Paul Schrader is one the cinema’s all-time great dumb guys. The Card Counter features Oscar Isaac as another of his God’s Lonely Men, an ex-con gambler who meets up with a kid and tries to set him on the right path in life. It’s a noir hero conceit: Isaac is a man who did something wrong, once, with a topical flair: the wrong thing he did is torture people at Abu Ghraib. He seems to see in the kid, a young man with an extremely dumb plan played by Tye Sheridan, a chance to atone for his crimes, to put some good back into the world. Though, given the narration he records in his Bressonian journal (Paul Schrader is nothing if not a man who has watched both Diary of a Country Priest AND Pickpocket), he has his doubts whether or not his sins can ever really be expiated. Also he hangs around in casino bars with Tiffany Haddish, who likes him because he’s Oscar Isaac and she’s a woman in a Paul Schrader movie.
Much of the film plays like a variation on Rain Man or The Color of Money, Isaac and Sheridan road tripping from casino to casino, the elder teaching the younger valuable lessons about life while trying to dissuade him from attempting to murder Isaac’s old torture instructor, Willem Dafoe. These scenes, and the gambling bits, are fun and Isaac plays them beautifully, all determinedly sad introversion. The film starts and gets its title from the way he cheats at blackjack, but he spends most of the movie playing poker. Which might be a comment about how his interacting with other people is a fundamental disruption of the balanced and static way he’s rebuilt his life after prison. Or it might just be that someone liked the title, but realized that poker is more cinematic. It doesn’t really matter.
None of it really matters, because like so many Schrader heroes before him, Isaac (and Sheridan) just can’t stop themselves from being dumb. No one in film history has been so obsessed with guys who just cannot chill out and let things go. Schrader’s heroes can’t quit because they see themselves as the center of the universe: their masochistic tortures are rooted in a fundamental narcissism. And Schrader can’t resist depicting them as the doomed romantic heroes they believe themselves to be. So a movie like The Card Counter is filled with wonderful images and sequences (Haddish and Isaac in a park of light; the gray-sheeted emptiness of Isaac’s modified hotel rooms; the horrifyingly woozy distortions of the Abu Ghraib flashbacks) that add up to mere aggrandizement of men who choose to do bad things simply because they refuse not to do them. But Schrader learned from Bresson that if you add just enough inexplicable beauty to your blank, foolish world, some nut will come along and find transcendence in it.
I met James Wan once. He came to the Metro for a pre-release screening of Saw some 15-20 years ago, whenever it was that movie came out. He seemed like a nice enough guy, not all the filmmakers who came through the Metro in my time there did. So, having seen him in person, I can be sure he is, in fact, real. I’m not so sure about anything else related to the movie Malignant. It claims to have been written by people, performed by actors, and filmed in places. But I do have my doubts.
I thought a lot about fakeness when watching Malignant, and about how it’s not exactly the same as phoniness. None of the environments in the movie look real, and certainly not much of it was filmed in Seattle, where its story is set. There’s a series of establishing shots midway through the movie, aerial footage of the city skyline during a rainstorm. Except it’s very obviously not raining in the footage: it’s been added digitally. Way too much of it in fact. Hollywood usually gets Seattle rain wrong, of course. Torrential downpours are rare here–it’s more that we have a constant light drizzle and overcast skies. But this isn’t just that amount of rain, it’s the fact that it doesn’t seem to interact at all with the environment that makes it look so fake. Similarly, there’s very little effort put toward making the city seem like an actual city. Sure, there are establishing shots and location name drops and even a little bit of the Seattle Underground Tour (another thing which I know is real, because I’ve been on it), but like the rain with the land, the locations don’t appear to interact with the actors or the story in any real way.
Of course, the Underground at least does interact with it metaphorically, with the (historically correct) idea that the current city was built on top of the damaged remnants of the original Seattle, which still exists, dark and forgotten, below the city’s downtown areas. What makes Malignant more than just a bad movie is that its fakery is real, whereas the fakery of something like an MCU action sequence is phony. Phony is fake that is also a lie. Malignant‘s heroine’s life (at least parts of it for sure, but I’d suggest that maybe a lot else besides, include the gorgeous house that looks like no one has ever lived in it and the mysterious haunted castle that was supposedly a hospital are fake too) is revealed to be a simulation, induced by her subconscious (or evil twin or whatever) to pacify her while it runs around doing all kinds of awful things (many of which are literally physically impossible, but not metaphorically, and look fake, but still plausible, and are therefore not phony). Her id, if you will, is released by a physical trauma (her abusive husband–reminder that head injuries are always serious and should be treated as such, especially if they’re bleeding: check for concussion, insist that your doctor order a CT scan!), but it was there all along. A fake world terrorized by a backwards monster running around creating chaos and distorting reality with reckless abandon. It’s the true story of America in the 21st century.
Cry Macho is not a great movie, but Clint Eastwood is a great director and a great star, one of the few filmmakers left in mainstream Hollywood allowed to make his own films whatever way he wants to make them and that is more than enough to make it a good movie. Eastwood plays a wizened ranch hand who gets sent to Mexico to bring back his boss Dwight Yoakum’s 13 year old son. Not much about this early part of the film makes sense: the world around the kid is more fake than the baby in American Sniper, and the mother is one of Eastwood’s more hysterically misogynistic portraits of a woman, incoherent and slutty and drunk and cruel and also somehow rich and powerful. She’s of course contrasted with the maternal Marta who Clint and the kid get sidetracked with on the way home, a loving grandmother and excellent cook who always looks at this broken down old man with bright adoring eyes.
This section of the film, where Clint and the boy hide out from the cops in a dusty town that time forgot, seems to be Clint’s ideal place. He sleeps in a shrine, helps out the locals with their various animal troubles (apparently no one else in this rural community knows how to do anything with animals??), and is fed fine food by charming and attractive women. And honestly, it is a delight to see the man enjoying his eden. Who wouldn’t want it all? The idyll ends, of course as it must, and the two make their way back to the border, though not before being waylaid by some cops who think they’re running drugs. As one of them trashes Eastwood’s car (the third one he drives in the film, a delightful running gag), he keeps up a steady stream of muttered profanities about these “asshole, idiot, loser cops”, a reminder that Eastwood’s conservatism, whatever its faults, and there are many, has always been deeply anti-authoritarian.
They’re saved, of course, by the rooster that gives the film its title (“a cock named Macho”, Eastwood helpfully explains one of the films better jokes). This pullum ex machina is one of the more artful expressions of the film’s examination of masculinity, the primary theme of Eastwood’s career, especially in its later phase (an era that’s been going on for at least 30 years now). What does being a man mean for Clint Eastwood? Does it mean telling the cops to go to hell and poking your enemies in the eye and finding a woman to bring you coffee in the morning and avoiding the cheap ones who try to seduce you? Or is all that nonsense, made-up posturing that sad lonely people build up around themselves as a defense against the terrifying, incoherent world? The great thing about Clint Eastwood is that he honestly doesn’t know the difference.
Early in the film, on Eastwood’s journey into Mexico, he camps out rather than stay in a hotel, as any real cowboy would. The camera catches him bunking down for the night in the final moments of sunset, purple sky above deep black. We only see his silhouette, it’s too dark for anything but shadow, as he sinks down to the ground, below the horizon, a movie star merging with the earth.
The idea was that we would keep doing this until the next poll comes out in 2022, by which time we would each have a Top 100 list (well, 98 for Mike because he had a couple of repeats one year). That time is now. Here are our final Top Tens of the project. At letterboxd you can find our complete individual lists, as well as our joint Top 198.
Here are Mike’s Top Ten Films of All-Time for 2021:
1. The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952)
2. The Smallest Show on Earth (Basil Dearden, 1957)
3. Private Property (Leslie Stevens, 1960)
4. That Man from Rio (Philippe de Broca, 1964)
5. Uptight (Jules Dassin, 1968)
6. Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, 1995)
7. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)
8. Sparrow (Johnnie To, 2008)
9. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Declan Lowney, 2013)
10. The History of the Seattle Mariners (Jon Bois, 2020)
And here are Sean’s Top Ten Films of All-Time for 2021:
1. Hellzapoppin’ (HC Potter, 1941)
2. Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)
3. Duvidha (Mani Kaul, 1973)
4. Renaldo & Clara (Bob Dylan, 1978)
5. His Motorbike, Her Island (Obayashi Nobuhiko, 1986)
I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight yesterday. The 14th century poem of unknown authorship that was the inspiration for David Lowery’s latest A24 fantasy film. The film isn’t really an adaptation, or, God forbid, a “reimagining” but a translation of the older epic into contemporary form. Where the Gawain poet’s world is suffused with color, courtly ritual, subversive wit, and Christian allegory, Lowery’s demands stories about flawed but ultimately righteous heroes played by recognizable but not too-recognizable performers navigating a perplexing world of desaturated colors and shadowy interiors. Modern Hollywood filmmaking demands a degree of ambiguity, in that the movies must be able to support a variety of readings, either to satisfy the needs of word-of-mouth promotion (often by inspiring outrageous takes, pro and con, online) and repeat viewings and purchases (theatrical, home video and streaming), or avoid any kind of potential political minefields from right or left by promoting either a blandly vague centrism or by merely presenting a self-contradictory and incoherent text. This applies as much to blockbuster filmmaking (the Disney complex and the films of, say, Denis Villeneuve) as it does to the pseudo-indie films of fashionable distributor A24. All of which is to say that I quite like Lowery’s The Green Knight. It’s a great example of the kind of thing that it is. Look at it as a Daniel Lanois production, swampy and mysterious, with echoes of the old and weird but not quite the real thing. The poem, though, is the thing itself. Not the patina of weird but simply weirdness that sneaks in sideways through the margins of the seemingly familiar and ancient. The Basement Tapes to the film’s Time Out of Mind.
Fitting the medieval poem into a modern idiom requires a great many changes. Gawain in the poem is an upstanding young man who strictly follows the chivalric code of honor for almost the entire story. A somewhat pompous but well-liked figure who is hailed as a hero wherever he goes. Gawain in the film is a callow youth, inexperienced in war and not especially competent at questing. The people he meets on his journey condescend to him, when they aren’t outright stealing from him and leaving him for dead in the wilderness. While the text of many a classic epic expounds of the virtue and honor and ideality of its hero-figures, they tend to be exactly the kind of dumb boys Lowery and star Dev Patel present in the film (think Achilles and his petulance, Gilgamesh and his temper tantrums, the Pandava princes continually making bad deals with their evil brothers over and over in the Mahabharata). One suspects that the true flavor of these oral tradition poems is lost a bit on the page, though in Burton Raffel’s translation of The Green Knight one can almost hear the troubadour winking at the audience as he expounds on Gawain’s virtue.
If The Green Knight is, in many ways, a very silly poem, the scenario it depicts is rife with potential meanings. It is, as they say, a very rich text. A monstrous green giant shows up at King Arthur’s Christmas celebration and challenges any of his knights to trade a blow with him. Whatever he receives he will give back in exactly one year. Gawain, out of nobility in the poem and from a desire to prove himself in the film, accepts the challenge and promptly chops the guy’s head off, assuming, reasonably enough, that a dead man won’t be able to return the blow. But when the knight simply picks his head up and remounts his horse, telling Gawain he looks forward to their next meeting, the consequences of Gawain’s rash decision become clear. His doom is now ensured: in one year he will either lose his head or his honor.
In both versions of the story, Gawain lives it up for almost a year and then heads on his way. The poet tells us he had many adventures along the way, but skips them in order to get to the end, where the knight finds a remote castle run by a mysterious man and his wife. The film fills out the story with two adventures, one in which the hapless Gawain is robbed blind by commoners and another where he helps St. Winifred regain her severed head. The former reinforces Gawain’s youthful incompetence and strips him of the privileges of class and power. The second adds to the severed head motif, fuel for essays exploring the film’s depiction of mind/body duality, or the conflict between rationality and earthly spirituality, or what have you. Mostly it adds to the dreamy vibe that Lowery hopes to establish with his long pans and eerie music, as does a brief sequence where Gawain espies a group of indifferent giants walking among the clouds. The Gawain of the film is desperate, lost, confused, and alone, sentenced to death for reasons he doesn’t quite understand but is compelled to follow nonetheless. Where the poem Gawain is aspirational, the film Gawain is relatable. He is all of us.
The castle sequence is largely unchanged, though Lowery makes a modestly perplexing decision regarding the casting of his lead actress, Alicia Vikander in a dual role as Gawain’s peasant girlfriend back home and also the lady of the castle. The casting implies that the two are possibly the same woman, or that Gawain sees all women he’s attracted to the same, or that one or both of them are figments of his imagination. The poem gives the occupants of the castle a dual role as well, but as the Green Knight and Morgan Le Fay, witchy half-sister of King Arthur who enchanted her husband in order to spook Queen Guinevere and only by accident provided a quest for our hero. The film has a Morgan as well, but makes her Gawain’s mother (Gawain is Arthur’s nephew in both poem and film, but his mother is unnamed in the poem. In many sources, his mother is Morgause, Morgan’s sister, though it’s important to keep in mind that this was all made-up stuff interweaving centuries of multicultural traditions and not designed by a corporation with a staff designated to track continuity). In the film, Morgan conjures the Green Knight seemingly as a way for her son to accrue some credibility points as a knight in order to bolster his future claim to Arthur’s throne. One can then take the story as a tale of helicopter parenting gone horribly wrong when Gawain’s rash beheading sentences him to premature death, or conversely as a mother’s elaborate scheme to scare the hell out of her boy so that he shapes up at stops being such a hedonistic fail-son.
Either way, both film and poem end with Gawain’s confrontation with the Green Knight and his having to make a choice about how he will face death. Gawain has been given a belt he believes will save him from the demon’s axe (whether it’s actually magical or not is ambiguous in the text, left up to how the bard chooses to deliver it). In both versions of the story Gawain flinches, despite the belt, at the first swing, but ultimately removes the belt and chooses to face his death. In the film this is preceded by a long montage where Gawain imagines how his life would play out if he cheated death and ran away, what his future would be like knowing he has acted dishonorably. It conjures memories of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, and equates Gawain’s dilemma to Jesus’s own: willingly submitting to your own execution in the belief that it will make a world a better place (through sacrificial redemption of humanity’s sins or simply by not having a crummy king on the throne of Camelot). The poem ends with the reveal that it was basically all a prank, that the Knight and Morgan were just goofing around, but Gawain has proven his great virtue and honor nonetheless. The film ends, as it must, more ambiguously.
The impersonal, it’s been said, is essentially demoralizing. Of late, when referring to studio productions, this problem has morphed from an identifiable illness into a powerful malaise. Disney, the creature with five studio heads, is often identified as the source of much of this trouble. One way to deal with the trouble is to consider the corporation a gorgon like Medusa and avoid all eye contact. After all, because their franchises operate with TV-style templates (and so then, too, do their imitators’), an individual movie’s artistic failure is ultimately predictable. Plus it saves time.
Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction of Disney’s Jungle Cruise is then a minor complication (or an interesting case-study). He’s the first auteurist cause célèbre to make a movie for the company since Sam Raimi back in 2013 (one that until recently appeared to be a career-ender). Some might neatly choose the perspective of the forest over the trees and call the careerist move a defection: a good director gets fired by these guys, a great one never gets considered for the job, and you know what that says about the ones who turn in the assignment on time. The only problem I have with this standard would be that it frees the work from examination: in this case, does everything Disney touches turn anonymous, and everything before remain the reliable work of a B-movie master?
Collet-Serra’s imprint is not hard to find in Jungle Cruise. A throwaway line of dialogue references the major reveal in Orphan. A flashback to the creation of a riverside town gets a time-lapse reminiscent of, though less moving than, the one that opens The Commuter. Horror stylization accompanies a meeting with the dead and a romantic scene’s banal dialogue is flashed into silence by the presence of a Super-8 camera. Old collaborators are still around, including editor Joel Negron and cinematographer Flavio Labiano, and an early sequence plays like a parody of the Royal Geographic Society scenes in The Lost City of Z, perhaps because the two films share a production designer in Jean-Vincent Puzos. Collet-Serra is not absent then, but he seems content to supply minor details and relinquishes major choices. His Liam Neeson collaborations are no Ranown cycle, but the way they operate is by tying their perspective to Neeson’s characters’ tortured instincts, and surrounding him with an extremely well-defined and confined world. (The same holds true for the protagonists played by Vera Farmiga and Blake Lively in the genre films made just before and after this collaboration.)
It’s an omen, then, that the director of Non-Stop and Run All Night is here along for a mere cruise. The amusement park ride is evidently the progeny of John Huston’s The African Queen, but whatever inconsistencies Huston allowed into his films, one could say that he would never err in making the boat the star focus. And this is Collet-Serra’s weakness: an inability to personalize the deficiencies of the material around him, a mistaken sense of where the talent lies in this film. The blockbuster scale isn’t an odd fit for him just because it scales up compromises of control, but because it requires him to centre his focus on rigid uplift. Collet-Serra is never more in his element than when he’s charting the concentration afforded by cruel traps, and consequently at his least convincing when he’s too eagerly providing an escape mechanism — as in the Spartacus moment at the end of The Commuter. Here, the premise of the movie is that everyone is, after minimal adjustment to a new setting, happy with their lot (even though the setting is Brazil during WWI).
This mismatch suggests an opening filled by other candidates for authorship of this movie. In one corner, the producers who want it to double as an Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean franchise-starter. In another, the many hands who push for interchangeable coverage options and demand that no fewer than one hundred thousand CG frogs, bees, snakes, and sea creatures must appear onscreen. And finally, and maybe most critically, there is Dwayne Johnson. Johnson, also a producer, is an intensely vapid screen presence, a quality other directors have done well to notice (Kelly in Southland Tales, Bay in Pain & Gain). Collet-Serra, instead, assumes Johnson and Emily Blunt (the hero figure of the film, though she’s denied much of a protagonist’s role), are up to the tasks of any other star. He can wear a costume evocative of Bogart’s and convey the passage of centuries; she can be Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. The film is constructed to hit the beats of its internal logic: it’s all of these reference points, and the deadly important errand-running of Star Wars too. Collet-Serra’s acceptance of this logic means he ends up looking like any other director.
Long overdue for reasons ranging from garden-variety studio sexism to serial pandemic-related delays, Black Widow is a top-tier entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It earns a place alongside the likes of Black Panther (2018), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) for its vividly imagined world, whiz-bang action sequences, muscular direction, and terrific screenplay (written by screenwriters Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson, and Eric Pearson, in collaboration with director Cate Shortland and performers Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh). More significantly, Black Widow also has real heart (in its heroine and in the broken, bonkers found-family at its center) and a compelling feminist theme—one that raises the stakes in the film considerably.
The highest grossing film in the world in 2020 was, for the first time since people have been tracking such trivia, not an American movie. It was a continuation of an anime television show about a teen-aged demon slayer set a hundred years ago, in Taisho-era Japan. The Demon Slayer movie has made well over $400 million thus far, easily surpassing Spirited Away to become both the highest-grossing anime and the highest-grossing Japanese film ever made, and the popularity of the series has rocketed the manga on which it’s based (which began in 2016) to become one of the most popular of all-time as well. It’s not hard to see why: the series is slick and bright, with exciting action sequences and compelling world-building, alongside an unabashedly earnest emotional core. That heartfelt sense of compassion is about the only thing that Demon Slayer has in common with the best anime films of recent years (Yamada Naoko’s Liz and the Blue Bird and A Silent Voice, Shinkai Makoto’s Your Name and Weathering with You, Yuasa Masaaki’s Ride Your Wave), and it distinguishes it from the kind of cynical pandering that characterizes so much of the American superhero work with which it shares certain generic similarities. The result, popular as it obviously has been in Japan, seems ill-suited to the US market: too formulaic for the slice-of-life anime fans, too openly decent for those with an unhealthy fixation on Disney’s intellectual property.
The movie doesn’t do much to contextualize the story, instead assuming that we’re all familiar with the characters and mythology that has been built up thus far across the 26 episodes of the show. In a nutshell: teen hero Kamado Tanjiro comes home one day to find that his entire family has been murdered by demons, all but his younger sister Naoko, who has been turned into a demon herself. The demons function or or less like vampires: they need to feed on human flesh, you become one by drinking their blood (well, one specific demon’s blood), and you can only kill them with sunlight or by chopping off their head with a special demon-slaying sword. The demons become stronger the more humans they consume, eventually developing strange magical powers that make every one of them unique. This accounts for some of the most clever aspects of the series: one demon rearranges the rooms in the house he lives in by beating a drum; another uses spider webs to manipulate humans like marionettes; a third dissolves into a swampy black pool that sucks unsuspecting victims underground. Tanjiro trains to become a demon slayer in order to find a way to turn Naoko back into a human, while she refrains from eating any humans and is eventually accepted as a kind of adjunct to the demon slaying corps.
The first season (the second is set to air sometime this year) follows Tanjiro as he learns various breathing and sword techniques and fights ever more dangerous demons. It’s comprised of several multi-episode arcs, which have subsequently been combined into feature-length movies. These arcs are filled with flashbacks and internal monologues, for both the slayers and demons: ultimately the conflicts are as much internal and psychological as they are about finding a weakness in an enemy’s defense and chopping off its head. In the show, Tanjiro meets a number of fascinating characters, deepening the show’s mythology and helping distinguish it from its generic forebears (it reminded me most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without the metaphor and Whedonism). Unlike Liz and the Blue Bird, which was a spin-off of the series Sound! Euphonium and very different in both animation style and character focus, the Mugen Train movie is a seamless extension of its series, essentially one of these story extended story arcs. Tanjiro and Naoko, along with their similarly young compatriots Inosuke (who wears a boar’s head mask) and Zenitsu (who is outwardly girl-crazy, manic and cowardly but subconsciously highly competent), are assigned to assist one of the top demon slayers, Rengoku, master of the Flame Technique, in stopping a demon who has taken over a train. This demon is one of the most powerful we’ve seen, part of an elite group serving the head demon, Kibutsuji Muzan, and their ability involves controlling dreams. The slayers board the train, the demon puts them to sleep and tries to destroy their souls from inside their subconscious. Will they awaken in time?
The action and animation in Demon Slayer is bright, cartoonish, and fun (some sight gags reminded me of no less than Nichijou), although as clever as most of the demon powers are, the structure of the fights can feel repetitive (Tanjiro gets beaten badly, learns to breathe better, then gets more powerful), lacking the propulsive energy of the fighting in 2019’s Promare, to compare with one recent anime . But that’s more than made up for by Tanjiro’s great strength as a hero-figure, which is his compassion. Seemingly alone among the show’s universe, Tanjiro is able to pity and forgive the demons. He has a purity of soul that contrasts sharply with the brutal violence of the world he finds himself in. This, more than the flashy animation and reliable serialized storytelling is what ultimately makes Demon Slayer so effective, this balance between blood and grace.
Hard to find a more appropriate image for our 2020 year in review than the burnt-out husk of the Seven Gables, once the thriving heart of the Seattle screen scene. It’s been a terrible, wasted year, but there were some things that helped us endure it.
Ten Films That Kept Me Sane in Isolation
Quarantine was an especially strange experience for me because I can divide it into two distinctly different phases: when I was living by myself with no in-person human contact in a small apartment for the first four months, and the slowly unspooling existence I’ve since led with my parents on the other side of the country. Though the former at this point seems like a distant memory, I did manage to see many films at that time that stuck with me — certainly more than I have in the intervening time period. I’ve listed ten films from those months that helped ground my mental state in how transportive and beautiful they were, along what emotions they made me feel, ordered by when I saw them.
Simones Barbès or Virtue (1980, Marie-Claude Treilhou)
Because hanging out with sad, lonely, impossibly cool queer people sounds like heaven.
The Love Eterne (1963, Li Han-hsiang)
Because a hidden, impossible love can be expressed with maximal means.
At This Late Date, the Charleston (1981, Kihachi Okamoto)
Because even a totally absurd community is still a community.
Femmes Femmes (1974, Paul Vecchiali)
Because it’s immensely moving to see people dealing with their own self-imposed isolation.
Sparrow (2008, Johnnie To)
Because the city is an ever-expanding, inviting, and mysterious place that I miss dearly.
Afternoon (2015, Tsai Ming-liang)
Because having a simple conversation can be the most captivating thing in the world.
Peking Opera Blues (1986, Tsui Hark)
Because finding lasting friendships in the heat of a struggle will never not be appealing.
Beijing Watermelon (1989, Nobuhiko Obayashi)
Because forming new families rooted in specific spaces is unbearably intimate.
The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007, Adam Curtis)
Because offering the slightest bit of hope for the revolution after hours of dismay registers as an impossibly generous gesture.
Perceval le Gallois (1978, Eric Rohmer)
Because artifice can sometimes be the truest representation of all.
For good measure, here’s my actual 2020 top ten list (US release year):
1. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello) 2. To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) 3. Fourteen (Dan Sallitt) 4. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack) 5. I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec) 6. The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio) 7. Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise) 8. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt) 9. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa) 10. The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)
I’ll preface this list by saying that I missed a lot of great media this year (e.g., Nomadland, any book that doesn’t have pictures) largely because my obsessive focus on the pandemic reduced my attention span to a point of infinite density and zero size. Below is what got me through this awful year with a portion of my sanity somewhat intact:
First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt). I reviewed this beautiful, meditative, perfectly crafted movie for Seattle Screen Scenehere as soon as it went into wide release in 2020. It’s the best indie film I’ve seen since Moonlight.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman). As she did in It Felt Like Love (2013), Eliza Hittman here tells a painful, powerful story of a distinctively female experience—in this case, needing an abortion—in a way that’s authentic, truthful, and startlingly precise. No other filmmaker lays open young women’s minds and hearts the way Hittman does.
Season 2 of The Mandalorian. I take my Star Wars very, very seriously, so I don’t lightly say that Din Djarin has the best-realized character arc of anyone in the Star Wars universe. By the end of Season 2, the whole sweep of his development—from armored-and-helmeted zealot to full-hearted person—has been made visible in three high-impact, symbolic shots. The first time that helmet comes off, someone takes it off of him. The second time, he takes it off by necessity, because he can’t save the life of his child any other way. The third time, he takes it off because he wants to take it off, in order to be face-to-face with his only family, because love is more important than hewing to the letter of the law. Beautiful.
The Forty-Year-Old Version (dir. Radha Blank). Loosely based on her own life, Blank’s dramedy follows a playwright approaching midlife who attempts to reinvent herself as a rapper. Clearly influenced by the ‘90s work of Spike Lee and Cheryl Dunye yet still wholly original, the film reflects on the power and danger of nostalgia, the cruelties of youth and age, and the tensions between art and commerce. Blank makes smart and startling use of still shots, black-and-white cinematography, and jabs of color to tell her story, but it’s the music and words that ground this film in a mood. The “Queen of the Ring” rap battle scene is breathtaking, indelible, and all too short.
Mujeres (Y La Bamba). This is a cheat, since this album actually came out in 2019, but its sonic inventiveness and sincere lyricism kept me going through some of the thornier patches of 2020. Portland-based singer-songwriter and guitarist Luz Elena Mendoza has done some of the most original work in the indie music world of this (old) decade. I eagerly follow her into the new one.
Solutions and Other Problems (Allie Brosh). Author and artist Brosh is more forthcoming about the darker phases of her own life in this graphic novel than she was in Hyperbole and a Half, though no less piercingly funny. The hilarious story of her bizarre childhood fixation on fitting her entire body into a bucket rivals anything the great David Sedaris has ever written for pure, weird comic brilliance.
Soul (dir. Pete Docter and Kemp Powers). Though not top-tier Pixar for comedy, Soul surpasses most Pixar product for maturity and humanity. (Nothing tops the silent sequence that opened Up for sheer force of feeling.) Child-friendly yet not really a children’s movie,Soul breaks new ground for CG animation in vividly realized scenes of a hyperreal “real” world, seen through the eyes of someone who’s new here.
Ted Lasso. Warm-hearted, funny, earnest, and joyful, this show is the perfect antidote to irony overload, truthiness, and the crushing cruelties of this year. Jason Sudeikis’ title character is a human ray of sunshine.
In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt. The opposite of escapism, this podcast confronts the scientific and human realities of the pandemic head-on. The sanity and realism of Slavitt’s guest interviews makes this essential listening.
Criterion’s 4K restoration of Beau Travail (dir. Claire Denis). I reviewed this luminous masterwork for Seattle Screen Scenehere. Criterion beautifully restored the sharp edges and brilliant light of the original. This is film art given the loving treatment it deserves.
I did not see many 2020 films (or many films period), but these made an impression.
MY BOYFRIEND’S MEDS
A crass sex comedy in mode of the late 80’s Blake Edwards such as SKIN DEEP and BLIND DATE, full of destruction and disintegration. Jaime Camil gives a great unashamed performance.
DA 5 BLOODS
More unruly than BLACKKKLANSMAN, wilder in its ambitions, its failures – but everything feels necessary. Spike Lee’s interventions into his material breathe life into everything, making the film resolutely of the Now. For better or for worse.
AN AFTERNOON AT THE CINEMATEQUE
Resides somewhere in the same universe as Moullet’s LES SIÈGES DE L’ALCAZAR – a cinephile work taking place in and around a cinemateque. The energy, however, is rather different – it is a more romantic proposition with a climactic scene taking place during a screening of Ford’s THE QUIET MAN. Any film that gives that much screen time to Ford’s masterpiece and tries to communicate with it is dear to me.
Perhaps it’s the aesthetics of the year itself but 2020 has me thinking in pairs.
Labyrinthine Literary Conspiracies
I read several great novels this year (shout out to Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half which is the best novel from 2020 that I read) but two really stuck with me. Both were about protagonists uncovering hidden worlds; were they peeling back the layers on a vast conspiracy or were they just being fucked with by sadists? Both The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and John Fowles’ The Magus sent me down rabbit holes of paranoia that were far more entertaining than the stupid conspiracies that gained traction in the real world this year.
Getting only a third of a season this year, with no chance of seeing a game in person, meant that I shotgunned baseball like I was No-Face at the lunch buffet. And my beloved Oakland Athletics did not disappoint. First, on a belated Opening Day of July freakin’ 24th, A’s slugger Matt Olson hit a walkoff grand slam in the 10th inning to start the season off right.
The A’s handily won the American League West but because of stupid 2020 had to play in a Wild Card series anyway. The Wild Card has not been kind to the A’s who lost an absolutely maddening affair to the Royals in 2014 (I still experience anxiety when I remember that game) and losses in the previous two Wild Cards. But they won this year, beating the ascendant White Sox in a three-game series, finally brushing off the narrative that the A’s aren’t equipped for the postseason.
(We will not speak of the ALDS.)
Favorite Albums Released in 2020
The two new albums I played the most were, in their respective ways, the most reflective of the year in question. The latest Run the Jewels record was another homebrewed bottle of lightning from Killer Mike and El-P, released into the maelstrom of righteous and indignant anger to hold police accountable in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others. There is no better example of 2020’s overall vibe than hearing the guy who just five years ago wrote and performed the Grammy-winning song, literally called “Happy” appearing on RTJ4 to remind us to, “look at all these slavemasters posing on your dollar”.
Speaking of timely, who other than Sparks could churn out a catchy chorus of “put your fucking iPhone down and listen to me” without it being utterly cringe-inducing? With The Magnetic Fields releasing their worst album ever this year it was left to the Mael Brothers to gift us with another record of indelible and erudite songs with A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip. (I’m also a nerd for album sequencing that comments on itself and placing “One for the Ages” after “Self-Effacing” is just perfect.) 2021 is going to be the real Year of Sparks as Edgar Wright’s documentary about the band premieres at Sundance next month and Leos Carax’s Sparks-penned musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard will be hot on its heels (and I have a ticket to see Sparks in Amsterdam in May–yeah, I know that’s not likely to happen) but Sparks have been, ahem, a steady presence for five decades now if you’re paying attention.
Two Old Albums I Discovered This Year
I have always appreciated Talking Heads from a distance. More often than not, Weird Al’s ¨Dog Eat Dog¨ scratches that itch for me before I need to pull out Remain in Light. But when my dad died at the beginning of the year I drove out to Astoria for a few days to process his passing. In my hotel room one night I finally watched David Byrne’s only feature film, True Stories. I had heard the singles from the Talking Heads record before but never these alternate versions, sung by actors in the film. Somehow that re-contextualization hooked me and I have listened to that record, both the soundtrack version and the proper album, many times in the months since. “Dream Operator” will forever be linked to my dad now.
Quite possibly my favorite discovery of the year in any medium was oddball folk artist Michael Hurley’s 1971 album Armchair Boogie. The album is full of catchy songs about werewolves, insane men who think they’re English nobility, and whatever the hell the playful “Open Up” is about, with its eternal lips, winking stars, and plea to, “let me slide to sweet bye-and-bye”. The album is a ramshackle affair, with Hurley’s voice cracking and friends laughing. In a year when we lost contact with one another, it was nice to find a new old friend.
Here is a playlist of new songs by old favorites and old songs newly discovered (including those mentioned above) that took over my year.
Oh, this is a film website? Whoops. Uh, here are…
The Ten Best Films I Discovered This Year
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
Om Shanti Om
To Be or Not to Be
That Man from Rio
Holy Flame of the Martial World
The Best Years of Our Lives
My favorite films that opened in Seattle this year (or close enough at least):
1. The History of the Seattle Mariners (Jon Bois) 2. Labyrinth of Cinema (Obayashi Nobuhiko) 3. Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangoo) 4. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen) 5. Undine (Christian Petzold) 6. To the Ends of the Earth (Kurosawa Kiyoshi) 7. Fourteen (Dan Sallitt) 8. Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles) 9. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack) 10. Days (Tsai Ming-liang) 11. Mangrove (Steve McQueen) 12. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt) 13. Jallikattu (Lijo Jose Pellissery) 14. Hill of Freedom (Hong Sangsoo) 15. We Have Boots (Evans Chan) 16. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina) 17. Ride Your Wave (Yuasa Masaaki) 18. Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee) 19. The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson) 20. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sangsoo) 21. Tesla (Michael Almereyda) 22. Monster Hunter (Paul WS Anderson) 23. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello) 24. Point and Line to Plane (Sofia Bohdanowicz) 25. Greyhound (Aaron Schneider)
Some of the other good things about 2020: Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, Farah Khan, Meiko Kaji, Bob Clark, Alan Rudolph, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jeopardy! and Alex Trebek, George Eliot, Waxahatchee, Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, WKCR’s Duke Ellington birthday marathon, WKCR’s weekly Across 110th Street program, reading books about jazz and Bach that I don’t understand at all, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ross MacDonald, Library of America’s American Noir of the 1930s collection, the Library of America in general, Jack Kerouac, Denis Johnson, John LeCarre, David Graeber, Herman Melville, Wuthering Heights, Anya Taylor-Joy, Gossip Girl, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, Nichijou, George A. Romero, DK Metcalf, Damian Lillard, Jamal Adams, Yuen Biao, Moon Lee, Ching Siu-tung, Edward Yang, Sean Connery, Adam Sandler, Peter Falk, Samantha Mathis, Lata Mangeshkar, Imtiaz Ali, Albert Brooks, dumb superhero movies, Disneyland, Milla Jovovich, Stephy Tang, Faye Wong, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, “Murder Most Foul”, “Dhoom Taana”, Veronica Ngo, Johnny Tri Nguyen, playing Hades, Johnnie To, Meiko Kaji’s floppy hat, Gore Verbinski, Masaaki Yuasa, SS Rajamouli, and the Seattle Mariners.
For a number of reasons that require no explanation, and for a few others that I could not explain if I tried, I find myself with very little to say at the end of this year. The art that kept me company these long lonely months will have to speak on my behalf.
Il cavaliere misterioso (Riccardo Freda) / A Ride on a Tiger (David Stacton)
“He had never coveted power. He was a libertarian. But for a young man of his spirit and address it was no mean pleasure to invade states, conquer cities and travel in pomp like a prince. He had always behaved like a Byronic hero, but to be treated like one had been another matter. To give all that up was too much like giving up youth and promise themselves. His vanity, above all else, was piqued.”
Équation à un inconnu (Dietrich de Velsa) / The Mausoleum of Lovers (Hervé Guibert)
“Saturday, March 16. C. has gone up to bed. I remain alone with T. He sucks me off, behind the shutters of a snow storm.
(The Man Without Qualities: the dream of a great work)”
Sonia (Takis Kanellopoulos) / The Hour of the Star (Clarice Lispector)
“She thought she’d incur serious punishment and even risk dying if she took too much pleasure in life. So she protected herself from death by living less, consuming so little of her life that she’d never run out. This savings gave her a little security since you can’t fall farther than the ground. Did she feel she was living for nothing? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. Only once did she ask a tragic question: who am I? It frightened her so much that she completely stopped thinking. But I, who can’t quite be her, feel that I live for nothing. I am gratuitous and pay my light, gas and phone bills. As for her, she sometimes on payday bought herself a rose.”
Let Joy Reign Supreme (Bertrand Tavernier) / Casanova’s Homecoming (Arthur Schnitzler)
“Did he regret what he had lost through his perpetual seeking and never or ever finding, through this earthly and super-earthly flitting from craving to pleasure and from pleasure back to craving once more? No, he had no regrets. He had lived such a life as none other before him; and could he not still live it after his own fashion?”
Barabbas (Richard Fleischer) / The Snow of the Admiral (Álvaro Mutis)
“These disasters, these decisions that are wrong from the start, these dead ends that constitute the story of my life, are repeated over and over again. A passionate vocation for happiness, always betrayed and misdirected, ends in a need for total defeat; it is completely foreign to what, in my heart of hearts, I’ve always known could be mine if it weren’t for this constant desire to fail.”
Am Meer (Ute Aurand) / “Reading” (Paul Willems)
“As I read this text, I was often borne aloft on a wave, the one that carries us away when we read a text that reveals one of the secrets of the world. I close my book, leap toward the door, tear down the stairs, tear into the yard. As if there, in the night, news were about to reach me from on high. It is January. The winter is damp, darkness all around in its gentle permanence. The old trees, old guardians of the old house, await, massive and unmoving. I realize that they have always been there, and it is me they are waiting for.”
It’s been a bad year for movies of course, and an even worse one for superhero movies. The genre that has come to dominate the Hollywood blockbuster market, devouring its competitors like Orson Welles’s planet-devouring Unicron in Transformers: The Movie, or like his equally grotesque chili-devouring Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, has spent most of the year in frozen hibernation, waiting out the plague-induced shut-down of the nation’s multiplexes. But here at the tail-end of 2020, we have a Christmas miracle of sorts: Warners, in an apparent bid to burn down its theatrical arm in order to boost the subscription rate of its nascent streaming platform, and thus inflate the corporation’s stock value in the eyes of investors blinded by shiny things, is releasing its follow-up to 2017’s warmly-received Wonder Woman straight to HBO Max. At the same time, Sony has rolled out a hybrid theatrical/VOD release for its much-delayed adaptation of the Monster Hunter video game*, directed by the equally lauded and reviled Paul WS Anderson. Taken together, the two provide a convenient contrast of the different strains in the superhero genre: the white elephants of the MCU, Star Wars, and DC versus the termitic team of Anderson and his star/wife Milla Jovovich.
Patty Jenkins’s 2017 Wonder Woman was a solid entry in the MCU/DC wars, a reasonably deft origin-story movie that was helped enormously by the charm and absurd beauty of its two stars, Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. The sequel picks up 65 years later, with Diana Prince now working in the Smithsonian and Steve Trevor long dead. Kristin Wiig and Pedro Pascal show up, along with a magic rock that grants wishes. Everyone makes a wish: Wiig for Diana’s powers, which turn her into the amoral crazy cat lady Cheetah; Diana for Steve to come back, which he does in some guy’s body (Diana alone sees him as Pine); Pascal to become the stone himself, which gives him the power to grant everyone’s wishes, but also maybe drives him crazy and makes him bleed out of his nose, ears and eyes, for some reason. It’s a Monkey’s Paw story, as the characters explain to us, several times, stretched out for an unconscionable two and a half hours. The film has only a few action sequences, including a prologue that feels like an afterthought, like a studio note to include a scene back in the land of the Amazons, and a chase down a desert highway that neatly encapsulates the film’s wrong-headed approach to both action and color.
It’s baffling that a film set in the 1980s, fueled as they were by cocaine and Day-Glo synthetics, should take as its dominant tone the color beige. Color and shadow are drained out of nearly every scene leaving a bland, flat wasteland of boring dialogue and little emotion (though Pascal does his best to chew up all the scenery left untouched by Gadot, who never appears to be occupying the same space as the other actors). Clearly this color-scheme is intentional: a labored and unfunny montage of Pine in different 80s outfits ends in him dressed in light earth tones, while Pascal has his hair dyed dirty blonde and wears a beige suit throughout. It’s like going to the beach and staring at the sand. The highway chase, set in a Middle Eastern desert (maybe simply to remind people of Gadot’s IDF past?) is so monochrome it makes the dishwater gray finale of Endgame look vibrant. But even worse is the action itself, which feels absolutely weightless and frictionless: the stunts don’t thrill because nothing tangible actually touches anything else. Diana runs around, over, and through things with no substance, her lasso expands to whatever length the effect requires, a gold line on a computer screen, at one point contracting around a lightning bolt, the impossible physics of which would be cool if it didn’t so well epitomize the flashy nothingness of the movie’s stunts. It’s just all so boring.
And then there’s the film’s subtext, which at the end of this dreadful year of politics is hard to read as anything other than liberal left-punching. Wonder Woman 1984 is about abandoning hope, about the dangers of wishing for things to be better than the way they are. Charitably, it could be read as a paean to Obamaist pragmatism, that there are no shortcuts in life and that change takes hard work which manifests itself in facing hard truths and choosing to do very little about them. It’s hard to make a superhero fantasy movie about how better things aren’t possible, so I guess this is some kind of an accomplishment (and maybe in more subversive hands this idea would in some way connect to the year chosen for the film’s title: the story of a liberal totalitarianism in which the illusion of freedom is granted in exchange for the elimination of imagination). In a way, I kind of admire the perversity of making an 80s throwback movie without using any 80s music and the audacity of making a superhero movie that only Amy Klobuchar could love.
Monster Hunter, on the other hand, has very little in the way of political subtext outside of a vague ideal of people from different worlds uniting together to, well, hunt monsters. Milla Jovovich leads a team of Army Rangers on a search and rescue mission for some other lost soldiers in a desert specified only by longitude and latitude (PWSA does love his maps) but filmed in South Africa. They get lost in a weird sand and lightning storm and end up transported to some new world filled with giant monsters, which attack them almost immediately and eventually wipe-out everyone but Milla. She’s rescued/captured by Tony Jaa, apparently a native of this world, and the two work together to get past the giant beasts blocking their way to a mysterious tower that might send Milla home and unite Tony with his friends and family.
Like all of Anderson’s work, Monster Hunter is neatly structured and rife with cinematic homages. The opening scenes of army-bonding could come out of any war movie made over the past 70 years, gentle ribbing and gun-loading meant to establish character and camaraderie in anticipation of the loss of life to come. It’s here that the corniness of PWSA’s dialogue really shines, though for once his terrible sense of humor has had real consequences as one of his lame puns was taken as a racist insult by seemingly the entire nation of China, killing the film’s box office in that country and, as a result, probably any hope of a sequel in what could have been a promising franchise (the offending joke has been cut from the movie and was not in the screener I watched). The genericness of this opening is, for PWSA fans, part of its charm: he’s one of the few directors in Hollywood today who really believes in the power of cliche. It’s what makes his films feel so refreshing: not a hint of hypocrisy in PWSA’s pumpkin patch, nor cynicism nor smirking contempt for his subject or audience.
The army scenes are followed by a terrifying underground sequence (another PWSA hallmark: he’s suggested that his fear of/attraction to confined spaces has something to do with his youth in coal-mining country) that recalls Aliens at its best. Then the movie settles down for a long middle section that reminded me of nothing less than a remake of John Boorman’s great 1968 film Hell in the Pacific, but with Jovovich and Jaa in the Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune roles. The two start out as enemies, capturing and recapturing each other between fist fights, before finally deciding to work together toward their common goal, which, true to the source material, involves killing one monster to get parts to make a weapon to kill another, bigger monster.
It’s all a great deal of fun, and despite the artificiality of it all (the monsters are of course computer-generated) the action always looks coherent and real. Jovovich and Jaa are both marvelous physical actors and they have an uncanny ability to make the audience feel every kick, punch, stab, and tail-swipe, whether it comes from stunt performers or pixels. Anderson has long been noted for the coherence of his action scenes, a skill he has not lost as he and his editor Doobie White have adopted a faster-cutting aesthetic, which began with their last film, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. It’s important to note that Anderson’s use of quick cuts is wholly different from what I’ll call the R. Scott/Greengrass/Nolan school of editing, which uses speed and shakiness to cover up deficiencies in performers, choreographers, and computers, using chaos to convey a dizziness that’s somewhat akin to the experience of watching action on film. Anderson though is working from what I’ll call the Ching Siu-tung tradition, which uses quick editing for that vertiginous effect while also staying spatially coherent and thus additionally providing the vicarious thrill of a performed stunt (physical or virtual or some combination thereof). When done well, as in Ching’s Swordsman movies, Tsui Hark’s The Blade, Neveldine/Taylor’s 2000s romps (where Doobie White got his start as an editor), and PWSA’s recent films, quick-cut action can be just as thrilling as the master-shot aesthetic of more athletically gifted directors and performers.
As the superhero film has taken over American blockbuster cinema, there’s been a lot of speculation over where this cycle fits with generic cycles of the past, for example the Westerns, musicals and noirs of the late studio era. The question is: are there superhero films that can be made in contrast to the dominant mode of the genre, thus revealing the personality of the person making them? In other words, where are the auteurist superhero films? Is it even possible, given the extent to which the monopolist conglomerates that produce them product-test and focus-group and micromanage their material, for a filmmaker to make the equivalent of Budd Boetticher’s Ranown cycle, or John Ford’s Wagon Master or Two Rode Together, or Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, or, to bring us full circle, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil? I think Anderson’s work is the clearest example that such a thing is possible. Monster Hunter should be, I think, like the Resident Evil series before it, considered a part of the same sci-fi/fantasy genre as Wonder Woman, the MCU films and Disney’s Star Wars films. And in addition to its palpable strengths in production and execution, it certainly reveals the personality of its director in a way none of the elephantine superhero pictures do, embracing the structures and conceits of the genre while tuning them to his own idiosyncratic interests (maps, caves, helping Milla Jovovich look really cool, etc). Years ago, I wrote about Anderson and concluded that he was Lightly Likable, the George Sidney or Busby Berkeley of his time. Since then he’s made two of his finest films, Pompeii and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and made this promising beginning to a new cycle, one which I very much hope he’ll get the chance to continue. He’s moved himself into the expressively esoteric. “Less than meets the eye” doesn’t quite seem right for the WW84s of this cycle though, if only because in them what meets the eye is already so meagre.
*I guess the VOD part of the release hasn’t actually happened. There were rumors that it would be out at the time I wrote this, but I don’t know what the deal was.