Not Just Any Body

beatles help

When Rachel – my co-host over at The Criterion Project picked A Hard Day’s Night as the subject of our latest episode (listen here!), I was suddenly taken by the thought that I should end my decade-old feud with The Beatles. Inspired in equal parts by social distancing and Colin Marshall,* I decided to listen, for the first time in my life, to every Beatles album. And when I say listen, I mean really listen. Pay attention. Try to understand what all the fuss was about.

Despite fond memories of singing “She Loves You” in the back of my mom’s car as a kid, at some point a teenage me decided that the Fab Four were simply overrated. This was around the time that the movie Across the Universe and the soundtrack of the Cirque Du Soleil show Love came out. The saturation that came with those bloated, obnoxious tributes to the band played a big role in my decision. I became a contrarian, I got yelled at by my high school girlfriend, and many years later I conceded that while the Beatles wrote many great songs, they were simply not for me. The first part of my listening experiment supported that theory – the early albums feature amazing songs among lots of filler. And then along came Help! 

I’ll Follow the Sun,” from the previous album, already presaged a move from the band’s original rock n’ roll to a sound that was more poppy, relaxed, and melancholy. “It’s Only Love” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face” may not be the biggest songs in the catalogue, but they are songs for me. I suspect my newfound appreciation for the band will fade as I enter the more conceptual and psychedelic era of their output, but for now, I find myself in the unexpected position of emotionally connecting to the Beatles for the first time.

* Colin Marshall is also listening to the Beatles for the first time in his life and posting about it on Twitter. Even if you’re not interested in a long Twitter thread about the Beatles, you should follow him. Most of the best articles I’ve read in the last six months or so I’ve found because Colin recommended them. 

The Restless Impressionist, Part 2

floor scrapers
‘The Floor Scrapers’ by Gustave Caillebotte was submitted, and rejected, at the Salon. 

I’ve been puzzling over the question I asked at the end of the last post: how did the Impressionist painters get anyone to show up to their exhibition? For an artist, creating the art is easy; getting anyone to care is the hard part. Well, after some initial digging, it seems the clearest answer to my question is “Gustave Caillebotte.”

Caillebotte was an Impressionist painter, but most importantly, the heir of a textile fortune who painted as a hobby. Being rich, he was able to support his buddies, often buying the paintings they were unable to sell. When he died he owned a substantial collection and, in his will, left the paintings to the French government, asking that they be hung at a national museum. How dare someone demand the government to officially exhibit such garbage? The executors of the will fought hard, and a few years later, the first national exhibition of Impressionist paintings opened in Paris.

I found this story in Hit Makers by Derek Thompson, where he argues we might not remember the Impressionists if it weren’t for Caillebotte’s collection. The most famous paintings by the most famous painters – Monet, Renoir, Degas – were all present at that first exhibit. With his will, Caillebotte took advantage of the controversy around these painters and packaged them the way you would package a boy band, which leads us to a new question: do you think Monet was the Harry or the Zayn of his group?

The Restless Impressionist

Claude_Monet,_Impression,_soleil_levant,_1872

Imagine that you’re trying to make it as an artist. The odds are overwhelmingly against you. If you are an actor, you go on countless auditions. If you are a writer, you send your manuscripts anywhere that will accept them. Rejection is a constant and incessant part of your life. In fact, rejection is all you know. You get depressed. There must be another way.

Then you remember the Impressionist painters of 19th century France, whose revolutionary style was derided by the selection committee of the Salon. To be a successful painter back then, you simply had to exhibit at the Salon. But Impressionist paintings, if selected (a big if), were hung in dimly lit backrooms – just as bad as not having been selected at all. At some point, the frustrated artists decided to defy the status quo and mount their own exhibition. They got mixed reviews, but any press is good press.* They revolutionized painting. They became Monet, Renoir, Cézanne.

You get inspired. You decide you are going to refuse rejection, and build an alternative path for yourself. You come up with an amazing project you can self-finance. You get great collaborators to work with you. You’re doing it. You’re following in the footsteps of great artists before you… But there’s one question that keeps you up at night: how did these broke, revolutionary, Impressionist painters get anybody to show up to their exhibition in the first place?

*this is a recount of the Impressionist Exhibition as framed in Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘David and Goliath.’ Different art historians might disagree with the details.  

The Chan Museum

the chan museum

The climax of Police Story. Jackie Chan realizes there’s only one way to stop the bad guy, so he jumps off a balcony and slides down a pole to the ground floor of a shopping mall. My wife cheers in amazement. The movie replays the moment two more times, anticipating there is only one way a lowly human could react to that death-defying stunt.

Chan performs the stunt himself. It leaves his hands shredded by broken bulbs. He is used to pain. A hyperactive kid, he was sent to the China Drama Academy, and trained for Beijing Opera from 5am to 11pm every single day. Such cruel discipline created one of the great action stars. Movies today can hardly compare. Digital effects have created a  bigger chasm between life and screen than ever before. The sight of Jackie’s real stunts – magnified by the outtakes of failed attempts in the credits – has a particular effect. The beauty of ballet and the exhilaration of a perfect dismount all at once.

Except for maniacs like Tom Cruise, you can’t make ’em like this anymore (labor laws, for one.) Police Story is the product of intense, inhuman physical work and a film industry scrappy enough to indulge a man who saw the world as a giant jungle gym. A time capsule. If this isn’t Cultural World Heritage, then what is?

 

Oscar Winner Predictions 2019!

parasiteBP

You know how this goes…

Best Picture

  • 1917 
  • Ford v. Ferrari
  • The Irishman
  • Jojo Rabbit
  • Joker
  • Little Women
  • Marriage Story
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
  • Parasite

Smart money is on World War I epic 1917 taking home the big prize, as it has won the Golden Globe, Producers Guild Award, and BAFTA. However, there is a major grounswell of support for Parasite – the first South Korean movie to be nominated for any Oscars, and an unlikely crowd-pleasing hit – to become the first foreign language film to win Best Picture. Statistically, it’s not the most likely scenario, but are voters really going to deny us the most historical and exciting Best Picture win since Moonlight?
Will Win: Parasite
Should Win: Parasite 

Director

  • Bong Joon-ho (Parasite)
  • Sam Mendes (1917)
  • Todd Phillips (Joker)
  • Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)
  • Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)

In the last decade, the Best Director category has become a sort of technical achievement prize, usually going to the director whose movie seems the most difficult to shoot. Impressive long takes and pyrotechnics explain recent wins for Alfonso Cuarón, Ang Lee, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu. This year’s equivalent is Sam Mendes, for the “all in one take” showiness of 1917. That Mendes will win a second Oscar when nominated against Scorsese and Tarantino seems surreal, but that’s the Oscars for you.
Will Win: Sam Mendes
Should Win: Bong Joon-ho

Actress in a Leading Role

  • Cynthia Erivo (Harriet)
  • Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
  • Saoirse Ronan (Little Women)
  • Charlize Theron (Bombshell)
  • Renée Zellweger (Judy)

Renée Zellweger’s impending comeback win for Judy feels a lot like Glenn Close’s impending win for The Wife last year: it looks like the obvious choice until it is taken away at the last minute. But there are two important differences: 1. unlike last year’s Olivia Colman, there is no clear challenger to Renée’s win, and 2. people seem to have actually watched Judy. 
Will Win: Renée Zellweger
Should Win: Saoirse Ronan

Actor in a Leading Role

  • Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)
  • Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
  • Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
  • Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes)

It would be an understatement to say I’m not the biggest fan of Joker, but I do love Joaquin Phoenix as an actor. There are about a million performances he’s given I’d rather have seen him win the Oscar for, but I’m willing to look at this as a career achievement prize. I’ll just pretend he’s winning for Two Lovers, or The Master, or We Own the Night, or Inherent Vice, or The Immigrant, or… You get the picture.
Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix
Should Win: Antonio Banderas

Actress in a Supporting Role

  • Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell)
  • Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
  • Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)
  • Florence Pugh (Little Women)
  • Margot Robbie (Bombshell)

I love Laura Dern as much as the next guy, but I can’t really spend too much thinking of this category without becoming absolutely furious at the fact that Jennifer Lopez wasn’t nominated for her career-best work in Hustlers. 
Will Win:
Laura Dern
Should Win: Florence Pugh

Actor in a Supporting Role

  • Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood)
  • Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes)
  • Al Pacino (The Irishman)
  • Joe Pesci (The Irishman)
  • Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)

Brad Pitt is a sure thing for the win at this point, but let’s take a moment to be grateful for the fact that he’s winning for a performance that embraces his impossible good looks, movie star charisma, and comedic chops rather than a weepy Oscarbaity movie in which he plays Thomas Jefferson or some such bullshit.
Will Win: Brad Pitt
Should Win: Brad Pitt

Original Screenplay

  • 1917 (Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns)
  • Knives Out (Rian Johnson)
  • Marriage Story (Noach Baumbach)
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
  • Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, Jin Won-han)

Much to Quentin Tarantino’s chagrin, this very much feels like the most likely place to give Parasite an award other than the International Film Oscar it is practically assured to win. You won’t see me complaining, it’s an incredible screenplay.
Will Win: Parasite
Should Win: Parasite 

Adapted Screenplay

  • The Irishman (Steven Zaillian)
  • Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
  • Joker (Todd Phillips, Scott Silver)
  • Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
  • The Two Popes (Anthony McCarten)

This one’s a bit of a toss-up. Taika Waititi has won both the WGA and BAFTA for his Jojo Rabbit, which would make him an automatic win… except that there’s been a lot said about female directors being underrepresented in this Oscar race, and some people might still regret not having given Greta Gerwig any Oscars for Lady Bird. At the end of the day, it’s worthwhile remembering that some things never change, that Green Book won Best Picture last year, and that Jojo fits right in with the kind of insufferable bullshit the Academy loves to reward. 
Will Win:
Jojo Rabbit
Should Win: Little Women 

Animated Feature

  • How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
  • I Lost My Body
  • Klaus 
  • Missing Link
  • Toy Story 4

In a really weak year for this category, it seemed like Toy Story 4 would sail to a default win, but Netflix’s Klaus has surprised by winning the Annie Award and the BAFTA. It is, in my opinion, easily the best movie in this lot, and the animation branch is not particularly fond of rewarding sequels, which makes me think it has a chance.
Will Win: Klaus
Should Win: Klaus 

International Film

  • Corpus Christi (Poland)
  • Honeyland (North Macedonia)
  • Les Misérables (France)
  • Pain and Glory (Spain)
  • Parasite (South Korea)

A win for Parasite is almost a given, which seems surreal considering no South Korean movie had ever been nominated before despite the wealth of amazing movies that came out of that country in the past two decades: Oldboy, Burning, Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, Secret Sunshine, The Handmaiden, Poetry, the list goes on and on…
Will Win: Parasite
Should Win: Parasite 

Cinematography

  • 1917 (Roger Deakins)
  • The Irishman (Rodrigo Prieto)
  • Joker (Lawrence Sher)
  • The Lighthouse (Jaren Blachske)
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Robert Richardson)

Maybe the biggest lock of the night. This is a no-brainer for Roger Deakins and the one-take gimmickry of 1917. I don’t begrudge the man, he had to wait more than twenty years of nominations until he finally won, and I’ll gladly hand him a second win.
Will Win: 1917
Should Win: The Lighthouse 

Costume Design

  • The Irishman (Sandy Powell, Christopher Peterson)
  • Jojo Rabbit (Mayes C. Rubio)
  • Joker (Mark Bridges)
  • Little Women (Jacqueline Durran)
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Arianne Phillips)

The usual rule of thumb is that the movie with the most period gowns takes the win. This year, that would be Little Women. A second Oscar for the super talented Jacqueline Durran? I’d be down for that, even if I’d be equally excited for Arianne Phillips, who also seems like a possibility.
Will Win: Little Women
Should Win: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood 

Film Editing

  • Ford v. Ferrari (Michael McCusker)
  • The Irishman (Thelma Schoonmaker)
  • Jojo Rabbit (Tom Eagles)
  • Joker (Jeff Groth)
  • Parasite (Jinmo Yang)

This is a free-for-all, which makes me think Parasite, which has the most Best Picture buzz out of these nominees will be able to pull it off.
Will Win: Parasite
Should Win: Parasite 

Makeup and Hair

  • 1917 
  • Bombshell
  • Joker
  • Judy
  • Maleficent: Mistress of Evil 

The obvious choice seems to be Charlize Theron’s transformation into Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, but the movie’s buzz has pretty much disappeared. It makes me think this might be another place where voters default to Joker, even if I don’t see much make-up achievement in that movie beyond face paint.
Will Win: Bombshell
Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil 

Production Design

  • 1917 (Dennis Gassner, Lee Sandales)
  • The Irishman (Bob Shaw, Regina Graves)
  • Jojo Rabbit (Ra Vincent, Nora Sopkova)
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Barbara Ling, Nancy Haigh)
  • Parasite (Lee Ha-jun, Cho Won Woo)

1917 is a thread here, and I would love nothing more than to see the incredible upstairs-downstairs design of Parasite take the win, but something tells me Once Upon a Time‘s recreation of sixties Hollywood is going to be too nostalgic for the Academy to resist.
Will Win: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Should Win: Parasite 

Original Score

  • 1917 (Thomas Newman)
  • Joker (Hildur Gudnadottir)
  • Little Women (Alexandre Desplat)
  • Marriage Story (Randy Newman)
  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (John Williams)

Seeing 1917 do as well as it has, I was convinced this would be the year of Thomas Newman’s overdue win (he’s been nominated 15 times with no wins), but for reasons I don’t quite grasp, the consensus has built around Joker as the best score of the year. Composer Hildur Gudnadottir has won the Globe, the BAFTA, and even a Grammy. The latter one was for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, but I don’t see how that would hurt.
Will Win: Joker
Should Win: Marriage Story 

Original Song

  • “I Can’t Let Your Throw Yourself Away” (Toy Story 4)
  • “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” (Rocketman)
  • “I’m Standing with You” (Breakthrough)
  • “Into the Unknown” (Frozen II)
  • “Stand Up” (Harriet)

What an absolute dog of a category. In this company, Taylor Swift’s much maligned song from Cats looks like a masterpiece. I have no idea where this will go, my first thought it’s this is a way to reward Elton John, but Rocketman didn’t get any other nominations, signaling a lack of support in the Academy. I could easily see this going to Harriet, since nominated star Cynthia Erivo is one of the songwriters. Bottom line, this is anyone’s game.
Will Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” 
Should Win: I’ll abstain.

Sound Mixing

  • 1917 
  • Ad Astra 
  • Ford v. Ferrari
  • Joker
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

The sound categories seem like an obvious place for 1917 to rack up some more awards. The only other option, I think, is if the Academy decides they want to give something to Ford v. Ferrari, in which case one (or both) of the sounds would be the place to go.
Will Win: 1917
Should Win: Ad Astra

Sound Editing

  • 1917 
  • Ford v. Ferrari
  • Joker
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Same as Sound Mixing, pretty much…
Will Win: 1917
Should Win: 1917 

Visual Effects

  • 1917
  • Avengers: Endgame
  • The Irishman 
  • The Lion King
  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker 

This is the toughest category of the year for me. I go back and forth between three winners. Usually, if a Best Picture nominee is represented here, they take the prize. But this year has two such movies, and the last time more than one Best Picture contender was nominated here it ended with a bizarre (but very much deserved) win for Ex Machina. My gut tells me 1917 does not have enough CGI to win here, and The Irishman feels like it’s lost all momentum, which leaves me with The Lion King. This category loves to reward CGI animals (Life of Pi, The Golden Compass, The Jungle Book), so that might give the “not animated” lions the edge.
Will Win: The Lion King
Should Win: Alita: Battle Angel… wait, what? 

Documentary (Feature)

  • American Factory
  • The Cave
  • The Edge of Democracy
  • For Sama
  • Honeyland

Will Win: American Factory   

Documentary (Short Subject)

  • In the Absence
  • Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If You’re a Girl)
  • Life Overtakes Me
  • St. Louis Superman
  • Walk Run Cha-Cha 

Will Win: Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If You’re a Girl)

Short Film (Animated)

  • Daughter
  • Hair Love
  • Kitbull
  • Memorable
  • Sister

Will Win: Hair Love

Short Film (Live Action)

  • Brotherhood
  • Nefta Football Club
  • The Neighbor’s Window
  • Saria
  • A Sister

Will Win: The Neighbor’s Window 

Predictions for the 2019 Oscar Nominations

2488029 - ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

I am doing some wishful thinking here, I think, but whatever. No further commentary, this is simply for the record.

Best Picture

  • 1917
  • The Irishman
  • Jojo Rabbit
  • Joker
  • Little Women
  • Marriage Story
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
  • Parasite 

Director

  • Bong Joon-ho (Parasite)
  • Greta Gerwig (Little Women)
  • Sam Mendes (1917)
  • Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)
  • Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)

Actress in a Leading Role

  • Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
  • Lupita Nyong’o (Us)
  • Saoirse Ronan (Little Women)
  • Charlize Theron (Bombshell)
  • Renée Zellweger (Judy)

Actor in a Leading Role

  • Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)
  • Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
  • Taron Egerton (Rocketman)
  • Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

Actress in a Supporting Role

  • Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
  • Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers)
  • Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)
  • Florence Pugh (Little Women)
  • Margot Robbie (Bombshell)

Actor in a Supporting Role

  • Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood)
  • Al Pacino (The Irishman)
  • Joe Pesci (The Irishman)
  • Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)
  • Song Kang-ho (Parasite)

Original Screenplay

  • The Farewell (Lulu Wang)
  • Knives Out (Rian Johnson)
  • Marriage Story (Noach Baumbach)
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
  • Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, Jin Won-han)

Adapted Screenplay

  • The Irishman (Steven Zaillian)
  • Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
  • Joker (Todd Phillips, Scott Silver)
  • Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
  • The Two Popes (Anthony McCarten)

Animated Feature

  • Frozen II
  • How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
  • I Lost My Body
  • Missing Link
  • Toy Story 4

International Feature

  • Atlantics (Senegal)
  • Beanpole (Russia)
  • Les Miserables (France)
  • Pain & Glory (Spain)
  • Parasite (South Korea)

Documentary Feature

  • American Factory
  • For Sama 
  • Honeyland
  • Midnight Family 
  • One Child Nation 

Cinematography

  • 1917 (Roger Deakins)
  • The Irishman (Rodrigo Prieto)
  • Joker (Lawrence Sher)
  • The Lighthouse (Jaren Blachske)
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Robert Richardson)

Costume Design

  • 1917 (Jacqueline Durran, David Crossman)
  • Jojo Rabbit (Mayes C. Rubio)
  • Little Women (Jacqueline Durran)
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Arianne Phillips)
  • Rocketman (Julian Day)

Film Editing

  • Ford v. Ferrari (Michael McCusker)
  • The Irishman (Thelma Schoonmaker)
  • Jojo Rabbit (Tom Eagles)
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Fred Raskin)
  • Parasite (Jinmo Yang)

Makeup and Hair

  • Bombshell
  • Joker
  • Judy
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
  • Rocketman 

Production Design

  • 1917 (Dennis Gassner)
  • Jojo Rabbit (Ra Vincent)
  • Joker (Mark Friedberg)
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Barbara Ling, Nancy Haigh)
  • Parasite (Lee Ha-jun)

Original Score

  • 1917 (Thomas Newman)
  • Joker (Hildur Gudnadottir)
  • Little Women (Alexandre Desplat)
  • Marriage Story (Randy Newman)
  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (John Williams)

Original Song

  • “Glasgow” (Wild Rose)
  • “I’m Gonna Love Me Again” (Rocketman)
  • “Into the Unknown” (Frozen II)
  • “Spirit” (The Lion King)
  • “Stand Up” (Harriet)

Sound Mixing

  • 1917 
  • Ford v. Ferrari
  • Joker
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
  • Rocketman

Sound Editing

  • 1917 
  • Ford v Ferrari
  • Joker
  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Visual Effects

  • Alita: Battle Angel
  • Avengers: Endgame
  • The Irishman 
  • The Lion King
  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker 

The Best Movies of 2019

parasitetop10

Some of you will say I shouldn’t have written “Movies” in the title, but any classification of what is and isn’t cinema that searches to narrow the definition – even if it comes from Martin Scorsese – is not appealing to me. The following list is comprised of moving images, all of which made me feel, think, or experience something special. There are three “ties” because I like to make connections between the things I watch and to spread the wealth. You can take it or leave it. After all, there is no objectivity in ranking art. This is just a way for me to recommend the good stuff that I hold dear.

little women11. Little Women
(dir. Greta Gerwig / 134 min. / USA)

“Who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance” says Jo, the struggling writer. Her younger sister Amy replies with “Maybe we don’t see those things as important because people don’t write about them.” In this moment, which comes near the end, Little Women argues for itself as a piece of art. It’s not like the movie needs to do this. By this point, the grace with which writer-director Greta Gerwig and her many, talented collaborators capture the profound emotion of daily life has spoken for itself. Actually, Gerwig’s great gamble to restructure Louisa May Alcott’s source novel – first introducing Jo as a struggling writer in New York, then flashing back to her childhood with her sisters – is essential to the movie’s success. After all, the struggles and joys of domestic life only acquire their profundity when looked back as memories. With that in mind, one could think of the quoted exchange between Jo and Amy as the unnecessary gilding of a perfectly fine lily. One could… if it weren’t for two reasons. The first: There are some people – in this year of our Lord 2019, believe it or not – who are turning their nose at this movie because it is based on source material that is most popular with – gasp – pre-adolescent girls, so a bit of blunt self-preservation might not be a totally worthless idea. The second, and most important: having this small piece of wisdom be delivered by Amy – not only the youngest of the little women, but the one who’s historically been portrayed as the selfish, unlikable one – exemplifies the generosity with which Gerwig approaches this adaptation. I wrote a lot about generosity when praising Lady Bird, Gerwig’s previous feature. Somehow, this generosity has grown even stronger in the follow-up. I can hardly think of a character in this movie who is not given a moment of grace. And I can hardly think of a more generous approach to literary adaptation – one that is so tied to the director’s personal bond to the source material, that it ends up becoming the most infallible argument for its greatness. 

(Little Women is playing in movie theaters nation-wide.)

claireba2. Pastry Chef Attempts to Make Gourmet Starburst
(featuring Claire Saffitz / 40 min. / USA)

This video, in which pastry chef Claire Saffitz attempts to make a “gourmet” version of Starburst from scratch, is meant to be a representative not only for “Gourmet Makes”, the series in which it is an entry, but for the whole network of videos available on Bon Appetit’s Youtube channel. Through these videos, Bon Appetit has created a cinematic universe so rich, so delightful, and so full of endearing characters it puts the Marvel franchise machine to shame. Within this vast universe, the Starburst video stands out as the best example of the channel’s ability to capture pure human drama. Claire Saffitz is an extremely accomplished chef in her own right, but the pleasure of watching her videos relies largely on seeing her struggle, quite transparently, to achieve the task she set out for herself. The way in which the Starburst video in particular captures, with complete honesty, Claire as she deals with the immense stress she is experiencing due to her own perfectionism is emblematic of what makes her a perfect avatar for the struggles of her generation. To paraphrase my wife, “there is nothing more millennial than having the impulse to make homemade junk food, but being absolutely miserable while doing it.” I don’t want o minimize the talent and charisma of the many other “characters” in the BA universe, but there is something extremely cathartic, almost sublime, in seeing Claire repeatedly experience the excitement, anguish, and release of her sisyphean task. I didn’t feel a thing when Iron Man died, but may have never felt as devastated as when after many, many tries, Claire just couldn’t replicate the texture of a Starburst.

(All Bon Appetit videos are available on Youtube, and you can watch the Starburst one right here.)

Film Title: Us3. The “Upstairs Downstairs” Double Feature 

Parasite
(dir. Bong Joon-ho / 132 min. / South Korea)

Us
(dir. Jordan Peele / 116 min. / USA)

I am by no means the first person to compare these two. The great Amy Taubin, in particular, has pointed out the thematic similarities in these parables about the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. Beyond theme, the movies share an interest in thrill-inducing, crowd-pleasing filmmaking, which not only argues for them as a dynamite double-feature, but as a rebuttal to the notion that audiences will only show up for numb, apolitical, and repetitive franchise spectacles. Parasite director Bong Joon-ho – who has directed two international co-productions, Snowpiercer and Okja – has said he was initially surprised by the international success of what is a very Korean story, but has come to understand that “we all live in the same country called capitalism.”

How much of an anti-capitalist story is Parasite? Well, it is the story of a piss-poor family whose only chance at upward mobility is to con their way into a job at a wealthy family’s home. Revealing much more about the plot would be a disservice to Bong’s meticulous story structure, but rest assured part of the reason this Palme D’Or winner has caught on with audiences are the many twists and turns of its second half. Not as talked about as its anti-capitalist sentiment has been Parasite‘s anti-American critiques. The fact that the wealthy family in the movie is fascinated with American culture might seem at first like a critique of South Korean upper classes, but it’s worth stepping back and wondering what capitalist machinations have persuaded these crazy rich Asians to adopt such an obsessive relationship to this country.

Us can also be seen as a critique of American society. An auto-critique, in this case, and one that packs a particular kind of sting due to its specificity. I’m going to invoke Amy Taubin, again, because she has repeatedly referred to an anecdote about Jordan Peele’s inspiration: apparently, back when he was a student at Sarah Lawrence University, Peele was walking thought a tunnel when he found himself suddenly stalked by his own shadow. He later understood the presence he felt to be not himself, but the less privileged kids in his community who were not afforded the same opportunities as he. In this way, the movie provides a complimentary p.o.v. to Parasite, as it focuses on a middle class family whose vacation is ruined by the menacing embodiments of social consciousness. Those who view Us as a less polished movie than Parasite, must not have felt the visceral intensity I did while watching the movie – like the relentless doppelgänger so astonishingly played by Lupita Nyong’o, the movie is willing to strain whatever voice it can muster in order to be heard.

(Us is available to stream on Amazon Prime, Parasite is still in theaters.)

uncutgems4. Uncut Gems
(dir. Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie / 130 min. / USA)

For Howard Ratner, the diamond district dealer played by Adam Sandler, it’s never a matter of solving a problem, it’s a matter of winning. After dragging us through a rough night white privilege run amok in Good Timethe Safdie brothers shift their gaze to a different kind of destructive force: male competitiveness. Doesn’t it seem, sometimes, as if straight men have built society to be one big competition? Uncut Gems is the embodiment of capitalism as a male force. But this is not a sterile movie about big ideas, this is one of the most nerve-racking against-the-clock thrillers of the year. The Safdies are committed to making the experience of watching their movies as extreme as possible, which is more than appropriate when dealing with the kind of problematic characters they are often interested in following. I will steal something my friend Abie texted me after watching the movie, that the Safdies’ commitment to visceral emotion allows the movie to capture addiction (to gambling, to winning) in an unprecedented way. The risk created by Howard’s betting is so incredibly high that you can’t help but feel like you’re about to explode. Similarly the relief when things pay off is so incredibly high, we right up there with him.

(Uncut Gems should be playing in theaters in most major cities.)

hustlers85. The “Female Gaze” Double Feature

Hustlers
(dir. Lorene Scafaria / 110 min. / USA)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
(dir. Céline Sciamma / 119 min. / France)

For Hustlers, comparisons to Goodfellas are inescapable, and honestly, warranted. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria calls her shot by quoting direct styles and images from Scorsese’s mobster saga, and it turns out that positioning her movie in direct conversation with one of the sacred texts of film bro culture pays off handsomely. In matters of taste there can be no dispute, but I for one find the circumstances that make these former strippers turn to crime at the very least more layered and complex than Henry Hill’s macho dude desire to be a gangster. The ensemble, led by an underrated Constance Wu, a hilarious Keke Palmer, and a never-shined-brighter Jennifer López delivers on the bang-for-your-buck entertainment promised by the trailer, and surprises by poignantly balancing the selfish darkness and sisterly bond that fuel the characters’ actions. Enormous credit is due to the meeting of Scafaria’s careful hand and J-Lo’s incomparable star-power, the combination of which, among many achievements, convincingly argues for a strip routine as its own kind of empowered feat.

And yet, no director was more explicit in their quest to subvert the traditional male gaze of cinema than Céline Sciamma, whose Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of an 18th Century painter who is summoned to a remote island to paint the portrait of the would-be wife of a Milanese aristocrat. The portrait is to be sent to the Milanese so can see if he wants to marry the woman at all, but the subject of the picture is profoundly against the idea of being sent off to marriage. Thus begins a game in which the painter pretends to be a companion to the woman during the day, while trying to paint her from memory at night. As the game of glances and memories develop, the women begin to fall in love. Sciamma’s world is full of symbolism, bright colors and dreamy textures. The movie is constantly and explicitly asking us to consider who is being observed when, and Sciamma has a wonderful time playing with what is and isn’t seen within her frames. Images – and expectations – morph right in front of us, building to some of the most hear-pounding moments of this year in film.

(Hustlers is available to rent on most platforms. After a one-week run this December, Portrait of a Lady on Fire will start its theatrical run on Valentine’s Day.)

atlantics6. Atlantics
(dir. Mati Diop / 106 min. / Senegal)

“Unbelievable sight, indescribable feeling.” What does it mean, that in my pursuit to say something worthwhile about Mati Diop’s beautiful feature debut, I couldn’t come up with anything better than this hokey musical quote? I suppose I’m being honest in comparing my experience to that of Princess Jasmine on her magic carpet ride. I too was taken on a journey I simply couldn’t see coming. Social and magical realism blend together in Atlantics, which is part coming-of-age, part ghost story, and somehow much more than that. If the experience of watching this movie is most aptly compared to the je ne sais quoi of a magic carpet ride, it’s because it seems to be somehow connected to some sort of transcendental, immense feeling. As immense as the ocean, which plays a key role in the separation of our teenage protagonist and the lover who has been forced to leave Senegal in the hopes of finding a better life in Europe. And yet, it would be a crime to look at a movie this thoroughly accomplished and chalk up its power to some sort of mystical connection. The truth is that Mati Diop and her collaborators are putting in the work. Cinematographer Claire Mathon creates perfectly composed images that reflect the relationship between the main character and her surroundings. The unique score by Fatima Al Qadiri reflects a similar tension between electronic sounds and more traditional rhythms. And the sound design, also perfect, keeps circling back to remind us of the overwhelming presence of the ocean, which occupies this woman’s mind and haunts her as its own kind of spirit. If there are certain convenient coincidences in the plot, they serve to plant one of the movie’s foot firmly in the realm of legend. With the other foot planted in the world of politically-minded cinematic rigor, the movie achieves a power all its own.   

(Atlantics is available to stream on Netflix.)

deadwood57. Deadwood: The Movie
(dir. David Minahan / 110 min. / USA)

In 2006, HBO announced it was cancelling its western television series Deadwood on the eve of the premiere of its third season. It was known that series creator David Milch had a specific ending planned for the show, and that the third season finale was not it. Through the years, fans like me came to terms with the idea that Deadwood would forever be an incomplete series, and would spend equal amounts of time proselytizing the show’s virtues and decrying the fact that its non-ending had prevented it from entering its rightful place in the pantheon of great television dramas. For just as many years, the rumors of a movie that would tie up the loose ends circulated the internet, but us fans were too smart to give in to such improbable wishful thinking. Well guess what motherfuckers? Somehow the planets aligned, and made it so that more than ten years after the show’s cancellation, and shortly after he was diagnosed with alzheimer’s, Milch was able to write the last chapter of his story. A chapter that stands out as the perfect mix of nostalgia for past creations and a sobering look at death and the end of all things in a year in which big names such as Tarantino, Scorsese, and Almodóvar all delivered similarly retrospective projects. I wouldn’t expect this movie to have the impact it had on me on any viewer who is not familiar with the three seasons of television that preceded it, which makes it the perfect excuse for catching up with this incredible show and its beautiful, belated last chapter.

(Deadwood, both show and movie, are available to stream on HBO.)

sisternight8. Watchmen: “This Extraordinary Being”
(dir. Stephen Williams / 60 min. / USA)

I am as shocked as you are. You’d be hard pressed two things I’ve complained about on Twitter more incessantly and more annoyingly than superhero movies and television dramas. Watchmen, a sequel series to the revolutionary comic book of the same name is, in both cases, the exception that proves the rule. Back in the eighties, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, used their 12-issue series to explore comic book reader’s obsession with superheroes in the context of the Cold War and the looming thread of nuclear extinction. Thirty years later, with superheroes have saturated the culture not in comic book pages, but on the screen. That we, as a culture, are obsessed with following the adventures of what are essentially fascist supercops at a time of massive protest against racism, misconduct, and brutality in the police force is kind of unbelievable. This is where Watchmen comes in. Created by Damon Lindelof (in collaboration with many black artists, including the “consultation” of celebrated playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins), the shows announced its intentions from the very beginning. The first episode of the show opened with a harrowing recreation of the real-life 1921 Tulsa massacre, in which a thriving black community was annihilated by white racists and ended with a grotesque image that suggested a friendly, white, police officer had been hanged by a mysterious black man. Things, obviously, were not what they appeared, but the fact that the show was willing to close its first episode with a moment that was so ripe for misinterpretation is an example of the kind of risky story-telling that make it stand out in the landscape of prestige television. Where most hour-long dramas – be they populated by dragons or meth dealers – try as hard as they can to avoid saying anything relevant or alienating, Watchmen couldn’t be more interested in diving right into the most relevant (and routinely ignored) questions of its genre. Take, for instance, the episode I’ve decided to single out for this list: “This Extraordinary Being” is built around a hallucinatory memory, shot in black and white, that shows us the origin story of “Hooded Justice,” a character that appears in the original comic, but is re-contextualized for the series, which intrinsically links his status as the first superhero to America’s racist past, present, and future. This is just the kind of exciting, risky, and entertaining stuff that I needed. And it came right when I was ready to give up on television dramas once and for all.

(Watchmen is available to stream on HBO.)

hanxrogers

9. The “Preschool for Adults” Double Feature

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
(dir. Marielle Heller / 109 min. / USA)

John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch
(dir. Rhys Thomas / 70 min. / USA)

I grew up not knowing who Fred Rogers was – let alone watching his television show – and while I gather that he was a very nice man, I am not particularly interested in the nostalgia around him. When I heard Tom Hanks – a great actor, but one who has a somewhat questionable predilection for playing American Heroes™ – had taken Rogers as his next role, I prepared for the worst. Imagine my surprise when A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood turned out to be one of the most formally exciting movies of the year! Choosing to focus on the value that Fred Rogers’s brought to the world rather than his own life was a smart enough choice, but I wouldn’t have expected it to come with the even riskier gamble of presenting the movie as an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood – only one aimed at adults. Men’s inability to grow out of their boyish traumas and deal with the effects of toxic masculinity, makes for the perfect subject to be analyzed through the prism of Mr. Rogers’s figure. Every gutsy choice in this screenplay – and there are many! – could have fallen completely flat without the pitch-perfect direction of Marielle Heller. Still, at the end of the day, the biggest value – of this movie, of Rogers himself – is a complete honesty in understanding that being a good person requires a lot of work. Enlightenment is not something you reach, but something you constantly strive toward.

A similarly audacious formal experiment at re-visiting childhood nostalgia came in the Netflix special John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, which is either a spoof, an homage or a completely unique recreation of educational children’s television of the eighties and nineties. The special itself opens with comedian John Mulaney surrounded by a bunch of kids who ask him what the tone of the show is supposed to be. “Is this a joke?” they ask. “Well, if it fails, then yeah. We meant it as a joke” responds Mulaney, before adding that “if it succeeds, we’ll say that we worked really hard on it.” It’s not that this thing hasn’t figured out what audience it’s trying to aim for, but that it is purposely blurring the lines between nostalgia, irony and sincerity. Somewhat improbably, The Sack Lunch Bunch has emerged as the perfect artifact to close off a decade in which children’s entertainment has been endlessly re-packaged for adult nostalgia by explicitly pointing out the ways in which children’s and adult entertainment have morphed into the same thing. Even if you don’t find the comedy of this thing hilarious (which I certainly do), you will be surprised at what an odd and specific artifact it is and how well it plays as a companion to Heller’s sincere look at adult responsibility.

(A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is still playing in theaters, John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch is available on Netflix.)

queen6810. The Queen
(dir. Frank Simon / 68 min. / USA)

Why put a movie made in 1968 on this list? Well, for one, the movie was re-released in theaters this year in a beautifully restored version by Kino Lorber. Second, it might have been fifty years ago, but The Queen seemed far more relevant than most “new” movies I saw this year. One of my household’s most delightful obsessions is the reality-competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race, in which contestants compete to become “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” The Queen – a documentary that chronicles the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant (basically an underground drag version of Miss America) – not only plays like a precursor to Drag Race, but illustrates the many ways in which our culture’s perceptions about identity, race, and gender have (and have not) changed in the last fifty years. The climax of the documentary is a quite famous clip in which contestant Crystal LaBeija confronts the judges of the contest arguing that the winner did not deserve the crown, with the underlying tension being that the winner is white and Crystal is not. While Crystal went on to found the House of Labeija and become a pioneer of “Drag Ball” culture, her rant against the judges sounds eerily familiar to anyone who’s paid attention at how the demographics of Drag Race’s winners has changed as the show has become more and more popular.

(Low-fi versions of this documentary are often found on Youtube, but you can find ways to see, buy, or rent the beautiful restoration of The Queen on the Kino Lorber website.)

To end, I would like to share with you my Favorite Films of the Decade. Or, at least, the ten movies I just can’t stop thinking about: