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Best and the rest of 2020

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Critic After Dark

A SCENE from the movie Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84)

YEAH yeah yeah

Sick of essays mourning the disaster that was last year? Same.

Let’s get with it.

WW84 — Ah he he he. One of the biggest misfires of the year, and despite the high definition digital camerawork one of the gauziest movies of the year — gauzy action sequences, gauzy plot mechanic, gauzy villain (you’re not even sure why he does what he does, he has to keep explaining it to you), gauzy heroine. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), wooden as in the first movie, can’t seem to be bothered to shake herself awake through much of this one — though the moment when she does (in a street corner, involving the love of her life) you probably wish she didn’t bother. Director Patty Jenkin’s action sequences mostly involve a cartoonish golden lasso that looks as if it was filched from a Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon, and her various bodies villainous and heroic fly around as if she hadn’t any notion how bodies in rest and motion should behave. Rumor has it a third Wonder Woman will happen — can they finally rope Kathryn Bigelow in to direct?

Mank — Well, not really; felt I had to address this title too before moving on. I like a lot of David Fincher’s late work — I think Mindhunter is very good and Zodiac his flatout masterpiece — but Mank is pitched between a too-careful recreation of ‘40s filmmaking (complete with cigarette burns and popping sounds) and a sterile digital approximation of one. The script — by David’s father Jack — proposes a secretly leftist Herman Mankiewicz who writes the script of Citizen Kane as belated revenge on William Randolph Hearst’s Machiavellian campaign against Upton Sinclair’s failed gubernatorial bid. The joker in the pack are the words “writes the script” — apparently Jack and David subscribe to Pauline Kael’s largely discredited assertion that Mr. Mankiewicz alone, without the help of Mr. Welles (and John Houseman), wrote the script. As history it’s questionable, as biopic risible, as an example of what ‘40s filmmaking was really like — well, you’re better off watching Citizen Kane.

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Wolfwakers (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart) — Mind you I loved Mr. Moore’s previous works: Secret of the Kells was gorgeously animated, an illuminated book come to glorious life, and so was Song of the Sea; both had a bittersweet adult sensibility that I appreciated, one that recognizes not everything works out best, that some broken families will never fully heal. Wolfwalkers feels different; the animation is still gorgeous but the story — of a young girl who befriends a wolf girl seeking to awaken her sleeping wolf mother — makes the kind of soppy in-your-face attempt at direct emotional appeal that reminds one of the worst of Disney, or Pixar. Of all of Moore’s works to date, the closest to being a dog.   

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — George C. Wolfe and producer Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play is appreciated best as a small-screen visualization of August Wilson’s play: sumptuously produced, beautifully cast, adequately directed. Viola Davis is a force of nature as the eponymous Ma: demanding ice-cold Cokes, constantly playing brinkmanship with her record producers, belting out one show stopping song after another — but the real revelation is Chadwick Boseman abandoning his noble Black Panther persona to play Levee Green, the talented self-destructive trumpeter barely hanging on to his position in Ma’s backup band.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things — Charlie Kaufman plays his intricate metaphysical narrative games as well as anyone, and on occasion hits emotional paydirt: the melancholy tang of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the brave Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) standing out in a sea of uniform faces in Anomalisa. I’m actually willing to follow Kaufman pretty far up the recesses of his convoluted ass but it would help (as in the case of Eternal Sunshine and Michel Gondry’s fluid filmmaking, and Anomalisa with its beautifully detailed sets and puppets) to give me something to look at, instead of enigmas and mysteries halfheartedly staged and shot.

The Invisible Man — Leigh Whannell’s slickest script (not a fan of of his gimmicky Saw franchise), this shift in focus from the eponymous man to his emotionally abused wife is great fun, despite the clunky plotting and inconsistencies (Looking at you Oh swiftly vanishing splash of white paint!). Helps in no small measure to cast Elisabeth Moss as the aforementioned wife: no one plays terrified and abused and yet — somehow, some way — steely-strong the way Ms. Moss does.

Rebecca (Ben Wheatley) — Blasphemy! How dare they do a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s beloved Oscar winning classic? Well, first of all, Oscars are a meaningless ritual; second, Mr. Hitchcock’s classic isn’t all that: too much interference from producer David Selznick, the master of middlebrow filmmaking (Mr. Hitchcock would do better six years later, with Notorious); third, Wheatley’s interpolations and smooth seductive style do make some kind of sense, until the disastrous Club Med ending. Oh well, there’s always the book.

Da 5 Bloods — Spike Lee’s Vietnam War movie corrective has five comrades go back into ‘Nam to recover lost CIA gold. The film is didactic and self-indulgently loud, the filmmaking characteristically exuberant; what lifts the proceedings to another level is DelRoy Lindo’s King Lear performance as a MAGA hat-wearing vet, haunted by ghosts he can’t exorcise.

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds — Werner Herzog’s documentaries and fiction features have always had a starry eyed faraway look, the awareness that none of this is all, that beyond the horizon is something different, perhaps better; his eyes have never seemed starrier or more faraway (though we never see him onscreen) then here, his oddball wide ranging documentary on meteorites. The rocks themselves are fascinating: Mr. Herzog serves them up as an array of exotic erotic aliens, spiked and pitted and barbarically beautiful, like the throbbing glowing crystalline virus in The Andromeda Strain only real, and not as unfriendly. Just as fascinating are the creation myths and death rituals and stories people create around these rocks — for every traveler from outer space, it seems, people come up with an even stranger explanation for the visit.

Japan Sinks (Masaaki Yuasa) — I’ve heard the complaints: the plot is too coincidental; the animation in certain episodes wretched; this isn’t the Mr. Yuasa we know and love. To which I say: it’s as coincidental as life itself (if you don’t think life’s coincidental you need to read up on probability); it’s what Yuasa managed with the budget given him by Netflix; and Mr. Yuasa’s style shifts radically with every production (if you haven’t learned that by now you aren’t a fan).

Beyond that there’s a mood captured not unlike these pandemic times: of empty streets, and the constant search for food and water; of families thrown together for survival; of the paranoid chill inspired by a stranger’s passing. Easily Mr. Yuasa’s most emotionally moving work, and a perfect metaphor for the disaster of a year that was 2020.

Emma — and sometimes you don’t want grim and realistic; sometimes you want the effervescence of Jane Austen, as interpreted by photographer and first-time feature filmmaker Autumn de Wilde, who envisions Austenland as a series of constantly shifting fireplace screens and stunningly shot tableaus, through which waddle a gaggle of scarlet-robed Margaret Atwood handmaidens. It’s comedy of the highest order, with Anya Taylor-Joy — she of the Margaret Keane eyes — at one point flicking open a carriage screen panel so sarcastically you can’t help but giggle.

Is it better than Amy Heckerling’s Clueless? Well, no — that transported Ms. Austen’s shallow but precisely observed world of early 19th century England to the shallow but precisely observed world of 1990s Beverly Hills high schools, a triumphant feat of reimagination, and my favorite Austen adaptation. This has a style and spirit all its own, though, and I’m thoroughly seduced.

Fan Girl — Antoinette Jadaone’s updated, more darkly comic take on Lino Brocka’s classic Bona, with real-life celebrity Paulo Avelino (acting as both star and producer) extravagantly slandering himself in an act of (presumably fictional) self-flagellation. Mr. Avelino is the draw, but Charlie Dizon gives the breakout performance: her acting here is fresh and exciting as she walks the line between pathos and comedy. Ms. Jadaone’s script gives both actors the chance to shine, her direction shifting from showbiz realism to fangirl fantasy, sometimes within the same scene.

We Still Have To Close Our Eyes — John Torres, maddeningly enigmatic as ever, taking footage from Lav Diaz, Dodo Dayao, and his own films, and fashioning a no-budget dystopia where “remote avatars” take over bodies and teach them how to ride motorbikes. Well that’s the idea; in the wrong hands — in the Philippines everything falls into the wrong hands — the bikers (or convicts, or, at one point, children) do worse. Cops rove the streets, seeking these remote controllers; at one point men push a motorbike out of the way while the rider, lying broken on the ground, stares lifelessly at the camera. All done in under 13 eerie evocative minutes.

Midnight in a Perfect World (Dodo Dayao) — I thought Violator one of the best of recent horrors; I think this sophomore effort proves that the originality and self-assured talent of that debut was no fluke. This time Mr. Dayao proposes a Philippine society of the future that works fairly well: clean rivers, on-time public transportation, and all. Only, why are there occasional “blackouts” from which two or three people disappear? And why are the creatures (Aliens? Interdimensional visitors a la Lovecraft?) so insistent on giving us a happy contented existence, producing healthier, happier, meatier versions of ourselves?

Lahi, Hayop (Genus Pan) — Lav Diaz using his spare leisurely storytelling style to tell an allegorical fable, of evolutionary development (or the relative lack of) and how we as a species have not developed much further than apes. A withering statement on present Philippine society.

First Cow — I liked Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff well enough; a gently eccentric Western that doesn’t even get to its first medium shot till a few minutes into the film and doesn’t get to its first closeup (of the film’s putative star, Michelle Williams) till nearly the film’s end. The film reminds one of John Ford’s Wagon Master though Ms. Reichardt doesn’t seem to want to emulate Ford; her concerns are stranger, otherworldly almost.

The film First Cow most resembles I’d say is McCabe and Mrs. Miller: the entrepreneurial spirit in a beautifully desolate Northwestern town, the random characters assembled seemingly out of nowhere — and, wait, is that Rene Auberjonois muttering to himself on the sidelines? Again, though Ms. Reichardt seemingly takes off from another old master (this one of more recent vintage), her concerns and obsessions are her own, in an elegantly told deliberately paced narrative.

Don’t know what it is about the Slavic sensibility — the bleak wintry landscapes, the equally bleak personalities, the long history of war, repression, suffering — that I seem to respond to what they have to say best, at least this year, under these circumstances. Hence my next two choices — one Russian, the other Czech — both in my book the best of 2020:

The Nose or The Conspiracy of Mavericks — Andrey Khrzhanovskiy’s 50-year quest to realize Nikolai Gogol’ bizarre short story onscreen, arguably the longest in the history (only The Other Side of the Wind with its 48-year gestation period comes close), has resulted in this, an often hilarious, wildly imaginative yet somehow timeless (critics would say anachronistic or worse yet inconsistent) work of art. I say the animation — using a mix of stop-motion and cut-outs — is breathtakingly done, with a whirling dizzying spirit matched only by Shostakovich’s whirling dizzying music.

The Painted Bird — Vaclav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel has been compared to Elem Klimov’s searing Come and See, but where the latter is a propulsive straight-ahead film about the atrocities inflicted by Nazis on the Belarusians, the latter is a sprawling, sometimes meandering narrative that goes on for nearly three hours. The horrors of Come and See revolve mainly around the Nazis with their distinct style of sadism: well-equipped, deadly efficient, marked by touches of black humor; The Painted Bird sketches a darker vision of the world, where Slavic peasants are as capable of cruelty — they just don’t have the equipment to get things done as quickly, though they do have the determination and imagination to improvise something just as ingenious. Come and See’s Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko) gave an extraordinary performance of nearly unrelieved intensity, his increasingly war-stressed face one of the most unforgettable images in recent cinema; The Painted Bird’s boy (Petr Kotlar) has a more ambiguous, altogether more mysterious presence: both in the thick of it all and yet somehow above it all, he somehow acts as both the film’s hardpressed protagonist and its cooly ironic commentator.

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