A Halfway There Checklist: The Best of 2019 So Far

The longer you’re there, the more estranged you feel with the real world. A psych ward, that is. Here’s an interesting fact about the one I was in: there were no clocks. The concept of time just doesn’t have the same applications. What you experience is something that saddles the line between real life and fiction, insofar that it provides a repetitive sensation – a minute-by-minute inferno of routine – that slices away at something inherently human in you. Days no longer have that clear distinctive quality that tells one apart from the other. You soon become keenly aware of your own unimpressiveness. So much so that whatever brought you there seems so minuscule, minor, and insignificant. Intended or not, it helps you recognize personal weaknesses. And the whole thing offered the valuable comfort of knowing that not all weaknesses can be overcome. We have breakdowns and that’s ok.

On day three (in what felt like day 30), a man about my age offered me a valuable bit of contraband: a wristwatch. What brought him to that ward differed entirely from what brought me there. But on that first day I think we recognized something in one another. I grew fond of a lot of the people I met there, actually. There’s this expression that the helped are more likely to help, and what I saw was that axiom embraced like sermon. There wasn’t much to do other than to sit around and talk. And we all talked. About books, movies, music, Chicago, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, children, marriage, divorce, death, life, etc. When this man gave me his wristwatch, as he was being discharged to his family, he told me that my “place was in the world.”

I’m 31 now. Hindsight tells me that for the past ten-plus years I’ve done a lot of things by reflex. Whatever instinctive process I was dependent on is now encumbered by hesitation and overthought by memory. It hurts, but I think I’m getting, slowly, better at handling it. Things never unhappen, everything is different, and that’s ok. 

Movies are different now too (see: segue). I really try not to revel in anhedonia, cause it’s the kind of thing that forecloses your thoughts, leaving you to replay things in your head. But it can’t be helped. So now, more than ever, I’ve looked to cinema for comfort. The films outlined in the following are some of the best of the year, I think. And if they’re not, they affected me in a way that made me grateful to be alive. My place is in the world and I’m grateful, down to my nerve endings, that these films are here with me. 

Noteworthy

Knock Down the House
(Rachel Lears)

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Green paper’s the currency of the U.S.A, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that three of the four women that Rachel Lears follows in her documentary, Knock Down the House, fail to achieve their ambitions of attaining public office. The one that does, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is not simply an outlier but a cosmic aberration: a working class Latina woman from the Bronx that managed to topple a decade-tenured establishment Democrat to eventually become the youngest woman to serve in the United States Congress. Lears thankfully avoids making the film a Wikipedia-entry come to life (see a slew of recent docs like: RBG, Three Identical Strangers, etc.) and instead highlights more intimate, behind the scenes footage. A sequence where AOC demolishes the marketing material of her opponent demonstrates such a clear-headed understanding of what prompted the political disenchantment that allowed something like Donald Trump to happen in 2016 – and in spite of Lears’ clear-eyed optimism – why it could happen again in 2020. (Review Here)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
(Joe Talbot)

There’s this unconscious assumption I had that made me believe that everyone in Chicago originates from this city. It’s naïve, I know, but if the act of dating has proven anything it’s that no one’s from here. And when all your childhood friends have left, there’s this lingering discomfort that makes you question why you’re still… here. It doesn’t keep me up at night, but I consider it while I’m waiting for the train doors to open on the Red Line to Roosevelt or cycling down the lakefront path. It’s a rarity that I’m ever around the neighborhood that I lived in for the first 18 years of my life, but if I ever make it to Elston and Irving, I’ll crane my head to take a make out the window that once belonged to me as I drive past it. It was the top floor that overlooked a courtyard. Across the street there’s an auto shop that’s managed to stay in business for more than three decades. It wasn’t anything special but I still miss it.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the saddest film of 2019. It’s messy and specific to its filmmaker, about a man holding onto a piece of San Francisco that’s been seized, demolished, and replaced. Make all the touch-ups you want, but it’s never going to be yours again. What’s lost is lost and you either embrace that or get weighed down by its memory.  The film’s conclusion, which sees one its characters (Jonathan Majors, in one of the best performances of the year so far) proceed with their day-in-day-out in the city that treats him as periphery, devastated me.

The Last to See Them
(Sara Summa)

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A thought experiment in the vein of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet or Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, Sara Summa’s The Last to See Them is an exercise that implicates it audience. Text opens the film, advising you that the family we’re about to observe will die a grisly death.  What follows is how that informs our understanding of the everyday, where we observe this family in their unique domesticity. Much of this may seem too clinical and false, but Summa’s formalism adds a degree of warmth that gives this all a vital sense of urgency throughout its runtime, leaving you to chew on its final scene as a melancholic inevitability – it reminded me of a William Barnes lyric (of Car Seat Headrest): “Don't you realize our bodies could fall apart any second?” (Review Here)

Shazam!
(David F. Sandberg)

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I needed a diversion and I needed one fast. And so I came to David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! The film, a product of a cultural movement demanding protracted, world-building nonsense, is part of Warner Brother’s Pictures’ intended DC Universe. That’s about all the information I had walking into the film. I knew nothing of the character, nothing of his origins or superpowers or the film’s cast or filmmaker. It was a blank slate. It felt anonymous, unknown, and ready to be discovered. And for someone who felt found out, exposed, and without a communion of support for the past few months, I saw this facelessness as something incredibly appealing and approachable. Little did I know just how much I would relate to this film’s ethos. I’m perhaps inflating my appreciation for Shazam! because of a certain, personal vulnerability. You’ll just have to accept this asterisk-filled endorsement with the caveat that Shazam! ended up being exactly what I needed when I needed it. (Review Here)

The Swerve
(Dean Kapsalis)

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There’s no emotional escape for Holly (Azura Skye) in Dean Kapsalis’ The Swerve. Every waking moment requires a sustained effort to not hurl herself toward oblivion. And so is the day-in-day-out quality of anhedonia, where the encased and suicidal are left to question how any one could derive pleasure from simply being. Kapsalis and Skye fundamentally understand these anxieties, shaping a horror film out of suburban grief and anomie. Terror need not be exclusively contained to the supernatural or grotesque – it can take its forms through the isolation that comes from rejection, through the boredom of routine, and the profound loneliness that can come from wandering the aisles of a supermarket. Real horror, as it were, can be just about making it through the day unscathed, unwounded, and intact. (Review Here)

Teen Spirit
(Max Minghella)

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So, I openly acknowledge that Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit isn’t a terribly great film. It’s sloppy, embarrassingly indulgent, and operates more like a music video than a feature film. And for those reasons I, irrationally, really enjoyed it. A movie like this, one that ostentatiously flaunts its sentimentality, rarely works for me in part because they tend to ascribe numerous formulaic devices to see their narrative arc through. Teen Spirit possesses all the banal narrative traits you’d expect from a film like this yet is realized through a funnel of montage sequences set to pop songs by Katy Perry, Robyn, Ellie Goulding, and early No Doubt. Your mileage will clearly vary depending on your appreciation for those artists, but for me they made Minghella’s numerous platitudinous plunges significantly easier to accept. (Review Here)

Yesterday
(Danny Boyle)

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Much like Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit, Danny Boyle’s Yesterday isn’t a terribly great film. It possesses the quality of being very full of itself, as if its premise of a Beatles-less world offers some sort of invaluable commentary on the singular contributions of a quartet of white guys. Neither does it really explore some of the more prickly aspects of its fantasy/delusion, such as how The Beatles’ music is so quintessentially part of its time, thereby rendering some of the film’s modern application seem… weird. But what it lacks in thoughtfulness it makes up for in charm, particularly in Himesh Patel’s performance as the modern vessel for The Beatles’ music, a downtrodden musician that trades integrity for fame. Patel’s rendition of “In My Life” is just devastating, in a moment that would seem specifically designed for the cinema. And among its other virtues, Yesterday exposes Ed Sheeran as a total geek, which ought to count for something.

Recommended 

The Beach Bum
(Harmony Korine)

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An indictment of every other white-male-genius film, Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum tests the litmus whereby a viewer can observe Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) indulge in every conceivable act of hedonism and debauchery and not look away at the screen in disgust. It’s not as if Korine hasn’t pontificated on the cinema of the grotesque – he did make Gummo after all. But, intentionally or not, The Beach Bum suggests something far more melancholy than what the platitudes that its jovial “protagonist” dispenses: the cosmic lottery that grants white skin lets you walk away from a burning wad of cash laughing. For everyone else, you’re lucky to walk away with all your limbs.

Booksmart
(Olivia Wilde)

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A victim of comparison and heightened expectations, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart would so often be compared to the likes of Lady Bird and/or Superbad that its singular qualities would seem to be nonexistent. But this is one of the few films I can recall in recent memory that tacitly explores the notion of regret among teenage girls, where a failure to seize the opportunities of the past forces Amy and Molly (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein) to condense four years of missed connections into a single night. Its hyperliberal qualities may seem a little grating but for its moment Wilde examines a specific kind of post-millennial crisis that somehow manages to be both of its time and possess a certain kind of timeless quality. Sexual clumsiness, adolescent angst, and unrequited teenage love never do go out of fashion. (Review Here)

The Dead Don’t Die
(Jim Jarmusch)

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The leading cause of death is life, or so Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die would posit. Jarmusch, whose previous work dabbled in ironic nihilism, amplifies his concerns to a volume that his prior films never did reach. In our current Trumpian dystopia, Jarmusch suggests that the end-all to our passivity is certain death. And he’s not glib or insincere about it either. It’s not as if Jarmusch hasn’t addressed our cultural passiveness in some tangential way, with films like Broken Flowers and Stranger Than Paradise examining characters in a state of stagnation more or less secluded within themselves. But The Dead Don’t Die is much more overt about Jarmusch’s preoccupations. It’ll be described as meta or self-aware. It can be more accurately described as blunt. Ultimately, Jarmusch is speaking the language of the disenchanted; the language of a generation prone to skimming over specifics. As a character cites early in the film, “The world is perfect. Appreciate the details”. In the world we live in now, a world where our day-in-day-out interactions can take place exclusively behind a screen, it’s easy to defer importance to our phone battery than our own internal-gratitude battery. (Review Here)

Everybody Knows
(Asghar Farhadi)

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“Love yields to circumstance”, wrote Thomas Hardy in Far From the Maddening Crowd. Such a quote is tested to its litmus in Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows. I’ve described Farhadi’s films as moral puzzles for years now and this is the first one since I was introduced to his work where I feel like it would be inadequate, if not a little misleading, to describe it as such. Because while the film is rooted in numerous sociological anxieties that I’ve come to associate with Farhadi’s work, Everybody Knows is the one that registers less as a series of intellectual rejoinders and more a collection of guttural emotions. Ironically, this proves to be Farhadi’s most formally rigorous work since at least A Separation, filled with densely layered compositions and handheld work that bares comparison to John Cassavetes. It’s certainly not what I expected from the filmmaker, particularly one that I thought I had pegged as formally competent if not especially exciting. Everybody Knows stands out as Farhadi’s most interesting film to date. (Review Here)

The Farewell
(Lulu Wang)

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Lulu Wang’s The Farewell asks what sense there is in continuing with our day-in-day-out present if the future is already made clear. This is a film that centers on a beloved matriarch’s impending death upon the diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. Her family, rather than telling her of the diagnosis and its all too clear path to death, opts instead to stage a false wedding intended to bring together the family from all around the globe to China. Anchored by a remarkably tender performance from Awkwafina, Wang’s insistence on reflecting on the ethics and humanity of keeping someone in the dark about their impending death is realized with nothing but sincerity. It’s a moving testament to the value of family, and about the invaluable desire to imagine the present as something worth celebrating rather than mourning.

Greta
(Neil Jordan)

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Neil Jordan’s Greta is about lonely people in the big city. I’m reminded of King Vidor’s The Crowd:, where an inter-title notes that “you’ve got to be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd.” This, as the two characters observe the Manhattan skyline, the colossal weight of NYC’s anxieties a complete mystery. In Greta, Jordan and cowriter Ray Wright suggest that survival in the big city requires a little more than just quote unquote goodness but a lot of grit, and ultimately, self-respect. Here we find characters trying to not let their neediness or despondency impede their ability to make it, where the struggle of our present can so easily inform our loneliness. Frequently funny and often macabre, Greta’s at its most thoughtful when it realizes that being alone can in fact be terribly relieving.

The Image Book
(Jean-Luc Godard)

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There’s not a filmmaker alive that produces more self-doubt in my critical capacities than Jean-Luc Godard. My fondness for the filmmaker stems from his early work, yet it’s his post-millennium output that weighs most heavily in my consciousness. Particularly with his prior film, Goodbye to Language, the overwhelming sensory qualities of his collages are so imposing, so colossal in their implication that it threatens to obfuscate any attempt at understanding, refusing to be stripped down to a logline or synopsis. Godard’s work over the past 20 years sometimes seems to require a scholarly touch, which can reduce this faux-academic to his knees as I vainly attempt to piece together fragments that never seem to build together to resemble a whole picture. And yet in piecing together the barrage of references, the geyser of history that composes Film Socialisme, Goodbye to Language, and now The Image Book, there’s something inherently calming about approaching the unknowable. There’s clearly a grand unifying theory, a string of anxieties and preoccupations that unite Godard’s later period work. But needing to have that explained isn’t necessarily the point. With The Image Book, Godard isn’t asking you to interpret the world, but rather suggests how imperative it is to actually change it. (Review Here)

Midsommar
(Ari Aster)

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Ari Aster’s Midsommar is about a breakup, which as you’d imagine howls louder now than it would have before. This breakup film involves the occult, about coping with monumental grief and death, and with dealing with a partner that just doesn’t give a shit. Some have accused the film about being about nothing, about its examinations of aggressive custom within a rigid culture to be examples of violent non sequiturs that add nothing to the relationship drama that Aster centers much of formal devices around. Yet it’s impossible not to see these examples of violence and consider the trauma that Dani (Florence Pugh) endures as connective, as examples of the sort of abuses and mental acrobatics that someone needs to cope with in a relationship that was never intended to be in the first place. It’s transparent to me that Midsommar is never intended to be taken as anything other than a testament to the profound will of a partner to make a doomed relationship work, sacrificing everything about themselves before resigning to mediocrity.  

Mike Wallace is Here
(Avi Belkin)

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Akin to the “gotcha” journalism that Mike Wallace popularized and defined in modern cable news television, Avi Belkin’s Mike Wallace is Here utilizes particular documentary techniques that are ubiquitous in contemporary American cinema. But the banal strategies evoked here - the talking heads, the conversational mode of exploring Wallace’s past, the deployment of archival footage, etc. – are rendered with a greater sense of urgency. Whether it’s the rapid shift from all these aforementioned modes, the almost experimental transitions that compose the film, the synthesizer score that borrows extensively from the works of Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Cliff Martinez, or simply Wallace’s persuasive presence, Mike Wallace is Here is so compulsively watchable that it’s easy to forget you’ve seen a dozen documentary films like it before. Yet what elevates Belkin’s film beyond hagiography is a brief narrative respite where Wallace discusses his depression and subsequent suicide attempt, in one of those rare moments where the portrait of an immovable, profoundly practical man is blurred. And the film is littered with these moments, where Wallace’s journalistic contributions are acknowledged in conjunction with his numerous defeats – a film that sees Wallace as what he always strived to be: tough but fair.

Us
(Jordan Peele)

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A colleague of mine, not a film critic but someone I work with for the job that actually pays me $$$, rarely watches any films but she did end up going to see Jordan Peele’s Us. And she just wouldn’t shut up about it. She’d go on and on, theorizing about the “complexities” of the film’s ending, about who was or wasn’t a tethered, about how Us operates in the same quote unquote universe as Get Out. Conversation points that pretty much induce a loss of equilibrium provided how many times my eyeballs rotated around my skull. Yet even if I don’t share any common ground with what a lot of people get out of Us, I do still really admire the film.  I think it’s clever, particularly in how it speaks to broad existential concerns about the life we live and the sacrifices necessary to carry out that existence. It’s about the burden we all carry, big or small, and how that burden can often make us feel alone – motivating us to eventually stay that way. The last thing a depressed person would want is to share in a burden of their own doing. (Review Here)

The Wild Pear Tree
(Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

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The post-grad glow, as it were, tends to have graduates believing that their finest hour is immediately ahead of them. But what Nuri Bilge Ceylan posits is: maybe it never comes? Sinan, a literature major, returns home from college and has ambitions of writing the Great Turkish Novel, believing like so many others that his voice will lend itself to a seismic shift in the cultural landscape. Such things never come and he’s left threading water, dealing with his father’s debts, and indulging in brief, unrequited romances. The film’s most compelling sequences find the fledgling writer accosting a successful Turkish author. Sinan imposes his sensibility and worldview on a man who’s heard it all. With the writer’s patience wearing thin, he reprimands Sinan for his arrogance and rigid belief that the world around him is toxic. To borrow from another 2019 film that examines the virulent nature in which we tend to look at the world, “The world is beautiful. Appreciate the details.” For Sinan, his negativity lends to darkness. In that darkness, he sees nothing and as such will always remain isolated, in a vise grip unable to create.

Highly Recommended

ANIMA
(Paul Thomas Anderson)

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You and I live on a planet where the best American filmmaker and the frontman to the best rock band are frequent collaborators. Some things are unarrangable, but the cosmic happenstance that has birthed this relationship has made the act of living considerably more appealing. ANIMA, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 15-minute film featuring music from Thom Yorke’s new album, is a vibrant confluence of cinema’s past, a panorama that captures the foreboding, stark shadows of Robert Weine’s filmography coupled with the physicality of Thom Yorke’s Charlie Chaplin riffing. All this  funneled through the lens of a filmmaker whose self-assurance and control borders on frightening, as numerous compositions throughout this short will remind viewers of passages of Inherent Vice and The Master.

Dragged Across Concrete
(S. Craig Zahler)

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S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete is a picture full of misery. It’s a film about the imperfect code of ethics that need to be subscribed to in order to survive, and about the routine nonsense we endure as we watch each new day retreat into the next. Zahler’s examination of the sliding scale that is virtue would seem to grant leniency to his two volatile, casually racist cop characters (Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn); particularly given that they’re combating faceless assassins whose singular character trait is their proclivity toward murder. But Zahler’s insistence on paying attention to the details, on examining procedure, offers this murky, morally dubious enterprise a real sense of urgency and complexity. When the film comes to its remarkable shoot-out finale, the idling sensation is one of exhausted reservation, where you either get up or get got. 

Grass
&
Hotel by the River
(Hong Sang-soo)

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One of the great cinematic gifts of the 10s has been the distribution of Hong Sang-soo’s films stateside, particularly to the Chicagoland area. The SAIC grad’s frequent omission to the local cultural conversation has always struck me as exceedingly unjust and lame, so I’m glad that in just two years the city has been greeted with four (!) of Hong’s films. Both Grass and Hotel by the River rank among his best works to date and imparts the definitive sense that Hong is chiefly among the best working filmmakers on the planet.

Grass, a sparse 66-minute exercise, finds Hong examining the hermetic methodology of creating. It’s a film about the act of writing, about observing the world and the conversations that take place around us at any given moment. Also how it’s easy to get lost inside your own head – to the point that it prevents us from appreciating the details of the outside world. This is a remarkably beautiful film, anchored by a serendipitous performance from Hong stalwart, Kim Min-hee.   

If Grass examines the limitless potential of art and creativity, Hotel by the River, comparatively, finds Hong encountering the frequent dead end where creating can take us. Here, the filmmaker finds an aging poet (Gi Ju-bong) bring together his two sons to prepare them for his eventual death. The film’s lightness would suggest something comic, but as the film blends broader fantastical elements (Kim Min-hee and Song Seon-mi orbit the film as ephemeral angels, reminiscent of Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire) there’s a conscious effort on Hong’s behalf to explore more painful, clearly personal, memories on the agony of creative disappointment and the tangential personal failures they conjure. Like the double feature that can be had with On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After, the couplet of Grass and Hotel by the River end up enriching each other, in what becomes a thoughtful study on inflorescent beginnings and marrow-petrifying ends.

Her Smell
(Alex Ross Perry)

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The distinction between a pop star and a penciled-in footnote is a subtle one, and the tragedy of Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell is that you never really know what end of the conversation Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) will end up on. Throughout Perry’s filmography he’s made a conscious effort to distance his audience by highlighting very unlikable characters, refusing to allow them to attain a measure of redemption or even measurable human growth (see Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip or the most of the cast of Golden Exits). The five-act structure of Her Smell marks a transition away from that, insofar that Perry utilizes the space in-between acts to suggest a tangible passage of time. When Becky, following one of what we gather is a series of breakdowns, is seen again in Act IV, we see her practically sedated from the manic energy of what preceded. It’s here that we see her interact with her daughter, as she performs a cover of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven”. It’s a scene-of-the-year contender, where the once vile character resigns herself from a life of chaos, instead opting for something more practical: a life with her child. As an ARP acolyte, I had a great deal of difficulty making it through the film’s first three acts, but the reward of what we see in Acts IV and V aren’t just earned – they’re life-affirming.

High Flying Bird
(Steven Soderbergh)

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Look through Steven Soderbergh’s output for the past decade and there’s a casual connection to be made to the value placed on a human body. In High Flying Bird, Soderbergh examines how rich white (redundant?) NBA team owners leverage their control of infrastructure to dictate the presumed worth of their players, sparking a lockout where a white man (representing the owners) and a black woman (representing the player’s union) contest for fair wages. Just as a sick body has its value (Unsane, Side Effects) so does the youthful, sexy, and athletic (Magic Mike, The Girlfriend Experience), with High Flying Bird vividly rendering this with every interview Soderbergh has with actual NBA players. Yet unlike those aforementioned films, there’s a sense of optimism to High Flying Bird that struck me as immensely rewarding. For if the mechanism and infrastructure that defines our value does not provide us with our desired result, then we, through the use of our iPhones and technology, can burn the infrastructure down. Or at the very least, threaten its viability. Not every one walks away from High Flying Bird unfazed, but “the game on top of the game” is not ossified. The ancients that run and operate the game know it down to their marrow that they need the players more than the players need them.

High Life
(Claire Denis)

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Much like Steven Soderbergh, Claire Denis’ preoccupations with the human body typically lends itself to an examination of its worth to others. But whereas Soderbergh’s purview tends to contain those concerns socioeconomically, Denis has usually considered that in conjunction with something far more ephemeral. In High Life, a film that sees convicts shot into space for a exploration experiment, the prevailing sentiment here is that these humans are at the mercy of a system that values them as specimen. And with Monte (Robert Pattinson), the father of a child born on the spacecraft he inhabits as prisoner and caretaker, he’s left to consider what he can do to maintain their survival. It’s a film steeped in the existential concerns of something like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but captured through the Denis’ vivid worldview. A worldview that suggests the necrotic, dispiriting, violent proclivities of the human spirit, along with the endurance it takes to do the right thing.  

John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum
(Chad Stahelski)

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“Reminiscing” would seem to be the prevailing conversational mode that (good) action films of the 10s tend to have. The John Wick franchise owes Buster Keaton numerous blood debts, wherein director Chad Stahelski pays tribute to the filmmaker by projecting a scene from one of Keaton’s films in the opening of Chapter 2. In Parabellum, as John Wick (Keanu Reeves) courses through New York City in a downpour, you can catch a glimpse of Keaton in The General on one of the numerous screens that bombard you in Times Square. Yet to contain the scope of Parabellum’s influence on the physical comic of the silent era is entirely insufficient – this is a film that engages in a very vivid and perpetually evolving parley with American cinema of the past, outsourcing techniques that have been diluted with time and repurposing them here, within an ever-expanding criminal underworld. There aren’t many films that can suggest John Ford and D.W. Griffith in one scene and follow that up with a sequence involving a knife thrown directly to the groin, but Parabellum impossibly does. (Review Here)

The Souvenir
(Joanna Hogg)

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In Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, everything starts out so sweetly where all our defects are kept hidden in a relationship, concealed with pathological scrutiny. The cracks start to show, with each event registering like an episode of a miniseries. Here’s the moment where you became suspicious of the marks on his arm. Here’s the moment where you meet his friends. This will not end well. This is my introduction to the films of Joanna Hogg. She possesses a formal dexterity that gives tactile weight to exceedingly ephemeral memories. There are times throughout The Souvenir where I needed to look away, where I felt like I was intruding on something exceedingly personal, intended for no one other than the people involved in the scene. The only other time I can recall having that reaction is to some of the more painful documentary films of Frederick Wiseman. It’s good company for Hogg to be in, and certainly one of the most exciting new filmmakers I’ve come across this year.

Essential

Asako I & II
(Ryūsuke Hamaguchi)

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So it’s about a break-up (pt. 1). It’s the kind of heartache you see in the films of Douglas Sirk: heightened, melodramatic, and recognizable in its pain. Ryūsuke Hamaguchi effortlessly integrates that kind of agony with the present, realized through a naturalistic, mellow tone and tenor, where we observe Asako (Erika Karata) fall for Baku (Masahiro Higashide). The two meet in astonishing fashion, their meet-cute punctuated by local children playing with firecrackers. But their love is short-lived as Baku vanishes. Cut to two years later and Asako is petrified to meet Ryôhei, a businessman who looks exactly like Baku (Higashide plays both characters). The two begin a tentative relationship that is fostered into something more serious, but the memory of Baku weighs heavily on Asako.

What Hamaguchi gets at is this discernible sensation on the act of starting over, on being haunted by the past in a way that does nothing but inspire hesitation and doubt. You can’t ever divorce yourself from that kind of memory, the kind of memory that’s coded into your synapses, leaving you with one of two options: extinction or transformation. Take comfort in the past and retreat to the periphery or take on the unknown and make yourself uncomfortable. At my worst I think of how easy it is to fall into the habits of the former, but I know, deep down to my marrow, that it’s no way to live. 

Toy Story 4
(Josh Cooley)

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So it’s about a break-up (pt. 2). Andy’s gone and now there’s Bonnie. And it’s just not the same. You’re ornamental. Your old process, the one you were dependent on and engaged with when Andy was around, just doesn’t work anymore. Your instinctual reflexes are encumbered. The comfort of certainty no longer exists and it’s scary. So your ambition, because you’re a fully functioning human,err toy, is to fill the void with something that gives life meaning. But again, it’s just not the same, and that existential agony of trying to lead a fulfilling life forces you to reevaluate where you are and where you’re going.  

Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the best film of the series and the best film to come out of Pixar since Up a decade ago. It’s a marriage of the contemporary and past, luminous in its progressive qualities (Bo Peep’s transition from a passive surveyor to the Furiosa of a sandbox is incredible) and demolishing as an existential curiosity. You can’t force a memory, replicate the past, or transmutate one feeling into another, more familiar, one. Which, I don’t know, seems absolutely radical for a mass-marketed, studio-produced, animated film to even suggest. 

Under the Silver Lake
(David Robert Mitchell)

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So it’s actually about a break-up (pt. 3). It took a second viewing to uncover that aspect of David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, which is layered in ridiculous, often times, (in)significant details. But this story about the paranoid journey of a slacker (Andrew Garfield) as he stumbles upon “clues” to a mystery he doesn’t know he’s a part of combines the familiar noir tradition with a thoroughly felt and prescient existential crisis. When a billboard for a dental clinic is plastered above Garfield’s head, we don’t really understand its significance until later in the film, where that same woman appears at an L.A. party. At this point of the film, we’ve stumbled down a rabbit hole of Vertigo proportions, that the exchange here is practically banal: the girl broke up with Garfield’s character and now has moved on to someone else.  

I think I’ve seen enough films about men who thin away to insignificance due to their own folly, but what makes Under the Silver Lake so captivating is how Mitchell and Garfield navigate the aftermath. It’s a very American tradition to embrace a kind of self-improvement philosophy, as if hitting rock bottom leaves you nowhere to go but up. What if there is no bottom? What if it’s an unceasing decline? What this film explores is how we distract ourselves from feeling every cut, every disappointment, from feeling that necrotic dullness consume us at every turn. I get that. To a profound, practically embarrassing, degree. But when we wake up from that stupor, that spiral of despair, it’s kind of awful to realize how much time and energy was wasted on the unchangeable past. I think we’re all petrified of nothingness, so we attempt to find meaning in something, especially when the alternative lends itself to an occlusion of purpose. Which is to say that we need to pick our masters wisely. Under the Silver Lake is a very vital reminder of that.