The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

It is an eerily off-kilter world unto itself: a fable of secrets, of carefully concealed memories, illustrated through both rational and otherworldly images — a redemptive, cleansing nightmare. It’s an occupation of that nightmare, with its energies startlingly centered on immersing its audience in that world of its own, one that in very real sense once belonged to and was understood by us, when we were “little things.” (We turn away at its harshest moments of violence because the film editing forces us to, which is only right.) The determination of Charles Laughton in his sole directorial effort is to shake us back to that state of being, to make frightened children of us and to suggest — with appalling starkness for the time, or for any — that every permanent wound we carry is still traceable back to the juvenile fears, founded or not, of the singing traveler following and taunting us to the ends of the earth.

Night of the Hunter is sometimes tarred with the film noir brush, and in various aesthetic and thematic interpretations of the terms, it is a fair reduction: with resourcefully angular, shadowy visuals informed by Lang, Wiene and Murnau’s films at Ufa and a story about an unthinkable evil dwelling upon a decidedly innocent family unit, not to mention its mundane focal point of a wad of money hidden in plain sight, it calls back to some of the more domestic noir titles of the 1940s, most explicitly Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, its direct descendant The Stranger directed by Orson Welles, and Max Ophuls’ tough, brutal document of motherly love and the killing machine it rises up against, The Reckless Moment. However, all of the aforementioned — and the bulk of major studio noirs in general — took place in something resembling our own world, not the upside-down funhouse mirror of Hunter. In the case of Shadow of a Doubt particularly, the intrusion of remarkable rage and dread onto the very image of picturesque, calm Americana was the entire point; the force of evil in Laughton’s film has an even more distressing target, namely childhood itself, and by extension, love. Noir seems too small a frame for this portrait of relentless emotional violence and the magic that curtails it; it seems much more like a storybook — suffused with the traditions of Southern Gothic literature — of the kind that might have once been loved and feared in equal measure, the hard lessons of paralyzing fright falling upon the smallest eyes, prepared or not.

Laughton and James Agee, who’s somewhat controversially credited with a script that certainly does reflect his social preoccupations in part through its Depression-era setting, takes its inspiration from Davis Grubb’s even darker novel of the same name which in turn was a fictionalization of the story of serial killer Harry Powers, the “Lonely Hearts” killer. Grubb transforms him into the Reverend Powell (the never-more-oppressive Robert Mitchum), a terrifyingly determined phony Man of the Cloth, whose scheme of choice is to collect and ruin widows. It is not enough for him to be a ruthless movie villain with no moral scruples and seemingly no fear or weakness, which he is; he must also be a devastatingly accurate presentation of narcissistic violence, emotional as well as physical, a figure all too many of us will be able to recognize outside the confines of a fairy tale-like narrative. His latest victim, and a genuinely tragic figure at that, is Willa Harper (Shelley Winters, meeting her end in water as so often), beleaguered wife of an executed criminal (Peter Graves) who hid the wares of a violent bank robbery somewhere on his property before being captured. Willa is hoodwinked for this reason, not helped at all by the busybody she works for who is swooning over Powell as soon as he sets foot in town, and who happens to share with Powell a low opinion of the deep needs fulfilled and happiness alloted by physical pleasures; on their wedding night, he announces that theirs will be a union before God, not one of the flesh. She is not to be taken in forever, and while she rolls over for these abusive chidings in a way that suggests she never knew anything but a life lived for other people, she soon discovers the truth of Powell’s motivations and is accordingly murdered for it.

As a result, for what remains of the picture we view everything through the eyes of her two children, who are aware of the whereabouts of the money but have taken their father’s word that it is a secret never to be revealed to anyone, and they guard it with all their might — even as six year-old Pearl threatens to break thanks to her immediate affinity for Powell, the older John steadies her and sweeps her up on a haunting journey through swamps and rivers to escape Powell after he tries to kill them for the money. It is only by landing in the arms of Mrs. Cooper (the great Lillian Gish in her finest latter-day role, which at one point pays wondrous homage to her signature moment in The Wind), a shotgun-wielding mother figure for lost children who lives along the water, that they are able to breathe even slightly; he has followed them across every sort of terrain, unstoppable and (as John points out) never sleeping — and so the climax of the film becomes the illustration of the narrative he’s always repeating in his phony Christian guise: the forces of love and hate (each word tattooed on one of his fists), both insurmountable, colliding.

As a director, Laughton exhibits the same oversized personality he always did when acting; he directs every scene and shot with the conviction and imagination of Orson Welles, and his expertise and willingness to experiment with tone and hints of dreamlike unreality place him vastly ahead of his time, and almost doomed the picture — like most of Welles’ — to be misunderstood. Night of the Hunter looks as wild and distinctive and gorgeous as any Hollywood film ever made, with many shots that absolutely throttle in their ingenious beauty — take, for instance, the horrifying final exit of Willa, a woman who surrendered herself to pain and destiny but would never have surrendered her children, in which we see her immaculately preserved in the Ohio River, her hair waving with the current. It is by equal measures fearsome and artfully delicate, neither feature disrupting the other. Later, as the boy and girl hide in a barn, they are tormented by the sound of Powell’s singing of hymns (the “beautiful” singing voice Willa’s boss kept harping on about, now bent toward menace), echoing out into oblivion through the spellbinding aural design of Stanford Houghton, and John — watchful and alert as always, even within the illusion of safety — gazes out and sees the lonely, distressing image of Powell on his horse in silhouette, laid against the horizon, plodding across our field of vision. It’s such an inspired shot it nearly hurts, like something from Powell & Pressburger, and could be neither scarier nor more ethereal, the collision of emotional distress and joy that is the great fact of cinematic thrillers and the reason that, at their best, they dive into emotional ambiguity unseen almost anywhere else in art.

Yet still, Laughton’s work stands alone, certainly with the help of the big-eyed, childlike reduction and/or magnification of the world to simple blacks and whites — the acting is all tastefully heightened, and there are flights of fancy such as a procession of animals “blessing” the children as they pass along the river — and with the morally righteous lyricism of Agee’s dialogue, which lays out its themes and its notions of good and evil (which, it should be stated here, are more furiously expressed and frank than in any sci-fi or superhero exploration of the same ideas I am aware of) with bluntness without insulting our intelligence. Even the most flowery dialogue in the film is never pretentious, only a heartfelt expression of sheer emotional intensity and depth of feeling, the same as what you might find in a Bergman film, albeit tied to less nebulous or specifically “adult” events. Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to classify this as a great children’s film despite its terror and violence, because of its rich understanding of how fear alters us and is filed away — and certainly because it does not condescend to its audience — but there’s also the danger of reducing Hunter to such a status simply because the tale it tells is so elemental, and so elegant in its directness; it is a communication, then, to the still-frightened kid in all of us, and your reviewer can testify that it still has the power to provide us with actual nightmares.

For a certain breed of audiences, Night of the Hunter changes when Lillian Gish appears; speaking for myself, as a younger man I didn’t quite know what to make of her character when I first saw the film, apart from being thrilled to revisit an actress I already loved for her much older works. Raised on cynicism, I felt it too simplistic for Mrs. Cooper to be a mere force of love and kindness through her purity of faith and unconditional attention toward the children who hovered around her. I was both too young and too old to appreciate her importance; I was like John, too skeptical to be reassured. Now it seems that her selflessness, while Laughton gently mocks it at times and never makes any implicit claim that she is a “good” woman whereas Willa was a “bad” one who exposed her kids to this disaster, is something genuine and wise far beyond the morality play clichés such a characterization may express. The essence is in her moments alone with John, when she indicates her perspicacity about the emotions of children, and for all the disciplining and prattling on about the Bible that may associate her in some sense with the organized depravity of her antithesis, Powell, it is more than evident that she observes her young charges as people, with complexity and infinite capacity to love and be loved, and she is able to connect with John merely by forging a bond with him both as moral equals and as a nurturer. She lends him a validation and self-assurance that he has never known in his life, and like a great teacher or therapist, she causes him to discover his own strength — a feature laid out in the gentle finale, wherein he returns the favor symbolically with an apple like the one they shared before and she immediately grasps what he is saying to her.

Gish’s Cooper is also utilized by Laughton as a specific rebuking of any notion that he is casting the story as a rejection of faith itself; at the point when she and Powell finally meet for their climactic clashing, he is preceded as usual by the sound of those terrifying hymns, and she finds herself moved enough to join in, as we watch her — in another of the film’s many unforgettable visuals — seated in silhouette against the night, clutching her gun, waiting. But her faith is unlike his. For one thing, she genuinely believes and not merely to serve her own ends, and it manifests in the moral grounding she places within the children for whom she serves as guardian. It is no accident that the teenage girl who inadvertently lures Powell to the de facto orphanage is never shamed or punished for it, is only empathized with and understood and held; nor is it an accident that, in contrast to a community now abruptly out for Powell’s blood when he is caught (the same people, of course, who helped install him in the Harpers’ lives in the first place), all John wants to do by then is stop living out this spectacle, to save his mortal enemy from the lynch mob. It seems that a number of audiences took this conclusion as unsatisfying; after all, there is no grand moment of revenge or righteous victory, only a breakdown on John’s part when he simply doesn’t want to see another man sent away to rot or die, to witness more grief and loss in a life that’s rapidly accumulated so much of them. By denying us any other sort of catharsis, Laughton and the authors resolve the frightened stirring of our souls only with the recognition of a light that beams afterward, the same one suggested in the film’s abstract first moments of guardian angel Gish telling stories. That light needn’t be God or religion, even if those can benefit — or distort — it; rather, it is the light of being loved, cared for and understood, and the expansive beauty of this film’s emphasis upon this is what makes it more than noir, more than a thriller, and something like an act of brutally hard-won love itself.


The Best Films of the 2010s: first draft

This excludes films from 2019, partially because I haven’t seen any yet but also on principle.

I am still in the process of rewatching everything I rated highly from this decade; but I wanted to preserve this rough draft of my list, which is based largely on memory and emotion — although I have seen roughly half of these at least twice. The ranking does not fit precisely with my current individual ratings of the films, but this too will be corrected as I continue to move through and revise the list. For all those caveats, I’m quite confident that all fifty (actually, fifty-one) of these movies are exceptional; and the top two, in particular, are quite unlikely to move from their spots. Neither is currently distinquished as an “A+” in my Movie Guide, but since my last complete experiences of them, they have grown a lot in my estimation. I think of Margaret almost every day, which I believe is the undeniable mark of some sort of a masterpiece (which means that American Honey, which is also on my mind almost constantly since I saw it, will very likely move up); and moreover, my experience of absolute cathartic unleashing of tears at its conclusion is one of my fondest recollections of the last ten years of film-watching. Ditto the “Big Country” sequence in 20th Century Women, the last seconds of Melancholia (which I did get to see theatrically, unlike many of these), the entirety of We Are the Best!. And although it’s currently not on the list — it faded a lot for me by the time I returned to it, but it’s overdue for another chance — I’ll never forget the smile I was completely unable to wipe off my face for the duration of Midnight in Paris back in 2011.

I don’t have as much specific commentary as I’d like for this, because one of the great facts of our fragmented time is that “movements” have less meaning than individual works. Artistically speaking, I think cinema is in wonderful shape despite the insurmountable obstacles constantly being laid against it, something I think I’m in an unusually solid vantage point to witness since I live in what amounts to a movie desert; there are only four screens within a twenty-mile radius of my home, and even moving further out, the multiplexes are frequently totally overtaken by commercial big studio pictures. Those have their place, a few are even praised below, but what gripes me is the absence of choice — and it’s here that streaming video has been a major blessing, not only thanks to big companies like Netflix and Amazon (who, for all their evils as corporate entities, do seem to make a major effort to provide access to more esoteric and arthouse titles, though for all I know it’s for financial reasons — low cost, low commitment), but through major blessings like the brand new Criterion Channel, which is making it so easy to access a wealth of cinematic history for next to no money and effort. And please don’t forget your local library, which is still happy to fill the gaps or to serve you freely if you have no access to these services.

For the record, I’m not much more of a blanket fan of “arthouse” film than I am of Hollywood bullshit; at this point in my life I’ve learned that there’s really no rhyme or reason to where, how and for whom inspiration hits. What I do know is that there is a major risk involved in selling our souls to consensus, to business, to homogeneity, and if I have a message I want to impart in any small way, it’s that: encourage the continued fragmentation of the culture in whatever way you can, and collect friends around the fragments of your choice. Someone told me a few months ago, when I was temporarily upset about the shutdown of Filmstruck, that movie culture wasn’t worth worrying about because we have “bigger fish to fry.” Well, undoubtedly, but it’s an important human skill to care about more than one thing at once, and frankly, a world in which that movie culture ceases to exist — even, yeah, the parts of it that breed idiocy and bile — is not one I have much interest in living in.

This list won’t necessarily resemble all that closely the more carefully considered one I intend to post in about a year, so don’t be surprised if that one has material in the upper reaches that isn’t even considered here. What I can promise is that this is a list of fifty films that I’m most confident I will continue to love far down the line, and any case in which my memories have wavered a bit — no matter how high my original estimation was — has been omitted.

Two films in the top five, including #1, were actually produced in prior decades. I believe this is a coincidence. Some readers may disagree.

1. Margaret (2011, Kenneth Lonergan)
2. The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson)
3. The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer)
4. 20th Century Women (2016, Mike Mills)
5. The Other Side of the Wind (2018, Orson Welles)
6. Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier)
7. We Are the Best! (2013, Lukas Moodysson)
8. A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi)
9. Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)
10. Computer Chess (2013, Andrew Bujalski)
11. Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach)
12. Roma (2018, Alfonso Cuarón)
13. Somewhere (2010, Sofia Coppola)
14. Greenberg (2010, Noah Baumbach)
15. The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)
16. Nebraska (2013, Alexander Payne)
17. The Turin Horse (2011, Bela Tarr)
18. Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)
19. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)
20. Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
21. The Favourite (2018, Yorgos Lanthimos)
22. American Honey (2016, Andrea Arnold)
23. The Look of Silence (2014, Joshua Oppenheimer)
24. Marwencol (2010, Jeff Malmberg)
25. Dark Horse (2012, Todd Solondz)
26. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010, Banksy)
27. Carol (2015, Todd Haynes)
28. 45 Years (2015, Andrew Haigh)
29. The Lobster (2015, Yorgos Lanthimos)
30. Wiener-Dog (2016, Todd Solondz)
31. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)
32. Another Earth (2011, Mike Cahill)
33. Calvary (2014, John Michael McDonagh)
34. Inherent Vice (2014, Paul Thomas Anderson)
35. Anomalisa (2015, Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)
36. Winter’s Bone (2010, Debra Granik)
37. Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche)
38. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015, Marielle Heller)
39. This Is Not a Film (2011, Jafar Panahi)
40. The Meyerowitz Stories (2017, Noah Baumbach)
41. Faces Places (2017, Agnes Varda)
42. Nightcrawler (2014, Dan Gilroy)
43. BlacKkKlansman (2018, Spike Lee)
44. Certain Women (2016, Kelly Reichardt)
45. Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)
46. Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh)
47. Coco (2017, Lee Unkrich)
48. Hanna (2011, Joe Wright)
49. I, Tonya (2017, Craig Gillespie)
50. The Bling Ring (2013, Sofia Coppola)
BONUS #51 FOR NO REASON: A Most Wanted Man (2014, Anton Corbijn)

And now, a complete list of every new film I saw this decade in case you wonder if I missed something.

Extremely good films I had time to revisit and still love but didn’t make the list (alphabetical):
Arbitrage (2012, Nicholas Jarecki)
Argo (2012, Ben Affleck)
The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent)
Behind the Candelabra (2014, Steven Soderbergh)
Berberian Sound Studio (2012, Peter Strickland)
Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen)
Brooklyn (2015, John Crowley)
The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne)
The Edge of Seventeen (2016, Kelly Fremon Craig)
Ex Machina (2015, Alex Garland)
Footnote (2011, Joseph Cedar)
Frankenweenie (2012, Tim Burton)
Hail, Caesar! (2016, Joel & Ethan Coen)
House of Pleasures (2011, Bertrand Bonello)
Mistress America (2015, Noah Baumbach)
Monsters University (2013, Dan Scanlon)
Nymphomaniac: Volume I (2013, Lars von Trier)
Nymphomaniac: Volume II (2013, Lars von Trier)
The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg)
Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015, Mark Burton & Richard Starzack)
The Spectacular Now (2013, James Ponsoldt)
Virunga (2014, Orlando von Einsiedel)
While We’re Young (2014, Noah Baumbach)
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010, Woody Allen)

Films I loved but haven’t gone back and revisited yet (alphabetical):
All Is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor)
American Hustle (2013, David O. Russell)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, Benh Zeitlin)
The Beguiled (2017, Sofia Coppola)
The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay)
The Big Sick (2017, Michael Showalter)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018, Marielle Heller)
Captain Phillips (2013, Paul Greengrass)
Christine (2016, Antonio Campas)
Citizenfour (2014, Laura Poitras)
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014, Olivier Assayas)
Finding Dory (2016, Andrew Stanton)
Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele)
Gone Girl (2014, David Fincher)
Good Time (2017, Ben & Josh Safdie)
Gravity (2013, Alfonso Cuarón)
Green Room (2015, Jeremy Saulnier)
The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-wook)
I Am Not Your Negro (2016, Raoul Peck)
Isle of Dogs (2018, Wes Anderson)
Lady Bird (2017, Greta Gerwig)
Manchester by the Sea (2016, Kenneth Lonergan)
Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen)
mother! (2017, Darren Aronofsky)
Much Ado About Nothing (2012, Joss Whedon)
Nocturama (2016, Bertrand Bonello)
127 Hours (2010, Danny Boyle)
Rabbit Hole (2010, John Cameron Mitchell)
Sightseers (2012, Ben Wheatley)
Spotlight (2015, Tom McCarthy)
Take This Waltz (2011, Sarah Polley)
Taxi (2015, Jafar Panahi)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson)
Zootopia (2016, Byron Howard & Rich Moore)

Noble efforts and decent nights out (alphabetical):
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013, David Lowery)
Alps (2011, Yorgos Lanthimos)
The American (2010, Anton Corbijn)
Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland)
Another Year (2010, Mike Leigh)
Attack the Block (2011, Joe Cornish)
Baby Driver (2017, Edgar Wright)
Barbara (2012, Christian Petzold)
Beatriz at Dinner (2017, Miguel Arteta)
Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)
Beginners (2010, Mike Mills) {I badly need to rewatch this one.}
Beyond the Hills (2012, Cristian Mungiu)
Beyond the Lights (2014, Gina Prince-Bythewood)
Birdman (2014, Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Blackfish (2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
Blancanieves (2012, Pablo Berger)
Brave (2012, Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman)
Bridesmaids (2011, Paul Feig)
Bridge of Spies (2015, Steven Spielberg)
Call Me by Your Name (2017, Luca Guadagnino)
Carlos (2010, Olivier Assayas)
Child’s Pose (2013, Calin Peter Netzer)
Cloud Atlas (2012, Lana Wachowski / Lilly Wachowski / Tom Tykwer)
Colossal (2016, Nacho Vigalondo)
Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh)
Dallas Buyers Club (2013, Jean-Marc Vallée)
Damsels in Distress (2011, Whit Stillman)
The Deep Blue Sea (2011, Terence Davies)
The Double (2013, Richard Ayoade)
The Duke of Burgundy (2014, Peter Strickland)
Dunkirk (2017, Christopher Nolan)
Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years (2016, Ron Howard)
Eighth Grade (2018, Bo Burnham)
Enough Said (2013, Nicole Holofcener)
Ex Libris (2017, Frederick Wiseman)
Fences (2016, Denzel Washington)
The Fits (2015, Anna Rose Holmer)
Flight (2012, Robert Zemeckis)
The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker)
Four Lions (2010, Chris Morris)
Foxcatcher (2014, Bennett Miller)
The Ghost Writer (2010, Roman Polanski)
Girlhood (2014, Celine Sciamma)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014, Ana Lily Amirpour)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011, David Fincher)
Gloria (2013, Sebastián Lelio)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, James Gunn)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010, David Yates)
A Hijacking (2014, Tobias Lindholm)
Hugo (2011, Martin Scorsese)
The Hunger Games (2012, Gary Ross)
Ida (2013, Pawel Pawlikowski)
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018, Barry Jenkins)
The Illusionist (2010, Sylvain Chomet)
Incredibles 2 (2018, Brad Bird)
Inside Job (2010, Charles Ferguson)
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Joel & Ethan Coen)
Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter)
Into the Abyss (2011, Werner Herzog)
I Wish (2011, Hirokazu Koreeda)
The Kid with a Bike (2011, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017, Yorgos Lanthimos)
Killing Them Softly (2012, Andrew Dominik)
The King (2017, Eugene Jarecki)
The King’s Speech (2010, Tom Hooper)
La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle)
Leave No Trace (2018, Debra Granik)
Leviathan (2012, Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)
Like Someone in Love (2012, Abbas Kiarostami)
Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)
Logan Lucky (2017, Steven Soderbergh)
Love & Friendship (2016, Whit Stillman)
Love & Mercy (2014, Bill Pohland)
Magic in the Moonlight (2014, Woody Allen)
Magic Mike XXL (2015, Gregory Jacobs)
Margin Call (2011, J.C. Chandor)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, Sean Durkin)
Meek’s Cutoff (2010, Kelly Reichardt)
Museum Hours (2012, Jem Cohen)
Mysteries of Lisbon (2010, Raúl Ruiz)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The One I Love (2014, Charlie McDowell)
One More Time with Feeling (2016, Andrew Dominik)
Oslo, August 31st (2011, Joachim Trier)
The Past (2013, Asghar Farhadi)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, Stephen Chbosky)
Philomena (2013, Stephen Frears)
Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)
Pina (2011, Wim Wenders)
Prisoners (2013, Denis Villeneuve)
A Quiet Place (2018, John Krasinski)
Restrepo (2010, Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington)
Rush (2013, Ron Howard)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010, Edgar Wright)
Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay)
Silver Linings Playbook (2012, David O. Russell)
The Skin I Live In (2011, Pedro Almodóvar)
Skyfall (2012, Sam Mendes)
Spring Breakers (2012, Harmony Korine)
Spy (2015, Paul Feig)
Stations of the Cross (2014, Dietrich Brüggemann)
Stories We Tell (2012, Sarah Polley)
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields (2010, Kerthy Fix & Gail O’Hara)
Stranger by the Lake (2013, Alain Guiraudie)
Submarine (2010, Richard Ayoade)
Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams)
Tabloid (2011, Errol Morris)
Tabu (2012, Miguel Gomes)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013, Isao Takahata)
The Theory of Everything (2014, James Marsh)
Timbuktu (2014, Abderrahmane Sissako)
To Rome with Love (2012, Woody Allen)
A Touch of Sin (2013, Zhangke Jia)
True Grit (2010, Joel & Ethan Coen)
12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)
Two Days, One Night (2014, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay)
What We Do in the Shadows (2014, Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi)
Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle)
Wild Tales (2014, Damián Szifrón)
The World’s End (2013, Edgar Wright)

Whatevers, nonentities, and things I’m too young/old to understand (alphabetical):
Amour (2012, Michael Haneke)
Anna Karenina (2012, Joe Wright)
Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve)
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010, Andrei Ujica)
The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon)
Bastards (2013, Claire Denis)
Big Eyes (2015, Tim Burton)
Blue Ruin (2013, Jeremy Saulnier)
The Cabin in the Woods (2012, Drew Goddard)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010, Werner Herzog)
Certified Copy (2010, Abbas Kiarostami)
Chi-Raq (2015, Spike Lee)
A Dangerous Method (2011, David Cronenberg)
Darkest Hour (2017, Joe Wright)
The Day He Arrives (2011, Hong Sang-soo)
Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)
The End of the Tour (2015, James Ponsoldt)
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011, Stephen Daldry)
Faust (2011, Alexander Sokurov)
The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)
The Force Awakens (2015, J.J. Abrams)
Goodbye to Language (2014, Jean-Luc Godard)
Green Book (2018, Peter Farrelly)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011, David Yates)
Hell or High Water (2016, David Mackenzie)
The Help (2011, Tate Taylor)
Holy Motors (2012, Leos Carax)
In a World… (2013, Lake Bell)
Incendies (2010, Denis Villeneuve)
The Interrupters (2011, Steve James)
Interstellar (2014, Christopher Nolan)
In the Fog (2012, Sergey Loznitsa)
The Intouchables (2011, Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano)
It Follows (2014, David Robert Mitchell)
It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012, Don Hertzfeldt)
Jealousy (2013, Philippe Garrel)
The Kids Are All Right (2010, Lisa Cholodenko)
Leviathan (2014, Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Life of Pi (2012, Ang Lee)
Like Father, Like Son (2013, Hirokazu Koreeda)
Lion (2016, Garth Davis)
Lore (2012, Cate Shortland)
The Lost City of Z (2016, James Grey)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller)
Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh)
The Martian (2015, Ridley Scott)
Moana (2016, John Musker & Ron Clements)
Mommy (2014, Xavier Dolan)
A Most Violent Year (2014, J.C. Chandor)
Mr. Turner (2014, Mike Leigh)
Murder on the Orient Express (2017, Kenneth Branagh)
My Joy (2010, Sergei Loznitsa)
Neighboring Sounds (2012, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Never Let Me Go (2010, Mark Romanek)
The Nice Guys (2016, Shane Black)
Norte, the End of History (2013, Lav Diaz)
Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Patricio Guzmán)
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013, Jim Jarmusch)
Paterson (2016, Jim Jarmusch)
Poetry (2010, Lee Chang-dong)
Rango (2011, Gore Verbinski)
R.E.M. by MTV (2014, Alex Young)
Snowpiercer (2013, Joon-ho Bong)
The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013, Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani)
The Strange Little Cat (2013, Ramon Zurcher)
Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018, Morgan Neville)
Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth)
Warrior (2011, Gavin O’Connor)
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Martin Scorsese)
Wuthering Heights (2011, Andrea Arnold)
Young Adult (2011, Jason Reitman)
Zama (2017, Lucrecia Martel)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012, Kathryn Bigelow)

Hot garbage (alphabetical):
The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius)
Bernie (2011, Richard Linklater)
Biutiful (2010, Alejandro Gonzрlez Iñárritu)
Blue Valentine (2010, Derek Cianfrance)
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018, Bryan Singer)
Camille Claudel 1915 (2013, Bruno Dumont)
Carnage (2011, Roman Polanski)
Cold War (2018, Pawel Pawlikowski)
The Comedy (2012, Rick Alverson)
Compliance (2012, Craig Zobel)
The Conjuring (2013, James Wan)
Cosmopolis (2012, David Cronenberg)
The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)
Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller)
Drive (2011, Nicholas Winding Refn)
Exhibition (2013, Joanna Hogg)
A Ghost Story (2017, David Lowery)
The Grandmaster (2013, Wong Kar Wai)
The Guest (2014, Adam Wingard)
Her (2013, Spike Jonze)
How to Train Your Dragon (2010, Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois)
The Hunt (2012, Thomas Vinterberg)
The Imitation Game (2014, Morten Tyldum)
Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)
The Iron Lady (2011, Phyllida Lloyd)
Irrational Man (2015, Woody Allen)
Kaboom (2010, Gregg Araki)
Killer Joe (2011, William Friedkin)
Le Havre (2011, Aki Kaurismäki)
Le Quattro Volte (2010, Michelangelo Frammartino)
Les Misérables (2012, Tom Hooper)
Life of Riley (2014, Alain Resnais)
Looper (2012, Rian Johnson)
Lucy (2014, Luc Besson)
Mud (2012, Jeff Nichols)
Only God Forgives (2013, Nicholas Winding Refn)
Paradise: Love (2012, Ulrich Seidl)
Personal Shopper (2016, Olivier Assayas)
Post Tenebras Lux (2012, Carlos Reygadas)
The Revenant (2015, Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)
The Shape of Water (2017, Guillermo del Toro)
Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese)
Sicario (2015, Denis Villeneuve)
Side Effects (2013, Steven Soderbergh)
Still Alice (2014, Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland)
The Strange Case of Angelica (2010, Manoel de Oliveira)
Stray Dogs (2013, Tsai Ming-liang)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, Martin McDonagh)
To the Wonder (2012, Terrence Malick)
The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers)
You Were Never Really Here (2017, Lynne Ramsay)

…and finally, major titles I want to see and haven’t yet:
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016, Steve James)
Animal Kingdom (2010, David Michod)
The Arbor (2010, Clio Barnard)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015, Oz Perkins)
The Breadwinner (2017, Nora Twomey)
Burning (2018, Lee Chang-dong)
Cafe Society (2016, Woody Allen)
Cameraperson (2016, Kirsten Johnson)
The Disaster Artist (2017, James Franco)
Elena (2011, Andrey Zvyagintsev)
A Field in England (2013, Ben Wheatley)
Fire at Sea (2016, Gianfranco Rosi)
First Man (2018, Damien Chazelle)
First Reformed (2017, Paul Schrader)
Force Majeure (2014, Ruben Ostlund)
Game Night (2018, John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein)
Goodbye First Love (2011, Mia Hansen-Love)
Graduation (2016, Cristian Mungiu)
The Great Beauty (2013, Paolo Sorrentino)
Happy as Lazzaro (2018, Alice Rohrwacher)
Heart of a Dog (2015, Laurie Anderson)
Hereditary (2018, Ari Aster)
High-Rise (2015, Ben Wheatley)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, Taika Waititi)
The Immigrant (2013, James Gray)
In Jackson Heights (2015, Frederick Wiseman)
Ingrid Goes West (2017, Matt Spicer)
It Comes at Night (2017, Trey Edward Shults)
Jackie (2016, Pablo Larrain)
Jauja (2014, Lisandro Alonso)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011, David Gelb)
The Lego Movie (2014, Phil Lord & Chris Miller)
Knight of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick)
Krisha (2015, Trey Edward Shultz)
Locke (2013, Steven Knight)
Madeline’s Madeline (2018, Josephine Decker)
Michael (2011, Markus Schleinzer)
Mildred Pierce (2011, Todd Haynes)
Mudbound (2017, Dee Rees)
The Muppets (2011, James Bobin)
Mustang (2015, Deniz Gamze Eguven)
My Golden Days (2015, Arnaud Desplechin)
Night Moves (2013, Kelly Reichardt)
99 Homes (2014, Ramin Bahrani)
Nocturnal Animals (2016, Tom Ford)
O.J.: Made in America (2016, Ezra Edelman)
Paddington (2014, Paul King)
Paddington 2 (2017, Paul King)
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014, Roy Anderson)
Private Life (2018, Tamara Jenkins)
Raw (2016, Julia Ducournau)
The Rider (2017, Chloe Zhao)
The Salesman (2016, Asghar Farhadi)
Shoplifters (2018, Hirokazu Koreeda)
Short Term 12 (2013, Destin Cretton)
Song of the Sea (2014, Tomm Moore)
Son of Saul (2015, Laszlo Nemes)
Sorry to Bother You (2018, Boots Riley)
Split (2016, M. Night Shyamalan)
Starlet (2012, Sean Baker)
Stoker (2013, Park Chan-wook)
Support the Girls (2018, Andrew Bujalski)
Tangerine (2015, Sean Baker)
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, Dan Trachtenberg)
Things to Come (2016, Mia Hansen-Love)
Thoroughbreds (2017, Cory Finley)
Toni Erdmann (2016, Maren Ade)
The Town (2010, Ben Affleck)
The Unknown Girl (2016, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Unsane (2018, Steven Soderbergh)
Wadjda (2012, Haifaa Al-Mansour)
The Walk (2015, Robert Zemeckis)
Western (2017, Valeska Grisebach)
When Marnie Was There (2014, Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
Winter Sleep (2014, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The Wonders (2014, Alice Rohrwacher)
Wonderstruck (2017, Todd Haynes)
Wormwood (2017, Errol Morris)
Young & Beautiful [Jeune et jolie] (2013, Francois Ozon)

Gaslight (1940, Thorold Dickinson / 1944, George Cukor)

RECOMMENDED [1940 version] / HIGHLY RECOMMENDED [1944 version]

By virtue of its entrance into the popular psychological lexicon alone, George Cukor’s superb Gaslight is now one of the most famous films of the 1940s; thanks to its genesis — from stage play to British film to Hollywood remake — it can also be viewed, like The Maltese Falcon, as a crash course on how a text travels from its origins to a definitive, in this case quite freewheeling, interpretation. Of course, some may disagree with the premise that the MGM picture Gaslight is intrinsically an improvement upon Thorold Dickinson’s scrappier 1940 thriller and in turn on Patrick Hamilton’s play, just as some will understandably claim that John Huston’s Falcon is a sanitized dilution of rougher-edged material, but I don’t believe it can be feasibly argued that the changes Cukor and his three credited screenwriters make to Hamilton’s work do not reflect considerable ingenuity and thoughtfulness, and in the paragraphs to follow I’ll do my best to make my case.

Hamilton was a celebrated novelist most famous for his 1941 book Hangover Square, which became a film noir at Fox four years later, but his largest cinematic legacy comes from two plays he wrote, 1929’s Rope, based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case and eventually destined to become one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most provocative thrillers, and Gas Light, first produced in 1938. The broad conceit in every version of the story, and the source of the popularity of the term “gaslight” as a shorthand for a certain variety of abuse (especially spousal abuse), is that of a husband attempting to drive his wife insane, or at least to convince her that she is, essentially by confusing her, causing events and then denying them, and unleashing a barrage of verbal accusations and belittling remarks. The specific methodology and motivation varies in each version, though a commonality in all of them is the act of making objects disappear and accusing her of having been responsible; and the main criminal act being covered up, rummaging through the floor above the couple’s home for coveted jewelry, which causes mysterious sounds and leads to the lights visibly dimming, which is taken by the wife as the key symbol of her impending madness.

Conveniently for our purposes, the key characters’ names in these three versions vary, with one exception: the character of the wife is named Bella in both the play and the 1940 film. Otherwise, she becomes Paula in 1944; and the three husbands all have different identities, which is only appropriate given how duplicitous they all turn out to be, hiding their histories and secret families — he is Jack in the play, Paul in 1940, Gregory in 1944. On the whole, it’s in the characterizations of these three cruel men that the three versions most significantly differ. Paul is perhaps the nastiest of the lot in his manner, if not in his sinister motives, the most vicious sociopath and coldest abuser; but Gregory is the most fearsome villain, and the most frighteningly easy to view as person who could exist, quite outside the confines of chilly movie-London and these ornate haunted-house sets.

That said, Dickinson’s film is more conventionally “scary” than the American variant, enhanced perhaps by the relative confinement and no-nonsense brevity foisted upon it by the limitations and modesty of the British film industry. It makes resourceful use of cinematographer Bernard Knowles, who shot most of the later thrillers Alfred Hitchcock made in the UK, and does relatively little to “open up” the play, relying on the sense of claustrophobia as one of its main sources of emotional terror. And Dickinson, not much of a “name” apart from this film, is a much wilder and less restrained visual stylist than Cukor, which extends even to the graphically impressive opening titles, and certainly to a wavering, unmoored camera obsessed more with defining the limits of physical space than the relationships of people.

From the first moment, Dickinson pulls no punches, to an extent that probably wouldn’t even be possible four years later at MGM: we open by seeing the strangulation of the elderly Alice Barlow and gazing over the horrific aftermath, strewn with mangled furniture, during a desperate search for the all-important jewelry. Yet the most violent moment of this first film is in one of the arguments between the stoic psychopath and the fallen, suppressed Bella, when during a completely banal exchange about a dog, he yells to the woman he’s deliberately driving out of her mind: “Sometimes I wonder if you even want to be like other people.” In this narrative, his sadism — delivered chillingly well by Anton Walbrook, a dead ringer for an emotionless robot not just appropriating its interpretation of human behavior but mocking it mercilessly — has a tangible root, that long-ago murder he’s trying to hide, and this rationalization (along with the all-knowing detective who uncovers it all) is somewhat disappointing since putting it aside, this is an extremely persuasive portrait of a master manipulator and the abusive home he creates by manipulating everything in his power to persuade Bella that she is losing herself.

The film has a terse and harsh quality about it, not unusual for UK titles of this era (think Ealing Studios), delivering a feeling of creeping terror and tension more than once, but it’s hard not to look at its traditional mystery element as being a bit of a copout, when in moments (also taken from the play) like the night out at a charity concert that ends in tears after Paul makes a scene over a missing watch or the thinly veiled contempt when he says things like “what a very lovely person!”, it’s indicated that it could be a harrowing thriller about a very different kind of violence. You could argue that the use of a somewhat conventional dime-novel plot as impetus for exploring the nature of marital violence is common to every version of the story, and of course that it has a rich history; what else, after all, is du Maurier’s (and Hitchcock’s) Rebecca? But this is specifically what makes Gregory more dangerous than Paul. Both Paul and Jack toy with their wives’ senses of groundedness and sanity as a matter of practicality to cover up their own crimes; they bring their new(est) brides into this creepy old house in the town square in order to see to unfinished business, a botched robbery they never completed — their spouses’ states of mind are purely incidental, and their future purpose to them is still essentially unclear. So the “gaslighting,” so to speak, serves as a relatively simple masking device for these men’s greed. Its purpose in Cukor’s film is more sinister, which makes it a more successful film.

This, perversely, is thanks to what some may consider the MGM Gaslight‘s most significant narrative flaw — that is, its relatively lengthy buildup. The influence of Rebecca is particularly obvious here, with a long and florid and even mildly romantic introduction used as pretense to what’s set to become an eerie, oppressively dark psychological thriller. In his plays, Hamilton favored cutting, streamlined narratives, which MGM — to say the least — did not. The relatively long establishing of mood in the lengthier film’s first half hour is extremely important in how we end up viewing the story that follows. It’s also significant that we only have a vague sense, at the outset, of what has happened at the old house in the first place: we see no murder, no rooting around for valuables, we only see Ingrid Bergman as Paula being tearfully led away, and herein lies one of two major strokes of inspiration on the part of writers John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston: Paula, unlike Bella, is directly connected with the scene-setting murder that her husband turns out to have committed, which in this case was the killing of her opera-singing aunt, who raised her.

This puts everything in the air, and compensates for any sense in which the jewel-thievery story may distract from the emotional essence: the marriage at the center of the story was always a front for a master manipulator, right down to the coy manner in which Gregory, in the throes of a whirlwind romance, convinces Paula to move back to the old house in London that she inherited after the murder. We will not deny here the Hollywood tendency to bulldoze over stories and source material, and the legendary story of MGM trying to buy up and destroy the negative and all prints of the 1940 film is certainly a solid and infuriating example of same, but what Cukor’s film does is flesh out Hamilton’s idea and make it truly sing; whatever the lavishness of the production and Cukor’s much less showy and wild visual decisionmaking — and his penchant for overstuffed, fussy production design — does to the mood of the film, its performances and script are unquestionably a more sophisticated and complete approach to a brilliant narrative construction.

The other key decision made here by the screenwriters is that we are always in Paula’s place, our identification with her fully secure and powerful. Dickinson’s film left no doubt of what was being done to wife Bella from the beginning; almost without exception, we actually saw things like Paul intentionally misplacing the controversial brooch that was supposed to be in his wife’s purse, or removing and altering things and then denying it, which left no doubt as to his villainy but also distanced us in some ways from the heroine. By being much more intensely in Paula’s seat, by seeing her invariably as the protagonist and allowing some ambiguity about her husband’s moral character, despite this denying us a bit of Hitchcockian suspense (he would call this “confirming a suspicion” in the manner of a whodunit rather than amping up suspense as in a straight thriller, because we’re being given less information), we are made to completely understand Paula’s own fears and self-torture. In a wonderful bit of irony, that violation of Hitchcock’s “rules” gives us something much more like a Hitchcock picture, centering as it does on his oft-favored theme of “the woman alone.” The film is more thoroughly subjective (less stagebound, in other words); less information is explicitly imparted through dialogue, and we often question ourselves as much as Paula — thanks in part to the elaborate, foggy, shadowy sets that make the night scenes genuinely spooky and unnerving. The more languid pace additionally provides more time for the film’s hidden subject matter of a husband’s manipulation and violence to all but take over in some scenes; one wonders how much disturbing familiarity and discomfort these exchanges of dialogue have caused in audience members, many of whom would undoubtedly have found them all too recognizable, over the years.

It is helpful as well that these more complex characterizations receive what are clearly better performances, even though Walbrook was excellent as Paul in Dickinson’s film. Charles Boyer isn’t much slimier than Walbrook — whose abuse, if anything, was more direct and spiteful — but because he’s more handsome and has a good bit of charm, the central relationship is more believable despite the stark age difference baked into the setup. We so fondly remember the French-accented Boyer as the chronic charmer of Love Affair and Cluny Brown and such, and this persona seamlessly takes a turn toward disquieting menace when it is recast as a killer’s methodology for placing others under his control; neatly, this gets much more at the crux of the abuse issue than does Walbrook’s unabashedly snarling and mean-spirited Paul.

As for Ingrid Bergman, she might initially seem to just be doing a fairly pedestrian if highly emotive imitation of Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, but at the climax, when Gregory is tied to a chair and still trying to top from the bottom, she earns her Oscar and delivers a searing moment of revenge that provides catharsis denied Diana Wynard and the audience watching her. This brings the film back into the realm of Hamilton’s play, wherein Bella similarly turns the “insanity” dictum back against her husband. The retired detective of the first film is replaced by Joseph Cotten as an inquisitive Scotland Yard assistant, his character fleshed out considerably (and made to be far less annoying, frankly) even if still strictly utilitarian. Among the unusually distinctive supporting cast, teenage Angela Lansbury is delightful as fun-loving, bratty housemaid Nancy, who provides the perfect bit of comic flavoring while serving as just as much of an alienating force in her own way as Mrs. Danvers. (Watch the way Cukor’s camera focuses squarely on the pain Paula feels as her husband flirts with Nancy in front of her.) May Whitty is initially strong as a nosy neighbor, who Paula initially runs into in a train car, though she ends up being wasted in service of a weak punchline in the final shot, probably the biggest annoyance in the entire film.

Yes, on the whole, weak closing moments and all, the 1940 film is nastier, brasher, more direct. But the subtler, beautified feeling of slowly permeating madness in the remake of Gaslight still works better as a narrative construction and certainly as an emotional experience. The play and 1940 film are prescient and forceful with fascinating elements, but there’s little doubt in my mind that MGM in 1944 is the reason that “gaslighting” is now a popular phrase we all understand, and not in any small way because the film’s leading man employs the technique in so much more destructive and personal a fashion, and all while outwardly appearing to be the most patient and sensitive and well-controlled sort of decent good-hearted soul, so kind to scoop up a troubled young woman and trying so hard to be patient as she works through long-ago traumas. Still, I suggest you see both versions — made nice and easy by Warner’s release of the two together — and find out what specific kind of emotional warfare and mistreatment gives you a more satisfying night at the movies!

Capsule digest #4

This post spans films seen and reviews written from February 26 to June 9, 2019. The TSPDT 100 is taking a bit longer than I’d planned; I’m kind of torn between concentrating on it and seeing as many films from the waning decade as possible in time to post a tentative list of my favorite films of the 2010s at the end of the month (with a more extensive, carefully considered one to follow next summer and a for-the-time-being “final” draft in 2021). I also interrupted everything for the last vacation of any kind I’ll be able to take for probably a year or so. (Long story.) But things are pressing along, I swear, and I still have high hopes of beginning the ’50s canon in earnest sometime in the autumn.

Full reviews this cycle: The wicked financial melodrama Arbitrage (Letterboxd capsule) and William Wyler’s diabolical The Heiress (Letterboxd capsule; slight upgrade), a classic that’s aged like fine wine, new to the Criterion Collection (it was my third viewing of both, so it would’ve been lazy not to spin them into essays!); and finally David Lynch’s confoundingly beautiful Mulholland Dr. (Letterboxd capsule); I’m not quite in the best-film-of-the-century cult but I certainly sympathize with it, and I find it by far the best of Lynch’s surreal stylistic exercises, though I do remember liking the first season of Twin Peaks and should really revisit that series.

Other films seen: Despite noble efforts I barely made a dent in revisiting all of the 2010s titles I’ve enjoyed to help smooth out the list-making task, but I do intend to continue the project without interruption after I post the first version of my list in a few weeks. Moving backwards through my tentative ranking, I’m pleased to say I was wrong about absolutely none of these, and in some cases I was gobsmacked by how much better they were than I let myself remember! In addition to Arbitrage, which finally got a complete review, and Berberian Sound Studio which I didn’t have any new comments about, you can track my progress at Lboxd as follows:
Behind the Candelabra
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I
The Descendants
Hail, Caesar!
The Bling Ring
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
A Most Wanted Man
Blue Jasmine
Mistress America

I also rewatched Strangers on a Train to continue my vaguely chronological jaunt through Hitchcock’s heavy hitters even though I’ve already written about it — my Letterboxd capsule does have some new insights thanks to my having read Patricia Highsmith’s fine novel last year. And I indulged myself — if that’s the word for an immersion in a film about child abuse, neglect and small-time crime — by picking up The 400 Blows on Blu-ray, ogling its exquisite image quality and crying profusely.

Non-feature or non-cinema screened: What the elegant Netflix series Russian Doll, featuring Natasha Lyonne, lacks in originality it makes up for in wit and stylistic ingenuity — not to mention music supervision, with years of private brooding to Ray Davies’ “I Go to Sleep” suddenly shared with millions. The obscure Jack Gold short film The Visit, issued by the BFI on their Room at the Top disc, is devastating and calls to mind some of the darker Playhouse 90 episodes I watched last year as part of Criterion’s Golden Age of Television package.

Youtube playlist highlights: I am obsessed with this clip of the closing moments of the late 1980s Jim Belushi vehicle and longtime basic cable staple The Principal. And for a terrifying glimpse into my childhood, have a look at the truly bizarre animated short Teeny Tiny and the Witch Woman.

And lastly, massive congrats to Yvie Oddly, the right choice at the right time… but Vanjie is my Miss Congeniality.

Recent Blu-ray releases recommended: Several fine films reviewed in this space, as well as some old favorites, have recently been given beautiful physical releases thanks to various boutique labels here and overseas. In the UK, Indicator brought the tough-minded, female-driven noir The Reckless Moment to its world Blu-ray premiere; the set is packed with extras delving into the careers of James Mason and director Max Ophuls plus an eerie music and effects track; BFI at last afforded the extraordinary, trend-setting British classic Room at the Top the respect it has long deserved, and among other things the release includes a fantastic commentary by film scholar Josephine Botting.

Back on these shores, Twilight Time’s overpriced line of limited-edition releases nevertheless deserves attention for bringing one of my most beloved films of the 1980s, Melvin and Howard, to hi-def, with a long-lost and affable Jonathan Demme-Toby Rafelson commentary to boot. Flicker Alley broke their trend of relegating silent classics to their burn-on-demand line via their shepherding of Universal’s restoration of the Gothic melodrama The Man Who Laughs, which I enjoyed revisiting (see here). Cohen Media began their Buster Keaton reissue program with a relatively low-priced twofer of Steamboat Bill Jr. and The General; Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator will follow in July. The image quality is unspeakably superb. As usual, the biggest news came from Criterion, whose new edition of The Heiress marks their first tackling of a William Wyler picture, even going back to the laserdisc era! It looks glorious. Props to them also for resurrecting Robert Zemeckis’ first, and nearly best, film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which I will be revisiting in full soon as part of my Beatles project at the other blog.

Capsules follow!


The Big Sick (2017, Michael Showalter) [hr]
A courtship comedy in which half of the central couple is in a coma. Self-mythologizing stand-up comedians tend to be a bore, but this is a delight whose indulgences are forgiven by the knowledge that it’s a harrowing true story. Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself; he wrote the film with his wife Emily Gordon) make a charming couple, and Nanjiani captures the grief and guilt of learning to stand up for oneself with accuracy and decency, but the film owes a surprising proportion of its appeal to the performances of Ray Romano, of all people, and Holly Hunter as the cranky worried potential in-laws.

American Honey (2016, Andrea Arnold) [hr]
The magazine scammers in indentured servitude who knocked on your door and posed as friendly college students looking to fund this or that are brought to aching real life by an ensemble of disparate young adults in this lengthy, meandering but wondrously vivid slice of impoverished life, a movie that’s so cinematically expressive it can’t be reduced to words. The feeling of being an outsider among a tight-knit group, the way life lived on the edge of legitimacy can turn on a dime from recklessness to hilarity, the unexpected moments of splendor within a total lack of freedom: it’s all here, and it couldn’t be more passionately presented.

Blow-Up (1966, Michelangelo Antonioni)
(Revisit; upgrade.) Influential chronicle of a fashion photographer who discovers that he has accidentally shot pictures of a murder in progress suffers (like L’Avventura) from a director disdainful of his own strengths, and from commentary on perception and apathy that seems easy, even lazy. And of course, the very thing that makes it alluring — its tempest of hyper-sexualized Swinging London decadence — consigns it wholly to its age. But it undeniably looks terrific and contains a couple of knockout scenes, including a blistering Yardbirds performance that makes most 1960s-vintage integrations of rock music into cinema seem goofy and facile.

The Leopard (1963, Luchino Visconti) [c]
As gorgeous as Lawrence of Arabia, and nearly as dull.

20th Century Women (2016, Mike Mills) [hr]
“Just be there,” it says, and it’s talking to us as much as it’s talking to Jamie, the gentle and confused teenager at the center of this deeply sensitive, beautiful film about the people swirling around him in 1979 Santa Barbara, their pasts and futures. It wants us to bear witness to everyday life much as William Wyler once did, and what we see is complicated, messed up, lovely, but never in an obvious fashion. Its peculiarities are unforced, and you well up from the secrets it unveils, the mysteries it keeps, its hauntingly vivid compassion. I would wish we could get a hundred movies like this a year if I thought my heart could take it.

The End of the Tour (2015, James Ponsoldt)
A narrative strung together from a long exchange of conversations between onetime renegade David Foster Wallace and a less famous writer, David Lipsky, in the last days of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest. If you’re not an acolyte of Wallace’s writing, this is just a long two-hander and a somewhat atmospheric road movie, skillfully directed by a filmmaker whose work continues to suggest (see The Spectacular Now) that he has smart, occasionally insightful ideas and a youthful pretension that hasn’t quite left him yet. Jason Segel is sweet and unassuming as Wallace, and Jesse Eisenberg is his usual oddly menacing self.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes) [NO]
Uncinematic, pointless catalog of misery in which a housewife loses her grip in protracted trainwreck manner, unfortunately as portrayed by the terribly inauthentic, scenery-chewing showboat Gena Rowlands, nearly all of whose scenes are either unintentionally hilarious or pure aesthetic torture. Cassavetes lives up to his reputation in the sense that his camera and editing seem extremely unmoored and don’t shy away from technical ineptitude, but this commitment to documentary realism hits a wall when it comes to the supposedly pure drama he captures, which is both badly, self-consciously performed and just generally broad and silly.

Amarcord (1973, Federico Fellini) [r]
Fellini’s episodic semi-memoir of life in fascist Italy is saccharine but irresistibly charming, maybe more so than a film about Il Duce’s regime ought to be. Its strikingly weird yet mostly grounded imagery along with the fourth-wall breaking give it levity and exuberance despite being overstuffed and often superficial; it revels in sexual juvenilia even at the same time as it mocks it, and maybe that’s healthy.

Girlhood (2014, Celine Sciamma) [r]
Karidja Touré is brilliant as a black 16 year-old in a French housing project trying to bust out of an abusive home life and hopeless future; she tries crime, bullying and innocent hookups on for size, but the best scenes in this occasionally transcendent film occur when she forges an identity with three other girls and they terrorize Paris with wondrous abandon, peaking with what looks to be a magic night dancing to Rihanna in a hotel room while swigging from a rum-spiked Coke bottle. The rest is beautifully acted and shot but the criminal-underworld scenes that come later on are less persuasive and revealing about who this character really is.

The Interrupters (2011, Steve James)
The intimacy achieved by James with his subjects is still remarkable, but this deep dive into an attempt by the University of Illinois to circumvent an epidemic of violence in Chicago in 2009-10 struggles with the enormity of its social obligations. The best moments are those that zoom squarely in on specific individuals — organizer and mediator Ameena Matthews above all — who manage to back up the film’s thesis without simplifying the breathing humans involved. Sadly the film’s already a bit dated, through no fault of its creators; organizational disarray and police violence have rendered some of its points moot and/or quaint. More Flamo, please.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018, Bryan Singer) [c]
Shockingly amateurish biopic of Queen is a generic, paint-by-numbers portrait of a classic rock career awash in clichés, a film that only gains and charms its audience because of their preexisting attachment to the music it evokes. It feels like bad sketch comedy, and the only thing more depressing than its litany of Oscar nominations is the fact that people went to see it in droves.

Green Book (2018, Peter Farrelly)
Buddy-redemption crowd pleaser is socially regressive and tone-deaf, but not altogether awful, especially when compared to obvious Oscar touchstones Driving Miss Daisy and Crash. The pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black artist touring the South at the height of Jim Crow, endures a rocky relationship with his driver, a Bronx wannabe gangster who goes by Tony Lip and is brought to us broadly and cartoonishly by Viggo Mortensen, who spends much of the film stuffing his face. No wonder Boomers like this so much; it pushes all the right feel-good buttons and, when the worst trouble arrives, brings in a fucking Kennedy to save the day.

Into the Abyss (2011, Werner Herzog) [r]
A no-frills account of a seemingly open-and-shut triple murder case and how the execution of one of the perpetrators (and capital punishment in general) impacts the others involved, rippling outward to encompass both sides of the law and every possible perspective on the death penalty. The interviews Herzog chooses to include often ache with loss and despair, perhaps most hauntingly one with a former Texas executioner, who quit because of PTSD, but frankly nearly all of them are troubling and fascinating. It just isn’t much of a movie, in some ways just a Forensic Files episode with a moral compass and the occasional jolt of Herzog weirdness.

BlacKkKlansman (2018, Spike Lee) [hr]
Given its subject matter — a real-life police infiltration into the human dregs of the KKK in the 1970s — this is surprisingly fun, with a lot of messiness and unexpected abstraction to remind you a real artist is behind the camera even as you enjoy the fusion of true crime with abrasive comedy. Lee’s aware of the irony of getting intrigue and pleasure out of such dark material, so at three points he undercuts the narrative with out-of-time reminders of where all this idle hatred from easily manipulated losers and assholes inevitably leads. That’s not only moving and relevant, it’s responsible.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman) [r]
A scathing portrait of the infinite load-bearing that is automatically inflicted upon women, this slow cinema landmark details the routine of a widow who entertains johns in her apartment while maintaining domestic tranquility, which begins to slip after a few trivial but cumulatively distressing breaks from normalcy. A brilliant movie despite a finale that’s much too cut-and-dried, but while Akerman’s goal is a bodily, involuntary reaction to all of the painstaking repetition and minutiae, the full expanse of the thing doesn’t reveal much that you wouldn’t get from a more condensed version of the narrative.

Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
This eerie and emotionally wrenching melodrama, lifted from feudal Japanese folklore, restrains nothing in depicting the miseries of a wrongly disgraced family, and accumulates so many tragedies and acts of brutality it could easily be accused of being too much if its compositions weren’t so calmly beautiful or if the performances weren’t so genuinely stirring, right up to a finale in which the lid completely comes off and we’re permitted to see what feels like pure, undiluted grief and catharsis personified. The story has the sweep and weight of grand mythology, but the humane realism makes it deeply affecting on a personal level.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018, Barry Jenkins) [r]
Give Jenkins ample credit for not resting on his laurels with his follow-up to Moonlight; this James Baldwin adaptation is risky, strange and aesthetically jaw-dropping, with a sumptuous color scheme, haunting Demme-like close-ups and wildly unpredictable camerawork. However, the text suffers a bit in the transition to screen, especially in an early dialogue-heavy scene that goes on too long and feels too theatrical, and a finale that doesn’t seem to functionally justify or earn its own sense of resignation — but these are only problems against the restless, emotionally rich, brilliantly performed cinematic grace of the rest of the picture.

Zama (2017, Lucrecia Martel)
Uniformed colonialist has a case of the Mondays. #relatable

A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson) [r]
Exquisitely single-minded, intricately detailed filmmaking accounting the unadorned and virtually context-free scheming and execution of an escape attempt by a French Resistance officer in a Nazi prison. François Leterrier is the perfect actor for this, with his face hiding mysteries but still easy to read emotionally. It’s all thoroughly engrossing, but also purely functional: the voiceover removes virtually every possibility of misinterpretation, and the character strictly moves from point to point fulfilling the title’s promise. Perhaps that’s admirably straightforward, but it also avoids the very kind of risk-taking it appears designed to celebrate.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018, Marielle Heller) [hr]
The story of a modest blitz of fraudulence on the part of disgraced New York author Lee Israel is brought to screen with tough-minded, melancholic wit. Melissa McCarthy deeply embodies Israel’s uncompromising cynicism and impatience, and the film is adept at locating not just the soul of an extremely difficult character but the dismal loneliness in the pallid tones of hard-won-and-not-worth-it urban life. The brightest spot in this dead end is the periodic appearance of Richard E. Grant’s cheerfully alcoholic layabout; that we see this when Lee cannot is as adept a way as any to define the frustrations of this kind of hopeless fringe existence.

Cold War (2018, Pawel Pawlikowski) [c]
Pawlikowski’s account of his parents’ troubled, frantically rocky relationship is cursed with a script that’s so fixated on its elliptical structure it never allows us to come to know its characters in any depth. The film looks and sounds great, but it’s crippled by the lack of believable relationships or any kind of chemistry in its central couple; by the halfway point, the impossibility of any sort of lasting peace between Zula and Wiktor is exhausting, like a long anecdote from someone who should’ve left a bad situation years ago but refuses to do so.

Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami) [r]
The cleverly approached, oddly trivial and amusing true tale of a wide-eyed con artist posing as Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf; forgoing the use of actors, Kiarostami blurs the lines between reality and performance with the same manic fervor as his subject, resulting in a film whose idea of “truth” is extremely elastic, and maybe in the end irrelevant. This is a creation deeply conscious of the limits of film itself as a medium, but for all its brevity it does run up against good old fashioned process-nerd boredom when so much of its running time is sucked up by 16mm footage of Hossain Sabzian’s trial.

Jules and Jim (1962, François Truffaut)
(Revisit; upgrade.) Bohemian morons who talk endlessly about their own misery get their lives fucked up by Jeanne “She’s So Amoral” Moreau. There are lyrical moments and some enjoyably frenetic editing; as a piece of aesthetic technique, it’s perfectly acceptable. And the disembodied voiceover tends to inject a deadpan humor these pretentious characters badly need. The problem is that said characters are neither enjoyable to spend time with nor particularly believable, and the flippant attitude toward women, while not altogether surprising or even totally lacking critical self-awareness, is egregiously adolescent pretty much from start to end. Probably Truffaut’s worst.

The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-wook) [hr]
Audacious adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Gothic novel Fingersmith transforms it into an over-the-top fusion of Foolish Wives, Diabolique and, er, Wild Things, with Ha Jung-woo’s absurd “Count” out to deceive an aged, pervy Japanese book collector by seducing his heiress with the help of a pickpocket. Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri’s work in the latter two roles is engaging and fearless. Park takes advantage of not just Korea’s natural beauty but the visual lexicon of Merchant-Ivory films, which he gleefully subverts in favor of a narrative deeply reliant on both genuine, hard-won eroticism and lurid dirty-old-man sexuality.

Love & Friendship (2016, Whit Stillman) [r]
Loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is perfectly suited to Stillman’s odd cadences and keen sense of irony; his bemused but empathetic approach to the characters, from Kate Beckinsale’s baldly manipulative Susan to the perpetually despondent wronged woman Lady Manwaring, is well matched by an extremely game cast. However, the entire film is taken a bit off balance with the appearance of the splendidly idiotic James Martin; Tom Bennett’s performance is so convincingly clueless, and so exquisitely rendered in its awkward innocence, that he completely steals the thunder of the rest of the cast, and you only wish thereafter for more of him.

The King (2017, Eugene Jarecki) [r]
A touching, unfocused by its own admission, and ultimately very fair-minded look at Elvis Presley’s long-term effects on American culture. Lots of interviews, some OK, a few exceptional (Chuck D above all), and a sweeping look at a deeply troubled nation.

R.E.M. by MTV (2014, Alex Young)
The history of Athens, Georgia’s great salt-of-the-earth alternative rock band and their brief scrape with mass arena-rock success as told through the archives of MTV News. Too much talk, not enough music — and the music, at least from the group’s first decade and a half, remains extraordinary — and it’s a bit haphazardly put together, which is probably why it played a couple of festivals then got buried on DVD, but fans will enjoy it. For a more interesting (and depressing) verité documentary about the band, check Youtube for 1998’s This Way Up. To see and hear them at their best, pick up the DVD Tourfilm.

Nocturama (2016, Bertrand Bonello) [hr]
A French Dawn of the Dead only with millennial terrorists as the heroes, mostly devoid of political content and delighting in the perversity of its audience’s all but automatic identification with a group of misguided and fearful characters, whose actions turn on a dime from benignly symbolic to unforgivably violent. Taken as a thriller, the whole thing is tantalizingly uneasy and stressful, even as its climax peaks with dread and inevitability; as procedural or ensemble character study, it’s fascinating and wrenching. And it looks absolutely terrific.

The Nice Guys (2016, Shane Black)
Diverting neo-noir comedy that puts a private detective and a civilian enforcer on the trail of murder and intrigue within an L.A. porn ring in the late ’70s. Probably plays better if you like either of the lead actors (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, neither of whom has much of a gift for this stuff); though often clever and funny, it suffers from flimsy action setpieces and is too much a retread of Black’s much better Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Although Angourie Rice steals the film as Gosling’s savvier-than-thou teen daughter Holly, there’s something severely displeasing about her constant presence around adult sexuality and physical danger.

The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci) [r]
Often billed as a political thriller, this is really more of a harsh, grim character piece in which a Italian Secret Policeman, riddled with trauma, has turned toward fascism to cover up his lack of an identity. Quick and intelligent, the film’s story isn’t honestly deep or revelatory, chiefly because the antihero Marcello’s cool detachment registers mostly as fantasy. Thanks to Berolucci and Vittorio Storaro, though, this is one of the most distinctive-looking films of its era, with arresting color and endlessly surprising imagery that calls Rene Magritte and Leni Riefenstahl to mind in its evocation of the angular majesty of fascist architecture.

Pierrot le Fou (1965, Jean-Luc Godard) [r]
The first hour of Godard’s farewell to the manic, Hollywood noir-infected first phase of his career is breathtakingly romantic and playful, putting his disaffected stand-in Belmondo on the road with erstwhile beloved Anna Karina after a lousy party — in which everyone spouts ad slogans — and an inevitable killing. The subversive and smarmy overload of ideas, colors and charming pastiche eventually comes to feel excessive, even repetitive… but in small doses it’s magnetic!


The next thing you’ll hear from me is probably a decade retrospective, though I imagine something left on the They Shoot Pictures top 100 will prompt a complete writeup. Until then…

The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)


It’s not Noir and it’s not neo-realism; in fact, in sheer aesthetic affect William Wyler’s Paramount drama The Heiress is very much a Hollywood period drama — yet few other films made within the studio system seem so determined to puncture and annihilate the mythmaking narrative conventions of American movies. The climax of its biting, acidic rejection of genteel social mores and cruel chauvinism is in its very last scene, when an entitled brat bangs on a door that will never open yelling a woman’s name with increasing desperation, two decades before The Graduate; but this tragic yet oddly cheer-worthy finale requires two hours of careful characterization and the gradual crumbling of morale to reach its haunting, ice-cold crescendo. What takes us there is not so much the great director William Wyler — whose greater skill set of conveying warmth between very vivid people to audiences (Dodsworth, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives) is not put into service here — as the film’s star, Olivia de Havilland, who ties together an intricate, chamber-piece narrative with the nuances of her eyes, voice and body language.

Playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted Henry James’ Washington Square for the stage under this title; after their play attracted the attention of de Havilland and Wyler, they in turn formed it into a screenplay while streamlining it to fit Wyler’s cinematic purposes. Much of James’ dialogue is retained, and the period setting (the 1840s in New York) is treated with great reverence and authenticity — with all of the new scenes, like an extraordinary series of encounters set at a wedding reception ball, impressively organic to their context — but the more intriguing context in which The Heiress fits is with the increasingly street-smart cynicism the better Hollywood films attained a few years after the war. It isn’t a long leap from the darkness and downbeat, realistic conclusion of this film to those of All the King’s Men (which competed against it at the Oscars), Ace in the Hole, Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve. This last example is particularly relevant because it hinges similarly upon the transformation of a single character (there, Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington) from wide-eyed and naive to cold and calculating. The chief difference, however, is that in that film the evolution of the character is simply the unveiling of a conniving snake who’s covertly stood before us the entire time; the transition of de Havilland’s Catherine Sloper is more soulful and heartbreaking because her eventual viciousness is entirely justified by the cruelty we see visited upon her.

If you’re the sort who scans classic films for signs of subtext about the abusive patriarchal system under which the trains ran in the 1940s, The Heiress is a goldmine, only it’s barely subtext at all here, which is a trait it shares with a number of other major late 1940s-early 1950s titles in both England and America. Presumably one reason the film’s enjoyed such a recent revival in popularity is that it’s so uncompromising in its inspiration of righteous indignation on behalf of a clearly neglected and badly treated woman. It’s a razor-sharp indictment of the brutal, harsh parenting of Dr. Sloper, a well-off and snide brute who takes his grief over his long-deceased wife out on a daughter who’s always disappointed him simply by not sufficiently resembling her mother in physical characteristic or personal nature. Catherine later defines the experience of lovelessness in her household as being marked by the feeling “when a person speaks to you as if they despise you”; it is little wonder she yearns to be taken away, and begs the man she wishes to do so, whom she says will love her for all those who didn’t: “you must never despise me.” For Catherine, the idea of love is tied almost strictly to personal security. She has become a perpetually intimidated, subservient mouse less out of genuine insecurity than because she’s been given the feeling that this obvious terror and obedient quiet is what others want from her.

From the outset, Catherine is resistant to making any sort of mark or claim for herself, reluctant to create any disturbance or ripple in the world around her; while this is undoubtedly the result of her impatient, chilly treatment at the hands of her father — the sort of man who thinks he is home free as a parent simply because he has provided material comfort — this personality itself has now seemingly become tiresome to those around her, namely her father (Ralph Richardson), her kind aunt (Miriam Hopkins) and the various denizens of the doctor’s social life. For Dr. Sloper, Catherine’s inadequacy as a potential bride to some “worthy” suitor is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy; while he complains about it outwardly, he seems to delight in an almost sinister fashion at the notion that he’s raised a spinster who will die alone. Some critics of the time complained that de Havilland, who sought the role herself, was miscast because she is simply too “beautiful” to be so unwanted a woman; even Wyler himself later conceded that this may have hurt the film at the box office (it failed to make back its budget, but was universally acclaimed and won de Havilland her second Academy Award). But this in fact is ingenious casting if we take the film straightforwardly as a portrait of a toxic home: Catherine has become a shattered, damaged, “unlovable” person because that’s what she constantly was made to believe she was.

The film makes much of social quirks in Catherine that would just be bits of comic business and quirk in, say, a Lubitsch movie (thinking specifically of the plucky heroine of Cluny Brown): she’s less excited about a new evening gown that arrives specially for her than about returning to the respite of her embroidery, she flinches when watching a street monger cut a fish for her and is then so unladylike as to carry the fish into the house herself, and her awkward, terrified movements on the dance floor at the ball are heartbreakingly believable (no mean feat for so accomplished and long-established an actress as de Havilland). Wyler and the Goetzes brilliantly set Catherine up not as an alien figure but as an embodiment of the deep insecurities and long-buried embarrassments of every audience member; we are consistently and completely in her corner, right down to the heartbreak of her facial expressions when the second man leaves her to find “claret cups” and she visibly believes he won’t be returning. When alone with an attractive man, once she gets over the disbelief that he’s interested in her (again, the result obviously of parental neglect and spitefulness), she wonders aloud desperately what she should talk about. When challenged on her social abilities, she defends herself by stating that she “made notes of the things I should say and how I should say them” (without making this too personal, that one gets me right in the gut!). And when even a gorgeous Montgomery Clift is the one approaching her, she constantly leans away as if in fear of being attacked; her response to some drooling flirtation on his part is, unforgettably, “I am not very good at this kind of conversation.”

We’re only directly privy to the very recent history of Catherine and her father. Whereas James notes that her mother, so beloved (or at least performatively beloved) by the doctor, died in childbirth, the film omits this detail and never lays out the specifics of the late Mrs. Sloper’s death, only that she lingers as a shadow looming above Catherine like the first Mrs. de Winter. Richardson’s salty and cutting portrayal of Dr. Sloper is painfully believable, with none of the one-dimensional villainy that, say, a Rex Harrison or Charles Boyer would have brought to the part; taking pride in his own stoic and unfeeling nature (diagnosing himself with illness near the end of the film and matter-of-factly announcing “I shall not recover”), he turns on a patronizing tone each time Catherine enters the room. While we’re predisposed almost from the start to being disdainful of him, he is a good enough judge of character to immediately see through the charades of Catherine’s young suitor, the faux-classy layabout Morris Townsend, but seemingly little realizes that it’s his own behavior that has set his daughter up as a victim to such a creature. His every remark to her is marked by disdain or backhanded condescension; when she appears in a beautiful dress, Henry James gives him the unforgettable review “You look as if you had $80,000 a year.” He openly and repeatedly compares her unfavorably to her mother, both to her face and in front of others. And it’s not merely Catherine to whom he is a dry, unpleasant figure — in the space of just a few minutes he informs two different people that they are “without dignity” and “beneath contempt” — but only she is actually in a position to be damaged by it.

When he first meets Townsend and notes that he seems intelligent, Catherine’s overenthusiastic “oh, yes!” is met with a murderous glare. It may be that he recognizes Townsend’s pending abuse of his daughter because it is the only motive related to her that he understands; that the boy may genuinely love her never even crosses his mind, and while this may allow a certain protectiveness to set in — making a show of announcing her vulnerability to Townsend’s sister, then taking his daughter away to Europe for a spell to delay their marriage — it’s only ever under the terms of “love” in which the young woman is his own property that he is unwilling to share. He is far more troubled by the notion that Townsend will spend all of his money than he is by the idea that he may be a bad husband to his daughter, for he sees her as so subhuman that he cannot fathom her having any sophisticated relationship in the first place. It is, of course, entirely because of the inadequacy he’s baked into her personality that she is so easily swayed by a powerful, sexy con artist like Townsend; but as she later points out, would a life with Townsend, who is affectionate toward her, not potentially be at least a little better than one in which she already is unloved with no possibility of redemption?

Making all this worse is that of course, for at least the first half of the film, Catherine adores her father, and this despite already enduring decades alone with him: you can see it in the loving way she looks at him, never returned in kind. That’s not to say she is unaware of how ashamed he is of her, only that she truly seems to believe she is at fault. At one point, she breaks her cultivated exterior just enough to ask him to be kind to her, to promote her to her potential husband: “Praise me a little,” she pleads. And in that unmistakable manner in which victims of unloving households seem so conscious of their miseries yet so unaware of how unnecessary and inexcusable they are, she once nonchalantly, and not a little hilariously, tells Townsend: “My father won’t abuse you. He doesn’t know you well enough.”

The collateral damage in all this is Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia, the film’s most easily likable character, who’s a tireless supporter of Catherine — the “cool aunt” character familiar from numerous other films, but so much more painfully realistic here because the shortcomings of such a confidante are made very obvious in the course of the narrative. Her hopeless romanticism bonds her to her niece but also blinds her to the self-serving motives of both Dr. Sloper and the young Morris Townsend. Neither the film nor Catherine judge her for her naivete, which is treated as the great flaw of a life of relative peace and kindness unknown to the Slopers. Lavinia is the widow of what seems to have been a good, loving marriage, an experience that has left her eager to impart its joys to others and in eternal disbelief that a less pleasant experience with matters of the heart is even possible. She chides the doctor for his treatment of Catherine but never rebukes him for it; and she seems more upset by Catherine’s eventual rejection of Morris than she is by Morris’ own cruelty to her. She is a lovely human being who is also an enabler — and, thanks to all involved but especially the great Hopkins, such an insightful and witty actress for decades running (it’s fun to think of her happy simultaneous carousing with two different men in Design for Living while watching this), she serves as the true beating heart of this picture, the audience vessel who badly wants everything to work out and will come away frightfully disappointed by the fickle terrors of everyday life.

As for Montgomery Clift, this was only his third movie after distinctive, searing appearances in the trifling The Search and the extraordinary Red River, and as usual his brooding and passionate personage burns into the rest of the film harshly. Left unchecked, he could be a distracting Method showboat, but Wyler handles him correctly by helping to render his Morris as both a clearly desirable object of adoration and potential escape for Catherine and a believable master grifter whose eager, fiery poetics come across as just overwhelmingly heartthrob-ish enough to read as appropriately ridiculous and even slightly comic. (The moment when he speak-sings his way through the English translation of “Plaisir d’amour” is straight out of some misguded Keanu Reeves-led romcom from sixty years later.) That said, Clift’s portrayal is just ambiguous enough that there is every reason to believe he is actually attracted to Catherine and, when he abandons her upon learning she won’t receive her inheritance, it’s a matter of survival from a classless sort whose lifestyle is totally alien to the Slopers. This doesn’t excuse his actions by any means, but it adds a helpful lingering doubt that makes the film’s conclusion that much more potent in its uncompromising anger; The Heiress would seem all too one-dimensional if Morris was not, at times, as relatable as Catherine — for instance, when he too seems to be jilted on the dance floor by Catherine much as she was minutes earlier by a clearly disgusted young man, or in the tentative private kissing he shares with her in which he seems as scared as she does, or most of all in the awkward dinner scenes that will be familiar to anyone who’s tried to impress a new boyfriend or girlfriend’s skeptical parents. You can even be kind enough to sort of admire his live-for-the-moment philosophy that led him to use an inheritance to parade around Europe buying gloves rather than plan for the future, but we do finally get a glimpse of his true colors when, with Dr. Sloper deceased and Catherine rich, he reappears on her doorstep with new mustache and smugly surveys the premises in her brief absence, totally convinced it’s all soon to be “his.”

But it won’t be, because in one of those wonderful moments in classic cinema when we don’t think an old film is quite “with” us because of cultural changes but in fact is ahead of us, Catherine has already seen through the man’s lies and is intentionally putting him through the same wringer she knew not so long ago. As soon as Morris, in the joyous fits of a new courtship, has left the house to go get a coach (again), we quickly discern that Catherine — who’s made her parting gift of ruby buttons from Paris already — has no intention of going anywhere with him, or of ever speaking to him again. The Catherine that Morris has encountered now is a changed woman. We have watched her cycle in real time out of her naive hopefulness, through the pain of realizing her father never loved her then that no man has ever truly loved her, and into an peaceful independence and finally a deliciously vengeful defiance, an assertion of self at last. The second and third acts conclude with de Havilland’s ascensions of the house at Washington Square’s formidable staircase: lugging the suitcases she intended to take on her honeymoon with Morris, she appears defeated and inconsolable. Clutching a lamp and heading upstairs to bed in the final scene, something very different — but far subtler — is taking place.

The transformation begins with the quarrels between Catherine and her father just after their failed European trip; all of a sudden, Catherine wakes up, and not merely because Dr. Sloper suddenly lays out his opinions of her explicitly at last, then has the audacity — when she very straightforwardly responds with “what a terrible thing to say to me” — to accuse her of being cruel to him. The relationship does not recover; after this initial attempt at communicating her humanity to him, which receives no apology in turn, she understandably becomes curt and avoids seeing him whenever possible, brilliantly calls his bluff on writing her out of his will, and indeed refuses to visit him on his deathbed. There is a case to be made that this fissure is a flaw in the film; while it’s integral to the story, the two distinct versions of Catherine witnessed by us are so violently opposed as to seem nearly incompatible. Moreover, while de Havilland’s performance in both guises is absolutely perfect — humane, nuanced, utterly real — the “dual” personalities notion was a known and well-worked gimmick within her work, which had also been central to her other Oscar-winning role in Mitchell Leisen’s brilliant tearjerker To Each His Own (which also lays out just as strongly her ability to almost transcend age in her performances); and she’d gone so far as to play twins in The Dark Mirror that same year.

In fact, however, repeated viewings of The Heiress seem to validate this as a function of its realism in matters of familial abuse and neglect. It’s Catherine’s desperation to be pleasing to her father that causes her to attain the nervous shyness that he so passionately decries to others; it’s hardly a real expression of her personality, which we can assume was no more satisfying to so exacting a man, whose warmth — if it even existed — was probably reserved exclusively for his medical patients. The Catherine we see when we leave the film has also constructed a personality of bitter detachment as a defense mechanism, even as we see she can return to the old zeal and people-pleasing long enough to hoodwink her former lover. But there is some reason to believe that this last adventure has given her sufficient closure to free her from all of these psychological prisons.

Without question, the finale of The Heiress is one of the greatest and most wounding in Hollywood cinema; its unabashed vindictiveness is most closely matched by the nearly forgotten and otherwise innocuous western In Old Arizona, which too ends with a masterfully understated, though much more violent, fuck-you — but outside of America, it has a more contemporary analogy in the stunning final shot of The Third Man, whose acerbic and oddly thrilling withholding of satisfaction has an equal beauty and elegance. When it becomes clear that Catherine has doomed Morris to heartbreak (and, potentially, poverty, though he would have found that for himself anyway) and her aunt expresses shock, her rebuke is priceless, and the thesis of the film: “Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.” There is then great tension as the maid Maria struggles with Catherine’s command to bolt the door, which Morris is pounding on, rather than open it — and, wrapping up her embroidery alphabet, we watch as Wyler’s masterfully blocked and composed series of closing shots lets Morris see the shadow of his future passing ominously by through the glass above the door, whereupon he tries the knob and then returns to vainly knocking and shouting, and Catherine Sloper starts to ascend the stairs again. A faint expression of security crosses her face — the freedom of no longer being under the thumb of any man — and then we return to Morris Townsend outside, his desperation increasing, as Wyler sardonically announces via two-word title card that his story will never be resolved.

It is a moment of divine, delectable fury — and renders the entire film ageless and impossibly elegant, a perfectly structured treatise on cycles of cruelty and the occasional righteousness of revenge. The visual and superficial pleasures are innumerable, as always in Wyler’s period pieces — the shimmering fable-like quality of Leo Tover’s photography, the sumptuous streets and the rain that falls on them, and Aaron Copland’s improbably lush score — but The Heiress subverts them, refuses them as consolation for the interpersonal distress documented within their borders. Wyler had tackled abusive relationships with great perspicacity before, in The Little Foxes and Dodsworth; but here is a film that synthesizes this kind of knowing humanism with the gripping coldness, calculation and technical expertise of noir to demonstrate an environment in which resentment, for once, is an escape from doom, apathy and dread. He and the writers and cast make us root for someone to whom the entire world has become dead and pointless, and convinces us — with the most wondrous kind of perversity — that we are deeply correct to do so.

Arbitrage (2012, Nicholas Jarecki)


The financial mogul as unstoppable supervillain was the great fact of the 2010s even years before one of them became the President of the United States. There was a time when collective bitterness over those who’d gotten away with murder via insider trading, subprime markets and banking felonies and passed the shame (and foreclosures) on to you, the average consumer, infected seemingly everybody — a common enemy we could agree on for once. For a straightforward cinematic reading of the disaster that loomed over the country beginning in 2007, you can turn to the documentary Inside Job, to J.C. Chandor’s respectable suspense mood piece Margin Call or to the righteous indignation of Adam McKay’s oddly gripping The Big Short. But for the micro treatment, for the Hitchcockian survey, we turn to a film that dares to turn the faceless evil into a breathing, disturbingly vivid flesh-and-blood characterization.

Arbitrage is the debut feature of writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, brother of documentarians Andrew and Eugene and son of Henry Jarecki, a patriarch of his own financial and philanthropic empire, which gives this film about a ruthless tycoon and phony family man the ring of almost uncomfortable truth. That said, the director mostly uses his experience in this largely unknown and inaccessible world — his knowledge of “how the other half lives,” so to speak — simply as a way to inject lived-in detail into a grander, timelier story than one built from his own experience. The unmistakable reference point, still just a two year-old story at the time the film was being written, is the Bernie Madoff scandal. The connections range from the timeline of intensifying dread and inevitability to the intricate involvement of immediate family to the sheer combination of suaveness and ineptitude driving the entire crazed affair.

It’s surprising that a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese hasn’t already made some insufferable power-infatuated picture about Madoff or a coded version of same, wherein his dual obligations to his own precarious yet meticulously cultivated scamming of an entire subset of the financial circuit (Madoff was once chairman of NASDAQ!) via glorified pyramid scheme and to his traditional, adoring family would be clearly intended as self-evidently interesting, as though the mere presence of contradiction were a version of insight, betting on the automatic fascination we collectively feel with anyone who got away with something so big for so long. We would come away knowing nothing more about Madoff than that he was an enigma, and a scapegoat (which is nearly inarguable, really; his primarily wealthy victims were among the very few figures in the ’07-’08 crisis who experienced some form of justice).

Jarecki’s tactic is far more interesting. Rather than positing his own very different but inescapably comparable version of Madoff as some Tod Browning horror figure, he presents the unfettered and ugly vision of base humanity with infinite resources. That is, a classic grifter with a touch of unnatural invincibility, but also a horrified smooth-talker, a nervous wreck, and a deeply determined champion of his own self-interest whose singular moral universe leaves no room for contemplation of a world or a logic outside of his bubble. The object of every day and every sleepless night is to further the illusions that keep him afloat, with no consequence worse than the loss of comfort and prestige. What’s intriguing is how well Jarecki establishes the sad baldness of the character’s system of deceit and his obvious status as an unmovable asshole while also identifying the frail humanness of his nature: the awful thing is how Arbitrage turns big lies into an accumulation of small ones, until we can almost imagine the hideous and fearsome decisions we ourselves would make, and even come dangerously close to rooting for an uncaring, belligerent man who is our natural enemy.

Jarecki casts Richard Gere as his Madoff burlesque, an outrageously successful and hotheaded hedge fund manager given the suspiciously generic name “Robert Miller.” Gere is more than ideal casting, for reasons that go beyond just his performance, which is effectively complicated and indeed is as good as he’s ever been in a movie. Never a prolific actor and hardly one to stretch himself, Gere’s made a career of embodying a squinting, gruff yuppie stereotype in the movies (Pretty Woman, Chicago, presumably Runaway Bride and Unfaithful) and in the press — his early career was defined by the iconic Herb Ritts photo in which he’s extended halfway out of a large swimming pool dealing with someone on the telephone while a mostly nude woman leaps into the water nearby. He’s more handsome and smug-looking in his sixties than he was as a heartthrob in Days of Heaven and An Officer and a Gentleman; somehow this and his procession of affairs, marriages and hotly contested divorces makes him the perfect embodiment of this charming snake in a wonderfully Brechtian sense. If you’re going to sell this sort of a character, the only comparable actor would be Tom Cruise, and he would still seem a bit too young to be so powerful, and too much of a sociopath for us to get wrapped up in his plight. Gere’s Miller, in the end, is vastly more dimensional and multifaceted an embodiment of this sort of character than the iconic interpretations of Michael Douglas or Leonardo DiCaprio.

In a fashion that recalls the much nicer heroes of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest, Miller gets sent through the wringer via a whole series of practically insurmountable thriller scenarios; at the outset, his ridiculously perfect perfume-commercial life with a devoted wife (Susan Sarandon), a gifted daughter who serves as his chief accountant (the perpetually under-used Brit Marling, who clearly pushes Gere to a new level in their later scenes together) and a dumb son who gets paid buckets anyway (Austin Lysy, talked about more than seen) is disrupted first by a mistress (Laetitia Casta) who keeps bugging him with her tiresome “needs” and then by the hemming and hawing over the sale of his company to a fellow Wall Street asshole (Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, ingeniously cast as the type of guy who has a regular brunch table at a high-rise restaurant from which he conducts his daily wheeling and dealing), which is further complicated by the fact that a government audit is only passing muster because of a loan Miller’s secured to cover up a shortfall due to his own bad investments. Right in the middle of all this, he decides to take mistress Julie out to the country for a weekend fuck-and-run and gets her killed after falling asleep at the wheel, which then gets sloppy, lopsided tie-wearing detective Tim Roth on his trail through his unwitting getaway driver Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of a deceased employee. Miller spends the rest of the film juggling all this along with what seems to be cracked rib, a nasty limp and a bleeding forehead from the car accident, and then his daughter discovers the holes in the financial records and confronts him.

It feels a bit like an inordinately difficult text adventure game in which the programmers constantly lob new problems and threats in your direction; but somehow, the film never feels busy or overstuffed and successfully presents and resolves its many story threads in under 110 minutes. It helps that all of the complexities and conundrums we encounter travel through Miller and confirm the movie’s basic thesis about him as a long-time monster for whom the chickens have finally come home to roost; but what helps even more is that nothing about Jarecki’s script is simple, despite its impressive elegance and clarity. Miller is a despicable character — Gere’s reading of the insane line “everyone works for me” teeters perfectly on the edge of hilarious and horrifying; and there’s no better defining of the brain worms of wealth than when he tries to pay off his worried accomplice Jimmy, who wonders why he thinks money will solve this problem, and he replies “what else is there?” — but he’s also complex and extremely believable (far more so than, for instance, the modern touchstone of the anti-hero, Walter White; more like his lawyer, Jimmy McGill, albeit far less amusing and lovable), and it’s presumably here that Jarecki’s personal experience with the High Street comes into play — there’s no falling back on stereotypes here. It would be very easy to write a protagonist who was simply a ruthless trash heap of a human, and objectively this one is, but what we have here is an almost Renoir-like treatment of the Madoff villain: he has his reasons, and in all honesty they’re not entirely alien to most of us. It’s perhaps a good thing that we are not being shown this fantasy of amoral capitalism without limitations or scruples in the years when all was going swimmingly for Miller, as with Jarecki’s skill level we could probably convince ourselves to find some comfort in that fantasy — apart from the fact, of course, that we was most likely as miserable then as he seems now.

Conversely, the engagingly skeezy cop played by Roth in his usual loud disarray has his heart completely in the right place, legally and ethically, and he’s a pretty good detective too — picking up instantly on the truth of the wrecked, burned-out car and the reality of Jimmy’s oddball pay-phone connection to the hedge fund world. But he’s also a distasteful boor who tosses around racial slurs and tries to throw an innocent kid under the bus strictly to “get at” the figure he rightfully sees as the enemy of the common good. It’s a provocatively thorny situation that requires dual parts of our moral selves to go to war: do the ends justify the means if the ends could genuinely help make a better world? (This is one sense in which a Third Man-like treatise on the ravages Big Banking inflicts upon the world might well have been handy; instead we get a strong scene of high-stakes betrayal in which daughter Brooke has it out with Miller in Central Park and the void at his center is exposed. He is proven incapable of admitting weakness or humility even to the ostensible reason he committed his crimes.)

Jarecki doesn’t really make an argument in either direction, and he does ensure that Miller gets his, at least on a personal level, when his wife pulls the rug out from under him in the film’s final minutes. But what the filmmaker does with his audience here is quite fascinating, and unusual — the entire film ends up serving as a depiction of our own ideological limits and imperfections. We take a strange kind of pleasure in Miller’s antics, which have actively caused every sort of misery up to and including death, and frequently put ourselves in his seat — and even get a bit of vicarious thrill from the comfort and respect he enjoys — the way that we sometimes root for Norman Bates or, hell, Marie Antoinette; but we also, from the comfort of our seats, get a charge out of his family turning his back on him in a manner that seems emotionally well-earned and deeply righteous, even though it seems that wife Ellen is simply planning on becoming Robert Miller II in his absence. Meanwhile, we are relieved when the deeply conflicted Jimmy is forced neither to turn on his “benefactor” (who is indeed using him, a cold fact he never does want to believe) nor to go to prison, and this redemption for one of the film’s few pure characters is a relief to us, even though it’s objectively the wrong way for things to go. Given the bare truth of the entire story without coming to know the involved parties and their conflicts of interest, it’s unlikely we would ever give these individual people so much of our thought and sympathy, including Jimmy, whose resistance to turning Miller in might then seem indefensible to us. In this sense, and in the strange context of a financial thriller informed very specifically by the 2008 crash, Jarecki has managed to illuminate extremely unlikely corners of human nature with empathy, and to shine that light from every conceivable direction. The result fully justifies the weighty ambiguity of the film’s conclusion.

This is being written on a week when the New York Times has reported extensively on Donald Trump’s tax returns from the period in which he was most famous as a yuppie master of “the Deal” and for all the extravagant weddings and magazine shoots that came as ancillary benefits. Like Miller in the film, his reputation preceded him but didn’t protect him from the brink of ruin; Trump was writing nonsense about wanting you to be rich while he could barely maintain his own flimsy house of cards. The distance from regular life wrought by his obscene wealth and, later, the illusion of extreme wealth was a ridiculous mind-over-matter concoction that would leave any sane person living in constant fear. Unfortunately the real-life villains are far less complex, interesting and human than the ones we get in the movies; and we also are not given the pleasures of watching them receive comeuppance or of enjoying our own collective redemption. This may be why, for Arbitrage, Jarecki chose as his subject not an arbiter of the default swap market or the housing bubble or the bank executives that let it all happen and got away unscathed but a sort of elevated Mr. Moneybags who primarily runs afoul of government investigations, angry lenders, disappointed family members and bad investments. There’s some of us in this guy even if it’s just because we didn’t do our homework a few times in middle school. But the real enemy is much more threatening, much more unstoppable, and far far duller — a gaping maw of black misery with no moral compass and no sense of purpose beyond the primordial urge to cultivate and hold power and invincibility at any cost. Trump isn’t afraid just like Alan Greenspan and Richard Fuld and their ilk weren’t, because he knows he’s got us hooked. Thank god for the fucking movies, right?

Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)


In many cases, David Lynch’s particular brand of surrealism leaves me at sea, not because I mind being confused but because the kinds of images that seem to haunt and intrigue him don’t play for me as especially engaging. Blue Velvet is a good movie, but the relationship it draws between pure camp and poetic disorientation averages out, for me, to mildly endearing silliness. The two Lynch films that completely work for me (on top of portions of his TV series Twin Peaks) are The Straight Story, in which he completely shirks his usual fixations and the roots of his career for the sake of a sweet-natured studio project, and Mulholland Dr., which leans in harder than ever on his unique fascinations but forms them into something playful, charming and even quite funny, and above all something whose sole purpose isn’t simply to confound. Even if its open-ended storytelling may still dissatisfy many viewers, the journey itself in this case is savory. Whereas the idyllic setting of Blue Velvet is too phony to be anything but off-kilter and vaguely distressing, the sequestered Hollywood of Mulholland Dr. tosses into a world that has enough allure, mystery, and yes, the usual sleaze to feel like a complete world, rather than an ironic one constructed from tropes; and moreover, the film’s dream logic doesn’t suffer from the arbitrariness of some of Lynch’s more pedestrian work. Everything in the film seems to have a purpose, whether it’s easily or quickly evident to the mere outsiders in the audience or not.

That absence of self-satisfied irony shouldn’t suggest that Lynch is selling us something we could find more unconditionally elsewhere: its oblique and over-the-top evocations of Eyes Wide Shut, Nancy Drew novels and Cinemax porn are presented quite clearly with tongue in cheek, but in this case there is a narrative utility to the stilted performances and the endless, empty sheen of beautiful artificiality; and even before you realize that, Lynch is so clearly in on the joke and in tow with the viewer here that the offbeat humor and pure weirdness of it all can be enjoyed on its own terms before things fall into place (likely after a second viewing). At any rate, the crucial difference between this and Blue Velvet in particular is that it sends up a world Lynch knows and occupies it with broad, off-putting characterizations without actually violating or criticizing either the agency of those characters or our investment in them. On the one hand it’s almost a Lynch parody of a Lynch movie; but on the other it comes from a core of what feels like real love and pain, and not the deliberately simplistic cartoons of innocence and depravity in many of the director’s works.

Shot with no budget with a TV crew (like Psycho!) for ABC before they rejected it as a pilot and Lynch expanded it to feature status, Mulholland Dr. is a very SoCal movie, set quite pointedly in an O.J. Simpson-era L.A. wherein Hollywood dreams of the glamorous past are contrasted with the mundane trivialities of coffee at a hole-in-the-wall diner called Winkie’s, strong-arm talent agencies with apparent mob ties, egotistical hotshot directors with unfaithful wifes, auditions with sexist, grabby screen veterans, and barely competent hitmen who call their victims “bro.” The source of this near-delirious caricature, in the narrative, may or may not be a wide-eyed actress named Betty (or perhaps Diane) portrayed with absolute perfection by Naomi Watts (ironically, this turned out to be a star-making effort for her), who we meet and engage with in a fit of new-to-town naivete that, in the last thirty minutes of the film, is revealed to be either a facade, a glimpse at a now-distant hazy past or — according to most interpretations — a fantasy of what might have been.

That fantasy, if we accept for the moment that it is one, amounts to a uniquely Lynchian approach to a neo-noir in which the eager Betty gets a chance to solve herself a mystery after she walks into what she thinks is an empty house to discover a nude woman in her shower (Laura Harring), extemporaneously adopting the name Gilda from a film poster, who’s suffered a concussion after a bad car accident and doesn’t remember who she is. For Betty, this amnesiac Raymond Chandler nightmare is the perfect introduction to the deceptively glossy streets of the city as the two of them come to function as an almost too-perfect team, the wizened out-of-towner easing into her element quickly with the added motivation of a damsel in distress who must be rescued. As they gather clues and investigate, the two appear to fall in love and engage in a tentative, tender love scene that marks some sort of turning point when the seemingly rational story we’re watching becomes dislocated. Up to this point in the picture, not everything in this gaudy, bright rendition of the city is banal — there’s also a key and a box and a monster behind Winkie’s, and a gorgeous Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” — but a lot of it is. It all just seems so simple, Watts so endlessly enthused and Herring disturbed and helpless beyond belief; to borrow the cliché, everyone just seems so fake.

As it turns out, that’s because they probably are. Fake, but also beautiful. Via quick shots of tearful masturbation and suicide, it’s suggested that the entire first two acts of the film have been a momentary fantasy of sexual control and abandon, a distorted memory of the early moments in a union that’s gone sour, or even just a dream that borrows elements and logic from disparate portions of an awful night leaving Watts’ heroine — once Betty, really Diane — on the verge of insanity. In the fantasy, she molds herself into a desirable go-getter who’s infinitely gifted and seems younger than she is, and her lover has forgotten the events that took her away, or they never happened. This explains why it is, perhaps, that when Betty and Gilda have sex, they seem simultaneously like shy kids and like mutually comfortable lovers who’ve known one another’s quirks for years. But the longing persists and the conclusion to the fantasy seems to get further and further away.

Back in reality, interrupted before her orgasm, Diane watches as the surly filmmaker Adam Kesher whose parallel story of a compromised project and destroyed marriage we’ve been following (maybe because our unreliable, wordless narrator wished to see him humiliated?) makes out with her friend and lover, and indulges in unrelenting PDA with her at an upscale event. There are signs everywhere of a breakup, or of the endings of an illicit affair, that have left Diane, her Hollywood dream not remotely what she expected (is it ever?), a depressed and desperate shambles. In this closing half-hour, the performance styles of all of the actors change completely: Watts is now embittered and naturalistic, Harring the very portrait of uncomprising ambition and all the aloof enigma of an unrequited crush or a still-beloved ex. But there is still little time for us to determine what is real and what isn’t, and logic and reality seem to slip out of our grasp — but we certainly are given enough to understand that the world in which we finally leave Diane is not the happy and hopeful one that we saw Betty enter two hours earlier.

Anyone’s stab at interpreting all this, placing it in perfect order, is going to be different from anyone else’s — and of course the film resists explaining away all of its tangents, some of which may owe their existence to its confused genesis as first a TV pilot and then a motion picture — but the general drift of the story, its swaying moods, its persuasive air of lovelorn melancholy, unforced eroticism and its intoxicating contrast of “the dream place,” the kinds of imagination we routinely employ (again: dreams, fantasies, memories), with cold mundane reality all present an unexpectedly coherent portrait of a life and a city that feels complete and deeply felt.

Mulholland Dr. opened to great acclaim and it has steadily gained recognition from many as one of the greatest films of this young century, setting it far above most of the other, now long-forgotten critical darlings of 2001. (Incredibly, it did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.) Part of the reason for this is that it appeals to a cross section of scholarly critics and cinephiles, to whom the story’s emotionally mature ambiguity and fixation on The Business naturally appeal, and “film bros,” who like it because they can view it as a Christopher Nolan-like “puzzle” and because there’s a lesbian sex scene in it. It says a lot about Lynch as a director and persona that he’s perfectly likely to embrace both varieties of reception — he’s quite encouraging to the puzzle geeks, including a list of “clues” in the form of study questions with early DVD releases — but for many individual viewers, paring things down to the specifics of the symbols and cryptic clues and suchlike is a tiresome exercise, and while Betty and Gilda’s sex scene is certainly one of the more memorably gentle in a Hollywood film, its impact comes explicitly because the common quest, the odd personalities and the excited mutual kindness of their relationship has been so well established. To my mind, both schools overstate the importance of the film’s plot — its perfectly colored progression of moods is far more interesting and singular even among Lynch’s works — and underrate its rich, surprisingly acerbic humor; comedy in Lynch’s films was never before quite so explicit, used here to comment on the very absurdity that resists such deconstruction in his previous pictures: “Jason thought it would be a good idea for me to see the cowboy.” (I could name other examples: Jeanne Bates slapping her husband’s knee and the two later chasing a far-gone Diane around her apartment, or the long buildup in the Winkie’s scene, or the sudden presence of Bride of Frankenstein-style “mini-humans.”)

Perhaps this is because the world of Mulholland Dr. is so robust and well-established it can withstand that sort of self-mockery, which is a good illustration of the fine line Lynch walks here. At bottom, this is a soulful film about grief; but it’s also a wild and wacky story in which someone faints from lip-syncing and a hitman shoots a vacuum cleaner to turn it off. Neither element cancels out the other; in other words, our knowledge of how this cornucopia of images, music and sounds revolves around the bitter blow of unrequited love does not stop it from being one of the most fun, witty movies about Hollywood itself imaginable.

The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne)


[Note: Just a bit of housecleaning; this is a review I posted at my old blog in 2011 just before I launched this one and I’m simply transferring it over here.]

The Descendants is Alexander Payne’s followup to Sideways — a film I personally disliked quite a bit — and really a relatively safe, quiet movie in story terms. The general notion of a man discovering that his unconscious wife, in this case comatose after a boating accident, was carrying on an affair reaches back not only to Almodovar’s Talk to Her, one of the past decade’s cinematic benchmarks, but also Payne’s own masterful About Schmidt. But it approaches the crucial story points wrought by such a scenario with such wit, and such palpable emotion, that it brings to mind James L. Brooks at his best, and even — during certain sublime sequences that appear periodically — Billy Wilder. Payne is certainly revealing his auteurist impulses here, given how much the general tone and preoccupations evoke his two previous films, but aside from a somewhat haphazardly tossed-in subplot about land ownership, this is immensely rewarding entertainment with subtlety, acid, and the kind of wonderful moments that can make you exclaim aloud in a crowded movie theater.

But Payne also owes much of his success this time around to his actors. George Clooney, never a performer I’ve had much affection for, has been outdoing himself in recent years with ballsy and ambiguous roles as seen in Up in the Air and even Fantastic Mr. Fox, his contribution to which is frankly the finest and most nuanced voice performance I can think of in American animation. Here, Clooney goes even farther with the breakdown of his own star-power assurances, constantly submitting himself to connive viciously — and to be humiliated. He’s a father attempting to carry on with the half-assed parenting that’s gotten him off the hook for over a decade after becoming the only available authority figure to his two daughters, one an alcoholic teenager (Shailene Woodley) and the other a precocious but troubled middle schooler (Amara Miller) who’s into photography. Clooney mastered stabbing pathos in Up in the Air; he’s a much nastier, grouchier creature this time… yet still oddly sympathetic. When he’s accused of being an absentee father by family, friends, his own children even, we feel defensive of him. When he blasts out with hurtful barbs against others, Payne never fails to clue us in on his illogical but emotionally fired-up reasons, a skill he seems to have honed since the disastrous Thomas Haden Church character in Sideways. The result is that we’re always going to bat for Clooney, even when we probably shouldn’t, and that’s what they call movie magic.

My loss of a parent this year might be one reason I found the story and the characters more believable than in most movies of this stripe. My relationship with my dad was extremely rocky and ambiguous, so for me Shailene Woodley’s portrayal of the older daughter Alex, lashing out in every manner against her distance from both her parents, was unexpectedly touching. Even if the film might put too fine a point on matters of family and estrangement and the wars within blood borders, the actual depicted reality of this father-daughter relationship rings painfully true, and the small triumphs that feed it along don’t seem forced. Payne cops occasionally to the go-to tricks that have made most competent character-based American comedies since Little Miss Sunshine seem a little too much like, well, Little Miss Sunshine: for instance the oafish boyfriend Sid (amusingly portrayed by Nick Krause) who of course is Actually a Complicated Guy; the strange and sometimes over-the-top peripheral characters, in particular the extended family of Clooney’s Matt, a group of money-hungry stereotypes. But Payne’s equally able to inject crushing reality into his scenes, as when we meet wife Elizabeth’s dementia-addled mother and her father (Robert Forster) who despises Matt, a sort of reverse-echo of Schmidt.

You could spend all day outlining the ways that this movie recalls About Schmidt, but the crucial difference is that The Descendants allows the audience much catharsis that was painstakingly denied in the earlier project. Matt discovers his wife’s affair via older daughter Alex; the two spend the remainder of the film attempting to track her lover down and embarrass him (a scummy real estate agent played brilliantly by Matthew Lillard). And rather than keep a safe Hollywood distance, well, that’s exactly what happens. Not only that — the man’s wife (Judy Greer) discovers the truth and appears in Elizabeth’s hospital room and, well, it’s all wonderfully uncomfortable and nothing goes quite as you’d expect, one of many individual scenes that spirals off into uncharted territory. When all of this is played against the tragedy of a mother and wife braindead with the plug about to be pulled, there’s more than a little jagged Solondz-ness to the laughter and the cringing, which is a high compliment. In some ways the entire movie is a rebuttal of sorts to Schmidt the character’s constant containment, revenge for the ways he allows himself to be walked upon.

My favorite thing about Payne’s work, even in the films I haven’t really liked, is his eye for odd details that aren’t really artificial quirks: much of the theater audience seemed to get less of a kick out of Clooney clumsily jumping into flip flops and racing around the neighborhood than I did; there’s something tragically amusing as well about his behavior, his visible inability to know how and what to feel, in the scene of he and his daughters spreading Elizabeth’s ashes, a compensation in a way for the slightly overwrought goodbye scene beforehand. There are similar lived-in, unpolished details throughout the picture; Woodley in particular seems to thoroughly occupy her character, so much that the perverse settings of her various back-and-forths with her dad feel palpably real in a sense that all of the more conventional business with “Sid” does not. I also love, as in Sideways, the use of television as a strange comedic backdrop / counterpoint, which reminds me a bit of stuff like Mr. Rogers and Basketball Jones showing up in Being There.

Payne doesn’t typically oversell the idea of any of his characters changing, so the screenwriterly device of the botched land sale seems to flow against his better judgment. That’s no matter — he has the perfect goodbye for these characters, illustrating tenderly but at arm’s length the fragments of a family forming in something of a triangle, one that may not fit together for long but does for this moment. Payne doesn’t put his broken people back together again. He just sets them along the right path, and hopefully us as well.

Capsule digest #3

This addition to the Guide takes us through everything I reviewed from December 5th, 2018 to February 23, 2019. During this time I put the first pass at the 1940s canon to bed, continued with the Best Picture nominees, got a 2010s retrospective underway and initiated a runthrough of the top 100 films at They Shoot Pictures, which as of this weekend has become “fast-tracked” and will be, along with movies from the current decade, my exclusive preoccupation for the next month or two. I will get to the ’50s as soon as I can, though.

I’m writing this on the very early morning of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony; chances are I will end up needing to catch a few films to keep all of my prior projects up to date. I already saw two of the three major nominees that actually excited me and reviewed them below (Roma and The Favourite); I also wanted to see BlackKklansman but haven’t made it happen yet. I harbor no ill will toward A Star Is Born but didn’t feel like making an appointment for it, especially without ever having seen George Cukor’s version, and was looking forward to Vice until reviews and trailers rolled in and now can take or leave it. Meanwhile, as you’d probably imagine, I have no interest whatsoever in Black Panther, Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody so unless they win something — and at least one of them almost certainly will — they’ll be near the bottom of my to-watch pile for the BP project. But anything that wins in any of the eight major categories I will make sure to add to the database forthwith.

Other films seen: New full reviews this time out for The Lady from Shanghai (additional Letterboxd commentary) and Breathless (ibid), both seen over a decade ago, my impressions from that time newly revised. 2010s rewatches pressed onward, chronicled at Letterboxd rather than here: a special Christmas screening of Carol, then: House of Pleasures, Monsters University, While We’re Young, The Post, The Spectacular Now, The Edge of Seventeen and Shaun the Sheep Movie. I was right about all of them the first time. Actually I think I underrated both While We’re Young and Shaun the Sheep on previous goround.

Non-feature or non-cinema screened: Maya Deren’s masterpiece Meshes of the Afternoon plus some shorts by Tex Avery and John Huston for the 1940s project; read about them in my long essay wrapping up that initiative. In other news, the end of support for streaming video on the Wii meant that I have finally upgraded to an HDTV and a Blu-ray player, and as I already knew, my eyes have a lot of trouble telling much difference unless I stand right next to the set, which is not in the cards. Having said that, I am enjoying the larger screen and I do like the visible grain on some older titles as well as the sharpness on newer ones, but the kind of films I really like watching aren’t reading to me as gaining a whole lot from the extra lines of resolution, with most of my DVDs still looking terrific to me when upscaled. (I can project a DVD onto our old classroom screen at monstrous size without seeing much detriment.) The point is I’m never going to be a videophile, just like I’m never going to be an audiophile. I am, however, repurchasing a few things just to save shelf space: all of the Universal Hitchcock DVDs (some of which weren’t even anamorphic), for instance, can be superseded now while taking up a fraction of the room, and while the upgrade may be only slightly apparent to me, the additional room to get more movies is a huge selling point. Note that Samsung has just this week announced that they’re getting out of the Blu market; I have to laugh as I have a clear knack for this. I usually get into the cool band approximately two weeks before everyone else is over them. You’d have to be pretty thick-skinned not to take it personally sometimes…

The other huge advantage of my new setup is that I’m now all-region capable again, besides just on my laptop (which of course is DVD only). In the long run this will be a huge benefit to me; a great number of films will actually be available for me to study without resorting to low-quality streams or dubious gray-market releases. I suspect this will become more and more important as we press through the decades on the canon projects.

*** (click the links for longer Letterboxd versions of the capsules, if you so wish)

Red River (1948, Howard Hawks) [hr]
Messy, busy, and one of the most lyrical westerns of all: the story of a cattle drive, a power struggle, and of people and their many riveting misdirections and screwups, all riveting. John Wayne’s performance is as profound and sublime as his work in The Searchers — a stubborn, corruptible cad, but there are moments when the depth of his pain registers and somehow your heart moves, probably cause you’re soft just like Matthew Garth (this may also be Montgomery Clift’s best performance). You need’t break classic Hollywood down via postmodernism to subvert its iconography; in the hands of someone like Hawks, it’s already there with you.

Force of Evil (1948, Abraham Polonsky) [r]
Initially intriguing characterizations and convincing sleaze in this noir from MGM, which lacks mystery even in its best moments, give way to rote organized-crime programmer nonsense. John Garfield stars as a corrupt lawyer lending phony legitimacy to a numbers racket and participating in a scam that’s bound to put his paranoid, unhealthy brother (Thomas Gomez, quite good) out of business. It’s bleak and violent all right, but its protagonist — in the script as well as in Garfield’s performance — lacks depth or discernible motivation. The romantic subplot feels even more tacked-on than usual for noir.

White Heat (1949, Raoul Walsh) [hr]
The greatest virtue in James Cagney’s comeback to the gangster picture fold is its lack of predictability; Cody Jarrett is approximately the nastiest protagonist one can imagine, to the degree that he isn’t exactly fun to watch so much as addictive in a lurid, train-wreck sense. This outstanding performance is well supported by a revolving-door cast that changes considerably from the first act to the second, at which point the film shifts from a series of heists and chases to a less conventional, more suspenseful prison feature. It’s a horrific tale rife with betrayals, killings and soulless nightmares, but its intensity feels very much real.

I Was a Male War Bride (1949, Howard Hawks) [r]
Coasting amicably on the charm of its two stars, Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan, this Fox comedy is disjointed and doesn’t feel that much like a Hawks picture apart from a couple of bawdy punchlines. Its first half (two bickering comrades stuck with each other) barely seems to relate to its second and slightly more inspired (a man who’s married a female soldier gets stuck in red tape), so the characterizations suffer, though Grant’s has little discernible personality from the first, discarding his absurd existence as a supposed Frenchman. Sheridan, however, is a delight, and a rare 1940s portrait of an independent woman dedicated above all else to her work.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Max Ophüls) [hr]
Without giving in to any more than a suggestion of the raw sexuality that drives it, this doomed romance puts the viewer’s heart completely in sync with that of Joan Fontaine’s Lisa, who’s longed since adolescence for the promiscuous musician next door, a star-crossed passion that alters the course of her life. Surging with pain and desire, Ophüls’ camera captures the simultaneous haze and detail of extreme lust as it lives in memory. Fontaine is exquisite as always, Louis Jourdan not quite as credible but physically believable as the source of this kind of longing; and Ophüls makes a laughingstock of the Code by taking its patriarchal rules over the top.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944, Preston Sturges)
(Revisit; no change.) The movie that defied the Code by talking its way around it, about a woman who has an anonymous encounter with a soldier and is left knocked up. Like all of Sturges’ films, it possesses sharp, erudite dialogue with irresistibly eccentric rhythms; and like most of them, it has a persuasive and almost manic joy driving it. But the slapstick (which he never had any gift for) and shrillness that sometimes derail his other Paramount movies momentarily is much harder to overcome here, in part because he has centered two actors (Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken) to whom his only direction was apparently “be as annoying as possible.”

Ossessione (1943, Luchino Visconti) [r]
Cited as the first Italian neorealist film, Visconti’s gritty yet gorgeous debut feature uses James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice — with its brooding tale of a drifter taking a temporary job at a diner and falling for the cook and waitress who’s desperate to get rid of her husband — to organize its depiction of squalor and dread into a compelling narrative, even if said narrative is less important to Visconti than its impact on the characters. The subject matter is a bit too stylized and heightened to justify treating it with this kind of ruthless, lived-in detail, but it’s still a radical, inspired choice.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl) [r]
Film noir in color, pushing along the unfathomably soapy tale of Gene Tierney as a manipulative woman whose frustration at her inept new husband’s inability and unwillingness to secure alone time with her sends her into sociopathic murderess mode, explained away by the script as “loving too much.” At its best this is lurid and shocking, but it never escapes a certain camp trashiness that keeps genuine menace from taking hold.

The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophüls) [hr]
James Mason plays a terrifying blackmailer who unexpectedly softens in this unusual noir, with Joan Bennett’s shaky but tough matriarch going to the moon and back to protect her impressionable art-student daughter who fell into a toxic relationship with an older sleazebag, newly deceased. Now the whole family is trapped in a world of racketeering, bloodshed and the usual intimidating Mr. Big behind the scenes. This is a tremendously entertaining thriller, gaining a lot from its positioning of an outsider from the criminal underworld as its protagonist, and playing on the classical upper-middle class fear of nefarious influence infiltrating the nuclear family.

Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch) [r]
Naive, all-American Kyle MacLachlan courts a policeman’s daughter (Laura Dern) while wrapping himself up in a bunch of local intrigue involving nightclub singers and sadistic mobsters in his hometown. Alternately bleak and colorful photography that absorbs plus a real sense of danger and lots of fun, weird ideas and moments fail to mask the fact that this is a series of Lynch’s fantasies and demons projected onscreen with nothing stringing them together except an exceptionally hackneyed parody of film noir and some relatively benign psychosexual-awakening stuff. The serious-minded cast is saintly and game in their submission to their director’s whims.

Imitation of Life (1934, John M. Stahl)
Universal offers up a confused mess of tiresome social-problem narrative and fantasy wish fulfillment for Depression-era audiences in this chronicle of a female entrepreneur named Bea (Claudette Colbert) who teams up with her live-in maid Delilah (Louise Beavers) to sell millions of boxes of pancake mix; their lives change, Bea meets a man but her daughter falls for him, and Delilah’s daughter doesn’t want to be black. As dated as this obviously is, it’s an interesting enough snapshot of the period, though because it’s never sure which of its many threads it wants to concentrate on, all of them end up feeling dreadfully underdeveloped.

Faces Places (2017, Agnès Varda & JR) [hr]
In under ninety minutes, this lovely, inexhaustibly charming documentary about beloved Nouvelle Vague director Agnès Varda and photographic artist JR riding across France to meet people, learn about their lives and paste large photos of them on buildings and other artifacts manages to encompass so much: a portrait of unlikely friendship, a treatise on aging and loss, a persuasive valentine to the miracles of everyday humanity, a hit piece on Jean-Luc Godard, a direct rebuke to any notion that working classes are blind to or ignorant of the pleasures of art, and more than anything, a sense of nearly boundless fun and curiosity.

Taxi (2015, Jafar Panahi) [hr]
Still technically forbidden from making films in Iran, Panahi stars as himself, posing as a cab driver using mounted dashcams spun around to capture conversations with various nonprofessional actors he seems to have planted around Tehran, setting up an escalating series of absurd situations — which feel spontaneous, ridiculous and funny even when they’d be downright terrifying in almost any other context — until he picks up his cantankerous niece and she engagingly lectures us all on Iranian film censorship. Like This Is Not a Film but considerably funnier and more cunning, this is another minimalist but spirited tribute to the creative impulse.

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog) [r]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) For Herzog, the tale of insane-to-the-core explorer Lope de Aguirre (the off-putting Klaus Kinski), who split off in South America on a crazed search for mythical El Dorado, must have seemed a godsend; its built-in symbolism is staggeringly rich. There are shades of expressionism, much of which would color Francis Coppola’s and arguably Terrence Malick’s work later, and a lightly surreal, exposed visual style that is undeniably hypnotic (courtesy of cameraman Thomas Mauch), but it all feels a bit flat and cheap, like a competent documentary following a group of reenactors, and neither the screenplay nor Herzog’s self-satisfied distance are helpful.

The Gay Divorcee (1934, Mark Sandrich) [hr]
The Astaire-Rogers love story here is weakly conceived despite their chemistry and inspired dancing; and though the frivolous segments involving Edward Everett Horton (possibly his greatest performance) and Erik Rhodes are more fun, the story contrivances throughout this odyssey of crushes, mistaken identities and geologists are all too obvious. But every one of the musical numbers is brilliantly performed and hypnotically stylish, even the Fred and Ginger-less “Let’s Knock Knees.” Splendid entertainment, obviously.

The Favourite (2018, Yorgos Lanthimos) [hr]
Delectably vulgar and perverse historical comedy-drama that revels in its own adolescence, as Emma Stone’s once wealthy, now traumatized Abigail Hill connives her way into the secret lives of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her adviser-paramour Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Three outstanding, dynamic performances, Lanthimos’ sheer glee at the graphic indulgence of it all, and the total shunning of slavish accuracy in favor of decadence, fun and ribald satire of the ruling classes make this a richly amusing night out, but it’s also cinematically audacious and robust with complex, well-drawn characterizations.

You Were Never Really Here (2017, Lynne Ramsay) [NO]
Lurid, pretentious, stupid sub-Cinemax trash heap. Poster has a pull quote comparing it to Taxi Driver, but honestly? It might be even worse.

The Big Chill (1983, Lawrence Kasdan)
A group of mostly well-off college friends, children of the “idealistic ’60s,” reconvene for a funeral after one of their own commits suicide; everyone gets laid except Jeff Goldblum. Baby Boomer indulgence that now seems very quaint (and toothless, compared with The Ice Storm), and another excuse for them to remind us that they are the gatekeepers of Great Music. Kasdan does see irony here — the gang gathered around eating salad and doing coke while the body is still warm, etc. — but is too married to the film’s value as a fusion of nostalgia and malaise, both expressed as vaguely as possible, for it to seem real or particularly well-observed.

Roma (2018, Alfonso Cuarón) [hr]
The beach is now as ubiquitous in Cuarón’s films as rain is in Kurosawa’s. The story in this beautifully respectful exploration of his own childhood, like Gravity, is so elemental it could be described in a sentence fragment, yet so very individual and telling thanks to the performances and Cuarón’s breathtakingly inspired presentation of it, which uses technology as a vehicle to the enlivening of memory. The images are harrowing in their simple forcefulness: the car storming into its narrow garage space, the theater filled with people looking away from the real story, the human body as vehicle of lust and instrument of destruction.

Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland) [r]
Kind of a fusion of Aliens or The Thing with Stalker, with a crew of scientists investigating a destructive force called the Shimmer that has occupied a section of land after several military teams entered the realm and never returned. A splendid ensemble cast led by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh and some brilliantly freaked-out production design help this effectively creepy, dread-laden horror/sci-fi piece distinguish itself above the norm for both genres, though it fails to conquer mediocre special effects and some tedium and mindless chaos in the story, taken from a popular novel by Jeff VanderMeer.

La Strada (1954, Federico Fellini) [r]
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) A washed-up strongman parades the country with a dated bag of tricks, toting along a long-suffering young woman he abuses relentlessly. This has a certain simple, expressive sadness, but it leans too much on maudlin sentiment; all three of the central characters are empty ciphers only serving the barest, most obvious purpose. Even Giulietta Masina’s performance as the drumming clown Gelsomina, singular and charming in its fashion, turns on a dime from innocence to trauma to resentment, and never organically. And no matter how reverently Fellini shoots all this, it’s still built upon a pandering, one-dimensional screenplay, schematic rather than primal.

Julius Caesar (1953, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) [r]
Mankiewicz’s Shakespeare ateempt takes cues from Laurence Olivier’s starkly photographed Hamlet, amping up its feeling of artificiality and rarely tipping its hand as a high-budget production. John Gielgud and James Mason are terrific as Cassius as Brutus, enhancing and enlivening the text; Marlon Brando’s Antony may be his least characteristic early performance, so it’s one of his best. The weak point is Louis Calhern’s dull Caesar. Narratively, the violent assassination itself rivets and so does much of what’s before and around it, but Mankiewicz never conquers the feeling of contrivance that takes over even most of the better Shakespeare films.

Eighth Grade (2018, Bo Burnham) [r]
Exactly what the title promises with all mortifying cringes thus implied, and despite the explosion of Insta and Snapchat it looks to me like not much has really changed over the last couple of decades. The film’s a little schematic in some ways, but its depiction of anxiety is touching, and the performances — particularly Elsie Fisher’s phenomenally believable, almost artless rendering of the central character — are sublime.

Leave No Trace (2018, Debra Granik) [r]
Sensitive, vividly natural drama, awash in the colors and textures of the Pacific Northwest, describes a traditional evolution and increasing distance in a parent-child, but under singular and traumatic circumstances: Tom is a 13 year-old girl who hides out illegally on public parkland where her damaged Iraq vet father keeps them sequestered. When they’re spotted by park officials and forced to assimilate, a wedge is driven between them. The larger point being made about letting go of those who were once supposed to take care of us, whether they did or not, would resonate more without the excessive sentimentality in the final act.

Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks) [hr]
Hawks’ westerns are more immediately engrossing than John Ford’s, but linger less for me in the long run as anything except cracking good times; but that’s more than enough to make this totally delightful. Despite its relaxed pacing, this drama of a town besieged by a gang of violent hooligans and the sheriff who takes them on is gripping from its earliest frames and uses its tremendous cast well, with Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson turning in surprisingly grand performances backing up John Wayne, who is as John Wayne as ever. The overt brassiness fully sells Hawks’ vision of the western as populist entertainment even at its most cinematic.

The Godfather Part III (1990, Francis Ford Coppola)
Goodness, these movies are so silly — just wild, over the top nonsense, often unintentionally humorous (especially the finale). It’s pretty much Days of Our Lives for bros; that said, across three hours, this is never boring for even a second. Clearly made purely for commercial reasons, it still demonstrates Coppola as a fine crafstman even when he doesn’t really care about the material. His daughter Sofia, a last-minute substitute for Winona Ryder and/or the murdered Rebecca Schaeffer, needed more takes; like her mere presence, that’s on her dad. Years after she redeemed herself, I still felt terrible for her watching this.

Incredibles 2 (2018, Brad Bird) [r]
The first film was so fresh and exciting and it’s fun to see its characters again, but a decade into full superhero saturation, this is practically a clone — dreadfully predictable, almost beat for beat — rather than a sequel; the clever idea of setting it immediately after The Incredibles ends up cutting it at the knees in terms of deep character development, and the sense of danger (and infinite graphic possibility) is lacking. Bird remains one of the best living architects of a great setpiece, but he’s better off here when he sticks to comedy and avoids his tendency toward positioning characters as his philosophical mouthpieces.

Paterson (2016, Jim Jarmusch)
A week in the life of a bus-driving poet (Adam “Bus” Driver) who absorbs the compelling lives around him by osmosis. The generosity of spirit here is admirable but much of the acting is stilted, and the situations volley rudely between total mundane believability and screenwriterly convenience. The basic contentment with day-to-day life — and the fusion of working class existence with artistry — Jarmusch celebrates should be more visible in cinema, but despite lovely moments and a lot of visual lyricism, your appreciation will depend on your attachment to the eccentric work being promoted and your tolerance for Driver’s sullen pleasantness.

Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker)
Marker’s hodgepodge of travelogue footage and experimental editing techniques is usually listed as a documentary but is more of an essay film, centered on letters from a fictitious cameraman read by an unseeen female narrator. There are some strong moments — visual and verbal — but the unfocused, intricate theories and thoughts being delivered feel too much like a particularly impassioned college lecture, or like a very protracted conversation with an intellectual barfly.

Viridiana (1961, Luis Buñuel) [r]
Teasing jumble of satire and melodrama opens with a nun-to-be (Silvia Pinal) who’s ordered to visit the isolated farm of her benefactor, an uncle she’s barely met. It so happens that she uncannily resembles the man’s long-dead wife, and after a few days in his presence, the perversions begin to come out, later joined by a whole mob of grotesquerie after circumstances force her to stay. Buñuel’s audacity in this attack on social conventions and the Church may be justified, but in this particular case his scab-picking efforts come across as cruel, though there are some sublime, transcendent sequences, especially the astonishing beggars’ banquet at the climax.


Of the remaining TSPDT titles I’ll be going through in the next few weeks, I can only really guarantee one of them will be getting a full review, but I hope for more. There are three that I previously wrote about at length at my old blog, but all were pans of which I’m now skeptical; we’ll soon see. Certainly this project more than any other has thus far laid out my lack of affinity with a lot of arthouse-canon logic, for better or worse. See you soon.

Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)


Let’s pretend this is just your average crime picture for just a moment. Shot rather bluntly in the streets of Paris, Breathless concerns a few days in the life of a young hotshot con artist — the kind of guy who brags to lady friends about having a lot of “enemies” in town — who grabs a car, kills a cop with the gun he’s kept in the glove box and loves to wave around randomly like a badass, and hides in the city with an American girlfriend currently in a different kind of state of inner turmoil. As the cops and newsmedia close in on him, she begins to doubt her commitment to the world she inevitably will enter by protecting him. It’s an old tale; there are many such stories. But as you well know even if just by reputation, this is not an average crime picture. This is Nouvelle Vague, not as a critical category or a ’60s scenester gimmick, but as an explosive (threatening?) organism that changes the rules with every passing minute. It’s a young picture even today, the photography oozing with amateurish pleasure, every cinematic tool becoming applied freshly, every cinematic error becoming a statement. Most notoriously and thrillingly, it uses incessant jump-cuts for laughs, for scares, and even for self-mockery.

To take Breathless at anything but face value feels like a betrayal to its cause as a visceral, completely unrestrained Moment in Time, a movie as urgent and wild as life itself, but a movie that still revels in its status as very much a movie and nothing more, nothing less. It talks directly to you, straightforwardly, while centering you squarely in your well-established seat as an audience member; but it also digs at your emotions: makes you feel permanently young, naive, positioned just on the outside of a world too vast for you to ever know. Of course it functions as a critique of other films and really of itself. But close readings reveal secrets the film itself is reticent to let go of, reveal that its guerrilla cinematography and rapid-fire race along city streets match the impossible pace of a beating heart. Somehow or other, this establishment of a new language, this celebration of style itself, turns out to be moving, even wrenching, in its standoffish, understated fashion.

On one level, of course, this is bullshit that would rightly be ridiculed by legendary auteur and provocateur Jean-Luc Godard himself. On that level, the story of Breathless is immediately clear: it’s about a pair of cinema-addicted French blokes — Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut — who got together in 1959, took a break from writing heady reviews for Cahiers, and decided to make the coolest goddamn movie they could imagine. It just so happens that Truffaut and Godard were so fucking hip that Breathless is still the coolest goddamn movie I can imagine; it is mostly (but not entirely) a thriller, and it’s amply rewarding in every sense, with deliciously complete moments of comedy, pathos, sex, and terror. It’s almost everything a movie’s supposed to be, and to “almost” get there while in the act of such relentless innovation is rare enough to be exceptional. The wonder, on closer examination, is that the film freely questions its own detached status — introducing its lead character as a youthful crank who kills someone for no reason on a short break from talking to himself about traffic, the weather and his own greatness in his car — and therefore the detached status of other violent films. The camera and editing make a skeptical joke of their own objects of worship.

For this movie, “face value” is entertaining enough to be a rich film anyway; picture it as a video game, in which you control the anti-hero as he constantly acts like he knows what he’s doing and is totally relaxed about it, weaves irresponsibly through traffic, steals and sells cars, repeatedly enters the same three buildings to try and track down a guy who owes him money, wanders into a girl’s apartment to make about sixteen phone calls, and tries with all his might not to get pulled back down to earth by anything. Essentially, he succeeds, but he pulls the rest of us down along the way. It’s a work of hard-boiled fiction, really, that which inspired the film noir that in turn led Godard to create this film as a valentine to American cinematic storytelling: it revels in vicarious living through the eyes of an amoral criminal, but far more organically than most pulp, manages to show the emptiness at the core of this purported freedom.

The character created so indelibly by Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel, relies in part on the same angry-young-man stereotypes you could’ve seen in the far less revolutionary films of the British New Wave around this same time, and certainly romanticizes them to a degree, since one’s natural response to Michel’s cavalier attitude is envy, at least for anyone who suffers from anxiety about so much as walking down the block. If Breathless has a failing, it’s certainly in its easy seduction by the gangster-as-hero idealism, but while Godard’s attachment to that uncomplicated iconography is clear, the story he’s really telling is infinitely more exciting and lively than any full-on hero worship or even most of the films from which he drew inspiration, mostly because Godard gives the crowd its full payoff, a window into the much stranger and more beautiful real world that surrounds Michel even though he can’t access it — he’s too “over it,” bored by the inner thoughts of the woman he cares for, bored even by death.

Today, it’s a lot harder to get a full view of the general tide of the French New Wave, which was more a freeform attitude than a specific style. The other signature inaugural effort of the movement, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, has almost nothing in common with Breathless. They’re both black & white and utilize liberating handheld cinematography and unorthodox editing, but Blows is a heartfelt, life-affirming, restrained, and almost classical story, drawing lines to Italian neorealism. Truffaut’s follow-up, Shoot the Piano Player, furthers the discrepancy: it’s a similar story to Breathless — high-stakes crime interfering with numb day-to-day routine — but it’s approached in the opposite fashion, with its morbid hero debunking the same myths that Belmondo in Breathless takes pains to corroborate. Truffaut’s film does nothing to hide its heart; both films are cynical and clever, but Godard’s dazzles and stupefies, and forces us to search longer and harder for its soulful essence.

Another way of thinking of it: Godard has no intention of remaking Rebel Without a Cause, a film that debunks the fog of cool like no other, one that seems to be from another century even though it was only five years old at this point. Rather, he wants to remake the poster for Rebel Without a Cause, while also having us confront both the badassery and the silliness of such a charade. The whole point of the movie, of course, lies in the lead character’s simplifying of his own world, which translates to his belief that he already has mastered it, already knows all the tricks and, of course, all of the endings. The motivations for his original crime are never terribly clear but one suspects they involve, as in the more sympathetically rendered Badlands, a desire for the very iconography the movie suggests, or maybe it’s the result of amorality and reverse-logic escaping from a cloud of amphetamines. Either way, it’s all expressed ingeniously in a beautiful scene of the boy standing outside a movie theater studying a photograph of Bogart. The clone of his dreams, one suspects. It may also be the dream of Godard himself. We know him to be an egomaniac, and this only helps the picture; it’s the work of a young man raised on and infatuated with icons. Truffaut may have sought to uncover the humanity in everything, but his colleague wants to block and assign the world into a girl-and-gun wonderland of sights and sounds. The clash of these sensibilities is why the movie works: its complete fakery is backed by astonishing conviction. In other words, the insincerity is fully and startlingly sincere.

Throughout the film, our attitude toward Michel changes on a dime, even though his characterization is consistent and believable; he’s introduced to us as fast-talking and unhinged, and of course clearly self-obsessed. His inner and outer voice is comprised of a litany of empty self-justifications. It’s up to us to learn when he’s putting us on, when he’s really scared, when he’s really in love; if he is so long past any human feeling, perhaps he is on his way to becoming a shell of a man like the sexist writer whose press conference Jean Seberg attends late in the film. However, Breathless and Belmondo’s performance seem quietly to posit Michel as a confused child, whose carefully learned behavior and cruel impulsiveness are repugnant but fascinating. It’s easy to blind oneself to the film’s skepticism about him and view him as a renegade who lives and dies on his own terms, but this seems to be an error in judgment.

The key to this is Seberg’s Patricia, a character whose ambiguities are more explicitly stated in the script and performance, though if anything said performance is even stronger than Belmondo’s. Patricia is an American girl who peddles copies of a New York newspaper in Paris and is working on having some work published there. As Michel pouts and preens, Patricia explores worlds unknown and unnoticed by him in her expressions, her mild and subtle and occasionally volatile rebukes to his apathy and childishness, and an obvious-to-us independence that he has no idea how to interpret or handle. The dynamic is most memorably explored in a lengthy, lingering bedroom dialogue scene comprised of her attempting to open herself and to open him, and of him hearing nothing she says — not intentionally ignoring her, perhaps, but simply deaf to her irreducible complexity, only fixated on the removal of her clothing. She is just as inscrutable and impulsive in some ways, but her motives are much more nuanced. Michel talks a lot of guff about loving her, but she performs the clearest act of love in the film when she sets the police after him then warns him, setting herself free; and the most defiant act of true freedom, rather than movie-poster freedom, when she turns away from his corpse in the final shot. Of course, along the way we do get those unforgettable driving scenes and a magical chase sequence they share across movie theaters, their public restrooms and their back alleyways — Breathless is nothing if not the all-time champion movie of having your cake and eating it — but the lone moment of undiluted triumph anyone gets here is in her individualism at the end of the picture. He resents her for it, or maybe he resents the whole world. Either way, he has no control over what she does next — will never even have any idea.

More than anything else, this movie is just thrilling to watch; sometimes the hipsters have a point about attitude being almost everything. Eschewing purity of any kind (it’s not strictly an honest or populist film, it’s very much a calculated one), responding to traditions of image as much as any Hollywood movie, it’s the most rock & roll, perpetually alive piece of cinema imaginable despite its simultaneous total awareness and deconstruction of its own hand-me-down clichés. After all, rock & roll — and all of its disparate factions — is scavenged from other forms and is nearly always stuck on image too. Bleeding into the edges of all this all the time, we have Seberg’s eyes, the pensiveness of the jazz score, the taunting of the jump cuts, and the occasional touches of totally credible romance, all lending doubt to the stoic distance of Michel’s deliberately iconic poses. Breathless is the work and the criticism of that work in one piece, and it’s in this manner that it becomes not just a moment of cultural purity but a work of art.


[Expanded from a review first posted in 2006.]