71) BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee
There are not many scenes that are quite as funny as the first time Ron Stallworth reaches out to the Klan after seeing it in the newspaper. Part of it is John David Washington’s absolutely deadpan recitation of ethnic slurs from off-screen, which Spike Lee has had the gift of using without abusing for three decades; part of it is the chef’s kiss perfection of including “my sister, Pamela,” as an add-in for racist Ron’s origin story. More of it is Adam Driver’s equally deadpan slow turnaround in his chair as he hears this litany of terrible words from the new guy on the force, who is, of course, African-American. But most of it is Flip’s first reaction to Ron hanging up the phone: “Did I just hear you use your real name?” Ron, who has kind of been feeling himself as he was working this phone call, freezes for a second. He leans back a little and looks into the distance. He looks forward again, and says, “Oh, motherfucker.” It’s an absolute masterpiece of timing, and that’s what makes the first half of this movie so incredibly funny. It’s not the Tarantino-style “God, these KKK guys are such morons,” because Lee stays away from that more than you’d expect when the speaker is not Paul Walter Hauser. It’s about waiting, waiting, and blammo, the punchline. Say what you will about some of the winking Lee does to the audience—David Duke will have his guy in the White House someday, the “America Fist” toast—because I know I have, but at its best, Lee’s able to wait until he knows just how funny it’s going to be. He also manages to do much the same thing when things are very serious. Ivanhoe and Flip are waiting for the cross-burning to get going, and Flip smoothly gets Ivanhoe to start talking. How much do you know about C-4, Ivanhoe asks, and it’s such a jaw-dropping question, placed perfectly, that we’re as freaked out as Flip must be. Earlier, Ivanhoe made a comment about “fireworks” to Flip that he didn’t take all that seriously; now, with the benefit of waiting a little longer to hear it, we recognize the total seriousness of the threat that only Ron, among the Colorado Springs cops, ever recognized.
There are other directors who are described as more media-conscious than Spike Lee (yes, that’s a subtweet), but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie that is so angrily and perfectly aware of how media affects us as BlacKkKlansman is. BlacKkKlansman likes to make asides to lengthy speeches, and the best scene which does so belongs to Harry Belafonte, playing an older man named Jerome Turner who recounts for the African-American student organization at Colorado State the story of a lynching he witnessed as a young man. It is a disturbing story which makes my eyebrows narrow just thinking about it, but what ultimately makes the scene most haunting is the reason why Jesse Washington was lynched. The town got the idea, Turner says, from a movie called Birth of a Nation. You would call it a “blockbuster,” he tells the group, so popular that Woodrow Wilson had it screened at the White House and praised it lavishly. Jesse Washington was killed because the white people where he lived were evil, but the method of his murder came from a motion picture. Lee cuts to the Klansmen having their own screening of Birth of a Nation after their initiation, cheering the Klan when they appear on screen and booing the white people in blackface; one of the Klansmen’s wives appreciates the depiction of “the ingenuity of white women.” Media representation matters, Lee argues, because people get their ideas from the screen, identify with characters from the screen, act like they see people act on screen. Earlier in the movie, Ron and Patrice have a discussion in which they discuss their favorite blaxploitation movies. Which do you prefer, Ron asks her, Shaft or Super Fly? Patrice is unequivocal. Shaft is a PI, she says. The main character in Super Fly is a pimp. Why wouldn’t I like Shaft better? Ron is a little coy in return, but the truth is he’s been argued down. Representation matters, and as much as I think Lee has a reputation for grandstanding or preaching in his movies, the way he makes that point in the movie is absolutely spot-on.
74) Happy as Lazzaro, directed by Alice Rohrawacher
The only time travel movie I’ve ever seen that truly works, because instead of wondering where on the line we are, it wonders instead about what’s outside the timeline. Lazzaro disappears from everything for decades, and when he reappears to the people who were removed from Inviolata and have instead become the dirt on some nameless city’s shoes, he is the only one who has not changed. People who were about his age are well into middle age; the little children have turned into scrawny, feisty adults. Only Lazzaro, a simpleton in the European literary tradition (why yes, I did have to read Simplicius Simplicissimus in college) remains magically, wonderfully unchanged, and yet only one of the survivors of Inviolata even recognizes him when he accidentally shows up at their meager little outpost. Adriano Tardiolo is so good in this movie. His face does not betray surprise, and his performance tramples irony. He is absolutely placid because he is untroubled, and even when he feels that he is striving against some wrong (usually on behalf of Tancredi, who uses him like a dentist uses a drill), his total confidence in the delivery is its own kind of calm. Surely everyone will come along with him when he suggests that the bank has wronged Tancredi, or that Tancredi should try to pretend to be kidnapped in order to scam his mom out of some money. The difference between Happy as Lazzaro and anything Eric Roth has ever come up with is that Lazzaro is what’s interesting, not Boomers doing the Leo pointing meme at some historical event they remember. Tardiolo’s restrained performance keeps him at the center of the story for us, using him as a stepping stone for the movie’s critiques of the wealthy, and the movie points his finger for us. Lazzaro is happiest as a stepping stone, but he’s also stupid enough to believe the lies Tancredi feeds him, stupid enough to believe anything anyone tells him, stupid enough to do some outsized proportion of the work on the farm, for even his blindfolded comrades get him to take on extra duties. What’s your excuse for letting the marchesas up the chain use you as a footstool, anyway?
The movie’s plot hinges on something genuinely twisty. Lazzaro and his friends and family are sharecroppers, living in poverty, bound by the will of the marchesa even to stay on the plantation; the movie begins with a couple deciding to get married and leave in order to make a new life, a choice that gets blown up in short order. It seems like they must be living in a time long ago, but in fact this is like, the very recent past, and these people are simply so far away from the rest of Italian society, so distant from modern technology that they have been time traveling backwards themselves. Their clothes are outdated, their beliefs are outdated, their tools are outdated; for many years, the marchesa has managed to con these people into believing that Italian politics still allow her to commit what the news likes to call “the Great Swindle.” The police coming in are like a giant apple that everyone chomped on all at once; being removed from Inviolata for their own good is like being evicted from Eden. (This really is a Biblical kind of movie; surely Lazarus must have seemed a little strange to Mary and Martha once he returned from the dead!) The sharecroppers move from one form of poverty to another; the ingrained belief in the superiority of the people they once worked for has not been excised. They pool all of their money to come up with some expensive chocolates for Tancredi when they believe he’s having them over for a meal. In a scene which is completely expected and just as heartbreaking, they are all but chased away from his door; Antonia, their de facto leader, still hands over the little confections. In the background of a little crowd of poor people, still wearing that same dirty shirt, Lazzaro is silent and wide-eyed. Among the onetime sharecroppers, only he appears to take this humiliating setback in stride.
76) First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle
One of the great pleasures in moviegoing is to have your mind changed about one of the people who had a hand in making the movie. I had given up on Damien Chazelle, whose previous movies mistook smarminess for entertainment and snottiness for insight. First Man, a movie which appears to be mostly removed from his pet interests, is instead about a figure I never thought anyone could make a movie about. Neil Armstrong, for one thing, was an aggressively boring person by movie standards, and there’s a pretty decent case to be made that the first sentence in his obituary should have been something like “Longtime engineering professor Neil Armstrong, who happened to walk on the Moon before anyone else, died…” For another, the Apollo 11 mission is one of those historical events which has been studied to death and documented literally second-to-second, and which also projects a sublime accomplishment that can make someone believe in the human spirit. Putting people on the Moon and bringing them back was the property of imagination for so long that it took about fifteen minutes for conspiracy theorists to insist that it was still only the property of imagination. Chazelle does a surprisingly good job with the majesty of the moment and the introspection of a quiet man who happened to crown it. What’s so much more interesting about First Man is how instead of making a more traditional biopic following more traditional beats, Chazelle went in a different direction entirely. There are many movies from this decade about collective grief (heck, there are plenty from 2018 about that sort of thing), but I don’t know that any movie I saw from this past decade did a better job with the depiction of personal grief.
There’s a good chance that we’re seeing career-best work from Ryan Gosling in this movie, not in the sense of “this is the best he’s ever done” but “this is as good as it gets.” This is no slight at Gosling, either, because what he’s doing takes such incredible control. His Armstrong comes with an incredible poker face, but there’s a difference between being wooden and keeping everything inside, and Gosling gets the latter exactly right. We can see him trying to mask his worry by showing his dying toddler how much he cares; we see him at his desk at work not very long after, and the poker face is there. He certainly can reach out and make connections with people, like the ones he seems comfortable making with Elliot See or Ed White before both of them ultimately buy the farm; he doesn’t unmask entirely for them either, but there’s a lightened look in his eye when he talks to See, and there is real frankness when he talks to White. We can sense that he feels a stronger intimacy with them than he feels with his wife, who occasionally has to direct a conversation. The movie’s weakest scene, where Armstrong gets strong-armed into talking to his kids about the dangers of the mission he’s on and the possibility he might not come home, is weak because of the expectation to see such a scene. (In that way it reminds me of one of the movie’s other weak scenes, in which we see protesters who do not like the massive expenditures NASA has gotten, and in which we hear “Whitey on the Moon.” Chazelle is seeing ghosts about the critiques of appropriation in his earlier movies, and seems to be directing to deflect criticism as opposed to staying on target.) Even so, Gosling is good in the scene, never quite giving heartfelt, moving answers to the kids around the table. He is as businesslike and halting about this as he might be about bedtime or good sportsmanship; there’s an implication in his performance that the danger was real enough for See and White and Karen on terra firma.
80) Long Day’s Journey into Night, directed by Bi Gan
We’re going to remember this movie for “The difference between film and memory is that film is always false. Memories mix truth and lies,” the way we’ll remember its distant cousin Hiroshima mon amour for “All these years I’ve been looking for an impossible love.” Long Day’s Journey into Night may get advertised as that movie where the second half is one shot, but this movie is fascinating because it is, with apologies to Weerasethakul, the most uncompromisingly oneiric picture of the century so far. Little phrases and words get caught in the movie like pepper in teeth, and they show up as clearly as the grains do in a smile. Luo’s dream, which takes place while he sleeps, pointedly, in a movie theater, is one which has tied together what a very different man referred to as the “mystic chords of memory,” both in the long term, stretching years back, to the short term, with little phrases that plinked into his mind on that day and then bounced about further during the dream. This is not the kind of dream that’s given to prophets, but something that really does make sense only under the influence of dream logic. It should not make sense that a boy is living in an abandoned coal mine, and even less so that he’s got a ping-pong table. There are stretches of the dream where the camera is suspended in midair somehow, floating along, hovering over buildings and then landing in some entirely different part of the plaza where much of this dream takes place. Characters appear and reappear, but names are easily forgotten or never given at all. People are recognizable but look different than they do in real life, as Wan has a very different look in the dream than she does in real life, and is referred to as “Kaizhen.” It’s plainly her, but at the same time the dream has made this women a showy karaoke performer when it’s hard to imagine the real woman that way at all. (How often do we have dreams where we know that some figure is meant to be someone we know, but they have the wrong face or do not act the right way? To me, this might be the most perfect dream representation of the whole movie.) The same ground is covered more than once, as when Luo chases some hoods out of a barely indoor pool hall before he and Wan return to there to shoot a little bit. If this were all the movie were after, to create a brilliant false dream that feels like it has the mechanics of a real one, then it would be a success on those terms. Of course the success of Long Day’s Journey into Night is fulfilled by that masterful second half, but it would signify very little indeed without the first half of the movie.
How much Luo actually remembers of Wan, how real that scene is where the two of them talk through his truck window, is brought into question based on the dream. Luo’s past in Kaili is a shady one indeed, poked through by the intervening years, by the loss of contact. I think my favorite shots of the movie take place in a building which is flooded up to the ankles, where water does not drown but certainly damages memory. The photograph that Luo holds onto is missing a face and was hiding behind a clock that’s been broken for years, like he left it to Magritte and Dali to take care of. The chemistry between the two characters is not necessarily what makes this a romantic story; it is the possibility of it, the elision of everything but poignancy, the visual cue of that lovely green dress that Wan wears, the long tunnel leading to a barely illuminated night. The movie uses sparklers as a symbol for the two of them at the end, an image that I didn’t think much of at first. It seemed too simple, too much like what some other movie about distanced lovers might have chosen. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come around to it. Sparklers will always fade to black after they’ve burned themselves out, no matter how hard it might have been to look away or how hot they may have been to the touch. In the dream we never do see them go out, but then again, films are always false.
83) Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Another movie (like Burning) which I think is probably bound to suffer a little bit in the long term because of the easy comparisons to Parasite, but aside from the poverty and the Palme d’Or wins, they are not really similar movies at all. Shoplifters feels much more like a throwback, one of the rare movies made in the present which seems to have the same kind of sympathetic eye on poverty that one might have found in the ’30s. The ramshackle family-by-proxy of the movie is not a group of saints; there’s a sad moment in the movie where Osamu takes a purse out of a car and Shota cannot quite reconcile that to the already dangerous morality system that Osamu has taught him. If things have not been bought yet, then it’s not stealing (which would have gotten Shota into hot water at some point even if things had played out differently), but surely, Shota recognizes, the purse was in a car? It was not hanging with a price tag on it in the shop, but was a purchase inside another purchase, and Osamu has to do a number on the vehicle to extract the prize. The family has traded safety from the law for safety from loneliness. The adults have banded together for mutual protection, to share the stolen goods and a government pension and a little house, and the children they have are under that same umbrella. Shota was pulled from a car himself; Yuri appears to have been both physically abused and neglected by her family, and when these people steal her, change her appearance, and give her a new name, they have done something obviously right which they still deserve to be punished for. Shoplifters is not really about the sort of tired argument about the difference between what is right and what is legal, a dull argument at the best of times, but about people who have found law insufficient and live boldly in rejection of it. The right comparison for Shoplifters isn’t really Parasite, but Bonnie and Clyde. The world is indifferent to these people, so they’ll rip off the world as long as they can get away with it; the only difference between being invisible and law-abiding and being invisible and shoplifting is that the latter means you don’t go to sleep with your stomach rumbling.
It is unoriginal of me to think of the scene at the beach as the movie’s best, but it’s probably the movie’s best because it gets most at the togetherness these people feel. It would be easier and probably safer for Osamu and Nobuyo to live on their own, supplementing her salary from the laundry from whatever petty thefts Osamu can get away with; they would not need to spend extra money on clothes for children, or worry about Hatsue as she grows older. But they choose to steal unwanted children, and I think they would have kept Hatsue around even if she weren’t bringing in a little paycheck every month. The movie world is polluted with movies which won’t shut up about how everyone’s a family because they choose to be together, but at the beach Shoplifters is clear that these people, even the ones who have done things that are probably wrong on top of being illegal, are a family. Aki holds onto Yuri as the waves come in. Osamu swims with Shota, lazily backing through the water while Shota slaps the ocean in that way little people have. Back on the beach, Nobuyo and Hatsue chat. It is not a beautiful day out—in fact, it’s so overcast and dim that it seems incredible that anyone really wants to head to the beach at all—but while Nobuyo chows down on some enormous fried thing on a stick, Hatsue affirms something Nobuyo has said earlier. Better to choose your own family, she agrees, because the expectations are gone. Looking as she does at the people, two middle-aged, one a young adult, and two little children, it’s hard to think she’s wrong. They are laughing, jumping the waves, teasing Osamu when he trips over himself and falls into the ocean. Love is about choosing over and over again, and in the distance, from where we and Hatsue can observe, there is choosing happening in the surf.
84) The Nightingale, directed by Jennifer Kent
If you believe in Hell and you want to be inspired by a movie, The Nightingale is the right one to see. It’s not a movie I can imagine watching more than once—there’s more bare cruelty in the first half-hour or so than I think I could handle a second time around—but it’s got the kind of strength that one could watch a thousand movies to see and never come across. The Nightingale never questions the justice of what Clare is doing, although at the beginning of the third act it begins to question whether Clare will have the strength to finish doing what she set out to do in the first place. It is good to watch her kill the man who killed her infant daughter, fantastic as the scene must seem to us now, who will never get the pleasure of seeing someone hanged and certainly cannot dream of anyone who deserves a hanging actually mounting the scaffold. We’ve seen revenge in so many movies, but the balance is always off. Revenge over money, or over the repercussions of not paying back money, or “society,” or some murder that happened offscreen. Probably the best-reviewed action franchise of the decade begins with a man taking revenge against a scourge of Russians because they killed the puppy which the hero associated with his late wife. As far as a plot device goes, it’s at least original. As revenge, it’s pretty shallow. The movie intends for us to have a good time watching Keanu Reeves beat the crud out of everyone in New York. The Princess Bride wants us to have a good time. So do The Godfather and either iteration of Cape Fear and Django Unchained and Heathers and Three Billboards. The Nightingale does not give a tinker’s damn about your good time, and this movie is aggressively unpleasant because the subject matter is unpleasant. It knows that it’s more important to tell a story about meting out justice than it is for us to enjoy it. Castor oil has fixed many a stomach ache, and the butt of a musket can fix the face of an infanticide. God defend the right.
If there is a reason that the movie is not higher on the list, it’s because the movie has no way to make Clare’s sudden attack of horror at herself—a wife and mother who in a matter of days became the kind of person who could kill a man in cold blood begging for his life—as indelible as her way of inflicting horrors on the people who sinned against her. It is interested in Billy, whose claim against the British soldiers has a much longer history than Clare’s but less specificity, and one of the movie’s better scenes takes note of how Clare can continue to be racist against people who share a common enemy with her. All the same, sharing the load of vengeance with Billy, whose circumspection fails him in the later scenes of the movie after his claims against soldiers like Hawkins and Ruse become more specific, weakens the message just as adding one liquid to another will weaken the taste of the first. It’s still an admirable choice, on the whole. Kent addresses an issue that one finds frequently in this subgenre of story, in which two groups are oppressed by some hegemonic evil, and only one of those groups ever redresses their grievances or, indeed, sees those grievances addressed by the movie. By the end of the movie, Baykali Ganambarr has a somewhat richer role than Aisling Francoisi; as she recedes from her vengeance. Clare’s mission, while it could have stood for a mission against a greater series of injustices against people like herself (i.e., Ireland, women, the poor), is an entirely personal story. When Billy puts his spear through Ruse’s throat, it is not just about himself, or the Aboriginals he has met and seen killed along his journey with Clare. It is a blow he is striking against many decades of oppression, and symbolic as it is, it’s just about as cathartic as Clare’s musket.
88) Ash Is Purest White, directed by Jia Zhangke
What makes Ash Is Purest White so alluring is the fact that Jia Zhangke brushes right up against a number of genres that I think it might very easily have fallen into without ever really belonging to any of them. The hallmarks of the gangster movie are there, and certainly that scene where Qiao tags in after her boyfriend’s driver and then her boyfriend after both have, in succession, been beaten to a pulp by rival gangsters would fit beautifully into just about any gangster movie I’ve ever seen. Both times, the men get out of the car, beat back a few individuals coming after them, and then are in turn overwhelmed by superior force. (Bin makes his intention to enter the fray incredibly clear, as well as his foolhardiness: he wraps a towel around his hand, punches through the passenger window, and then gets out of the car. It’s a needless gesture, but also…one almost wants to get into some kind of battle royale just to be able to say you’ve made that kind of entrance.) The idea of loyalty, and the purposelessness of loyalty towards someone who does not bear that same feeling towards yourself, is expressed even more directly in Ash Is Purest White than it was in The Irishman a year later. In love with Bin and certain that he feels the same way towards her, Qiao does not hesitate to take the blame from the cops. It’s my gun, she tells them, even though it is not her gun at all, and in the true code of gangsters refusing to snitch, Qiao ends up in prison for a half a decade. Bin’s refusal to help her out while she’s in, or even to come get her when she’s out, is a sign that he has failed in his role, and it turns Qiao’s sacrifice into a moral victory that cannot pay for a second of the five years she spends inside. Yet for all the gangster signification of the first half, the second half feels largely devoid of that energy, disinterested in what Bin and Qiao did in the early 2000s and mostly concerned with whether or not he will pay his debt to her in any meaningful way. If one were to feel led to categorize it as anything, it may as well be as a gangster movie, but it feels like false advertising to sell it that way without a “But…”
One could also read the movie as a kind of romance, but in the same way that there’s very little gangster action in Ash Is Purest White, there may be even less about it that’s romantic. Even when Qiao is with Bin (which is to say, even when Bin would also agree that he and Qiao are together), their interactions together lack intimacy. There’s one scene of the movie at a club where a pair of professional dancers gets up to strut their stuff as entertainment; those two have more chemistry dancing together than Qiao and Bin have. They dance to the YMCA together at one point, in a scene which is very funny in the moment but Chekhovian as a statement of where their relationship will ultimately end up. At one point both of them are kind of jumping up and down, the camera is following them, and then everything stops so suddenly that it feels like the screen is throwing you; Bin’s handgun is on the floor. He tries to stuff it back into his pants as surreptitiously as anyone who is stuffing anything down his pants, much less a hand cannon, can. Qiao looks embarrassed, disappointed. The two of them dance awkwardly together. She’ll pitch some motion, he’ll return it a second or two later than he should, with less gusto than she brought to it. By the end of the scene, she is smiling more broadly than ever, bopping along, looking around at others who are looking back at her with the same kind of good vibes. Bin is nowhere to be seen. On r/relationshipadvice, they call this a “red flag,” and like the vast majority of people posting on that subreddit, Qiao is basically unaware of the signs until it is too late for anything to be done, and she has paid for hoping for the best.
90) Annihilation, directed by Alex Garland
Consider this as having taken the Cloud Atlas spot for the movie that doesn’t always feel like it’s succeeding, but which is always so ambitious that it demands full attention not just on the first but the second watch as well. I can take or leave the movie’s twist (there’s a phrase I use a lot), but it’s the first time I’ve watched anything Alex Garland and really loved where he went with the last few scenes. The Shimmer has claimed Lena’s companions; only Ventress remains unaccounted for, but Lena finds her, or what’s left of her, below the lighthouse where the meteor first hit. The noise that this centralized being makes, something between a musical cue and what whales sound like, is one of the most unforgettable sounds of the decade in movies. The being that the Shimmer creates, one meant to replicate Lena, based on a single tear, is made in a sequence of strange, psychedelic beauty, like what you would have gotten if they’d had a special effects budget for something like Logan’s Run, but it is also a little terrifying to watch. Without trying to get too Philosophy 101 here, Annihilation suggests that watching a genesis is as disconcerting as watching, well, an annihilation. This is the showiest expression of that particular thought, and the most direct as well, but I think what most people recall first when they discuss the picture is that faceless bear that screams in Cass’ voice. How it comes to gain Cass’ voice is disturbing to think of on a literal level (we’ve all seen Grizzly Man), but it’s also disturbing because that creation has no basis in what we’ve ever come across before. The new of life is as frightening as the new of death, and no matter how many episodes of Star Trek we’ve seen, it’s hard to condemn Lena for handing her copy a grenade in the hopes that she can kill it.
I should probably save this until I get to Ex Machina because it’s probably more relevant to that movie, but if there is a director who is as consistently interested in posthumanism as Alex Garland, I do not know of him or her; I’m not sure that even someone like David Cronenberg has such a laser focus on what comes after people. In this case, what will hasten the end of people are exactly the kinds of petty things that might have slowplayed our demise anyway. Anya, whose playful aggression shifts into paranoia almost immediately, dies horrifically at the end of a night of poor judgment. Josie, stricken by fear and anxiety, decides to commit suicide by Shimmer. Ventress, dying of cancer already, seems indifferent to how she’ll die, and it certainly seems like the Shimmer uses her body as fuel to make a new bipedal out of. Lena goes into the Shimmer to try to figure out what happened to her husband, who led a military operation into the Shimmer, was presumed dead, and then came home out of nowhere and as a shell of himself. Annihilation implies that Kane only volunteered for this mission in the first place because his home life was in pieces. Paranoia, anxiety, illness, infidelity: these people end up, whether or not they meant to in the first place, open to the possibility of being replaced or changed. The Shimmer literally, on the subatomic level, replaces the gaps that these people entered with. Whether or not it is better to be part of a bear’s scream or to be made into a plant is a question that Annihilation does not really try to answer, and if it had I think it probably would have scooted up this list a little ways. For the sake of the picture, it is enough to be assured that humanity will be supplanted, and that when that end finally comes we will not have much say in how we’ll be changed.
92) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Depending on your mood, the comfortable predictability of the western is either its greatest asset or its worst flaw. Perhaps it’s why any western made after, oh, 1960 ends up being called a “revisionist western,” a meaningless term that almost always paints the user as one of those people who think The Godfather was the first interesting movie in American history. Or maybe it’s why people can sit down and watch a pair of John Ford/John Wayne collaborations two years distant in which Wayne plays forward-thinking cavalrymen in action against the Indians: their names are “Kirby York” and “Kirby Yorke.” There’s some revisionism in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Even Terrence Malick doesn’t get all the way to a supernatural western in his career, and yet for one of the chapters, it’s very clear that two angels of death are transporting three people on a stage to their eternal hotel. “The Meal Ticket,” which is for me, on some days, the best segment of the movie, feels so far away from any other western I’ve ever seen. It merely happens to be set in the American West of the late 19th Century in the same way that Brief Encounter happens to be set in postwar Britain; the plot makes more sense when you put it there, but the ideas and the characters are not necessarily bound to the time or place. Yet there are some plots in this story—a gunslinger too big for his britches, a transcontinental wagon train, “savage Indians roaming through the prairie”—which I think anyone who has watched even a dozen westerns in his or her lifetime must know by heart. If there is something revisionist about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which neither tries nor really needs to try to lace its six strands together, it’s that the Coens are working from a place of discomfort. There’s no point in this movie where I think we are meant to be able to sink our teeth into the picture and say, “I’ve got you now.” Even though each of the six comes to an end after someone’s untimely demise, the movie comes at those deaths in such different ways that we can’t even get used to some kind of thematic similarity: shootout, hanging, drowning, self-defense, suicide, who knows? The movie keeps you guessing, never lets you sink your teeth in all the way. Just because Buster Scruggs gets outdueled in his section doesn’t mean that the prospector in “All Gold Canyon” is going to be bested in his.
In that way, there’s something essentially Coen Brothers about this movie, a filmmaking duo who I don’t know that even their most relentless adherents can say have their itches scratched by them every time out. (Does anyone else besides me like their remake of The Ladykillers? Am I weird for being largely indifferent to The Big Lebowski?) It’s also part of what makes this a really enjoyable and incredibly smart western. The easiest way to keep us from ever getting to that easy recline-and-popcorn moment in the movie is to make it into six little movies, all of which just feel different from one another. There are enough actors of significant stature to make it easy to remember what’s happening in each one (“That’s Tom Waits digging…”), and perhaps more importantly each one has a different color palette that shines through; there’s something reddish and brown about “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” a tinging sad blue in “The Meal Ticket,” the surprising green of “The Mortal Remains,” and the rest sing three different yellows. It’s an approach that I can understand only made it to Netflix and not to the big screens of America. The TV-ness of having six separate pilots, as it were, feels likely enough for Netflix. It’s also the kind of movie which requires a budget and a free hand from management that I don’t know that your average studio would be interested in taking part in. It’s also the kind of movie that makes me grateful for Netflix (in an obviously backhanded kind of way), for I cannot imagine that this movie would exist otherwise, not in this state. Even though the movie might have been better served if two of these segments became features and the rest were left behind, I’m mostly just glad that we got to have all six, which in their totality amount to one of the most adventurous and idiosyncratic movies of the decade.