WRB—Jan. 2024 Film Supplement
“good, good, good, like Brigitte Bardot”
When I hear “Washington Review of Books” I take out my checkbook.
In The Paris Review, Niela Orr on photographs in Martin Scorsese’s filmography:
In Raging Bull (1980), the ringside paparazzi take pictures almost at the same rate that Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes) pummels Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), who is nearly blinded by jabs and flashes. In Goodfellas (1990) there are the offscreen mugshots of legally embroiled mobsters, and, early in the film, the freeze-frames of the criminal brotherhood gathered outside of the courthouse after a teenage Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) beats his first case—the moment characterized by the jubilance of a fraternity’s yearbook page. There are also the photojournalistic snapshots in Goodfellas, bound for some federal dossier; the security camera footage in Casino (1995); the slideshows and corkboard surveillance webs in the precinct scenes of The Departed (2006); the goofy wedding VHS tape in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). These meta-meditations on image-making, in films about sin and redemption, seem to speak to Scorsese’s philosophy of cinema as a quasi-religious, collective experience.
- on “nineties romanticism,” a category in which she includes such films as The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Metropolitan (1990), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), and Little Women (1994):
It is a particular aesthetic, as well as a particular political and ethical stance: a fundamentally optimistic (and perhaps, by today’s standards, perilously cringe) vision of what it means to be human: at once clear-eyed about personal flaws and failures and committed to the idea that resolving these flaws and failures must happen through distinctly human encounters with people (and sometimes Muppets) as flawed as we are. Nineties romanticism upholds, rather than dispenses with, meta-narratives, even as it tweaks them to give us a closer look at the characters involved.
[More on this in Critical notes. —Chris]
In the NYT Magazine, Robert Rubsam on the approaches to destruction various Godzilla films take:
Tokyo really was destroyed, a reality the best Godzilla stories have always taken seriously. Minus One (2023) stays with the human victims as they race through the streets, horrified that their home is being destroyed, again, and so soon. Where Emmerich’s film exults in the carnage of laying waste to a city, Yamazaki’s insists on the damage, the destruction that recurs, returns, revictimizes. And he grounds it in very real terror; for all the seat-shaking power of Godzilla’s roar, there is no sound more unsettling than an air-raid siren.
Stories about children in peril are often struggles toward or away from theodicy—a challenge to God: What will he do about them? What’s most glorious about The Night of the Hunter is not, in the end, its portrayal of darkness, but its portrayal of light. In act four we meet Rachel Cooper (played by Lillian Gish), a steely old lady who is based on someone Grubb knew in his youth, who, he said, “was more beautiful than my poor powers can portray.” She sees through Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), and when she does, so do we. This man is no suave serial killer—and no god—he’s a squalling devil, who ends up trapped in a barn like a common beast.
[The Night of the Hunter is one of those movies, like Citizen Kane (1941), that everyone will tell you is the best thing they’ve ever seen. You’d think it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype—and then it does. —Steve]
In Sidecar, Serge Daney on Jacques Tati:
Tati doesn’t condemn the modern world (botch-ups and waste) by proving that the old world (economy and human warmth) is better. Other than in Mon Oncle (1958), his films don’t praise what is old: one can even say, without being too paradoxical, that he’s interested in only one thing, which is how the world is being modernized. And if there’s a logic in his films, from the country roads in Jour de fête (1949) to the highways in Trafic (1971), it’s the one that continues to irreversibly lead humans from the country to the city. Tati shows, in a way that’s in keeping with the recent (schizo-analytic) descriptions of capitalism, that the human body’s media-becoming works very well insofar as it doesn’t function.
Two from Bilge Ebiri in Vulture. First, an obituary of Ryan O’Neal, who died on December 8. R.I.P.
Indeed, some of the greatest films ever made have been about passive characters, and a fair number of them were made in the 1970s in the United States, and a surprising number of those starred Ryan O’Neal. A generation was tumbling out of the ’60s and swirling through the chaos of the ’70s. So, the heroes of these films—even if the films were set in eighteenth-century Britain—didn’t transform their world, but were rather at its cruel mercy. (Maybe that’s why these movies still resonate. We are all passive protagonists in the universe—more Redmond Barrys than Michael Corleones.) Whatever we may have thought about the arc of his career or his life, we can’t take these performances away from O’Neal. Nor would we want to. Great actors use their skill; great stars use their limitations. Ryan O’Neal had talent, but he also clearly understood his limitations, which is probably why for a moment he became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood’s firmament—American cinema’s looking-glass prince.
A key story development could be announced with a simple blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot, or a barely heard line of dialogue. We have to lean in to catch the moment when the farmer finds out he’s dying. We never really see him sick, either. There’s just one shot of him twisting in agony on a bed, dissolving from an image of Linda looking at a book about dinosaurs as she mulls, in voice-over, “Sometimes I feel very old. Like my whole life is over. Like I’m not around no more.” Extinction is the way of this world.
This is how the movie pushes us up against the limits of family. Home may well be the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in, but shelter is a relatively low bar for love. Holiday reminds us that sometimes, even where there is no animosity or abuse, you may not be able to count on your family for understanding, encouragement, honesty, or respect. There’s no guarantee they’ll even like you. The chemistry of affection is capricious; as for the rest, one has to choose to offer those things to another, whether kin or not.
[Mark does a lot of throat-clearing here up front to establish that Holiday just might be worthwhile. Maybe it’s not the received opinion, but I find this baffling. Hepburn’s performance alone is enough delight for the whole. —Chris]
People were reading the title cards out loud in the days of silent films. No new thing under the sun.
The Holdovers (2023) uses a lot of dissolves.
- has a new Substack, , for his commentary on films and the business thereof.
Nicolas Cage turned 60 yesterday. Happy birthday to one of the greats.
Tom Wilkinson died on Saturday, December 30. R.I.P.
[Since every WRB Film Supplement is someone’s first: the movies are listed in approximate order of how good I think they are. Steve’s larks are the ones I recommend you see. —Steve]
The Boy and the Heron (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, December 8):
Like Prospero before he drowns his book, Miyazaki reflects on the work he devoted his life to. There’s no point attempting to summarize it—it proceeds on a dream logic familiar from The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Alice in Wonderland (1951), where the hopes and fears and memories of the child take fantastical forms in another world. [Not to give away every surprise, but I particularly got a kick out of the fascist human-size parakeets. —Steve] It all looks so beautiful, because it is beautiful, and Mahito is a good boy. Memories and stories are beautiful too, and at the end Miyazaki affirms that all this beauty is directed back outwards to help those who tell stories, and those who hear them, live.
The Iron Claw (dir. Sean Durkin, December 22):
There’s so much about the Von Erich family, including one whole brother, omitted from this film. But this is not a film about the facts, not really. It deals instead with how the facts felt to the Von Erich brothers, especially Kevin (Zac Efron), the only one not to die young. Why did he survive when two and maybe three (three and maybe four, in real life) of his brothers (Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Stanley Simons) took their own lives living in the shadow of their domineering father (Holt McCallany) and his expectations for them as wrestlers, demanding a championship he himself came close to but never achieved? Such questions are fundamentally not answerable, but the film testifies to a strength in Kevin matched with a personality that hardly got in his own head at all. The presence of his wife (Lily James), who pulled him out of his shell when they first began dating, no doubt helped. But this is all speculation. What the film shows is a family in which love is inseparable from grief and loss.
Anyone But You (dir. Will Gluck, December 22):
A raunchy rom-com! The movies are back! It’s very loosely based on Shakespeare! The movies are back! [The marketing, for reasons I don’t understand, failed to mention the Much Ado About Nothing connection, which would induce every English major I know to see it. —Steve] Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell are very hot and very funny, especially Powell, who is a real-deal Movie Star on the screen! The movies are back!
May December (dir. Todd Haynes, November 17):
A far superior film in which an interloper from the world of movies breaks up a dysfunctional marriage in the theoretical service of getting a movie made to the sounds of a soap opera score is discussed in Critical notes below.
A film, like all art, scrutinizes what it depicts in order to depict it. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who visits a family based on Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau (Julianne Moore and Charles Melton) in order to better play the Letourneau character in a movie, subjects them to a similar scrutiny. Her interest in it is shameless voyeurism in the service of a terrible film, but that’s movies for you. There’s always a little bit of voyeurism to it. And yet being subjected to this kind of scrutiny forces the couple to look inward and scrutinize their own relationship, which they have previously refused to do. (You might expect this from a relationship that began when she was 36 and he was 13.) The movie can’t escape its own trap—it is in its own way the thing it wants to condemn—but it knows the moves art makes, and people make, and reveals them.
Wonka (dir. Paul King, December 15):
This film does not need to exist. The origin story of Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) is unimportant. He has always existed. He is a trickster god. Here, Wonka is reduced to a charismatic weirdo, which is significantly less interesting. The film also reminds its viewers that it does not need to exist when it uses “Pure Imagination,” by far the best song in it, at the end. It would be much better if it were possible to forget Gene Wilder’s Wonka, but as it is this is froth. It’s very fun froth, though—the songs are nice when they’re on, and Paul King has a good understanding of the more-or-less lost art of shooting a musical.
Ferrari (dir. Michael Mann, December 25):
Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) has two problems. First, his company needs to make some money, and fast. Second, he needs to keep both his wife (Penélope Cruz, in one of the performances of the year) and his mistress (Shailene Woodley) happy. And he needs to do all this while dealing with the recent death of his son by his wife and determining his role in the life of his unacknowledged son by his mistress (Benedetto Benedettini). Mann sees these as more or less the same problem. Ferrari is a man who, like the race car driver he used to be, lives life at the extremes and takes every chance. It suits a race car driver far better than it suits an aging man worried about his legacy—the continuation of his company and his bloodline.
American Fiction (dir. Cord Jefferson, January 5):
Monk Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a black professor, writes a novel indulging in every black stereotype as a way to cope with failings in his professional and personal life after seeing similar writing succeed while his doesn’t. White publishers and Hollywood types fall all over themselves to hand him money for it and the rights to adapt it for film. As satire, this is fine and frequently very funny. But it lacks any killer instinct. It attempts to make up for that by becoming a decent domestic drama about his alienation from various members of his family, which is just another way of going easy on the targets of the satire.
I suspect that the novel from which this is adapted, Erasure by Percival Everett (2001), handles the satire significantly better. If you want satire of novels, write a novel. What are you doing with film? [This is, incidentally, why there are no good movie adaptations of Northanger Abbey. —Steve]
Self Reliance (dir. Jake Johnson, January 3):
Commentary on every single aspect of Internet culture is not going to fit into something that takes less than two hours to watch. This film is one of many that has not realized that. The agony of Tommy (Jake Johnson), who finds himself playing a dark Web game show where people seek him out to kill him, but aren’t allowed to if he’s with another person, has a few excellent jokes within the mess.
The Boys in the Boat (dir. George Clooney, December 25):
This story of the 1936 University of Washington crew team, which won gold at the Berlin Olympics, may be the most competent sports movie ever made. It also never tries to reach beyond “competent” for even one second.
Eileen (dir. William Oldroyd, December 1):
This film is an adaptation of the 2015 novel of the same name by Ottessa Moshfegh, one that makes the mistake of believing that Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) looking moody is an adequate substitute for the first-person narration of the novel. And without that nothing holds this together—it’s just references to Rebecca (1938), references to Persona (1966), and a strong performance by Anne Hathaway as a woman whose glamor and sophistication Eileen wants more than anything else.
The Color Purple (dir. Blitz Bazawule, December 25):
[I don’t understand how this narrative of near-constant parental abuse and domestic abuse ever became musical material, but here we are. —Steve] There are so many good performances here—Fantasia as Celie and Colman Domingo as Mister stand out—that go to waste because the choreography and cinematography fail the musical numbers. They have no life because they were never allowed any. The clearest example is all the shots of dancers from the waist up. Dancing involves the legs. It starts with the legs. Put the legs in the frame.
Migration (dir. Benjamin Renner, December 22):
[I don’t grade children’s movies on a curve. The best ones are for adult audiences as well. (See The Boy and the Heron above.) I spent most of this bored with the exception of two short scenes that are forays into something like PG-rated horror. And that works, because the anticipation is the scary part. —Steve]
Poor Things (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, December 22):
This is gross. It’s also unbearably smug in its Feminism™ throughout, not least when it attempts to pass off the sexual degradation by adult men of a full-grown woman (Emma Stone) with a small child’s (or teenager’s—the film isn’t quite precise here) brain as part of her own liberation. At least Stone gives an exceptional performance in a unique role, and Mark Ruffalo chews every last bit of the scenery as a roguish lothario, which is almost as impressive.
Animal (dir. Sandeep Reddy Vanga, December 1):
An extremely overlong [At 201 minutes, the second-longest film I watched in a theater this year. —Steve] action narrative about a man with lots of daddy issues and views about women derived, perhaps, from Andrew Tate videos. The film takes its character’s word about both.
[Since I complained last month about releasing Top Whatever lists before the year is done, here’s my top twenty films of 2023. Enjoy being “mooded out,” to use Chris’s phrase. —Steve]
20. Paint (dir. Brit McAdams)
19. Oppenheimer (dir. Christopher Nolan)
18. You Hurt My Feelings (dir. Nicole Holofcener)
17. Bottoms (dir. Emma Seligman)
16. The Iron Claw (dir. Sean Durkin)
15. Priscilla (dir. Sofia Coppola)
14. Suzume (dir. Makoto Shinkai)
13. Godzilla Minus One (dir. Takashi Yamazaki)
12. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig)
11. Infinity Pool (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)
10. The Boy and the Heron (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
9. Killers of the Flower Moon (dir. Martin Scorsese)
8. Pacifiction (dir. Albert Serra)
7. Barbie (dir. Greta Gerwig)
6. John Wick: Chapter 4 (dir. Chad Stahelski)
5. The Origin of Evil (dir. Sébastien Marnier)
4. BlackBerry (dir. Matthew Johnson)
3. Past Lives (dir. Celine Song)
2. Asteroid City (dir. Wes Anderson)
1. The Holdovers (dir. Alexander Payne)
- on Disney’s recent failures:
But it does give Iger and company an out, a dodge. Admitting that pushing animated movies directly to streaming and flooding the zone, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?-style, with mediocre Marvel and Star Wars shows for Disney+ were mistakes that tanked theatrical revenues would involve folks in the C-suite taking responsibility for badly messing up the whole brand’s content strategy. Fobbing off responsibility onto animators who demanded Chapek pick a fight with DeSantis and creatives who insisted on adding gay characters to various animated features is much easier and less likely to cost anyone their bonuses.
[I just want to pull out one quiet thing I noticed this weekend: I showed a group My Night at Maud’s (1969) last night. It’s in that central scene, when she’s sitting in bed, and Jean-Louis is fitfully drawing close and pulling away. Right at the end he perches at the end of the bed and the camera fixes on Maud as she describes her divorce and the death of her lover, and she says, “He skidded on the ice. That’s fate for you,” and you sit with her for a long time and her face does these indescribably poignant things. Then she looks up and asks, “Is it still snowing?” and Rohmer finally cuts back to Jean-Louis, three minutes later, who has gotten up and is across the room looking out the window. Very subtle and very painful. —Chris]
Confounding and clarifying matters is Al Pacino’s tooth-gnashing performance as Tony, perhaps the exact midway point between his virtuosic turns in the ’70s and his drift into caricature with the Hoo-ahs of the ’90s. He makes use of the same skills honed during his training in the Method, with its emphasis on spontaneity articulated in Pacino’s off-the-cuff ad libs and volatile physicality. And this fits for someone like Tony, who intimidates rivals and underlings with his combination of inscrutable stoicism punctuated by random flare-ups of anger, dovetailing nicely with Pacino’s habit of dominating a scene partner by peppering them with little questions. In courting his boss’s moll, Tony’s seduction strategy amounts to little more than talking and talking and talking until she acquiesces to his attention.
[I thought we were going to get a lot more about the 40th anniversary of Scarface than we did. Maybe it has too many “male dorm room poster” associations now. I can’t think of other reasons. If nothing else, I would have thought someone wanting to argue that Hollywood doesn’t make sweaty horny movies anymore and should get back to it would have used the anniversary as an occasion to champion De Palma, who definitely knew how to make such movies. Go rewatch his Mission: Impossible (1996) and compare it to the recent ones if you don’t believe me. —Steve]
[Mike D’Angelo writes in a review of Brief Encounter (1945): “For all the romances the movies have given us, there are precious few in which you really witness two people gradually falling in love, as opposed to the insta-passion shorthand that’s usually employed (or the comic convention in which it’s a final-reel revelation).” That’s a kind of story that’s almost impossible to tell, which is why we have all these narrative crutches. Tara writes, “It is precisely this combination of playful affection for classic narratives and the desire to relocate the emotional heart of those narratives from plot-structure . . . to human interpersonal messiness . . . that, for me, characterize the best of nineties romanticism.”
On one level I think that’s right (Like Mark Clemens writes in an essay we link above, “It’s obvious to us what will happen to Johnny: he’s going to wind up with Linda, because she’s played by Katharine Hepburn.”). What I’d like to point out is that the mechanics of the romance plot are a particular representation of the emotional reality of romance—the plot, which needs to proceed in terms of external conflicts, problems, solutions and resolutions, provides the feeling of inevitability which always attends the real experience of falling in love.
Updike: “The essence of a story is conflict—obstruction, in his term. Happy love, unobstructed love, is the possibility that animates all romances; their plots turn on obstruction because they are plots.”;
D.A. Miller: “the words of every lover at first sight—it was the thing that we had been waiting for all our lives.”;
Updike in the same essay: “they are nameless, these elusive glints of original goodness that a man’s memory stores toward an erotic commitment. Perhaps it is to the degree that the beloved crystallizes the lover’s past that she presents herself to him, alpha and omega, as his Fate.”
When Harry Met Sally isn’t any less plot-bound—Sally is played by Meg Ryan—but in the ’90s the obstruction is not the classically witholding father or the disapproval of society but, like Tara says, “a conscious refusal to open up one’s humanity to other people.” If it’s impossible to really tell the story of the heart, we’re lucky to have these shorthands that let us see inside. —Chris] [I have complaints about When Harry Met Sally I won’t get into here. But it’s probably the clearest of these films in saying that the conversations we have with other people are a space for trying out and working through ideas about our own relationship to the world. (Metropolitan also takes this as its main focus.) The test of the ideas is not whether we can prove them to ourselves, but whether we can prove them to other people. Argument does not accomplish that on its own. What does is conversation, which emerges from life, revealing that these ideas allow us to create a life that we want to share and that other people want to share in. —Steve]