As far as indicators of things to come are concerned, Blood Simple has everything you need to know about the Coen Brothers right there in the opening. Okay, maybe not everything — after all, daring to think you’ve nailed down the Coens is, as critic David Edelstein put it, “a sure way of looking like an ass.” The most immediate hallmark is a somewhat superficial one, what with Blood Simple sporting the same exact opening (drawling narration over barren establishing shots) as later Coen films The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Men. But from there, the way light and shadow pass through Blood Simple serves as a solid marker of the artistry for which the first-time filmmakers would someday be known.
After the opening narration, credits roll over Abby (Frances McDormand) and Ray (John Getz) having a conversation in the car at night. The credits don’t roll, actually, but flash brightly whenever passing headlights illuminate the car’s interior. The pair have a cryptic conversation about Abby leaving Marty (Dan Hedaya) to be with Ray, and in the next scene they’re rolling around in a motel room bed, headlights from the highway still illuminating them briefly.
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:
The first scene of E.T. wouldn’t be the same in any other medium. Wordless, shadowy and purposefully obscure, there’s still a ton of information conveyed through visuals alone. Spielberg was (and maybe still is) a fan of this kind of opening, eschewing expository positioning in favor of details that might strike as somewhat disorienting at first. There are fifteen or so characters here, all of them faceless. But even though we don’t get an instance of “Spielberg Face” — his beloved reaction shot of a wonderstruck visage, eyes wide, mouth agape — there’s still plenty to gawk at in these few short minutes.
Here’s the opening scene (jump to 1:10 to skip the opening credits):
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.
It ain’t always fun, the movies. Amongst this year’s least-fun pictures we probably have the likes of Alita: Battle Angel, Glass, Dark Phoenix and Gemini Man, all of which share in common a clear prioritization of special effects over storytelling. They’re also united in the fact that production was rocky in every instance, be it years of limbo or last-minute hackjobs in the editing bay, though that’s not necessarily synonymous with a bad film. Production on one of this year’s best, The Lighthouse, was described by its own director as “tense” and “cold”. No fun to be had in making that movie. Only in watching it.
In a pre-recorded clip before the New England premiere of Knives Out, writer/director Rian Johnson — whilst thanking us for seeing the film and imploring us not to spoil it — said flat out that making it was “a blast.” It’s not hard to believe, and evident from the film’s very first scenes: everyone in front of the camera (Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and a million others) breezes through having the time of their lives. And Johnson, too, exudes a confidence here as both a writer and a director that can only be borne of exciting material in the hands of a craftsman coming into his prime.
The ambition of Robert Eggers was apparent after his debut The Witch, a one-of-a-kind horror film steeped in deeply-felt folklore. The dialect, the costumes and settings, the sound design and the themes were all clearly the result of hard research and dedication to period accuracy rarely realized in modern film. Eggers himself, who presented a special IFFBoston screening of his follow-up The Lighthouse at Boston’s Brattle Theatre last night, acknowledged the explicit attempt to “commune with the folk culture of the region” in crafting his debut. But while that hard behind-the-scenes work was definitely still required by The Lighthouse, less of it shows in the final product, resulting in a more mature effort that still values the power of myth and lore.
Atmosphere is everything. In the lead-up to the film’s premiere at Cannes in May, much was made of the film’s unique aesthetic choices. Despite the popularity of Roma and Cold War last year, the mere concept of a black-and-white format remains alienating to many audiences (and financiers). Shooting on 35mm gives that black-and-white an extra characteristic, with the blacks bottoming out into nothingness. Additionally, A24 posted this snippet from the Lighthouse script in reference to the boxy, unpopular aspect ratio that’s been largely defunct since the early sound era:
Seemingly the most off-putting of these choices by Eggers is the one it shares with The Witch: dialogue comprised of archaic vernacular and dialect, delivered in an accent that also aims to fit the time and place. Eggers and his co-writer brother Max wrote “in-dialect,” rather than writing in plain English and then translating, and the effect — as was the case with Witch — takes a minute to groove once the dialogue begins. And there’s a lot of dialogue in The Lighthouse.