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The Rings of Power — Season 1

J.R.R. Tolkien would not enjoy The Rings of Power.

Wait! Before you roll your eyes and seek out a piece with a less whiny opening line, know that this is a generally favorable review of the Amazon series inspired by Tolkien’s creations. Much has been written already about the liberties taken by showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, and sure: there are diversions, detours and a significant condensing of the timeline of Middle-Earth throughout the show’s first season, some of which result in frustrating missed opportunities. Entire diatribes have been dedicated to lamenting the fact that the Rings of Power elves have short hair, or that the Númenóreans should technically be like nine feet tall, or that mithril or the palantíri work very differently here (Erik Kain at Forbes has basically made a career these last few months mewling about what a “betrayal” the series is, at least when he’s not writing hard-hitting articles about Today’s Wordle Hints). So enough has been laid in print already detailing Power‘s departures from Tolkien’s source material, and yes, it’s all technically accurate.

And yet I have a hard time believing Tolkien would really give a shit about that. Before diving into why — and before getting to what the author’s real beef with the show would probably be — we’ll first issue a spoiler warning for The Rings of Power‘s first season.

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Tár (2022)

Tár is perhaps not the most exciting title ever conceived for a film, but a character as narcissistic as Lydia Tár wouldn’t dare permit any confusion about who’s in charge here. This is her story, and in Tár’s mind that means she alone is the owner of that story. A story, a piece of music, a relationship, a marriage — these are not conversations or discussions, not malleable things that allow for multiple participants. These are possessions, shouldered entirely by their owner, and in a way those possessions define the identity of the owner herself. Any attempt by another to repossess those things, then, would be akin to destroying that identity.

If you’ve ever found yourself in contention with a true narcissist, you know how threatening that idea really is. Here, in Todd Field’s first film in sixteen years (his previous being the excellent Little Children), Cate Blanchett gives her all as the embattled and egomaniacal Tár, a decorated classical conductor on the verge of completing a massive cycle of Mahler’s symphonies. At first, the success Tár enjoys seems well-earned. She credits her mentors, gives back to the community and has amicable relationships with her assistant and her guest conductor. As the recording session for the final symphony approaches, though, we begin to see how Tár’s success has been built on a sinister foundation.

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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Good action direction is its own beast, a delicate balance of choreography, cinematography and editing that usually has two distinct goals: be exciting and be coherent. Those goals can be at odds, of course, as the more frantic and fast-paced an action sequence gets, the more likely it is to lose the viewer. 2002 was a watershed year for the actioner with the release of The Bourne Identity, which sported a super-fast-cutting editing style that worked brilliantly in its best moments; Bourne Supremacy, the sequel, doubled-down on this technique and arguably set the bar even higher than its predecessor. But many of the films that aped Bourne in the ensuing years failed to balance those two goals, resulting in messy fight scenes and chase sequences that were hard to follow. Heck, there are even a few moments in the trilogy-capping Bourne Ultimatum that lose the thread of logic in their haste.

I suppose that’s preferable to the other alternative, which is an action scene that focuses so intently on retaining an internal logic that it fails to be exciting (looking at you, Obi-Wan Kenobi). But neither are an issue in Mad Max: Fury Road, which is quite straightforwardly one of the best action movies ever made. The sheer amount of tomfoolery occurring onscreen should be utterly disorienting, with Max fighting his way over moving vehicles as they careen across the desert, pursued by several distinct war parties, some of whom have these pole-vault-looking thingies that launch attackers into the air high above those moving vehicles, and that’s not to mention the action of the landscape around them as sandstorms and falling cliffsides lend additional pressure from all sides…oh, and Max is literally chained to another person for like half of this. Follow all that?

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Johnny Guitar (1954)

Strong female character is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in woke film crit, and it’s probable that the arbiter of this particular criteria should maybe be someone other than weak male film critic — but here we are. Watching a movie as fantastic as Johnny Guitar, it’s hard not to wonder if the phrase is in fact more often applied to female characters who basically act like male characters, resorting easily to physical and verbal violence. The leads in Captain Marvel and Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow are handy in a fight, sure, but they also lack flaws, for the most part, and therefore lack real complexity. Holding those characters up as the gold standard for strong females in film has always rung hollow.

The fact that all of those modern action films are directed by men is not inconsequential (and is its own problem), but then again so is Johnny Guitar, helmed by the great Nicholas Ray, which still manages to feature a lead character who — in addition to being handy in a fight — has complex relationships with the men and women around her, has self-doubt in tandem with self-confidence, has flaws and imperfections and weaknesses, all of which paradoxically contribute to the strength of this character. This character is Vienna (Joan Crawford), a saloonkeeper on the outskirts of an Arizona cattle town, a brash and opinionated woman frequently at odds with the town’s cattlemen. The arrival of the mysterious Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) complicates Vienna’s already-contentious relationship with the other townsfolk, particularly her sworn enemy Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).

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Contempt (1963)

“Chekhov’s Gun” is a commonly-quoted dramatic principle underscoring the necessity of every element of a narrative story. If a gun is shown in the first act, it must be fired in the third. Elements that do not impact the story — unfired guns — should be removed entirely, so as not to make false promises or clutter the story with unnecessary details. Chekhov’s principle is intrinsically related to foreshadowing, and there are several ways to use it. You can use it well, giving your story the qualities of a fine-tuned machine. You can use it poorly, relying on it as a crutch such that your story loses its natural, organic feeling. Or you can use it like Jean-Luc Godard uses it in Contempt: as a massive fuck you to anyone who dares insist that dutifully following the rules is going to make your story better.

It’s more complicated than that, of course, but the handgun that appears in Contempt is indeed shown several times with great intention. It is never fired, nor is it brandished with the threat of being fired, nor is its owner really the type of man who would ever shoot anyone. That man is Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), a screenwriter working on a new adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey while contending with pressure from his American producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) and navigating marital strife with his spouse Camille (Brigitte Bardot). After a mere glimpse at Paul we understand he is not the type of man to resort to violence, much as we understand after Contempt‘s opening shot that Godard is not the type of director who’d forget that he put a loaded gun in the hand of his hero.

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Bend of the River (1952)

Jimmy Stewart was in a lot of Westerns. From Destry Rides Again (1939) all the way to The Shootist (1976), the actor’s continual returns to the frontier nearly end up signposting the decades-long rise and fall of the genre itself. In the early 1960s, just prior to the introduction of a violent revisionism courtesy of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, Stewart teamed with John Ford and turned out classics like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How the West was Won. Prior to that, as the Western was enjoying its heyday in the 1950s, Stewart starred in the progressive-for-the-time Broken Arrow and in a string of Westerns from director Anthony Mann, including the eventual classic Winchester ’73. But the most underrated Stewart Western — and maybe one of the most underrated Westerns period — is another feature from Mann called Bend of the River.

It’s an unlikely candidate for that mantle, maybe, if only for the lack of stereotypical Western tropes. Stewart stars as Glyn McLyntock, a tough cowboy who puts himself at risk to ensure a delivery of supplies reaches a budding homestead in the Northwest Frontier. The route takes him by valley and mountainside, through Portland, and back and forth across the eponymous river, all the while accompanied by friend and foe of varying loyalties. This question of loyalty — who’s the real villain? —is very much at the heart of Bend, and the guessing game we play as viewer is a big part of what makes the film so great. (Also, it must be noted, “Glyn McLyntock” is an all-timer of a character name.)

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The Northman (2022)

I am admittedly predisposed to movies like The Northman — bloody, epic revenge tales with a strange angle, a hyper-specific period setting, or both. I’m also a huge fan of The Lighthouse, the previous film from writer/director Robert Eggers, one of the most unique American films of the 21st century. So the hype level for this flick was more or less at carrying capacity at this week’s screening, and Eggers and Co. did not disappoint. Starring Alexander Skarsgård as the vengeance-bent Viking prince Amleth, The Northman has Eggers’s blend of folklore and historical fidelity all wrapped up in a potent, ferocious epic. It’s not quite a perfect film, but it has some of the most stunning storytelling you’ll see onscreen this year.

Much has already been written on Skarsgård’s insane transformation into Amleth, a beastly and primal performance that puts the mere term macho to shame. Of course it’s far deeper than machismo, and Skarsgård imbues Amleth with a vulnerability that makes the character — and thereby the picture — really work. He’s doing everything Leonardo DiCaprio did as Hugh Glass in The Revenant, but unlike Glass, Amleth’s character is wholly defined by his relationships with others. His bond with his father and mother (Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman) and his hatred for his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) drive his every action. He’s frequently referred to as a wolf, and we see all sides of that metaphor: the young and uncertain pup, the lone stray seeking a home, the feral creature commanding a pack of other wolves, and finally the wisened alpha. Skarsgård goes all the way and then some, and Northman couldn’t exist without him.

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After Yang (2022)

Columbus, the debut feature from writer/director Kogonada, was so quietly self-assured that I figured I knew what to expect from his sophomore effort After Yang. Carefully composed framing, slow-but-steady pacing, and a general construction so precise that it borders on the architectural (and not just because Columbus was partly about architecture) — these are the hallmarks I readied myself for in After Yang, which premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival.

…so an opening that included the year’s flashiest techno dance sequence could very much be called a surprise. Based on Alexander Weinstein’s 2016 short story Saying Goodbye to Yang, Kogonada’s second feature is definitely the work of a director trying to reach farther, trying to push out beyond the bounds of his finely-calibrated debut. It’s an admirable and exciting endeavor, and After Yang would be disappointing if it adopted the personality of Columbus. In certain respects — see: techno dance sequence — this endeavor is a success. But After Yang is a bit disappointing in other ways, even if only in falling short of the high bar Kogonada set for himself.

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The Worst Person in the World (2021)

All good film is probably about balance in some sense, but it takes a particularly special work of cinema to strike the balance at the heart of The Worst Person in the World. The last installment of Joachim Trier’s loose “Oslo Trilogy” — which also includes Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011) — is connected to its predecessors mostly by the city of Oslo and a few recurring actors, rather than being linked in story or character. But the comedic youthfulness of Part 1 and the dramatic maturity of Part 2 dovetail beautifully here in Part 3, so perhaps that’s the real connective tissue. The Worst Person in the World has moments of genuine hilarity and moments of crushing sadness, but it never slips off that tonal tightrope between the two.

At the start, we’re pretty firmly in romantic comedy territory. Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a young medical student without much passion in her life, so she jettisons her designs on becoming a doctor and decides psychology is more her thing; it’s easier to be passionate about the mind than about the body, after all. She meets a guy and they hook up, and Julie then decides that photography, actually, is a better career fit. She buys camera equipment, takes portraits for a male model, and then hooks up with him. They’re at a bar in the next scene when Julie meets another guy, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a moderately-famous cartoonist, and before the movie actually really begins Julie and Aksel are together for what feels like the long haul.

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Best of 2021

Another weird year for cinema means another caveat-laced Best Of list, something just south of comprehensive, perhaps, largely due to a significant scaling-back of my usual moviegoing frenzy. I like to think I saw all the big blockbuster stuff in the cinema — as opposed to on the couch — like Dune, Last Night in Soho, No Time to Die, a few Marvel flicks, etc. And a few of the “smaller” films that actually made my Top Ten were also experienced out in the wild, which I’m thankful for, not that this ultimately had much bearing on how good or bad the film actually was.

Fact remains that I saw fewer movies this year than I usually do, so this Best Of list does not reflect Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman, Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, Joel Coen’s Tragedy of Macbeth, Sian Heder’s CODA, Julia Ducournau’s Titane, and a bunch of other films that would likely upset the following rundown. Still, from what I did see, here are the ones that moved me the most.

And as always, please remember to visit our Support Film Art page, aimed at encouraging relief to local arthouse theaters.

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