Those with a dream to fulfill have a better chance of survival. This is the idea put forth to Diego Fairman, a once-famous film director, as he lies in his hospital bed. He’s dying of cancer at the moment, given only a few months to live, his body ransacked by the disease at every turn. Diego’s life outside his body has been ransacked, too, the cancer boiling within him such that deep issues in his marriage, his family and his work all bubble to the surface. The ailing artist knows he wants to survive, but he doesn’t yet know that this means more than simply “staying alive.” Even if you’re in perfect health, your chances of survival are better with a dream to fulfill.
My Hindu Friend unfurls the story of Diego (Willem Dafoe) methodically, with the mixture of matter-of-fact realism and dreamlike romanticism that one should expect from writer/director Héctor Babenco. The former finds grounding in Pixote, Babenco’s documentary-esque 1980 film about Brazil’s delinquent youth; elements of the latter can be traced to Kiss of the Spider Woman, Babenco’s transcendent 1985 endeavor to bring Latin American magical realism into the mainstream. It’s fitting that Babenco’s own art impact My Hindu Friend, as the film is based on true events from his life. Inasmuch as Diego is a stand-in for Babenco, the inextricability of art and “survival” is always at the forefront.
One of the best collections available on the Criterion Channel is one called Film Plays Itself, a self-reflexive assemblage of movies about movies. Here you’ve got your classics, like Sunset Boulevard and 8½. You’ve got your “out-there” stuff, like the experimental Symbiopsychotaxiplasm or Godard’s New-Wave Contempt. And you’ve got some modern triumphs like The Player and Adaptation. Each of these sort of screams CINEMA! in a not-so-subtle way, which is not a knock against them so much as a bit of a prerequisite for inclusion on the Criterion Channel in the first place. But the highbrow reek of such an overly-academic, carefully-cultivated program of thinkfilms threatens to become overbearing without any deviance — or at least it would, if not for Hollywood Shuffle.
In the mid-1980s, Robert Townsend saw the same problem that every black actor saw in Tinseltown: you either play a criminal, a convict, a slave or some combination of the three. Moreover, depictions of those figures were by and large stereotyped approximations rather than actual characters. Shuffle sparked when a white casting director turned Townsend down for a role because he “wasn’t black enough,” and Townsend recognized this as a brand of systematic racism baked into Hollywood itself. He only had to look to the local cinema at the time for evidence: the sole major studio production with black leads in the 1985-’86 movie season was The Color Purple, written and directed and produced by white men and a clear-cut case of overly-sentimental, stereotypical depictions of black men and women on the silver screen.
The Coen Brothers have been on my mind as of late. They usually are, granted, but especially so now that we’ve made the (ill-advised?) decision to dive into a complete Coen retrospective in our Director Series column. That means we’ve signed up for a lot of likable characters making drastically dumb decisions against a lovingly-rendered period America and a deep bench of memorable supporting players. You want pitch-black comedy? You got it. You want films that actually earn the moniker neo-noir? You got it, again and again. So how about a little break from the Coen-verse? Perhaps a new indie flick on Amazon to shake things up? Sure. Nice change of pace.
Rather than a standard film review, we’ve been compiling a visual glossary of likely inspirations in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master. Huge props go to Fandor, A Bittersweet Life and various others for compiling similar versions of this over the years. We’ll periodically update this article with new additions as we find them, so hit the comments at the bottom if you think you’ve spotted another visual cue.
The films of the Safdie Brothers tend to share a few recognizable qualities. Most apparent is the kinetic, stressful energy with which each of their films unfolds, a ride that weaves unexpectedly while continuously approaching a breakneck speed. Those weaves are almost always a result of character decisions, though, and I respect that the Brothers keep memorable figures at the fore through even their most plot-twisty jaunts. They seem drawn to slightly-delusional protagonists, too, if not fully-delusional, and so the common logline usually follows a familiar trajectory: Main Character makes increasingly dumb decisions and pays for it. And then there’s the street-level realism, from the single-parent struggles of Daddy Longlegs to the exploration of addiction in Heaven Knows What to the petty life of crime in Good Time.
So why does Uncut Gems feel so different? Increased production value, sure, and an increased profile to match. Before Gems the Safdies weren’t household names unless you caught Good Time, which most probably saw for Robert Pattinson more so than the directors. And of course Gems not only has the excitement of Sandler returning to a dramatic role, but also his most remarkable performance ever (fight me!) as Howard Ratner. These things alone set this particular Safdie outing apart.
Marianne, the artist and main character of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, invites us to know her immediately. Look at the way I sit, she says. Take time to look at me while I pose. Look at the way I hold my hands, she says, before her fist involuntarily clenches at the sight of an old painting of hers. A scene later Marianne is no longer posing, but we take time to look at her face when she sees her painting equipment go over the side of a boat. We see her foot find purchase on the boat’s edge, we see the briefest flicker of uncertainty, and we feel we know her a little better when she dives into the water.
How well can one really know another, though? Even under constant observation, even if the subject is unaware of the observer’s gaze, can that space between ever fully be bridged? Sciamma’s Portrait, a brilliant and surefooted romance captured passionately onscreen, asks this of Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The latter is introduced first under a figurative veil of secrecy — we’re told that the last painter who attempted Héloïse’s portrait was “unable to finish” — and then under a literal one, provided by a black cloak and a series of obscure camera angles. We’re with Marianne the whole time, wondering about Héloïse and her secrets.
Bernard Malamud wrote The Natural, his debut novel, in 1952, the year the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. The tale of once-promising baseballer Roy Hobbs was almost universally praised upon the novel’s release, with many championing it as the first great novel about baseball. Critical consensus, though, agreed that the actual baseball — the strategy, the technicalities, the game — mattered less than the fable at hand. In some ways the myth behind Roy Hobbs was more interesting than Roy Hobbs. The original New York Times review from August ’52 typifies this stance in describing the novel thusly:
a sustained and elaborate allegory in which the “natural” player who operates with ease and the greatest skill, without having been taught, is equated with the natural man who, left alone by, say, politicians and advertising agencies, might achieve his real fulfillment.
Last year, 2018, was the biggest year ever at the domestic box office. There were some great movies, sure, regardless of their financial success, but it still felt like a weird year for Hollywood. The dark pall cast by the Weinstein case revealed the industry to be hopelessly stuck in the past (to understate the matter), run by rich white men and increasingly monopolized media conglomerates. Green Book winning Best Picture did not help.
So, how did 2019 respond? Essentially in two ways:
Martin Scorsese refers to Marvel movies as “not cinema”. He goes on to clarify and reclarify his position, which is in turn either refuted or bolstered by nearly everyone in Hollywood. But the point is out there now, whether you agree or not: there’s the Hollywood that cares about money, about starpower, about IP, about all four quadrants, about comic-book fandoms and release calendars and streaming services and cosplay-riddled convention hall trailer reactions; and yet, somewhere, there’s still the Hollywood that truly cares about the movies, quaint an idea as that may be. Partly due to Scorsese’s willingness to speak truth to power, many spent 2019 redefining and rediscovering cinema.
I watched about 100 new movies in 2019 and it seemed like Adam Driver was in most of them. The first one I saw was Alita: Battle Angel and the last one was The Two Popes, both of which were full of guns-blazing action. Chris Evans holds the distinction of starring in the year’s biggest (Avengers: Endgame), one of the year’s best (Knives Out) and also one of the year’s absolute worst (The Red Sea Diving Resort). And just when you thought toxic discourse about Star Wars fandom couldn’t explode any further, The Rise of Skywalker and Baby Yoda brought us to the brink of an Alderaan-level event.
But those aren’t the stats you care about. You just came for the best:
One of the most intriguing films of the past year is Dragged Across Concrete, S. Craig Zahler’s violent, hardboiled yarn about two misogynistic and racist cops (Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn) taking the law into their own hands. The film plays as a far-right (or even alt-right) fantasy, the two white leads lamenting “political correctness” while they harass witnesses and suspects who are exclusively non-white. Even the casting of Gibson and Vaughn is loaded. But Concrete hinges on the question of whether Zahler actually agrees with the mentality of his own film, whether he’s playing a larger game in giving us these exact characters at a time when everything else out of Hollywood is either liberal-minded or four-quadrant neutral. Short of an answer, the question alone makes Concrete into one of 2019’s most provocative films.
Part of me thinks In the Company of Men is the Dragged Across Concrete of the ‘90s. Playwright Neil LaBute adapted his own 1992 play about two white company men — one a sworn and highly vocal misogynist (Aaron Eckhart) and the other an angry and impressionable wimp (Matt Malloy) — into an award-winning commentary on vitriolic corporate culture and the weak men who historically dominate that culture. Rarely has a film about workplace gender wars been this explicit, this horrifying, this willing to jump right into battle rather than dwell on why the fight began in the first place. And rarely has this war seemed so woefully one-sided.
Political turmoil always breeds strange artistic phenomena, and the movies are no exception. As the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue reclines in the West Wing, bone spurs resting beside the crumpled Wendy’s bag upon the Resolute Desk, one such phenomenon we’ve witnessed recently is that of Art as Response. In this scenario a filmmaker — like, say, Steven Spielberg — will work quickly to produce a movie — say The Post — as an active comment on whatever’s happening (or not happening) in the Oval Office. A second phenomenon involves us, the filmgoers and cinemalovers, and the way we inexorably view almost any new movie in the context of today’s political climate. A given film — like, say, Joker — might not actually hold inherent wisdom about that climate, but it’d be impossible for us to read it any other way.
Yet a third consequence of that intermingling of art and politics is even more inevitable than the second, despite it not concerning new art at all: a film — like, say, All the President’s Men or The Candidate or Charlie Wilson’s War or V for Vendetta or Dave or Idiocracy — reaches out from the past and seemingly connects with today in a way that defies explanation. It’s an experience somewhat related to the prescience of the sci-fi genre, and certain practitioners like George Orwell or Michael Crichton definitely had a penchant for it. I’d never considered Stephen King among that crowd of writers whose works could achieve time travel, politically speaking, but that was before I encountered The Dead Zone.