#11: High Life
There’s a lot of competition on this list for “hardest film to sell to non-critics”, but I think Claire Denis’ English-language debut High Life might be the winner. This is one of the most bizarre and disturbing sci-fi films I’ve seen since Under the Skin – an experimental, non-linear narrative with arresting and (occasionally very low-tech) visuals, featuring a group of condemned prisoners on what is likely a suicide mission to extract energy for humanity from a black hole. As far as the mission is concerned, the prisoners are still prisoners, with the ship’s ailing computer checking in daily to confirm that they’re still on mission, and casually threatening to space them all if they do not comply. But as far as their physical and psychological safety goes, the inmates are fully running the asylum, with the ship’s chief medical officer Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) – who comes with one of the most one-dimensionally evil backstories I’ve ever seen in a film’s co-lead – performing bizarre and unethical sexual experiments on the prisoners and patients under her charge, in an effort to create a child in space through artificial insemination. This film competed with Ad Astra (in Honorable Mentions below) for space in my head when it came to the alienation and loss of humanity that must accompany such intense separation from the rest of the species, and yet, even Ad Astra‘s pastiche of Heart of Darkness couldn’t plumb the same depths of man’s inhumanity to man as what was on display here. Yes, yes, it’s sad that Brad Pitt‘s father abandoned him. But at least he’s not a piece of flotsam being hurtled into a fucking black hole and used as a brood mare whether he likes it or not. Robert Pattinson and Mia Goth are also excellent.
High Life is a hard watch. It is bleak, misanthropic, and utterly fascinating – and has stuck with me ever since I saw it.
#10: I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Written and directed by Radu Jude
The play’s the thing! Wherein she’ll catch the conscience of a nation. The nation is Romania, and the bad-bad thing they did was collaborate and fight alongside Nazi Germany as they perpetrated the Holocaust. I had zero prior knowledge of the purge of Odessa, in which Romanian soldiers led by Marshal Ion Antonescu, alongside Einsatzgruppe SS and local ethnic Germans murdered 100,000 Ukrainian Jews in Transnistria during the autumn and winter of 1941-42. This area is a geopolitical mess to this day, with multiple countries exerting influence, and this is apparently neither well-known nor widely discussed. And it is precisely this incident that theatrical director Mariana (Ioana Iacob) would like to talk about, in the form of a historical reenactment for public consumption (and with city funding) on the streets of Bucharest. This film is both an unflinching drama and a black comedy about the darkest of subject matter. It is easily as effective a film as Four Lions (which I’ll reference again on this list) or The Death of Stalin. But what really made it stick with me is its single-mindedness as an intellectual exercise on the hierarchy and historical discussion of human massacres. Iacob’s performance is fierce, intelligent, and uncompromising as a director, and yet she doesn’t feel quite like a real person so much as an intellectual avatar for the purpose of exploring these ideas, surrounded at all times by rhetorical opponents that are inexplicably well-read on the subject. At least The Man From Earth troubled to surround its main character with actual professors to interrogate his story – this film starts off having characters ranging from a city arts bureaucrat, Konstantin Movila (Alexandru Dabija), who is perpetually threatening to pull funding for the event if it’s “too controversial”, to Mariana’s illicit (married) pilot boyfriend, who wonders aloud why the Jews are always “whining” about the Holocaust, when it’s perfectly okay to poke fun at Jesus and Mother Theresa. Frankly, these people don’t seem as if they should be capable of serious debate on this subject, and their talking points start off completely facile, worthy of an anti-Semitic Twitter blast at best. But Mariana ruthlessly parries them and fires back, and as their arguments evolve, multiply, and become stronger, she stays on her course and effectively beats them back.
Nobody on this cursed earth owes Ben Shapiro a debate on any subject, but Mariana is a fictional character that I’d love to see cross paths with him, because the film not only engages seriously with every one of the facile arguments against telling this or any other ugly episode from history; it eviscerates them to their core. With evidence. And it is farcical. Mariana sits on the helicopter of the executed communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu munching on a sandwich while her PAs pick through weapons and uniforms in the museum’s collection, and a pack of fifty-something lighting grips wander up and ask why she needs to badmouth the good Marshal Antonescu, who is after all a national hero (despite his eventual execution by Romania for war crimes), and by the way, is it really necessary for us to all eat lunch at the same table with all those dirty [Roma people] on the crew? Mariana gives an outstanding “are you fucking kidding me” look to her staunchest ally and comic foil Traian (Alex Bogdan), an intimidating and soldierly presence who encourages them all to fuck off and eat somewhere else or otherwise shut up about it, before giving a chilling performance as Antonescu in the very same reenactment. As this performance plays out with stunning historical realism before a crowd of extras who may or may not have been aware they were being filmed for a movie, Mariana looks on, noticing with consternation that some of the crowd are cheering at the wrong moments (e.g. as dozens of Jewish prisoners are burned alive), and wonders if she has inadvertently done a terrible thing by telling this story in the way she did. Like any intelligent person who’s sure she’s on the right path, she’s never completely sure.
And how to tell this story is plastered across the film throughout its runtime. Traian hollers at the reenactors: “Russians, hands up! Romanians and Germans, look happy!” There is a lonnnng shot of a reenacted mass-hanging before a crowd as the production team debates exactly what hate-slogan to put on the banner above their heads. They have a photo of the real thing, but it’s kind of a shitty small font, and they’d like to put something more readable on there, and so on and so forth. When The Man in the High Castle wrapped its final season, the production team quite admirably destroyed all of the swastikas that they’d used in production. And why? Because anyone wishing to reenact these events had better think hard about how and why they want to go about it. While I admired Taiki Waititi‘s Jojo Rabbit enough to put it in my Honorable Mentions for this year, I cannot say that I saw a more thoughtful film about this subject matter than Barbarians, because no matter how contrived some of the conversations between the characters were (Movila, the city arts bureaucrat, proves to be a formidable debater), I still found them relentlessly fascinating and intellectually challenging as I listened to Mariana breathlessly defending her thesis: This is the story I’ve decided to tell, and to hell with anyone who says I shouldn’t. This is a film about the clear-eyed and fearless pursuit of truth and a national reckoning, and in a political time that is trying its level best to destroy both the rule of law and the concept of objective reality, it is a thoughtful exercise that we need now more than ever. And it’s hilarious. Don’t know if I made that part clear. It sounds dry and bleak, and is neither of those things.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #151 – “Booksmart” (dir. Olivia Wilde), SIFF Roundup: “Putin’s Witnesses”, “…Barbarians”.
#9: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This is an artful period romance, insofar as it’s a period romance that does a great deal of its storytelling with art. On a surf-pounded coastal island in 18th century France, a Countess (Valeria Golino) – who has possibly fled there from the Terror in Paris, lives with her last remaining daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the latter freshly returned from her life at a convent, where she enjoyed its many fine pleasures, such as reading books, listening to church music, and not having sex with men. She returns to take over her late sister’s arranged marriage to a gentleman from Milan, where she and her mother will eventually settle, joining many of the émigré nobles who turned tail (with their money) and fled the French Revolution. Her sister is dead, having fallen or jumped from the seaside cliffs while on a walk, so Héloïse is forced to abandon her own path in favor of one that was also abandoned by her late sister. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter, comes to the island at the request of the Countess, to paint a portrait of Héloïse to send off to the Milanese gentleman – a prerequisite of their eventual marriage. Marianne is the second painter that the Countess has hired, but Héloïse refused to pose for the first. In his failure, he left behind a painting of a dress over a woman’s body – perhaps that of the maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who eventually plays a similar role for Marianne – but no face. By and by, Marianne burns it in the fireplace, forming one of the two jeux de mots at work with the title. The Countess tells Marianne that as far as Héloïse knows, the painter is not a painter at all, and is simply there to be a walking companion. This is true in part, because after the death of her elder daughter, the Countess understandably fears for Héloïse’s safety and sanity. But she also casts Marianne in the role of an artistic spy. She must paint Héloïse without her realizing that is her true aim.
The gradual and natural consequence of this setup – between what turns out to be a pair of women who are both attracted to the same sex – is a forbidden and doomed romance that initially occurs via deception – a She’s All That of yesteryear, if you will – and also quite by accident. Marianne’s stolen glances at Héloïse have an ulterior motive behind them, and yet if the painter weren’t studying every detail of her subject with such tenderness and care, perhaps the romance might not have happened. The film presents a 18th century same-sex romance in as safe a circumstance as possible – the only real risk to either of them is that the Countess might find out – and the result is a naturalistic affection that never feels out-of-place, despite being a depiction in a century in which such romances presumably only ever happened in secret. And what we’re seeing is a secret, and as an audience member, you can’t help but feel like an intrusive presence, and yet you still feel privileged to take a peek into a previously unseen human experience. It is, for lack of a better comparison, like gazing at a work of art in a museum: studying its details, and imagining what its subjects must have felt. This is also a film that repeatedly uses art as a metaphor for both the individual human experience as well as the collaboration of human relationships, in a manner that felt similar to Abbas Kiarostami‘s 2010 masterpiece Certified Copy, but perhaps a bit less abstract. It not only features a literal work of art that is made in romantic collaboration between artist and subject; it also uses reactions to artwork to great narrative effect (Antonio Vivaldi‘s Summer plays a surprising and plot-critical role).
As the women embrace for the first time, Héloïse asks Marianne whether all lovers feel as if they’re inventing something. This is as matter-of-factly as the film ever broaches the LGBT nature of this story, because Héloïse, who may or may not be doing this for the first time, approaches sex with Marianne as if it’s the most ordinary act in the world. Likewise, the film doesn’t linger on the mechanics of sexuality in the manner of, for instance, Blue is the Warmest Color, which was both beloved and – perhaps fairly – accused of exhibiting female sexuality less for the sake of authenticity and more to indulge the insatiable male gaze upon it. This film is both directed and filmed by women, and one of them is in fact an ex-partner of one of the leads. I didn’t know that while watching the film, and I cannot say whether it informs my interpretation in retrospect. But I will say that the balance between innocence and eroticism that was struck in this scene felt exactly right. This is a story of women knowledgeably engaging in what were then regarded as illicit acts (and I haven’t even discussed Sophie’s dangerous subplot or the entrancing musical number that it evolves into).
This is a romance worth experiencing. It demands and rewards patience from its audience, and cinematographer Claire Mathon makes superlative use of both the vivid color and swaying grasses of cliffside, sea-spritzed trails as well as darkness, flame, paint, canvas, and blood. The film is both a visual and emotional feast, and upon its final, intense, lingering shot, you will be satisfied.
#8: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
What a meandering indulgence this film is, and honestly, I have a hard time defending my love for it, except to say that I was never bored, and that has persisted through multiple viewings. Inglourious Basterds was my #1 film of 2009, and I disliked and hated (respectively) the two Tarantino films that followed. When I saw that QT would be playing around in his historical sandbox once again with late ’60s Hollywood and the Manson family murders, I was prepared to write this film off as another dalliance inside baseball within the TMZ (a real thing!) in the vein of Hail, Caesar or another borderline obnoxious period piece (that I nonetheless liked) like Inherent Vice. Like a lot of critics, I tend to enjoy films about Hollywood, since they reward my ego for all of the dubious trivia that I’ve collected over the years. But it’s been a long time since one has landed with me enough to think of it at the end of the year.
So what makes this one special? Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt‘s characters and performances, for a start. The pair play a convincing set of friends (loosely inspired by actor Burt Reynolds and his stuntman and friend Hal Needham), with aging TV western star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) slumming it in villain-of-the-week roles and debating heading off to Rome to film spaghetti westerns, as he floats in his pool and sinks deeper into an alcoholic haze. The film’s handling of Dalton and stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt) is pure drama, and I found that I cared about both their friendship and Dalton’s career, largely because they cared so much. Stakes don’t always have to be external, and this film managed to create them even before the dirty, murderous hippies wandered in. The Manson Family are treated in a buffoonish manner, which seems like a fine way to depict violent fanatics (the apex of this being Chris Morris‘ Four Lions), particularly ones whose real-life exploits were so random and fraught with failure. Two particular standouts were Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, who is a darkly hilarious future attempted presidential assassin, and Margaret Qualley as Pussycat, a jailbait hitchhiker (the film’s framing, not mine) who acts as a surprising comedic foil for Booth, and who shouts one of the film’s best lines as a scene at an old-timey movie ranch takes a turn.
Speaking of turns, I kept waiting for real-life actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) to take a turn at uttering a single line of dialogue, and fully 60 minutes of this film passes with more said about her by Kurt Russell‘s narrator than ever comes out of the actress’ own mouth. My best explanation for this, knowing of her imminent murder in advance, was that Tarantino was presenting the mundanity of her final days as an offhanded documentarian, depicting her as a sort of vague angelic presence that the world is poorer without. This might have struck me as a bit shallow and disrespectful, if not for the film making its intentions clear early on that Dalton and Booth are the main characters, and Tate is merely a component of the historical sandbox. Some may castigate the film for this (Tate’s scenes were easily the most boring and cut-worthy of the film, which is a sad statement for an actress of Robbie’s caliber), but I daresay if you’re going to make sport of real-life tragedy, even half a century later, it’s respectful – even for a frequent doofus like Tarantino – to use a light touch. And apart from occasionally visually indulging his foot fetish at Robbie’s expense, QT seems reluctant to depict Tate doing anything besides what the actress herself might have plausibly been up to. This feels like a step down from the plot-directing likes of Mélanie Laurent in Basterds, but after watching the film twice, I daresay it was an acceptable choice.
However little that Tate speaks, another actress, Trudi (Julia Butters) is given plenty to say. Trudi, who is 10, plays a child actress on the set of one of Rick Dalton’s villain-of-the-week roles. She insists on remaining in character, but openly discusses her method acting with Rick, and it is one of the film’s standout scenes, since it is the first glimpse of Rick realizing what he has lost as an actor by falling into alcoholism and despair.
As I describe the film, it feels like very little is at stake apart from a quadruple murder that we already feel historically removed from after so much time. And yet I found this film relentlessly entertaining in a manner that Tarantino hasn’t quite captured since Pulp Fiction. It’s just…fun. And the pronounced (and low-tech) effort to recreate 1969 Hollywood is apparent in every frame, from the structure of the film’s fictitious TV westerns (with period-appropriate commercials, poster art, sets, and actors) to its various drive-around scenes in vintage cars, which beg the viewer to spot any imperfection. If this film was intended to feel like a time machine, it largely accomplished this, recreating at least the look and feel of films from this period, even if I can’t speak to the reality of the actual place.
Cliff also has a love-monster pit bull, Brandi (Sayuri the dog), who is a Very Good Girl. That is all.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #153 – “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (dir. Quentin Tarantino), “Little Woods” (dir. Nia DaCosta).
“I don’t feel any different,” says Alice (Emilie Pipponier), after leaving her first client and regrouping with her new friend and Obi-Wan figure, Lisa (Chloé Boreham).
“You mean now that you’re a fallen woman?” chuckles Lisa, before explaining, “If you’re in love, having sex may be the best experience of your life. If you are raped, maybe it’s the worst. But in our case, things are under our control. The exchange is fair. So why should you feel any different? You think too much. You know how to do this. You’ve been doing it your whole life. You have been trained to scan people’s emotions. To know what to say, how to behave, how to please everyone. Take control, Sophia. That’s what he wants.”
“He”, in this case, is any of Alice’s new clients, because she has taken up a job as a sex worker in a last-ditch effort to prevent her family from being kicked out of their apartment, where they are thousands of Euros underwater on the mortgage. Her husband François (Martin Swabey) vanished, the bills piled up, and Alice very quickly learned why: he had blown all of their money on expensive prostitutes. It’s a veritable Eliot Spitzer scenario, without the political power or prior wealth. And they are deep in it now. Not only did François stop paying their mortgage without telling Alice, he waited until they were on the verge of foreclosure and eviction to let her find out. Seven seasons of The Good Wife can attest to my prior interest in this scenario, and the film’s elevator pitch of “cuckholded wife reluctantly becomes sex worker and unexpectedly finds the work empowering” is provocative to say the least. But not only is this film a more thoughtful exploration of the nature of sex work than any other film I’ve seen on the subject, it is also a fascinating portrayal of both the psychology and economics of such a career choice. Because Alice didn’t choose to be in a situation where she suddenly needed this kind of money – but then, does any mother whose husband suddenly deserts her? What’s more, the only reason why she realized sex work was a feasible career path was because she tracked down Martin’s brothel of choice and demanded that the madam come clean about what her husband has been up to – which she does. And then, perhaps even on a whim, Alice fills out an application, and makes a new friend.
Each of these characters has layers, whether the mercenary Lisa who struggles with how much of non-stage persona to reveal to her new apprentice, or Alice herself, who doesn’t hesitate for a second to keep her new career from her husband, who is flailing around trying to save their marriage in such hamfisted ways that I swear he thinks he’s the main character. Swabey’s performance is excellent here, as he finds himself in the unenviable task of playing the straying husband who still sees himself as the hero of his own preposterous redemption story. At one point, François sells his watch and uses it to buy a replacement for his wife’s ring, which she pawned earlier in the film, and proceeds to give a remarkable speech, which starts off gaslighting her for being so unreasonable as to make him “grovel like a dog” for forgiveness that she’d give if she really ever loved him, and ends with a damn proposal (to renew their vows). As a viewer, I found myself torn between guffawing at the absurdity of this nearly-homeless father pawning his last item of any economic value to craft what his own demented mind regards as the perfect show-proposal for his nearly-ex wife who now despises him. François is an abusive buffoon, and Mackerras’ script has the measure of this man as thoroughly as it understands Alice herself.
As compared to something like Marriage Story, this film deals far less with the now-rival spouses’ relationship with their son Jules (played by Mackerras’ own son of the same name), but he honestly isn’t much of a character, and that’s fine. The film’s subject matter doesn’t lend well to the direct inclusion of a child except as a clear-eyed statement that sex workers, like anyone else with an unpredictable work schedule, have dependents that they care about, and those dependents are a unique vulnerability due to how that profession is regarded by society. And as a MacGuffin, Jules is put to some interesting narrative uses (it turns out finding childcare is a pain in the ass no matter what your job is!). I won’t say where the standoff goes from here, but this film straddles multiple genres and reaches a fever pitch in the third act. If you can manage to find it streaming, don’t miss it.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #150 – SIFF Roundup: “Alice”, “Pigeon Kings”, “Fight Fam”, “As the Earth Turns”
#6: Knives Out
I have now seen Knives Out twice, and one (non-spoiler) moment in particular stands out to me. A baseball is thrown from the office of the late Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), changes hands (and a dog’s mouth, briefly) several times, and is finally picked up by a character who is appalled by its misplacement, who puts it back in the office where it belongs, and gives it a tender smile, recalling some happy day that we’ll never know. And the film’s denouement unexpectedly turns upon this moment, all because someone tossed a baseball in the first act. This moment doesn’t linger, nor is it remarked upon – in fact, I didn’t even notice it the first time I saw the film. It’s just one of the film’s myriad quiet character moments in-between all of the stylistic WhoDunnit/HowCatchEm genre trappings, and an example of how this film is made entirely by its details. Its plot is clever, unfolding in a way that hands you a solution to the film’s primary mystery at roughly its halfway point, leaving you to ponder, “Wait, what now?”. And then it continues! Gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), along with his foil and suspect, Harlan’s nurse and friend Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), wander the grounds and investigate whether a crime even occurred in what the police believe to be nothing more than a dramatic suicide.
Dramatic, yes, but, “Look around,” remarks Detective-Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield), “The guy practically lives in a Clue board.” Stanfield continues to be a reliable ensemble player (and if you want to see him in a lead role, Sorry to Bother You and Crown Heights are right there), but he’s mostly an exposition bot here, laying out the events of the night in question, and introducing each of the over-the-top family members, all of whom were present, and all of whom may have had a motive for murder. That’s as far as I’ll go explaining things, because this is a mystery that is well worth experiencing for yourself, but I appreciated Benoit Blanc’s entry in the pantheon of great detectives, not only for his personal genre savvy (he literally says “the game’s afoot” at one point), but because a great deal happens under his nose without him realizing it. The film makes a delicate dance of revealing a bit more to us than to him and vice versa over the course of the film, and watching him gradually pick apart the mystery amid his myriad quirks (he literally sings along with the radio during a car chase), make mistakes, and not quite get everything right…makes him feel more human than he would do otherwise. And Craig’s Kentucky Fried accent is a particular delight.
Marta’s most useful characteristics to Blanc are her forceful upchuck reflex when she lies, and…as he seems to believe almost immediately…her kind heart. Because he believes Marta means well and is physically incapable of lying in his presence without revealing it to him, it’s no surprise that he pulls her into the investigation. That, and as far as anyone knows, she has no reason to murder Harlan. And as his nurse, he was completely at her mercy. The family’s relationship with Marta is also one of the more fascinating through-lines of the film, ranging from granddaughter Meg (Katherine Langford) who seemingly treats her as a close friend, to son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) who pulls her into an aggressive conversation about immigration and uses her as a prop/example of someone who “came here the right way” before thoughtlessly handing her his snack plate to take away (she is the nurse, not the housekeeper). Don is one of several members of the family who bungles Marta’s country of origin (which apparently could’ve been anywhere in South or Central America), and they each tell her privately that each of them wanted her at the funeral, but each of them separately “was outvoted”.
When we reviewed Knives Out alongside Parasite, I wasn’t expecting them to be quite so perfect a thematic pairing, but through very different genre lenses, both films are telling a tale about class distinctions, and while Parasite certainly plumbed greater depths, Knives Out was an unrelenting and clever delight.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #158 – “Knives Out” (dir. Rian Johnson), “Parasite” (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
#5: Marriage Story
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
The first compliment I have for this film is that I found it relatively evenhanded as a seemingly confessional work of art by writer/director Noah Baumbach, on the subject of his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. That is not knowledge you really need going in, but I’d be lying if I said that my presumption of the authenticity of certain moments was not a factor in the film’s appeal for me. Baumbach is known for writing with emotional intelligence, and at no point does it feel like he’s either putting husband Charlie (Adam Driver) or wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) on either a pedestal or a penalty box. There is no clear villain (although both commit unforgivable acts), or any clearly aggrieved party (despite both feeling convincingly like they’re on the right side of the issue). And yet this is no clean break either, because these two ultimately go to war with each other over the custody and residency of their three-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson), who tries in the foolish and desperate manner of a child to manage both of his parents as his entire world falls apart. Which leads to the second compliment I have for this film: there were moments that I found so profoundly upsetting that I had to pause it for a moment and collect myself, and they mostly had to do with Henry. The tragedy of this family separation is centered around the child, as is the core conflict at the heart of the divorce: whether the bifurcated family will be based in New York, where they’ve lived for the past decade, or Los Angeles, where Nicole’s family and career are located. And it is to the film’s credit that it never takes a firm position on who is right here. It’s just a whole lot of wrong. It’s a pair of lawyers, played with eerie cordiality layered with ruthless cynicism by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, whose job is to take every moment, every interaction during this marriage between two people who loved each other, and twist it to maximally benefit their client and harm their opponent. Driver and Johansson fully immerse themselves in the psychology of these characters, as the couple gradually feels out their new identities as adversaries, and gradually lose the ability to compartmentalize. They have a cheerful chat about the mechanics of their divorce. Nicole gives Charlie a haircut, as she often did for the family before they split up. And then they scream and shout and Nicole accidentally calls Charlie “honey” multiple times and curses herself for it. This scene floated around in isolation on Film Twitter with dismissive non-viewers of the film, derisively describing it as a fixture of Acting 101. And how dare they? Just because a film’s emotional climax is the expected fodder of acting students doesn’t mean that the authentic scene was ever amateurish or meant to be viewed in isolation. There are multiple moments in this film in which the dam breaks and each of these characters is forced to confront the horrible reality, the wasted life, the permanently damaged relationship with their child that they are each trying desperately to preserve. And the tragedy of this family’s collapse is fully on display as their dissolution takes on the character of a political campaign, with tiny, quiet moments between the couple and their son dragged out into court to be twisted into preposterous and devastating indictments of their character. Because as lawyer Nora (Dern) correctly notes, we can accept an imperfect father, but never an imperfect mother. She invokes the Virgin Mary, and it is solidly one of the best quasi-religious blowhard rants since Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. And yet, as Charlie talks to his “own asshole” lawyer Jay (Liotta), the latter tells him over his incredulous protests that he needs to prepare himself for the fact that Nicole is going to portray him as a neglectful, absent father. And he can’t believe it until it happens.
The film begins with each of the two monologuing about why and how much they love each other, over a montage of their life together. While this is revealed to be an exercise in a mediated separation (which ultimately neither ends up reading aloud to the other), it is still a crucial piece of tablesetting. One of the sublime delights of a functional marriage – and the object of constant pursuit and maintenance – is a presumption of good faith and common purpose between two people. These monologues – each beautifully performed by Driver and Johansson – not only establish the positive details of the relationship that will be twisted later on, but they show and tell the viewer exactly what the starting point was for this marriage: why this pair worked in the first place. It’s easy for people to judge divorcés (I may have come very close to this above), and I suspect a good deal of that judgment is borne out of insecurity in their own relationships. Some divorces come about for obvious and defensible reasons. Abuse. Infidelity. The rest…are just breakups – with property as leverage and children as collateral damage. It’s a split that no relationship is immune from, and anyone looking to maintain their own family would be wise to consider such a well-rendered portrait of family tragedy and attempt to feel compassion for everyone involved. And whether you regard the film as a cathartic exercise by Baumbach, or merely as an effective work of dramatic fiction, the film’s compassion for its characters shines throughout its runtime.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #159 – “1917” (dir. Sam Mendes), “Marriage Story” (dir. Noah Baumbach)
#4: The Farewell
Written and directed by Lulu Wang (in her debut feature), based on her story on “This American Life”
Had I seen it during its release year, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation would have easily landed in my Top 10, as thoughtful familial tales of moral complexity are my catnip. And Lulu Wang‘s semi-autobiographical film The Farewell was an easy choice for the same reason, even if it was a difficult watch. The moral question at the heart of the film is whether or not a family of Chinese and Chinese-Americans should tell their beloved grandmother the truth about the Stage 4 lung cancer that will surely take her life within a few months. Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is in her 80s, speaks no English, and lives in China, and when her adult granddaughter Billi (Akwafina) learns of her prognosis, her parents have already decided that they’ll be returning to China (under the auspices of attending a cousin’s wedding) to see her one last time, and the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai at all. We are first acquainted with Billi’s love for her grandmother during a sidewalk walk-and-talk phone call, and it’s clear that the news will devastate her. And yet her parents – who accept this – do not want her to accompany them to China to say goodbye, because they don’t believe she can control her emotions, and she’ll give away the lie. Like any respectable protagonist, Billi ignores them and flies to China anyway.
The conflict at play in this film is fascinating and multilayered. It’s about being a child of two continents and cultures. It’s about being regarded as the baby of the family even when you’re a grown-ass adult who can make her own decisions. It’s about life and death and the limitations of ethical absolutism. It’s about childhood nostalgia and longing for the comforts of hearth and home and family, even after they’ve changed, moved on, and disappeared forever.
In one of several scenes that make clever use of the language gap, Billi has a candid conversation in English with Nai Nai’s UK-educated oncologist, while the exclusively Chinese-speaking Nai Nai and her bilingual parents look on. The doctor tells her plainly that he told the same lie to his own grandmother, and that most families in China would make the same choice not to tell a terminally ill elder until the very end. Later, in the waiting room, Billi and her parents discuss (in English) that such a lie would be not only considered elder abuse in the United States, but it would be illegal. And still, they’re not sure what’s right. And it is to the film’s credit that certainty never comes, even if events conspire to force Billi to decide if she will take an active role in the deception or not.
At its heart, The Farewell is a loving tribute. It’s a funeral in advance, in which Nai Nai’s most beloved family and friends all conspire to…appear at her side and tell her how much she means to them. And Awkwafina carries the emotional weight of the film, even as Zhao gets to affectionately play Nai Nai, a treasured elder who simply thinks her family has come to give her a bit of the honor and love that she richly deserves. And as the credits roll, I can’t say what’s right for this family. But I can say with certainty that these have been among the best days of Nai Nai’s life, and it’s hard to argue with that.
Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho):
“You know what plan never fails? No plan at all. If you make a plan, life never works out that way. Look around us. Did these people think, ‘Let’s spend the night in a gym’? But look now. Everyone’s sleeping on the floor, us included. That’s why people shouldn’t make plans. With no plan, nothing can go wrong. And if something spins out of control, it doesn’t matter. Whether you kill someone or betray your country. None of it fucking matters. Got it?”
Later, on our podcast review.
“Yes, yes, you can’t fail if you don’t try.”
“Well, it’s also a bit of nihilism. It’s the idea that he has so little to lose, and that all of these structures, all of these institutions – morality, patriotism – are just there as a means of controlling the lower classes. This is as close as the movie comes to spelling out its ideology a second time, which is that: you’re not going to convince poor people to behave differently by appealing to their greater sense of morality, because if what they believe is that society is set up in a way that is fundamentally broken and not for them, that it’s for all those people up above them that live a life that they can barely even imagine, that any little piece that they end up scraping off for themselves is morally justifiable, because morality is irrelevant. It’s very ‘beyond good and evil’.”
There is a lot going on in this film, which is about the infiltration of a poor family, the Kims, into the household and lives of a rich family, the Parks. And it probably contained the densest allegory and social commentary that I’ve seen this year. What I love most about the film is the myriad interpretations I’ve heard for it, even within our own podcast. I saw it as a delicate, layered, and often shocking metaphor for inter and intra-class struggles. FilmWonk fan favorite Erika also saw it as a lens for the Korean experience, with an unfriendly neighbor to the north as a perhaps permanent underclass that surely must be in the hearts and minds of every Korean in the south. Daniel saw it as an overwrought and on-the-nose metaphor that wasn’t to his taste at all. And we had one of our best discussions of the year about it, and I’d encourage you to check it out below.
This film is a satisfying grift full of marvelous performances. It fooled me more than once as to its intentions and meaning, and it is certainly a film that I will be revisiting when I get the chance. Don’t miss it. Read the subtitles, laugh at the endless jokes, and enjoy yourself.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #158 – “Knives Out” (dir. Rian Johnson), “Parasite” (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
#2: American Factory
Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
It is the rare documentary that so effectively answers a question that I didn’t even know was weighing on me: what is the future of work in a globalized and mechanized economy? American Factory is an informative cautionary tale about the years-long takeover, renovation, and reopening of an American factory facility by a Chinese automotive glass manufacturer, Fuyao Glass. The doc was filmed over the course of nearly three years by directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who worked with a team of American and Chinese filmmakers filming workers and executives from both countries with an absolutely stunning level of access. Most of the footage in this film was seemingly approved by Fuyao itself, which adds a metatextual layer of shock and horror as the audience is taken into the internal corporate deliberations behind various decisions that are made throughout the film, as well as the reaction from both sets of workers (and the extent to which they’re able to communicate this reaction to each other). For better or worse, this was seemingly the image of Fuyao that the company itself was comfortable communicating into the world, which makes the tragicomedy of the company’s flailing to integrate its Chinese management with its American factory workers that much more pronounced. This is as much a cautionary tale for CEOs as it is an organizational manual for workers, and for everyone involved, there are moments of striking cross-cultural humanity as most of the people actually forced to work alongside each other actually do try their best to make it work, even as they are often set up for failure. Throughout the film, one thought will ricochet around your head: there was no reason why this had to go as badly as it did.
Some of the film’s most compelling moments depicted Chinese executives explaining American culture to Chinese workers, and the reverse of the same for the Americans explaining the Chinese. It’s a mark of American cultural supremacy that I’m so unaccustomed to hearing my nation summed up in broad and stereotypical terms, but suffice to say, I found it impossible to look away from these moments. The observations ranged from positive (“America is a place to let your personality run free”) to neutral (“they don’t place a heavy importance on attire”) to oddly thoughtful (“they dislike abstraction and theory in their daily lives”) to downright condescending (“we are better than they are”). Executive Jeff Liu, a real piece of work as depicted in this film, has spent half of his life in the US and half in China. He spends a few sentences talking about what awesome shape he’s in for his age, then proceeds to compare the American workers (by way of a Chinese proverb) to donkeys, suggests that they’re overconfident due to being overshowered with praise as children, and says that we love being flattered to death. I experienced a bouquet of emotions while hearing this speech, including bemused acceptance of some of its banal criticisms, insofar as they lumped all Americans together rather than merely functioning as the usual generational clash about participation trophies between millennials and the boomers (who gave them participation trophies), with Gen-Xers like Liu ignored (as ever) in-between. But Liu was brought in after the American executives are fired, and this speech hangs over the film’s final act as Fuyao tries its utmost to bust up a burgeoning union effort happening under its nose. The pay is low – about a third of what the workers were making building American cars a decade earlier – the conditions are dangerous, and many of their concerns are not being adequately addressed. And as ever, there are both good and bad actors trying to make the situation better or worse.
Liu’s speech mirrors another moment that occurs in China, when an unnamed American manager is conversing with a Chinese supervisor at Fuyao HQ. They compare the working conditions, the time off, the wages, and the American manager muses that their most valuable tool to improve productivity back home would be duct tape over the workers’ mouths. The Chinese manager blinks and asks if they can really use that in America, and the American explains he was joking-but-also-serious, because his workers talk too much. We see the Chinese factory workers performing a well-rehearsed attendance chant before marching uniformly to work, and we learn that they only get one or two days off per month. It’s hard not to reflect while watching this that American labor conditions (hard won by American labor unions) such as weekends and 8-hour workdays do not exist globally, and they are part of the reason why lower-skilled factory labor jobs are being exported and automated out of existence by capital. And all of those people that will continue working…in-between all of the robots…will need to be able to find a way to understand each other, even if they’re literally speaking different languages.
Wong, a furnace engineer, comes to the US and develops an abiding friendship with Rob the American redneck while teaching him the auto glass trade. And this friendship is probably the most persistent ray of sunshine that the film has to offer, because Rob is not only grateful to Wong and the other Chinese workers for giving him a second chance at a respectable blue-collar trade, but he welcomes them, truly and completely, into his American family. Early on, Wong and several other Chinese workers come over for Thanksgiving dinner, and get the unprecedented chance to shoot American handguns and – for the truly brave ones – ride Rob’s Harley-Davidson. Wong, whose job will last at least two years as his family waits for him back in China, finds comfort in his friendship with Rob even as the relationship between their respective teams grows sour. That’s the hope this film has to offer: that when it comes down to it, people who make an effort to get along generally do. And even as it presents a grim statistic over the end credits that an estimated 375 million people will need to find new jobs due to automation and globalization by 2050, perhaps there’s hope that this can happen, if only the people involved can avoid indulging their resentment at forces that are out of their control, and simply accept that all of us – the vast, extended family of humanity – are in this together.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #154 – “The Peanut Butter Falcon” (dir. Tyler Nilson, Mike Schwartz), “American Factory” (dir. Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert)
Directed by Dexter Fletcher, written by Lee Hall
I was on vacation with my two small kids (hardly a vacation at all, if I’m being honest). As a Father’s Day treat, my wife allowed me to bugger off for the evening, and I drove our rented minivan 11 miles to a seaside second-run theater to see the only film I was remotely interested in, Rocketman. It was after 9PM, and I was exhausted and skeptical that the musical biopic genre had anything new to say to me after both the laughable accolades heaped upon Bohemian Rhapsody and the decade-old evisceration of the genre accomplished in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. We all know these beats already. He’s a misbegotten and unloved oddball of a child with a mysterious musical gift! He gets his shot. Then he composes a few of our favorite songs in real time, and becomes world-famous. Then he develops a drug habit and sex addiction and hits rock bottom, but overcomes these things in montage form and is now – in the world in which he’s the executive producer of this film – basically okay and beloved by all.
Even as I describe these beats and consider how well they apply to Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, they are a welcome reminder that a film can be formulaic and still excellent. The film starts with Elton John (Taron Egerton) exiting the stage in a full-body glittery devil costume and marching directly into rehab. After a litany of his various addictions, he’s asked about his childhood, and his childhood self, Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) appears in the share circle and begins singing “The Bitch is Back”. Elton gets increasingly agitated and finally chases his younger self out of the room before they emerge as the only full-color participants in a black-and-white flashback that becomes a fully choreographed dance number as a suburban block party. And the whole movie is like this. Beat after fantastical beat that – as I describe them – sound like they would be downright hokey if they weren’t executed so flawlessly. The stellar costume work by Julian Day and the song arrangements (from music director Giles Martin) bring it all together, with the songs often cleverly reworked into a conversation between two characters, or with lyrics tweaked ever so slightly to give the song a new connotation. Whether it’s “Honky Cat” as an extravagant romantic interlude (with Egerton and Richard Madden exchanging duet vocals while wearing kimonos), or “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” as a conversation between Egerton and Celinde Schoenmaker about Elton’s sham marriage to his friend Renate, or the stunning showstopper “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, as a parting of the ways between Elton and his longtime friend and songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), this is not only a clever exhibition and jukebox musical, but it is fundamentally a transformative work. This film didn’t make me want to listen to Elton John’s music per se (although I have done that) – it made me want to listen to its own soundtrack on repeat. And I have done exactly that, over and over again since I saw the film. And it’s not just the arrangements and plot beats… Egerton’s vocals are uniformly outstanding. Of all the films I saw this year, this is the one I have rewatched the most times, and the one I expect I’ll keep watching the most for years to come. In a year of challenging films I’ll probably never see again, it’s an easy pick for #1.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #156 – “Joker” (dir. Todd Phillips), “Rocketman” (dir. Dexter Fletcher)
Films that would have made my Top 10, had I seen them before December 31. Check out our podcast (coming soon)!
One was more or less an antidote for the other, and they are both outstanding.
- Uncut Gems (directed by Josh and Benny Safdie)
- Little Women (directed by Greta Gerwig)
- Prospect (directed by Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell)
- 1917 (directed by Sam Mendes) (podcast)
- John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (directed by Chad Stahelski)
- Jojo Rabbit (directed by Taika Waititi)
- Hustlers (directed by Lorene Scafaria)
- Us (directed by Jordan Peele)
- Avengers: Endgame (directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)
- High Flying Bird (directed by Steven Soderbergh)
- Little Woods (directed by Nia DaCosta) (podcast)
- Ad Astra (directed by James Gray)
- My Name is Dolemite (directed by Craig Brewer) (podcast)
- The Wandering Earth (directed by Frant Gwo)
- El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (directed by Vince Gilligan)
- Triple Frontier (directed by J.C. Chandor) (podcast)
- Toy Story 4 (directed by Josh Cooley)
- Putin’s Witnesses (directed by Vitaliy Manskiy) (podcast)
- Giant Little Ones (directed by Keith Behrman)