[Originally published in Seattle Weekly, September 2013]
What compelling mysteries might be quietly thrumming inside the world of the dentist’s office? It is characteristic of the wistful, daydreamy universe of Lynn Shelton’s films that this unlikely question (has anyone outside the dental profession ever asked it?) makes up part of her latest project. Touchy Feely is the stubbornly—and, I think, wonderfully—low-key follow-up to Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, the partly improvised comedies that put Shelton on the indie-movie map. This new one is again shot in Seattle, Shelton’s hometown. Two siblings experience unexplained eruptions in their professional skills: Massage therapist Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt, from Your Sister’s Sister) is suddenly repulsed by the touch of human skin, and dentist Paul (Josh Pais) develops magical healing powers that can cure his patients’ jaw problems.
These phenomena are suspiciously related to the everyday issues afflicting the two, as Abby has been dawdling over an invitation to move in with her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy), and Paul has passively allowed his practice to dwindle because of his super-awkward manner. Meanwhile, Paul’s college-age daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) is trapped in her job as a dental assistant, and carries around an unrequited crush on someone who probably won’t return the feeling.
Except for the magical-realist touches, this story does not break new ground, and its resolutions are not surprising. But in the film’s exactly observed living rooms and offices, something human is going on, in a way too many movies don’t get. Maybe this film is about the need to see people in a new way, which also describes Shelton’s deep-tissue work with actors. For instance, veteran character actor Pais has dozens of movie and TV credits, yet this is a breakout role for him (if the word “breakout” applies to a movie this languid). And Page, easily typed as a brittle comic performer after Juno, has never been more vulnerable and touching.
If Touchy Feely were a European film and had subtitles, it would probably get better reviews; it has audience-friendly moments, but mostly this is about mood and place. And speaking of place, Shelton’s filming in Pugetopolis is never pictorial, but always sunk into authentically lived-in locations. You’ve been to this dentist’s office before, though you might never have suspected what went on there.
“You are to stay within Snohomish County,” the man says sternly. These words—not often uttered in the cinema—are spoken by a parole officer to a newly released ex-con in Outside In.
They are also taken to heart by the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, who creates a beguiling mood piece by staying close to her local roots. This film is especially evocative in its sense of place: There’s an unmistakable familiarity in the way the camera sees the evergreen-lined byroads east of Everett and the homey storefronts of Granite Falls. I spotted the little smear of green mold that develops around car windows when they haven’t been cared for during a Northwest winter (something I might possibly have some experience with). Outside In is about feeling like an outsider on your own home turf, but it’s been made with a native’s view of the landscape.
Welcome 2020 with one last look back at the best releases of 2019, as seen by the Parallax View contributors and friends.
(In reverse alphabetical order by contributor)
Richard T. Jameson
1. Once upon a Time … in Hollywood
2. The Irishman
3. Marriage Story
4. Little Women
6. Richard Jewell
7. A Hidden Life
10. Pain and Glory / Parasite
A few steps behind, in alphabetical order:
1917, The Art of Self-Defense, The Dead Don’t Die, Dragged Across Concrete, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Joker, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Lighthouse, The Nightingale, The Souvenir, Uncut Gems
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.
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
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.
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.
Welcome 2019 with one last look back at the best releases of 2018, as seen by the Parallax View contributors and friends and a few special invitations.
1. First Reformed 2. The Rider 3. Roma 4. Leave No Trace 5. If Beale Street Could Talk 6. Private Life 7. Burning 8. BlackKkKlansman 9. Hereditary 10. Zama
A second ten (in alphabetical order): Annihilation, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Cold War, The Favourite, First Man, Happy as Lazzaro, Revenge, Shoplifters, Support the Girls, Suspiria
Cinematic achievement of 2018: the decades-in-the-making completion of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, left incomplete at the time of his death.
David Coursen (Washington, D.C.)
Best DC non-theatrical Premieres: An Elephant Standing Still Family Tour
Singular Blessing: The Other Side of the Wind
And the 11 best of the rest, listed alphabetically BlacKkKlansman Black Panther Claire’s Camera First Reformed Happy Hour Loveless Madeline’s Madeline Private Life Roma Sorry to Bother You Wormwood
Robert C. Cumbow
The Top 10
(Disclaimer – The list of important 2018 films I have not yet seen is embarrassingly long—so many movies, so little time—and is included here for context: If Beale Street Could Talk; Roma; Black Panther; Transit; Other Side of the Wind; Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Eighth Grade; Mid-90s).
Of the ones I did see, the ones I enjoyed most: First Reformed (Paul Schrader) Hostiles (Scott Cooper; technically 2017 but released in Seattle—scantly—in 2018) The Party (Sally Potter) The Old Man and the Gun (David Patrick Lowrey) The Endless (Aaron Moorehead & Justin Benson) You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay; year’s best example of telling a story in sound design) Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) First Man (Damien Chazelle, whom I still don’t like, but I can’t deny how much this film affected me) Green Book (Peter Farrelly) Annihilation (Alex Garland)
A Little Respect (because it’s actually been a pretty good year for movies): Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coen Bros.) The Mule (Clint Eastwood) The Wife (Björn Runge) Mary Queen of Scots (Josie Rourke) The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos) The Rider (Chloé Zhao) Disobedience (Sebastián Lelio) A Quiet Place (John Krasinski) A Simple Favor (Paul Feig) A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper—a few things about this movie made me like it a lot more than I expected to, and persuaded me that Cooper has a directorial eye and instinct to be reckoned with)
2/3 of a Good Movie: Vice Hereditary BlacKKKlansman
1/3 of a Good Movie: Sorry to Bother You
Music: Justin Hurwitz, First Man Max Richter, Mary Queen of Scots
Too many great performances this year to list favorites, so I’ll just mention Cynthia Erivo, a compelling presence in Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale, whose name should be a household word by this time next year.
Favorites of 2018 1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen) 2. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) 3. The Rider (Chloé Zhao) / The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard) 4. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins) 5. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik) 6. Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada) 7. Hereditary (Ari Aster) 8. Bird Box (Susanne Bier) / A Quiet Place (John Krasinski) 9. Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham) / Mid90s (Jonah Hill) / Minding the Gap (Bing Liu) 10. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
1. Leave No Trace 2. First Reformed 3. Fair Game (director’s cut) 4. Springsteen on Broadway 5. Three Identical Strangers 6. Love, Gilda 7. The Death of Stalin 8. A Moment in the Reeds 9. Sorry to Bother You 10. Outside In
Also recommended: We the Animals, BlacKkKlansman, Return to Mount Kennedy, On Chesil Beach
1. The Rider 2. Support the Girls 3. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs 4. Lean on Pete 5. First Reformed 6. Roma 7. Hereditary 8. Zama 9. You Were Never Really Here and Leave No Trace 10. First Man
My Top 10 honorable mentions would have the slow-winding Korean gem Burning; the psychotropic Nicolas Cage thriller Mandy; Bo Burnham’s very funny coming-of-age tale Eighth Grade; the Melissa McCarthy film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which is as much about loneliness as literary scandal; the cutting British comedy The Death of Stalin; the torrid black-and-white romance of Cold War (opens locally in January); Yorgos Lanthimos’s wicked comedy The Favourite; Hirokazu Kore-eda’s prizewinner Shoplifters; Alex Garland’s sci-fi puzzler Annihilation, with a strong Natalie Portman performance; and Charlize Theron’s postpartum workout in Tully.
Richard T. Jameson
1. Roma 2. First Reformed 3. Leave No Trace 4-12 alphabetical: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Border Burning The Death of Stalin Hereditary If Beale Street Could Talk The Rider Shoplifters You Were Never Really Here
In alphabetical order: Black Panther Can You Ever Forgive Me? If Beale Street Could Talk Mary Poppins Returns Paddington 2 The Rider Roma Shoplifters Widows Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
A splendid second 13: BlacKkKlansman, Crazy Rich Asians, Disobedience, Eighth Grade, The Favourite, Incredibles 2, Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, Searching, A Star Is Born, Where Is Kyra?, Whitney, Wildlife
Most Memorable Movies (2018) 1. Leave No Trace 2. First Reformed 3. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs 4. Roma 5. Shoplifters 6. Burning 7. You Were Never Really Here 8. The Rider 9. Support the Girls 10. If Beale Street Could Talk Documentary: Struggle: Life and Lost Art of Szukalski
1. Suspiria 2. Revenge 3. Apostle 4. Hereditary 5. Mandy 6. Sorry To Bother You 7. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? 8. Eighth Grade 9. Love, Gilda 10. Black Panther
1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs 2. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts 3. Hereditary 4. Paddington 2 5. You Were Never Really Here 6. First Reformed 7. Roma 8. The Rider 9. Mandy 10. Cold War
Filmmakers and film programmers
Brian Alter (programmer, Grand Illusion)
Best gut-punch ending: BlacKkKlansman Best film about millennials: Never Goin’ Back Most depressing film: First Reformed Best weird film: Mandy Favorite repertory screening: AGFA’s restoration of Godmonster of Indian Flats
Megan Griffiths (filmmaker, Sadie, The Night Stalker, Lucky Them)
You Were Never Really Here (d. Lynne Ramsey) Eighth Grade (d. Bo Burnham) The Rider (d. Chloé Zhao) Minding the Gap (d. Bing Liu) Destroyer (d. Karyn Kusama) Roma (d. Alfonso Cuarón) Madeline’s Madeline (d. Josephine Decker) Outside In (d. Lynn Shelton) Leave No Trace (d. Debra Granik) Sorry To Bother You (d. Boots Riley)
Jennifer Roth (producer: The Wrestler, Black Swan, Laggies, Mudbound)
Cold War Shoplifters Zama You Were Never Really Here American Animals Land of Steady Habits (self-promotion aside) Can You Ever Forgive Me Roma Private Life The Rider
When you win the Best Picture Oscar, you’ve got a choice: play it safe or take a chance. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins obviously decided to gamble.
Jenkins’ follow-up to his intense 2016 prize-winner is If Beale Street Could Talk, a complex, offbeat adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. The story revolves around Tish (wondrous newcomer KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), two lovers who’ve known each other since childhood. As the film opens, Tish finds out she’s pregnant while Fonny languishes in prison—two situations we’ll eventually learn more about as the movie skips around in time.
At its most inspired moments, Aquaman plunges straight into the deep end—like when a giant octopus commences an undersea gladiatorial contest by rapping its tentacles across a collection of oversized drums, or when someone offers the movie’s villain a weapon that “converts water into beams of energized plasma.”
I mean, if a movie is going to be this wacky, you really should give in. And I wanted to.
The problem with Aquaman, the latest attempt by the DC Comics faction to match their rivals at Marvel, is that it never picks which wave to surf.
The first soundtrack album I ever knew deeply was Mary Poppins, and of all the delightful songs from that movie, the one that really stirred my childhood self was the chimney sweep’s anthem, “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” It took me a few years to understand that songs in a minor key sound darker than songs in a major key, but even as a kid I sensed that something about that tune was slightly eerie—its philosophical mood gave ballast to the movie’s floatiness.
There’s nothing like that minor-key tone in the new Mary Poppins Returns, no waft of night magic to offset the cheerful candy colors. But otherwise this is a crisply executed and refreshingly old-fashioned musical, drawn again from P.L. Travers’ Poppins books.
The new Spider-Man movie opens with an apology about being yet another Spider-Man movie, which pretty much sets the tone: This is a flip, oh-so-postmodern take on a franchise that won’t stop rebooting itself. An animated Marvel saga, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse tips its hat to the existing Spider-Man movie thread while introducing the idea that multiple universes hold different Spider-Men.
That convoluted concept must be fun for some people, because Into the Spider-Verse has been winning rave reviews (and a nod for Best Animated Film from the New York Film Critics). I’m not raving, but the film is certainly different.
The opening shot of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a self-contained masterpiece—no surprise, considering the mind-boggling opening shots of Children of Men and Gravity, the Oscar-winning director’s two previous features. Here, our focus on a section of elegant floor tiles is interrupted by a wash of water that flows in waves across the floor, a mysterious image that turns out to be a housemaid washing up the exposed entryway at a Mexico City house, a favorite spot for the family dog to do its (apparently prodigious) pooping. As the water accumulates, the image changes, and we can now see the reflection of the sky above the entryway.
The water, the sky, the dog poop—everything will play a role in this intimate yet somehow epic film, which Cuarón has said is based on his childhood memories of Mexico in the early 1970s.