Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” (2012) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Grey"

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.

Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day.”

“I died with my brothers – with a full fucking heart.”

“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way.
Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.

“Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die.”

John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is no poet, but his dad was, as well as being a “clichéd Irish motherfucker when he wanted to be. Drinker, brawler, all that stuff”. His cartoon leprechaun of a father really isn’t the problem here, nor is his obviously dead wife, who manages to appear in identical flashbacks six separate times, lying in bed saying “Don’t be afraid” in full hair and makeup while – as is revealed about 20 seconds before the end credits – bloodlessly dying of a terminal disease. Nor is the problem Ottway himself, whose opening monologue awkwardly admits that he is surrounded (at the remote Alaskan oil drilling site that is his workplace) by assholes, ex-cons, fugitives, and drifters. Nor is the problem that he uh…”moves like he imagines the damned do” (whatever that means). Most of the verbal or voiced-over attempts to add depth to these characters read as generic screenwriting stand-ins that probably should have been replaced with something more poetic later on. Ultimately, none of it was replaced – The Grey just kinda kept piling it on. And a decade ago, I scoffed and waited impatiently for the wolf-punching to begin.

People face death for a lot of unnecessary reasons in a society that treats many humans as disposable instruments of empire-building, and some of them are inclined toward poetry in the process. What’s more, a lot of poetry has been written for them, often by people who have no sense of what they’re describing – educated and pampered cultural elites who haven’t faced a shred of real danger, and would wordlessly shit themselves if they ever did (film critic says what?). After five million dead in two years of COVID (and a million more per year from tuberculosis, before and since), I suppose I may just be done scoffing at the dying of the light for a while, or meandering, febrile attempts to make sense of it before the moment comes. Let the damned speak their piece. Not like anyone’s going to do it for them.

Still from "The Grey" (2012 film)

I revisited The Grey because I feel as if I’ve become a more charitable critic in the intervening years, and this one stuck with me more than I expected it to. I stand by most of my previous reviews, but that’s not to say I’ve never changed my overall opinion of a film. Listening back to our podcast for The Grey, I was, I must admit, an insufferable snark monster about this film. I respect the craft involved. For cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi – who was hot shit for a few years there, filming for the likes of David O. Russell, Scott Cooper, and Tom McCarthy – to shoot something this coherent in blackness and snow, with a mostly CGI wolf-pack that spends most of its time hunting and striking in the dark, is a real accomplishment (even if the absolute king of this is still Emmanuel Lubezki on The Revenant). The sound design (from supervisors David G. Evans and Mark Gingras) is crucial as well, giving personality, bearing, and distance to the wolf pack as they are barely perceptible in the howling winter. Two things are simultaneously true of this film: It is a better-than-average survival thriller with a middling script, whose performances, with broadly interchangeable and equally doomed men, are each given an artisanal touch by their performers that the film’s various death monologues sorely needed. And God help me (or – fuck it – I’ll do this one myself), I enjoyed this film a lot more this time around, perhaps because I’m entering middle age, and death is no longer the kind of distant hypothetical annoyance it was at the height of my mid-20s energy and arrogance.

I must confess, I’ve spent the last decade inadvertently spreading a bit of misinformation about this film – for me, this was always the one that fraudulently sold itself as “the Liam Neeson wolf-punching movie”. As Ottway dons his improvised death-knuckles (made of tape and broken miniature liquor bottles) for his final showdown with the Alpha Wolf (guarding the den that it turns out the group was wandering toward this whole time), the film ends as each animal lunges toward the camera. Cut to black, and credits. My younger self was annoyed, and would tell anyone who would listen that there is no wolf-punching in this goddamn movie. As it turns out, that wasn’t and isn’t true. It’s a bit hard to see in the crash-site mire and darkness, but Ottway does punch a wolf about 25 minutes into the film, during one of the first attacks amid the wreckage. Then Diaz (a pre-Purge, pre-MCU Frank Grillo) stabs and eventually decapitates one. It’s just all very dark and muddy and incomprehensible, which bugged me at the time, but is pretty clearly a deliberate choice in retrospect. Anyway, fuck it. Jeremy Renner fist-fought a wolf the very same year in a scene that has aged rather poorly, and suffice to say, this was always a bit of a “be careful what you wish for” scenario.

Ottway’s barking atheism in the final scene is a powerhouse moment for Neeson, who didn’t acknowledge any real-world influence in Ottway’s expression of grief for his late wife in this film, but invited the audience to draw their own conclusions. The man slumps by the side of the river, a lone and temporary survivor of an animalistic slaughter, bargaining with a god he no longer believes in. And it lands. But the moment when his performance started to click for me was much earlier in the film, when the time comes for Ottway to take Diaz down a peg by mocking his masculine bravado and admitting, for all of these roughnecks to hear, that he is scared shitless. Of course, the scene ends with Diaz pulling a knife and demanding Ottway fight him, echoing a challenge that we hear taking place offscreen between a pair of wolves – the Omega and the Alpha, Ottway tells us. And each pack of animals settles their business in similar ways. Ottway throws Diaz to the ground and disarms him. Then he gives back the knife with a quick “No más”. Diaz, in spite of himself, starts to apologize before the Omega shows up, outcast to a quick death to test the humans’ defenses. There’s a very loose and messy statement about violence and toxic masculinity at work in this scene, with no clear conclusions, but it is interesting to hear these men debate how much of society’s basic decency has followed them into this situation (including whether to loot the bodies for supplies and wallets), when it appears the only thing keeping them together is Ottway’s persuasive threats to start beating the shit of any malcontents in the next five seconds. This clear and natural mantle of leadership brings the group together as brothers in arms (minus the arms) with a plainly obvious chain of command: Ottway is the Alpha.

Despite their bravado, each of them still manages to visibly weep whenever one of their brothers gets killed before their eyes, even if they don’t even know each other’s first names until the end. This idea – of fighting for the man next to you – is nothing new to this film. It’s a war movie trope just as surely as the poetry above (which I borrowed from The Grey, Lone Survivor, Act of Valor and…a 170-year-old Tennyson poem). And yet it always rings a true in the moment, because with the knowledge that everyone dies alone, there is something intuitive about a person facing a senseless, violent death right in front of you and recognizing that the least you can do, in the interests of your shared humanity, is to hold their hand and feel bad for them. The group takes the small, defensible moments between attacks as an opportunity to wax religiously, with Talget (Dermot Mulroney) insisting that God must have spared them all for a reason, and his buddies pointing out that Flannery (Joe Anderson) and Hernandez (Ben Bray) were “spared” as well, only to be eaten by wolves. Ottway and Diaz argue from separate places grounded in firm atheism: Diaz, out of cynicism and spite worthy of a PureFlix origin farce starring Kevin Sorbo, and Ottway, radiating sincere regret. He’s done with God, but he remembers his days of faith and misses them – something I found relatable, even if I’m also not keen to go backward.

Still from "The Grey" (2012 film)

There’s a reason why all this death poetry rings familiar and runs together for us. We tell the same stories over and over again about this mortal coil because we occasionally find comfort and meaning in them. And the less the world makes sense to us, the more elusive that meaning can be, which may be why a new study in the Journal of Religion and Health indicates that self-reported religious faith has plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic – a reliable effect across religious and spiritual people from all prior levels of devotion. In a world so full of senseless death and dubious purpose, perhaps that’s why a simple survival story landed better for me this time. These guys – these assholes, ex-cons, fugitives, and drifters, don’t have to fix the world they’re helping to break by drilling for Arctic oil, any more than I have to do so as one of the complicit billions buying and burning it. They’re in a survival situation that feels primal and essentially human. No tools apart from their brains and muscles, and their ability to use them collectively (including one pretty awesome cliffhanger action scene – one of the few things I also liked the first time I saw the film). The world, such as it is, ceases to matter for the duration of this story. Which makes the story feel like it matters more.
The last line of poetry above, Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die, was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1854, in “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. That last bit must have been too grim for modern audiences, because it has mutated over time to “Theirs is not to wonder why; theirs is but to do or die”. A simple twist of grammar turns an imposed suicide mission into chosen heroism. The poster tagline for The Grey suffers from a similar mutation – Live and die on this day, a trifling poem by Ottway’s terrible father, becomes Live or die on this day, a trite piece of studio marketing which definitely suggests that survival is both the point and a possibility. Perhaps that’s why The Grey let me down the first time. A false bill of fictional goods doesn’t bother me so much anymore. Tennyson led an interesting life and became a beloved historical poet, but he was a pampered Victorian aristocrat who never saw hide nor hair of whatever the fuck the Crimean War was about, so I won’t be too outraged on his behalf for his message being lost in the clichés. But I’ll spare a thought or two for the dead men he wrote some poetry about. And whichever wolves devoured them, lest they be devoured themselves.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

2021 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2021)

#11: World of Tomorrow (2015),
World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2017),
World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (2021)

Poster for "World of Tomorrow" (2015 Don Hertzfeldt short)

Written and directed by Don Hertzfeldt

As ever, #11 is where I cheat a bit. But hell, if Disney can consume the entire theatrical experience with their vast wealth and coterie of antitrust lawyers, and if Cahiers du Cinéma can name a season of Twin Peaks as their best film of the year, I’m pretty sure everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. These three short sci-fi films, collectively, make my list of the best of 2021, even if only 30 minutes or so were actually released last year. Don Hertzfeldt‘s World of Tomorrow began in 2015, and has continued with two additional shorts, including 2021’s The Absent Destinations of David Prime. These films are about cloning, immortality, and time-TRAV-el, centered in each case around an interaction between a distant future version of a child named Emily and a museum exhibit called David, as well as versions of their present selves who don’t know that any of this is destined to happen. Winona Mae is the child actor who voices young Emily Prime, and while both the actor and character age noticeably between episodes One and Two, this is a performance that feels like it must be judged similarly to Catinca Untaru in the 2006 film The Fall, because this is an actor (or at least a performance) that is coded as too young to comprehend the story that she’s in, making character and actor seem equally reactive to the grand, impossible yarn being spun around her. As such, I can’t really say whether this is a good or bad performance, as it doesn’t really exist for me on that spectrum, but it is certainly an adorable and effective one, functioning as a counterpoint for the oddly childlike manner of the future beings, who seem to barely understand the impact of their meandering tourism about the timeline.

World of Tomorrow presents the reductio ad absurdum of time-TRAV-el as an invention which – if it can ever be invented in a way that permits travel to the past, must have effectively always existed, and any changes that it brought have already impacted the timeline as we know it. It also speaks at length about the increasingly evasive search for meaning in a world of limitless energy and technology, and maintains a healthy degree of self-awareness that such a search is a luxury reserved for those who are unconcerned with their own material needs. It posits that, as ever, there will be people in the future who don’t have access to these wonders based on the random happenstance of their birth.

All three short films approach this nihilistic angst about the future with the same sardonic humor I’ve come to expect from the creator of Rejected (“My spoon is too big!”), where the Adult Swim-style stoner absurdism is a mask for something much darker, further-reaching, and ultimately satisfying. Because as Emily’s clone posits in Episode 1, “Now is the envy of all the dead,” past or yet to come. And there’s precious little difference between them.

#10: Petite Maman

Poster for "Petite Maman"

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma

This short, sweet, and simple film from Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) gave me something that I didn’t even realize I was missing from the fantasy genre: The straightforward and uncomplicated exploration of impossible things. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is a young girl who has just lost her grandmother, and is traveling with her parents to help empty out her house. It is obviously not her first time there, and she loved her grandmother very much. As her parents deal with the boring, dour business of picking through the remnants of a life well lived, Nelly explores the nearby woods, and finds a local girl, Marion (played by the actress’ real-life sister, Gabrielle Sanz), whom she quickly realizes is her mother as a child. Literally. When they meet in the middle of the woods, they have each traveled through time from different versions of the same house. And what’s more, Nelly figures it out very quickly and they immediately discuss it, with all the candor and curiosity that children often bring to the table. Marion gets to know the exact age she’ll be when she has a child. And when her own mother dies. They discuss the life, love, and grief that they will come to share.

Fantasy often contains elements of allegory and history, but my first forays into the genre as a child were essentially just magical adventures in which children experience impossible things without any explanation or preamble, and react as children do: with open minds and a sense of wonder. The Phantom Tollbooth. Bridge to Terabithia. Narnia and Alice. Of course, you can always find deeper meaning in these texts, but it doesn’t have to be obvious to its audience or its young heroes, who are simply trying to explore a magical world and take in whatever wonders can be had there. And Petite Maman is one of those, even if its world is simple, confined to a house and family on the edge of the woods.

#9: Encounter

Still from "Encounter" (2021 film)

Directed by Michael Pearce, written by Pearce and Joe Barton

From my review:

Encounter feels fresh and new, and that is an invaluable thing. It casts alien invasion as a fear that we can turn fully inward, because in a world that feels increasingly hostile and alien, the last bastion of hope may be the bonds of family, whatever that means to each of us, plus the inside of our own heads and good judgment, for whatever that’s worth. And the tension between these dueling forces, the space between hope and fear, is right where this film thrives tonally. Every moment with this family feels precarious and crisisbound, but also every bit the jovial road trip that it seems to be. Because Malik not only feels like a real father to these children, but the kids themselves are well-drawn and react in ordinary ways to the situation, alternating between excitement, cooperation, bickering, skepticism, and terror, and ultimately just wanting everything and everyone to be okay.”

Check out my full review:
“Encounter” (dir. Michael Pearce) – A family roadtrip through a demon-haunted world

Available on Prime Video here.

#8: Riders of Justice

Poster for "Riders of Justice"

Written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen

From the poster, you probably think you have a good idea of what you’ll get from this film. Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) is a soldier in Afghanistan (a backstory we’ll have to retire until the next war!) who learns that his wife Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind) has been killed in a train accident back home in Denmark, so he musters out and goes home to take over solo parenting of their teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). As he adjusts to his new life, he discovers that his wife’s death (the indirect and coincidental result of Mathilde’s bicycle being stolen) may not have been an accident after all. So Markus begins what the movie posters call a “roaring rampage of revenge” against the Riders of Justice, the violent motorcycle gang whom he believes to be responsible for his wife’s death.

I saw several solid revenge flicks last year with a few bones in common to Riders of Justice, including Nobody and Wrath of Man. And while Riders of Justice is every bit the violent revenge fantasy that it appears to be externally, it also has an aesthetic of garage-bound mad science straight out of Primer, and existential detective work worthy of Dirk Gently or I Heart Huckabees. Because among the survivors of the train accident are Otto and Lennart (Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Lars Brygmann), a pair of data scientists who believe they can predict the future, and one of whom gave up his seat for Emma right before the accident, inadvertently putting her into harm’s way. And while Markus doesn’t remotely blame these two men for being witnesses and survivors of the accident that killed his wife, he gradually becomes a true believer. The two scientists are determined to remain involved, forming an odd little family with Markus and Mathilde which spends breakfast debating the broader meaning of disparate events before going on a quick afternoon killing spree. This deeply bizarre action comedy is like nothing else I saw this year, is technically a Christmas movie, and is well worth a look.

Available on Hulu here.

#7: The Harder They Fall

Poster for "The Harder They Fall"

Directed by Jeymes Samuel, written by Samuel and Boaz Yakin, story by Samuel.

I like westerns. And I’ve been pleased to see the canon of the American western expand significantly in my lifetime. As long as we’re going to spend a century and a half reminiscing and mythmaking about westward expansion, we might as well get some variety, whether it’s about the first cow in Oregon, the last cow in Montana, or far-flung cows and boys which transplant the genre into brand new locales. But at its best, the western genre is less about historical resonance than it is about showcasing cool action setpieces and shootouts. One of my favorites in the genre, Tombstone (1993, dir. George P. Cosmatos), was almost gleefully revisionist, spending as much time and effort making each member of its ensemble look like a passionate badass as it did recapping real events like the shoot-out at the OK Corral.

The Harder They Fall is another revisionist western in the same vein, presenting a wholly fictitious tale about some very real people – nearly all of them Black. Because the canon of the American western has been overwhelmingly white, this is a welcome change. And in order to properly understand the importance of these characters, I would encourage any readers of this review to spend a few minutes clicking through the Wikipedia cast list for this film, and reading a bit about each of the historical personas on display here, because any one of them could be the centerpiece of a movie all by themselves. Of course there were black people in the American West – many of them quite famous in their time. Their stories simply haven’t been told as often, nor have they been the subject of the usual mythmaking that we foist upon any other cowboy or cowgirl whose stories we admire, as the fastest whatever in the West. We know that who wins in a shootout is as much about luck as skill. And that prevailing in a showdown at high noon is something that occurs most persuasively in a studio editing room. But we don’t watch westerns to be reminded of this. We watch westerns to see badass frontier heroes. And this movie’s got em.

Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba play Nat Love and Rufus Buck, the leaders of a pair of rival outlaw gangs (operating here and there under the blessing of law, as is often the case in both the western and pirate genres), bound by blood and revenge to do each other harm until they can’t anymore. They are joined by a fabulous ensemble cast including Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, RJ Cyler, and Deon Cole, and it must be said, each and every one of these people gets a moment in this film in which they get to be cool as hell (or, as needed, scary as hell), and that is a hard thing to accomplish with such a large ensemble. The clear A-Team, B-Team dynamic also feels lived in, with established relationships, including some persuasive rough-and-tumble romance, amongst the group. As one skirmish after another paves the way for a final battle between these cowboy titans, it remains absolutely clear why everyone else is invested in this fight. Many of these beats are straight out of the superhero genre, but they are executed here with a great deal of skill and a significantly lower budget.

Casting historical personas as fictional badasses is understandably a bit fraught in terms of representation – critic Ineye Komonibo weighed in on the casting of Beetz (a particular acting standout in this film) as the real-life post rider and businesswoman Stagecoach Mary Fields, who had a darker skin tone than Beetz. This is not a debate I feel particularly qualified to weigh in on, but it seems worth mentioning even as I praise the film.

The soundtrack of this film was supervised by Jeymes Samuel himself (known on the music stage as The Bullitts) as well as Jay-Z, who also serves as an executive producer on the film. The result is a fabulous blend of old and new, mixing the familiar themes of Ennio Morricone (in style only, I believe – no direct sampling that I noticed) with a variety of genres, including R&B and reggae (the latter of which works shockingly well for the Western genre, as its relaxed beat fits beautifully with a saunter on horseback). According to the film’s cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, the script was full of musical cues, and the entire film was constructed with the musical timing involved – a boast that the film thoroughly delivers on, feeling at times like an extended music video. Several characters introduce themselves in song (including Stagecoach Mary, tapping out the beat of her song onstage with the butt of her rifle). These tracks are regrettably not all on the soundtrack, but the actors really do seem to be singing. All the more reason to watch the whole film. Rest assured there’s quite as much shooting as there is singing.

Available on Netflix here.

#6: The White Tiger

Still from "The White Tiger"

Written for the screen and directed by Ramin Bahrani, based on the novel by Aravind Adiga

Goodfellas fans: Do not sleep on The White Tiger. This US/India co-production from 99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani is one of the first films I saw in 2021 (last year’s bizarre COVID awards schedule notwithstanding), but it is one of the most memorable. This film is an adaptation of the Man Booker Prize-winning dark comic novel by Aravind Adiga, and chronicles the rise of would-be entrepreneur Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a low-born member of a poorly regarded caste, who goes to work for a pair of local political strongmen brothers, the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) and the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), and begins a quest for power that will take him from his small-town family life in Rajasthan to the corridors of underground power in New Delhi. This film is lush with detail and moral complexity (with Balram gradually prodding and often kicking aside his own ideas of what’s right). Gourav’s performance is an absolute wonder to behold, with the character code-switching seamlessly from his servile demeanor when around any of his bosses to his slow, bubbling desire to get a piece of power and wealth for himself, because – as he puts it – there are only two castes that matter: those with a full belly, and those with an empty one.

Also fascinating (and perhaps providing a voice for part of the Indian and Indian-American diaspora) is Priyanka Chopra Jonas, also a producer of the film, who plays Pinky, an Indian-American woman who has married the Stork’s son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and returned to India for the first time in decades. While Balram’s relationship with Ashok (which is variably that of an employee, friend, and footstool) is quite fascinating, Pinky is of particular interest. Chopra Jonas reportedly discovered this film in development whilst scrolling Twitter (one of the only times anything important has occurred in that venue since Rex Tillerson was shitcanned), and I certainly hope she was satisfied with the result, because this is a performance that contains multitudes. Pinky is American-educated, and has some very American ideas about individual autonomy, patriarchy (as manifested variably in the US and India), and economic inequality, and yet clearly relies upon and is not afraid to invoke the power that wealth inevitably brings you. Her manner swings wildly between egalitarian, paternalistic (a quintessential American tourist), and self-serving. It’s an impressive performance. Rao is also strong here, playing the thankless role of the hapless scion of a crime family who is constantly surrounded by people more capable and ambitious than himself.

When the chips are down, absolutely every character in this film contains a vicious streak, and as we watch them find their way through a world of corruption, graft, family and caste pressures, and rising economic tides in India’s favor, it is utterly fascinating to see which of these forces will win their souls. Back in February, I described The White Tiger as having a swagger in its step and a chip on its shoulder. This movie has a bite, and it is not going to provide its audience any simple answers or wholly sympathetic characters. Its vibe is fast-paced and deadly serious. It flies by, presenting an imperfect story about the rise of an imperfect protagonist in a world where India’s ascendence and nationalistic swagger isn’t going pat a Western audience gently on the bum and say, “It’s okay, you’re still number one.” This is a film that scoffs in dialogue at Slumdog Millionaire and whose main character (in an early sign of the darkness to come) makes one of his first career moves by getting his rival chauffeur fired for being a Muslim. Between these acts and a series of quick cuts from the future (2010), we know from the outset that Balram will end up in a position of power. The only question remaining is how much we’ll be able to relate with him along the way, and how many heads he’ll have to step on to get there.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #179 – “Bliss” (dir. Mike Cahill), “The White Tiger” (dir. Ramin Bahrani)

Available on Netflix here.

#5: Dune

Poster for "Dune" (2021 film)

Directed by Denis Villeneueve, written by Villeneueve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth, based on the novel by Frank Herbert.

I had very little invested in Dune. I haven’t read any of the books or seen any other media, apart from a half-remembered viewing of the 1984 David Lynch film in high school and Jodorowsky’s Dune after that. But Denis Villeneuve’s take on this material is one of the most gorgeous 4K streaming experiences I’ve ever had (even if its sequel seems unlikely to repeat the same day-and-date streaming experiment), as well as one of the most accessible and well-realized sci-fi worlds I’ve seen since Jupiter Ascending. Rest assured for any Wachowski detractors: That was a compliment. Making a complex sci-fi world feel huge, elaborate, and lived-in is a hard thing to accomplish, and this film pulled it off in every detail from the gargantuan sandworms to the ornithopters, which felt like plausible technology from another world as I was watching them, and also felt instantly iconic in the same way as more conceptually ridiculous fare like the X-Wing or TIE Fighter. Looking real is not the goal here – the goal was looking cool, and the film largely accomplished both. It took a fairly straightforward “colonizer fights for the future of a planet he’s in the process of conquering” tale and turned it into a world where I can believe these gargantuan wonders exist. And while it remains to be seen (as with Avatar) whether that world can accommodate further storytelling, this works well as a standalone tale – something that I saw some book-readers denying, and a criticism I frankly find baffling. As with the first Lord of the Rings book and film, Dune was clearly not conceived as the whole story, but it still feels like a complete story by itself. It has all of the things a story needs, including several memorable performances by characters (whom I dare not name here) whose stories seem to have reached their narrative end. And I’m hooked. This is my Dune – and I should very much like to visit it again.

#4: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Still from "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar"

Directed by Josh Greenbaum, written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig

While you’ve probably seen the SNL-style character-based comedy in this film before, Barb and Star, featuring Bridesmaids screenwriters and star Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, is something special. As with Bridemaids, Wiig and Mumolo wrote this film, and Mumolo has jumped in from cameo to co-lead. And what is absolutely clear from the outset of this film is that these two are on precisely the same comic wavelength, and you will know very quickly whether it’s one you’d like to get onto as well (it was about 50-50 among my friends and family).

Whether they’re gabbing on the couch at their mall retail job (where they both show up regardless of which of them is scheduled to work that day) or spinning a yarn on an airplane about a wholly hypothetical woman named Trish (a reliable woman who’s really got her act together!), you will know very quickly whether this film is working for you. Because on top of that character comedy (which includes Wiig in a secondary role as a Dr. Evil-adjacent villain), there is also a fair amount of Tim & Eric-style anti-comedy at work in this film, with many scenes either going for deliberate cringe or even outright hostility to the audience’s enjoyment (Vanessa Bayer and Phyllis Smith are excellent in a recurring dystopian friendship gag called Talking Club). Jamie Dornan appears as a henchman and love interest, and belts out one of the best and most unexpected song and dance numbers of the year. Damon Wayans, Jr. plays the world’s worst spy. And the whole thing is a wondrous vacation in a touristy Florida hellhole with two friends whose friendship is always ultimately what’s at stake and remains wholly believable. And it’s funny as hell. This is the comedy I kept coming back to this year, and it could be that for you as well.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #180 – “I Care a Lot” (dir. J Blakeson), “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” (dir. Josh Greenbaum)

Available on Hulu here.

#3: Benedetta

Poster for "Benedetta"

Directed by Paul Verhoeven, written for the screen by Verhoeven and David Birke, based on the book by Judith C. Brown

I saw a criticism of Benedetta which stated that 83-year-old director Paul Verhoeven, the director of Showgirls, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers has made a film for the male gaze. The film is loosely based on the true story of Sister Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), a 17th century Catholic nun and mystic who had a forbidden love affair with her fellow nun, Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). This is a criticism I find interesting to discuss when it comes to a film like Blue is the Warmest Color, because of the nexus of two points: graphic depictions of human sexuality feel inherently voyeuristic even if they can often capture the truth of a relationship better than tamer fare, and authentic depictions of female sexuality (both featuring and between women) are few and far between. As a result, each such depiction is both saddled with the baggage of audience expectations and forced to justify its own existence.

But in the case of a Verhoeven film, this chiding feels so on-the-nose as to be hardly worth discussing. Yes, Verhoeven is no less of a “boob man” in his 80s than in previous decades, and that much is evident in the text of the film. But Benedetta and Bartolomea’s sexuality is not treated as aberrant in the text of the film – merely through the eyes of some of its contemporaneous characters, who lack the words or even the conceptual framework to describe a relationship between lesbian women, and must revert to describing it through the lens of more banal sins: lust, extramarital sex, breaking of a vow of chastity, and – in one very specific case – heresy and desecration. The male gaze is definitely present in this film (and embodied by multiple characters, including a Papal Nuncio played to great effect by Lambert Wilson); it just feels beside the point, because these women aren’t being ogled by the men in the film, nor exactly are they being oppressed and stigmatized for the specific reason that they’re gay. They’re being oppressed because acting human and refusing to apologize for it is a mortal sin in a religious dogma that has no room for them. Unless of course they pay for one. Charlotte Rampling is marvelous as Mother Superior, who is not only presented as savvy in all matters pecuniary as well as ideological, but is also a mistress of church politics, pursuing her aims with subtlety and also clearly not acting purely in the interests of God and Church.

As for Benedetta, her love for Bartolomea (if that is what this is) mingles with her ambition, religious fervor, and desire for power, and is ultimately treated as just another manifestation of humanity at odds with ideology. I don’t know how historically authentic this depiction is meant to be (a question that also feels beside the point as I watch the film), but Efira’s performance casts Benedetta as essentially a true believer: Someone who has spun her own moral framework without shame, and seamlessly works it into her pre-existing religious training. This also occasionally makes her look like a sociopath, because breaking her vow of chastity is hardly the only written line that she crosses in this film. That process is utterly fascinating to behold, particularly in a film whose sexuality and religious content is the very reason why it is likely to be pigeonholed and dismissed by mainstream audiences as a niche art film. Which is a shame, because that would be such a profound mistake as well as a categorization error.

This film wasn’t a slog. It’s exciting. It also features Jesus Christ on horseback beheading snakes with a sword. And that’s not even the least subtle religious imagery on display here. As with The Last Duel, we have another aging master director putting the trials of women through a lens of, “Look how bad it was for women in the knight and castle times, and consider how little has changed since then!”. But of the two films, Verhoeven’s take was the more interesting one to me, both because it didn’t resort to narrative redundancy to hold my attention, and because every minute of this film is an absolute roller coaster. There is so much going on in this film, it moves at an unrelenting pace, and all of it feels so very primal and human. This is what humans do, no matter what ideology they find themselves steeped in. They get messy and sexy and violent, and likely as not to end the world. And during this interminable plague year, that idea feels more relevant than ever before.

#2: Drive My Car

Still from "Drive My Car"

Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, screenplay by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, based on the short story by Haruki Murakami.

When I say this is one for the theatre kids, I mean it even more sincerely than I did for Birdman, and that one had some spectacle to go along with all the table reads. Drive My Car is admittedly a tougher sell. It’s 3 hours long, primarily because its runtime contains many rehearsal and performance scenes of dialogue from Chekov‘s Uncle Vanya, for an experimental theatre festival in Hiroshima in which a cast of actors from across Southeast Asia will each speak in their respective languages (including Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, English, Tagolog, and Korean sign language). The theatrical director, Yūsuke (Tsuyoshi Gorô) is paired with a young professional driver, Misaki (Tōko Miura), who must drive him to and from his residence an hour outside Hiroshima – journeys in which he initially doesn’t speak to her at all, instead reciting lines of Vanya dialogue against a recording of his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) reading for the rest of the cast, having imagined conversations with his wife by proxy using someone else’s words. A young, handsome actor, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) deals with his own insecurity about playing a lead role, and his recovery from repeated self-inflicted scandals. Using Chekov’s words and eventually their own, each of these people gradually reveals more about themselves, where they came from, and what pain they carry with them. And that is…about all that I dare say about the plot of this film.


I’m giving you the hard sell on this, but be assured of a few things. First, it is absolutely riveting. The 40-minute cold open presents select details of Yūsuke and Oto’s marital life in a very matter-of-fact way, with as little commentary or preamble for mundane calls and drives together as for more bizarre moments between them. The opening scene features the couple literally improvising an erotic horror screenplay aloud while entangled in bed, sometimes mid-coitus, sometimes while basking in the afterglow. Their process is bizarre, but feels absolutely lived-in, with the usual shorthand that whatever multiple humans treat as normal is normal for them and the relationship they have. And then, for the rest of the film, this cold open is gradually recontextualized. We learn more about what happened before and how it affects these people now. The result is a messy tale about messy people, touching on creativity, love, sex, loyalty, death, penance, and grief. The performances are marvelous and the pathos is fundamentally authentic and human.

And it made me cry in the end, a somewhat less common experience for me than feeling, in an aloof sort of way, that a film is dancing on my heartstrings. I’ll give a film credit for either feeling, because an emotional response is real whether I allow myself to express it or not. But getting me out of my head and kicking me across that finish line is always a bonus, and Drive My Car was one of those. Truth be told, I’ve been a bit callous for the past few months when it comes to sharing the imagined pain of fictional characters. It’s not the only way to grieve a real-world loss, but it was mine. I don’t mention that to try to make my grief and trauma seem like anything special – losing the ones we love is the most ordinary thing in the world. I imagine that whatever specific words we use to scream and beg to an indifferent universe to give them back to us…are perfectly ordinary as well. There’s a lot more going on in Drive My Car than this, including the rather provocative question of whether it’s possible to completely know and love any other person. This is one to noodle about, and it will stick with you whether you get misty or not.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #192 – “The Matrix Resurrections” (dir. Lana Wachowski), “Drive My Car” (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

#1: The Green Knight

Still from "The Green Knight"

Written for the screen and directed by David Lowery, based on the 14th century chivalric romance by an unknown author.

From my review:

“On my honor, The Green Knight is more upbeat and more of an advancement on Lowery’s themes than I’m making it sound. Patel is forced to depict Gawain’s conflicted stoicism and grapple with his impending doom in more overt and specific ways than whoever that fellow beneath the sheet might have been (possibly the key grip in a scene or two?). Gawain also struggles with the vast lore and legend that has already cropped up around this dumb, vainglorious thing that he did to show off for his royal uncle, which has earned him accolades and presumably free drinks from strangers which are utterly failing to make up for the fact that he is the one who will have to die for it. He’ll have to watch the pain behind the eyes of his paid lady friend Essel (also played by Vikander) who truly seems to love him in spite of (or on top of) their transactional relationship, even as she watches him march off to a doom entirely of his own making – perhaps twice. A doom that his uncle even warned him not to seek out, reminding him in a veiled whisper to remember that it’s “just a game”. In some accounts of the Triumph of Julius Caesar, a slave would march behind the glorified would-be emperor whispering in his ear, Memento mori – “Remember you are mortal.” To hear another legendary monarch say to his own nephew and heir apparent that he should remember to play the game feels akin to this. Even in the rough-and-tumble world of medieval England, rulers seldom have to worry about their own mortality on any field of battle with the same frequency as the thousands of peasants they drag to the same slaughter (Richard the Third notwithstanding). Memento ludere feels like a similar utterance – remember to play, whether great games or minor ones, because yours will be a privileged life as long as you play it well. And yet, Gawain doesn’t choose that life. He opts into the grand gesture. Becomes the legend. Throws himself into a doom for the ages. How many heroes do we laud whose stories amount to little more than this?”

Check out my full review, as well as our podcast discussion:
David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” – You’ll never meet your heroes
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #187 – “The Suicide Squad” (dir. James Gunn), “The Green Knight” (dir. David Lowery)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Titane (written and directed by Julia Ducournau)
  • Luca (directed by Enrico Casarosa, written by Casarosa et al.)
  • Limbo (written and directed by Ben Sharrock)
  • Spencer (directed by Pablo Larraín, written by Steven Knight)
  • The Night House (directed by David Bruckner, written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski)
  • Pig (written and directed by Michael Sarnoski, story by Vanessa Block)
  • Lapsis (written and directed by Noah Hutton)
  • The Paper Tigers (written and directed by Quoc Bao Tran)
  • In the Heights (directed by Jon M. Chu, book and screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
  • The Matrix Resurrections (directed by Lana Wachowski, written by Wachowski, David Mitchell, and Aleksandar Hemon, based on characters by The Wachowskis)
  • The Last Duel (directed by Ridley Scott, written by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon)
  • Malignant (directed by James Wan, written by Akela Cooper, story by Wan, Cooper, and Ingrid Bisu)
  • tick, tick…BOOM! (directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, written by Steven Levenson, based on the musical by Jonathan Larson)
  • Bliss (written and directed by Mike Cahill)
  • The Suicide Squad (written and directed by James Gunn)