Thursday, December 31, 2020

One More Nick on the Teens

Many things have changed in the long stretch since I first started putting my cultural musings here. But one that has not is my stubborn belief that quantities are gathered from 1 to 10 and not 0 to 9, and unless you are an astrophysicist there is no such thing as Year Zero. Therefore the Teens began in 2011 and ended on this date today. There may be long stretches of silence here as I go about other demands of the world, but there is something to be said that I've kept this blog operating long enough to post a second Best of the Decade list, and there are still correspondents who will read it, especially knowing how much of an ornery cuss I am in sticking to this unpopular system of counting. So thank you up front for finding room in your heart for this fussbudget; everybody needs a little love.

And with love comes...



While it seems that some lustre has fallen from the Pixar brand since, like any other enterprise, they have been tapping into their existing characters to offer audiences comfortable familiarity, when they choose a challenging topic, they still prove themselves peerless in rising to the opportunity. After all, what has felt more impenetrable for generations of parents than unlocking the workings of a young child's mind? Pete Doctor and his brain trust spent years making sure the psychology was accurate, and integrated some of their own self-reflection into the plotting, and that intensity yielded a entertaining and, pardon the pun, thoughtful recognition of how all emotions do ultimately intersect for the better.


When it comes to the spectacle genres, there are several examples of Black-fronted action-adventures and horror stories, but very few fantasy outings, a particularly frustrating matter in light of how popular such material has been with Black viewers. So on that low metric this would already be a welcome contribution. But what director/co-screenwriter Julia Hart does to elevate this to greatness is present a compelling generational drama among its main characters that would sustain an entire movie without any supernatural element, combine it with a new contemplation of a superhero origin story, and finally subvert the kind of expected showdown climax with a cathartic theme of rapprochement and hope that feels earned and not contrived.


Beginning from the source novel RETURN FROM THE ASHES, depicting a woman after WWII re-seducing the lover that does not recognize her (and perhaps betrayed her), which previously inspired one of my favorite unsung films, then essentially rubbishing it and starting from scratch in the manner of Coppola with Mario Puzo or P.T. Anderson with Upton Sinclair, director Christian Petzold and screenwriter Harun Farocki keenly take escapist pulp and expand upon it to depict characters, and thus a nation, that for decades, lost the very notion of pulp, pop culture, and escape. What long ago had been conceived as an an entertaining but not exceptional spin on the "who's going to die last" question to which many potboiler stories hinge upon becomes unforgettable by flipping the question instead to become "how do you go on living."

10. ELLE

As an uneasy but necessary discussion about women's sexual abuse and trauma took focus in the tail end of the decade, many were shocked at the hardened observations of some women of earlier generations and life experiences, where they in effect shrugged off horrifying events they endured. In the heightened but all-too-plausible environment created by Paul Verhoeven here, we get a significant taste of the minefield such women have steeled themselves to navigate and rise above, with allusions to the manner in which years of outside hostility and interior stewing create such a mindset, delivering on themes that were previously touched on in SHOWGIRLS but ultimately muddied in its disjointed blend of camp and grit. 


In the 90s, after watching the first batch of films Richard Linklater directed, my roommate said, unprompted, "I think he's a got a THE GODFATHER in him." While the idea of a family epic sounded odd for a filmmaker finding drama in the outwardly bland incidents of people, consider that Francis Ford Coppola had earned praise for similarly small intimate films as YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW and THE RAIN PEOPLE before making that iconic film. As such, Linklater did fulfill that prediction, demonstrating how, over the span of years, moments that seemed inconsequential impact and loom large in the formative time of adolescence. And by taking it further with shooting in yearly installments to cement the verisimilitude, took the kind of bold production risk that Coppola probably contemplated in his own youth. To say that ordinary life is complex sounds quaint, but when presented in this chronicle, the evidence hits home.


Back in 2011, where most of the attention in the film community was taken up either by the complacent nostalgia of THE ARTIST and THE HELP or the existential questions of THE TREE OF LIFE and MELANCHOLIA, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, reteaming after their successful collaboration on JUNO, took the truly ballsy step of asking audiences to find kinship and empathy with a destructive monster who seemingly could not or would not repent for their damage. Roger Ebert famously said that the gift movies provide is to allow viewers to experience lives they would never know, and even though this protagonist, mired in self-loathing over the failed promises of the past, is a person one would hope to never know or emulate, this glimpse into their broken heart is as much a moving revelation as any comparably upstanding character.


If Bill Morrison had decided to make a documentary just on discovering hundreds of nitrate film reels in a remote Yukon outpost, that probably would have been an interesting story in itself. Or if he'd told the story of that former Great White North boomtown, that would have been informative also. But by taking the time to look deeply into both their their histories, how they mirrored each other, and the unexpected tangents they steered into, he was able to lay out a larger, sprawling tale of ambition, capitalism, hubris, and for some involved parties, recovery, taking this beyond the realm of dry information about the past, and into a stunning hypnotic odyssey. It stands as a grounded cautionary tale and a dream narrative.


Bong Joon-ho has been swinging for the fences from his first feature forward, and to have a resume where MEMORIES OF MURDER is your second film is what every auteur dreams of. PARASITE is the culmination of years of telling energetic tales of suspense infused with exploring the ripple effects of class disparity in THE HOST, MOTHER, and SNOWPIERCER. This edition however stands out thanks to its mastery of switching from fear to comedy and back, its mounting stakes leading to a cathartic finish, and yet never letting its pronouncements get larger than the prime focus on its characters and our rooted interest in them. As he has demonstrated in all his best films, no matter the chaos outside, there is always time to stop for family meal.


I would proffer that the reason some chroniclers resist counting a series of films as a single unit is because they rarely get released in the span of one calendar year; the last time I can recall one making that window was Kieslowski's THREE COLORS trilogy. And the puritans screaming, "It's TV!" aren't helping things either. But any sensible cineaste can see that Steve McQueen's collection of overdue stories about West Indian lives in '70s England - their loves, challenges, epiphanies, and activism - have the meticulous composition of all of the director's previous works, and with Amazon's bullish support of other iconoclast artists and desire for theatrical respect, they would have readily released them in cinemas were they not shut down in 2020. Structured like a mixtape, with the strong start of MANGROVE, the bold increase of LOVERS ROCK, the reflective descent of RED WHITE AND BLUE and ALEX WHEATLE, and a conclusion in EDUCATION that makes you want to start the whole thing over again, this may well be McQueen’s stamp on the canon.


Satire may be what closes on Saturday night, but when it's done right, it captures all of the troublesome parts of a time and place and manages to present it to you in a way that doesn't make you want to regret your existence. And Boots Riley calls out multiple sources of grief of this past decade, and acknowledges how some of them manage to stay indestructible, without leaving the viewer feeling completely pessimistic, deftly blending the "pilgrim's progress" surrealism of O LUCKY MAN! with BLUE COLLAR's still relevant maxim, "They'll do anything to keep you on their line...Everything they do is to keep us in our place." It's laughing to keep from screaming bloody murder, but when the jokes come as quick and correct as they do here, you understand why comedy matters in a bleak time. 


While a case can be made that his longtime friend and peer Alejandro González Iñárritu engages in production stunt work meant to draw attention to itself, Alfonso Cuarón has always figured out how to make technical virtuosity still be in the service of a story and not take it over. In this film, he presents astounding visuals (especially when viewed in its native 3D), the kind that audiences seek when going to a big screen event picture, but constrains them to focus almost exclusively on one person and her real time life-or-death crisis above the Earth; effectively staging a literal THE HUMAN VOICE in Space! The existential struggle of the micro of a single soul against the ultimate macro of the vast infinite has rarely been more wondrous, terrifying, and emotional, and Cuarón shows how that balance can be met in craft and in life.


If anyone not already familiar with the recent history of this country wanted an explanation for the disease that has devoured so much of this decade, this bravura documentary, that unrolled with a furious speed that belied the 7.5 hours of its theatrical release version, is the primer I would offer them. Addressing the longstanding open racial animus Los Angeles law enforcement unleashed upon its Black citizens, and the more covert racial animus that slowly poisoned a once shining hero of the community, and the ugly series of events they spawned, you hear from many people with a stake in the saga, many of whose voices either lacked amplification or got distorted during that maelstrom. And as the participants have some benefit of hindsight in their present to recognize mistakes made, viewers of today will likely all too well recognize how those mistakes led to even worse mistakes in our present. 

And after all of that, what could be the one film to represent ten years' worth of thousands of dreamers putting their visions forth on screens of varying size, to sum up everything that was exciting and moving about the art form, and set up a homestead in your head for weeks, months, years after the first viewing? Well, for me, there is only one answer...


I don't know if I could roust the uninitiated with a sober recitation of the basic outline of this movie - an actor capable of complex changes of appearance travels by stretch limousine to perform a wild array of scenes over the course of one day - because this is a movie that is inebriated with the joy of immersion in other worlds for a short spell. Action, fantasy, discord, regret, death, rebirth, and even a little song and dance - the emotional moments we seek entertainment to reenact for us from the comfort of a cinema seat, whether you're the loner at a matinee wanting a good cry over lost love, or the wide-eyed naif at a midnight show looking to discover some way out sheeit. Like rambunctious children playing house one minute, cowboys the next, and monsters afterward, anything is possible and no ideas are wrong. To invert that old beer commercial, it is Everything You Always Wanted in a Movie...and More. 

Or, to libarally quote from my more erudite friend and colleague Alonso Duralde, "It's a movie [that] if you feel like interpreting it, it's open to a lot of this a movie, is this a dream, is this a movie having a dream of being a just goes into wonderfully weird directions and you have to just kind of stop asking questions after a while and just go with it and follow its own rhythms, but it's rewarding if you allow yourself to do that...this is a movie for movie lovers who really love all kinds of movies and are willing to go on all kinds of rides with a movie...there's a story here if you want there to be one, or not if you don't..."

For a decade that's definitely been a long and suspenseful ride full of inextricably tied instances of elevation and humbling, despair and comfort, fear and hope and the Whole Damned Thing...and no good answers about what is coming can it not be represented by HOLY MOTORS?

Thus I close the door on this year and this decade, and send you my wishes for a grand '20s run, and my promise to help make them grand for you.

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