult conditions of their life that almost seem designed to keep them apart.

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Do Not Go Gentle: A Tribute to Harlan Ellison

ellison pipe

I had given the book to my older brother as a gift.  Strange Wine.  It was a collection of stories by Harlan Ellison, whom I mainly knew as the author of “City on the Edge of Forever,” one of my favorite Star Trek episodes, and as the irascible subject of a funny, smart, and acerbic interview in Starlog magazine.  I figured my brother would probably dig Ellison’s stuff.  He did.

After he had finished reading it, I borrowed it from him.  I wasn’t prepared for its impact on me.  I didn’t know which I liked better, the stories or the introductions that Ellison wrote for each of them.  To be honest, I almost preferred the intros.  Theirs was the unmistakable voice from that Starlog interview.  But the stories sucked me in too: they were alternately gritty, poetic, intense, funny …  Just read “Croatoan,” one of the best stories from Strange Wine, which ends with a creepy sequence in the sewers of New York City.  Whew!  To my mind, as I was being driven from Little Chute, Wisconsin to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota, Ellison was my new Ray Bradbury.  A hipper science fiction poet of the short story with attitude to burn.

I’m sure I drove many friends and acquaintances nuts with my endless encomiums to Ellison.  I talked about him with practically everyone who had the misfortune of having a conversation with me.  Even so, I’ll admit that I was a bit startled when my freshman comp teacher told me she thought Ellison was sexy—it was the first time I’d considered that someone might find a person sexy because they had a big brain, ahem—and I’m embarrassed to say that in return I shared with her my anxiety that Harlan, who would have only been 48 at the time, was getting pretty old, and I feared I was only going to be able to enjoy a few more new books by him before he left us.  She laughed and assured me he would probably be around for a while longer.

I can’t overestimate the impact that Ellison had on me at the time.  With cutting humor, he confirmed my pugilistic approach to discussing the arts: what I liked was superior, everything else should stand guard.  I could go on the attack at any moment.  More importantly, already inspired by the poetic prose of Ray Bradbury, Ellison encouraged me, when I attempted to write fiction, to write the hell out of a story and not fear bloodying a few noses in the process.  The results were overwrought and underbaked, as in the hopefully long lost short story I wrote about a space traveler addicted to a drug made of condensed time that I titled, for reasons still unknown to me to this day, “Time is the Purple-Backed Purveyor.”  What?

kerouac radioOverwriting remained my modus operandi for years, even after I’d essentially stopped reading Ellison, and I fear it still clings to my prose like a chill mist—though my propensity for long sentences that might leave the reader gasping at the end from sheer effort (my friend Virginia Kuhn once pointed out to me that a monumental paragraph in a paper I was writing in grad school was actually one long, run-on sentence) has different origins: Jack Kerouac, who, among other things, wrote that gorgeous three-page sentence in The Subterraneans; Thomas Pynchon, whose best long sentences leave me gasping for reasons other than effort; and Herbert Blau, whose sentences unfold in undulations of thought as he tried to capture “it all, it all.”

I wasn’t even aware I was overwriting until, before graduate school, I took a short story course at a local writing center and in the margins of my story, alongside what I thought was a perfect evocation of the overly sweet, fermented odor of elm trees cut down after succumbing to Dutch Elm Disease, the instructor warned me to “rein it in.”  It forever changed how I saw my writing.

Despite his importance to me, in the years after graduating from college, I lost interest in Ellison, even though I still remembered how incredulous I had been at a college friend’s indifference to Ellison Wonderland, which he had purchased because of my tireless, effusive praise of Ellison’s writing.  A few years later, I finally read the book myself and understood what he was talking about.  It was a feeling I was to experience as often as not after finishing each Ellison collection that I read.  It seemed that with all but his non-fictions books—my favorite being Sleepless Nights on the Procrustean Bed, a small press collection of essays I’d borrowed from a friend who seemed to be as equally hot and cold on Ellison as I—there were a few hard, glittering diamonds in each collection, amid heaps of coal, stories that could have been gems too had they been given more time.

star wars explosionI also tired of Ellison’s film and television criticism, as good as some of it was.  The world stopped seeming so black and white to me.  I no longer viewed something as either a masterpiece or absolute trash, a problem of extremes that I feel traps too many who care about the arts, even close friends of mine.  Worse, though, Ellison’s criteria for praise or damnation seemed rather arbitrary.  For example, considering all that could be leveled against it, I recall that Ellison’s biggest complaint about Star Wars was how it ignored physics, especially in the space battles that were filled with noise and fiery explosions and people flying small spacecrafts that seemed to push and strain against gravity.  It’s the flipside to the response of one of my friend’s undergraduate students who praised Star Wars for its realistic fight scenes.  Regardless of which side of the issue you’re on—and Ellison is right here if you’re talking about space travel, the students if you’re talking about the WWII dogfight footage that inspired George Lucas—I don’t understand why it’s worth talking about, unless the whole point of cinema, and by extension art, is to ape reality in the most painstakingly, mindnumbingly literal way possible.  If so, then much of the greatest art of all time is worthless rubbish.

I still cared enough about him in the end that I was moved by an anecdote shared by John Scalzi in his memorial to Ellison in the Los Angeles Times.  Scalzi recalls when he had phoned Ellison in 2011 to inform him that his story “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” was nominated for a Nebula Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).  And Ellison, that alter cocker who used to call Scalzi when Scalzi had been the SFWA president and yell at him about whatever Ellison had on his mind, wept at the news.  The nomination, official recognition by his peers that his work was still vital, had deeply touched him.  And that, almost in itself, makes his work once again flare to life in my memory with vivid color.

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