From climate change to measles to the epidemic of motion-smoothing on TV sets, I know we have many, many more important things to worry about. But in the moments before your beach house is inundated by rising seas, spare a thought for the slow-motion pratfall that is this year’s Oscars ceremony.
The awards, to be broadcast on ABC on this Sunday (Feb. 24), have been bungled from the start. Let’s recap: A proposal to add a new award for Best Popular Film (alternate name: Best Movie That’s Not That Great But That Some of You Might Actually Have Seen) was quickly withdrawn after a withering reception. Then host Kevin Hart stepped down in the wake of criticism for homophobic jokes from his past. More recently, someone at the academy (or was it ABC? Or Disney, which owns ABC?) announced they would feature only two of the nominated songs during the show and would give out certain awards during commercial breaks and summarize the winning speeches later.
The aftermath: There’s no host, all the songs and categories are back in after public backlash, and the show will last seven hours. All right, maybe not seven, but ABC will have a hard time trying to make its three-hour target.
There are a couple dozen lines of dialogue in Arctic, plus an assortment of grunts. As it happens, we don’t need even that much spoken information: The simplicity of writer/director Joe Penna’s approach and the magnificence of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting is more than enough to make this survival tale a gripping experience.
One of Penna’s best decisions was to lop off the first act of the story. We don’t know how or why a man, played by Mikkelsen (the superb Danish actor from Casino Royale and the TV version of Hannibal), has come to be stranded somewhere in the frozen North.
The Academy Awards will be handed out on Sunday, February 24. Are you caught up on the major nominees?
Eight films made the cut in the category of best picture and a few of them are still in theaters, notably the offbeat royal drama The Favourite (2018, R), which came away with ten nominations, political commentary Vice (2018, R) which scored eight nomination, and Green Book (2018, PG-13), with five nominations in all.
Also still in theaters is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018, PG), the current favorite in the animated feature category.
A number of nominated films, however, are already available to watch at home. Here’s an easy guide to what you can see and how you can see them.
Two of the top nominees are currently available to stream on Netflix. Roma (Mexico, R, with subtitles) and Black Panther (PG-13).
What is the classic movie fan to do in the era of Netflix? For a few glorious years FilmStruck was our salvation, offering a rich, well-curated collection of films from the silent era through the 1970s, something Netflix gave up on years ago.
So with FilmStruck dead, where can the fan of classic movies—let’s say, just for the sake of argument, anything older than 40 years—get their fix without resorting to renting each and every title on iTunes or Fandango?
The answer might surprise you. The meatiest streaming source for world cinema classics is Kanopy, a free service offered through most (though not all) public and college library systems. But there’s a limit of five streams per month and while they carry hundreds of titles from the Criterion Collection from such directors as Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, the collection of classic American cinema is relatively small.
That’s where Amazon Prime Video enters the picture.
[Originally published in The Weekly, July 8, 1984]
Ah, the past has filled up quicker than we know, and God has little patience with remorse.
—Malcolm Lowry, UndertheVolcano
Adapt a novel of consequence to the screen and you’ll damn well answer for it. At best, your pride of achievement will have, quite properly, to be shared with the author of the original work. At worst, you will be taken to task, by those who cherish the book, for any deviation from it. In the muddled middle range of opinion, reviewers can sound learned and play it safe at the same time by suggesting that, honorable and sporadically admirable as your adaptation may be, it somehow misses the essential imaginative core of the artistic experience. It isn’t …well, heck, it isn’t the novel.
This problem becomes tetchier still with a novel so relentlessly novel-ish as Malcolm Lowry’s UndertheVolcano. The main portion of Lowry’s book, dealing with the drunken peregrinations of the ex–British Consul in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on the Day of the Dead 1938, is tacitly a flashback. It’s also a dense, roiling stream-of-consciousness piece with both the hyperclarity and level-shifting instability of a fever dream. Symbols and allusions—cultural, literary, historical, geographical, political—pile up to create a veritable poetic and spiritual analogue of Western consciousness, an updated WasteLand for the generation after T.S. Eliot. (Lowry worked on the book from 1938 through 1946.)
[This article first appeared in the September-October 1990 issue of Film Comment. It was reprinted in the National Society of Film Critics anthology They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres (1995).]
Ice dropping into a heavy-bottomed glass: cold, hard, sensuous. The first image in Miller’s Crossing hits our ears before it hits the screen, but it’s nonetheless an image for that. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has traveled the length of a room to build a drink. Not that we saw him in transit, not that we yet know he is Tom Reagan, and not that we see him clearly now as he turns and stalks back up the room, a silent, out-of-focus enigma at the edge of someone else’s closeup. Yet he is a story walking, as his deliberate, tangential progress, from background to middle distance and then out the side of the frame, is also a story – draining authority from the close-up Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) who’s come to insist, ironically enough, on the recognition of his territorial rights.
The place is a story, too, which we read as the scene unfolds. A private office; not Caspar’s, but not Reagan’s either – it’s city boss Liam “Leo” O’Bannion (Albert Finney) who sits behind the camera and his big desk, listening. An upstairs office, we know from the muted street traffic (without stopping to think about why we know). Night outside, but sunlight would never be welcome, or relevant, here. A masculine space, green lampshades amid the dark luster of wood, leather, whiskey. A remote train whistle sounds, functional and intrinsically forlorn; the distance from which it reaches us locates the office in space and in history. This room exists in a city big enough to support a multiplicity of criminal fiefdoms and a political machine that rules by maintaining the balance among them, yet it is still a town whose municipal core lies within faint earshot of its outskirts. Urban dreams of empire have not entirely crowded out the memory of wilderness, of implacable places roads and railroads can’t reach, even if one of them has been wishfully designated Miller’s Crossing. Hence we are not entirely surprised (though the aesthetic shock is deeply satisfying) when the opening master-scene, with its magisterial interior setting and dialogue fragrant with cross purpose, gives way to a silent (save for mournful Irish melody) credit sequence in an empty forest. And then to a title card announcing, almost superfluously, “An Eastern city in the United States, toward the end of the 1920s.”
Batman is wearing a white bat-helmet, his costume dotted with sparkles that set off his fabulous ermine cape. I think at this point there is no question that the Batman from the Lego movies has eclipsed the Dark and Brooding™ Batman of Warner Brothers’ DC film cycle. No wonder Ben Affleck is opting out of the live-action role; he can’t compete with this. As voiced by Will Arnett, the Lego Batman is vain, dimwitted, and very nearly a complete parody of the Dark Knight. It’s the closest thing we’ve come to Adam West’s great TV Batman from the ’60s, and this is a good thing.
Batman has the bling on because he’s dressed up for an outer-space wedding, which is merely one of a thousand points of light in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, a sequel to the 2014 hit.
While the Oscars remain the one artistic award show that really matters, it’s frustrating how flawed and exclusionary they remain. Still, only certain types of movies are even considered for nominations — sure, a horror film like Get Out or a comic-book movie like Black Panther can get nominated, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule (and ones that would’ve received major backlash if snubbed). But even if a movie falls under the category of “Oscar bait,” it still requires a cash-back campaign targeted at voters to stand a chance. It’s a crummy system.
With that in mind, we threw any notion of standard Academy Awards qualifications out the window to nominate our favorite films of 2018 in some of the major categories (with entries marked with a * indicating our pick as the winner).
Black Panther BlacKkKlansman Bohemian Rhapsody The Favourite Green Book Roma A Star Is Born Vice
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs BlacKkKlansman Burning First Reformed Hereditary Leave No Trace The Rider* Roma Support the Girls You Were Never Really Here
Elvis Presley is ostensibly the subject of The King, Eugene Jarecki’s expansive road movie of a documentary. The award-winning director drives Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce across the US, from Mississippi and Memphis to Nashville, New York, Las Vegas, Hollywood, and elsewhere, talking to historians, musicians, members of Presley’s inner circle, and everyday Americans. Elvis centers the film but is also a starting point for a much more wide-ranging discussion of the state of American life, and that discussion takes off in all directions. That Jarecki began his odyssey in the months leading up the 2016 election and ended up on the other side of it only adds fuel to the discussion.
Not of political identity, mind you, but of America itself. Elvis is the touchstone that centers it all, with Jarecki using his life and legacy as both a roadmap for the cultural odyssey and as a metaphor for the state of contemporary America.
And at the heart of the film is the question: Is the American dream dead, a victim of greed, excess, and increasing isolation?
Playing a comedy genius is surely 10 times harder than playing another category of intellectual brilliance. If you’re cast as Albert Einstein, you put on a fright wig and spout a few equations — everybody thinks you’re brilliant. Play a famous singer, and they can always dub the voice. In the current At Eternity’s Gate, Willem Dafoe is Vincent Van Gogh: a terrific performance (that just received a Best Actor Oscar nomination), one for which the dedicated actor learned how to paint. But he doesn’t have to convince us he painted the completed canvases — Van Gogh provided the genius we see hanging on the walls around the actor.
But comedy? Comedy is hard. To be convincingly touched by comic genius is an extremely difficult thing to fake—it’s the difference between acting funny and being funny.
Images, lines, gestures, moods from the year’s films
* At the movies, Roma: German slapstick on screen in deep distance, a pair of lovers in closeup silhouette in left of frame, gray ranks of anonymous filmgoers in between. The space is familiar, auspicious, yet somehow fraught. Camera does not move, but things come undone…. * “I felt like I was Jacob wrestling all night long with the angel, fighting in the grasp. Every sentence, every question, every response a mortal struggle. It was exhilarating.” Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), First Reformed… * Leave No Trace: the myriad intonations and valences Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie can get into “Dad”… * Pirandellian rewrite: At the outset of The Other Side of the Wind—begun 1970, completed 2018—Peter Bogdanovich speaks with old-age voice…. * The Death of Stalin: body tumbling down stairs in background as Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) makes his rounds… * Hereditary: rooms that suggest dollhouse miniatures, and may be… * Filial love in You Were Never Really Here: Joe’s honkhonk honk mock hammering of Mom; Joaquin Phoenix and Judith Roberts… * The endless, obscuring, occasionally decapitating frames of civilization in Zama; maddening protocols and deflections… * The Old Man and the Gun: Forrest/Robert Redford’s “yeah it’s for real” shrug after slipping note to bank teller… * The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: the Wingless Thrush (Harry Melling) catching snowflakes in his mouth… * Lisa (Regina Hall) almost falling asleep in the midday sun—Support the Girls… * Widows: Dog in arms blinks as Veronica (Viola Davis) enters husband’s workshop…. * If Beale Street Could Talk: moving “furniture” in the loft… * Bohemian Rhapsody: cats in window watching Freddie’s limo leave for the concert… * Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) petting a rabbit while having her hair brushed—The Favourite… * Michael Myers mask rising out of car trunk—Halloween… * Border: yearning through windowglass—werewolves in love?… * A Quiet Place: Creature that can’t see and one who can’t hear pass in the night…. * “Being dead” up on the roof, Roma… * “Go for a cruise,” the horseman proposes, and his steed breaks into fluid glide, camera tracking right along. Brady Jandreau, The Rider…
* “Shoot her before him and make sure he sees it.” Beria’s instructions for disposition of politically superfluous married couple—The Death of Stalin… * Recurrently in First Reformed, the sound of footsteps on bare wooden floors. Such sense of place, community, ethos… * Private Life punctiliousness: “The seltzer comes from one place, the syrup from somewhere else.”… * Blake Lively to Anna Kendrick post-sudden-kiss, A Simple Favor: “You’re OK. You wanna order pizza?”… * The Little Drummer Girl: in mid-interrogation, need 50p to turn lights on again… * The Favourite: “Must the duck be here?”… * Film freak: “I’m Marvin P. Fassbinder!” Jake Hannaford/John Huston: “Of course you are.” The Other Side of the Wind… * Bad Times at the El Royale: Far across rainswept parking lot, Jon Hamm’s glasses reflect lightning…. * Small plane like a dragonfly over arctic waste, Hold the Dark… * November, an Estonian ghost story: flying skull carries cow over treetops… * The reservoir and what might be in it—Burning… * Dying man singing along to ambient music; his killer lying down beside him and joining in—You Were Never ReallyHere… * Hereditary: papers blowing out through backseat window just before … you know… * Bird Box: Woman steps into blazing car and takes her seat…. * Les Affames/Ravenous: cow eating lawn along suburban street… * Zama: squeak of native-operated wood fan behind ambiguous flirtation… * Candles on railing of borrowed porch, Leave No Trace… * BlacKkKlansman: Flip (Adam Driver) and other cops turning as they hear Ron (John David Washington) on the phone listing all the types of nonwhite Americans he hates… * Motherhood is hard. “I am so sick of that face on your face!” Toni Collette, Hereditary… * “So grandma only wanted their money, not me?” Could be, kid. Then again, what’s family anyway? Shoplifters…
* Roma: Seriously stressed Galaxie pulls into frame below Aztec entablature…. * All the good doctors in Moscow having been liquidated, how to get medical assistance for Stalin? Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) rationalizes: “If he recovers, then we got a good doctor, and if he doesn’t recover, then we didn’t, but he won’t know!” The Death of Stalin settles that…. * Night Eats the World: man contemplates suicide, nods off, accidentally discharges shotgun in his sleep…. * The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: creak of Leone windmill that isn’t there… * Gray church, gray sky, gray dusk—First Reformed… * The Old Man and the Gun: Forrest, horseback on hilltop, watching caravan of cop cars on road below… * Torch-bearing riders spread into the night, The Favourite…. * Pact under red umbrella, If Beale Street Could Talk… * “I can take fuckin’ up all day but I can’t take not trying”—Support the Girls values… * The Sisters Brothers: riding through cemetery of discarded luggage on seashore… * A scattering of rocks in a green graveyard: rough memorials for Border’s deformed dead… * The Rider: Cat Clifford’s talking prayer by campfire… * The food no one ever gets to eat in You Were Never ReallyHere, until someone does… * “Kentucky Fried Chicken—in Kentucky! When’s that gonna happen?” Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) open to delight, Green Book… * Llama kibitzes at dashing of Zama’s (Daniel Giménez Cacho) hopes…
* Vigil in rain with two geese—Happy as Lazzaro… * The grandmother at the beach, setting about dying. The late Kirin Kiki, Shoplifters… * John Carroll, Norman Foster, Tonio Selwart; shades tenderly at large in The Other Side of the Wind… * Burning: The bewitching Haemi (Jun Jong-seo) slips out of her shirt to dance in the warm light of a setting sun; two young men watch (Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun), curiously impassive…. * The towering blond distraction of Elizabeth Debicki, Widows… * Kayli Carter’s misconstrued “OK,” Private Life. (Watch this young actress. And, to be sure, Thomasin McKenzie.)… * The Favourite: Emma Stone’s imposing lexicon of sniffles, snorts, head wags… * Zoe Kazan as Miss Longabaugh … Has Sarah Vowell seen The Ballad of Buster Scruggs?… * Cabiria-like, the unsought power to balance on one foot: Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) at the martial arts field, Roma… * Night run through corn shocks, A Quiet Place… * Leave No Trace: Truck driver (Art Hickman) who has to know he’s doing the right thing… * The Armstrongs’ laughter at “kinda neat,” First Man… * Touching the nose, A Star Is Born… * Ants crawling over head as oblivious motorists drive past, Hereditary… * Elder doctor pursued across white plaza, The Death of Stalin… * Rooftop sleepwalk under full moon, November… * The Quake: shattered skyscraper like a tyrannosaur profile… * Nocturnal greeting from/to reindeer, Border… * Cold Skin: mermen climbing down off lighthouse in first rays of sun… * First Man: Pre-launch, bird flies past porthole…. * “You’re starting to harsh both of our mellows”—Sorry to Bother You… * “You know you’ve missed me.” The return of Frank Underwood. Kevin Spacey on YouTube. OMG…. * Zama: coy menace of Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele)… * Ron’s karate-chop war dance in front of Records counter, BlacKkKlansman… * The Old Man and the Gun: Tom Waits’s reminiscence about why he hates Christmas… * Bad Times at the El Royale: Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and the right/wrong jukebox tune: “you’re just too good to be true”… * The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: the Impresario (Liam Neeson) walking back from the gorge… * “She died. Or maybe she didn’t die. Maybe she just moved back to the suburbs.“ Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) can’t be expected to remember everything. Can You Ever Forgive Me?…
* Eighth Grade: Dorky father (Josh Hamilton) wants to “say one thing.” She (Elsie Fisher): “Dad, this is more than one thing.” He: “It’s a chunk of things.”… * “Same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me”—Leave No Trace…. * Dog running out to chase truck, Les Affames/Ravenous. Life goes on, even in zombie apocalypse.… * The Favourite: hand job disquisition on realpolitik… * Avengers: Infinity War: Dr. Strange saying douchebag… * Brotherhood of the toothbrush—The Sisters Brothers… * In Support the Girls, stormin’ Cubby (James LeGros) popped in stomach. Did not see that coming…. * HoldtheDark: Offered soup, sorely wounded Slone (Alexander Skarsgard) asks, “What kind?”… * President Pierce’s accommodation to change, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs… * Park Chan-wook’s red and green rooms, The Little Drummer Girl… * What rough beast sinks into the depths with its tender burden—You Were Never ReallyHere… * A Star Is Born: Ally’s final, hieratic closeup; Lady Gaga indeed… * Wig? No wig? Sharon (Regina King) calculates her best approach in Puerto Rico. If Beale Street Could Talk… * “Has anybody got a Swiss Army knife?”—First Man… * Somewhere Don Gabriel Figueroa smiles: in Roma, thundercloud light on cactus as mommy drives her family home from vacation…. * Schrader’s use of the classical 1.33:1 format in First Reformed: initially startling; effective at setting the tone of austerity; then disconcerting as, what, the whole film is going to be in this shape? Yes, and rightly so….
* Hulk towering darkly above parkway, bisecting Scope frame—You Were Never Really Here… * Cliff fall without end—Happy as Lazzaro… * Zama: ambush by red-painted phantoms amid the long grass… * Outlaw King: apples rolling in the road under horses’ hooves… * Molly Shannon murdering roast turkey, Private Life… * Daniel Kaluuya, stone cold malevolence in Widows… * “First time?” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs… * Hereditary: house swallowed in night, silver tree trunks shining above… * Atavistic thrill of that music coming on as Michael Meyers once again walks the streets of Haddonfield—but there’s still only one Halloween… * Border: smelling smartphone… * Cellphone call among tombstones, First Reformed… * Kid in hospital to fellow survivor of 22 July: “Cigarettes would be nice … except I don’t smoke.”… * Hold the Dark: Vernon reclaiming cigarette from windowsill after killing rapist… * Erramentari: torment by chick pea… * Apostle: the silhouettes around “the purification”… * Car painted pink by neon sign, Bad Times at the El Royale… * Suicide in white lake amid white trees, November… * Sarah (Golshifteh Farahani) appears to have won approval of zombie Alfred (a new frontier for Denis Lavant)—Night Eats the World…. * The Death of Stalin: breathtaking precision of comedic ensemble… * Unsettling, unexpectedly heartbreaking memento mori: in The Favourite, Olivia Colman’s final closeup, the Queen’s voice the slurry growl of a stroke victim… * “Cut” (The Other Side of the Wind). “Shantih Shantih Shantih” (Roma). Things Netflix didn’t want you bothered by… * Apollo 1 mission: the two shots of the cockpit hatch—First Man… * Ferocity of the Cheeon shootout, Hold the Dark (Julian Black Antelope as Cheeon)… * Emily Blunt cocking a pump shotgun, A Quiet Place…
* Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Parting after dinner, the shy dynamics of Lee (Melissa McCarthy) and Anna (Dolly Wells) wordlessly wondering what this might lead to… * Burning: The cat with no name has one…. * Queen passing offstage, leaving the screen to the vast crowd. Bohemian Rhapsody… * You Were Never Really Here: suicide skip on the check. “Have a nice day.”… * Profile, pirogue, endless carpet of green—Zama… * Seahorse frond, Leave No Trace… * “Whistle for him when you walk away, please”—The Rider…. * The Death of Stalin: furtive glances of the next men in line who suddenly, inexplicably, just avoided getting executed… * The Ballad of Buster Scruggs reaches its destination, the prairie precursor of the Hotel Earle…. * Roma’s transcendent final shot. Stay for the last plane….
RTJ wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Kathleen Murphy to this year’s edition.
I saw Cold War last summer at a film festival in Ukraine, where I was on an awards jury. When it concluded, I stood up and declared aloud to no one in particular, “We have just seen the winner of the next Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.”
Of course I didn’t actually do that. Who am I to stand up and make pronouncements in English in a Ukrainian movie theater? (But I did mutter it to myself.)
Cold War has all the attributes of a classic Oscar-winner in that category: It’s accessible; it’s serious but also deeply romantic; it’s got political overtones; and it’s gorgeous to look at.
The Man Who Cheated Himself (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) Moonrise (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) Gun Crazy (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) No Orchids for Miss Blandish (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)
Lee J. Cobb takes the lead as Lt. Ed Cullen, a veteran Homicide detective in a secret affair with socialite Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt) while she’s in the midst of a divorce, in The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), an independently-made film noir shot on location in San Francisco. When she shoots her soon-to-be-ex-husband (in self-defense), Ed looks over the incriminating evidence and decides that a cover-up is in her best interest. When he’s assigned the case, all looks good, except that his rookie partner—his newlywed and newly promoted younger brother Andy (John Dall)—digs into the evidence and uncovers contradictions in the case, despite Ed’s efforts to nudge him in other directions. It’s a classic good cop gone bad set-up but Ed isn’t greedy or corrupt, merely protective of the woman he loves, which gets complicated because he’s equally protective of his kid brother determined to pull at every loose thread. Wyatt is an unlikely femme fatale, less cold-blooded than practical, but Cobb is excellent as the tough mug of a cop swayed by love and the two deliver a beautifully understated coda that sums up their relationship without a word, merely glances and body language that suggests a tenderness that still exists between them. Dall is the opposite as the bright and energetic rookie on the trail of his first big case, with wide grins and a twinkle in his eye.
My Neighbor Totoro: 30th Anniversary Edition (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) Batman: The Complete Animated Series (Warner Bros., Blu-ray)
Hayao Miyazaki is one of Japan’s living treasures, a beloved filmmaker whose animated films number among the most beautiful and most enchanting productions ever drawn by hand. In this day of CGI productions, the aging artists still personally draws his key frames and defining characters, with a love and craft that comes through every frame. They may seem old fashioned and perhaps too sweet for American audiences—his films, while loved by many, have never found the huge audiences that flock to the more knowing and culturally savvy Pixar films and Shrek sequels—but the lovely fables, epic adventures, ecologically-minded dramas and modern fairy tales are all treasures.
My Neighbor Totoro (Japan, 1988) was Miyazaki’s first genuine masterpiece and perhaps my favorite of Miyazaki’s films.
The title of 1983, a murder mystery turned conspiracy thriller from writer/creator Joshua Long, is more than an oblique reference to George Orwell’s 1984. Set in a parallel 2003 where the Berlin Wall never fell and the Communist Party has a chokehold on Poland, this alternate history opens on the 20th anniversary of devastating terrorist attacks. The national myth of martyred victims murdered by resistance groups and the necessary guidance of a benevolent government is trotted out in ceremonies celebrating Polish resilience. Katejan (Maciej Musial), a fresh-faced law student orphaned by the attacks and raised on such propaganda, is jolted from his complacency after his mentor, a beloved judge with deep Party ties, posits an unexpected question in his oral exams: what if the attacks didn’t backfire at all? What if they accomplished exactly what they were supposed to? When the professor is murdered by one of his students, Katejan starts to question everything he believes.