Anthony Maras’ “Hotel Mumbai” – Too much, too soon

I’ve already seen Hotel Mumbai. It was the first 45 minutes of a Paul Greengrass film from last year, called 22 July, about the eponymous attacks that killed 77 people, most of them children. The similarities between the films are legion. The first act is a dutiful recreation of events, distilling a complex series of attacks in multiple locations into a violent thriller narrative that is simplistic, but more or less true to life. First-time feature director Anthony Maras is capable at constructing these scenes, even if the script suffers from a few dubious choices of which characters to focus on. And while I praised 22 July effusively for its deft depiction of horrific real-world events, it was precisely that deftness – which, unlike 22 July, never shifts its focus from the killers’ exploits for long enough to justify itself – that disturbed me this time around. Instead, by the time the film moves on to a more tight-knit group survival story within a hotel under a multi-day terrorist siege and slaughter, I was already quite sure I’d seen the totality of what Hotel Mumbai had to offer. And then it just kept going.

About 30 minutes into this film, in a luxury suite at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a nanny, paces with a mildly feverish baby, waiting for a house call from a local doctor. The baby’s parents, Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), a Persian celebrity of some renown, and her husband David (Armie Hammer), an American architect, are downstairs in the hotel restaurant, huddled under their table in the dark, with their server Arjun (Dev Patel) having thought quickly and darkened the room as a pair of terrorist gunman, members of the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, arrived and began slaughtering guests in the lobby outside. The two parents, who have no other defining characteristics, have just frantically called Sally and begged her not to open the hotel room door for anyone, but someone is already knocking, the connection is too faint, and she opens it. In screams an elderly woman, covered in blood, having narrowly escaped a systematic, room-by-room slaughter down the hall. She runs into the bathroom and sits on the closed toilet. Sally takes the baby and hides in the linen closet. Two of the terrorists walk into the room, taking an uncanny interest in this particular victim, following the doomed woman into the bathroom and shooting her dead off-screen. Sally, meanwhile, clamps her hand over the baby’s face to physically restrain him from making noise. An attacker flushes the toilet, and marvels aloud to his comrade that “they have a machine to flush their shit”. The baby gurgles as the men’s radio crackles with a faceless voice of their master, The Bull (voice of Pawan Singh), who acts as the devil on their shoulder throughout the film, giving them helpful tips about how to kill more people, avoid crossfire, effectively use grenades, etc. As they clear off to go find more life to exterminate, Sally is finally free to let the baby cry. And oh, it does.

At this point, I’ll be honest, I very nearly stopped watching the film. I’m just sick of it all. A few of the characters in this film, Head Chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), are based on real people or composites of multiple real people (such as Patel’s waiter character, Arjun), and are included largely so that their feats of courage and peril can be dutifully told. Which is fair, and perhaps even laudable. But without exception, the attackers also use their real names, which I won’t repeat here. Neither will I speak the name of the man who opened fire in a Christchurch mosque two weeks ago, livestreaming his horrific crime for the entire world to see on Facebook. Or the infamous child-slaughterer of Norway, whom I referenced above. They did their deeds, and left behind long, wretched, internally inconsistent diatribes about why they did what they did, which aren’t worth reading, dissecting, or glorifying. And now, in 2019, eleven years after the events depicted in Hotel Mumbai, Lashkar-e-Taiba (and the Pakistani government by extension) has been blamed for an attack on Indian troops in the disputed region of Kashmir, an event that occurred after this film was produced, but which nonetheless makes it feel rather timely as a piece of bellicose propaganda, as military tension is escalating once again between a pair of nuclear powers that collectively hold a billion and a half human souls.

And as I watched bullets rip through bodies, fired by dehumanized, backwater monsters whose motivations are neither explored nor remarked upon, I knew I would finish the film for professional reasons, but I also knew that I’ve seen enough of this – or at least enough to recognize it for the demagoguery that it is. And I get the appeal, I really do. I watched every season of 24, even the pointless Legacy. I even watched Uwe Boll‘s Rampage. There’s a certain visceral appeal to getting whipped into a frenzy about the hateful monsters in the world, the better to respond (or vote for responding) with just as much brutality to people who kinda sorta look like them. On our recent podcast review of Triple Frontier, I found myself relieved to be watching a military action film that was largely apolitical. But in praising this characteristic, I was implicitly acknowledging that perhaps I’ve lost the appetite I had as a younger man for wholesale depictions of violence that seem to have no point and purpose but to whip me into a frenzy. Because if there’s one thing that has been true for the whole of the twenty-first century whether I’ve been mature enough to acknowledge it or not, it’s that violence is always political.

As a thriller, I found myself more engaged by the second half, but I still got the feeling that the scenes were just ticking boxes. This may or may not be a fair assessment, as the film is apparently based on a documentary and reportedly stays true to real events, but it’s no less true that in an attack like this, there will be dozens of true stories available for focus, and these are artistic choices worthy of judgment even if they’re based on the real fates of real people. Hammer and Boniadi’s characters (based on multiple people staying at the hotel) are a baffling choice of focus, acting as useless ciphers for the audience, perhaps to remind them that even if you’ve got the chiseled good looks of a Hollywood leading man, you’ll be just as outgunned and terrified as anyone else when an ad hoc militia shows up. The most baffling inclusion had to be Jason Isaacs as an eccentric Russian businessman who spends a significant portion of his first scene loudly discussing which women from a literal menu of prostitutes he’d like delivered to his room that night, and then acting as a confidante and drinking buddy for Zahra. If nothing else, this trio serves as a reminder that the staff of the Taj put themselves in harm’s way to protect their guests, sequestering them in an exclusive, windowless club in the hotel’s interior. And yet these cooks and waiters largely remain nameless and faceless even as many of them are killed in action (with some surviving staff referred as “veterans” on-screen before the film’s credits). The same goes for a squad of the Mumbai PD, who are utterly outgunned by the terrorists as they wait for their government’s special forces to arrive from hours away in Dehli, and decide to courageously enter the building to try to find the security room, so that they can provide information to their comrades outside about the number and strength of the terrorists. Again: reportedly based on true events, if barely dwelled upon or consequential to the story.

While I found myself emotionally invested in the perfunctory heroics and perilous group dynamics in the last half, the film still seemed happy to sprinkle in more anonymized, procedural horror. The terrorists force an unnamed desk clerk to call rooms on the fourth floor one by one, so that the guests will step out into the hallway and be killed. She cooperates once, then refuses, and is killed. Another clerk also refuses, and is promptly killed. I can only give the film a modicum of credit for visual restraint here – by this point, it seemed to have lost its appetite for showing bullets ripping through bodies, and largely confined the victims to an offscreen fall. By the time this scene unfolds, we’ve already seen myriad acts of equal brutality, and it’s hard for it not to feel sadistic to dwell on it. What am I meant to take away from this? That the terrorists are clever in enlisting these poor women as forced accomplices? As if the terrorists’ actions aren’t disturbing enough, we constantly hear the voice of The Bull in their earpieces, reminding them that their victims are like cattle, and they shouldn’t think of them as real people. Which is ironic, because they never quite feel like real people in the film either.

Director Anthony Maras is quoted in TIME regarding his motivation to make this film:

“I simply couldn’t believe that you would have not one or two, but the entire staff of the Taj Hotel spontaneously, pretty much en masse, remain to protect their guests,” says Maras. “It was something I couldn’t get my head around. Who were these people and what drove them to do this?” Those acts of extreme bravery, he says, were a major part of his inspiration to make the film.

I can see some of this intent in the film’s text. But ultimately, the film’s balance of anonymous heroes and fictionalized victims feels off-kilter. Compared to Hammer’s formulaic thriller moments and Boniadi and Isaacs’ patter in the trenches, I found myself far more invested in Arjun’s fleeting moments of humanity, including offering to remove his Sikh head-covering because it makes an especially sloppy Islamophobic guest uncomfortable. Or in Oberoi’s clear protectiveness of his staff and his guests, and desire, reminiscent of the captain of the Titanic, to see them through a fundamentally doomed situation. There’s a nugget of a well-made thriller here, but it never quite succeeds in justifying its brutality and excess, a choice that seems intended to glorify the victims, but feels, in the end, more like it glorifies their killers.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

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FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #147 – “The Hummingbird Project” (dir. Kim Nguyen), “Triple Frontier” (dir. J.C. Chandor)

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return from a familial hiatus to check out The Hummingbird Project, a film about laying a more reliable fiber optic line for faster data transmission to game the stock market, so the irony wasn’t lost on us when Daniel had connectivity issues and was only able to watch the first 20 minutes. But you know Jesse Eisenberg will be involved, even if you’re a bit more prepared in advance for his tragic, greedy, tech-infused salesman to also be a diabolical dick. And then we check out an ensemble military heist film from the team behind The Hurt Locker along with director J.C. Chandor, Triple Frontier, an action film with some surprising moral and character depth that feels a bit too big for Netflix (01:00:50).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (The Hummingbird Project): 7 out of 10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Triple Frontier): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 6/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [00:34] Review: The Hummingbird Project
  • [06:26] Spoilers: The Hummingbird Project
  • [28:38] Review: Triple Frontier
  • [41:46] Spoilers: Triple Frontier
  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Masters of War” by Bob Dylan, from the soundtrack for Bumblebee, and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica, from the soundtrack to Triple Frontier.
  • To see the location of the Tres Fronteras on a map, check out this pinpoint of Isla Chineria, just on the Peruvian side of the border.
  • The scene we remembered from The Hurt Locker actually featured Jeremy Renner wandering all over the grocery store, first on the frozen aisle, and ending on the cereal aisle, which seems to be the source of the callback in Triple Frontier.

Listen above, or download: The Hummingbird Project, Triple Frontier (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Alex Proyas’ “Knowing” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“Now, I want you to think about the perfect set of circumstances that put this celestial ball of fire at just the correct distance from our little blue planet for life to evolve, making it possible for you to be sitting here in this riveting lecture. But that’s a nice thought, right? Everything has a purpose, an order to it, is determined. But then there’s the other side of the argument, the theory of randomness, which says it’s all simply coincidence. The very fact we exist is nothing but the result of a complex yet inevitable string of chemical accidents and biological mutations. There is no grand meaning. There’s no purpose.”

―”What about you, Professor Koestler? What do you believe?”

“I think shit just happens.”

This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but a bang. For that cute little inversion, all credit goes to Richard Kelly, director of The Southland Tales and Donnie Darko. Alex ProyasKnowing has more in common with the latter, because of its tone, period aesthetic, generally comprehensible story, and earnest desire to taunt the protagonist with the unfeeling inevitability of his doom. By the time this review posts, I’ll have a new baby to take care of, and I promise, that’ll be the end of comparisons of that happy event to the end of the world. She’ll be our second, and while I find that I’m daunted in different ways this time, my excitement generally dwarfs my fears this time around. But it is fair to say that I’ll be a bit busy at that time, which is why I’m trying something new with this 10YA selection. First, I’m writing the first draft of this review a month early, as opposed to mostly the night before it’s due. Second, I’m writing it before I actually rewatch the film. Kinda violates the spirit of the thing, doesn’t it? I’m meant to write on the subject of how my thoughts on this film have evolved over the years. But if I’m being honest, they really haven’t. I rewatch this one at least every year or two, and on top of being a slick sci-fi fantasy that does a better job than a lot of harder sci-fi at making me ponder humanity’s minuscule place in the universe, the message of this film has remained more or less unchanged for me: Some things are bigger than you, and disasters – especially global-scale ones – are terrifying in a distinctly impersonal sort of way. Roland Emmerich, while a master of disaster in his own right, pointedly omits this feeling from his disasters. As I said in my review of 2012 (a film nearly as old as this one),

“The film could easily have focused on one of the many barely seen individuals whose unceremonious slaughter makes up the beautifully rendered CG backdrop through which our heroes must cavort, or one of the additional billions who die off-screen, not fortunate enough to meet their end in front of a famous landmark or city skyline… But let’s be honest, who really wants to see that movie?”

To be fair, this film does contain a bit of that carnival-ride stuff. There’s no good reason why Professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) should happen to be present for a plane crash that happens on the highway right in front of him, and as he runs through an unbroken shot dodging explosions and debris and generally just trying to participate, there’s very little feeling that he’s in any real danger. The airplane scene is going for something Final Destination-like, but it’s also patently ridiculous. There just wouldn’t be this many people alive after the crash we saw, which ended with an explosion on the ground. John encounters another person on fire and puts them out with a blanket, then performs about 7 seconds of CPR on someone else before the emergency responders send him off. The TV news blames the plane crash on solar activity messing with the plane’s navigation, which ties it in causally with the rest of the film, but still makes it a complete coincidence that Cage was there.

OKAY, FINE. John discusses “synchronicity” with his friend Phil (Ben Mendelsohn), who is a professor of whatever the screenwriters of this film think cosmology is.

In any case, John has now resolved to seek out the two remaining disasters, so the next ones won’t be coincidence. These roller-coaster scenes are fleeting (and don’t make up the entire film, as they do in 2012). Knowing is unique among disaster films in that it lingers far more on the victims than usual. The most frightening scene is not the worldwide destruction of the film’s ending, but rather a second-act scene in a subway station, in which a train crashes and derails, rolling and sliding and grinding over dozens and hundreds of people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can practically feel the severed limbs – people contorted sickeningly into impossible positions. It all happens very quickly, but most importantly, it all happens in a way that is completely unavoidable. Pure, dumb luck dictates who survives that scene. And John is Cassandra, doomed to see each disaster coming, but be powerless to warn anyone or stop it.

The warnings, it must be said, are fairly hokey. A time capsule opens up, a stack of retrofuturistic children’s drawings are handed out, and John’s son Caleb receives a vast, unbroken page of handwritten numbers. “What’d you get?” asks a lad of 11, “Bo-ring! Everyone else got a picture!“. Like I said. Hokey. Preteen children do not get this stoked for old crayon scrawls of rocketships, but John’s kid, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) – who does that same eerily calm thing that every horror kid did for about a decade after The Sixth Sense – seems to have the same sort of shining as Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson), the girl from 1959 who drew his page’o’numbers. For reasons that are unclear and unimportant as the film goes on, Caleb gets a vision of the woods on fire, talks to weird tall people who hand him polished black rocks, and he has what sounds like a diagnosed auditory processing disorder, but is wearing a hearing aid for some reason? This allows the aliens (also called “Whisper People”) to talk to him through the static. Truth be told, it really doesn’t matter – they talk to the other child character without any technical assistance, and this all feels like a bit of Proyas rehashing the Strangers from Dark City, who serve a much more specific purpose in that film. John may not be able to stop the end of the world, but when it comes to predicting it, he’s the star of this show. John is living his best life, and amid a torrent of scotch – to round out his evening of barbecued hot dogs, wine, astronomy, and dour irreligious discussion with Caleb about his dead mother – he quickly deduces that the mysterious numbers on the 50-year-old drawing spell out dates and casualty figures (and eventually, he deduces, map coordinates). They are, in short, a prediction of every major disaster since the time capsule was buried, 9/11 included. This sort of hokey prediction scheme has been done before, of course – the film has a great deal in common structurally with a Richard Gere vehicle from 2002, The Mothman Prophecies (which ends with a much more modest bridge collapse), but the particular handling of this film’s doomsaying marks it as less of a spooky and paranormal thing, and more of a frighteningly plausible post-9/11 thing. The terror forecast is high, the clock is ticking, Jack Bauer is running, and we just have to get to one more doomed place just in time to watch a cool piece of destruction unfold without getting caught in it ourselves. Until we do.

Caleb sees an apocalyptic vision outside his bedroom window. I’ve omitted the burning moose and the burning bear and the burning bunnies, all of which individually appear a few seconds later.

The only unforgivable disaster in this film is its wasting of Rose Byrne. She is…present, and plays two different parts, both the grownup version of Lucinda in photos (who spent most of her life institutionalized, and is now dead), as well as her adult daughter Diana. Lara Robinson, who played young Lucinda, also plays Diana’s daughter Abby, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Byrne both as a child in 2009 and as an adult now. Still with me? Double-casting, and a whole ‘nother single parent/kid situation, but there’s really not much else to note here. Diana makes two contributions to the plot – the first is to help find the meaning of the last two numbers on the page – it’s not “33”, but rather the letters “EE”. Second, she panics and kidnaps Caleb at the end, for reasons that make little sense even in the moment. But it hardly matters. She dies, John finds the kids, and he’s about to die along with EE: Everyone Else.

Like Moses, Diana doesn’t survive long enough to enter the promised land, but in this case, the promised land is an apocalyptic firestorm. The sun will experience a “super-flare” – a coronal mass ejection (CME), which will scour the surface of the Earth, burning away its atmosphere, boiling away its oceans, and obliterating all life. Marco Beltrami‘s score is screaming when this reveal occurs, and I must say, despite it literally being revealed on the film’s poster, this moment was pretty mindblowing for me when it occurred. How do you top all previous disaster films, including 2012? End the world. The protagonists’ actions were meaningless. After verifying the doomsday prediction at an MIT observatory, John literally questions this anti-climax aloud.

“I thought there was some purpose to all of this. Why did I get this prediction if there’s nothing I can do about it? How am I supposed to stop the end of the world?”

2012‘s answer to this question was for Chiwetel Ejiofor to insistently save a small group of people to prove to no one in particular that humanity is worthy of some level of survival. Knowing makes no bones about the idea that humanity’s worth is any factor whatsoever when it comes to survival of the species. For a film that’s ostensibly about numerology – a meaningless pseudoscience – Knowing takes great pleasure in pulling the rug out from under both the characters and the audience with the greatest numbers game of all: the Fermi paradox. Despite any probabilistic arguments about the likely and commonplace existence of intelligent life in our vast universe (Caleb and John literally discuss the Drake Equation at one point), the silence and lack of observable evidence for extraterrestrials is an open question: If intelligent life is so common, where is everyone? One proposed explanation, strongly implied in this film, is global catastrophe, or existential risk. The idea is that even if intelligent life is commonplace throughout the universe, global natural disasters occur on a frequent enough timescale to tend to destroy every intelligent civilization before it has a chance to make an escape beyond the stars. And there will be no survivors, except those plucked away at the last second by aliens. Or angels. Or whatever else flies a ridiculously cool shape-shifting spaceship. What you see is what you get here, and they’re mysterious celestial beings who’ve come down to rescue a chosen few to begin again on another world. Or be sequestered in a zoo with a compatible atmosphere to draw out humanity’s extinction for a bit. Whatever works. John is the perfect protagonist in the face of this, because even as Cage is making his usual bizarre coterie of over-the-top acting choices, John is going on a mundane journey of his own of discovery, acceptance, and finally rapprochement with his estranged (and extremely religious) family. A simple tale of a man finding – or feigning – peace at the end of all things. Because what else can he do? Give everyone he loves one last squeeze, and that’s the ballgame.

After the kids depart, John drives his truck slowly through the apocalyptic horde (which screams, but also parts in an orderly fashion him to pass) as the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 plays. He arrives at the fanciest Brooklyn townhouse a clergyman ever lived in, and his sister greets him with a hug at the door.

“Where’s Caleb?” asks Grace.
“Caleb’s safe,” says John, sounding 1000% like he murdered his child.
“This isn’t the end, son,” says Reverend Koestler.
“I know,” says John.

And then…

several…

more…

things…

happen.

I remember Knowing fondly, but truth be told, I may finally be ready to let it go for a while. I’ve voraciously consumed sci-fi books over the past decade, and my mind is currently enraptured by Cixin Liu‘s Remembrance of Earth’s Past book trilogy, which starts with humanity grappling with its own impending destruction that will likely occur in a few hundred years, then becomes something much grander, more profound, and – it must be said – grounded in science, than this film. But for a film about big ideas (which the late, great Roger Ebert explored in far more detail in his spoiler-filled blogpost here), this one is largely still relevant to me, even if I have a harder time explaining the exact purpose of the aliens, who seemingly just show up on the occasion of our annihilation to make sure that we’re not alone. My best narrative explanation for them is that they feel less like a religious metaphor and more like an avatar for our expectations of the universe. Perhaps that’s our true fascination with alien life. Carl Sagan once referred to humanity as a means for the Cosmos to know itself, but perhaps we like to imagine the Cosmos can know us as well, to relieve our loneliness, or perhaps just to take some of the pressure off as a species. Even if natural law is a cold, unfeeling thing that is quite capable of erasing all life from our planet at any time, we like to think that our existence is noticed by someone, even if that someone will stand idly by and watch us vanish from our fleeting lease of spacetime.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

I don’t have much use for this, but it’s a very pretty picture.

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #146 – “Bumblebee” (dir. Travis Knight), “Suspiria” (dir. Luca Guadagnino)

Poster for "Bumblebee"

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel fulfill a prior threat to fan-favorite intellectual heavyweight Erika Spoden: to make her review a Transformers film. And with all props to Scene Unseen before us, it’s one that Daniel didn’t even bother to watch. Then we drill into Luca Guadagnino‘s operatic horror remake, Suspiria, a film that we started off uneven and disturbed by, only to talk ourselves into watching it again during the ride home (01:04:36).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Suspiria"

FilmWonk rating (Bumblebee): 7.5/10 (Erika), 6.5/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Suspiria): 7/10 (Glenn/Daniel), 8.5/10 (Erika)

Show notes:

  • [02:59] Review: Bumblebee
  • [24:39] Review: Suspiria
  • [44:54] Spoilers: Suspiria
  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, from the soundtrack for Bumblebee, and “Suspirium” by Thom Yorke‘s excellent score and soundtrack to Suspiria.
  • Correction: Per Wikipedia, the Three Mothers are: Mater Tenebaraum (Mother of Darkness – not death), Mater Lachrymarum (Mother of Tears), and Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs).

Listen above, or download: Bumblebee, Suspiria (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #145 – “The Favourite” (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos), “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” (dir. David Slade)

In the first podcast of the new year, Glenn and Daniel check out their favo(u)rite film of 2018, as well as a tech-infused experimental film from Black Mirror (01:26:20).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch): 6 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Favourite): 10/10 (Glenn), 9/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

Listen above, or download: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, The Favourite (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

2018 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2018)

#11: They Shall Not Grow Old


Directed by Peter Jackson

I usually make an excuse for my #11, but I’ve got nothing this time. Just couldn’t stand to leave this one out. Now let me ply you with an anecdote. I was visiting coastal North Carolina one year, and we stopped at a historical site of a former Confederate fort during the American Civil War, Fort Fisher. This fort sits at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and was thus a crucial choke point for the port city of Wilmington, where the Confederacy continued to trade in tobacco and cotton (and other commodities supported by slavery) throughout the war. The Union knew it needed to seize this point in order to complete its blockade of the port. After an initial failed attempt in December of 1864 (which resulted in a Union Major General being relieved of command for disobeying General Grant’s orders to put the fort under siege if their assault should fail), the Union tried again in early January 1865 with a force of nearly 10,000 troops and 58 ships. After a vicious battle (which included a lot of close-quarters hand-to-hand combat), the Union took the fort and demolished significant portions of it. In the process, they successfully blockaded Wilmington, depriving the Confederacy of its last port, and serving as a major contribution to the end of the war. If you visit the historical site today, you’ll see many of the original earthworks intact, as well as many of the original (or later restored) walls and cannons. You can walk the site and see the exact spots where the close-quarters battle played out. Then you can go into the visitors’ center, where an elaborate fiber-optic audio-visual display and diorama awaits to explain the progress and significance of the battle (you can get a sense of it here).

I mention this because it’s one of the few experiences in my life that I can describe using the phrase, “History comes alive.” There’s something about being there, seeing the sights and hearing the simulated sounds of a real event that was experienced by real people in that exact spot, that renders the experience a meaningful part of your reality. People lived here. People fought here. People died here. I now have another item to add to this list, and that’s Peter Jackson‘s stellar documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, which has earned the same pedigree. By enhancing original newsreel footage from the Western Front of World War I using modern color, visual effects, frame interpolation (to bring it up to a modern 24fps), as well as a complete and original soundscape to gird the voiceover contributions of hundreds of real World War I veterans that were recorded over the years by the BBC and the Imperial War Museum, Jackson has crafted nothing short of a cinematic time machine that can now be experienced by the entire world, without having to travel anywhere in person to do it. The storytelling mechanic of the film is similar to that of György Pálfi‘s Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen, cutting together footage and audio from many individual soldiers, and using them to tell a semi-continuous story of a single, anonymous soldier – arriving, fighting, and dying on the Western Front – whose face constantly changes. This was a bold choice, as it ran the risk of becoming disjointed or taking the audience out of the film emotionally as their minds told them that the smash cut from an individual 19-year-old man (with terrible teeth) smiling and playing cards during rec time outside of the trench, to a similar-looking but obviously different person lying dead in the mud, was merely a representative figure and not a literal piece of storytelling. As I began to notice this, I expected it to bother me more, but I found that it did not. Perhaps this is because we already consume war history in this way generally. The end of the Great War had its centennial this year, and war is the great anonymizer. It destroys lives, and it destroys individual stories – and likewise, when it comes to studying a conflict as complex as World War I, we never learn the fates of individual soldiers in the meat grinder that was the Western Front. We see battlefield statistics. Perhaps a few artifacts. The rest of them – a collection of human tragedies – are lost to history, except for those they left behind, who may only know the barest details of how their loved ones died.

Jackson accepted no directing fee for this film, and notes in an interview that while he only used about 90 minutes of footage in the film, his production company restored the entire 100 hours that they received from the Imperial War Museum. In this way, the film’s title has a double meaning, as both a line from the Ode of Remembrance, and a promise to the future. Preservation of history is an active process that requires hard work and dedicated individuals to keep alive. Building on the work of archivists and soldiers – most long since deceased – who helped to to share these stories over the decades following the Great War, Jackson stands on the shoulders of giants with this film. But in the process, he has performed a great service to the world and to students of history, and has surely become one of the giants himself.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #144 – “Aquaman” (dir. James Wan), “They Shall Not Grow Old” (dir. Peter Jackson)

#10: Tully


Directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody

Eighth Grade appears on this list as an unrelenting hellscape that merely feels real to me, but Tully is an unrelenting hellscape with which I have some intimate familiarity. The first third of this film, about the experience of parenting a brand new baby (which I’ll be going through for the second time this year), played like a documentary. You’re never alone, but nighttime with a baby is lonely time. And it’s time that seems to stretch on. Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is brought in as a sort of parenting surrogate to show up at night and help tackle this early period so you can get some godforsaken sleep. More on her in a moment, since she arrives only after we’ve spent 30 minutes getting to know Marlo (Charlize Theron), who is in peak not-giving-a-fuck territory as she’s horribly third-trimester pregnant with her third child. She grabs a coffee and deals with a judgmental stranger who informs her that “decaf still has trace amounts of caffeine” and feels huge and tired and useless all the time, even as her kid’s school informs her delicately (saying without actually saying anything specific) that they’re sick of dealing with her weird son’s bullshit. Diablo Cody knows how to speak the awkward truth and make me squirm in my seat, and this felt like as true and unglamorous a portrayal of motherhood and parenthood as has ever been put to screen. Marlo and Tully’s relationship is quite fascinating, and I don’t want to delve too far into it, except to say that she’s fascinating as both character and construct, and Davis’ performance is marvelous. She’s meant to be an unnerving Mary Poppins figure with no real inner life of her own, and yet it comes out in unexpected ways as she and Marlo delve into deeper topics in their late-night gab sessions. There’s a lot here, and it’s only clear why by the end. This is one of two Jason Reitman films I saw this year, and it is surely the one that will stick with me.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #140 – “Five Fingers for Marseilles” (dir. Michael Matthews), “Tully” (dir. Jason Reitman)

#9: The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful


Written and directed by Yang Ya-che

The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful is a Taiwanese gangster film about a trio of women (well, two women and a teenage girl) who collectively run a respectable crime family. Madame Tang (Kara Hui), ostensible land baron and antiques dealer, and the wife of a general, is the Godmother – and this is surely the finest portrayal of a Mob matriarch I’ve seen since Jacki Weaver in Animal KingdomMadame (who is only ever known as such) is firmly in charge, and handles the respectable side of the business, dealing with high-ranking government bureaucrats and military officials alike as her daughter Tang Ning (Wu Ke-xi) acts as fixer. Ning is a fascinating character – we first meet her in an act of sloppy tardiness for an important meeting (specifically, a drugged-up threesome), but this character is defined for the rest of the film by her shrewd competence bordering on ruthlessness, as well as her effortless charisma. Wu is delivering something akin to Audrey Hepburn‘s performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s here (a comparison I make with all appropriate irony), instantly taking command of whatever room she’s in, shepherding whatever problem (usually a person) off to another room to be dealt with permanently. And she’s always fine, even when she’s not fine, because she has to be. She’ll only ever break this persona in private, with the members of her family, who are mostly having none of it. Her sister Tang Chen (Vicky Chen) is the quietest of the bunch – Chen (I’m referring to the actress) is of an appropriate age to play the character, and watching this child take in everything that’s happening around her creates some remarkable tension as to what we’ll finally see when her shell cracks and we learn what she actually thinks of all of this.

I can’t say too much more here. The film, which chronicles a shocking multiple murder and its aftermath, contains one of the most complicated mob plots I’ve ever seen, and utilizes a framing device of a flashback from long after these events are over, repeating scenes (often recontextualizing things we’ve already seen, with additional character details), as well as a Greek chorus in the form of a pair of string players on a sort of Kabuki diorama set (definite Japanese influence on display in this film), who will periodically explain what’s going on and what it means. Like voiceover, this is a mechanic that needs to be used carefully, so as not to cover for shortcomings in the screenwriting or overstay its welcome. This sounds a bit obnoxious as I describe it, but I can assure you it’s not – it’s used just enough here. Right when I was on the edge of losing the thread of the plot, the singers would pop in with a bit of musical context. The film is thematically rich, with religion (in this case, Buddhism) mingling with Madame Tang’s criminality in an interesting way – similar to, but culturally distinct from, Catholicism’s pall over films about the Sicilian mob. And the relationship between these three women, as the crimes and corruption and police investigations play out, we come to understand in greater depth over the course of the film. The film utilizes sex, violence, and some brief sexual violence sparingly – and in a manner that passed the storytelling scrutiny that I tend to apply to such scenes. Like The Godfather before it, the tragedy and triumph of this film is not in any one incident, nor is it in the progress of a family seeking to advance itself at any cost, no matter how much of an impact it has on each of them as individuals. It is in the horrific, intergenerational cycle of violence and expectation and torment that they each inflict upon themselves, and promise to keep inflicting into the future. Yang Ya-che’s film demands a great deal from its audience, but it’s a trip. And I hope it finds its way onto a streaming platform so that more Americans can check it out.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #133 – “American Animals” (dir. Bart Layton), “The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful” (dir. Yang Ya-che) (SIFF)

#8: BlacKkKlansman


Directed by Spike Lee, written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee

This one’s personal. There came a moment, shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, that I realized profanity had become completely inoffensive to me. I promise I’m not being topical here; I wrote most of this before the word “motherfucker” led the news cycle this week. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve had sprinkled it throughout my speech since early adolescence. That sprinkling became more frequent as I got that unearned personal confidence that we millennials received in lieu of inflation-adjusted wage increases since 1979, but…at a certain point, I simply stopped believing that keeping society polite was a good or useful outcome. Perhaps it was the sad little Nazis with tiki torches marching in Charlotte telling me that (((I))) would not replace them, before one of their terrorist friends murdered an innocent woman. Perhaps it was the 81% of White Evangelicals, a demographic I grew up in, who decided that Jesus’ favorite politician would be a gleeful philanderer, tax cheat, liar, racist, xenophobe, and coward. Maybe it’s our giddy embrace of apocalyptic, man-made climate change. One way or another, our zeitgeist became more overtly obscene to me, and I’ve found myself uniquely primed for a movie that was willing to have some fucking balls when it came to describing it. And that film, this year, was unquestionably Spike Lee‘s BlackKkKlansman.

I’m using “balls” in the illustrative sense here – embracing the seven dirty words doesn’t mean sacrificing all decorum, of course. But this film, which takes place in the 1970s, perfectly describes the inception of the Ku Klux Klan’s strategy to take their hateful ideology mainstream, and puts words into the mouth of David Duke (an unnervingly hilarious performance from Topher Grace) about their plans to move their burning crosses into a three-piece suit, couch their racism in neutral-sounding terms like “law & order”, and bring them squarely into the mainstream of Republican Party politics, and eventually the White House. Is this a reach, and a bit of present-day glibness about the past? Absolutely. But I don’t mind it. Because I’m sick to death of the media and culture and Republican Party politicians who’ve spent the last two years tiptoeing around the fact that the President of the United States is the most powerful white supremacist in history, and this movie isn’t afraid to say it, even as it tells a thoroughly entertaining period police drama in which such commentary is as unexpected as it is unsubtle. I’m not reading this into film – it literally ends with footage of the Charlottesville rally and a “Rest in Power” message to the murdered activist Heather Heyer. But before that, there comes a moment where police detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is asking his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), with whom he has successfully infiltrated their local Colorado Springs Klan chapter:

“Why haven’t you bought into this? …you’re Jewish, brother. The so-called chosen people. You’ve been passing for a WASP. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, cherry pie, hot dog, white boy. Mmm. It’s what some light-skinned black folks do. They pass for white. Doesn’t that hatred you’ve been hearing the Klan say…doesn’t that piss you off?”

In light of the first paragraph, it’s hopefully apparent the extent to which this rant spoke to me personally. And its coterie of outstanding performances and taut police drama – along with a graphic personal account of a 1916 lynching of a mentally challenged child (link is to a BBC documentary, which contains disturbing, graphic content), delivered with appropriate solemnity by a fictional witness and friend (Harry Belafonte) – certainly helped. But it’s fair to say that this film resonated with me so much because I now understand – with the help of friends from marginalized groups that have known this for much longer – something that I didn’t embrace until recently as a self-styled white boy. Whatever I call myself, it’s the violent racists who set the rules of engagement. They decide who’s inside and who’s out, and drive policy and violence alike to achieve that aim – and that’s true even if some of them would be quite stupid enough to let me into their sad little club if I said the right dirty words about myself in their presence (like both Driver and Washington do so effectively and disturbingly here). This is a story of triumph – the good guys over the bad – even if its climax, foiling a bomb plot, is a complete fiction. More to the point, it’s a call to action that the United States sorely needs right now: to identify, infiltrate, and destroy these assholes before they can get any firmer of a foothold.

#7: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman

I’m still annoyed at Solo: A Star Wars Story for wasting so much of the time and creativity of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (and for turning Kessel Run fanwankery into permanent canon; don’t @ me), but Disney’s loss was…and another division of Disney’s gain, I suppose. I knew of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) from back when Donald Glover was being quasi-drafted on social media to play the role (eventually doing just that), but I had little interest in the character – he was just another Spider-Man. Ditto Spider-Gwen, Spider-Pig (or is it Spider-Ham?) or any of the other essentially interchangeable spider-heroes that just sounded like the same lack of creative focus and inconsistent quality that doomed Andrew Garfield‘s incarnation of the character. How wrong I was.

Often, when a film is described as a “loving tribute” (as this rightfully should be), it’s a slightly backhanded compliment. It suggests niche appeal or some mandatory reading required beforehand. But Spider-Verse‘s ethos that “Anyone can wear the mask” is more than just an overdue cry for inclusive casting, and it’s not a dilution of the brand – it’s a joyous celebration of a beloved character. And all you need to know going into this film is who Spider-Man is, why you love him so much, and that this film seemlessly merges different visual and animation styles into one of the most innovative animated films in a decade. As the whole Spider-Verse spills its incarnations into Miles’ world (which is not our own – small touches like the PDNY, some amusing parody film posters, and unexpected incarnations of known characters spell this out over the course of the film), Miles remains the beating heart of this film – a new take on the teenage prodigy discovering his powers for the first time amid the existential chaos of realizing he’s surrounded by other Spider-Men and that his story – while the most interesting and terrifying thing that has ever happened to him – is not unique. And he’s not alone. It certainly helps that Miles is eminently likable and has interesting personal stakes, but he also has well-written banter with the rest of the team, from the more ridiculous, quip-driven members, such as cartoon pig Peter Porker (John Mulaney) and hard-boiled Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage), to the more serious and slightly pathetic Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) who is living the same life as the Peter Parker (Chris Pine) from Miles’ universe, just with a bit less personal success. And no Christmas album.

Among the two December superhero flicks that exceeded my expectations, this is easily the better of the two (and it deserves greater box office success than Aquaman, even if that genie is firmly out of the bottle). See it in theaters while you can, in 3D if you can. It is easily the best superhero film of the year, and perhaps one of the greatest of all time.

#6: Leave No Trace


Directed by Debra Granik, written by Granik & Anne Rosellini, based on novel by Peter Rock

In 2016, my #10 was a three-way tie for “Weirdos in the Wilderness”, which was mostly an excuse to talk about Swiss Army Man a lot. But I feel the need to single out Debra Granik‘s Leave No Trace as a crowning achievement in the genre. This is perhaps because – like her previous narrative feature Winter’s Bone – it presents another stellar up-and-coming young actress, Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Tom, the daughter of Will (Ben Foster), a war vet with PTSD, and the pair of them live…well, in the wilderness. But here’s the thing. Unlike a film like Captain Fantastic, with Viggo Mortensen raising 7 kids as physical and intellectual prodigies who jog up a mountain every morning before debating Nabokov in their trailer, this film has a streak of realism that’s not a mere side order to the heart and wish-fulfillment. Sure, living in the woods away from civilization might be fun for a while. But what Leave No Trace seems to understand is that there’s something a bit off about anyone who chooses this life repeatedly when faced with alternatives, and it’s keen to explore that atypicality with depth and compassion. Will and Tom have a deep familial affection for each other, but they’re really not okay. They’re living in a forest park, hiding from the rangers who are there to ensure that Tom goes to school and is well taken care of, and even as Will is keeping his daughter well-versed in survival skills (including escape and evasion), it’s clear that she has a few skills and desires that he is fundamentally incapable of experiencing or providing for – namely, those that involve interacting with other humans in the outside world. Tom can occasionally fake it – there’s an amazing moment halfway through the film where the pair attends a church service with a private landowner who is playing host and patron to them, and Tom tells his daughter afterward that they’re merely going because if you go to church when asked, people make certain positive assumptions about you. This is both a bleak and insightful picture of community as a form of social camouflage. Clutching a hymnal to your face as if it’s a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Acting Normal, in lieu of actually dealing with the decision to attend or not attend in any consequential way. This film has a lot to say about family, community, and mental health, but it does so in an appropriately subtle fashion, with Foster having to convey a great deal of personal anguish in the guise of a character who speaks very few actual words, even to his closest confidante and only companion in the world. It merely seeks to examine the relationship between these two, and allow us to subtly absorb what behaviors each of them considers normal, and what sort of life each of them wants to live.

#5: Eighth Grade


Written and directed by Bo Burnham

I can’t speak to how well this film encapsulates the current adolescent experience (particularly for girls), but it sure feels real to me – and while much of its resonance is specific to the modern era, with digital natives who spend their entire adolescence sharing bits and pieces of themselves, with appropriate filtration and automatic touchup, a great deal of it feels recognizable to me as part of the horrific in-betweener time that is eighth grade. Elsie Fisher is a precious soul whose performance as Kayla Day is such a natural and effortless awkward, cringe-inducing hellscape that I teetered back and forth between admiring her acting chops and pondering the extent to which making this film was an act of real-world adolescent torture. An eighth grade pool party, are you freaking kidding me? That’s hell. I don’t care if you were the wallflower or the fat kid or the popular kid – nobody was thrilled to be there. By letting Kayla speak her piece through the mantle of a little-watched YouTube series, the film extracts a great deal of insight about her inner life, which largely remains silent and introverted throughout the rest of the film. In my head-canon, this is perhaps a plausible prequel to Lady Bird, despite the totally different dynamic at work between Kayla and her single dad (Josh Hamilton). Mark Day is doing fine, and Kayla is doing as well as can be reasonably expected, and it seems like these two will be fine, hopefully, once she’s done being a kid and starts the process of becoming a young lady. And I was rather pleased to see a film present an example of strained, awkward, but fundamentally capable and ordinary fatherhood. Some little details, like her sitting, earbuds blaring, relentlessly scrolling her phone at dinner (which is established as a Fridays-only privilege at the dinner table), before her dad briefly interrupts her with some encouragement and she screams at him to stop being weird and let her be on her phone. THIS IS FINE. This film was simultaneously poignant, true-to-life, and excruciating to watch, and it feels suspiciously like a loving missive to a target audience of children who are just putting themselves out into the world for the first time. Eighth Grade is a heartfelt assurance – perhaps what was missing from previous attempts like Boyhood, which has aged poorly in my memory – that as they discover their new identities, navigate their new relationships, and decide upon the lives they want – they’ll figure it all out eventually.

#4: Mission: Impossible – Fallout


Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Tom Cruise is one of the most daring and hard-working actors in Hollywood, and this film is the crowning achievement in a franchise that has lapped both 007 and Bourne to become the undisputed champion of the 21st century spy genre. And I feel utterly baffled to be typing that sentence as a part of a Top 10 list in the Year of our Lord 2019. How did we get here? How did the Fast and Furious crew and the IMF come to be contenders in the same business as even as the legacy Cold War dinosaurs have struggled to answer such simple and inane questions as “Can James Bond be black?” (yes, obviously)

The Mission: Impossible franchise has been the sleeper in this genre, with producer J.J. Abrams and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (and one turn by Brad Bird) bringing the franchise’s second trilogy into stark relief as a series of films that is built entirely on a tower of What Insane Thing Can We Make Tom Cruise Do For Real This Time, which has previously included some precarious wirework on the Burj Khalifa, and strapping him to the outside of a cargo jet during takeoff. In this film, that list includes a real-life HALO jump and actually learning to fly a helicopter, in a sequence that is easily the finest (and only) real-life helo chase I’ve seen since, what, Outbreak (1995)? This wasn’t a form of action that I even realized I was starving for until Tom Cruise and the stellar M:I stunt team gave it to me, and it continues the pattern that the series has established: Make the action appear at breakneck speed. Make it continue where you think it’ll stop, and stop where you think it’ll continue, and at all times, make me care about the characters. Just like the Fast and Furious crew, the IMF is all about family now. And that family includes such disparate rogues as Ving Rhames‘ veteran techie (who handles more plot and emotion in this film than the last two combined), Simon Pegg‘s earnest field agent (who has come a long way from his Q days), Alec Baldwin‘s Secretary, and Rebecca Ferguson‘s enigmatic Ilsa Faust, a master spy and love interest that barely deserves the latter moniker, whose story is such a rich and dire reflection of Ethan’s own that it deserves its own spin-off. This is an instant classic, and – in a true feat for the sixth entry in a franchise, one of the best action and spy films ever made.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #138 – “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)

#3: Bodied


Directed by Joseph Kahn, written by Alex Larsen

Joseph Kahn‘s filmography includes a physics-defying motorcycle-themed Fast and Furious knockoff, a short film featuring adult Power Rangers, a bizarre high-school horror farce, every recent Taylor Swift video, and now…a brilliant satire about racism, sensitivity, and political correctness, through the lens of competitive freestyle rap battles, produced by none other than self-styled Rap God Eminem. Let’s talk about political correctness for a moment. When a certain sector of American politics uses this term, they just mean they’re tired of being called racist when they say and do racist things and elect outspoken racists to the White House. If you find yourself in this position, look inward, and probably avoid this film, because I suspect its message – delivered with some subtlety between the violently offensive language and insult repartee – may elude you.

Don’t get me wrong – just because the American right-wing has little self-awareness about their snowflake status when they complain about being called out for their voluntary words and deeds by people who voluntarily dislike them, the very first people to be deservingly eviscerated in this film are white liberal intellectuals such as myself. When Adam (Calum Worthy) and his girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) arrive at a dingy warehouse to observe their first freestyle rap competition, and Adam begins translating the lingo for his girlfriend (“Probably just assume everything is a gun metaphor”), your first understandable reaction will be…what a pair of pretentious assholes. Then Adam meets his rap battle mentor Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) and informs him that his Berkeley English thesis will be on the subject of the N-word in competitive rap battles, this initial impression will be all but confirmed.

Because when it comes down to it, all of these people are skilled performers, and the surface-level racist and sexist insults are both what the audience expects, and a marker that you’re a total hack as a performer. Funny usually overrides offensive, but there’s no rule that says anyone has to like you when you’re done speaking your piece, nor to invite you back ever again. These people are ostensibly combatants, but they’re really more like coworkers. And a skilled performer will only cross unforgivable professional and personal lines if they mean to. and they certainly won’t have any right to complain afterward. A few secondary characters, Prospek (Dumbfoundead) and Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai) explore this motif in further detail, and it’s to the film’s minor detriment that this plotline wasn’t given a bit more room to breathe. But there’s plenty going on with Adam’s descent into madness to carry the film. The film’s Wiki page mistakenly declares that villain is a (legitimately terrifying) rapper named Megaton (Dizaster, who wrote all of his own lyrics for this film). But the truth is, Adam is the villain. He is his own worst enemy, and watching the tension that ensues as Behn Grymm tries to pull him back from the brink of becoming an utter monster is the real conflict that drives the film. Worthy is a stunning heel (and an excellent battler), but it’s Long that makes this film work. He’s the Obi-Wan, doomed to train a monster who will turn directly and willingly to the dark side. It’s just a matter of how far he goes, what consequences he faces, and whether there’s any chance of pulling him back.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #135 – “Tag” (dir. Jeff Tomsic), “Bodied” (dir. Joseph Kahn) (SIFF)

#2: Sorry to Bother You


Written and directed by Boots Riley

There comes a moment in Boots Riley‘s masterpiece, Sorry to Bother You, when Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) sits in dank luxury with a sociopathic executive (Armie Hammer), who begins a hilariously earnest monologue in which he’s desperate to explain and normalize the fucked up thing that is happening in the third act of this film. “See?” he says, brandishing a gun, “It’s all just a big misunderstanding. I just didn’t want you to think I was crazy – that I was doing this for no reason.”

That, perhaps as much as the performance and street art of Cash’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), seems to be the point of the film. To present a captivating, corporate-dystopian portrait of Oakland – a city that is having quite the cinematic renaissance in the past few years – that’s equal parts Neal Stephenson, Michel Gondry, and David Kronenberg. I first became aware of Stanfield as the lead in Crown Heights, and if there’s one thing he balances well as he carries another lead role, it’s Cassius’ fundamental moral dilemma – remain a decent human being in a happy relationship, or make money and find success in a world that will only allow him to do so if he veers toward evil. It’s a familiar, Faustian tale told with an original and authentic voice (including affected “white voices” for several of the leads, with Cash’s played by David Cross, Detroit’s by Lily James, and Mr. _____, an anonymous foil played by Omari Hardwick, voiced by Patton Oswalt) – and unlike other memorable audience surrogates like Bing in Black Mirror or [any lead in any film about Wall Street], Cash is thick with hilarious repartee (including a duel of compliments) and is buoyed by an outstanding supporting cast. Tessa Thompson, who has become an honest-to-goodness movie star in record time, is a fine choice for Detroit, but she only works because Riley clearly cares as much about the character being fully realized as Thompson does. Every detail of Detroit, from her outspoken opposition to the capitalist excess of the film’s world (and the real world by extension), to the assortment of profane feminist t-shirts and slam poetry earrings (with all due credit to costumer Deirdra Govan, as well as Riley and Thompson) – to her artistic and narrative and sexual agency, simply works. The film’s critiques of the role of labor in what it would certainly call late-stage capitalism is central to the film’s plot, and…I really can’t say much more about it, except to say that this sort of critique is veering firmly into the mainstream than when it’s featured in over-the-hill, libertarian legacy media like South Park. But while Trey Parker and Matt Stone are able to cloak their literal recitation of the Communist Manifesto under untold layers of irony, this film wears its sincere and unapologetically radical-leftist rage on its sleeve. And it believes the future for workers – particularly workers of color – is quite bleak indeed.

#1: The Favourite


Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, written by Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara

At the risk of being terribly on-the-nose, The Favourite is my favourite this year. I saw this film on the night of December 31st, and I’m quite sure I’ve succumbed to recency bias here, because it’s the only one I’ve wanted to talk about since seeing it (we’ll be reviewing it on the podcast next week), and the only one I’ve wanted to put in the #1 slot. Like The Lobster (my 2016 fave), this film was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and stars Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman, but unlike that film, it was not co-written by Lanthimos himself. It began its life with screenwriter Deborah Davis and producer Ceci Dempsey in 1998, which means it took twenty years for a period costume drama featuring a love triangle between three women – an aspect that is barely hinted at in the trailer) – to get made. And it’s quite unclear how to categorize what I’m watching here. Is this tale of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her two warring lovers, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz), and her cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), some form of secret history? Speculative fiction? A bit of both? A quick perusal of Wikipedia finds that the broad strokes of this story are true, and all of this taking place during the War of the Spanish Succession – the continuation of which is the subject of sharp political controversy in the film – lends an element of higher stakes to a proceeding that is already made monumentally entertaining with the wicked court dialogue and copious profanity. The word “va-juju” appears in this film, and I’m not entirely sure it existed prior to this century (although “fuck” certainly did) – but this language feels like a sort of Deadwood-style profanity-as-shorthand – using anachronistic language to try and make a modern audience react in the same way as people of the time might have done. And it works. These people are fiendishly cruel, playing their power games in a petty and representative fashion over a conflict that will spill real blood and treasure and affect the lives of millions in the real world.

And did I mention the sharp tongues? There are barbs in this film that made me want to take a sip of seltzer just so I could spit it out. There is a particular moment where Abigail greets a wigged and blushed nighttime visitor (with whom she’s been engaging in a steady and aggressive flirtation). She sets down her book, looks him up and down, and asks, “What an outfit. Have you come to seduce me or rape me?” “I am a gentleman!” he protests. “So, rape then,” she says dryly, before stealing his wig, wiping off his blush, kiss-biting his lip, and sending him on his way.

Whether it was dance parties, duck races, orange-pelting, formal break-dance parties, or darkly hilarious scenes such as the one above, a persistent reaction I had to this film was “The fuck did I just watch?“. Besides solid supporting work from Joe Alwyn and James Smith, this is perhaps the finest comedic work I’ve seen from Nicholas Hoult, who plays Robert Harley, the leader of the Tory opposition government, perhaps the film’s best practitioner of feckless, weaponized indignation (after reading this, Harley would surely ask me if I want to get punched before huffing and walking away). The relationship between Sarah and the Queen is extremely well-developed by the time the film begins, full of history and nicknames and court dynamics and comfortable banter. Sarah isn’t merely the royal favourite; she is a deservedly trusted advisor who can be depended upon to tell the truth, even when it hurts…but who is also transparently manipulating the Queen to support her own political aims. And the tension at work between all of these aspects of Sarah’s identity in this relationship – advisor, lover, confidante, and independent thinker – must come to a head. If Abigail hadn’t blown the whole thing up, something else surely would have. Abigail, meanwhile, is an obscure cousin of a family whose grandfather produced 22 offspring, and it’s no surprise that Sarah neither knows who she is nor has any particular desire to help her. Abigail is earnest, ruthless, and self-serving. She arrives, sexually harassed and dumped into mud and horse-apples from a carriage, and it’s all par for the course in a life that included being sold as a teenager to pay off her father’s debt to a German merchant. And she’ll tell Sarah all about these things, gaining her trust, and effortlessly advancing her station. But the most fascinating thing about Abigail is that it’s never quite clear if she’s intentionally competing, or merely advancing herself at any cost in a zero-sum game. It really doesn’t seem like she desires to take anything away from Sarah, but she’s happy to steal the Queen’s favor from her if that’s the only way she can have it. The Queen, meanwhile – apparently Colman’s third royal performance – is in a rotten state. In flagging health, barely interested in the affairs of state – cruel, self-indulgent, and capricious. And yet deeply covetous of love, and constantly surrounded by the insincere and insecure variety of the same.

While I’m not quite sure how to characterize its factual basis, the broad details of The Favourite are more-or-less, kinda-sorta-not-really accurate, the performances are stellar, and the love triangle that is central to the film’s conflict is fascinating in its depth and subtlety. What’s more, the film is relentlessly funny even as it honestly tackles some dour real-life material (Queen Anne’s husband was dead by this point, and she had had 17 miscarriages, stillbirths, or deaths in childhood – and no surviving offspring). These performances work because the characters are never afraid to speak their truth to each other, even as they’re back-biting and plotting on each other. And all of this chipper pretense, intercut with casual cruelty and shocking threats of violence, helps call out the ever-present voice of director Yorgos Lanthimos. This film is less of a dense meatball than his usual fare; it’s more of a chocolate mousse that you want to spread out over everything and never stop eating. It feels less like Downton Abbey and more of a spiritual successor to Patrice Leconte‘s Ridicule or Stanley Kubrick‘s Barry Lyndon. It is rich, decadent, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan (a new visual partner with Lanthimos) utilizing a whip-panning fish-eye lens that drinks in every detail of the floor-to-ceiling opulence of the palaces and dresses and endless corridors, barely able to contain it all as it literally and optically bulges at the seams. This look and feel is frankly perfect for who and what these people are: larger-than-life and despicable. Sarah wants to bleed the gentry dry with a land tax to continue funding an endless war with the French that the movie never troubles to explain the basis for (frankly, it was a hard sell in real life). As she says to the queen in a Very Serious Voice that “The War is not over – it must continue,” it was hard not to think of the War in Afghanistan as it enters its 18th year of uninterrupted bipartisan support. Sarah is a Whig, the Queen is a Tory, and these party identifications hardly matter, since these people never debate the war with anything but patriotic platitudes and generic insults about the cruel French who will surely be crossing the Channel to sodomize the goodwives of of Cornwall or whatever. How do these people sleep at night? I suspect they’ll find a way, until the Queen’s poorly constitution and whimsical rage sends them clattering into exile and disgrace.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Roma (directed by Alfonso Cuarón)
  • Hereditary (directed by Ari Aster)
  • Blindspotting (directed by Carlos López Estrada)
  • Bird Box (directed by Susanne Bier)
  • Pig (directed by Mani Haghighi) (podcast)
  • Annihilation (directed by Alex Garland) (podcast)
  • The Death of Stalin (directed by Armando Iannucci)
  • 22 July (directed by Paul Greengrass) (podcast)
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen) (podcast)
  • You Were Never Really Here (directed by Lynne Ramsay)
  • Disobedience (directed by Sebastián Lelio)
  • Searching (directed by Aneesh Chaganty)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #144 – “Aquaman” (dir. James Wan), “They Shall Not Grow Old” (dir. Peter Jackson)

Poster for "Aquaman" (2018 film)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel take a magical journey onto the Western Front of World War I with Peter Jackson‘s stunning documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old – easily his most striking and personal project in years. And then we go deep in a world of low expectations and find ourselves pleasantly surprised by James Wan‘s Aquaman (42:35).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "They Shall Not Grow Old"

FilmWonk rating (They Shall Not Grow Old): 10/10 (Daniel), 9/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Aquaman): 6.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [00:32] Review: They Shall Not Grow Old
  • [20:17] Review: Aquaman
  • Music for this episode is the track “Mademoiselle from Armentières”, from the soundtrack for They Shall Not Grow Old.
  • We made copious reference to Dan Carlin‘s Hardcore History miniseries about World War I, titled “Blueprint for Armageddon”. You can check out the first part here – highly recommended.
  • For US listeners, as of this writing there is still one more chance to see They Shall Not Grow Old in theaters, on Thursday 12/27. See Fathom Events for tickets.

Listen above, or download: Aquaman, They Shall Not Grow Old (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)