To see the entire list of my 100 top movies of last decade, or to find the landing page for the other years in this series, click here. To read the second half of my post on 2016, click here.
Well, here it is. If not the best year of the decade, then very probably the deepest. I find myself in not insignificant disagreement with consensus again. Of the favorites from the Oscars that year, I include only Moonlight, and even that is further down on my list than I’ve seen anywhere else. (We’ll get to it.) La La Land, a movie which no one would shut up about for two months and which garnered about as much decade-end support as Mission Impossible – Fallout, is definitely not here. Arrival, a movie which I really liked the first time out and found weightless the second time, was not a threat either. Manchester by the Sea is a very good movie, but I was disappointed with how easily the threads were untangled in Lonergan’s script compared to what he’d made in previous stops. All in all, I am more interested in movies that feel much less neat than those do. There’s a sticky-sweet quality to some of the year’s more highly rated pictures which doesn’t serve them all that well, working well enough in little doses but not cohering nicely over the course of the movie. There’s something much more toothsome, I like to think, about the movies I’ve got here, even if a lot of them are a little less popular.
The thing that I notice first off about my movie choices from this year is how many of them are documentaries. My three top-rated documentaries of the decade are all stamped from this year, and all three of them are emphatically about the inevitability of history. To their credit, Dawson City: Frozen Time, O.J.: Made in America, and Tower (mercifully titled without a colon) never put their feet on the scale too heavily to make themselves “relevant.” It’s impossible not to find the relevance in those movies, dealing as they do with obsolescence, race, and gun violence, respectively, but they are primarily great movies about history on its own terms, and they leave you to draw your own conclusions. So do the historical dramas from this year, like The Lost City of Z and Loving, which are about real people with all-too-real struggles, and Silence, which goes even further back into the past and, of course, outside the bounds of real life entirely, to narrate a struggle of its own. Although my own scale has more feet on the historical end of things, 2016 was also a great year for movies about the present, putting the mirror on contemporary life and forcing us to confront loneliness head on. Moonlight, L’Avenir, Personal Shopper, Certain Women, The Salesman: all of them are very much about the feeling of being alone, of being isolated from other people, or from the place one wants to be, or from the person that one wants to become. Like the year itself, which I rather doubt that history will rate highly, 2016 is a year in movies really about troubles. Some of the great cathartic moments of the decade are here, but it’s only because there is so much despair in the movies to begin with that we can feel some kind of rejuvenation at all.
6) Dawson City: Frozen Time, directed by Bill Morrison
There’s a movie from 1926 with John Barrymore and Ethel Costello called The Sea Beast, which is basically Moby-Dick, complete with names of the characters, if it were also like a daytime soap on CBS. It was its studio’s top box office draw that year, and a moderate critical success. I can’t imagine that one person in a hundred could tell you about it, and I doubt that one person in a thousand (me included!) has seen it. How quickly the vast majority of movies fade away, even the ones with the greatest popularity or the best reviews. The way that the movies die in Dawson City is a little more dramatic than merely fading away into the mist. They dumped the movies on the ice floes like the rest of the garbage, or kept them under a hockey rink. Buried at sea, buried alive. Whether any of the movies in the Dawson City trove were masterpieces, or even as good as The Sea Beast, is unlikely. What Dawson City is interested in is not the quality of those movies, or the noteworthy story of how they were found, or even the rise and fall of Dawson City itself. The movie is about ephemerality, about how much effort people put into things that were never going to last. In a bizarre way, getting stored under a hockey rink in northwestern Canada was the best thing that could have happened to The Trail of ’98, a silent movie which almost certainly wouldn’t have survived the interest people had in talkies. Dawson City was built as a response to a gold rush that didn’t actually lead to so much gold, and so its population has fallen 98.5% from its peak, basically holding serve at a thousand souls since the First World War. And yet they rebuilt the business district of the town over and over again because it kept going up in flames. What was the point of the effort, the labor that remade Dawson City so many times, and for what? To be a ghost town within twenty years of its founding? What was the point of making the movies that made the long trek across the United States and Canada, only for the films to be put out on an ice floe so their corpses could bump up against the likewise deteriorating carcasses of dead whales? Dawson City: Frozen Time is one of those movies which plays out as much in one’s head as on the screen; not that it doesn’t have an editorial streak of its own to try to guide our trains of thought, but it’s hard not to wonder what it’s all for when watching this movie. Without judging the people who lived there then or, more importantly, live there now, it still begs the question of what all the exertions were for. Seventy percent of the men who came to get rich from the Klondike Gold Rush either died trying or were forced to turn back. Put that way it sounds clinical, but the number of failures—probably about seventy thousand men—is overwhelming. The only recognized classic that Morrison brings into his movie is The Gold Rush, and he leaves the goofy stuff alone in favor of showing the climb up the mountain in the movie’s first few minutes, the mass of men wearing all the gear and trying to winch their way up a vertical face, like a trail of ants trying to sniff out something good at a deserted picnic.
What we get out of those exertions we can judge a little more cleanly. There’s wonder in this documentary, wonder at the same resilience that it’s a little easy, as I’ve proven, to cast aspersions on. Looked at one way, the making of Dawson City is a testament to the human rush to do useless things, but from another perspective it’s incredible that the people who came there made as much of a life as they did. For a business district to burn down nine times is to have need of a business district nine times. To put the films under the hockey rink, there must have been a devoted interest in playing hockey. To have films up there at all required a movie theater. And so on. In a place where the only draw was gold, people have stayed, and the town has outlasted the gold. By accident, the people who stayed made a home to more than five hundred films, some previously thought lost, some of events that had only been seen from other angles (such as the much-hyped film of the 1919 World Series, famous for the Black Sox Scandal.) Dawson City: Frozen Time is not what I would call a traditionally hopeful movie, but it’s impossible not to watch the movie and feel the sense of rebirth that permeates the whole thing. The movie is almost entirely without spoken words. The music backing each intertitle or decayed film print is funereal and a little spooky. Yet the fact remains that some of what was supposed to have been lost forever was not really gone at all. It’s like the last two lines of a section from Song of Myself: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses/And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
8) Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese
The part everyone remembers from the scene where an icon of Jesus appears to speak to Rodrigues, telling him to complete the formality of apostasy, is when he says “Step on me.” It’s the sentence right before that which I think makes the movie. Rodrigues has spent so much of this movie on the run, hiding, giving out Communion and hearing confessions secretly. He has watched his friend and fellow priest, Garupe, drowned. He has spent so much of the movie in prison. If he is not being debated with by the Japanese authorities, he is hearing the pleas of Japanese Christians who are imprisoned with him, watching them executed in horrifying ways. When he stares at the icon, he can look up (though he refuses to look up anymore) at some Japanese Christians, anonymous in what are basically burlap sacks, held upside down and being bled to death one drop at a time. What the icon tells him before he says, “Step on me” is mind-boggling: “It’s all right.” For Rodrigues, that must be an even greater shock to his system than “Step on me.” That, at least, is a direct commandment from the mouth of God, and this priest is doubtless well-versed in the dozens of Biblical stories about people who refuse such commandments. It’s the idea that it would be all right, a comfort and not a directive, which is jaw-dropping. If it was all right to do this to save other people, what was all the suffering for? Why did Rodrigues and Garupe allow some men from the village that hid them for some time to be put on crosses in the surf and drowned? They watched that particular terrible thing happening, so if it was all right to give the authorities what they wanted and apostatize, then what was the stubbornness, the righteousness, the self-righteousness for? The voice reminds Rodrigues that he understands his pain; I was born, Jesus explains, to share men’s pain. Only then, and still with terrible anguish, does Rodrigues step forward. In doing so, he makes a choice which is not merely a statement of his newly reformed faith, but for the first time he is deeply humble. He has suggested to several Japanese believers that they ought to apostatize, with all the paternal implications of a white person setting lower expectations for someone for another race; it is the first time where he directs that logic on himself.
From then on he follows in the footsteps of Ferreira, who may well have heard a similar commandment from Chris: dress like the Japanese, take on a dead man’s name, wife, property, apostatize without blanching on a semi-regular basis. Yet Ferreira says “Our Lord” once to Rodrigues, and in a way that he chooses not to play off all that casually, and in the last frames of the movie, we see that Rodrigues has gone to cremation with the tiniest, roughest-hewn crucifix in the palm of his hand. The movie does not pretend to know about the will of God, whether it’s better to preserve the life that he gave us and refuse to allow anyone to take it unjustly (which is where Reverend Hale in The Crucible lands, in case that sounded implausibly familiar) or if it’s better to follow his original commandments to the letter no matter the cost. Ever since I saw this movie I have maintained that it is easier to be Garupe, who dies a fairly swift death in the process of trying to save lives, than to be Rodrigues, who lives to a ripe old age and has to keep himself company. One way or another it knows that belief is not easily wiped out with a foot, a glob of spit, or an utterance.
Silence, like most religious movies that aren’t based on cloying contemporary Christian music, was always going to have a hard time finding its audience. I invite you to look up some evangelical readings of Silence, which are primarily worried about that ending and how it defies Biblical teaching, if for no other reason to get a sense of what Rodrigues in Macau would have said about Rodrigues in Japan. This is also the kind of movie that does not talk about Christian faith like it’s a slogan about God being love that you can use to yell at like, Lindsey Graham on Twitter, which is to say, in other words, that it doesn’t appeal in the way that The Mission appeals. Silence is for people who come with a little bit of doubt baked into their temperaments but who believe in sin as something separate from wrongdoing. Given that, and the length, and how dour it is, Silence landed with a pretty big thud. (“Not that!” people cried when Scorsese made what is probably his most personal film ever. “Oh my God, another gangster movie?” they lamented about his next one.) Silence is one of the barest handful of movies I have ever come across which gets what religious faith is about, which understands it not just on an intellectual level or an experiential level, but as something which coheres in the marrow. I wouldn’t call it an enjoyable watch by any stretch, but it remains on repeat viewings some of the most profound storytelling I’ve ever wandered into.
24) O.J.: Made in America, directed by Ezra Edelman
I’m a little surprised that Made in America (definitely abbreviating it that way, because there is way too much punctuation in that title) has not been talked up more while everyone is doing the good work of trying to find more movies to watch by African-Americans about African-Americans, because this is the real deal. The longest movie on my list—it got screened in theaters! it won an Oscar! it counts! this is not a Twin Peaks situation!—works in large part because there is so, so much of it. Five parts, running nearly eight hours, and the movie doesn’t even get to the thing we all came for until the third episode. Edelman isn’t squeamish. He doesn’t believe that if we understand all, we’ll forgive all, because the movie comes down pretty firmly in its belief that O.J. Simpson is guilty of two murders. But it is a movie which has the heightened ambition to try to do something that I’ve almost never seen done. It contextualizes racism. I think part of the reason people believe to this day that racism was solved in the 1960s and that everything else that’s happened since is just some unfortunate coincidences is because instead of building a case as to how we got to the situation, movies typically provide signifiers to let you know it’s Jim Crow. No one ever seems to ask how we got to Jim Crow (except sad children, who are reassured that God doesn’t hate them and patted on the head), but everyone knows segregation because there’s a scene with a water fountain or a lunch counter or “I’m warning you, boy,” etc. Ezra Edelman is not content with signifiers. Edelman’s documentary fills half of its runtime—a stretch longer, just saying, than Gone with the Wind—with pure context. The early years of O.J. Simpson. USC, Buffalo. The Hertz commercials: I can’t believe I didn’t know about the Hertz commercials. Rodney King. It is all discussed by talking heads, but more importantly the footage is shown, too, footage which is so often truncated or clipped together and which in this documentary is aired out in staggering detail. I think my age shows a little in how much I admire the first couple episodes of the documentary, because when O.J. went to trial I was four years old and not exactly following the news. For someone who lived through the trial, or through Rodney King, let alone through the ’60s, I think it’s possible to look at this movie as excessively summarizing. As someone who went into this movie knowing little more about O.J. Simpson than one can learn through one song from The Book of Mormon, I found all of this incredibly edifying. The primary conclusion that the documentary draws before it gets to the murders is that O.J. wanted to be colorblind about himself. He cared little for politics, did not want to be a symbol for black people. He saw what had happened to Muhammad Ali and decided, I think not without some sense of self-preservation, that it was pointless. (I’ll admit that this might be a little pathological, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that O.J.’s mindset here is all that far off from the kind of thinking that got Reagan elected.) What he wanted was adulation. By the time he came to Southern Cal he was used to getting it; as a professional player and occasional actor (I have seen Capricorn One, a movie in which his bad acting is honestly not even that different from surprisingly rough performances from the likes of Sam Waterston and Hal Holbrook) he was used to keeping it. The first half of this movie is pure finesse. It is beyond entertaining: it’s engrossing. I was totally rapt watching this movie, and I expect the experience wouldn’t play out any differently the next time around. It’s summary without condescension. It’s analytical, especially as regards the fundamental irony of O.J.’s life, as he would spend so much of his formative years trying to get past his race and the expectations of it, but the trial that has defined his life also stands as one of the defining moments in the racial struggle in 20th Century America.
The movie is every bit as amazing when it actually gets to what I imagine most of us came here for. I mean, no wonder everyone in America was obsessed with the car chase, the trial, the theater of it all. It’s like taking way too big a forkful of something spicy; you don’t love the heat, but it’s so strong that you know you’re going to take another bite. There’s summary here as well, and if this were a four-part documentary that ended more or less with a couple people from the jury explaining that O.J. was found not guilty because of the cops who beat Rodney King, then it would still rank on this list. The fact that it goes on after that, that it discusses the aftermath is what really sets it apart; I stand by my initial characterization of this last section as “dull,” at least in comparison to the headrush of all that comes before it, but as a storytelling decision it’s totally essential. I can count on one hand the things that people said in movies from last decade that I think about more than something Carl Douglas has to say in the final episode. O.J., of course, got into a bizarre situation that got him charged with robbery and kidnapping (this would be a weird enough case without the specter of the 1995 trial), and in the end he was found guilty and sentenced to an unbelievable thirty-three year prison term. Douglas, probably the most consistently engaging talking head, has a parable to explain why:
I went to an inner-city high school. Our football team was terrible, but our fighters were good. We might lose the fourth quarter in the ballgame, but we’d win the fifth quarter after the game, the fight. It’s called “the fifth quarter.” That was, at most, a two-year crime dripping wet. The judge in that case held the jury out until eleven o’clock on a Friday night thirteen years to the day of O.J. Simpson’s verdict on October the third. That in my mind was not a coincidence. And the 33-year sentence – reflecting the 33 million dollars in the civil verdict – was no coincidence. And that was the fifth quarter. They got back at O.J. for winning our case. White America got back at O.J. for being acquitted of murder.
“The fifth quarter.” I’ve never heard another expression which I think does as good a job at explaining how racism in America perpetuates itself. In the fourth quarter, the United States passes the Voting Rights Act; in the fifth quarter it murders Martin Luther King. In the fourth quarter, the United States elects Barack Obama president; in the fifth quarter, it elects Donald Trump, the most famous and vocal proponent of the birther conspiracy, to succeed him. This idea that even if people of color win a victory, it will be followed with some extralegal revanchist action by a white plurality supported by media apparatus and sly, quite white supremacist dogma (“Fiddle-dee-dee!”). If a black man is found not guilty based on his race, white people will find another crime to get him for. Our sympathy in that moment, and I suppose this is at least a little true of Carl Douglas as well, is not really for O.J. Simpson, but for the African-Americans who have lost the fifth quarter and were not protected by money, fame, or convenient friendships.
41) Tower, directed by Keith Maitland
Making your documentary animated only to reveal what everything looked like without animation at the end is the kind of thing that I think you can only do once before it feels really dishonest. That reveal at the end of Waltz with Bashir barely works (though to be fair, I think that entirely movie doesn’t work just generally). But in Tower, I can’t help but be a little moved by it. The animated talking heads and actions in the movie are fitting, even though it was an incredible risk to design the picture that way. It would be all too easy to allow the unusual format of the movie to become its engine, to get wrapped up in the animation and make that its focus. That’s not what happens in Tower at all, which requires such deftness; the brilliance of the choice is in its unreality. Most of us, God willing, have never been nor will ever be in a situation like the one that unfolded on August 1, 1966, where a person with a gun decides to pick off as many targets as he can find. This is not something we can entirely wrap our minds around; if we could, we would have repealed the 2nd Amendment by now. Choosing to animate some of the memories, and to animate the talking heads for the vast majority of the picture, is a choice which recognizes that unreality for us while representing the reality differently for the witnesses and survivors. I think it’s distinctly possible that this is just how Maitland likes to make his docs and he got a little lucky, but hey, form ever follows function. I think a lot about that shot early in the movie where there’s a rotoscoped man in his rotoscoped car who is looking at the very real footage of the tower of the movie’s title; Maitland does it again later, when a newsman taking footage is directed to point up by his partner; cut, and the tower is there in real footage The detail in the rotoscoping, the remarkable perspective that we have like we’re on the floor of the car at first, is classic “you are there” pseudorealism, and it’s incredibly engaging. It’s also a totally different effect from the actual footage, which with all that grainy character feels even scarier, sacrificing perfect detail for the aura of the combat footage it is. Maitland shows us what it looks like both ways, the highly dramatized and the eerily real. Someone gets shot, and the screen turns a solid color (red for a death, black for a wound) and the body becomes a white silhouette as it falls. But he also shows us what it looks like when in plain black-and-white there is simply a body lying on the hot pavement.
Charles Whitman was not up there a very long time; by minutes, his reign of terror lasted as long as it would take to screen The Public Enemy. Less than an hour into his movie, Maitland finishes the story that I think most of us expected to see finished fifteen, even twenty minutes later. (Tower is tied with Ida for the shortest runtime of any movie on this list, at a tidy eighty-two minutes.) Officers Rodriguez and McCoy, having come to the top of the tower by different methods and at different times, only knowing they were on the same side because they wore the same uniform, blow Charles Whitman away. Rodriguez, in his words, empties his revolver; McCoy, carrying a shotgun that Rodriguez said under the circumstances looked “beautiful,” discharged his weapon too. It’s one of three unexpected things that happens at that point in the movie. The second is the reveal of the people themselves, photographed in color, instead of rotoscoped actors in black-and-white. Rodriguez changes first, from a young man wearing a hat that seems to dwarf him, to an old man with glasses and more liver spots on his head than hair. Maitland goes back to action that has been rotoscoped fairly quickly, but from then on, he begins to transition to the real people. Maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising, but the effect in the moment of seeing the actual Ray Martinez is an enormous jolt. The third thing that Maitland does that feels unexpected is maybe the most brilliant choice of all. “Clair de lune” is in movies all the time, and I guess blame the movies, but it is the first piece of music I think of when I imagine that bittersweet feeling, implying that it’s all over, but that the people who were part of “it” remain. It’s used like that in The Right Stuff, where the Mercury astronauts are brought to surprising solemnity as a woman performs a dance as it’s piped into the dome; it’s used like that in Ocean’s Eleven, where members of the team stand in front of a fountain and go their separate ways. It’s used like that in Tower, too…kind of. It’s certainly about memory, and ending something. But hearing that familiar music play over two rotoscoped cops, regular men in a pre-SWAT world who basically volunteered to do this dangerous job out of a sense of duty, was sobering. If there’s a sweetness to be remembered, it’s the sweetness of a time before people thought that what Charles Whitman did was a possibility. Before August 1, 1966, it was possible to believe that no one would take their high-powered assault rifles and murder people for no reason that a normal person could conceive of. When Rodriguez and McCoy are creeping around the wall, seconds from surprising Whitman, they’re in the first hour and a half of a new world which still can vividly remember what it was like before. In a movie where the visual choices are meant to grab our attention, the thing that’s stuck with me most heavily about Tower is a musical one.
48) Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins
I thought about this ranking a lot, probably more than I thought about any other ranking on this list. This ranking seems like a hot take. I know, because in looking back on all of these decade-end lists I keep in my little Google Doc, Moonlight shows up in the teens or higher on every list it appears on. Either you don’t think Moonlight is one of the x best movies of the decade (which is not a popular decision, to say the least), or you think it’s one of the top five, top ten, top fifteen movies of the decade. Incidentally, I would also hate for this ranking to come off as a hot take, or contrarianism, or a plea for attention, or whatever other negative thing it may come off as. I think Moonlight is a beautifully made movie, a movie with some great acting performances. It has that final encounter between Chiron and Kevin, finally adults, which I find incredibly moving, touched with moments of complete openness in the way people in real life are almost never open. Ashton Saunders should have an entire movie just for him, not just the middle of one; he brings vitality to the screen that is not diminished by multiple viewings or knowing what will happen. It absolutely deserved that Adapted Screenplay Oscar it got, because it is not easy at all to create characters as alive and genuine as Chiron and Kevin by giving them a couple days at a time over a period of years; this is a masterpiece of structure, a movie that was always going to be terrific from the time the screenplay was written. I also can’t help but feel, and this is a feeling I have been unable to shake over multiple viewings, that Moonlight is too after-school special for its own good. There’s a scene which doesn’t involve Chiron at all (which is not a winning strategy in this movie) where Juan fights with Paula about her son. He believes that she should be home, taking care of her son; she’s taking the drugs that he deals, and thus she is not impressed with his sanctimony. Are you going to raise him? she asks. Are you going to stop selling me drugs? This is the downside of wanting to tell a story over the course of several years. Scenes with Chiron and Kevin in them tend to be more engaging, more meaningful because of how quickly and completely we care for the characters. Scenes with virtually anyone else are lightweight. Moonlight and Crash are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and Mahershala Ali does a much better job with his role than Ludacris does with his, but what’s the difference between a carjacker who can recognize systemic racism and a drug dealer who cares about what happens to a scared kid? Both of them are meant to be ironic, but there’s some little effort given to fleshing them out that they come off as shallow. Naomie Harris acts a lot in this movie, and is never the best part of any scene she’s in; if it’s not entirely on her, it’s because she’s a type we’ve seen before and not a person like her son is.
Obviously, those objections do not erase the rest of the movie for me, which does so many other things right. That last scene with Andre Holland and Trevante Rhodes is an absolute clinic, spectacular with understatement even though the conversation itself is flowing over with the kind of thing that one so rarely hears in real life. Kevin, as he has always had to do in the relationship, makes the first move. As little kids, he got along so much easier with the other boys, and that moment where he went over to Chiron after that game of murder the man with the ball (“ball”) and tries to counsel him about standing up for himself is the sign of a really kind person. That sensitivity is a double-edged sword in the second act, where on one hand he has a sensual, erotic night with Chiron on the beach, and on the other he is bullied into beating Chiron up the next day. “Stay down,” he tells Chiron, and although there’s cowardice in the fact that he throws the punches against Chiron instead of Terrel, the message comes through clearly enough: it’s killing him to inflict this much punishment on Chiron. Perhaps he’s thinking about that when he says, “Never did anything I actually wanted to do, was all I could do to do what other folks thought I should do.” If there’s anything which has kept those two apart, more than distance, more than Chiron’s stint in juvie or Kevin’s time in prison, it’s that need Kevin has to please others. Although it’s not the kind of thing one hears very often, it is absolutely the kind of thing that people start to think about when they get to Kevin’s age, when they have lived through what he’s lived through, when they have kids. In a funny way, it makes his job as a cook a little sad; it’s a job, at least at his level, based entirely on doing what people want you to do, and cooking something special for Chiron is this little nip of individuality, of confidence, that he’s never had before. As for Chiron, what he says has become more famous because it’s a much showier idea. “You’re the only man that’s ever touched me,” he says. “You’re the only one. I haven’t really touched anyone since.” Chiron’s bluntness, a mixture of personal shyness mixed with formidable forwardness, is what makes him so fascinating. Rhodes’ line, delivered simply and quietly, is every bit as potent as Saunders’ breathtaking scene where he obliterates the bully with a chair and obliterates the chair while doing it. That it’s designed to have that same kind of force only makes it more remarkable.
49) L’Avenir (2016), dir. Mia Hansen-Løve
(I am referring to this movie by its French name not because I am trying to be prissy but because there is already a movie called Things to Come, and if I had my ‘druthers they would have translated this title a little more literally anyway.)
I feel some guilt, as I think about this movie, that I couldn’t find space for more Hansen-Løve or more Isabelle Huppert. There are so many movies which share an outline with this one—I can’t imagine any story as likely to get lampooned without being seen as “middle-aged professor’s life breaks into pieces all at once, thus giving Prof an opportunity to seek new meaning”—but this one is really special. I can think of few higher compliments for a director than “patient,” and there is no doubt that Hansen-Løve is such a director. This is not a long movie by any stretch, barely crossing the 100-minute mark, but it’s a movie which is willing to be deliberate about how events unfold. In this movie, Huppert’s Nathalie deals with the following, in no particular order: her infirm mother finally dies, her husband decides he wants to leave her, her textbook she relies on for income is in mortal peril, her adult children are distant. It takes a while for her to get to a point where she makes a slightly strange decision, one that’s fitting for a midlife crisis such as she’s dealing with: she heads off into the mountains to live with an anarchist ex-student of hers and his friends, dragging her late mother’s cat along with her. When the Coen Brothers made a movie like this, it was hilarious. Hansen-Løve finds the humor a little bit, I suppose, but she is more interested in the fact of the dissolution itself. If everything that anchored a person to her life simply unraveled, then what port would she land at? Nathalie is testy, which is one of Huppert’s better modes, and is maybe even a little crusty. We can sense the comfort that she feels in her life before it all comes apart, the belief in inertia that will keep her work relevant and her marriage stable. Nathalie sees her husband out with another woman while she’s riding the bus, just happens to see them in exactly the way Lara happens not to see Yuri in Doctor Zhivago. There’s an instantaneous conversation that the movie wants us to have with ourselves, demands that we think about while we look at Huppert’s shocked, laughing face, almost craning ourselves to see if we can get a better look at Heinz and his girlfriend. First we ask ourselves if anyone’s life can really be all that stable if it can be overthrown thanks to a chance look out a window. Second, maybe a little coyly, we deliver the rejoinder: Sure, but just think of all the things you could see out the window.
Something I’ve learned about my movie judgment is just how heavily the ending weighs on my calculus, and I was astonished at how assured and marvelous the ending of this movie is. L’Avenir is essentially quiltlike, with very few individual patches standing out but in its entirety quite wonderful, and the last scene of the movie works on the same principle. It’s Christmas, and her family is at her home, where so many scenes have taken place, so many arguments about things as big as “I really thought you loved me and I can’t believe you’re leaving me” and small as “That’s not really what that philosophical text is saying, you know.” Her grandchild, an infant, begins crying, and she goes to get him. Everyone else stays at the table while she picks the baby up, holds him, bounces him a little; how grandparents take their grandchildren is always so different than how they took their own kids, and there is such gentleness, even satisfaction, in her mien as she walks back and forth across the bedroom. The camera pulls away from her march, rounds the doorframe, and lands in the hallway. At the table, everyone’s still chatting. It’s like Nathalie wasn’t even there in the first place, and as the camera recedes further back, we see her in slivers, still marching the baby around. It’s the right kind of ending for a movie like this one, which is wise enough to know that problems don’t resolve themselves all that nicely. This is the future that the movie intimates from the title on. Nathalie has failed, in a way, at family life; her greatest success is taking care of Pandora the cat, and even that comes with a couple close shaves. She has burned out a little too quickly as a young anarchist living like the farm life. It’s going to end with her alone, and it’s going to end with everyone else being just fine with it.
50) Personal Shopper, directed by Olivier Assayas
Cellphones aren’t cinematic. Something about the motion that it requires to get to a payphone, pay the toll, press the buttons, lean against the wall, whatever people used to do at payphones, that’s cinematic. Pushing buttons with a thumb as we use the big screen to look at a tiny screen that photographs very badly is usually a real bore; it’s the reason no one actually shows people reading off the screen when they can just have the messages pop up in a bright color next to them, a choice which is also not cinematic but at least more attractive. Assayas has proven a few things about the phone in this movie, foremost among them that it can be the center of dramatic tension if the circumstances are right. It’s surprisingly gripping to watch Kristen Stewart plug away at her phone while she’s on the train, messaging someone who adamantly refuses to say who he is. The reason why is because we know two things about Maureen: that she’s on the lookout for some message from her dead brother, Lewis, and that she has seen a ghost. It’s a weird ghost; it is as close to being a liquid and a solid all at once as any non-cat being I’ve ever seen on a screen. Other signs show us that ghosts are a force to be reckoned with here. Some automatic doors open and close without anyone appearing to pass through, a sight which is, in its own quiet way, one of the stranger signs of the movie. The movie’s best moment for me is that one where we see in deep focus some unnamed, previously unseen character drop a teacup. He appears out of nowhere; he disappears by the time Maureen can run from the garden to the kitchen. It’s a jump scare without any jumping at all, so far away on the screen that it’s easy to convince yourself that you just forgot to note the character appearing.
These are, to say the least, some circumstances, but knowing that in the world of Personal Shopper that ghosts are real, and that our main character believes herself to be sensitive to what might be happening in another zone of existence, it makes those texts slightly terrifying. It might be Lewis on the other end of those phone messages, perhaps restraining himself from telling her that it’s him, or maybe he is somehow restricted from giving himself up too plainly; the conversation they have is one which challenges her, as the person on the other end is working very hard to convince her to transgress, to cross boundaries. Why shouldn’t she put on her supermodel boss’ clothing and see how she looks in it? She picks it all up, she buys pieces, she even tries a few on in fittings, so why not get into her closet and dress up and lie around and see how she feels? It’s also distinctly possible that the person on the other end is Ingo, who is taken into custody on the charge of having murdered Maureen’s boss, Kyra. There is an intimacy in those text messages that doesn’t feel brotherly; it’s got big fifth or sixth date energy, almost like Ingo is trying to groom her into acting a certain way that will jazz him up further, or like he’ll muddy the waters for the authorities by getting Maureen to seem like she’s angling for a way to replace Kyra. The movie, regardless of its reputation, is not opaque; I don’t think that the mystery texter is someone who is not Lewis or Ingo, for the movie does not push that possibility, and yet this is a time when the Internet gives away anyone’s information 4 cheep. The men in this movie, whether they are Lewis or Ingo or some unknown creep, are quietly aggressive figures. They push. They prod. They leave Maureen on the hook. Maureen by temperament seems fairly comfortable being more or less on her own—her boyfriend makes almost no impact on the movie, and you can imagine how little he must have on her if that’s the case—but it is the actions of men in this movie which disquiet her far more than even the presence of a fell ghost vomiting ectoplasm in the dead of night.
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