In the films she’s directed (Girlhood, Tomboy) and written with others (André Téchiné’s marvelous Being 17), Céline Sciamma has shown a fascination with the spaces that queer people can populate without the help of the larger world, thank you. As rigorous in its eroticism as its mise-en-scène, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is her most austere, most satisfying film. As Pauline Kael wrote about The Heiress, another period drama, it will have you drawing breaths.
“All I have are negative thoughts, and you won’t listen!” Arthur Fleck cries in the second film in less than twelve years about Batman’s most indelible foe. An origin story subject to the whims of Hollywood notions of pathology, Todd Phillips’ Joker often unfolds like a series of imaginative renderings of self-help books piled up in the acres of Barnes & Noble’s remaindered section. Now that the film is ensconced as a billion-dollar global smash, with Joaquin Phoenix a safe bet to take home Best Actor, I wanted another look at Joker. My distracted viewing last fall didn’t keep me from responding with at best bored revulsion.
Because its cultural moment has receded, I saw no point in an exegesis unless a generous donor paid me or Film Comment comes calling. Continue reading
Rare indeed is the Oscar ceremony in which two nominees for Best Picture look likely to survive in the files of the collective memory. Joker continues to impress men and women of all ages who, understandably, confuse histrionics, spectacle, and doleful cello noise with Serious Art, while the more people watch Parasite the louder its claque.
So which film will Academy members coronate on Sunday night? Why, a reproduction of trench warfare politics by the director of Skyfall and American Beauty.
See below for more predictions.
In 2001, Judy Davis put two decades of skill at playing observant women whose nerves rub against their considerable intelligence into her portrait of the title character in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. This TV film has no magic except for the steady vibration of Davis at its core; critics have noted how Uncut Gems unsettles them, but the observation makes more sense watching Life with… The problem with Judy (2019) is how it lacks moviemaking fervor without offering a compensatory pleasure watching good actors. No dictum prevents screenwriters from returning to worn material, but in the case of Judy, director Rupert Goold approached Tom Edge’s script and asked, “How can I make yet another movie about Garland as below average as possible?” Continue reading
As usual I avoid the obvious flops. Skewering prestige pictures strikes me as a more efficacious use of time.
5. Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas)
Every good director tries farce. Most fail.
4. All is True (Kenneth Branagh)
Kenneth Branagh as Shakespeare. “I thought ‘do no harm’ applied to films about great artists,” I wrote last May. “Desecrate the legacy if you must. Desecration takes courage. But for god’s sake don’t banalize the legacy.”
3. The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles)
In which we learn there’s nothing a phony liberal pope (Jonathan Pryce) and a radically conservative predecessor (Anthony Hopkins) can’t hash out over ABBA and futbol.
2. Bombshell (Jay Roach)
“As Bombshell slouches toward its triumphant conclusion the weariness it induces courses through the bloodstream like lead poisoning,” I wrote in December. “These are loathsome people, and their loathsomeness is uninteresting: they’re well-coiffed slobbos whom you’re likely to hear echoed at Christmas dinner. I didn’t revel in their comeuppance, nor did I appreciate Roach’s attempts to jazz up his torpid material with inquisitional closeups and characters addressing the camera; it amounts to confetti tossed around the room. Kelly wasn’t a martyr: the network by whose rules she played eliminated her when she wouldn’t.”
1. Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
Hitler Youth member Johann “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) has an imaginary pal: Der Fuhrer himself, a buffoonish Adolf played by writer-director Taika Waititi. In the process of watching his country lose another world war He Learns About Himself. Obvious, patronizing, and ineptly staged, Jojo Rabbit isn’t offensive because it uses Nazis for comedy: it’s offensive because its jokes, performances, and situations use Nazism for sentimental purposes that an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences member would keep several boxes of Kleenex for.
Late into this film about the Underground Railroad’s most famous “worker,” the title hero turns to a group of frightened slaves she’s “stolen” and taken North and announces, “I’m Harriet Tubman, leader of this group. You do what I say!” Aglow in a sympathetic close-up, Cynthia Erivo projects determination. Yet this scene should feel more triumphant; instead, like most of Kasi Lemmons’ well-intentioned film, it plays like a Academy Award flashcard. Crippled by the inexorable momentum of the standard biopic’s rhythms, Harriet never startles: a movie about Tubman without a sense of danger.
Even I gasped in my otherwise empty apartment when five white actresses, including Scarlet Johanssen and her mystifying accent in Jojo Rabbit, beat Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers, Park So-dam in Parasite, or Zhao Shuzhen in The Farewell to slots. In the category of Supporting Actor, as predicted, the Academy surrendered to the Slumming Stars. Worse, though, was shutting Greta Gerwig (Little Women) and Pedro Almodovar (Pain and Glory) from Best Director in favor of Sam Mendes (1917) and apparently somebody directed Joker. Because even I’m unable to resist dollar book Freud, I wonder if Kathy Bates replaced Lopez because the latter gives no fucks about white men except fleecing them out of money; to male Academy voters of a certain age, who’ve gone to a strip club or four in their lifetimes, she’s the most gruesome anti-hero.
The other news: Joker leads with eleven nomination; enough old Academy members thought The Two Popes a masterpiece of bipartisanship enough to grant Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce nominations; and Honeyland got Best Documentary and, uh, Best International Film nominations.
Finally, as much as my pedantic ear prefers the active voice construction “The branch nominates,” it sounds as if the Academy was engaging in politics, i.e. “Blame these people!”
Here the nominations through Best Documentary Feature: