Saint Maud

Saint Maud

Never waste your pain.

Man, what is it with these first-time directors, coming out of relatively nowhere, to helm solid indie features with good casts that, despite it being their debut feature, seems like they’ve been directing for years? We’ve had plenty the past few years to reap the benefits from, especially from indie-arthouse darling studio A24, and for 2019 they’ve given us Saint Maud, the debut of English writer/director Rose Glass. Now granted, A24 only picked up the American distribution rights, but I still like to think they know what they’re doing; not that they had much to worry about (pandemic aside), as Saint Maud showcases Rose Glass as one of the most self-assured directors to spring out of the woodwork in the past few years.

Welsh actress Morfydd Clark owns the screen as Maud, a private care nurse and devout Catholic who gets sent to the home of Amanda Kohl, an American former dancer who is now locked up in her home with terminal cancer, basically awaiting her death. Seeing a chance to save the embittered Amanda’s eternal soul, Maud tries her best to convert her ward by sharing the grace of God with her, including cutting Amanda off from the few personal pleasures she does keep up with. It’s only after a birthday party Amanda holds that hints about Maud begin to coalesce, like her faith being a relatively new decision and a passerby in town one night referring to her by another name. Soon, a much more tragic portrait of Maud is painted for us of who she is and used to be, and Maud’s sanity begins to fray in her increasingly obsessive endeavors to both save Amanda’s soul and prove to herself that her own is worth saving as well. Much of what makes Saint Maud what it is is not apparent when the film first begins; this is another slow-burner film, opening with nary an introduction or explanation of the characters or the world they’re in, instead hopping directly into their lives and moving forward, leaving us to wonder about them and their pasts, which gradually are revealed to us as the film moves along. Normally, I’m not for a film starting off assuming we already know who everyone is and what things will be about, but with Saint Maud, I appreciated it because of Glass’ storytelling ability and the framing of the core aspects of the film; we’re not meant to already know Maud right from the get-go, and part of the film’s effect is learning about her past and what happened to her before she became the person we started out knowing her to be, so we can then gain a growing understanding of why she begins to slip off the edge of the cliff she is barely walking astride. The two main factors in making this film work are director Rose Glass, who has such a command of her story and world-building that you never once feel a single second of the film is not deliberate or by-the-book, and star Morfydd Clark, who is pulled along by Glass’ direction and her own knowledge of the character until Maud’s descent into the depths truly begins to pick up speed, and Clark portrays every ounce of this perfectly. Not to say the others involved in the production don’t bring their absolute best, but it is the anchor of Clark and the total grasp of Glass’ direction that brings everything together into the finely-honed machine this is, starting off slow and steady until you don’t even realize you’re barely holding on as you’re careening headlong into the abyss.

Slow-burners can be a bit taxing to start off with, but the understanding is that it will pay off on the back end, and boy does Saint Maud ever pay off; the last two scenes of the film are what makes the ride up to then absolutely worth the price of admission, and I already have the feeling the film’s ending will remain seared into my memory for quite a while to come. This is exactly what psychological horror ought to be; not a piece of this is not right where it should be, to where it becomes extremely difficult to think of ways the film could be better or things you might do differently to try and improve it. Honestly, if it wasn’t for my grading films principally on their general entertainment value, the rating of this one would likely be higher than it is; from a general audience standpoint, I’m not sure all too many people will get what they want from this one, but from a filmmaking standpoint, I can’t think of any real notes to give, and I will hopefully be looking forward to whatever Rose Glass has cooking up for her next meal.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame

Part of the journey is the end.

Well, here it is. It did happen. I said in my review of the previous year’s Avengers: Infinity War that I was puzzled as to why the editors of the Book chose to include that film, instead of just waiting to include Endgame the following year. Well, it makes sense now; they combined the two into a single entry. It really should’ve been obvious, in hindsight. Still, that Avengers: Endgame was included will largely make this review a retread of Infinity War, since the two films share a lot in common, especially in terms of strengths and faults. There is a certain degree of difference, though; where Infinity War was the huge-spectacle, massive-space-battle, explosively-epic half of the conclusion of the franchise up to that point, Endgame’s half is more about actually wrapping up things (storylines, character arcs, etc), as well as serving as a love letter to the original six Avengers and a sendoff to what has largely been their story up to now. Sure, the MCU isn’t over, and there will be more films after this, but this is the end of the first major franchise-spanning narrative arc, and as such the filmmakers needed to make this work in exactly the way it needed to finish. And, excusing the vernacular, holy fuck did they ever wildly succeed.

Of course, going into this film will mean going into detail about previous films in the franchise up to and including Infinity War, which means mild spoilers will be here for anyone who hasn’t yet caught up to– oh, who am I kidding; everyone’s seen this.

The universe is reeling after the events of Infinity War, as the Mad Titan Thanos’ actions have left half the universe mourning the loss of the other half. No one is more in grief than the Avengers, those who survived the Snap at least, and everyone remaining is desperate to make an attempt to reverse what has been done. Fortune favors them in the return of Scott Lang from the Quantum Realm, who brings with him an idea of potentially using said realm’s properties outside the normal laws of the universe to travel back in time and stop the Snap from happening. Since time travel carries with it inevitable consequences, the plan eventually evolves into traveling back to specific points in time, stealing the Infinity Stones from those points, and bringing them back to the present to assemble a new Infinity Gauntlet and undo the Snap themselves. You can tell what this means; plans somewhat go awry, we revisit a lot of the past moments and events of the Avengers’ histories, and everything ends up in one massive battle for the future when Thanos rears his ugly head from the timeline once again. So, basically, going into Endgame, what this needed to be was a big love letter to the franchise so far, the characters we’ve come to know and love, a resolution to the storyline as we know it, and still contain a lot of fan-service moments that, hopefully, won’t come off as just fan-service moments. In all of this, all of these regards, Endgame functions absolutely perfectly; we go back and revisit some of the best moments and settings of the franchise, character arcs come to beautiful finishes, there is spectacle and amazing visuals abound, and every moment that fans have wanted to see (along with plenty they didn’t know they wanted) is here without sticking out as an obvious and jarring inclusion just for the sake of fan service. Really, that this film works the way it does, and how it is written, while still including everything it does include and then some, is absolutely mind-boggling; once again, first kudos have to go to the screenwriters for what they manage here. Even with the film being three hours, it completely needed to be, and it never feels like it just because there’s so much that has to go down for this to be the finish it needs to be. Even those who would want to watch a film like this for its character moments have plenty to enjoy, mostly in the first third of the film and a little in the second during the actual time heist itself; and then, of course, there’s the third part, which can’t be talked about without gushing over everything about it in terms of rewarding the fans of the franchise for being the fans they are. Marvel had the biggest bar to clear in the history of moviemaking with this, and that this isn’t just not a disappointment, but literally everything a fan could want this to be, is stunning to an uncountable degree.

This is the part where I either figure out whether to recommend this to people (even just a small group of people), or I try and figure out where on the ratings scale it should go and for what reasons. For a film like this, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I could possibly say that some people just won’t be for this film, or I could say something to an effect for the people who wouldn’t have otherwise seen it. But, no. Screw that. This is Endgame; you’ve seen this, you know you have, and regardless of whether you liked it or not, this film is absolutely everything it had to be and what the fans wanted it to be. It is beyond mere recommendations or reasons to excuse certain groups from watching it, and really, anything I could say against having this be the rating I’m giving it is inconsequential to how successful this film is at what it does and for the people it’s doing it for. This film was a landmark event in the history of cinema, and seeing it in a packed theater is one of the precious moments of being a moviegoer that just can’t ever be duplicated. I spoke years ago about how incensed I was at the editors of the List not including the original Avengers film to represent the biggest genre in modern moviemaking. Well, they made up for it by including Endgame, and it was a decision I wouldn’t second-guess for the life of me.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

The Farewell

The Farewell

“It’s still a lie.” “…It’s a good lie.”

Expectations can be a fickle thing. They can either enhance the effect of what you’re expecting, or go the other way into basic confusion when something isn’t what you expected that it would be. If it does end up being the latter, you pretty much then have a choice, even if it’s a subconscious one: you can either further that confusion into anger or disappointment that your expectation was not met, or you can re-evaluate what it is you were expecting and try to see what actual, real worth is there instead of what your expectation told you would be there. I rather messily go into this as a reaction to my watching Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, and really because it is the only reaction I’ve had in regards to the film. I went into it expecting something, and it took basically the entire film for me to realize my expectations were not going to be met, and now I’m trying to figure out what there is in terms of value the film offers that I otherwise missed during my initial viewing. It’s there, I can tell there’s value there, but I’m still unsure if it has value to me as a viewer, or if I’m just not in the wheelhouse of what this is trying to do or say.

The premise is simple enough to be an elevator pitch: Billi is a Chinese-American in New York, having moved to America when she was six; the rest of her extended family mostly still lives back in China. One in particular, the matriarch of the family, known as Nai Nai, is one Billi is particularly close with; so, of course, she is struck to find out from her parents that Nai Nai has terminal cancer and has only a few months to live. What’s more, the family, both Billi’s parents and the extended family, have decided not to tell Nai Nai she is dying, and have staged a wedding of one of Billi’s cousins as an excuse for the family to get together and basically have one last gathering with Nai Nai. Her parents don’t want her going to China and potentially spilling the secret, but of course Billi goes anyway, and now everyone has to get through the next week or so as a family without letting Nai Nai know what’s really up. What concerned me going into the film was mainly plot-related; was Billi going to eventually break down and tell Nai Nai, and if so how and when was it going to happen? Obviously, to explain the answer to this question is spoiler territory, so I won’t do so here (if asked, I’ll go more into it in the comments), but the film really isn’t about the answer to this question; it’s more about what it means to be family, especially an Eastern family as opposed to the Western sensibilities and values that Billi has largely grown up in and the contrast between the two. There’s a good scene about two-thirds through the film that lays this out for us; that not telling Nai Nai about her diagnosis means that the family is carrying the burden of it collectively, instead of just Nai Nai herself. It’s really a wonderful notion to consider, especially as a Westerner myself and thus one who wouldn’t normally hold such notions and values. It does mean, though, that there is a bit of a cultural divide with The Farewell, as not everyone in the Western world who sees this is going to fully appreciate and understand what this film is holding aloft and trying to pass on. I fell into this for most of the film, in addition to largely watching it while wondering when the hammer was finally going to drop, and as such it really feels like I missed or am missing out on a lot of what makes this film as good as I should’ve found it to be. It really is good, too; Awkwafina, largely known up to now as a comedian and rapper, absolutely nails this role, and that her and the film itself were entirely ignored come Oscar time is quite possibly the biggest snub of last year’s Oscars.

I’m still struggling with this film, to be honest; I can tell it’s better than how I’ve overall taken to it, but I can’t really get myself to take it that much better overall. It’s a weird conundrum, and really, I kinda wish I had more about it to explain than what I’ve written in the past two paragraphs, but I basically don’t. This is good, and depending on how much you take to it and the values it upholds and dramatizes, it could potentially be very good; but I still caution some people mostly to not go into it expecting it to be something it’s not. The Golden Globes, for instance, had this under their Musical/Comedy section, and the film is largely marketed as a comedy, albeit with some dramatic elements. For me, there were a few moments that were amusing, but other than that, this is a drama through and through, and though a lot of the runtime seemed to hang on the premise of whether or not Nai Nai will find out the truth, there’s quite a bit more going on underneath that should really be what viewers see and take away from this. This will probably be better upon a second viewing for me, but I’m not entirely certain on whether or not I’d want to see it again.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

For Sama

For Sama

What a life I’ve brought you into.

Documentaries can range across the entirety of the human experience in terms of topic and content; in terms of structure, though, there’s decidedly less variety. Probably the two most common are the typical interview/footage back-and-forth, followed by the fly-on-the-wall experience of what the documentary is covering. For Sama, a Syrian documentary-cum-love-letter by Waad al-Kateab (fake last name, for safety reasons), sits squarely in the latter camp, but for what the film doesn’t do in breaking any new ground in structure or even the topic it covers, it is more than adequate in single-minded purpose along with the raw horror of the events it depicts. Sure, there’s been war documentaries before, and even a few about the Syrian Civil War of this decade, but For Sama is in a field unto itself just by how it was filmed and the sheer unrelenting realism of what it’s like to live in a bombed-out Syria and trying to get by.

The title is the key to this: Waad al-Kateab starts filming pieces of her life living amidst the ruins of Aleppo among her friends for journalism purposes, ends up falling in love with a doctor at the hospital she covers, marrying him, and having a daughter; she then turns her growing footage into a visual letter to her future daughter, in order to explain to her why her parents did what they did, chose to live how they lived, and the world that young Sama was born into. There’s little overarching narrative, aside from the developing lives of the main subjects, and there doesn’t need to be; aside from the film’s ostensible purpose as an explanation to the journalist’s daughter, the content and purpose of For Sama is to show the world what living in war-torn Aleppo is really like for the people who chose not to flee when the civil war broke out. And, well… spoiler alert: it’s hell. Right from the first scene, one of the main messages of the film is horrifically apparent; the hospital is being bombed, and everyone inside is rushing to get downstairs to safety… but the entire time, everyone is markedly jovial, making light of the situation, not to defuse anxiety or fear, but just because that was life for them, every single day, almost to where they don’t know anything else. That thought alone is crushing enough; that the entire rest of the film is an exploration of this regular life seems almost like the continual ringing of a death knell after your ears have already gone numb to the pitch of it. Make no mistake, too, that’s exactly what this is; everything you could imagine as being the worst of a war-ravaged city and living in the midst of it is all here, and in large amounts. The daily shelling and bombings, the destroyed buildings and rubble lining the streets, the dead and injured bodies (we’re at a hospital, after all), along with the suffering of those close to the dead and injured; For Sama has it all in a scant hour-and-a-half or so of runtime. Where Idi i Smotri got by by being a fictional film on the horrors of war, For Sama pulls no punches because it is exactly what these people went through, and indeed the film would be incapable of pulling said punches because, again, this is just life for these people; even among all the dust and rubble and blood and bodies and explosions, life goes on as usual, with people cooking food and caring for each other, letting the children play in whatever ways they can, and generally getting along.

It’s the incomprehensibility of it, that is at the heart of For Sama. That life is like this for these people, that they’ve accepted it and even refuse to leave because they believe so much in what the war is being fought for, and that the world at large just goes on without a care toward the people affected, hardly doing anything to help those who do survive; that’s what For Sama is doing for the world, and as has been said before about films like this, it’s what needs to be done for the world to really grasp what’s been happening. Of course, this is not going to be a pleasurable viewing; the comparison to Idi i Smotri is dead on in terms of how I felt while I was watching this. But it is a necessary one, even and especially if you don’t want to look at stuff like this. Turning away from documentaries like For Sama is about more than just making sure people are fully aware of the horrors going on, though; it’s also about seeing the people involved, and seeing them get by for all the reasons they have for doing so. For as much death and destruction the film contains, For Sama is ultimately about life, and what it can really mean to people to hold onto life and bring more of it into the world. There’s a lot to live for in this world of ours, and we can only hope future generations are able to experience this, and understand what we went through to try and make their lives better for them.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Little Women

Little Women

If I was a girl in a book, this would all be so easy.

For how ubiquitous the story of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is, both in English classes in America and across the annals of film, it can be a slight surprise to note that this is actually the first film adaptation of the novel to officially appear on the List. I’ve previously seen the 1933 version for the Best Picture Project, and I didn’t really care for it all that much; I did end up rereading my review of that one after I’d seen this version just to compare them, though, since a lot of what the ’33 version ended up getting wrong, this version somehow got so much more right. There is, of course, an obvious caveat to the praise I’m about to throw upon Greta Gerwig’s take on Little Women; that this sort of film, with its character focus and general lack of narrative arc, won’t be for everyone. Still, for all the filmed adaptations of this work, Gerwig’s version may quite possibly be as close to the perfect realization as is possible.

For those who skipped English classes or missed my previous review, the little women of the title are the four March sisters: Jo, Amy, Beth, and Meg, who are on the cusp of adulthood circa Civil War-era America. Their father has gone off to aid in the war, leaving their mother, Marmee, to take care of the family, and Jo takes it upon herself to help bring in some income as well through her writing. Each of the March girls has a particular passion or talent they wish to pursue, Jo being the most headstrong about hers; this, however, is 19th-century America, and it will be a challenge for any of the sisters to pursue and achieve their dreams instead of settling for marriage and a family – a discriminatory restriction that Jo is keenly aware of. Still, there may be something to be said even for love in such times, something that Jo is also trying hard to deny herself, and it takes several events happening in the lives of the March family over the years for Jo to come to terms with both her desire to be her own woman as well as her underlying need to be a part of a loving family. As I said in the opener, there’s a lot that happens in Little Women in terms of plot rather than narrative, and this most recent version takes it a little further by kind of assuming you have some knowledge of the story & setting going in, since the film pretty much drops right in on you and moves forward regardless of your disorientation. What I did enjoy a lot with the narrative here was the decision to cross-cut between the girls’ future and past, juxtaposing events that have happened earlier in their lives with events that happen later; it helped establish the idea that the story was mostly about Jo coming back to the core of what she needs as a person: a family around her, which is probably the film’s narrative if for lack of anything else. Everyone seems to be engaged with the story and bringing everything they have to their roles, to varying degrees of success; Emma Watson as Meg was the one sister that seemed to struggle a slight bit with the dialogue, and while Timothee Chalamet does great with his character, it did seem hard to think he wasn’t a little miscast. By far the best scenes in the film, though, are of the four March girls basically doing little more than gab with each other; the chemistry between all of the actors was top-notch, even to the smaller parts. Speaking of which, shout-out to Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep for letting themselves be cast a few rungs further down the character ladder than they otherwise might’ve done, though those kudos probably go to Gerwig more than anyone for managing that of them.

This is an inexplicable film; there’s really no real reason to seek it out if you’re not otherwise already interested in it, but the film itself is just so special a thing that having people pass it up just seems a waste. It’s so rare to be able to appreciate a film like this, one so perfectly put together that it carries that magical air about it that seems so effortless but at the same time hints at how well-crafted everything is and how much work was actually put into it. Really, there’s so much that this film does right that I don’t have the space to cover it all, so I’m left to just do what I can in congratulating Gerwig for everything she manages in only her second film as a solo director. I’ve only seen two versions of this adaptation, but I seriously can’t fathom how any other version can possibly do it better than this.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

If you look at me… who do I look at?

Foreign language films had a hell of a 2019, that’s for sure. Of course, there’s the obvious one, the one that became the first ever to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and indeed Parasite seemed like a gravitational singularity, sucking all the awards in that dared to glimpse its event horizon. This does mean, though, that while all the organizations and festivals and groups were focused on Parasite and giving it everything, a lot of other really good world cinema unfortunately fell by the wayside. Take, for example, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a French film by Celine Sciamma, which is currently sitting pretty at #14 on Letterboxd’s rankings of the Top 250 Narrative Films of All Time. Now, considering the film only came out last year, and that there’s been a who-the-hell-knows amount of films made over the last century-and-a-half, that’s quite an impressive number to be at. Many would look at that list and take blatant note that Parasite is #1, though, which is the unfortunate shadow being cast on all the other films of world cinema released in 2019. Shame, too, since if Parasite hadn’t been around, Portrait might well have won just about everything that the Korean film ended up taking, and for damn good reason too.

It is around the end of the 18th century, in France. A young painter named Marianne is brought to an island in order to paint a portrait of the young heiress who lives at the estate there, who is set to be married to a Milanese nobleman after her elder sister, who was the one originally betrothed, committed suicide. The heiress, Heloise, does not want to be married, and as such has refused to sit for previous commissioned portraits; thus, Heloise’s mother has hired Marianne ostensibly as her daughter’s companion, to study Heloise in secret and paint her portrait without her knowing. Naturally, the two women become close, and the truth is wont to come out at some point, but the real story of the film isn’t about the painting; it’s about the two women, and how their relationship grows and evolves as they spend precious time with each other before Heloise’s mother returns from a trip and the painting is nearing completion, meaning that Marianne’s job will be done and she will be sent home. I’ll admit, it took me a slightly longer amount of time to sink into this one than I would’ve preferred, and indeed I spent most of the first act or so wondering where the film was taking me and what mood it was trying to present. It was during a key scene of dialogue between Marianne and Heloise, though, that finally got the film’s intentions to click in my head, and I began noticing all the little details of both the composition of the narrative and the performances of the two leads that, from the point-of-view of either Marianne or Heloise, draw attention to the other woman, and how the pair become increasingly drawn to each other as the few remaining days they have together go by. Stealing furtive glances at each other, analyzing the other woman’s ticks and expressions, reading fables together and figuring out what they mean and how it relates to them; this is basically an expression of an ill-fated romance, a romance that the two want to have happen, and do have happen, but due to fate, is never really meant to be. There’s a hushed and secretive fog hovering over the whole thing, especially the dialogue, which isn’t so much said or spoken rather than half-whispered, as if someone, anyone, might come barging in through a door or around a corner and put a stop to the desires and wishes of both women before they become reality. A great deal of this comes from the performances, but an equal part of it feels totally thought and sketched out by Sciamma; she knows exactly what kind of film she wants to make, and damn if she doesn’t get there. The only thing that seemed a little odd was a subplot involving the maid of the estate, who realizes she is pregnant and the two women aid her in her attempts to terminate the pregnancy; I wasn’t 100% on how it related to the main plot of the two women or why it was there, and the scenes involving it came off to me as an obvious subplot introduced in order to have a subplot. It does feel, though, that that might be on my end, and I may just need further clarification on it, but maybe I’m not alone in wondering, so I feel it warrants mention.

I’m frankly surprised as all hell that this didn’t make the list of nominees for International Feature at the Oscars. Apparently, it was one of three films shortlisted as France’s entry, and they went with a different film instead (that had tied for the Jury Prize, or third place, at Cannes). I have yet to see the film they did pick, but I’d be bowled over if it was really better than this. Portrait isn’t obtusely amazing; it’s subtle, and intricately designed, and it definitely comes across as one of those films that separates the casual moviegoer from the real cinephile, the ones that can enjoy just about any film versus the ones with enough perception and experience to be able to appreciate this film and how well it’s made. It’s basically to that end that led me to end up on the score I did; I’ve said a few times in the past for some films that there will be a percentage of viewers who just won’t take to it no matter what, and Portrait is unquestionably one of those films. It’s just a matter of seeing if that percentage is larger than I hope it is, and if so, that’ll be a fairly disappointing thought on the state of movie viewership today; this is the kind of film that I honestly wish more people than I secretly think will be able to appreciate, and that those who can do so will appreciate this probably even more than I’ve been able to myself.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

He believed that there was some enchantment in the light… Went mad, he did.

After Hereditary made it onto the List for 2018, it seemed only a matter of time that the editors would also take notice of the other up-and-coming auteur horror director to make the mainstream the past few years: Robert Eggers. They passed on The Witch, but they had another prime opportunity with Eggers’ follow-up of last year, The Lighthouse. It definitely seemed like an easy decision, too; it would really take a concerted effort to actually make a bad film with what they had and intended to do with this, and Eggers, even with this being only his second feature, knows enough to take what he’s got and make something singular and wholly unique with it. That, indeed, appears to be Eggers’ M.O.; both of his features so far are unlike almost anything else in Hollywood, especially in today’s era, and that The Lighthouse is not just a unique and fantastical experience, but an altogether entertaining and excellently-made one, is enough to appreciate Eggers and his work to a grand level almost unattainable by any of his peers.

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe absolutely command the screen as Ephraim Winslow and Thomas Wake, two men sent out on a four-week service contract to an isolated lighthouse off the eastern shore of New England circa the late-19th century. Wake, the superior, relegates Winslow to the menial tasks, while he keeps the books and retains exclusive access to the actual lamp of the lighthouse, both things that quickly grate on Winslow’s patience, along with a one-eyed seagull that persistently annoys him while he goes about his duties. Wake advises him to leave the gulls alone, superstitiously believing them the reincarnated souls of lost sailors, but Winslow snaps one day and beats the seagull to death, and the weather turns on the island almost immediately, producing a storm that prevents any relief or additional rations from arriving at the island past their departure date. The two men thus try to survive both the extreme weather and conditions on the island amid dwindling rations and high consumption of alcohol, but mostly try to survive each other, alternatingly hating and needing the other man as secrets come to the surface and madness creeps in to threaten the survival of both men. As much as the film does rely on the narrative to move things along (though characterization also takes up a large amount of the spotlight), this is mostly a film to be watched for the experience and the presentation than the actual story. The film is not only in stark black-and-white, but an extremely narrow aspect ratio, making the film enclosed in an almost square box to emphasize the claustrophobia of the setting and the mental state of the two men. Everything about the production value and the putting together of the film is an attempt to evoke the film’s late-19th-century period, from the dilapidated lighthouse itself to the music and especially the sea-salty dialogue. Both Pattinson and Dafoe have rarely been better than they are here, with Dafoe particularly gleeful in chewing the scenery of his character and the antiquated way he talks; the film was frequently advertised as simply ‘Pattinson vs Dafoe’, and The Lighthouse absolutely takes that simple pitch and runs clear across the country with it.

What I ended up liking the most about The Lighthouse, besides the all-encompassing presentation so thick you feel like you’re drowning in it, is how ethereal and unexplained the film ultimately is. To truly explain why is to evoke spoilers for the end of the film, but I chose to end up on an interpretation of the film as an almost-meta example of a spook story told by lighthouse keepers such as the two in the film to new ‘wickies’ on the job, almost a cautionary tale of what could happen if you don’t heed the warning Wake gives Winslow about the seagull. As such, The Lighthouse is a greatly engrossing campfire story of a picture, capped off by two intense and committed performances from its leading men, and it is absolutely a film that demands to be seen at least once before you die. I’m more than pleased the editors did add this, too, and they seem to have a wider field of view than the Academy, which nominated this only for its cinematography, snubbing the film in a few other categories it otherwise should’ve gotten noms in (Dafoe in particular should’ve outright won for Best Supporting Actor, instead of not even making the field of five). Still, even with the Academy’s blind spot, this is a film that I’m confident will grow into a hell of a cult film in the years to come, and its appreciation (along with that of Eggers himself) will no doubt increase once people start catching on to this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

You’re Rick fuckin’ Dalton. Don’t you forget it.

When the original cover art for the hardcover edition of this year’s Book came out (only later to be bumped to next year, as per the every-other-year hardcover edition pattern that’s been a thing for the Book for a while now), featuring Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the surprise factor of knowing that film made it into this year’s list additions should’ve been (and, for me, was) totally nonexistent. The editors seem to have a love-it-and-then-hate-it mentality towards Quentin Tarantino and his films; they’re eager to add whatever his next effort will be, and then when said effort comes out, if it is even marginally above the line of ‘very well received’ critically, it’s an automatic in for the List, and if not, or if critical opinion simmers down after a little bit, they skip it or remove said film two or three years later. I go into somewhat glib depth about the List’s on-again/off-again relationship with Tarantino to try and provide some justification as to why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did get added this year. While it’s a decent picture, and definitely one that works more on an indulgent level (for both Tarantino and the film’s viewers) than a narrative one, I really couldn’t find any real reason why this absolutely had to be here.

We’re taking a trip back to a semi-hypothetical, semi-nostalgic version of 1960’s Hollywood, with all the sunshine and good vibes that comes with the place and era. Here we find Rick Dalton, a former star of a Western TV series, who begins to feel his career is on the downslope. After a suggestion to star in spaghetti Westerns in Italy, which Dalton feels would be the death knell of his career, he ends up cast as the “heavy” in a new pilot, which he hopes will lead to bigger roles and bigger parties to be invited to and such. Part of this is due to the fact, which Rick finds out early in the film, that he lives next to up-and-coming star director Roman Polanski and his paramour Sharon Tate, something he hopes to parley into reviving his career. Meanwhile, Dalton’s best friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth, who lately has been working as Rick’s driver, winds up giving a ride to a young hitchhiker back to Spahn Ranch, where she lives rent-free with the other members of her… family, so to say, headed by a swingin’ dude named Charlie. If this hasn’t become apparent by now, we are definitely heading toward a retelling of Tate’s murder by the Manson Family… only, this isn’t a direct historical account; this is a what-if, a “Once Upon a Time…”, and really, that’s where the magic lies in Tarantino’s alternate history. Even with this film being basically a wish fulfillment, “what if this had happened instead of… what really happened” account, there’s still a hell of a lot more packed into this nearly-three-hour film than just the narrative arc, and that’s ultimately both the main selling point and the main detraction to Tarantino’s latest. For those that want to indulge in what it must’ve been like to live in 1960’s L.A., this is the film for you; there’s so much production value in every frame of the setting and the dressing of this to bring to life a bygone era of moviemaking and living, and the film succeeds even more as a nostalgia trip than it does with the actual story it tells. But, this is also the film’s biggest weakness; if you’re not here for the nostalgia factor, you have to sit through basically two whole hours of it in order to get to the conclusion of the narrative, and it’s not really stuff that adds to the experience of said narrative conclusion or enhances it – it’s superfluous material, and while it can still be enjoyable to people looking to (again) indulge, it makes the film unbelievably bloated as a result.

I’ve been a big proponent in the past (and the present) of a writing device or trope known as Chekhov’s Gun, which basically states that if something is included in a story, it must be relevant to the narrative; otherwise, it should be excised. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood looks at Chekhov’s Gun and the principle of thriftiness it tries to champion, and openly laughs out loud at it, opting instead to include everything it wants to include in its running time, regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with what’s going on, and then thinks it’s a better film because of it. I’m being a little more terse about this toward Once Upon a Time than it probably deserves; there are indeed plenty of films that don’t adhere strictly to Chekhov’s Gun, either for production value or worldbuilding purposes, and that are better for it. Once Upon a Time, for whatever spell it is trying to weave, for me, it didn’t fully succeed; I got plenty of enjoyment out of the 60s setting and the indulgence of classic films and filmmaking, but that was largely because of who I am as a lover of cinema and its storied history (much like Tarantino), and I’d imagine people who aren’t like me will find this an exercise in watching the clock, wondering when the film will get to it already. It’s for that reason that I can’t fully recommend this, and also why it seems like a self-indulgent choice to add to the List; there’s plenty of this sort of thing on there already, and plenty of Tarantino to boot, so adding this feels a little more like redundancy than it should. It’s got production value out of every end, and the efforts by all involved are top-notch, but unless this is a film that has already sold you on itself before it even begins, I have a feeling you’ll be wondering when the hell it’s going to end.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4

There are plenty of kids out there.

Let’s get the elephant in the room for anyone who’s reviewing Toy Story 4 out of the way right off the bat: Yes, going into the film’s release, there didn’t seem to be any reason for it to exist in the first place. The third installment capped what could legitimately be viewed as one of cinema’s greatest trilogies, and ended on the perfect note per the story of Andy and his toys, to where when a fourth was announced, I’d imagine every single fan of the trilogy, even for a brief moment, had a groaning inside their heads; is this going to be another great Toy Story/Pixar film, or is this new one going to basically be a stain on what made the original films so good? I was worried it was going to be hard to get through this first viewing of mine without that thought hanging densely over my head, as I did want to try to just watch this as unencumbered as I could, to enjoy it and determine its quality on its own merits. Thankfully, Pixar still knows what they’re doing, especially with these characters, and while it still may be somewhat of a superfluous addition to the series, it does manage to fit right in and be exactly what it should be from the title: another Story about Toys.

The gang has been spending the time playing with Bonnie just like the old days with Andy; all except Woody, who’s been relegated to the closet a lot more often lately. Feeling bereft of purpose, Woody finds a new one in a new toy Bonnie made out of arts & crafts supplies and bits of trash in kindergarten named Forky, who continues to think he is trash and not a toy and needs to be thrown away. Woody takes it upon himself to teach Forky about being a toy and the importance of being there for a kid, and when Forky throws himself out the window of the family’s RV during a road trip, Woody embarks upon a journey of his own not just to return Forky to Bonnie, but after serendipitously reuniting with now-lost toy Bo Peep, to also find a new place for himself in the world, and what it really means to be a toy either with or without a kid. Obviously, there’s a lot more I could expand upon in that plot summary, but despite the film knowing exactly the story it wants to tell and doing a perfect job of telling exactly that story, I don’t really want to delve particularly into that. What Toy Story 4 is, to me (and likely a lot more people as well), is an almost wholly self-aware examination on both the nature of the characters in the story and the nature of the film itself in the animated canon it takes place in. Taken on its surface, this is yet another escapade featuring Woody, Buzz, and all the toys we’ve come to know and love, with a few new endearing additions, taking on a narrative challenge and overcoming it with all the warmth and heart we’ve come to expect from a Toy Story film; and, really, if one approaches and exits this film with only the surface level in mind, this will be a nice way to spend 100 mins or so and basically little more. What I took from this, however, is that the makers of this installment knew that there was going to be a lot of wondering about what this had to offer the series, and decided to invest that question itself into the film as the moral quandary Woody deals with: what else does he have to offer Bonnie, or really the world? Taken as such, the film is incredibly self-aware that it is a Toy Story sequel that many people didn’t think was needed, and decides to explore that concept with Woody, his reuniting with Bo Peep, how he handles Forky’s existential crisis, and almost every other aspect of his journey in the film. Make no mistake; even with Forky’s creation itself posing amusingly open-ended questions on toyhood and what it means to be one, Woody is the central figure in this film, and the ending is as much a resolution of the arcs he’s undertaken throughout the series as it is a general way to conclude this film. This does mean, in a sentiment that I’ve seen other reviewers express and that I share, that a lot of the other characters end up sidelined in this as a result, mostly to focus on the new additions (including a sewn-together stuffed animal duo voiced by Key and Peele, a bonkers daredevil stunt-toy voiced by a perfectly-cast Keanu Reeves, and Christina Hendricks as, in my opinion, the most fleshed-out and sympathetic “antagonist” of the series), but also to keep the spotlight on Woody and Bo, which ends up as sort of a necessary evil given the narrative the film wants (and needs) to tell.

Honestly, I was expecting this to be fairly decent, and really, it kinda was just that, as I alluded to with my ‘surface level’ comments above; but, thinking back on it after my viewing was over, there’s a lot more to this than just being a fourth Toy Story film. It may make this installment a little more meta than the series has been in the past, for better and for worse, but it really seems like the folks at Pixar were between a rock and a hard place when it came to doing another one of these, and as such this film is basically exactly what it had to be, whether that’s seen as unfortunate or not. Me, I’m choosing to see it as Pixar making the absolute best out of the situation they had; even with the film polishing the fourth-wall to crystal clarity the way it does, it is also just as heart-warming, endearing, and amusing as every other Toy Story film has been. As I said, Pixar still knows what the heck they’re doing, and while this may not be the overwhelmingly necessary sequel we all almost had in the back of our heads that this had to be, it’s still a more than welcome addition to the canon. Really, that this is ending up a couple points behind how I’ve graded the rest of the trilogy should in no way dissuade you from giving this a go; once you have, it’ll be just as simple and easy to accept as the other films have been.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Monos

Monos

The Organization is our family.

I’m not going to pretend I have all the knowledge in this, since I haven’t seen the other actual nominees, but it seems last year’s field for the Oscar for Foreign Language Film (or what is now International Feature Film) could’ve done with some extra looking-over, if the number of foreign language films added to the Book this year (which were not among the Oscar nominees) is any indication. Of course, Parasite was going to win that award in a walk, and it did, but even getting a nomination in the category can be a bit of a status symbol or laurel for certain countries and directors. Take for instance this film, Monos, directed by Alejandro Landes, which was the official submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar from Colombia; a country that has had only one successful nomination for the award, and no wins. On paper, and on the screen, this would seem to be right up the Academy’s alley when they’re considering foreign films; it’s moody, dramatic, visually arresting, and topical to a degree. Frankly, I’m surprised as hell it didn’t manage to make the ballot; though, I’ll say, after seeing the film myself, I don’t know how far a nomination for Monos would’ve paid off, even if Parasite hadn’t been in the race at all.

The Monos are a small group of teenage guerrilla fighters hiding out in the wilderness of their country; at first on a mountainside hideaway, and deep in the jungle later in the film. The conflict they’re fighting in is only barely hinted at; all we know is the Monos are a squad under the command of an unnamed organization, which routinely sends a messenger out to check on how the squad is keeping up. The group are all known by codenames, and their chain of command is rudimentary at best. Currently, they have one hostage, an American doctor, and at the beginning of the film are assigned by their messenger to also watch over an apparently valuable milk cow. Soon after, the group throws a small celebration, and in the roughhousing, the cow is shot and killed; their leader, Wolf, then taking his own life in recompense. The film thus follows the group as they try to get by in their duties to the squad, under the new leadership of Bigfoot, and keep a hold of their composure in the conflict, especially in regards to the doctor they are required to keep watch over. The film as it is is really light on plot, to be honest; things do happen, but they seem to be things that are almost inconsequential in terms of overall narrative, of which it’s very hard to discern what the film’s narrative really is. Really, aside from the production value of basically everyone involved, it’s hard to pin down what the overall gain from a viewing of Monos entails. The film is visually engaging, especially in the first setting when we get some glorious nighttime views and vistas from the mountains; the acting is basic from the main cast, who are all first-timers save one or two people, but it works with how fresh the teenagers are meant to be in their attempts to be commandos; the score, as fleeting and rare as it is when it pops up, is quite effective at emphasizing the mood of whichever scene it does end up behind (shout out once again to composer Mica Levi); and the editing was particularly well-done, making good use of brevity in certain scenes to tell several pages of story in a single minute, and usually wordless to boot. I can’t fault anything about the production itself; it’s just the lack of an overall objective in the story that is being told that is really what my qualms about Monos ultimately add up to.

I know this is a foreign film, and as such will likely have a cultural barrier that will be hard for Americans or English-speaking viewers to overcome, but I was left almost totally unsure as to what was the point of Monos. A story is told, things happen, characters do things, and… there seems to be no implication or indication as to what we are supposed to take away from it all. As good as the production is, the film itself is strangely unrewarding; there’s no arc for the group or the individual characters, save possibly the one we end up with at the very end of the film, and I couldn’t even really tell where that character was going to end up based on what had happened. This is ultimately a hair’s width away from one higher slot in my rating, and only because I’m not sure I’d be able to justify a viewing of this to a majority of moviegoers, even with as well-made a film as it is. Most people, I would imagine, go into a film expecting to get something out of the experience, whatever that might be based on what kind of film it is. Monos doesn’t satisfy that requirement of being a film, or at least one that viewers will want to seek out and watch, and though it was more slightly confusing than overall frustrating as a result, it still left me with too many unanswered questions about the basic structure of the film for me to really be able to recommend it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10