Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2021











 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
3. Drive My Car
8. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
 
Honorable Mentions: 

Other 2021 Bests

 Other 2021 Bests

Cinematography (Digital):
Drive My Car
The Green Knight
Inside
Judas and the Black Messiah
The Tragedy of Macbeth
 
Cinematography (Film):
Dune
The French Dispatch
Licorice Pizza
No Time to Die
West Side Story
 
Sound:
Drive My Car
Dune
Memoria
West Side Story
Wrath of Man 

Stunts:
Black Widow
The Matrix Resurrections
No Time to Die
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Wrath of Man

Costumes:
Coming 2 America
Cruella
Dune
The Green Knight
West Side Story
 
Hair and Makeup:
Dune
The French Dispatch
The Green Knight
Last Night in Soho
West Side Story
 
Set/Art Direction:
Dune
The French Dispatch
The Green Knight
No Time to Die
West Side Story
 
Editing:
Bergman Island
Drive My Car
The French Dispatch
West Side Story
The Velvet Underground 

Screenplay (Adapted):
Drive My Car
The Father
Judas and the Black Messiah
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story
 
Screenplay (Original):
Bergman Island
The French Dispatch
Licorice Pizza
Quo Vadis, Aida?
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
 
Non-English Language Film:
The Disciple
Drive My Car
Quo Vadis, Aida?
Summer of 85
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
 
Documentary:
Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry
A Glitch in the Matrix
Operation Varsity Blues
Procession
The Velvet Underground
 
Animated Feature:
Encanto
Flee
Luca
The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Vivo
 
Effects:
Army of the Dead
Dune
The French Dispatch
The Green Knight
No Time to Die
 
Score:
Encanto
The Green Knight
Luca
The Power of the Dog
Wrath of Man
 
Song:
"Edgar's Prayer" - Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
"No Time to Die" - No Time to Die
"One of a Kind" - Vivo
"So May We Start" - Annette
"We Don't Talk About Bruno" - Encanto
 
Supporting Actor:
Colman Domingo - Zola
Mike Faist - West Side Story
Daniel Kaluuya - Judas and the Black Messiah
Troy Kotsur - CODA
Kodi Smit-McPhee - The Power of the Dog
 
Supporting Actress:
Ariana DeBose - West Side Story
Ann Dowd - Mass
Kathryn Hunter - The Tragedy of Macbeth
Olga Merediz - In the Heights
Mia Wasikowska - Bergman Island
 
Actor:
Andrew Garfield - tick, tick...BOOM!
Anthony Hopkins - The Father
Dev Patel - The Green Knight
Lakeith Stanfield - Judas and the Black Messiah
Denzel Washington - The Tragedy of Macbeth
 
Actress:
Jasna Duričić - Quo Vadis, Aida?
Taylour Paige - Zola
Tilda Swinton - Memoria
Mary Twala - This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection
Rachel Zegler - West Side Story
 
Director:
Ryusuke Hamaguchi - Drive My Car
Mia Hansen-Løve - Bergman Island
Steven Spielberg - West Side Story 
Apichatpong Weerasethakul - Memoria
Jasmila Zbanic - Quo Vadis, Aida?
 
 
 

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Road to Somewhere: LICORICE PIZZA

The main characters in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza are a couple of young people constantly on the move. They seem to operate with the unspoken assumption: why walk when you can run? They’re running heedlessly into their futures on an abundance of youthful energy and naive restlessness. One, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), is a sweaty teenage boy with a crush. The other, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), is a twenty-something woman on whom he’s crushing. The fact that they are played by relatively fresh newcomers—he’s Philip Seymour’s son; she’s in the band Haim with her sisters, who play her sisters here, too—gives the movie a genuine sense of fumblingly appealing youthful discovery and charisma. The two of them fall into a funny friendship, finding themselves simpatico in the ways his precociousness (he’s a child actor using his money to start dubious entrepreneurial ventures) and her failure to launch (she still lives at home with her parents) meet. There’s a charge of attraction on his part, but she holds him at a distance from that. They simply enjoy their time together as friends, roaming around California’s San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s. He’s a wheeler-dealer, 15 going on 50, falling into one attempted money-making scheme after the next. She’s not sure what she wants to do with her life, so happily falls into his orbit.

Anderson unfolds their converging and diverging stories through a loose collection of shaggy anecdotal episodes. It’s a movie about that awkward time between when high school seems hopelessly juvenile, but the adult world is still held at a remove of skepticism. As is so often the case with young people, they test their sense of self in every moment, adjusting based on circumstances, comparing to people around them, blustering and bluffing to get by, or receding in the face of a more dominant adult presence. Here is a string of events—by turns funny, yearning, oddball, and suspenseful—that brings these young people’s sense of self more and more into focus for themselves. It’s a process still in motion as they run to the final credits. Through them we meet agents, actors, casting directors, teachers, teenagers, producers, politicians, chaperones, hosts, assistants, parents, siblings, salesmen, restaurateurs, photographers and more.

This assemblage of interesting faces and eccentric personality types is warmly carried out by a wide-ranging ensemble of character actors and marquee names (including Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits, Sean Penn, Christine Ebersole, John Michael Higgins, and Mary Elizabeth Ellis). We see each new situation with these various complicated and problematic adult figures through the eyes of our leads. Anderson situates them in a world of flawed or otherwise half-formed aspirations as they scramble toward maturity in the shadows of showbiz. Despite centering the couple, there’s an egalitarianism to the various sequences, a sense that every character on screen is a full, rich, interesting figure in and of themselves. Even people appearing for one or two scenes carry the sense that we could follow them off into an equally enjoyable film all their own. This gives the movie a full sense of lives in motion—pushing forward through emotions and encounters that our leads are working through to get to…somewhere. They’re figuring it out as they go along.

This loose, shaggy one-thing-after-another Anderson gives the proceedings matches his project—from Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood through The Master and Inherent Vice—of treating intimate character pieces with the sweep and detail of a historical epic. The twinned comings-of-age here also fits in with Anderson’s other awkward, inscrutable relationship semi-comedies, like Punch-Drunk Love and Phantom Thread, although that’s also a common thread through his films. I suppose that might make Licorice Pizza a quintessential Anderson effort. It has a long-lens close-up approach, a dazzling specificity of character foregrounded amid casually perfect period recreations that fill the frames around the central focus. Here the 70s swagger of vintage tech and indoor smoking, of burgeoning pop culture happenings and gasoline shortages, is just a fact of life for the characters who try to find their way into who they’ll become. There’s an aimless free-spiritedness to the hustle—and a squinting toward possibility that never quite arrives.

Anderson gives the movie that touch of Altman—long noted as one of his favorite inspirations—with whipping up an ensemble of controlled chaos. Sequences in schools and restaurants, parties, shops, and offices spill rough natural jumbled life out of relaxed wide frames that are casually composed. And yet their filmic beauty effortlessly guides an audiences’ eye with a steady hand and a generosity of spirit. There’s a sun-dappled grainy romanticism of the past, carried aloft on a steady stream of vintage records, and a cool-eyed present-tense perspective knowing these characters are as-yet unformed. The characters may not know where life will take them, but there’s fun to be had in watching them drift through it. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, a delivery truck runs out of gas mid-trip, so the leads white-knuckle their way downhill, gritting teeth as they plunge through intersections and take tight turns. It is a movie, after all, about the exhilaration of coasting.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Scream and SCREAM Again

The mad genius of Wes Craven’s Scream movies was making them sharp commentary on the very genre of which they were exceedingly effective versions, and which he helped create. The innovation of Kevin Williamson’s screenplay was, after a couple decades of slasher pictures, making its characters young people who’d seen slasher pictures before. This thorough understanding of the types and tropes of the subgenre made for a thick layer of 90’s irony in their dialogue. Here were young people targeted in a small-town knifing spree from a masked killer, and they nonetheless thought a command of these stories’ cliches would keep them safe—typified in a scene where the horror nut pontificates about rules for survival, including never leaving alone saying “I’ll be right back.” This made the plot’s twists and turns all the more satisfying and surprising—cutting into the conventions by zigging where others zagged, or maybe doubling back around to predictable to catch you all the more off-balance. The first is one of the best of its kind, and a total deconstruction of it at the same time. As the series progressed, it became all the more meta, too, with good sequels including discussions of sequels, as the events of the first film inspired an in-universe horror franchise: Stab. By the 2011 release of the underrated Scream 4, it even became a generational commentary, a belated sequel to a cult property in which younger characters were fans of the movies based on the events of the first movies. That Craven continued making these warmly photographed and sleekly paced thrill machines capable of pulling off bloody kills and teasing genre play in the same movies, sometimes in the same scene, made them excellent entertainments.

So of course the fifth in the series, the confusingly titled Scream, is pretty aware it’s been another 11 years since the last and therefore must, in the current vogue, be all things to all people—a fresh cast of new people doing the same things, and a returning cast looking sideways at the proceedings until reluctantly drawn into the same old same old. It’s also the first in the series (save a forgotten three-season MTV show from a few years ago that goes unreferenced here) without either Craven, who passed away in 2015, or Williamson, who serves only as producer here. Maybe that accounts for the movie’s sense of grinding mechanics. It has been directed, by Ready or Not’s Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and written, by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, in what I could only think of as a karaoke version of the original’s moves. It has a small portion of Craven’s playful use of obstructed negative space, and a bit of the bite of Williamson’s writing. But it’s also clear the originals were the work of auteurs, while this new one is merely the product of talented technicians. They know the notes, but not the music. There’s a cute teen star (Jenna Ortega) on the wrong end of a menacing phone call in the opening scene. There’s a quickly sketched youth group full of victims and suspects (Melissa Barrera, Jack Quaid, Dylan Minnette, and others). There’s a reluctant call to action for the series’ previous survivors (David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Neve Campbell). And there’s an unknown ghostface killer skulking about in a gory whodunnit. The movie plunks down the sequences and surprises exactly where you’d expect them. It’s inelegant, but sometimes effective and always self-aware—like the bloodbath finale inaugurated by the killer waving a gun shouting, “Welcome to the third act, bitch!”

The project mistakes calling out obstacles and missteps for absolution when stumbling over them. There are long sequences in which characters lay out the new rules of a re-quel, along the way name-checking Terminator, Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and Halloween as recent examples of the quasi-remake sequel. There’s joking about the title, too, forgoing a number for a faux-remake naming convention in vogue, a fake grab for a glimmer of originality in the face of so much derivative. One character quips she prefers The Babadook and Hereditary to the Stabs, a fine wink at the art house horror cycle we’re in. Another complains the Stabs went off the rails with the fifth one. (Ha.) Still another references a toxic fanbase that won’t let long-running franchises try new things. That’s pretty sharp commentary on the online right-wing reactionaries who’ve latched onto long-running franchise fanbases to recruit young people into their shallow ax-grinding, anti-“woke” sloganeering. And the movie as a whole does a good job updating the talking points of its self-aware joshing for the current cultural landscape. I appreciated the effort. But the joy of the originals was not just that it could call out current horror tropes, but could upend them in unexpected puncturings. And they had characters you could care about even in the slasher structure—the deaths felt sad even as they fulfilled the genre’s obligation. This one’s everything you’d expect all the way down, and too routine to flesh out its feelings like that. Even the surprises are inevitable. There’s some low genre pleasure as far as that goes, and the young cast is gamely throwing itself into largely under-written parts. At best, it's watchable echoes of pleasures past. But, as is so often the case with these formulaic legacy sequels, there’s something depressing about the legacy characters, and us, stuck in this loop.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

What's Done Cannot Be Undone:
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH

Tragedy, in the most classic sense, is about consequences. It’s forged in the moment where characters are confronted, inescapably, with the cold, hard facts of their downfall and realize that they brought it on themselves. It is thus that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is perhaps his most tragic tale. Not the saddest, and not the most dramatic, necessarily, but perhaps the most tragic for it sits almost entirely in that moment of realization. Macbeth is quickly brought to commit treasonous murder—from inscrutable witches on the one hand prophesying his kingship, and from a scheming wife’s goading on the other—and the rest of the play watches as the weight of such a deed sends him to his doom. This deep engagement in what happens and what inevitably results from those happenings is something writer-director Joel Coen, adapting the play for his first film without his brother Ethan, understands. (Quite a brotherly compliment to replace Ethan with the Bard; they do share a love of language.) The Coens have made a career out of films, often some mixture of bleakly suspenseful and darkly funny, about characters confronted with the distance between what they think they can get, and what life’s circumstances have in store for them. I often think of an exchange from their 2009 effort A Serious Man, still perhaps the finest film in a body of work made up almost entirely out of excellent films. In this moment, a harried professor confronts a befuddling student, telling him: “Actions have consequences.” To which the young man replies: “Yes, sir. Often.” The professor’s immediate frustrated response: “No! Always! Actions always have consequences.” There’s no running from that.

So here’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, a stark and unsparing black and white feature shot in sharp digital closeups, filmed on spare stages cloaked in artifice and darkness, backgrounds that are bleary and sets cavernously empty. A boxy aspect ratio forms a proscenium around the performers, trapping the characters even as their proximity to the camera often causes a startling immediacy. You can see every pore in their face, every wrinkle, each subtle darting of the eye or twitching of the lip. The film is at once intimately engaged in its actors’ decisions and held back at a theatrical remove—a cold and distant picture that’s nonetheless inscrutably, uncomfortably near. Coen’s vision of this story, made vivid by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Stefan Dechant, is one that’s part the high-contrast lighting of a film noir—a look that turns Lady Macbeth into a regal femme fatale—and the woozy constructed angles in crooked stairways and enormous windows of German expressionism—down to its extension of anxieties about dreams and realities. Coen at every turn emphasizes the moral confusion inside the characters by highlighting the foggy displacement around them. The opening shot looks like it is staring up into milky sky, a bird circling, until the fog starts thinning and we see it’s a vast expanse of pale dirt and puddle where crouches our otherworldly portents ready to unfold a grim tale in which its characters are cogs. In this warped world of oppressive contrast and artifice, the potential majesty of the throne is all implication—down to the landscapes terminating in blankness the color of a scrim, through which the castle can be only just barely glimpsed, a flicker in the distance like Kane’s Xanadu. You just know that’ll be unsatisfying for anyone who wants to rule there.

And that’s how Denzel Washington approaches the lead role, as a man who, perhaps unconsciously, already senses that achieving a royal status won’t solve the deep dissatisfactions in his soul. Washington takes his considerable charisma—he easily commands attention like few of his or any generation—and twists it inward in hesitation and guilt. His head hangs heavy even before the crown, like his mind really is plagued with scorpions, leading him to question his choices before, after, and as he makes them. He becomes a reluctant conduit for his own malevolence, and as such is almost going through the motions as a spectator. His soliloquies are hushed, tortured. His later outbursts of madness have none of the live-wire aggrandizement you might expect. Although he holds considerable power in the lives of the other characters, he always carries himself like a pawn. It’s an embodiment of what Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford, identifies as a central question of the text: “Is [Macbeth] in control of his own actions…or is he merely working out a part that has been written—by witches’ prophecies, by historical chronicle, by Shakespeare himself?” Washington’s approach wrings pathos from this uncertainty as he frets his hour upon the stage, worried that his life, in the end, will signify nothing. Coen’s film never once roots for his victory; it sees too well how this insecurity leads to his brutality. And Macbeth’s uncomfortable wracked nerves and slippery senses in this telling makes the characters plotting his downfall seem like an act of planning to put him out of his misery.

The movie constantly feels the crushing weight of inevitability. Other characters exist either in direct dialogue with Macbeth, or lurk outside of his notice, each playing their preordained part in the tale. There’s his wife (Francis McDormand), a brittle shiv of ambition whose inability to handle hiding their dark deeds marks the couple’s conjoined unraveling. There are assorted men of more and less power in the kingdom (Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling, Ralph Ineson, and more) who go under the knife or jostle for power in ways violent, righteous, and self-involved. (Stephen Root’s careless drunken babbling is a fine counterpoint there.) And then there’s the innocent, victimized Lady Macduff (Moses Ingram) sees her home and family burned to the ground by the cruelty of men’s ambitions. All are brought into the nightmare logic of the filming and of the tragedy, positioned as fellow travelers in what fate has in store. Everything is trapped in that aim, as just another facet of the design. Loud on the soundtrack are the steady drips of falling water, or blood—thuds and knocks in a regular rhythm like Poe’s tell-tale heart, or the clock that one should ask not for whom it tolls. We hear fluttering birds and heavy footfalls against cavernous castle walls, every action a reaction. The three witches, all deviously inhabited in the contorted body and raspy voice of the same performer (Kathryn Hunter), remain scarily ambiguous, clearly otherworldly and possessed of dark powers through shifting specters. Are they predicting the future or controlling it? Everything they say comes to pass. Yet dark forces unleashed by greed, guilt, and despair have their own cruel, predictable logic. And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. Tragically, one can find too late the consequences of actions are all one’s left in the end. They can signify everything.