Capsule Reviews: visions and clues

The Man from London [Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky, 2007]

So much about this film noir works well that the things that don’t quite work are so much more frustrating. As one might expect from Tarr and Hranitzky, the camerawork, lighting, and blocking are simply breathtaking. It’s a simple story told with austerity, which does not mean simplicity. A man witnesses a crime, take a suitcase full of money, wrecks his own life, then ends up giving back the money in the end in order to atone for his own crime. The Man from London is invested in the moments when its characters make compromising decisions, inhabiting them and not giving the viewer any way to escape. And though the film contains many great performances, it’s Agi Szirtes—who shows up more than halfway through—who emotionally anchors it and registers the level of tragedy involved.

Unfortunately, one key performance does not work, and I’m not sure if it’s due to the terrible mismatch on synching the dub to the lip flaps, or if the vocal performance is truly terrible, or both. István Lénárt gives the character of the inspector a wily, shrewd demeanor, but he’s not plausibly intimidating or penetrating. Besides the awfulness of the vocal delivery, I think that Tarr and Hranitzky miscalculate how the pacing of Inspector Morrison’s scenes should work. The energy in his scenes is muted and casual than it is deliberate or cunning; he’s the one character who should not feel like he’s wading through molasses, and it just drags. Still, the mise-en-scene is stunning, and there are moments where the filmmaking choices convey real heft.☕︎

Clue [Jonathan Lynn, 1985]

It’s been years—a little less than a decade, I’d guess—since I last watched Clue, and I recall feeling disappointed in the last viewing. This one was much more of a pleasant surprise, and I relished it. Lynn apparently screened Howard Hawks’s classic His Girl Friday for the cast before filming began, and the screwball ethos shows in the snappy pace of dialogue, staging, and editing. Not all of the dialogue is as clever as it is breakneck, and the zaniness of the film sometimes feels a bit forced. But the cast is a murderer’s row of comic talent, and the production design is simply magnificent. So much of the game’s charm is its aesthetic, and the mansion in which the characters race around shouting at, slapping, and barking double-entendres at each other is the platonic ideal of that aesthetic given cinematic life. This movie reminded me that comedies can be handsome, in the way that Mel Brooks comedies used to be. It also reminded me how important blocking and movement within a well-defined space can be to comic timing. Just remember: communism is a red herring.☕︎

Mandy [Panos Cosmatos, 2018]

David Lynch has been invoked in several of the reviews of this film that I’ve read, which is not entirely inappropriate—there’s definitely a lot of dream logic and certainly very robust atmosphere in Mandy. But it feels more like a Seijun Suzuki movie, but with 70s and 80s metal as the musical inspiration rather than jazz. Few movies justify the term “visionary” in the purest sense, connoting a sense of being impractical or crumbling under the weight of one’s dreams of what could or should be. Mandy is basically a revenge fantasy: a cult murders a woman who refuses to be the leader’s mistress, then her husband murders the cult. That’s kind of it. But Cosmotos is an aesthete, and just about every shot in the film is laden with portent, often with oddball blocking or seemingly random contrivances (the telepathic conversation with the Chemist, for instance) that accrete into a holistic, auteurist vision. Even more curiously, Mandy seems to be a film about masculinity and power, reveling in the excesses of its adolescent tropes, yet perhaps (?) critiquing the brittleness of violence as a means of exorcising feelings of inferiority. Every choice made in this film feels utterly deliberate, and they are almost all interesting (or interestingly baffling) choices, so the additive effect of Mandy is less of a propulsive revenge thriller and more like a substance-fueled vision quest whose themes of vengeance, toxic masculinity, fanaticism, and warped reality may either be dismissed as a fever dream or embraced as a portent-laden unveiling to be unpacked with the deliberateness of its construction.☕︎


Malcolm Corden on how to hold a Bible

Mr. Corden demonstrates the best way to hold a Bible at the end of the video: open, pages fluttering ever so slightly as he reads aloud from the heart.

Bonus: Risafdian Nursanto, who comments,

Is that your President?

Americans : That’s a President


Capsule Reviews: Mr. Rogers and The Act of Killing

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood [Marielle Heller, 2019]

Like a lot of Americans of my age and older, I grew up with Mr. Rogers, and then I felt like I outgrew him. Movies like this remind me that I should not—and cannot, really—outgrow certain people and the ideals they strive to embody. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is odd in that it’s about the legacy of an odd duck of an entertainer, and it tries to tell the story of his influence the way that he might choose to tell it. The simple decision to film everything as if it were made with public TV equipment and techniques makes for a paradoxically unaffected and sincere experience. The brilliance of this movie’s presentation tells me that I probably need to revisit Can You Ever Forgive Me?. 

Maybe the oddest thing about the film is that seems truly to grok how fundamental Fred Rogers’s Christian faith was to his approach to life, including his approach to children’s programming and his compulsion to take the burdens of strangers upon himself. Like Rogers, the film does not preach, and even if the filmmakers don’t share his faith, they share his empathy, which means that they understand how this man could be who he was and do what he did. So it’s a film that ends up being generous and kind to its subjects, hoping (and praying for) the best for them.☕︎

The Act of Killing [Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous, 2012]

Thankfully, I did not see the trailer or even read all that much about this film before seeing it. It has one of the most moving, unexpected, and ambiguous endings I have ever seen, much less in a documentary about unapologetic mass murderers. For about half of this film, I thought that it was an exposé of the war crimes sponsored and obscured by the Indonesian regime. And the film certainly is an act of historical remembrance as political resistance to authoritarian violence. But it becomes increasingly clear the main subject of the film, Anwar Congo, feels… ambivalent (?) about his crimes. He claims to be haunted by the ghost(s) of his victim(s), but he remains a jubilant victor in the game of life in public and, for the most part, in front of the documentarian camera. As the film nears its conclusion though, there are several scenes in which the mass murderer seems to reflect authentically on his atrocities. When the weight of them finally seems to catch up with him, it’s a gut-wrenching moment: the pain that he inflicted is made visible to us in his own person. My most immediate impression is that the process of making this movie might have led at least one war criminal to feel remorse for his actions.

But in an interview for a featurette included with the DVD, Errol Morris wonders if it’s genuine. After all, Congo is a man who is savvy and film literate, a man who is a born storyteller. He has been the creative mind behind the absurd re-enactments of his crimes throughout the film. Surely he must know that his character arc has been traced thus far, and that it is incumbent upon him to have his dark night of the soul. Are his reflections genuine, or are they part of his performance? This did occur to me only once the credits had finished rolling, and I was glad that Morris articulated a suspicion that had been nagging at me.

Whether he is genuine or not, the fact that he evinces any form of remorse is staggering, especially in contrast with literally everyone else in his coterie. The Act of Killing holds out the possibility of genuine moral reflection and repentence through the process of artistic creation and reflection, but it also showcases the potential dangers of giving a forum to crafty old criminals who are experts at image management. As such, it is one of the great films of the decade.☕︎


Capsule Reviews: Satoshi Kon and Silver Lake

Millennium Actress [Satoshi Kon, 2001]

Thank you, Shout Factory, for bringing this out in theaters! This is one of my very favorite films, and the new dub is pretty solid. At some point, I should really do a proper review of this film, which is a first-order masterpiece. Before I die, I’d like to have one more chance to see this on the big screen.

As you might guess, I saw this back in September, and one of the benefits of seeing Millennium Actress on the big screen is that the kinetic effect of the film is simply overwhelming. Kon was a master at keeping things moving and conducting the movements of his viewers’ gazes, even as he conducts his motifs like a symphony of images and sounds and dialogue. The one thing (only one!) that did not hold up as well on the big screen was the computer-generated stars at the film’s finale. They feel flimsy and thin. In a film that is a masterpiece of animation of boundless imagination and creativity, it’s a component that feels like a cost-saving measure, which is a shame. That said, it is a masterpiece, and one of the Great films.☕︎

Tokyo Godfathers [Satoshi Kon, 2003]

We saw this in March with the GKIDS dub, and it was amazing. Like Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers demonstrates Kon’s mastery of movement. Here, it’s less the general movement of the scenes and more the fluidity of people and objects within them. The exaggeration of objects and people works for both comic and dramatic effect, heightening the emotional content of scenes while functioning as a bit of a release. The final chase is incredible, and the juggling of multiple plot points is awe-inspiring. This time around, I was also struck by the incredible soundtrack. We lost Kon way, way too soon.☕︎

Under the Silver Lake [David Robert Mitchell, 2018]

My most immediate impression of this bewildering film is that it is one of the best adaptations of Thomas Pynchon not based on something actually written by Pynchon. Andrew Garfield is surprisingly well-cast as a feckless millennial (but I repeat myself), and the only things that seem to be able to get him out of bed are sex, games, movies, and underground comics (and sometimes those very same interests keep him in bed). He develops an obsession with a woman in his apartment complex that leads him on an odyssey through the Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles suffused with strange synchronicities and encounters with the various eccentrics and hipsters who dwell therein.

I enjoyed this film more than I enjoyed Inherent Vice, P. T. Anderson’s worthy adaptation of a Pynchon novel I haven’t read, maybe because Mitchell’s movie is just a bit more strange; maybe, too, because I vibed more with its generational specificity. It’s an incredibly cynical film, and it feels apocalyptic in multiple senses of the word. In that way, it evokes other great rambling films in which the bizarro contours of the cities become characters in themselves. I’m thinking about Alex Cox’s Repo Man, the Coens’ Big Lebowski, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., or maybe Robert Altman’s Short Cuts; Scorsese’s After Hours also springs to mind, even though it’s a NYC movie. Before watching Mitchell’s movie, I had no idea that there even was a Silver Lake neighborhood in L.A., but it’s the kind of movie that crystallizes in my mind a conviction that I now know it in the same way that people who watch Woody Allen movies can feel like they know the Upper West Side, even if they’ve never set foot east of the Mississippi.

Between Under the Silver Lake and It Follows, I feel like Mitchell is already a major voice, but he hasn’t quite yet delivered his masterpiece. But I’m excited to see what he does next.☕︎


Capsule Reviews: Alita, Hellboy, Carol, and ESPers

Alita: Battle Angel [Robert Rodriguez, 2019]

Much as I want to give Rodriguez and James Cameron credit for making choices and sticking to them, this is almost the platonic ideal of why over-reliance on CG can tank a potentially compelling story. Those eyes, man. Alita is a nightmare that constantly cripples the unbelievable energy and charm Rosa Salazar pours into every moment of her performance. (Please, Hollywood: give her one more shot at a blockbuster franchise. Like Christoph Waltz, she’s so, so good and so, so wasted in Alita.) Even if it’s part of the point that Alita is simply other than human, the CG doesn’t emphasize difference—it just looks damn fake, and it draws attention to every sequence where the lavishly-realized CG environments don’t quite pass muster. On top of that, the film takes way too long to tell way too small a story. I kind of love that Rodriguez and Cameron live to push the limits of cinema’s technology, but their collaboration kind of Thelma and Louise’s it here, careening straight into an Uncanny Grand Canyon.

Hellboy [Neil Marshall, 2019]

Great cast. A few funny one-liners. Some really garbage f/x and a fairly shapeless story. There’s one creepy sequence where the macabre humor, surreal touches, and full-throated horror align in this film, and that’s Hellboy’s confrontation with Baba Yaga midway through the film. It’s a set piece that feels both vibrant and distinct from Guillermo Del Toro’s films, and it’s a good showcase for David Harbour. Otherwise, this is pretty dreadful, and probably as sure a sign as any that Marshall really should just stick to directing TV at this point.

Carol [Todd Haynes, 2015]

I don’t think it’s quite right to call this a “simple” romance, but it reminded me that a story rooted in certain fundamentals—of whether or not two lovers can overcome the obstacles in their way in order to find happiness—can be told in a fresh, compelling way. Haynes tells this story in what seems to me a calculatedly observed way, treading the line with his camera between spying and empathetic connection. He tells a story that demonstrates how true love is as much about true recognition—truly, mutually being seen—as it is about longing.

Scanners [David Cronenberg, 1981]

I saw this movie back in September, and what has actually stayed with me are not the themes of the military-industrial complex crushing dissent or the nature of parent-child relationships. Instead, just the atmosphere of paranoia and the effectiveness of the set pieces have really remained fresh in my mind. There’s the famous ESPer battle at the climax and the exploding head scene, but the craziness of the film really takes off when Stephen Lack hacks the mainframe of the evil corporation with his mind, melting down the system and his phone booth. It’s that level of craziness that makes a great B-movie.

☕︎


SLIFR’s Dean Wormer Quarantine Quiz!

Originally posted at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, here are my answers to Dean Vernon Wormer’s  Lockdown-Friendly, Double-Secret-Probationary Quarantine Quality Movie Quiz.

1) You’re on a desert island (and you sort of are)—What three discs do you select out of your own collection to keep if you had to get rid of all the rest?

Assuming I’m stuck on an island with my wife and toddler, I’m keeping Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and The Great Muppet Caper.

If it’s just me, I’m keeping Pacific Rim, Miracles, and Casablanca. The latter is especially important, since I hope my imaginary companion will be Capt. Renault. I’d like to see the look on his face when I tell him I came here for the waters.

2) Giuletta Masina or Jeanne Moreau?

Masina. Nights of Cabiria alone makes this choice for me, but I’ll also gladly take La Strada and Juliet of the Spirits.

3) Second -favorite Roger Corman movie.

Death Race 2000. (I’m assuming that we can pick any of the ones he produced, right?)

4) The most memorable place you ever saw a movie. This could be a film projected on a big screen or seen in some other fashion—the important thing is what makes it memorable.

The Delft in Marquette, MI. It was this little cinema where you had to enter through the back of the building and, depending on the feature you were there to see, climb up multiple flights of stairs. I’ve been in a couple very atmospheric or fancy theaters, and the Delft was not that. It was a small-town movie theater that, when I lived in Marquette, was owned and operated by GKC. What made it memorable, I guess, was the fact that it felt like my “home” theater—the one where, every time I went, it was the one that made the world feel at balance. According to the website, the Delft is now a bistro. I’d like to visit sometime.

5) Marcello Mastroianni or Vittorio Gassman?

Mastroianni.

6) Second-favorite Kelly Reichardt movie.

Wendy and Lucy. I’m just grateful that there’s a director out there who really knows how to make the most of Michelle Williams and Will Patton.

7) In the matter of taste, is there a film or director that, if your partner in a relationship (wife/husband/lover/best friend) disagreed violently with your assessment of it, might cause a serious rift in that relationship?

It depends on how violently she disagrees. I don’t think we would have lasted this long if we hadn’t had enough in common in the first place, and if we hadn’t figured out how to have disagreements in taste and aesthetic judgment in a healthy way. Arguing about movies actually is one of the things that keeps our relationship fresh!

8) The last movie you saw in a theater/on physical media/via streaming (list one each).

Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker (theater). Not great, but not as disappointing as I’d feared.

Color Out of Space (DVD). Pretty solid Lovecraft adaptation. Shows maybe a bit too much, but still has great atmosphere and good performances.

The Absent-Minded Professor (Disney+). A childhood favorite, and— wow, this did not hold up. Prof. Brainerd is a horrifying concoction of nerdy toxic masculinity, and I won’t be showing this one to my toddler again.

9) Name a movie that you just couldn’t face watching right now.

The Human Centipede (now or ever).

10) Jane Greer or Ava Gardner?

Greer.

11)Edmond O’Brien or Van Heflin?

O’Brien. I just recently saw The Hitch-hiker, and he’s really good in it.

12) Second favorite Yasujiro Ozu movie.

Late Spring.

13) Name a proposed American remake of an international film that would, if actually undertaken, surely court or inevitably result in disaster.

Robert Zemeckis directs a spiritual remake of Russian Ark set in the Smithsonian and starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. I don’t know if it would be a “disaster,” but it feels like the kind of film where Zemeckis would get off on the technical challenge and yet have no affinity for the project itself. I’d see it, once.

14) What’s a favorite film that you consider genuinely subversive, for whatever reason?

Star Wars. Because somehow President Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, used the Death Star as a positive (?!) comparison to his campaign machine. No other film in history has made it seem so cool and heroic to be a “rebel” or revolutionary, with all the mess that entails, wherever one sits on the political spectrum.

15) Name the movie score you couldn’t live without.

John Williams, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

16) Mary-Louise Weller or Martha Smith?

[Flips a coin.] Smith. I have no idea.

17) Peter Riegert or Bruce McGill?

McGill. I love what he brings to the screen, and he’s proof that whatever other flaws a casting director may have, they at least made one right call.

18) Last Tango in Paris—yes or no?

No. (Speaking of movies I couldn’t face watching right now…)

19) Second-favorite Akira Kurosawa movie.

Yojimbo. Which is tied with Rashomon, Kagemusha, and Ikiru. (First place: Throne of Blood.)

20) Who would host the imaginary DVD commentary you would most want to hear right now, and what would the movie be?

Right now? I’d like to hear from Robert Stevenson on Mary Poppins, and I’d be really interested to know from his perspective how the collaborative process worked with Walt as producer.

21) Favorite movie snack.

E.T. Food. (Reese’s Pieces.)

22) Second-favorite Planet of the Apes film (from the original cycle).

Haven’t seen them in so long, I honestly don’t know, and I’m not sure I could distinguish one from another, even if I read the plot summaries on Wikiped.

23) Least-favorite Martin Scorsese movie.

Of the feature films I’ve seen, The Departed. If we’re counting his contribution to New York Stories, I guess I’ll pick that one, since I literally can’t remember anything about it, other than I think it stars Nick Nolte’s beard.

24) Name a movie you feel doesn’t deserve its current reputation, for better or worse.

Despite having a couple really cool moments, Avengers: Endgame is, I believe, a bloated mess that betrays what I dug most about the emotional arcs of key characters. Everyone who saw a movie in the theater last year seems to have seen it, and a majority of them seem to love it. I’m so confused.

25) Best movie of 1970. (Fifty years ago!)

Le Cercle Rouge. Looking through my spreadsheet, it seems I actually haven’t seen that many movies from 1970. Huh.

26) Name a movie you think is practically begging for a Broadway adaptation (I used this question in the last quiz, but I’m repeating it because I never answered the quiz myself and I think I have a pretty good answer)

Inglourious Basterds. I say this based on the Rewatchables episode, where it is pointed out that the film is basically a handful of discrete scenes, each of which is not “stagey” or uncinematic, but it could be a really cool play.

27) Louise Brooks or Clara Bow?

Bow. I just saw Wings for the first time within the last couple months, and she was the best part about it. Also great in It.

28) Second-favorite Pier Paolo Pasolini movie.

Teorema. (First: The Gospel According to St. Matthew.)

29) Name three movies you loved in your early years that you feel most influenced your adult cinematic tastes.

The Black Hole

Mary Poppins

Pulp Fiction

I wrote about The Black Hole back in the Playtime days, and I might do an update on it sometime in the future for Catecinem.

30) Name a movie you love that you think few others do.

Frank Miller’s The Spirit. One day I’ll repost my essay on it here, but I haven’t watched it in several years, and I think I need to revisit it before recommitting to any sort of endorsement. My sense is that maybe I won’t enjoy it nearly as much now, but who knows.

31) Name a movie you despise that you think most others love.

Recently: Avengers: Endgame. More long term: Forrest Gump.

32) The Human Centipede—yes or no?

Nopenopenopenopenope. Uh, no.

33) Anya Taylor-Joy or Olivia Cooke?

Taylor-Joy, based pretty much just on The Witch.

34) Johnny Flynn or Timothée Chalamet?

Chalamet. (I don’t really recall him, but apparently he appeared in Interstellar, which I’ve at least seen…)

35) Second-favorite Dorothy Arzner movie.

I haven’t seen any. :( Yikes.

36) Name a movie you haven’t seen in over 20 years that you would drop everything to watch right now.

Weirdly, the movie that popped into my head was McHale’s Navy, starring Tom Arnold. Then I did some more pondering, and I realized that I haven’t seen Tremors since high school. Either one would work, really.

37) Name your favorite stylistic filmmaking cliché, and one you wouldn’t mind seeing disappear forever.

I really enjoy the extreme close up of a gunfighter (in whatever era) quietly unsnapping the harness in a gun holster in anticipation of a firefight. That and the sound of the gun being drawn from its holster. The soundwork on those oddly-specific cues is really important to me.

I have come genuinely to hate when a film establishes the time and place by superimposing “Now” over an establishing shot. It ages really badly. Even in films like Escape from New York, where it specifies that the dark “future” in which it takes place is 1997, it feels less insulting to me as a viewer, and much better-calculated on the part of the filmmakers. A film set in a specified time is like a snapshot of an alternate historical timeline, but a film set “now” simply feels like the filmmakers got it wrong, and either way it locks them in a nigh-inescapable time capsule.

38) Your favorite appearance by a real-life politician in a feature film, either fictional or a fictionalized account of a real event.

Every cameo in Dave.

39) Is film criticism dead?

No, of course not. It’s no longer institutionalized in newspapers, journals, and magazines to the degree it may have been, but many of those publications still do good work. Blogs picked up the torch and ran with it for a long time in the last couple decades. I also really enjoy a number of podcasts and YouTube channels, which showcase things like long-form conversations or video essays.

40) Elizabeth Patterson or Marjorie Main?

Main.

41) Arch Hall Jr. or Timothy Carey?

Carey. (I don’t really recall him specifically, even though I’ve seen a number of his credited films.)

42) Name the film you think best fulfills the label “road movie.”

The Muppet Movie. (As I have already written about, by happy coincidence.)

43) Horror film that, for whatever reason, made you feel most uncomfortable?

I’ve probably noted this elsewhere, but there’s a scene in the Feast where one of the monsters orally humps a bound and dismembered woman, including a shot where she sputters out a gout of cum. Not, shall we say, my cup of tea.

44) Least-favorite (directed by) Clint Eastwood movie.

The Eiger Sanction feels like too-easy of an answer, but I haven’t seen a lot of his more recent movies, and I just remember feeling antsy and bored while watching it.

45) Second-favorite James Bond villain.

I’m restricting myself to main villains, rather than henchmen, for this one, because I feel like the right hands of the villains tend to be more colorful and fun than the supervillains themselves. My second-favorite Bond villain is probably Silva from Skyfall. He’s one of the few villains who actually manages to hurt Bond and partially achieve his goals. 

46) Best adaptation of a novel or other form that had been thought to be unfilmable.

Clue.

47) Michelle Dockery or Merritt Wever?

Dockery, but I look forward to seeing what both of them continue to do.

48) Jason Bateman or Ewan McGregor?

Bateman. Now I’m thinking about whether Birds of Prey might actually have been even better with Bateman as Black Mask…

49) Second-favorite Roman Polanski movie.

This is a tough one, because I think Chinatown, Repulsion, and Rosemary’s Baby always are jostling each other out of the top slot. So let’s just say that they tie for #1, so now I can put Bitter Moon in at #2.

50) What’s the movie you wish you could watch with a grandparent right now? And, of course, why?

An English dub of My Neighbor Totoro, because 1.) it’s great, 2.) there’s nothing in it that could possibly offend anyone, and 3.) I would just be curious to see their reactions.

51) Oliver Stone two-fer: Natural Born Killers and/or JFK—yes or no?

I love JFK; I think it’s Stone’s best movie that I’ve seen. I hate Natural Born Killers. But if I could watch it with a select group of nerds who’d be willing to discuss afterward… sure.

52) Name the actor whose likeness you would proudly wear as a rubber latex Halloween mask.

Walter Koenig. My instinct was to say William Shatner, in deference to Halloween, but then I started thinking about other Star Trek actors, and I remembered how damn creepy Koenig is in Babylon 5, and I realized that he’d be a great face to wear.

53) Your favorite cinematographer, and her/his greatest achievement.

Roger Deakins, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

54) Best book about the nitty-gritty making of a movie.

Hmm. Well, I read Paul Sammon’s Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner last year, and it’s a treasure trove; maybe a little more gossipy than nitty-gritty, but a must-read nonetheless.

55) If you needed to laugh right now, what would be your go-to movie comedy?

Tampopo. Maybe not a bellyful of laughs, but guaranteed to put me in a good emotional/psychological place.


The Director Game: an addendum to The Big Picture‘s conversation with Sam Esmail

Though I’ve been getting into podcasts since I first got a smart phone last winter, I’ve been branching out just a bit more as the coronavirus quarantine continues. In particular, I’ve been trying to listen to more film-oriented podcasts. Via The Rewatchables, I’ve gotten a little bit into The Big Picture with Amanda Dobbins and Sean Fennessey. They cover a lot of pop culture that I frankly don’t have the time or energy to follow, so not every episode is really made for me, but a couple of the more recent episodes have been really engaging, and Dobbins/Fennessey have really provocative conversations. 

A couple weeks ago, I listened to “The Director Game,” in which Fennessey and Dobbins have a conversation with Sam Esmail, creator of Mr. Robot, about their favorite directors from each decade from the mid-twentieth century onward. Esmail stipulated a few rules for the game. First, for each decade, you pick only from directors who made their feature commercial debuts in the decade. Second, you pick the one you think is the most significant and the one most significant to you personally.

It’s exactly the kind of oddly competitive nerd discussion I used to love having when I was in college or when I participated in online message boards. Lists and rankings and all that stuff are enormous fun for me. As such, I felt a bit of umbrage when the discussion of the 1980s and 2000s made them out to be inferior decades in terms of the crop of talent that came up in them.

☕︎

Generally speaking, I subscribe to the notion that there are banner years in cinema: years that clearly produce more masterpieces than others for whatever number of reasons. That’s why it makes intuitive sense to say that years like 1939 or 1999 are outstanding years for cinema. They just are. To the extent that chronological units like weeks, months, years, and decades are helpful for ranking the relative value of cinematic achievement (and you may think that any such project is pernicious or useless or a distraction from more pertinent questions), I think that years kind of hit a sweet spot. 

Smaller units of measurement can’t account for things like release schedules in different countries, and they get skewed by the types of programming that are most common in each season. So someone who loves summer blockbusters is always going to find rich veins of gold in months like May, June, and July. Someone who really digs Oscar bait (or awards-season hopefuls in whatever country) might gravitate toward the winter months. But years kind of balance out and capture the variety and depth that any year has to offer, and it accounts for worldwide releases in a way that domestic releases in a given country just don’t. For those of us with eclectic or omnivorous tastes, a year encapsulates virtually everything we love about movies while still enabling a meaningful discussion of both individual and aggregate artistic merit.

A decade is a little too big of a unit for that. Decades are more helpful in analyzing trends and trajectories. That’s why we can talk about American cinema in terms like the Reaganite eighties or the American new wave of the long seventies. So if you’re really into raunchy sex comedies, it might be that you can make a sincere case for the superlative output of the 80s; if you’re into vaudevillian slapstick comedy, you probably have to plump for the silent greats of the twenties or thirties. But if you’re looking for a representative palette of different styles and diverse voices at the height of their artistry, I think that each decade has a case to be made. 

Put another way, if you’re judging each decade by the number of masterpieces and otherwise good films that came out within that time frame, it’s harder to place one decade over another, especially if you take a more capacious view of cinema’s overall output. And if your game is to pick the most significant director from other directors who came up during that decade, every decade since at least the early twentieth century contains an embarrassment of riches.

Esmail referred to the 1980s talent pool as a “drought,” and everyone seemed to regard the 2000s as a significant letdown after the high of the new talent that broke out in the 1990s. There’s not really any question that the 70s and 90s were great decades for cinema, and they certainly set the stage for the emergence of some of cinema’s most vital voices. But I think that characterizing the 80s and Aughts as also-rans says a lot more about the priorities and tastes of those making that judgment than it does about the quality or quantity of the talents that made their debuts in those decades.

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Here’s the list of directors who were shortlisted on The Big Picture for the 1980s.

Spike Lee

James Cameron

Joe and Ethan Coen

Steven Soderbergh

Wong Kar-Wai

Sam Raimi

Tony Scott

Cameron Crowe

Kathryn Bigelow

Lars Von Trier

Tim Burton

Gus Van Sant

Jim Jarmusch

John Sayles

Harold Ramis

Robert Redford

Michael Mann

Jim Henson

John McTiernan

Peter Jackson

Lawrence Kasdan

Claire Denis

Fennessey picked Lee, Dobbins picked Soderbergh, and Esmail picked the Coen brothers. Let me just throw a few more names in the mix.

Bae Yong-kyun

Zhang Yimou

Chen Kaige

Aleksandr Sokurov

John Hughes

Michael Haneke

Peter Greenaway

Of the names I added to the list, I acknowledge that Bae is obscure. I’ve only seen one of his films, Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East? (1989), but it’s a knockout. As for the others, Zhang and Kaige represent the fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers, and they obviously still are major voices in world cinema. Sokurov is one of Russia’s most distinct voices; I wager that he’s may be best known for Russian Ark (2002), an impressive Steadicam single-take film. Haneke and Hughes are obviously major filmmakers, and even though Haneke is probably the director with the most artistic cachet, I think that Hughes’s DNA is shot through American cinema. One might argue that Greenaway is maybe the most significant British artist to make a feature debut in the 1980s, though I’m open to correction on that point.

Here’s my short-shortlist of the ten directors in the running for me.

Spike Lee

James Cameron

Joel and Ethan Coen

Steven Soderbergh

Wong Kar-Wai

Sam Raimi

Michael Mann

Jim Henson

John McTiernan

John Hughes

For the most significant, Cameron really can’t be underrated. I wasn’t a huge fan of Avatar, but it’s undeniable fact that when Cameron makes a movie, it matters to the industry and to audiences. I’d argue that Titanic still is more in the conversation than Avatar, though I guess we’ll see how things shake out once the dozen-odd sequels to it finally start to roll out in theaters. Personally, I think he peaked with the run from 1984’s The Terminator through Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), which includes Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989). Absolutely insane.

To be honest, I don’t know how one can look at a list of these ten directors (let alone the longer shortlist) and not be blown away. Apart from McTiernan, Henson, and Hughes, one of whom is essentially retired and the other two are deceased, all of these are still vital filmmakers.

This is also a list of filmmakers who are often and somewhat consistently underrated. Apart from maybe Lee, the Coens and WKW, I feel like there’s still an ongoing effort among cinephiles to ensconce most of these directors as part of the canonical auteurs. It may seem foolish to say that Cameron is consistently underrated, but he does usually face some sort of blowback every time one of his movies comes out and sets a new box office record. And his earlier films have a much narrower audience appeal than his more recent ones seem to have. Nearly everybody in the world who watches movies saw Avatar and Titanic, but I think that there are a lot of people who might have to be talked into watching (or adequately appreciating) movies like Aliens or the first two Terminator films.

Soderbergh is so prolific that he’s had a lot of whiffs at bat as well as home runs, though he mostly bats down the middle. But he still makes entertaining films that touch on ideas and themes he cares about. Logan Lucky puts a country twist on Ocean’s Eleven, and Haywire was a very well-crafted action thriller. In fact, half of the directors I’ve listed are mainly genre auteurs. Raimi, Cameron, Mann, and McTiernan are all action or sf/fantasy filmmakers by reputation, and the Coens consistently return to crime as a generic framework. Never mind that they have defined what it means to work at the height of one’s craft in those (or any other) genres.

I think Henson and Hughes deserve some special consideration. After he died and the world realized that they wouldn’t get any more John Hughes movies, I think the critical reconsideration commenced in earnest. Hughes was not the most nuanced or considered screenwriter, and his direction was often a bit heavy-handed. But he created movies with memorable characters, and when he blended a lighter touch with the sincerity for which he’s best known, the results could be incredible. My favorite Hughes movie, for what it’s worth, is probably Uncle Buck (1989).

Probably the most consistently underrated director in that list, though, is Henson. As I remarked in my post on rewatching the Muppets constantly in the last couple months, The Great Muppet Caper is an awesome technical achievement. There is plenty to gawk at in the more mundane sequences, but the musical numbers are ambitious and dazzling. The sequence in the Dubonnay Club, for instance, is a marvel. It’s accomplishment enough to choreograph, light, and shoot such a stunning sequence, but then Henson introduces Miss Piggy—a puppet—as the central performer. Around Piggy, he also keeps track of the repartee between Kermit, Fozzy, and Gonzo, as well as between Miss Holiday and her brother, Nicky, who is the film’s villain, then introduces a plot complication of Nicky becoming infatuated with Piggy and igniting Kermit’s jealousy. This scene keeps all of the characters in focus while advancing the plot and character development. And—again—I’ll remind you that half of those characters are puppets.

If it weren’t enough that Henson careens out of the gate as a feature film director with a flashy, technically amazing Muppet sequel, he also directed two other major feature films in the 80s: The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986). Both of these have been essentially cult films since their release, but they’re iconic, and they represent an artist pushing his medium—film, yes, but mostly puppetry—as far as possible within the paradigm of the age. 

None of this came out of nowhere, of course. Henson had been creating, performing in, and directing television since the 1950s, so his technical chops were honed by decades working in television before he made the leap to film. In Henson’s time, television was nowhere as prestigious as it now is, but when he put his name on something, it was an imprimatur of quality. I don’t know if critics took the Muppets seriously in the decades that Henson was alive, and I don’t know if they do now. But Henson was a serious artist who took seriously the art of silliness.

With that in mind, Henson is my pick for most personally significant to me at the moment. If Henson weren’t an artist of genuine caliber, I would have to suicide rather than watch the Muppet movies as many times as I have. But rewatching them has only deepened my appreciation for what a great artist he was, and the caliber of excellence achieved by his collaboration with all the puppeteers in his cadre.

As for the most significant director, full stop, I think I’ll plump for Wong Kar-Wai. In part, that’s because Fennessey, Dobbins, and Esmail already went for Lee, Soderbergh, and the Coens, and as I argued earlier, Cameron is so obviously significant that I feel that he doesn’t need any help from me at this point. WKW also doesn’t really need any help from me in most respects, since he’s consistently recognized as working at the top echelon of cinematic art. What I feel needs to be said is that it’s astounding that a director with his methods and thematic obsessions can continue to secure funding and such a wide audience. 

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Here’s the shortlist presented on The Big Picture for the Aughts.

Jonathan Glazer

Rian Johnson

Judd Apatow

Todd Phillips

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Jon Favreau

Miranda July

J.J. Abrams

Sarah Polley

Ben Affleck

Tony Gilroy

Taika Waititi

Barry Jenkins

Charlie Kaufman

Steve McQueen

Martin McDonagh

Damien Chazelle

Cary Joji Fukunaga

Asif Kapadia

Asghar Farhadi

Sean Baker

Debrah Granik

Edgar Wright*

Bong Joon-ho

Michel Gondry

Joshua and Benjamin Safdie

Sofia Coppola*

That’s a really strong list of filmmakers, and it’s a bit weird to me that nobody in the podcast made the case for it being a particularly strong showing. A chunk of the conversation dwelt on whether Dobbins cheated in claiming Sofia Coppola for the 2000s (she did), then Fennessey and Esmail plumped for Bong, with Fennessey making a nod to Wright as a personal favorite (although Wright also arguably is not eligible). There are several directors who weren’t shortlisted by Fennessey, Dobbins, and Esmail. Here are some that come to mind.

Francis Lawrence

Jason Reitman

Seth Gordon

Shane Black

Joe Swanberg

Judd Apatow

Matthew Vaughn

George Clooney

Gil Kenan

Pete Docter

Andrew Bujalski

Makoto Shinkai

Shane Carruth

Joss Whedon

John Cameron Mitchell

Garth Jennings

Mamoru Hosoda

Zack Snyder

Lucrecia Martel

Andrew Dominik

Joe Wright

Alejandro González Iñárritu

McG

Giorgos Lanthimos

Richard Kelly

Scott Derrickson

Cristian Mungiu

David Gordon Green

Gareth Evans

Adam McKay

Paul Feig

Joe and Anthony Russo

Cristi Puiu

Patty Jenkins

Let’s start with some obvious disqualifications. A lot of these names are filmmakers who made one or two good (maybe great) films, then petered out into mediocrity or simply haven’t sustained their output. Some of them haven’t made truly great films, but are important for other reasons. But I think that this decade produced or codified some really great talent; talent that puts it on the same footing with the 70s or 90s. Let’s start with some obvious picks for the cream of the crop.

Bong Joon-ho has been world-class for years. Well before he made Parasite (which I still haven’t seen), he made two films that were international critical and commercial hits: The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013). I’ve never seen Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), but Memories of Murder (2003) compares favorably to David Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece, Zodiac. And Mother (2009) is a devastating (and devastatingly well-crafted) character study in the key of Hitchcock. Going with Bong is a safe (and canny) choice, since he has consistently produced masterpiece-level cinema for twenty years, and with Parasite, he’s well-positioned to continue following his own muse.

Rian Johnson is another safe bet. His work has been fairly consistent, and it certainly showcases a singular voice. He’s a fan of genre films, and tinkers with genre conventions in aesthetically-pleasing and conceptually intriguing ways. I think his two most artistically successful films are Brick (2005) and Knives Out (2019), both of which lean heavily into different brands of detective story—hardboiled noir and Agatha Christie ensemble drama. On the whole, I always look forward to his next movie, even if a couple of them haven’t hit my expectations—but I feel like that’s also a good sign, in that he has set my expectations so unreasonably high.

*Edgar Wright is perhaps his generation’s leading cinematic authority on genre films, but it’s arguable that he should not be eligible for this discussion, since his first feature film, A Fistful of Fingers, premiered in a commercial theater in 1995.

*Sofia Coppola’s first film, The Virgin Suicides, premiered in 1999. Amanda Dobbins plumped for her because the film technically premiered at Cannes, but came out in U.S. theaters in April 2000. It’s listed as a 1999 film in Wikipedia, Imdb, and literally everywhere else that matters as a reputable archive of film release dates. So: No, Dobbins. Sorry. Sofia Coppola is simply not eligible for the 2000s.

Of Fennessey’s shortlist, I think Apichatpong Weerasethkul is maybe the next-easiest pick after Bong for world cinema. I didn’t really get into Syndromes and a Century but I really dug Tropical Malady (2004) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). To be frank, I don’t think I really understand any of his movies, but they’re still very powerful and very singular. If the question is, “Who is successfully doing things with cinema that nobody else can or will?” then Weerasethakul is one of the more obvious answers.

As the hosts discussed in the podcast, Affleck and Glazer have done some really strong stuff, but Glazer has worked so infrequently in feature film production, whereas Affleck started hot, then seemingly put his directing career on hold after Live by Night (which I rather liked, incidentally).

It’s possible that Phillips may accrue a higher profile now that he has Joker in his portfolio, and Jenkins only may have started to hit his stride with Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk (neither of which I’ve yet seen). I could say the same of Chazelle. And in the case of Apatow, I suspect that his directing career peaked a bit early with Knocked Up and 40-Year-Old Virgin, but he’s continued to make well-liked-enough films, and as a producer and creator, he’s had an incredible influence on comedy in mass culture in the last two decades. In terms of raw output, though, I think Bong and Weerasethakul have these directors beat.

There are a couple trends with filmmakers from the 2000s that are worth commenting on, though, and I think that these trends tie into things that they either discussed elsewhere in Big Picture or not so much at all. My shortlist of potentially significant filmmakers from the Aughts is as long as the one mostly compiled by Fennessey. I’d like to tie together some of the strands involved in my shortlist and why I think that leaving those strands unremarked skewed discussion of the decade in some unproductive directions.

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A big strand relatively untouched in the Big Picture discussion of the Aughts is the active crossover between feature film production and television projects involving major filmmakers. It’s true that there has always been cross-fertilization of talent in television and feature film production. Sidney Lumet (Dobbins’s pick from the 1960s) is part of that, not to mention filmmakers like Jim Henson, whom I mentioned earlier. You can give me a dozen more apt examples, I’m sure. But it has been remarked ad nauseam that we are currently in a golden age of television. Not only are television series as good as they’ve ever been, but the feature film endeavors of companies like Netflix and Amazon are either attracting major talents like Martin Scorsese or they are establishing younger or less-recognized talents as major voices.

The current era of film/tv cross-fertilization has deep roots, and those roots are reflected in the lists put together by Fennessey and myself. Apatow and Abrams most obviously worked in television for a long time before launching prodigious filmmaking careers. And music video and commercial directing, as has been the case since the 1980s, still fosters a great deal of major talent, including Glazer, and as well as visionaries like Snyder and McG. (Although I contend that, whatever you think of Snyder’s merits as a stylist, he’s had a major influence.) McKay is another filmmaker who, like Apatow, started in television (SNL specifically) and is known for comedy, though he tried to push beyond that niche in the last ten years. However much I disdain most of his movies that I’ve seen, I think it’s true that McKay, like Apatow, has been extremely influential in shaping the fashion of comedy as writer, producer, and trendsetter. A similar argument should be made for Feig. Apatow, McKay, and Feig are arguably the most influential directors in mainstream American comedy in the last twenty years. I wouldn’t make any of them my top pick, but I suspect that there are a few people out there who could make a pretty persuasive argument for any of them.

The biggest name, though, has got to be Whedon. Every film on which he is credited as director within the last ten years—save for his fine adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (2012)—is a Marvel or DC crossover event. The fact that he wrote and directed the first two Avengers films might be enough to make him a serious contender for the top slot (and the fact that he stepped in to take over Justice League from Snyder might be enough to remove him from contention). But he’s been directing television—most notably in his landmark series Buffy the Vampire Slayer—since the 1990s, often in stylistically interesting ways. His feature film debut was Serenity (2005), which was a sequel/send-off to his cult TV series, Firefly. I’m sympathetic to the argument that the actual feature films Whedon has directed are not among the greats, especially if one is antipathetic to Disney’s corporate takeover of mass culture in toto. 

But I think 2012’s The Avengers is one of the most important films made this last decade, in addition to being a classic example of blockbuster filmmaking. The MCU’s worldwide dominance of entertainment in all platforms, culminating in Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest-grossing film of all time, would not have been possible had not Avengers stuck the landing at the end of Phase I. (By the by, the directors of Endgame, Joe and Anthony Russo, also made their feature film debut in the 2000s, in part because their first feature was not theatrically released in 1997.) You can credit Kevin Feige and the corporate infrastructure of Disney/Marvel for a lot of that. But you should also credit Whedon, whose entire career is defined by navigating transitions between media as a writer and creator. 

It’s a career pattern that will likely become increasingly common, if directors like David Fincher (see: House of Cards, Mindhunters) are any indication. That kind of career path is characteristic of any number of directors we’ve already mentioned, including Abrams, Apatow, McKay, Snyder, McG, Feig, Baker, as well as ones we haven’t mentioned, like Abrams’s frequent collaborator, Matt Reeves, or Whedon’s frequent collaborator, Drew Goddard. 

Last, but not least, Patty Jenkins directed one feature film, Monster (2003) that made a pretty big splash, especially boosting the profile of Charlize Theron. After that, she moved into television directing for the next decade and a half, re-emerging to take on another major superhero franchise with Wonder Woman (2017). It would not surprise me if Jenkins were to emerge as one of the most significant figures who got her start in the Aughts, not just as a female director, but as one of the artists responsible for revitalizing superhero blockbusters just as they hit their saturation point. If Wonder Woman 1984 strikes gold, she’ll have the clout to do whatever she wants, and we’ll see what she does with it.

In short, the major directors that make a feature film debut in any given decade are likely to have significant amounts of their most significant work be on television, streaming services, or other digital media. Whedon is emblematic of that, which is why I’d put him in the running for the top slot.

What’s weird to me about the discussion in The Big Picture is that the three of them actually spent quite a bit of time discussing the cross-fertilization of film and TV elsewhere in the podcast. It’s clear that Dobbins and Fennessey respect and have given critical attention to Esmail’s own work as a director, and that he’s very much in conversation with his personal pantheon in the filmmaking he practices. So it’s not like this wasn’t something on their minds in the discussion; a lot of the points I just made are actually points that Dobbins, Fennessey, and Esmail made in the podcast. Given the articulate conversation they had about the film/tv dialectic, it strikes me as particularly odd that this was not a major factor in their assessment of the directors who made their debuts in the 2000s.

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The hosts on The Big Picture also did not adequately address animation as a cinematic art form. My guess (and it’s only a guess; I only just started listening to the podcast) is that these folks are not particular fans of animated films. Which is fine, I guess. But it means that they’re not paying attention to someone like Pete Docter, whose first feature film credit as director is Monsters, Inc. (2001). Along with Andrew Stanton (who debuted with A Bug’s Life in 1998) and Brad Bird (who debuted with The Iron Giant in 1999), Docter is probably one of Pixar’s most distinct voices, having also directed Up (2009) and Inside Out (2015). This is another case where one might credit the corporate body as being more significant than the individual voice, but my impression is that Pixar does really well at cultivating individual voices and giving them a chance to produce their strongest possible work. If one is grading on the strength of all the films produced, Docter would seem to have a strong track record.

One of the most glaring omissions is Makoto Shinkai. Again, if we are considering consistency of output, how does one argue with the quality of his feature films? I’ve only seen a few: The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004), 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007), and Your Name (2016), which became the highest-grossing anime of all time, and which was replaced as the highest-grossing anime of all time by Shinkai’s next film, Weathering with You (2019). Mamoru Hosoda is another anime director who has consistently produced outstanding work, not least of which was Mirai (2018), but whose 2006 feature, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, is maybe his most widely seen outside of Japan. (His debut feature was Digimon: The Movie (2000), co-directed with Shigeyasu Yamauchi.)

As with any discussion of this sort, the omissions and inclusions are usually circumscribed by the predilections and experiences of the people setting the terms of the discussion. It’s inevitable. No professional critic, let alone an amateur like me, has seen every movie ever made. But I think the exclusion of animation from the discussion was a bit shocking, since it’s impossible to ignore the existence of at least the major American producers of animated entertainment, like Disney or maybe Dreamworks, and there wasn’t even any question of it in the podcast discussion. 

Leaving animators out of the discussion neglects the stature of animation in the global market. I get that anime doesn’t have the same kind of international penetration as Hollywood’s animated family entertainment, but of all the national cinemas, I think anime has uniquely carved out a fan base around the world that opens up space for movies like Your Name or Ghibli releases to make a mark. Shinkai in particular might be single most important anime creator since Hayao Mizayaki or Hideaki Anno in terms of redefining anime’s stature in his own country and maybe internationally. Along with Whedon, that puts Shinkai in the running for my top slot.

As is often the case, I think that this blindness to anime is of a piece with a general bias toward English-language filmmakers. (And I admit that it’s a bias/blindness I share.) The vast majority of Fennessey’s shortlist is comprised of English, American, Canadian, or Australian directors. The most glaring omission to me was Martel. I don’t know if that’s because her debut feature, La Ciénaga (2001) somehow won the NHK Award at 1999’s Sundance Film Festival, thus disqualifying her from the 2000s. Maybe. I haven’t seen that film, and I wasn’t the hugest fan of The Holy Girl (2004). Nor did I quite know what to make of The Headless Woman (2008) when I saw it, but I chalked that up to ignorance of Argentine history and culture; it was a formidable filmmaking performance in any case. What I think puts Martel into the running for the top slot is 2017’s Zama, which is about as perfectly-calibrated as a movie gets. I still haven’t figured out how to write about it, but the hype around it is well-deserved; it might be one of The Greats.

Among international directors who have a lot of critical heat around them, it surprised me that Lanthimos, Puiu, and Mungiu weren’t part of Fennessey’s shortlist. I wasn’t a fan of Dogtooth, but I liked The Favourite pretty well. Of the Romanian New Wave, I’ve only seen two films, but 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a masterpiece.

A lot of the other directors in my extended shortlist are (I felt) worth mentioning, but not really contenders. Clooney had an incredible decade as a star, writer, director, and producer, but I don’t think he’s sustained it, though there’s no denying the mojo he conjured at his peak. Green is another one of those auteurs wending his way betwixt film and television, but his output has been pretty uneven, despite some real highlights. We can thank mumblecore directors like Swanberg and Bujalski for a number of really strong films, but I suspect that history will remember mumblecore more for fostering the career of Greta Gerwig more than for the actual films that came out of it. Three of the directors in my shortlist are near-contenders mostly because each of them made a single film that is itself one of the best of the decade: Mitchell for Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Carruth for Primer (2004), and Dominik for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).

For what it’s worth, I actually think Esmail and Fennessey are probably right to pick Bong Joon-ho as the most important filmmaker to make his debut during the 2000s, if only because seemingly every film he makes is unbelievably good. I wonder to what degree he will influence (or has influenced) the next generation of filmmakers. My own top ten short-shortlist would certainly include him, as you can see:

Bong Joon-ho

Shinkai Makoto

Joss Whedon

Lucrecia Martel

Rian Johnson

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Shane Carruth

Shane Black 

Hosoda Mamoru

Ben Affleck

I haven’t seen any of the films by Sean Baker or Barry Jenkins, and I still have a few films to see by Dominik, Chazelle, and Glazer before I pass final judgment on them. As for Black, I have enjoyed every film he’s directed so far. Yes, that includes Iron Man 3 (2013), and I enjoyed what he tried to do with The Predator (2018), even if it didn’t hold together. But Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and The Nice Guys (2016) are among the best buddy flicks I’ve seen. Clooney seems like someone who might claw his way back to the top of the heap before his career is over, so we’ll see if he can regain the clout he commanded in the Aughts; if he does, I’ll have to revise my list. Finally, I’m curious to see if the Russo brothers can translate the chops they’ve honed in the last twenty years into something more than being the reliable hired guns who ushered the MCU’s first ten years to an insanely lucrative conclusion. We’ll see.

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The big difference between the 90s greats and the greats of the Aughts, I think, has more to do with paradigms than with merit. Quentin Tarantino, P. T. Anderson, Wes Anderson, Sophia Coppola, and Nancy Meyers (who all got top marks from the Big Picture podcasters) all fit really neatly into what critics and cinephiles love about auteurism. Each has an identifiable signature that often manifests in recurrent stylistic motifs or thematic concerns. That’s true of all the directors I included in my top ten, too, of course. But I think the aura of the 90s crop of filmmakers conveys upon them a much more self-conscious effort on the part of critics and the directors themselves to make films that ensconce them among The Greats. I’m not sure that’s true of a lot of the notable or great filmmakers of the Aughts generation.

I use “aura” in a quasi-Benjaminian sense. I think that the reception and near-instant canonization of these filmmakers is part of how we (that is, cinephiles and critics) frame our responses to them. And the 90s filmmakers have been keen to capitalize on that. I don’t know if any director in the history of cinema has done quite as much to frame his own filmography as Quentin Tarantino, and I strongly suspect that Paul Thomas Anderson calibrates his selection of projects between the two poles of his own muse and the demands of continuing to live up to (and exceed) critical expectations with every new film. Directors who made their bones in the 90s are people who imbibed their lessons from the film school brats of the 1960s and 70s. Especially among some of the male filmmakers, there’s a palpable sense of each of them striving to be their class’s valedictorian. All of that feeds into the aura around each of them as well as the nimbus of being a “90s” filmmaker.

I’m not sure that the same is true of a majority of the great directors who made their first mark in the Aughts. Some, like Johnson, are keenly aware of their cinematic lineage and parlay it into clout so that they can make the movies they want to make. But I don’t feel like the same aura clings to Bong or Martel. Whedon seems sincerely committed to telling stories he would enjoy reading or seeing, to his politics, and to his fans. He doesn’t seem to be competing with the weight of film history in the same way as perfectionists like QT or David Fincher. It seems to me that a lot of the Aughts crop of directors is trying to make Great Films more than trying to make films that put them among The Great Auteurs.

Again: this has more to do with aura than the intent of the artists themselves. I think that the way we think about 90s filmmakers is a bit clouded by the aura I described, and I think that the aura of the Aughts directors is one characterized by a sense that it is a decade of afterglow: pleasant, warm, thrilling in its own way, but not the same intense, exciting, productive explosion that the 90s seemed to be.

This infection of the conversation with the 90s aura isn’t entirely fair, and I don’t think it’s an accurate assessment of the overall quality of the directors who made their feature film debuts in the 2000s. If we can’t get excited by a decade that produced or fostered the film careers of Bong Joon-ho, Shinkai Makoto, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Rian Johnson, Joss Whedon, and the others, then I don’t think we’re really contending with what marks directors out for greatness. The Aughts was an incredible decade, and I think it stacks up against any other decade you’d care to invoke.

☕︎

Ultimately, I think that the value of Esmail’s game is that is compels us to think about where and when some of our most notable auteurs got their start. But I think a game like this can sometimes become a vehicle for rehearsing the canon like a litany. Especially the closer we get to the present, I feel that it’s important to keep an eye on the artists who have made significant contributions and to think about how and why we articulate “significance.” I’ve probably undersold this, but I did love listening to the podcast episode where they argued about and broke down the great directors of the past several decades. There was some really good conversation, some wonderful insights, some amusing commentary, and some entertaining rhetorical gymnastics. It’s a great episode. My main contention is simply that by underplaying certain decades, we underplay the greatness of the artists who got their feature film starts there and we shortchange a consideration of significant developments that can only be framed productively by the timeframe of a decade. I guess I simply fail to comprehend that way of approaching these decades as markers of the many gifts given to us by the filmmakers who emerge in each of them. ☕︎


Upcoming: 2022 Sight & Sound poll!

The next BFI Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time is only a little more than two years away from being published. It’s been eight years since I last wrote about the poll (here, here, and here). I’m looking forward to seeing whether the the results are going to be shook up by critical developments in the last decade. I’ve been pretty unplugged from movies since going back to school, so the 2010s is a bit of a lost decade for me. But I have two years in which to bolster my cred, so I’m looking for a bit of help before I do my next ballot.

Help me out. What movies do you think I should watch or revisit before I compose my next ballot?

You can post your own current top ten in the comments section. You can just put forth a couple titles that you feel very strongly that everybody ought to see. I’m especially interested in films from the last ten years, but any recommendations will be welcome. I don’t know if I’ll get to all of them, but I’m always keen to know what other people think is the best of the best.

If you want to be extra awesome, you can point me toward an exemplary review or piece of criticism about the film(s) you recommend so I can get a better sense of what makes it so great or worth watching.

In the meantime, I’m still rewatching or checking out films from the AFI’s 100 and the 2012 poll. What have you seen lately that blew your mind?

Thank you!


Disney’s rewatchables

There is a tie between a four different movies with regard to which I have seen the most times in the last six months. My son is old enough now to pay attention to some movies almost all the way through, and he can now specifically ask for certain films. But he invariably asks for the same movie. Over and over and over and over. This seems to be a universal constant among toddlers of my acquaintance whose parents expose them to movies. The upside is being able to share some of our childhood (and adulthood) favorites with our son. The downside is finding out by experience how much of a good thing is precisely too much.

The first big hit with our toddler was The Muppet Movie (1979). Though I had seen it at some point as a kid, I don’t think I really sat through the entire thing until college, and then I fell deeply in love with it. For one thing, it’s a gorgeous film with unbelievable production design and cinematography. Secondly, the music is next-level good. Everybody who loves the Muppets loves “The Rainbow Connection,” which is probably the signature song for the entire franchise, but the other songs and score by Paul Willians and Kenny Ascher are rich, playful, and sincere. I also cannot overstate how much I dig this particular film’s loopy humor, which is good-natured enough to feel like a warm bath, but prickly enough never to descend into sentimentality or empty-headed pep. Finally, what most rewards rewatching is the nuance of the performances. I don’t think I would’ve been capable until maybe only five years ago really to appreciate how invisible the puppetry and technical wizardry is in this film. The Muppet performers wring so much personality out of their puppets—and they edit in just enough special effects—in so many ways that it’s kind of entrancing just to see these people work and to appreciate the fruits of what must have been an insane amount of logistical labor. Nowadays, I suspect that puppeteers could just stand in front of the cameras in green suits and be deleted in post, but every single shot of The Muppet Movie is carefully arranged to get the maximum impact out of the limitations inherent in this kind of artifice. It’s simply amazing.

In a similar vein, The Great Muppet Caper (1981) feels to the adult me like Jim Henson just showing off how much he and his crew can do with puppets. As a kid, this was the only Muppet film I had on VHS (taped off of TV), so it’s the one with which I’m most familiar. The Muppet Movie is more rambling, a bit warmer, a bit more invested in turning the Muppets themselves into big-screen icons. Caper wants to make the Muppets the biggest thing on the planet (and acts as if they already are). At some point, I’d be interested to know how the creative collaboration between director James Frawley and Henson et al. actually worked to make the first movie come alive. Maybe it’s a matter of personality or directorial vision, but it might also just be genre. Muppet Movie is self-consciously a road movie: a little more ramshackle in its plotting, a little more concerned with the sights and interesting characters we meet along the way. It feels a bit counter-cultural in a way later Muppets productions just don’t. 

In any case, Henson clearly constructs The Great Muppet Caper as an homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s. The dial is stuck at “zany,” and it doesn’t budge except once or twice during the musical numbers—of which there are more, and they’re far more elaborate than anything in Muppet Movie. Henson (self-consciously) owes a lot Busby Berkeley in the jaw-dropping song and dance sequences. The fourth-wall-breaking is also more in keeping with the vibe of The Muppet Show, where we’re never allowed to forget that everything here is a performance for our entertainment. I love this movie dearly and with the passion of nostalgia.

Between the two films, I think I’m more in awe of Henson and his crew’s accomplishments in Caper, as well as some surprisingly clear-headedness about the ickiness of Charles Grodin’s villain, whom the film casts as the epitome toxic masculinity. In a franchise where one of Animal’s signature moves is literally to chase and molest women, that kind of insight is welcome. But the frenetic pace and the zany performativity means that, as fun as it is (and it’s a busload of fun), it’s a mite exhausting. What makes The Muppet Movie one of the great films of all time is that it perfectly straddles the line between parodic self-awareness and emotional sincerity. I don’t think that Caper is insincere, per se, but I think the looser aesthetic on Muppet Movie allows for a little more reflection and appreciation. It’s not as exhausting, and its approach to the audience is less grab-you-by-the-lapels and more “Hello, Stranger, come sit by the fire.

It’s worth noting that I have also rewatched Muppets Take Manhattan, Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppets from Space, Muppet Treasure Island, and 2011’s Muppets in the last few months, along with a goodly chunk of the original variety show. Of those, I think I enjoy Muppets from Space the most, in no small part because I think it feels most like The Muppet Movie. The show is, of course, insane and wonderful.

Another of my favorite films of all time is 1964’s Mary Poppins. This is one where my family had the VHS (remember those white, spongy clamshell cases? Anyone?), and I conservatively estimate that I saw the film 60 or more times over the course of my childhood. When I got to be a teenager, I went through an anti-kid-movie phase to prove how adult I was, and then I (thank God) matured beyond that when I entered actual adulthood. I’ve seen Mary Poppins at all stages of my life, and I don’t think there has ever been a time when I did not, in my deepest heart, love it.

A less generous way to put it might be that I’m incapable of viewing the film outside of my own nostalgia for it, which is true. But there have been plenty of childhood favorites that I’ve seen as an adult that have aged quite poorly. I’m not embarrassed by Mary Poppins, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that I’m proud to have absorbed it into my cultural DNA. I don’t think it’s honest or fair for me to talk about my experience of a movie without incorporating my relationship with it into that discussion. In the case of Mary Poppins, though, I think it strives to achieve a certain effect, and for anyone who appreciates that effect in their movie viewing experience, very few films do it quite as well.

Mary Poppins, more than perhaps any other live-action film ever produced by Disney, so adeptly exploits its audience’s desire for escapism while folding the fulfillment of that desire into an encomium for the bourgeois family. When critics rail against the ideology of Disney movies, this is the Platonic ideal of that ideology in movie form. Among its other potential aesthetic sins are its running time (it is a bit long, isn’t it?), its lack of character development for Jane and Michael (and nearly everyone else, for that matter), and maybe one or two other things against which churls find the strength perpetually to grind their axes. (Too much pastel in the art direction, perhaps?) In short, it’s maybe a bit shallow and given to excess. Compelling arguments certainly can and have been made to that effect, and that’s why I think Mary Poppins is so emblematic of the Disney brand itself.

Though I’ve been a Mary Poppins booster for years, I don’t think the case for its greatness would be so necessary had I not seen Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns (2018). Mary Poppins Returns is another Platonic ideal, but of a different kind of film. It’s a sequel that slavishly attempts to replicate the structural, emotional, and aesthetic beats of the first film while at the same time completely missing the point that makes the first film so special. In every way, it’s inferior to the original, with the possible exception of a very capable and charming cast.

It’s almost a problem that the cast of Mary Poppins Returns is so engaging. Mainly, I think the problem is that the film around them is so bad that it makes me resent the film even more for not doing right by them. But it also highlights how difficult it is to recast iconic characters. Replacing Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber with Emily Mortimer and Ben Wishaw is fine, I guess. Mortimer and Wishaw are world-class actors, and they bring a lot to the table. The actual kids in the movie are also fine; I can’t fault any of them, though I also can no longer picture their faces or voices at all. I even think that Emily Blunt is a fine Mary Poppins. Julie Andrews is irreplaceable, and I think that Blunt knows it, so she does what she can; as a charismatic, versatile performer, I enjoyed her on screen, and she was Mary Poppins enough that the fact of her not being Julie Andrews didn’t take me out of the move. More than that, I suspect it’s necessary for Mary Poppins to remain eternally young, so the vagaries of time (and the fact that Andrews herself simply can’t sing like she used to, even if we could do an Old Mary Poppins movie) means that it’s just not an option for the one and only Mary Poppins to actually be in the movie.

The weird thing is when Dick Van Dyke shows up as Mr. Dawes, Jr. In the original film, Van Dyke played Mr. Dawes, Sr., and the character actor Arthur Malet played Dawes, Jr. (You may also remember Malet as Tootles, the Lost Boy who uses the last of the pixie dust to fly back to Neverland at the end of Hook.) It’s only weird because Van Dyke doesn’t play Dawes like Malet did; he plays him like a cool great-uncle. It’s a far cry from the grasping old magnate he portrayed Dawes, Sr. to be, and Malet had played Dawes, Jr. as a bit of an overprotective, unctuous toady, even if he was redeemed a bit by the end of the film. 

If Van Dyke had not shown up at all in Mary Poppins Returns, it wouldn’t really matter. But his presence alone activates all those memories and feeling—which is precisely the filmmakers’ calculation, I think. It’s the classy thing to do to put Van Dyke in the film; it acknowledges the legacy of the original film and gives the audience a bit of fanservice. Fine, but it is also distracting, because literally every other role is recast, and Van Dyke is even recast in a different role. The movie wants to have it both ways: it wants to cash in on all the good will that Van Dyke’s presence alone calls up, but it wants you to buy into all the new people that have taken over the characters you treasure from the first film—and not hold it against Returns that they’re just not the same.

That’s Mary Poppins Returns in a nutshell: everything’s different, but it tries to be exactly the same, even when it can’t be. Just odd and offputting.

Returns spends almost every moment of its running time explicitly invoking the original film, then deviates in the most profound way right at the climax. The 2013 biopic Saving Mr. Banks did an okay job dramatizing the significance of the fact that in the original Mary Poppins, the emotional climax of the film is Mr. Banks (the transcendently engaging David Tomlinson) returning to the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank to face his termination with a stiff upper lip. It’s an extraordinarily affecting scene, and director Robert Stevenson pulls out all the stops in his staging. It’s kind of weird that a movie mostly about the magical adventures of a couple of middle-class kids and their practically perfect nanny climaxes with the story of a man who, at the lowest moment of his life, realizes how much he has to live for: his family. 

It’s a moment that the film sets up, but doesn’t spend most of its time on, so when it arrives, it feels like a sucker punch, but a beautifully executed one. There’s no magic to save Mr. Banks in that moment. His epiphany is slow to come, and it’s mostly instigated by Bert, Van Dyke’s factotum who’s a sort of Greek chorus and fellow traveler. It’s also Bert who explains to the children how much trouble he’s in. Mary Poppins is not even present for these two most crucial scenes of emotional development in the film. She doesn’t need to be. Her work has been more subtle and more encompassing. And the film trusts the audience to be invested in whether or not Banks realizes how important his family ought to be to him. It’s a movie that shows how much more invested the nanny—who ultimately spends, what, three days with the children?—seems to be than the patriarch, then puts the burden on the father to turn his priorities around. That’s the climax. Brilliant.

Returns has the grown-up Michael go through almost the exact same arc, but that’s not the climax of the film. The climax of Returns winds up being a Macguffin hunt where the family (reunited and recommitted to each other) has to race to the bank to prove that it has the deed to the house. It’s a madcap action sequence, and the climax of the film is not a restrained, somberly joyful epiphany, but a spectacle of Mary Poppins herself taking to the sky on her umbrella to hold Big Ben’s ticking just long enough for the Banks family to retain its property by a midnight dealine. 

In short, the emotional arc that makes the original film so great is sidelined in favor of the title character doing something showy and magical to bail everyone out, even after their best efforts fail. To me, that’s the opposite of what makes the original Mary Poppins magical. The 1964 film is about the nanny inspiring every member of the household to put forth their best effort, to reconnect with each other, to live with joy; the 2018 is simply about how awesome Mary Poppins is. She is awesome. She’s practically perfect. But that’s not actually what the original film is about, and apparently nobody making the sequel understood that elemental point.

In 1971, many of the same crew from Mary Poppins, including Stevenson, Richard and Robert Sherman, Bill Walsh, Don DaGradi, and Irwin Kostal, collaborated on Bedknobs and Broomsticks, adapted from the work of Borrowers author Mary Norton. As you may expect, many of the same animators worked on the animated sequences, minus Hamilton Luske. Tomlinson co-stars in the film, playing a happy-go-lucky charlatan, and Angela Lansbury plays a country witch who takes in some orphans during the Blitz. I grew up with Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and as an adult, it’s easy to recognize its raggedy, shaggedy edges, especially in contrast to the much sharper Mary Poppins. For a film set during the war and which climaxes with a Nazi raid on English soil, there’s a strange lack of urgency in it, and even some of the best sequences simply lack the energy that infuses almost every moment of Mary Poppins. 

One of the most memorable sequences, featuring “The Beautiful Briny” (originally written for Poppins), literally has the main cast simply sitting on a bed as it ferries them about a lagoon as if it were a ride at Disneyland itself. The stars themselves, of course, are a good bit older than Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke were when they did Poppins. I dearly love Lansbury and Tomlinson, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything, but there’s simply no way that they could or would perform the same choreography from “Jolly Holiday” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” The film is just not as snappy as Poppins, and so it doesn’t quite hold together as tightly. Mary Poppins itself is really episodic, but those episodes feel much more coherent as a narrative with all the momentum pressing them together.

All the same, Bedknobs is extremely diverting, and my son has really cottoned to Miss Price and Mr. Brown, Lansbury and Tomlinson’s characters. That’s probably the other big difference between this film and Poppins. Even if Andrews and Van Dyke are the star attractions, it’s still about the Banks family. This one is much more about Price and Brown themselves. The kids are just along for the ride. And as in Mary Poppins, Tomlinson is the one who gets to play the most substantial emotional arc, from shameless charlatan to self-sacrificing hero. Lansbury gets a more subtle arc, as she evolves from confirmed spinster (and probably village oddball) to maternal warrior.

On rewatch, I most appreciate some of the smaller touches in the film, like the bond that develops between Brown and Charlie, the oldest kid who is a bit of a scammer himself. I also appreciate how in-the-moment Cindy O’Callaghan is in every scene, like when she’s trying to dance along with the performers in “Portobello Road” or the tears she’s failing to hold back when Mr. Brown is about to leave near the film’s climax. I also really love Roy Snart as the youngest kid, who’s got the most to do of all the kids; he’s got attitude to spare. On the whole, the young actors in Bedknobs are probably more accomplished and more relaxed than Dotrice and Garber, and it really helps the film. It also greatly amuses me that all of Miss Price’s spells are written on pink-backed paper. I have no idea why that choice was made; probably just to make it more visually striking when an animated flying sword flips them all over the place. I also dig that most of the German in the film is not subtitled; it’s easy enough to track what’s happening in those scenes, even without the translation. For some reason, there’s also a clanging ship’s bell whenever the bear that fishes the heroes out of the lagoon manages to stutter out the word “throw.”

As a spectacle, there are two moments I particularly love. First, the football game on the isle of Naboombu is utterly bonkers in the best way. It has a Warner Brothers feel to it that is a welcome tonic after the diverting-but-milquetoast sequence in the lagoon. I also love the shot at the climax of the film that pans across the legions of animated armor standing shoulder to shoulder across a ridge, with Miss Price flying into frame on her broom, silhouetted by the moonlight. The music swells in just the right way, and it feels like a weirdly earned moment. Also, as in Mary Poppins, Tomlinson is the film’s secret weapon, and his arc is the most substantial; he’s a delight.

There are probably a lot of things these films have in common, besides the fact that my toddler seemingly can’t get enough of them. The big one, of course, is that they’re all currently owned by Disney.

This is one of those ineluctable facts that hits harder when I reflect on the fact that I’m now a parent; I’m responsible for the culture my child consumes, and he’s young enough that I actually can filter it more or less successfully. I dearly love the Muppets. I dearly love Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. A lot of it is my own past history with these intellectual properties, but the truth is that I also enjoy them as an adult. I do want to share my enjoyment of these things with my son. But it’s extremely discomfiting to realize that the movies my son seems to enjoy the most are all controlled by a single corporate entity.

And so what if they are? Well, there are probably dozens of academic monographs and articles about the various evils of the Disney corporation. I feel like I don’t need to litigate that case here, because it’s easy enough to find far more recondite versions of it elsewhere than any I could make. It’s not just that the company itself is problematic. It’s that I’m giving it a portal into my toddler’s brain and heart. 

It disturbs me a bit, I admit, not to know precisely what it is about Bedknobs and Broomsticks, for instance, that seems to be so addictive to my son. He has asked to watch it every single day for the past eleven days. It’s not a great film, though it is enjoyable. What is it, though, that makes it so irresistible? Unless I take the time to research child brain development and how Disney’s expert aestheticians have hacked it, I don’t think I’ll ever know. We’ll set that aside for the moment. The fact is that he is far more absorbed in these movies than virtually anything else we put on the screen—and we’ve tried a lot of different (age-appropriate) things. Why? What does Disney know that I don’t? And to what use do they put that power, really?

These are questions that I’ve mostly glossed over in my own life, given that I, too, enjoy Disney products—the MCU being a prime example, but also a lot of artifacts from my own childhood that hold up into adulthood. I can do that because, well, I’m an adult, and that’s my choice. But I’m the on responsible for the choices my toddler is enabled to make. Part of me is glad that he enjoys these movies. Another part of me simply wonders if the Disney formula that was apparently perfected by at least the 1960s is part and parcel of algorithmic culture. If all our brains are eminently hackable because they’ve always already been hacked, and if we perpetuate it because we ourselves just can’t imagine entertainment in substantial ways beyond the Disney bubble.☕︎


Saving Private Ryan ☕︎ d. Steven Spielberg, 1998

By sheer, unfathomable coincidence, I borrowed Saving Private Ryan from the library on June 6th, 2019. I’ve been listening to Unspooled, a tremendously entertaining podcast about the AFI 100, and when Paul and Amy finally got to Private Ryan, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen it in more than a decade, and my wife had never seen it, so we agreed to watch it together this summer. Because I’ve had a lot on my mind and a lot on my plate, it literally did not occur to me that when I picked it up, I was doing so on the anniversary of D-Day itself. So the timing of when I watched it contributed a lot to how I experienced it, and my reflections on the experience are also thus shaded by my own contemporary political context.

Spielberg’s style in this film remains the most consequential thing about it. Calling back to the often grainy, washed-out footage of WWII documentaries, along with the handheld camerawork, Saving Private Ryan establishes for itself a certain kind of cinematic verisimilitude that, for the most part, has endured unmatched in the last couple decades. When I say “cinematic verisimilitude,” I’m placing the emphasis on cinematic. Pre-release hype really hammered on how realistic the film was, and that framing has remained dominant in discussion about the film. 

Having never seen combat, I don’t know if it’s realistic or not. The violence is certainly unflinching, and Spielberg expends a lot of energy really selling how much it hurts to have a bullet in your gut or a shredded stump where a leg or arm used to be. The way he pulls out all the stops to sell that, though, is intensely movie-ish. He dials the sound mix up or down, lowering the incessant chatter of machine guns just long enough to hear a bloodied husk of a man calling for his mommy, then—shriek-BOOM!!!—another mortar explodes to your left, conveniently in time for Michael Kahn to cut to a body being ripped apart by the selfsame artillery shell. It’s all about whatever combination of image and sound Spielberg thinks will hit his viewer the hardest. Even in quieter moments, like a scene where the squad rests up in a church, there’s a hint of an echo in the larger space, making the monologues ever so much more lonely.

All of which is to say that Spielberg is a master craftsman, and it’s worth remembering just how fluently directors of his cohort speak film as a language unto itself. The register of of Private Ryan is informed by countless other war films. Unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson—two masters whose homages sometimes feel like they come with invisible endnotes detailing specific references—Spielberg borrows shamelessly but unerringly from the vast reservoir of cinematic grammar without trying to pull his audience into his own self-consciousness of the borrowing. A Tarantino or Anderson film often looks like a dazzling collage; a Spielberg (and Scorsese and Coppola, etc.) film often tastes like a savory stew. So the cinematic realism of Saving Private Ryan may or may not be historically accurate, but it is if nothing else a distillation of techniques that capture what most moviegoers remember of their wartime experiences, from The Battle of San Pietro to The Longest Day to The Guns of Navarone to All Quiet on the Western Front to Full Metal Jacket. You needn’t have actually been there. But if you’ve seen the movie version, Saving Private Ryan is the realest version of that.

Structurally, the film is pretty tight, with most character beats emerging from organic-feeling dialogue. And Spielberg populates his scenes with an insane number of recognizable faces, even in bits parts that exist purely for expository purposes. But there’s a lot of flab, too. There’s one scene where squad finds itself unexpectedly facing off against a bunch of Germans after a wall crumbles down. It’s tense, it’s a fairly effective reminder that there are no safe spaces in warfare, and it ends in a hail of gunfire. But it doesn’t really do anything to advance the plot or characterizations of anyone in the film. Even thematically, the idea that there are no safe spaces in war is carried through in literally almost every scene. It’s one of those scenes that is fine, it’s great, it seems fitting, but it probably could have been snipped out with nobody the wiser.

Even the Omaha Beach sequence—easily the most celebrated part of the film, and a tour de force—still feels a bit grafted on. I’m not sure if the film would work as well without it, but I’m not sure that it works so much better with it, either. The real story only picks up after the invasion has already been completed. With little difficult, I can imagine an alternate cut of this film which simply opens with the tracking shot of the bodies on Normandy’s beach, landing on one marked “Ryan,” followed by that car driving up the road to the Ryan household as the family matron collapses on the porch.

Shots like that, though, testify to the power that Private Ryan still has, even with the questionable decisions made about its structure. Very few, I suspect, will make the argument that this is Spielberg’s best film. However much he may have agonized in private over his creative decisions, Saving Private Ryan feels supremely confident, and it makes absolute sense in retrospect that the director who finally delivered the WWII statement he’d been refining for decades (Indiana Jones, 1941, Empire of the Sun) would immediately turn around and tackle one of Stanley Kubrick’s unfilmed projects—sure the kind of thing only an auteur sensing himself at the height of his powers could dare to do.

Spielberg struggled with World War II for most of his career, and since delivering Saving Private Ryan, he has not returned to it. I get the impression that his summary statement on the war is less about that war or war itself and more about how we wrestle with war. Do we wrestle with it? Do we weigh our actions? Can we justify a war by how we as a nation conduct ourselves when the war is over? And if the cost of the war is made legitimate by what we do with the victory, has the United States justified itself by its conduct since? In a way, I feel like Spielberg finished his struggle with WWII after Saving Private Ryan, and he ultimately suggests that his audience struggle with it a little more, too. Americans are not good at doing that. We don’t view war as a moral quandary; not as a rule. 

At best, we tend to view war as worth it or not worth it, depending on how much blood or treasure it costs relative to the fruits of victory. The history books with which we flood our elementary and high schools certainly don’t question the moral legitimacy of fighting World War II or how we fought it. They don’t do that with any other war, either. We don’t measure our social progress against the volumes of blood spilled on the battlefield; not unless it’s to exalt America’s greatness.

After twenty years, I feel like it’s not much of a spoiler to recapitulate the finale. Tom Hanks plays a soldier, Captain Miller. He is fatally wounded in the climactic battle. Nearly all of his squad has also just perished trying to hold a strategic position against a German incursion. He and his men ventured deep into enemy territory to rescue a single man—the James Ryan of the title, played by Will Hunting-era Matt Damon—and when they found him, he refused to abandon his own squad. It’s because of Ryan, in essence, that Miller and most of his men have perished. His final words to Ryan: “Earn this. Earn it.”

Do you want to know what I heard echoing in my head as I heard those lines? “You had some very fine people on both sides.”

I think Spielberg displays a certain measure of fitting ambivalence toward war and even toward this particular war. He clearly signals his sympathy for the Allied side, of course. The film is bookended by a flapping American flag; his POV shots of the Germans render most of them as faceless agents of death, with a couple notable exceptions. When Miller and his second-in-command, Sgt. Mike Horvath (played by Tom Sizemore), debate just before the finale about pulling one good thing from this war, what we’re seeing is a decision for self-redemption for these hardened soldiers. Not that Spielberg owes equal time to the Nazis to engage in similar on-screen discourse, but this kind of conversation, held on the Axis side, feels utterly unimaginable in the world created in this film. It’s Americans who get a chance at redemption, and it’s an America family that wrestles with the legacy of the war at the film’s introduction and conclusion.

All of which is to say that the way Spielberg presents the film is often shorn of conventional patriotic trappings. War is a horror show punctuated by brief moments of grace. The one German who gets actual lines is first shown pleading for his life in pathetic, broken English after the squad loses its medic taking a bunker. Rather than conduct an illegal but expedient execution, they let him go. It’s this very German soldier’s bullet that ultimately kills Capt. Miller. If there’s an axiom guiding this film, it’s that no good deed goes unpunished, but it must be done anyway. The world is not made safe for democracy in Saving Private Ryan. The world is simply torn asunder like so much cannon fodder, and a lucky few survive to have the chance to earn the right to have benefitted from their own luck and the sacrifice of others.

This is not a film about how there were fine people on both sides. It’s a film that asks the audience to contemplate what cause could possibly make such violence worth it. I’m not sure that Spielberg (or his screenwriter, Robert Rodat) believe that any cause is worth that level of destruction. But I also doubt that any of the American soldiers who are shown getting stabbed, shot, blown apart, or otherwise bleeding out while screaming in agony would have braved those hazards if they’d believed that the Nazis were “fine people.” 

Spielberg’s ambivalence is toward war, but we know from films like Schindler’s List that his ambivalence does not extend to Nazi ideology. To the extent that we can think of Oskar Schindler as a “fine person,” I guess that Spielberg might say that there were fine people on both sides of World War II. But the “fine people” on the Axis side actively worked to subvert or resist their regimes, or they at least evinced an internal conflict about the righteousness of their cause. Fine people try to smuggle Jews out of concentration camps. Fine people don’t cheer the racist demagoguery of the Nuremberg rallies. One can acknowledge the complicated nature of people swept up in turbulent political events without abandoning a basic moral compass that enables us to exercise a modicum of political judgment.

To praise the valor of a Nazi who gives his life for Germany’s right to commit genocide is like praising the courage of Confederate soldiers who fought to defend the slave states’ rights legally to protect slave ownership. You can acknowledge that many people are fine people within their own cultural contexts. But that doesn’t excuse us from passing judgments on those cultural contexts.

Saving Private Ryan doesn’t even bother to litigate the question of whether WWII was a just war. Nobody in the film questions that. By implication, Spielberg doesn’t question it, either. The war needs to be fought. The Axis powers need to be defeated. The question is how soldiers live with the reality of killing or being killed, and how, in that unforgiving context, to weigh survival and strategic necessity against the essentially irrational dictates of mercy. The fact that Miller attaches some sense of moral obligation  (“Earn this.”) to an act of mercy is a challenge to every American who fails to wrestle with the human cost of war, even a so-called just war. Miller asks a question every American ought to ask herself every time she attends to civic duty.

Have we earned this? I think the answer depends heavily on whether you think that saying there were “fine people on both sides” of the twentieth century’s most consequential political conflict is an adequate way to address fascism, racism, and the erosion of liberal democratic norms.

In 2017, our president, Donald Trump, spent a week trying to figure out if it was worth it politically to issue a blanket condemnation of the neo-nazis, neo-Confederates, and other alt-right trolls who organized United the Right in Charlottesville. He denounced white supremacy. He waffled. He denounced it again. He defended his waffling. More than four thousand Allied soldiers were slaughtered on the beaches and fields of France in 1944 so that Donald Trump and his supporters could waffle about whether there is room in his political tent for the heirs of the Nazi legacy.

Watching Saving Private Ryan in 2019 is an ethical challenge to its American audience, because roughly half of Americans support a president who waxes equivocal about the thuggish rhetoric that motivated the murder of Heather Hyer in Charlottesville in 2017. Roughly half of Americans will recast their vote for an administration that keeps children in concentration camps on its southern border. Roughly half of Americans think that bragging about committing sexual assault is mere “locker room talk”; that same half of Americans thinks that “Send her back!” is a legitimate political response to our president’s racist attacks on the citizens of color who serve in public office.

Does my response to this film strike you as too partisan, or too motivated by political prejudice? I think so, too. Just about the last thing the United States needs is yet another war film with pretenses of being “apolitical” by virtue of the fact that it memorializes our veterans and their fallen brothers and sisters. War is political. War transforms death and survival into politics, because war is always, always about fundamentally political questions. To pretend otherwise dishonors the sacrifices of soldiers—yes, on both sides—and occludes the real reasons why we need to remember what those sacrifices are supposed to mean. 

Soldiers don’t die for nothing. Soldiers always die for something. What that something is: that’s always a political question. I don’t think it would be right to apologize for bringing partisanship into a discussion of Saving Private Ryan. If we want to have a serious discussion about what America stands for or what our soldiers fought and died for on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, and in the hills (to paraphrase Churchill), then we’d better take seriously the question of whether we have earned it—whether we are earning this. Do you watch Saving Private Ryan and remind yourself that there are fine people on both sides? Or do you think Spielberg shows you those boys getting butchered because they’re fighting for a country that can—and ought—to do better than it often does? More importantly, what does doing better even look like?

Anyway, that’s what this movie had me thinking about on June 6, 2019. I felt really ashamed. ☕️

 


Network ☕︎ d. Sidney Lumet, 1976

If you’ve seen Network, you undoubtedly remember the climax of the famous “mad as hell” scene, when Max Schumacher (William Holden) leans out his window and we observe, with him, people shouting out of their rain-soaked tenements as a thunderstorm rumbles overhead. “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Having not seen the film in more than a decade, what struck me with the force of a thunderclap in that moment was that those shots are a direct precursor to Twitter. 

You can imagine it, can’t you? #madashell

It surprised me a bit to learn that Paddy Chayefsky—who had negotiated final cut authority into his contract in order to protect the integrity of his script—was always a bit tetchy at how that line became an instant meme (as we now might call it). To him, it was just another line of dialogue. To me, rewatching this film in the context of 2019, it illuminates the difference between his priorities as a screenwriter and the directorial vision of Sidney Lumet. Chayefsky protected his dialogue obsessively, but he was also totally immersed in the holistic critique of his story, of which Peter Finch’s Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves, is only one component, and that speech one component of that component. 

Lumet must have understood how apocalyptic that scene needed to be in order to underscore the elation of Faye Dunaway’s sociopathic producer, Diana Christensen, who is delighted to hear that people are shouting in cities across the country. Lumet also must have understood that he needed to underscore the Schumacher’s baffled resignation. It’s a big moment, perfectly realized. The camera closes in on Finch, making him tower over us as he builds to his rapturously indignant call to arms. But as he stalks toward the studio camera, repeating the line, Lumet traces the impact of it through Diana and Max. She bustles through UBS HQ, making cross-country phone calls and cackling with delight without ever poking her head outside to see the people who have roused themselves from their sofas to answer Beale’s call. Max, surrounded by a family from whom he will depart, momentarily, into Diana’s cold embrace, is the one who experiences firsthand the resounding peel of emotional thunder that responds to Beale’s lightning flash of prophetic anger.

Diana quickly, efficiently harnesses that moment and transforms it into a mass-produced echo chamber. The next time we hear the line is from the crowd in Beale’s revamped news studio. They’re mad as hell, all right. And they are riveted to the spectacle of cyclical denunciation.

In his book, Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, Dave Itzkoff quotes Chayefsky telling the New York Times, “Television is democracy at its ugliest.” The screenwriter was taken aback by how virulently many of his colleagues in the TV industry reacted to Network; in his mind, he was attacking the institutionalized corporate networks—the impersonal system—that reduced humanity to exploitable, expendable numbers and the immense power that mass media commanded in enabling that process. To them, he has attacking their individual good will and professionalism. Then as now, I think that people who put mass or social media to good use fail to appreciate the degree to which we enable our worst impulses. 

Because I spend a moderate chunk of time reading think pieces about the dangers inherent in our uncritical dependence on our telecommunications technologies and the digital platforms which allow us to use them (and which allow them to use us), I’m often shocked by how many people—many of them younger, but plenty who are my age or older—regard them as fundamentally democratic. They enjoy their memes, they enjoy being able to connect with friends, and they attach great value both to #activism and the ability of traditionally under-acknowledged stories to get traction with the public. (The institutional racism of law enforcement and its often deadly consequences being a prime example.) When I mention the ugly side of our telecom technologies, they’re quick to acknowledge it, but it never occurs to them that, on balance, such technologies may be more harmful than helpful, especially given who ultimately controls and profits from them. 

At best, they assume that tools are neutral. Jaron Lanier himself probably couldn’t disabuse them of that notion. Or, like Max Schumacher, we might all acknowledge how toxic these platforms might be, and we embrace them regardless.

It’s a real testament to Lumet that he balances the visible and near-invisible ways that we are absorbed by our media. On the one hand, there’s the hideously outré decor of Beale’s studio once he becomes the mad prophet of the airwaves. We’re meant to notice and cluck ruefully at how any audience could get suckered in by such gaudy audacity. 

But then there’s the degree to which the costuming of the characters forces them to blend into their surroundings. Almost every character in this film always looks like a part of the furniture, whether it’s at the office or home. Lumet’s deliberate cuts in Arthur Jensen’s showstopping speech to Beale draw us—like Beale—closer and closer to identification with Ned Beatty’s commanding performance. And when he finally disappears into a voice emanating from the shadows, it’s easy to feel that we, too, have witnessed a revelation of cosmic truth. The only time Lumet really gives us an outside perspective is in the opening and closing shots of the film, when multiple television screens remind us of the artificial realities constructed by the mass media and how completely they can control how we view events affecting us. Even if we’re active participants, the form of our participation is controlled, as when Beale’s audience parrots his meme-ified catch phrase.

Chayefsky’s genius was to recognize that corporate mass media in the 1970s, however centralized into a few national networks, was in part of democracy’s fabric, and often a platform for democracy’s worst impulses. In 2019, I don’t think our situation has changed, save for one fundamental shift. In 1976, Chayefsky allegorically targeted the transnational networks by portraying them as characters like Max, Diana, Beale, etc. The audience was just the undifferentiated audience. Now? Our platforms have made us the network. We are all Diana, Max, and Beale. ☕️


It Follows ☕︎ David Robert Mitchell, 2014

It is utterly invigorating to witness two essential ingredients of filmmaking come together in a big way: 1.) a director who knows precisely what he’s doing and 2.) a filmmaking team with the chops to make that vision happen. Even someone who is not a horror connoisseur (like me) can spot the influence of John Carpenter all over It Follows, but not at all in the way of imitation. It’s probably fair to dub it homage, but that doesn’t feel quite right, either. This is the work of a team of artists who have used Carpenter’s (and probably Dario Argento’s) toolkit to build something uniquely theirs.

Mitchell’s particular brilliance in this film is that the central conceit and how he plays it out is highly suggestive of multiple themes, but ultimately evades functioning as an allegory. As numerous others have already observed, It Follows sounds like an urban legend: an entity that tracks and tries to kill you because you have slept with the previous person the entity was following; if you die, the entity returns to tracking the previous quarry. The only way to stop the entity is to have sex with another person, passing it on to them and hoping that they pass it far enough along that it buys you sufficient time.

Based on this premise, it’s easy to imagine a film that treats It as a representation of the fear of venereal disease, or maybe a reactionary propaganda piece cautioning against sex positivity. But it’s really not. Not exactly. You might also think that it’s about the inevitability of death, or maybe about teenagers’ burgeoning awareness of how sex and death are related to their cosmic situation. That’s not exactly it, either. I mean, it’s about all those things, of course, but so are so many other horror stories.

A couple other elements really complicate this film. For one, the emotional arc of the main characters is less about sexual hangups and far more about the ethics of sentencing another person to death for the sake of your own survival. And if not your own, then what about the people who have passed it on before you? Should you simply let yourself die and throw the problem back on people who have already washed their hands of it?

Another facet of this is Mitchell’s use of location. Mostly, the movie hangs out in a Detroit suburb where it could be 2019 or 1981. What’s interesting is how the teens make use of urban and rural spaces. The city is where they go to get their needs met: Jay (Maika Monroe) goes there to hook up with Hugh (Jake Weary), who passes It to her; it’s where Hugh had his house away from home; it’s also where the teens go to confront the entity in the film’s climax, with an abandoned hospital as the site of their battle. The country is where they go literally to get away from It. They retreat to a beach house and hang out there attempting to recoup and gather their thoughts; it’s at a rural hospital that Jay first makes the decision to pass It along to someone else, and it’s in the country that she submits herself to a random encounter with some dudes on a boat. There’s something going on in the way that the major transactions in the film take place outside the suburbs, but the ‘burb is where they do most of their waiting and watching. No location in It Follows is free of dread, but the suburban neighborhood seems to be a place of stasis, the place to which all inevitably return.

Then there’s the shape of the entity itself, which in all but one instance takes the form of a dead—or seemingly dead—person. It usually appears in underclothes, to boot. What ups the ick factor is knowing that when the entity kills its quarry, it mounts the body in a ghoulish fit of ecstasy. Not every form it takes is someone that It has killed previously, but I strongly suspect that several of them are, raising the question of how previous hosts tried to get rid of It, and upon whom.

All of these choices—the location hopping, the forms of the entity—draw attention to the power dynamics involved in the life and death choices the protagonists make throughout the film, implicating a long, long line of previous hosts and perhaps suggesting something about how youth, race, class, and privilege factor into who lives, who dies, and when in America. Maybe.

None of these thematic suggestions would matter if the film weren’t so expertly shot (courtesy Mike Gioulakis) and edited (thanks to Julio C. Perez IV), if the score wasn’t so propulsive and haunting, and if the production design hadn’t absolutely nailed down the milieu. The performances in the cast are artless and winning, if not polished, and it works in the film’s favor. Mitchell’s careful attention to depth and framing really pay off throughout the film, accruing subtle power right until the final two shots of the film, in which the ambiguity of his themes culminate in the shocking realization of how far our protagonists have come and what they’re capable of doing. A final shot that in any other film might be a gesture of hope is framed by the relentless follower as a sign of both resiliency and damnation. The fact that we never cease to empathize is really a mark of Mitchell’s gifts as a storyteller. ☕️


Escape from L.A. ☕︎ d. John Carpenter, 1996

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Whatever John Carpenter says, I can’t say that this sequel is “ten times better” than the original. Having re-watched Escape from New York in April, I was anxious to revisit L.A.; I have fond memories of watching it in the 90s. It holds up as a story: there’s lots of great dialogue and a brutal finale that really triples down on Snake Plissken being a genuine antihero, maybe closer to an antivillain. The who’s who cast makes a meal of their scenes (I especially enjoyed Pam Grier, Steve Buscemi, and George Corraface). The action sequences feel a bit sluggish, but they’re legible, and they deliver some cool moments.

I guess I don’t even have an issue with the fact that it basically cribs so much from New York. Carpenter seems very consciously to be reworking and revising his motifs and thematic statements from the first film. That’s a feature, not a bug. The fact that Snake feels so much more beleaguered in this film from having to hop through virtually the same hoops is, I suspect, part of the point. It’s what motivates his choices at the end. And there’s something really bravura about how Escape from L.A. manages to be even more cynical about politics in the era of Clintonian Pax Americana than when the mutually-assured destruction of the Cold War was still on the table. By taking specific aim at American imperialism and the domestic hypocrisies that support it (though he also clearly has no patience for tinpot dictators who promise hope and change through revolutionary violence), Carpenter indicates that the world may in fact be a much darker place than it was in 1981.

But it does at times feel more like a reboot than a rework. Carpenter is working with an exponentially larger budget than New York, and sometimes it feels bloated. Those sluggish action scenes feel sluggish in some ways because I think they’re a bit too long.  In the climax, Carpenter spends a lot of time letting Plissken and his comrades swoop around in gliders, shooting randos and dropping firebombs, but it looks like they’re in a literal holding pattern for a chunk of the sequence, just so Carpenter can pad out the scene with more fireballs and shots of automatic weapon fire knocking dudes off their feet.

This padding is especially cringey during the insertion sequence, when Plissken pilots a submersible to Los Angeles, which is now an island. In New York, the scene where Plissken flies his glider to the World Trade Center is quiet and tense; the computer graphics are limited mostly to the display in the cockpit, where their crudeness plays a bit better and suggests the constraints with which Snake is struggling. In Escape from L.A., Carpenter lavishes the audiences with CG shots of the sub underwater, dodging around the ruins of greater Los Angeles. If the CG held up at all, this would be cool. But it doesn’t. It looks horrid, and even for the time, it was inexpertly done. Giant CGI sequences were never Carpenter’s bag, and his inexperience really shows in that scene, making it both laughable and dull. There are any number of ways that Carpenter could have avoided this, not least of which was just slicing the insertion sequence out; I don’t think the film would’ve been weaker for not having an undersea inversion of the flight sequence from the original.

Escape from L.A. is fun, and it is a treat that Kurt Russell got to reprise his iconic role and cement his iconic badassery with one of the best endings of Carpenter’s career. There’s a lot here to chew on, and it is better than its reception at the time (and thereafter) suggests. Just not ten times better. ☕️


Certain Women ☕︎ d. Kelly Reichardt, 2016

Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Lily Gladstone play three variations of quiet desperation as women seeking fulfillment in a relatively sleepy Montana burg. This is the kind of drama that I think is often dubbed “well-observed,” and it is in some ways. The actors certainly make the most of their partitioned screen time, split among three stories that—apart from taking place in and around Livingston—have basically nothing to do with each other, plotwise. Not just the three leads, but all the actors in the cast find ways to convey the lives lived by their characters. It’s really an amazing ensemble effort. 

But I feel ambivalent about Reichardt’s direction here. (The last film of hers that I saw was Wendy and Lucy, which was quite powerful.) Even with her deft sense of pacing and staging, there’s something about this film that feels… touristy. It’s a well-observed triptych, directorally, in the sense that Reichardt gives you a strong sense of what she sees as an outside observer; someone with innate empathy. But none of these stories feels like it’s being told from the inside, quite. They feel almost anthropological. The vibe I got from the film might be more of a projection on my part than something intrinsic. As a Midwesterner, I feel like stories told about Middle America are rarely told by people who really know these places and these people. I’ve visited Montana, but I don’t know it. Certain Women feels like the kind of stories I might tell if I set them in Montana, but not the stories that someone from Montana might tell. And I think that’s in some ineffable way down to Reichardt, who has a clear vision of the stories she wants to tell, but in this film, I’m not sure she has a clear sense of why these stories must be set here. It’s a weird criticism to offer, and I can’t really back it up by anything other than impression.

Maybe I’ll change my mind. I haven’t read the stories by Maile Meloy from which the film is adapted. Then again, just because the source material is written by a native to the region doesn’t mean the adaptation will capture it from the inside in the same way.

I felt the most connected to Gladstone’s character, who develops an asymmetrical attachment to Kristen Stewart’s lawyer. The loneliness in that story was palpable and unique in a way that the frustrations in the other stories felt articulate and universal. But it was only unique in that Gladstone’s rancher felt truly individualized, which in itself made her yearning feel less like a fictive conceit and more like an expression of unaffected empathy.☕️


Captain Marvel ☕︎ d. Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, 2019

This was the first Marvel movie I missed seeing in the theater since I foolishly skipped Avengers in 2012. At the time, I was genuinely upset that I couldn’t make it. In retrospect, I guess I don’t feel like I missed out on that experience, though it certainly would have been preferable to Endgame. I hate to frame any discussion of a film in terms of problems, but the big problem with Captain Marvel is that it centers on a character who has no idea who she is. In theory, I love the idea of playing with the trope of an origin story being about the main character figuring out who she’s supposed to be now that superpowers (and the accompanying responsibilities) have been thrown into the mix. Captain Marvel just literalizes the metaphor. But I think there’s a difference between two kinds of internal conflict. 

One kind of conflict is an internal struggle to figure out what it means to be a superhero (as in the case of Tony Stark, Stephen Strange, Peter Parker, etc.). Does having power make you simply more of who you already are? Does it present you a chance to really change? Or is the struggle to hold onto who you already are, as opposed to changing? These are all very profound questions, and in the most successful superhero movies, the conflict between the hero and villain is a representation of that kind of struggle.

The other kind of conflict is just plain bafflement, which is something new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Brie Larson—who does her damndest to channel 1980s Harrison Ford, and basically succeeds in terms of charismatic bravado—is saddled with having to hold together an entire movie when she’s supposed to be playing a character who doesn’t even really know what kind of struggle she’s supposed to be having. So the heavy lifting Larson has to do is utterly visible at all times. Enormously watchable though she is, her performance itself feels like watching Tom Cruise catch a bead of his own sweat so that all the alarms in the world won’t wake us up to the fact that Carol Danvers is a total cipher. 

As I expect with most MCU films, Captain Marvel is entertaining, colorful, and full of delightful supporting characters. I did not expect the youngification of Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg to work so seamlessly. Akira Akbar is a scream, and Ben Mendelsohn gets to play an actual character here, without sacrificing his hammy charm. Lashana Lynch and Annette Bening play Strong Women™, doing their best to wring a some juice out of thankless supporting roles.

As I also expect with too many MCU films, Captain Marvel does not present its hero with a memorable villain. Instead, it borrows a couple villains from Guardians of the Galaxy, and it also posits Jude Law as a credible threat, which he ultimately is not. The lack of a strong central villain is probably a reflection of the film not presenting a strong vision of its central character. This is one of those cases where the sequel is primed to leap light years ahead of its predecessor, if only because it can hit the ground running with its lead character already snapped sharply into focus.☕️


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