What I'll Take From 2019: Part I

Family drama and essential kindness kick off our look at the year in film

This is going to be a year where I spend a lot of time looking back and a lot of time looking forward. I’m turning 50 in May, and for most of the past decade, I’ve approached that with dread. For some reason, that number always felt to me like a wall between the age where I’d be vital and engaged and working and the beginning of a slow march to the grave.

Well, the joke’s on me, because that slow march to the grave started a long time ago, and yet somehow I feel like I’ve got more energy and appetite for this work right now than I have in years. I look at the work I’ve done over the last few years, and there is a weariness and a creeping cynical disinterest to some of it. That’s because of how burned down I was by the end of HitFix. It did something to me. It broke something in me.

Awards season does the same thing to dozens of entertainment reporters, and it does it to them every year. It’s remarkable. Watching someone have to have one conversation for four solid months, endlessly restating the same points about the same films, it’s amazing more of them don’t snap completely. The entire idea of a four-month cycle of awards “news” is vile. From Toronto until the day of the Oscars, it’s all one long loud sustained scream about “the Oscar,” and it is exhausting.

It also devalues anything that doesn’t end up being considered “worthy,” and it creates the impression that not getting nominated is a referendum from the industry on someone’s worthiness. It’s not that you simply weren’t nominated; you were snubbed. This implies that there’s a meeting where the Academy works all of this out as a group, and it’s so far from the truth. Instead, you have human beings, subject to whim, who are wined and dined and courted for months, with one precursor after another telling them how they should vote. They vote based on any number of things, and in the end, the Oscars are the story they want to tell about the industry where they work.

I’m not going to tell you that the Oscars don’t matter at all. They matter very much to the people who are nominated for them, and to the people who win eventually. They help them in their careers, and they represent a level of personal accomplishment that I’m sure is very meaningful… to them. But at most, the Oscars should be something we think about two or three times a year. Nomination day. The week before the awards. The awards. Done. That would be reasonable, and I could learn to enjoy that. Instead, so much time and energy is spent chasing this thing that most people can’t remember a year later that it pulls the industry all out of shape, and it has created a lamprey press that has to talk about something every day, even when (as is true pretty much every day) there’s nothing of substance to discuss.

I don’t even start my end of the year stuff until January 1st, because until then, the year’s not over. When I write about my film year, I’m talking about how I personally experienced the year in movies, and in most years, that’s about old stuff as much as it’s about new stuff. To me, the real story in any given year is what I find myself rewatching, what exerts gravity on me and demands my attention when I increasingly do not have attention or time to spare. Since the early days of ‘80s All Over, my film years have increasingly become mired in the ‘80s, and that hasn’t stopped. I’m still writing capsule reviews for the ‘80s book, like this one I just wrote (*), and I’m getting ready to take the next steps with the Film Nerd book. That’s a lot of headspace devoted to things that aren’t brand-new, and honestly, it’s one of the reasons I was able to face the idea of starting this venture. I felt like I’d done some creative therapy and taken some time away for some clarity, and now I’ve got it.

Part of that is doing away with the habits I had that are simply “do it because that’s the way people do things,” like ten-best lists. I get that you guys want to go over the year one more time before we say goodbye to it, and I’m the same way. I am always thinking about the way films end up getting grouped together by release date, and the way decades end up having identities and the way trends and moods play out across multiple movies. It’s part of what I find fascinating about our cultural relationship with movies. In many ways, they’re the mirror we stand in front of to see who we are right now.

What matters most to me is what I’ll take away from this year. For me, watching movies isn’t about ranking them and hating some and worshipping others. Every movie is you opening a window into someone else’s life or thoughts, and I see every movie as an opportunity to gain something. Some image, some idea, some performance, some moment. Some movies are brimming over with things that become a permanent part of you, and other movies barely register. Why things matter to you is more important that putting a number in front of them or ranking them next to each other. So this year, I’m going to start a new tradition and simply break down what it is that I’m going to carry with me as we leave this year behind.

You know… like that face rising out of the shadows in Parasite.

Stuff like that.

Today, let’s talk about the first handful of films that I hold dear this year. I mentioned Parasite, and there’s a reason people have been singing its praises loudly since it made its premiere at Cannes this summer. Sometimes, movies feel like they are of the moment, tuned in to the way people feel right now, and it feels like that movie had to happen right then. Parasite, Knives Out, and The Last Black Man In San Francisco all feel like they’re part of the same larger conversation to me, but they get to it in radically different ways and with radically different voices. I don’t think I’ve ever been more keenly attuned to the way class is used to create different Americas for different people, and I attribute that to the enormous privilege I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy for most of my life. I don’t come from money. I come from what I consider a solid genuine middle-class background, and my father has always worked hard for each new jump he made in status. I pissed away the college education that he provided for me, and I still marvel at the fact that he even speaks to me now, much less that he still loves me. But that’s family… you have each other’s backs when no one else will, and even when no one else understands.

The naked exploitation in both directions in Parasite is fascinating, because it doesn’t offer an easy condemnation of the upper class or make cheap heroes of the poor. Instead, it creates a fascinating tension between three different families, asking who is really feeding off of who and using the trappings of genre to make this feel like a thriller, an accurate way of expressing just how high the stakes are for all of us all the time right now. Knives Out is far less ambivalent about how it portrays class, and Ana de Arma’s Marta is one of the year’s best characters. Rian Johnson’s obviously ferocious love of Agatha Christie and swiss-watch-construction thrillers would justify this kind of genre exercise on its own, simply because he takes such delight in all the conventions and devices, but he used that as a way of smuggling in the real movie he wanted to make. The ensemble cast finds themselves gradually revealed over the course of the film, but their criminal motives are the least of the damage they do. I was married to an Argentinian woman for a decade, and watching the way people behaved with her every day, hearing the micro-aggressions, gradually becoming aware of the judgment that greeted her in nearly every social situation, it changed the way I view people. I used to believe in “color-blindness,” but I think that’s something that only white people of a certain station talk about because race remains a very real and ongoing factor in the lives of so many people. What I found most intoxicating about The Last Black Man In San Francisco is how it’s nearly impossible to point to a precursor for it. While it’s clear that Joe Talbot and his creative collaborators have a deeply rooted understanding of film craft, it feels like they’ve put the tools to work in service of a voice that is fresh and unusual and determined to tell their story their way. What begins as an observational piece about living in a city that is pricing you out turns into something stranger and far more expansive. It’s a beautiful film, a dreamy film, the kind of film I just plain like soaking in. And the way it observes the different cities San Francisco (or any city, frankly) can be depending on who you are, how much money you have, and what you look like is both poignant and furious, each tempering the other.

I’ve said that the thing I respond to most strongly in films as I get older is honesty. I just want to see a movie that makes some kind of honest observation about how we behave and who we are. It can be any genre, any kind of story, any filmmaker… I just crave that feeling you get when you’re watching something that gets it right. Increasingly, though, I also crave kindness in my art. I’ve spent so many years soaking in brutality in art, in part because that is what we are told is “serious,” that I have grown numb to cruelty and suffering in fiction. That’s not great. That’s not something you should admit, but it’s true. There are only so many times I can watch someone get totally destroyed on a personal level in a movie before I have to disconnect to some degree. We’re not made to sustain that much damage emotionally, and just pushing that one button over and over in art can be corrosive. When you can make a great piece of art that also somehow promotes the notion that kindness is a currency which we should place special value on in times as coarse as these, that strikes me as worth celebration.

I’m sorry the Academy didn’t see the value in Dolemite Is My Name, but did anyone really expect them to? Rudy Ray Moore isn’t Oscar bait. Never was, never will be. Anyone who knows Eddie Murphy’s work, though, already knows the value of Dolemite Is My Name, and honestly, I feel like I was the one who got an award this year. Getting to see Eddie show up and give a fully-engaged, emotionally mature performance like this that is also deeply funny? That’s a gift. And for it to be in a film that is as smart about the community that art creates as this one is? Pure bonus. Craig Brewer hasn’t been on top of Hollywood’s A-list since his breakthrough with Hustle & Flow, but that’s their loss. Brewer has a terrific ear for music, he knows how to build a scene so that it has a vibrant dirty energy, and he is great at making a space for his actors to really cook. All of those skills together, in support of another terrific left-of-center biopic script by Karaszewski & Alexander, turned out to be exactly the right showcase to let Eddie shine again. What really makes it special, though, is the way it illustrates how Rudy didn’t treat his collaborators as beneath him in any way; instead, he helped raise up everyone he worked with, and they helped him realize his dream. It’s a simple equation, but it’s best embodied in the performance by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, whose work as Lady Reed is one of the best things in any film by anyone last year. She’s terrific, and she blossoms once Rudy gives her a chance. When she finally thanks him, it is heartfelt and beautiful, and a reminder of just what opportunity means to people. You never know what someone is capable of until you let them do it, and that belief in people can be a powerful thing.

Fred Rogers embodied that belief in the goodness of others and the value of others, and while I was skeptical at first of the need for another film about him after last year’s documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I was wrong. What director Marielle Heller has done, working with writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, is to use the 1998 article by Tom Junod, originally published in Esquire, as a springboard for showing us how the decency that was Fred Rogers’ compass impacted the people he met. Instead of doing it in the form of a conventional biopic, we see the way he gets tangled up in the life of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who is a very cynical writer who practically wears his family trauma as a neon billboard. Rhys and Tom Hanks, who does terrific work as Rogers, never just play the easy version of this, and I feel like Heller’s work so far is deeply enamored with the real ways that broken people struggle for daily grace. There’s no judgment in these films. She’s not looking down on anyone for the struggles they face. Instead, her films suggest that hope comes in small steps, not in profound immediate epiphany. Watching this, I wasn’t sure I totally bought Hanks as Rogers, because they’re both so iconic, and then we get to the scene where Lloyd watches Rogers shooting the show, and he gets to watch him perform the Daniel Tiger puppet, and as we watch Rogers doing the voice, giving that performance, I finally lost Tom Hanks in there and felt like I was getting some insight into this icon whose face and voice and beautiful spirit were so central to my early development.

Kindness matters when we’re young. It shapes us. It teaches us how to treat others. It is equally important on the other end of life, as we face some of the most profound and terrifying parts of the human experience. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell asks if you can do something dishonest for a good reason, and if so, if that ends up being a good action overall. Awkwafina is flat-out great as Billi, who is American in every way, but whose family is largely still based on mainland China. When she learns that her beloved grandmother has terminal lung cancer, she decides to fly home to see her, only to learn that the family has collectively decided not to tell Nai Nai that she’s sick at all.

The movie works as a glimpse into another cultural mindset, but forget about whether or not it’s a tradition in Asia. At heart, there is a question of kindness here, and the entire film hinges on who benefits from this withholding of information. Is it for the family? Is it for Nai Nai? Is it simply so they don’t have to discuss these giant topics? Billi wrestles with it, and in doing so, she connects to her extended family on a deeper level. If Parasite and Knives Out explore the way families can curdle and sour from within, then The Farewell is about the way a strong family can hold itself together, no matter what they face. Delicately told and beautifully acted by the entire ensemble, The Farewell is one of those films that has stuck with me since I saw it as if they were people I actually met, not just characters on a screen.

I’ll have more year-end thoughts for you tomorrow, and we’ll be continuing this through the week, with our decade-end thoughts starting soon after that. Don’t worry, though, we’re not just going to do this one thing. I’ve got all sorts of things I want to share with you, and my one concern right now is that I’ll overload you.

It’s not the worst problem, as problems go.

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(*) this is a bonus excerpt from my in-progress work, The Last ‘80s Book (You’ll Ever Need) just because I felt like sharing it

Simon (February 1980)
Alan Arkin, Madeline Kahn, Austin Pendleton, Judy Graubart, William Finley, Wallace Shawn, Jayant, Max Wright, Fred Gwynne, Adolph Green, Keith Szarabajka, Ann Risley, Pierre Epstein, Roy Cooper, Rex Robbins, David Warrilow, Hetty Galen, Louise Lasser, Dick Cavett
cinematography by Adam Holender
score by Stanley Silverman
screenplay by Marshall Brickman
story by Marshall Brickman and Thomas Baum
produced by Martin Bregman
directed by Marshall Brickman
Rated PG
1 hour 37 minutes

A think-tank abducts a psychology professor, brainwashes him into thinking he’s an extraterrestrial, and then uses him to play a hoax on the general public. Comedy mayhem ensues.

The film is presented as an after-the-fact record of an experiment, and the film opens with an extended sequence in which a group of scientists discusses the various things they’ve done to wreak chaos on the world in the name of progress. Right away, you get this dry weird sense of humor, like a Wes Anderson film or a Coen Brothers comedy. It’s that kind of super-heightened world and tone, with a bunch of terrific recognizable actors in every role. You’ve got William Finley, Wallace Shawn, Max Wright, and Austin Pendleton among the members of the think tank, and honestly, I could watch a whole film just about the history of this team. They’re all casually terrible little men.

This is Alan Arkin’s movie, though, and from the moment he hits the screen, he’s on fire here. Simon’s constantly struggling to find some sort of greatness in his field, and he’s like a comedy version of the William Hurt character from Altered States. He’s surrounded by funny people here, like in his first scene in the film where he just jousts with Judy Graubart. They trade set-ups and punchlines back and forth with preposterous natural ease. Arkin plays this so big but grounded in recognizable strains of lunacy. I get why he’s insane. But he is truly, deeply insane. He’s every academic mediocrity who is convinced that he’s got greatness in him, but without the burden of any actual ideas.

Once the think tank starts working on brainwashing Simon, under the pretense of funding his research into anything he wants because he’s a genius, he quickly falls into a close working relationship with Dr. Cynthia Malloy, played by Madeline Kahn. What I love about both Arkin and Kahn is that they’re very specific and truly bizarre in the choices they make, comedically, and there are extended scenes that feel like they’re just trying everything, and that they’re both so good at supporting the other, that they can be fearlessly weird. There’s a courtship scene where they sing together and he plays the sax and Charlie Kaufman would look at it and say, “Holy cow, that’s weird,” and it makes me belly-laugh. I have no idea how they didn’t destroy each other from the sheer force of weirdness.

They finally decide to accelerate the destruction of Simon by sealing him into an isolation tank for a full 200 hours. It’s already a great sequence just listening to his mental breakdown, which he broadcasts by microphone the entire time he’s sealed in there, but when they get him out, he’s regressed all the way back to a single-celled sea organism, and he has to, in one long performance piece, evolve all the way back to human. Arkin begins the scene laying on the floor, and he goes through all of evolution, with the scientists narrating. It’s not just a cheap joke. It’s this great liquid showcase for just how limber and inventive a comic mind Arkin has. Not only does he go from small sea life to land to mammal to man, gradually learning to walk upright, but he also has to invent music and language and art and dance and culture and civilization, and he plays it all out as this physical acceleration all the way up to the moment he decides to get right back in that fucking tank, and if I’d seen this in a theater, I would have stood up and applauded the first time I saw it.

It’s reductive and silly to say what Simon is “about,” because writer/director Marshall Brickman seems to have a lot of targets in mind. That’s what I miss about ‘70s comedy. Filmmakers weren’t afraid to get messy and really dig into a premise and then just follow it through the landscape of modern American culture. It was like they couldn’t believe how fucking wild the ‘70s were even as they were living through them, and they were trying to capture it on film via characters who might as well have turned to the camera and said, “Can you believe these crazy sonsofbitches?” every five minutes. As much as Simon is about anything, it’s about how crazy times seems to invite crazy behavior and crazy beliefs, and it’s made with a clean, careful sense of humor. As Simon’s rise and fall as a new media messiah are charted, Brickman covers a lot of ground, and he’s willing to try anything to execute a joke or an idea. Brickman uses montage well, he gives his actors lots of room to play, and he has a strong sense of where to put his camera, his careful composition making this feel like a cartoon you might see in the New Yorker. It’s probably not for everyone, but I’ve watched it three times since I started working on ‘80s All Over, and there aren’t many films I’ve gone back to repeatedly in that time. That’s gotta be worth something.

Image courtesy Netflix