It’s rare to see a film that’s so simultaneously affecting, funny, and inventively crafted as Wes Hurley’s Potato Dreams of America. A dark comedy infused with magical realism, the film tells the moving story of Hurley’s experience growing up gay in the former Soviet Union and then immigrating to the U.S. with his mother, Lena, a brave and principled prison physician who can only get out of the USSR as a mail-order bride. The two navigate the strange vicissitudes of life in the U.S., together coping with Hurley’s well-meaning but clueless teachers, his sometimes cruel classmates, his unpredictable stepfather, and his own evolving identity as an out gay man.
The story alone is remarkable enough that it would be entirely absorbing even if it were only told in plain, conventional, realistic narrative form. But Hurley makes some compelling choices in the way he crafts his film that heighten its impact. Most notably, he underlines the sharp differences between his life in Russia and his life in the U.S. with a dramatic mid-movie shift in visual style. During the first part of the movie, when young Hurley (nicknamed “Potato”) and his mother are still living in the Soviet Union, his child’s-eye view of his family, school, and home is conveyed through deliberately stagy, stylized, frequently absurdist dramedy, in which the progress of his life is interspersed with some well-placed cuts to an imaginary movie or vaudeville play of the “real” action unfolding before us. Potato even has an imaginary friend in Jesus Christ, portrayed by gay icon Jonathan Bennett. The visual world of this part of the film is anti-realistic, by turns evoking a school play, a dollhouse world, and—frighteningly—the Brechtian nightmare of a Soviet prison. All of these elements put us into Potato’s view of his world, which is marked by an incomplete but intuitive understanding of the significance of what he sees and hears.
In the second part of the film, we enter a different kind of heightened reality—more realistic than the first part but still clearly framed as a filmed world, almost like a period sitcom, with a bright, cheery soundtrack and sunny establishing shots of perfect residential exteriors. (This almost-sitcom effect is helped by Hurley’s choice of Dan Lauria—the dad from The Wonder Years—as his stepfather.) In this part of the story, the characters are portrayed by an entirely new set of actors who, in the style of the leads in Moonlight, resemble the previous actors only passingly. This choice works beautifully to suggest that we, along with the characters, are in a completely new world in this part of the narrative. It amplifies the stark drama of the characters’ departure from their old lives and causes us to feel that starkness alongside them.
It would have been possible for Hurley to become so absorbed in his film’s formal cleverness and adventurousness that audiences became detached from the emotional truth of the story. However, he cannily avoids this trap by keeping the pacing tight and focusing most of our attention on the inner worlds of the characters. The actors’ expressive performances are central here. Noteworthy among these is Sera Barbieri’s taut, coiled embodiment of the Soviet Lena, whose passionate moral convictions vie with the necessity of submitting to corrupt authority in order to protect her son’s life. Marya Sea Kaminski as American Lena reveals the same emotional tension as she mediates between the demands of her new husband’s authoritarianism and her need to protect her son’s psychological well-being. Both actresses reveal Lena’s intelligence, her moral courage, and her feeling heart in bravura performances that teleport us into the mind of a woman who faces unimaginable difficulties in her quest to protect her son and live freely herself.
The actors who portray Potato are similarly talented and committed to their roles. Promising teen actor Hersh Powers portrays Potato’s early adolescent uncertainty and angst with wit and intelligence. As the older version of Potato, Tyler Bocock (a ringer for a younger Tom Hiddleston) is charming in his befuddlement about life in America; he’s a pleasure to watch as his version of Potato grows wiser and more confident. The movie’s bigger names bring their reliable and considerable skill sets to bear on their roles. Lea DeLaria in particular is delightful here, portraying Potato’s grandmother with her trademark crusty puckishness.
Viewers who remember what B. Ruby Rich called the New Queer Cinema in the ’80s and ’90s—that movement in which queer filmmakers with micro-budgets opted to tell queer stories and did so in a frank, raw, unapologetic, creative way—might well see Potato Dreams of America as a kind of latter-day entry into that school of filmmaking. As a descendent of that lineage, Hurley reminds us that a true and truthful story can often be told best by a fearlessly creative filmmaker who lived that story. His is a story well worth telling and a film well worth seeing.
Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe sucks up all the multiplex screens in America, leaving little space in theatres for movies where good-looking people find themselves in dangerously violent situations that don’t have budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but interesting things are nonetheless afoot with the action film genre. There’s a real need for on-screen fisticuffs and gunfighting, among the oldest of film genres, and the Disney films (along with pretty much every other blockbuster) no longer satisfy it. Instead, driven by the destructive possibilities of computer generated imagery, they are disaster films: movies designed around the obliteration of space, of increasingly elaborate digital representations of our world. The model for the modern blockbuster is not the action film: the buddy cop and sci-fi adventure/horror movies of the 80s and early 90s, or even the epic adventures of early 2000s hits like the Lord of the Rings series or Gladiator. Rather they’re variations on the disaster films revived in the mid-90s by Jurassic Park and Independence Day. Even when a Disney film tries for a different sort of template, say Shang-Chi with the Hong Kong wuxia film, it devolves in the end into a movie in which pixels fly around, make a lot of noise, and cause a lot of ultimately meaningless damage.
And yet there are still action movies being made, but on the margins of the industry. Jesse V. Johnson has built a solid career for himself as a director of straight-to-video action films, movies in which beefy men punch and shoot each other. His films star guys like Robert Davi, Tom Berenger, Tony Jaa, Billy Zane, Eric Roberts, and, above all, Scott Adkins (whose One Shot is another fine recent antidote to Disney blockbuster bloat). A former stunt man, Johnson makes movies with actual action performed by actual stunt performers, not actors dancing with ping pong balls in front of a green screen. Hell Hath No Fury switches up Johnson’s formula, in that it stars a woman, Nina Bergman. She’s a French woman who has be imprisoned for collaboration with the Nazis in 1944. Four American soldiers have “rescued” her from the local mob, with the understanding that she will lead them to a bagful of Nazi gold, hidden somewhere in a cemetery. Most of the movie takes place in this one location, as the soldiers encounter Bergman’s erstwhile companions in the French Resistance (her true loyalties are a matter of question for most of the film) and a group of Nazis led by Bergman’s former lover, who are headed their way. The action is clean and focused, making effective use of its location, finding all kinds of nooks and crannies for traps and daring escapes, the kind of filmmaking that only really works out in the wild.
Largely a collection of classic WW2 movie tough guys, Johnson gives the generic character types a twist by making everyone just a little bit weirder, a little more demented, a little more savage than we’re used to seeing. The result is a film of admirable nastiness, more effectively conveying the brutality of war on both physical bodies and psyches than would be allowed in a more prestigious war film (say, 1917). In this Bergman’s physicality is central: head shaved by a mob, covered in mud, bruises, and a slip of a dress, she nonetheless never shrinks from the world of cruelly violent men she finds herself in. It’s a war movie that isn’t the least bit about heroism, but about the struggle, the will to survive.
Johnson’s dusty images capture the dirtiness of this world, a rare case of modern gray-scale cinematography serving an expressive purpose. Another recent action film goes the opposite direction. While Kate shares with Hell Hath No Fury a brutal physical performance from its lead actress, director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan opts for a palette of deep blacks accented by neon blues and pinks, what might be called the John Wick style, after one of the few blockbuster franchises that does understand the primal joy of seeing stunt fighters at work (like Johnson, John Wick director Chad Stahelski was a former stunt man—I’ve said it before and it remains the case: stuntmen make the best movies). Nicolas-Troyan started in visual effects, working for years with Gore Verbinski (The Ring, The Weather Man, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), so it’s no surprise that his images would pop more than Johnson’s, or that his action would be less convincing. Though that’s no fault of the film’s star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a fascinating actress who should have been a major star but never quite broke through.
Winstead plays a professional assassin who is poisoned by someone and has 24 hours to figure out who it was and exact her revenge before she drops dead. It’s the plot of the classic noir DOA of course, except with a sociopathic and unnervingly childlike killer as the hero rather than an accountant. Prowling the back streets of Tokyo, she sorts her way through the various factions of a yakuza group, before coming to the inevitable conclusion that she was betrayed by the two biggest names in the cast: Woody Harrelson, her handler/father figure, and Asano Tadonobu, an ambitious lieutenant in the gang. (Asano, one of the finest actors in the world, simply has to be admired for his determination to rack up cash being underutilized in American genre films. See, for example, the Thor series.) The action is solid but unspectacular gun and fist fights, with Winstead enduring even more punishment than Bergman: shot and stabbed and bruised on top of the debilitating effects of the poison she’s been given, it’s a wrenchingly tactile performance. Yet the film pulls its punches, so to speak, in a way that Hell Hath No Fury does not. Winstead is given a sassy teen sidekick, the granddaughter of the yakuza boss, and flashbacks creating a poignant backstory (she’s been killer since she was a kid, literalized by her obsession with a particular brand of lemon soda). It’s more conventional story-telling, and the film is all the less effective for it. In the end it doesn’t end up feeling any more real than any other franchise film, with their lab-tested and handbook-approved screenplays. But at least it’s got actual people in it.
Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s updating of the classic musical is just an elgort away from greatness. They make a number of changes to the script and song order, all in the interest of bringing what was, in the Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins film version a hallucinatory vision of Romeo & Juliet set less in the decaying remains of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood than in the midst of the color red. The 1961 film is musical above all else, Leonard Bernstein’s score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics more alive than almost any of the characters, given physical expression in Robbins’s balletic choreography and the bodies of ridiculously beautiful, yet generally ethnically inappropriate, actors. The ’61 film is about the fact that red is the color of blood as much as it is of romance. It’s as abstract and poetic as a mainstream Hollywood production would ever get.
But Spielberg and Kushner are less interested in poetry and, sadly, less interested in the color red. Their West Side Story takes pains to situate its melodrama in an actual time and place—the same time and place as the ’61 film, but more so. Which is one of the strange things about it: while the original was shot among the real ruins of the West Side, but felt imaginary; the remake is in a constructed space (how much is actual and how much computerized, I can’t tell), but feels real. The commitment to realism (such as it is) extends not just to casting (with white people thankfully only playing white people this time) but character as well, building backstories for each of the major characters, fleshing out what had been archetypal figures transmuted from Shakespeare into the present. Justin Peck’s choreography builds on Robbins’s work, but adds a more authentically Latin style to the gangland ballets. The “America” number in particular benefits from this, and its restaging: instead of a rooftop at night, the sequence now takes place in the bright daytime out in the open streets, passersby of all ethnicities joining in the joyous yet darkly comic celebration/indictment of the nation.
Several of the songs have been moved around. “I Feel Pretty” gains an unexpected poignance from its repositioning, while “Somewhere” takes on entirely new resonances. Instead of a duet between Tony and Maria, it’s now sung by Rita Moreno as Valentina (the Puerto Rican widow of Doc the druggist, the film’s only other example of an interracial couple). Moreno of course was in the original film, winning the Supporting Actress Oscar as Anita. “Somewhere” in the original is a romantic ballad, the two lovers imagining a world where they can be happy together, outside the prejudices of the real world. With Valentina/Moreno singing it, it’s a lament for society as a whole, its dream of unity not individualized in the two lovers, but a wistful hope for all of humanity. That metaphor of course was always there in the original, but the new film makes it the primary text, rather than the romance. And the fact that it’s Moreno singing it, a song of hope from 50 years ago that’s just as relevant today as it was then, makes it all the more tragic. Given the way Spielberg frames it, Valentina singing while looking at an old photo of her and Doc, one can imagine it being the lost dream of her youth as well, just as it now is for Tony and Maria. It’s now more than 50 years since the film was set, maybe another 50 since that photo was taken, and things don’t seem to have changed much at all.
And still, there’s a gaping hole in the film where Tony should be. Every other actor is tremendous—David Alvarez as Bernardo, Ariana DeBose as Anita, Mike Faist as Riff, and Rachel Zegler as Maria are tremendous, terrific singers and dancers who sell every big emotion the musical demands. Ansel Elgort, though, as Tony, is quite tall. Like so many young American movie stars, he looks soft, like he hasn’t worked a day in his life, let alone spent the last year in jail. He gives Tony a kind of naive innocence that’s incompatible with his backstory: he should be broken-down by guilt and depression over his violent past, only brought back to life and hope by Maria. He should also be believably charismatic and tough, the kind of guy the Jets, grungy violent men who’ve only known abuse and crime at home and from the world around them, would follow anywhere (except, of course, to peace). Elgort is. . . not. And, worst of all, his voice seems weak, easily overpowered by everyone else in the cast (note the “Tonight (Quintet)” when Elgort can’t hope to stay on equal footing with the other singers, turning it into more of a Quart-and-a -Half-tet), conveying none of the strength you want from a romantic or heroic lead.
But still, Tony has always been a bit of a blank (as so many male leads are in musicals), and his performance isn’t nearly enough to sink what is in every other respect a great film. Spielberg may not give us the reds I loved so much, restricting his palette for the most part to the various shades of gray that pass for color cinematography these days. The reds do show up in key places: Maria’s lipstick before the party, the lining of Anita’s dress during “America”. But this is a world defined not be an all-consuming, self-destructive passion, but by the brick and concrete ruins these desperate people are forced to fight over because they’re the only America they’ve ever known.
In the post-modern hellscape that is 2021 it takes a lot to distinguish a time loop movie from the films that came before it. In the three decades since the release of Groundhog Day (certainly not the first time loop tale but arguably the reference point for all subsequent films) the conceit has ballooned into a subgenre all its own, lumping video game-type action films such as Edge of Tomorrow and Source Code with comedies like last year’s Palm Springs. Thankfully, the new Tamil-language feature Maanaadu from director Venkat Prahbu is bursting with creativity, cleverly building on the time loop framework with a series of clever twists and unexpected wrinkles that breathe new life into what has become rote or cliche.
T. R. Silambarasan stars as Abdul Khaaliq, a flashy guy attending a friend’s wedding who gets kidnapped and is coerced into playing the patsy for a political assassination. He’s more of a Hitchcockian wrong man than Phil Connors clone. In the melee that follows the assassination, Abdul himself is killed. He then wakes up back on the flight he took to the wedding earlier in the day. He has no answers for the rebirth, he does not know why he was resurrected nor what he needs to do to get out of the loop. Through trial and error (i.e. dying repeatedly and gruesomely) Abdul finally discovers his purpose. The catch is that a corrupt police officer, the sinister Dhanushkodi, is onto him. Actor-writer-director S. J. Suryah plays Dhanuskodi to a maniacal hilt, replete with Snidely Whiplash mustache and ever present cigarette. He brings panache to the cat-and-mouse game. The man knows no scenery he cannot chew and the movie is better off for it.
The tricky thing about time loop stories comes from avoiding the tedium inherent in repetition. (Frankly, these movies feel like a real pain in the neck to edit.) But save for a couple clunky exposition-heavy moments, the film manages to move at a consistent clip, doling out enough information to keep the narrative fresh and intelligible. It might seem reductive to explicitly acknowledge the film’s time loop forefathers to begin this review but Prahbu, who also wrote the screenplay, makes the connection explicit in the film. And for good reason. It allows the characters (as well as the viewers) a narrative shorthand to get everyone up to speed. Every little bit helps.
The film really shines in its middle third when Abdul really begins using the knowledge he gains through his replays to his advantage. The high point is an action setpiece as it plays out over multiple lives. In one life Abdul kicks the ass of a couple low level goons but is felled by an ax in the back. The film immediately incorporates that knowledge into the scene by having Abdul anticipate the ax and then counter its attack. The action here possesses a brutal force on par with the John Wick franchise.
The credits that open and close the film do not state that Maanaadu is a Venkat Prahbu “film” but instead “politics”. While the movie exists just fine as a sci-fi action romp, there is a heavier narrative thread about the corrupt machinations of the ruling political class and how easily it is for the powers-that-be to literally get away with murder. The state can keep ruining people’s lives and clinging to power because they have manipulated the masses into not paying attention to the shady men behind the curtain. It’s easier to hate your neighbor with different religious beliefs anyway, they say. The more we cycle through the time loops of our own, that cynicism can feel like the only real truth.
I suppose it’s an inevitable consequence of Hollywood’s adoption of hyperactive action editing in the 2000s that we’d eventually be inundated by films zagging in the opposite direction. First it was long steadicam shots like the one in Tony Jaa’s The Protector, where the hero marches up a long circular ramp dispatching enemies left and right, handheld camera following close behind or swinging around to the front, as the action dictates. The sequence shots became somewhat of a norm in 2000s action cinema, at least outside of the big Hollywood productions. A counter-norm I suppose. Though the aesthetic is slowly establishing itself there too (for example a relatively delightful sequence in the third episode of Disney/Marvel’s Hawkeye TV series).
It was only a matter of time before advancing digital technology, and the spirit of one-upmanship inherent in all great stunt performers and directors, that we’d get full features made up of single sequence shots. This year brought two of them: Crazy Samurai Musashi, in which Sakaguchi Tak sliced up an endless army of faceless samurai on a crisp autumn afternoon; and One Shot, in which Scott Adkins shoots and stabs and punches an endless army of international terrorists on a remote CIA black site. The difference between the two is that Sakauguchi’s shot abstracts the violence and destruction, emphasizing the mindless brutal waste that is war and murder, while Adkins’s tries to be an actual movie, with characters and plot and stuff, the sequence shot eliciting not the useless boredom of violence, but the exhausting chaos of it all.
It’s not much of a plot, of course. A team of SEALs escorts a CIA analyst to an island in Poland to pick up a detainee. While they’re there, terrorists attack, trying to either rescue the guy or kill him before he can reveal the secret location of the nuclear bomb they’re planning to detonate in DC during the Sate of the Union address. The Americans are quickly overwhelmed, despite shooting a whole bunch of bad guys. The terrorists arrive in one truck, but dozens of them get killed over the course of the film. Probably there was a second truck or something, but I like imagining hundreds of terrorists smooshed together in the back of one truck, like a clown car full of heavily-armed Eastern European extras. Anyway, Adkins is the leader of the four man SEAL team and he’s just a perfect bundle of action, all process and following orders. There’s nothing extraneous to him, he is only the job.
The good guys (such as they are) are quickly cornered, arguing amongst themselves about whether or not to kill and/or torture the detainee (the CIA says no, the head of the black site, played by no less than Ryan Phillippe himself, says yes) while a variation on Assault on Precinct 13 plays out around them. Only Adkins of course can break out of the trap, tracking down communication equipment and knifing bad guys in stealth mode and resorting to fisticuffs and wrestling holds when the weapons fail—the full array of the violence our greatest underground action hero is capable of performing. The sequence shot is seamless: director James Nunn, who made Tower Block and both The Marine 5: Battleground and The Marine 6: Close Quarters as well as something this year called Jetski, moves the camera around well. The action is always clear, the crew doing admirable work blowing up the set and applying bloody makeup as necessary in real-time. If nothing else, it’s both more sensical and much cooler than 1917, and in a better world would be earning all the awards plaudits that film received.
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.
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.”
Criterion’s new 4K restoration of Claire Denis’ remarkable 1999 film looks absolutely gorgeous—stark, luminous, vividly colorful, and precise in every fine line and minute detail. That precision suits the film’s subject: a tightly disciplined French Foreign Legion troop under the demanding leadership of an obsessive sergeant. A loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and a quasi-sequel to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1960), the film tracks the gradual psychological unraveling of Chief Master Sergeant Galoup as he develops a jealous fixation on a new recruit, Gilles Sentain, whose beautiful face and ineffable cool make him a favorite both with the other legionnaires and with Galoup’s superior, Commander Forestier. Envy, repressed desire, and festering rage commingle in Galoup’s deteriorating mind, and the innocent Sentain suffers for it. As the film proceeds, we are inexorably drawn into the inevitable tragedy of their story, even as we revel in the startling beauty of Denis’ extraordinary vision.
Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is, in most ways, of a piece with her previous films. Quiet in tone and measured in pacing, First Cow continues Reichardt’s sympathetic and observant explorations of the lives of outsiders and people on the margins. Like the settler women of Meek’s Cutoff and the homeless drifter of Wendy and Lucy, First Cow’s protagonists don’t have meaningful control of their destinies, despite their efforts to lift themselves out of their assigned places in the social and economic order. And like the radical environmentalists of Night Moves, First Cow’s protagonists aren’t above breaking laws in pursuit of their aims. First Cow, however, is perhaps the first Reichardt film that combines her keen-eyed artistry with genuine entertainment. Less grim than Wendy and Lucy, less cynical than Night Moves, more accessible than Meek’s Cutoff, and more tightly plotted than Certain Women, First Cow is an engrossing, engaging study of life in early nineteenth-century Oregon and two of its unlucky but ambitious inhabitants. Adapted from a novel by longtime Reichardt collaborator Jonathan Raymond, it has the rhythms of a folktale—and the lessons of one—detailing what might happen when clever, resourceful striving tips over into dangerous hubris.
There was absolutely no need for another movie version of Little Women. Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version (with Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis) was already pretty much perfect, and George Cukor’s 1933 version (with Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Francis Dee and Jean Parker) was pretty good too. I haven’t seen the 1949 Mervyn LeRoy version, but its cast (Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh June Allyson and Margaret O’Brien) sounds amazing. Greta Gerwig assembled an equally great cast for her adaptation (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen), but rather than simply play the familiar story straight, she’s jumbled up the narrative and shifted emphasis away from its family melodrama elements to something more in line with her interests as evidenced by her previous work, both as a director (Lady Bird) and in her collaborations with Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America)–that is, the story of how a young woman becomes an artist. It’s now a story as much about its own creation (both the film and Louisa May Alcott’s novel) as it is about the emotional highs and lows of its ostensible subjects. As such, it bears as much relation to Whisper of the Heart or Paterson as it does to previous Alcott adaptations.
It begins with Jo March, aspiring writer, living in New York and selling short genre fiction pieces for quick cash. A handsome critic tells her she’s wasting her time writing trash, which annoys her and not just because it’s true. But she gets a message from home: her youngest sister Beth is sick, possibly dying, and so she returns to Concord, Massachusetts. Flashbacks fill in the episodes that come first in the book and previous movies: a Christmas visit to poor neighbors, Jo and her older sister Meg’s trip to a dance, third sister Amy falling in ice, Jo and the girls’ friendship with neighbor boy Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), etc. These are interspersed with present day events: Amy in Europe with her aunt and Laurie (after Jo has rejected his marriage proposal), Meg and her husband barely eking out a living, Jo depressed about her work. The back and forth between past and present builds a seductive rhythm, as events mirror and comment on each other with ever greater frequency, culminating in Beth’s two serious illnesses, which Gerwig freely cuts between, doubling the usual melodramatic effect.
The film reaches its height though not with death, or with love and marriage, but with work, as Jo finally realizes what she should write about and Gerwig shows the process in detail: spreading papers on the floor to organize ideas, switching from one hand to another as the apparently ambidextrous author cannot stop to rest her cramping, ink-stained fingers, finally the physical process of printing and binding the book itself. There’s even a neat meta-fictional twist as Jo and her editor debate the Jo character’s ending, opening up the possibility that all the flashbacks we’ve seen are scenes from the book Jo is writing, that the real Jo and her family are not exactly the same as the Marches we’ve always known. Just as, of course, the Marches are not the Alcotts, and Lady Bird and Frances are not Greta. Tracey Fishko turned her friends and family into literature in Mistress America, and they all hated her for it. Jo’s story ends much more happily. At least, that’s the way she wrote it.