Sunday, January 28, 2024


Writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s project is taking sub-genres that have hardened into particular closed modes and pushing out the walls until we see them from fresh angles. From these unusual perspectives he keeps us somehow entranced and alienated at the same moment by the way the films, so simultaneously stiff and slippery, get away from the expected. There’s his gangster movie drilled down into intimate interior discomfort in Sexy Beast, the ghostly return of Birth refracted through haunted confusions and chilly melodrama, and the alien visitation of Under the Skin that pulses and squirms under haunted tactile exploration and bodily ambiguity. Now we have The Zone of Interest, a Holocaust movie kept entirely within the life of an Auschwitz commander and his family. We see the camp’s smokestacks, guard towers, and barbed wire just over the family’s brick fence that walls them off from the systematic murders with which they’re inextricably tied. Certainly we can load the outside edges of the frame with the weight of historical context on our own, but it’s the muffled hints of screams and shouts and gunshots on a near-constant distant background hum that really sell the horror we can’t see. He won’t let us forget. He makes the images deliberately still and ugly, the camera locked down in frames that are so transparently digital, photographed by Łukasz Żal with harsh lighting accentuating the hard-edged realism of the pixels. He makes us watch naturalistic domestic scenes, stuck with them as blood runs colder. Our only glimpse of life outside the family is shot in photonegative, fitting for a world turned upside-down.

The film frames the actors unflatteringly, with no sense of posing for a camera, in blocking that feels pseudo-documentarian. But it never once feels unplanned—the details of dust and teeth and water and snow and fog are so potent and poetically evocative of the unspoken. Glazer will occasionally let a black screen or quotidian detail linger—flowers blooming in the mud. This pushes against endurance, reminding us we’re trapped as witnesses in this historical nightmare. The spare, plunking, droning Mica Levi score further enhances that feeling of total envelopment in this ice-cold moment. Within, we see the daily struggles of family life—kids, parents, co-workers, bosses. A mother (Sandra Hüller) wants to build a nice place for her children, a garden, a birthday, a day at the lake. A father (Christian Friedel) hopes to get promoted. A sudden shift in bureaucracy threatens to transfer him away from his domestic comfort, and there the narrative logic of watching a movie might threaten to take over and cause you to root for him to figure this out and keep his family together. And yet the inescapable fact of what, exactly, his job details works to prevent that rooting interest. Such casual monstrosity, such normalized cruelty, such mechanical, technical terror, right next door: it’s all so routine. One day he dictates a letter to an architect, starting it with a tossed off “Heil Hitler, etcetera.” He speaks with his wife about their perfect family home. By night, the light of the crematorium illuminates his daughters’ bedroom. More than just an embodiment of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, this becomes a film looking down the dark corridor of history and listening to the victims’ screams echoing across time and space.

Thursday, January 25, 2024


Early in Get On Your Knees, writer-performer Jacqueline Novak casually mentions that she used to write poetry in college. Based on the dense, surprising tangle of allusions and images in the 90-minute monologue that follows, she’s still writing it. In this case, it’s in the form of a one-woman show that’s an exhilaratingly literate example of the form. Neither stand-up comedy nor straight up lecture, Novak stalks the stage with an easy stride talking through a coming-of-age. Her footsteps’ pacing matches her rapid linguistic stylings. Thoughts tumble with studied casualness, barely keeping up with her delivery as if she’s just thinking of these writerly phrases. She looks casual—jeans and t-shirt—but in her grinning, bookish preparation, it’s clear she’s thought carefully about how to phrase these ideas and how best to present them. (A knowing detail comes when she describes not only reading Nabokov as a girl, but wanting to be seen reading Nabokov as a girl.) It’s no wonder this is a captivating monologue on stage, and the movie does well to capture its spirit. (That director Natasha Lyonne cultivates a similar aw-shucks candor in her own on-screen career makes for a simpatico pairing.) The camera tracks and pans as the spotlight roams, barely keeping up as Novak’s mind, and ours, are racing. She packs in literate references and spins elaborate metaphors—stacking quotations and adjectives until her points are vividly clear. It’s a look at an active mind spinning along and inviting us to join the ride. 

And now I see I’ve done a good job avoiding the animating idea of the show, something about which Novak certainly couldn’t be accused. She gets to the point in disarmingly direct, honest inquiry. She’s here to talk about genitals and her youthful explorations thereof, specifically as she learns to relate to the male anatomy. It’s a concept full of symbolic and experiential import, and she’s eager to draw out theory and anecdote. And yet she deploys this subject matter so intelligently and cleverly with good humor and bracing candor. She’s neither careful nor apologetic. Her presentation is so breezily, candidly, smilingly, matter-of-factly open about potentially vulgar material in witty paragraphs written and performed with a total command of her language and its effects. She expresses such simultaneous depth of feeling, lightness of touch, and frankness of spirit that it feels simply free, never grossly edgy for the sake of it. The show is ultimately an argument in celebration of human anatomy and the awkward, difficult, pleasurable things we expect it to achieve—the ways in which it is central and futile, fumbling toward profundity and intimacy and constantly falling short, except for the fleeting, beautiful moments of real connection. In expressing her particular intellectual and physical insights, she gives us a vulnerable, verbose, articulate work that’s carnal and emotional and expressive all at once. It’s sweet and sensitive—with a bit of a bite. It takes familiar ideas and erects new, personal insights, building blunt poetry out of it. There’s no wonder the movie’s triumphant climactic cut to credits is scored with a booming pop flourish that echoes that idea—“Like a Prayer.”

Monday, January 1, 2024

25 Favorite New-to-Me Movies of 2023

25. Ernest Borgnine on the Bus (1997, Jeff Krulik)
24. The Earth Dies Screaming (1964, Terence Fisher)
23. Shopping (1994, Paul W.S. Anderson)
22. Dolores Claiborne (1995, Taylor Hackford)
21. Age of Panic (2013, Justine Triet)
20. Lost and Delirious (2001, Léa Pool)
19. Light Sleeper (1992, Paul Schrader)
18. The Delta (1992, Ira Sachs)
17. The Last Run (1971, Richard Fleischer)
16. Grey Gardens (1975, Albert and David Maysles)
15. Once Were Warriors (1994, Lee Tamahori)
14. An Unmarried Woman (1978, Paul Mazursky)
13. Mister Roberts (1955, John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy)
12. The Cotton Club (1984, Francis Ford Coppola)
11. Theodora Goes Wild (1936, Richard Boleslawski)
10. Don't Bother to Knock (1952, Roy Ward Baker)
09. La Soufrière (1977, Werner Herzog)
08. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005, Cristi Puiu)
07. Wavelength (1967, Michael Snow)
06. Caught (1948, Max Ophuls)
05. Safe (1995, Todd Haynes)
04. The Letter (1940, William Wyler)
03. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, Peter Weir)
02. Summer of Sam (1999, Spike Lee)
01. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Alain Resnais)