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.
1. 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.)
2. 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.)
3. The “Upstairs Downstairs” Double Feature
(dir. Bong Joon-ho / 132 min. / South Korea)
(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.)
4. 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 Time, the 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.)
5. The “Female Gaze” Double Feature
(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.)
(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.)
7. 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.)
8. 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.)
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.)
10. 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:
- Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)
- Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)
- Magic Mike XXL (dir. Gregory Jacobs)
- Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
- Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
- Princess Cyd (dir. Stephen Cone)
- Support the Girls (dir. Andrew Bujalski)
- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
- Zama (dir. Lucrecia Martel)