Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Top 30 Films of 2017

From the incredible eighth episode of David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return
2017 was painful in a wholly different way from 2016. 2016 was painful like watching your house burn down or seeing something terrible befall a loved one. This year was painful too but in the way of a grueling workout after a period of sloth. You know it hurts but you also know the pain serves a purpose and is more desirable than feeling nothing at all. 

The first year under Trump offered many heartrending confirmations that our worst fears in 2016 were in no way hyperbolic. But it also offered some inspiring moments that offered balm to our bruised spirits. We saw the citizenry mobilize like never before. We saw our institutions resist the most outrageous of Bannon and Putin's designs. And finally we saw in the reddest state of the union proof that Trump's 2016 electoral college victory did not deliver the mandate he'd have us believe. 

This tumult seems to be invigorating our filmmaking because 2017 was quite a remarkable year. I've seen a few comments complaining about this not being a great year for film. All I can imagine is those holding that position must mean there were precious few prestige offerings from our elder statesmen filmmakers. This is a year largely free of the kind of Oscar bait that proclaims its importance and feels destined to win by consensus. In its place however are some startling films from new or first time filmmakers that fills me with a hope for the medium I haven't had since 1999. 

Of course, the big story of the year that unites politics and the cinema is The Reckoning. The long overdue fall of Harvey Weinstein has unloaded a tidal wave of truth that the masters of the industry (all industries, really) had thought they could bully into silence in perpetuity. There's always a cynicism at moments like these that says things don't change but today, as we stand at the threshold of a new year, it does appear that things have in fact changed or at least begun to do so permanently. Taking down the abusers who were vested with power to cover up their crimes is only the first step. The next one to be taken in 2018 (ironically the year that marks 20 years since the release of Shakespeare in Love which earned Harvey Weinstein his longed for Oscar) is to change the hiring practices once and for all so that the underrepresented get a chance to speak and the abusers no longer take for granted the firewall that protects their livelihood from the consequences of their abusive behavior. 

With all due respect to beloved filmmakers like Sam Fuller and Robert Altman (who rejected the good guy-bad guy dichotomy), 2017 was truly a year of heroes and villains. Heroes who stood up to power, villains who were corrupted by the power they spent decades accruing. Artistically speaking, there was a lot of heroism to be seen this year: there was Jordan Peele using a dismissed genre to speak powerfully to the social ills of our time; there was Pamela Adlon starring in and directing every episode of an amazing series while coping with the Shakespearean fall of her close collaborator; and there was Laura Dern who at 50 has finally emerged as one of our great actresses after surviving Ingenue Hell and the After Forty Gulag Hollywood offers to middle-aged women. But above them all stands David Lynch. 

Lynch turned in the single most important work of narrative art in 2017. His sequel to Twin Peaks is his definitive magnum opus. He was given the biggest canvas of his career to work on by Showtime (I'll keep my subscription until at least 2020 out of sheer gratitude) and created something extraordinary. Twin Peaks: The Return broke the hearts of a lot of fans of the original series. Lynch did not care to give them the pay off they thought they deserved or return to the quirky charms of the old show. He gave us something else. He used the town of Twin Peaks as a launching pad and took us to places we didn't know existed. He packed the entire spectrum of human emotion into certain episodes and fearlessly thwarted our desires in others. In an era of bingeing, he made us wait. He pushed the medium of television into the stratosphere usually reserved for cinema and rendered the distinction meaningless. I chose not to include Twin Peaks: The Return on my list below because at 18 hours it feels too expansive to rank alongside stories told over a fraction of that time. But make no mistake, David Lynch has thrown down the gauntlet to all filmmakers to tell wholly original, wholly personal stories and break out beyond the directorial playbook written by D.W. Griffith.

One director who took up that gauntlet already is Rian Johnson. His new installment of the Star Wars Saga is polarizing for all the right reasons: he's taking all the familiar characters, settings, themes, and story and giving it to us in a new and challenging way that makes us reconsider everything we know about the 40 year old franchise. It is not lost on me that this film is Episode VIII in the Star Wars Saga and the most radical and experimental episode of Twin Peaks: The Return was the 8th episode. Perhaps this bodes well for the year upon us which ends with that same magic number. 

1. Lady Bird - USA - d: Greta Gerwig
2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi - USA - d: Rian Johnson
3. Detroit - USA - d: Kathryn Bigelow
4. Faces Places - France - d: Agnes Varda & JR
5. BPM (120 Beats Per Minute) - France - d: Robin Campillo
6. The Square - Sweden - d: Ruben Östlund
7. Wormwood - USA - d: Errol Morris
8. Get Out - USA - d: Jordan Peele
9. The Post - USA - d: Steven Spielberg
10. My Happy Family - Georgia - d: Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Groß

11. A Quiet Passion - UK - d: Terence Davies
12. Logan - USA - d: James Mangold
13. Logan Lucky - USA - d: Steven Soderbergh 
14. Personal Shopper - France - d: Olivier Assayas
15. Graduation - Romania - d: Cristian Mungiu
16. Loveless - Russia - d: Andrey Zvyagintsev
17. Thor Ragnarok - USA - d: Taika Waititi
18. Call Me By Your Name - Italy - d: Luca Guadagnino
19. The Shape of Water - USA - d: Guillermo del Toro
20. Landline - USA - d: Gillian Robespierre

21. Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold - USA - d: Griffin Dunne
22. After the Storm - Japan - d: Hirokazu Kore-eda
23. Lady Macbeth - UK - d: William Oldroyd
24. Mudbound - USA - d: Dee Rees
25. Strong Island - USA - d: Yance Ford
26. Wind River - USA - d: Taylor Sheridan
27. The Florida Project - USA - d: Sean Baker
28. Okja - USA/Korea - d: Bong Joon-ho
29. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - USA/UK - d: Martin McDonagh
30. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) - USA - d: Noah Baumbach

Best Performances:
1. Laurie Metcalf - Lady Bird
2. Cynthia Nixon - A Quiet Passion
3. Kristin Stewart - Personal Shopper
4. Sally Hawkins - The Shape of Water
5. Florence Pugh - Lady Macbeth
6. Naomi Ackie - Lady Macbeth
7. Abby Quinn - Landline
8. Gal Gadot - Wonder Woman
9. Debra Winger - The Lovers
10. Beanie Feldstein - Lady Bird

1. Willem Dafoe - The Florida Project
2. Mark Hamill - Star Wars: The Last Jedi
3. Daniel Day-Lewis - Phantom Thread
4. Michael Keaton - Spider-Man: Homecoming
5. Harrison Ford - Blade Runner 2049
6. Andy Serkis - War for the Planet of the Apes
7. Adam Sandler - The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
8. Hugh Jackman - Logan
9. Woody Harrelson - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
10. Timothée Chalamet - Call Me By Your Name

The Acting Purple Heart: Garance Marillier for her commitment to her craft as seen in Raw. Fearless. 

The Nestor Almendros Color Cinematography Award: Roger Deakins for Blade Runner 2049.
First Runner-Up: Igor Martinovic & Ellen Kuras for Wormwood.
Second Runner-Up: Rachel Morisson for Mudbound.

The Howard Hawks Directing Award: Patty Jenkins for shaming everyone who thought a Wonder Woman film was a bad idea.

The Samson Raphaelson Screenwriting Award: Pamela Adlon & Louis C.K. for FX's Better Things.
Runner-up: David E. Kelly for his work on HBO's Big Little Lies.

The William Cameron Menzies Production Design Award: Mark Friedberg for Wonderstruck.
Runner-Up: Dennis Gassner for Blade Runner 2049.

The Theodora van Runkle Costume Design Award: Renée April for Blade Runner 2049.

The Masaru Sato Composing Award: Jonny Greenwood for Phantom Thread. 

The Margaret Booth Editing Award: Ronald Bronstein & Benny Safdie for Good Time.

The Alan Splet Sound Design Award: David Lynch, of course.

The David O. Selznick Producing Award: Megan Ellison put her money where her mouth was in making Detroit. The film will not yield a fortune nor critical accolades but it is a film that will be vindicated by time. 

Best Revival of the Year: Spike Lee for his inspired re-imagining of his debut feature, She's Gotta Have It for Netflix.

The Grant Tinker Television Award: Bruce Miller & Reed Morano for their bold adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Comeback of the Year: The human spirit. I know that's corny but we all deserve it after November 2016. 

On a personal note, this was a remarkable year for me. I freed myself from the last bits of red tape from my long sojourn in teacher hell, I taught briefly at the best school in the city and I finally made the leap to being an adjunct college instructor. Oh, and I made my second feature available for rental or purchase. May the next year be as rewarding for all of us as it was for me. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Toxic Fandom: What the Troubling Reaction to a New Star Wars Film Tells Us. [Spoiler-Free]

Fan rendering of Jacen Solo (l), Jaina Solo (center), and Anakin Solo.
I will never forget hearing that on the heels of a rather lackluster showing at the box office for his passion project Red Tails, George Lucas was selling Lucasfilm and all the intellectual property that went with it to Disney because my immediate response afforded me a rare instance of infallible precognition.

"Here comes Episodes 7, 8, and 9" I said. And of course, I was right. When George Lucas first hatched the idea for Star Wars, it immediately began growing prodigiously in his mind like some sort of enchanted fauna from a fairy tale. It went from one story to a trilogy to two trilogies. And by the time Star Wars was released it had somehow leaked into geek common knowledge that the film and its sequel were but the centerpieces of a saga that consisted of three trilogies: the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy, and the Sequel Trilogy. I very clearly remember being a kid and having my cousin explain the Prequel Trilogy to me (and I know it was before Empire Strikes Back when he did because his explanation involved Obi-Wan and Luke's father meeting a young Darth Vader in the second film, rather than Luke's father becoming Darth Vader).

When Lucas wrapped up his Prequel Trilogy he dashed the hopes of many a geek by declaring he had no intention of ever making the Sequel Trilogy. This did not surprise me one iota, as I had already known for some time that Anakin/Darth had supplanted Luke as Lucas' alter-ego quite a while ago and if the series no longer focused on saving the soul of Anakin Skywalker then it simply held no allure for its creator.

But Capitalism finds a way. The billions to be harvested from a Sequel Trilogy would not be left to lay fallow in the fields. Not even the creator of Star Wars had the power to stop that Force. And so he sold, grew his personal fortune to over $5 billion, and Disney immediately set out to begin work on the new films.

As I write this, Episode VIII, entitled Star Wars: The Last Jedi, has just come off a stunning first weekend that grossed almost half of a billion dollars worldwide. Reviews have been pretty enthusiastic. And yet, another story has taken root having to do with the film's low audience score on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. When this score emerged on Thursday night it was regarded with surprise and curiosity. And then on social media the haters began venting their spleen about the new film.

Let's note that this is the first Star Wars film to be written and directed by one person who isn't George Lucas. When it was announced that Rian Johnson would be earning this distinction it indicated an unusual vote of high confidence in Johnson from the new lords of Lucasfilm, chief among them producer Kathleen Kennedy. Rather than the typical blockbuster designed by committee, this promised to be that rarest of creatures: a very big film that was also a singular vision.

We were warned that this Star Wars film would be a departure, something unlike any episode that had come before it. But for a minority of fans that warning was a call to arms. Let's be clear: The Last Jedi is a film like all films and therefore subject to any reactions from cheers to jeers. And the film itself can be criticized on many levels, but what do we make of fans burning their Star Wars t-shirts, and demanding an apology from Lucasfilm or a do over?

What it says to me is the time has arrived to have a conversation about what it means to be a fan. This moment has been coming for a long time. In this particular fandom, it bears mentioning that the first shot may have been fired when the new Lucasfilm announced that they were liquidating the Expanded Universe. For non-SW geeks, that means the company announced that the decades worth of stories (specifically those set after the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, wherein our heroes help build the Second Republic and confront those who would revive the Empire and/or the Dark Side of the Force) written by novelists and comic book writers were to be effectively erased so that filmmakers like Johnson and J.J. Abrams could approach the Sequel Trilogy as a tabula rasa, not be beholden to characters and events written by legions of writers since 1983. What this meant is that self-designated Star Wars superfans wouldn't be able to approach the Sequel Trilogy with insider information. They'd journey to the new films seated in coach with the rest of us.

Fan reaction in some quarters was quite volatile. Star Wars nerds had spent decades reading about Jacen and Jaina Solo, the twin Jedis that came from the marriage of Leia and Han (along with their younger third child Anakin Solo). They knew of Luke's struggle with the Dark Side and the love interest he'd eventually find in that struggle. And suddenly, Kathleen Kennedy blithely destroyed that in one fell swoop.

Of course, she destroyed nothing. Those stories are still there. But she used her power as the head of Lucasfilm to demote the entire Expanded Universe from semi-canonical to fan fiction. To understand the rage this generated, one has to consider the way fandom can curdle into toxic masculinity. If you are denied status in most mainstream endeavors in life, your stature within a fandom can become the pedestal upon which your fragile sense of self rests. Geekdom is a community but it is also an arena. It can become a place to prove you know more than others and are therefore better than others. And that superiority comes from consuming as much ephemera as possible and being able to outdo your fellow geeks at every turn.

Fan theories are another manifestation of this phenomenon and bear special mention. Creators of science-fiction and fantasy have always wanted an active, engaged fanbase. But fan theories have turned genre storytelling from an aesthetic or intellectual experience into a game. And games only have winners and losers. So when those fan theories prove to be nothing more than theories, fans who watered and tended to them for years like bonsai trees feel angry and betrayed. Or they are proven correct and they feel somehow they are now part of the creative team.

As this kind of geekdom enters middle-age, we've also begun to see that some fans feel that their devotion (it's amazing geeks haven't adopted some sort of belt system as in martial arts) entitles them to ownership. Cosplay, fan fiction, conventions, social media, podcasting, all of it is harmless on its own. But tie it to toxic masculinity that constantly needs an Other to best and suddenly fanaticism around pop culture looks similar to religious or nationalist fervor.

[I saw this coming in 2010. Read this, my review of Tron: Legacy which foretells the rise of toxic fandom.]

We've seen critics get death threats from geeks and have to go into hiding; we've seen patently absurd conspiracy theories take root to explain why one group's franchise of choice gets poorly reviewed. And we've seen GamerGate.

Someday, it seems inevitable that violence will happen because some geek disagreed with a review or an interpretation of their favorite character. The pressure cooker of self-importance, fury, and machismo that geekdom has become makes it just a matter of time.

So who owns Star Wars? Lucasfilm, of course. But our impotent and angry geeks believe they own it too because of the lifetime (and specifically time and money) they've devoted to it. It's not that The Last Jedi is a perfect film beyond criticism. It's that the fury it has engendered is completely absurd until you view it from two depressing perspectives.

First: geekdom is inherently reactionary. It is backward thinking. It is fixated on a glorious past. It is built on the idea that mastery of what has come before is the only metric for "true" fandom that matters. It is also built on vertical hierarchy rather than lateral co-existence. Therefore, regardless of how left-wing most science fiction is, the fandom acquires a right-leaning edge.

Second: this is the most diverse Star Wars that's ever been made (although I'm still waiting to see Billy Dee Williams' Lando reappear). It also contains the idea that the typically male heroics that usually act as an engine in genre films may not be as important as listening to a smarter, older, more experienced woman.

So if you take these two ideas as filters through which to look at Star Wars: The Last Jedi in Trump's America, the backlash seems hardly out of place (the backlashers appear to be mostly, if not all, white dudes).

"BURN IT ALL DOWN" is the true chant of the Trump Era, not "Make America Great Again." And the backlash against Episode VIII grows from this. Just as the Trump voter gives voice to this idea when faced with a woman president or a minority-majority America, so it goes in geekdom. Women are participating in and creating geek culture like never before. Men of color are no longer content to be sidekicks. So these Make-The-Force-Great-Again geeks are on the offensive. There's even some suspicion bots are being employed to tank the audience rating of The Last Jedi.

Meanwhile, the backlash is but a sad footnote. The Last Jedi will become one of the all-time great moneymakers in film. But this small and furious minority will continue to use social media to inflate their numbers and importance. As in politics, the problem of the 21st century seems to be resisting a new apartheid, a tyrannical rule of the minority; and the struggle in geekdom will continue to parallel the larger struggle in the American body politic. The Star Wars Saga is all about political struggle against a reactionary toxic masculinity, and I suspect the films will continue to give hope to those who are against toxic geekdom as witnessed by the the touching ubiquity of Princess Leia's image at the Women's Marches in January.

UPDATE: since initially posting this article, an "alt-right" group has come forward to take credit for tanking TLJ's audience score on Rotten Tomatoes for avowedly patriarchal & white supremacists reasons. Read about it here.

Also, racist vandalism was found on the Wookipedia page dedicated to Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico character. Read about it here if you're not already depressed enough.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Casualties of Time: 10 Filmmakers & Trends That Never Made It Out of the 1990s

When you are born at the very beginning of a decade, it means the decades line up exactly with your own ten year intervals. Being born in 1971, the 1970s were my childhood, the 1980s were my adolescence, etc. I think this has shaped how I view time profoundly. I definitely put stock in decades more than many because the turning of the decades has matched big transitions in my life.

Your 20s are a precious thing. In our delayed adulthood society, one’s 20s are a wonderland where adulthood and youth circle one another but never totally touch. You have the freedoms of both an adult and, unless you marry or procreate early, you’re completely unencumbered by huge responsibilities. I realize this isn’t true for everyone. But I spent most of my 20s in academia (something I am literally paying for now) so that time was one of self-discovery and liberation.

The 1990s were a great time to be in your 20s. It was a curious decade, something of a middle child of history. It was the era between the Cold War and the War on Terror. It was a time of prosperity, relative peace (with apologies to Bosnia and Rwanda), and above all, hope. The 1990s were the twilight of the American Century and it was the (beginning of the) end of a time when Americans were confident the future would be better than now. Even the haters of President Clinton were optimistic.

For me, the 1990s will always be about the cinema. It was the first decade where I could spend as much time as I wanted in the dark, watching movies (to this day, 1990s television is a hole in my prodigious TV consumption because I spent the whole decade in the streets, or in school, or in the movies). After the cinematic drought of the 1980s, the 90s were a boom time for cinema. As a film student in the 1990s it really seemed like anything was possible. Independent cinema was exploding. The major studios were creating indie subsidiaries. We all believed we’d have a deal within years of taking our master’s degrees. But the year 2000 changed everything. As soon as George W. Bush appeared, it was all over. We went from Being John Malkovich to Gladiator.

For my whole life, a 20 year interval meant a decade came back into fashion. It started in the 1970s: that decade saw a backwards looking trend to the 1950s. Given the instability that marked the late 1960s and early 1970s, this is entirely understandable. By the 1980s, the 1960s were all the rage. And the 1990s saw the rehabilitation of the 1970s, a decade mercilessly mocked throughout the Reagan Era.

So where are the 1990s? I am told it is currently making a comeback in the fashion world, but the 1990s has yet to take hold of the present the way the 1970s did in the 90s. There are a few reasons for this. For one, I don’t think any previous decade will ever reanimate the way they did between 1970 and 2010 (the 1980s did have a rebirth in the early 2000s but to a lesser degree than earlier flashback trends). I think we have become such a radically of-the-moment culture there is no room for sustained nostalgia for one particular moment. Also, the 1990s themselves were already so shaped by 1970s nostalgia it doesn’t offer a lot for contemporary people to look back to. It has all become pastiche now: a little from this era, a little from that era.

It would be overstatement to call the 1990s a lost decade but I don’t think its signifiers will get their moment today the way 70s stars got a second act in the 90s.

So who are these lost figures and trends of the 1990s? The following are filmmakers and trends that, whether surprisingly or not, never made it out of the 1990s. This is not a knock on anyone. Longevity isn’t accorded to everyone’s celebrity. That doesn’t diminish it, some people just have their moment and some have a longer span.

1. Atom Egoyan

The Egyptian-born Armenian-Canadian was the definitive arthouse darling in the 90s. He won international film festival awards, got Oscar nominations, and always threatened to become a mainstream sensation. But a series of disappointments in the 2000s dealt Egoyan a stinging reversal of fortune. What’s most baffling is Egoyan’s preoccupation with alienation (and how technology furthers our isolation while seeming to cure it) was ahead of its time and very relevant now.

2. New Queer Cinema

A victim of its own success, the Queer Cinema of the 90s, as exemplified by producer Christine Vachon and directors Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, Marlon Riggs, and Gregg Araki, doesn’t exist because it successfully acted as a beachhead in an aggressively homophobic period. There is an argument that segregation can be beneficial to a minority, giving it a space to figure itself out and encourage its voices to sing. The filmmakers of this movement have largely found mainstream acceptance, and with a miniseries recently on network TV on the history of the LGBT movement, it is easy to say that New Queer Cinema changed not only film, but also the world.

3. Mohsen Makhmalbaf

The Soviet Union was our undisputed chief antagonist in the 1980s but in second or third place, depending on the year, there was Iran. Though their filmmakers had to work under onerous censorship, Iranian filmmakers in the 1990s began dominating the world cinema scene with their neo-realist influenced filmmaking. Two figures emerged as the big names, Abbas Kiarostami (who passed away last year after making his final films in exile) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum likened their relationship to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky with Kiarostami as the former and Makhmalbaf resembling the latter of the Russian masters. I quickly found myself on Team Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami was lofty, stately, universal, but Makhmalbaf had a nervous urgency that spoke to me in my 20s. He also had tremendous range: he could craft folk tales imbued with magic realism and make films that were so realistic they felt like documentaries. Makhmalbaf tried to turn his family into something of a cinematic Wu-Tang Clan. His daughters and wife all directed films with his guidance and this dissipation of focus slowed down his output. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan gave him his biggest film in the West. Kandahar arrived just as the name meant something to Americans and they turned up to learn something about the region that was now dominating the news. He has continued to make films in exile but none of had the impact of his films during Iranian Cinema’s 90s Golden Age.

4. Taiwanese Cinema

The other world cinema powerhouse of the 1990s was Taiwan. Just as Iran was dominated by Kiarostami & Makhmalbaf (with the younger Jafar Panahi rounding out the trinity), Taiwan had Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (with the younger Tsai Mingliang rounding out that trinity). Taiwan made it a priority to support its homegrown cinema in the 90s, but as the economy struggled and Hollywood took over more and more screens, the momentum was lost. Hou continues to make films but he no longer inspires near-religious awe in cinephiles as he once did (like so many Asian auteurs, he recently had to surrender to the market and make his martial arts film). Edward Yang died of cancer in 2007 but his final film Yi Yi is a masterpiece that serves as a fitting coda for Taiwan’s cinematic hot streak.

5. Linda Fiorentino

She first appeared in the 1980s but the actress became a staple of 90s American Indie Cinema. Her turn in The Last Seduction (the 90s was obsessed with mimicking film noir) as a femme fatale made her one of the many 90s “it girls”. Hard to say what happened. She is an actress so aging always threatens career longevity. I know (from first hand accounts) she could be difficult to work with but you can never tell what that means where actresses are concerned. I don’t think there is anything particularly 90s about her that precluded continued career growth in the new century, but in any case, her work dwindled in the 2000s. Perhaps she will make her comeback in the years to come. Her persona, the woman unafraid to look you in the eye and tell the truth with a hint of sarcasm, could sharpen beautifully with age.

6. Alan Rudolph

The one-time Robert Altman protégé was a fixture in the 1980s and 1990s at the arthouse. Rudolph made slick, jazzy films for grownups. He also made films with one eye eternally on the past but not the past of history books; but instead, the romantic past of novels that may never have truly existed in the first place. Like so many of the filmmakers on this list, his final credit is around 2002 (the first years of a decade always truly belong to the decade before). According to IMDB he has a film in post-production starring Sondra Locke (!!!) but when it will surface, no one knows.

7. Matty Rich

You’ve probably heard his story before. At the tender of age of 19, Rich exploded on the scene with his autobiographical take on inner city struggle Straight Out Of Brooklyn. He brashly crowed about dropping out of film school after a week before making his film (“And it shows” observed Spike Lee). And brasher still, in an act of Oedipal lunacy, Rich attacked Spike Lee, dismissing him as a bourgeois pretender when it came to delivering the “authentic Black Experience”. One could argue that only young white men are allowed to survive such vainglorious obnoxiousness, one could also argue that white men rarely set themselves up for disaster with such public braggadocio. In either case, after a second film (a film that still has its fans), Rich’s filmmaking career came to an abrupt end. The 1990s, like the 1970s before them, were a Golden Age for Black Culture though many like Rich or Love Jones auteur Theodore Witcher contributed to that moment and disappeared when the moment ended.

8. Alexandre Rockwell

In The Soup debuted with a bang at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival winning the (dramatic) Grand Jury Prize. If memory serves, it instantly became a cautionary tale as the film walked away from the festival without a deal after holding out too long for a bigger offer. “Don’t Soup it” became the admonishment for years after when a filmmaker held to unrealistic demands so rigidly that it threatened the film’s long range prospects. The film, a French New Wave-influenced black & white comedy starring a young Steve Buscemi (along with Cassavetes stalwart Seymour Cassel), as an aspiring filmmaker in love with his single mom immigrant neighbor (played by Jennifer Beals, Rockwell’s then-wife) and trying to realize his dream of becoming a great filmmaker. I wasn’t a big fan of ITS back then and I wonder if time has given it a charm I didn’t see back then. Rockwell’s film wasn’t just a movie, it became a genre. Scores of films followed In The Soup and you can still see films employing its formula today. After another quirky indie drama, Rockwell joined forces with other mid-90s festival darlings Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, & Allison Anders to create the anthology comedy Four Rooms. Rockwell’s entry is the worst, but the film itself is a bit of a disaster- a teetering monument to ego, youthful self-indulgence, and a declaration of independence. The director, banished to American gulag ever since the excesses of Cimino & Friedkin, was back. But Rockwell fared the worst of the four. He fell out with Tarantino and his films never again captured the attention they once did. He has four credits since 2002 but I’ve never heard of them. Unlike fellow 90s directorial one-hit wonder Nick Gomez, Rockwell has resisted transitioning to television. He remains an auteur, on his own terms.

9. Peter Greenaway

I met him when he came to town to do press for his 1996 film The Pillow Book. He was fun to talk to. He was as witty, caustic, erudite as you would expect (he told a story about Cronenberg that suggested Dead Ringers was a blatant rip off of A Zed & Two Noughts). Like Egoyan, Greenaway’s decline in the 2000s seems counter-intuitive because his style of filmmaking and interest in employing multiple platforms seems perfect for our multimedia present. When I met him he talked a lot about his planned magnum opus, The Tulse Luper Suitcases. It was a sprawling epic about 20th century history that would play in theaters, the Internet, television, and as a novel all simultaneously. The project was realized, although not on the scale initially envisioned, but Greenaway has never regained the place he once held. Undoubtedly this is partly because the world has changed, has less patience for someone so experimental. Perhaps Greenaway’s penchant for trashing 98% of contemporary filmmaking & filmmakers has also had an effect. Greenaway persists, but the 90s brought just the right conditions for him to become a fixture of the Miramax Era.

10. Wong Kar-Wai

Far better writers than I have analyzed the auteur who worked in the genre heavy Hong Kong film industry and managed to create his own unique blend of romantic personal storytelling when John Woo-style action was king. Wong, along with his masterful cinematographer Christopher Doyle, was brought to the West by Quentin Tarantino who was dazzled by his diptych film Chungking Express. Wong was on fire in the 1990s, churning out a dizzying succession of singular creations that fused visual poetry with genre (until he decided to jettison genre altogether). The 1990s saw Wong build up to his best work. By 1997 he won the Best Director Award at Cannes for Happy Together and in 2000 he released what for many is his crowning achievement In The Mood For Love. Since then, with the decline of the Hong Kong film industry after Chinese reunification, Wong has been rudderless. He made short films (his BMW short is pure poetry) and I suspect if short films were more respected Wong could focus on them and do amazing work. He made an English language film but the magic wasn’t there. Wong continues to work (he and Doyle have parted company) but the 90s was his time. Like his characters, we can yearn in the meantime for a return to form but his influence lives on (our recent Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight owes much to Wong).

The 1990s continue to leave its mark on cinema. The decade gave us Tarantino, Rodriguez,  Linklater, Wes Anderson, Jon Favreau, Doug Liman, Paul Thomas Anderson but it also gave us Hal Hartley (I didn’t forget him) and other distinctive voices that perhaps don’t resonate like they once did. We often judge artists by longevity, but that isn’t the only metric. Perhaps it’s better to judge an artist by the impact they had on their moment, even if that moment has passed.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Battle of the Redheads: How Ageism and Patriarchy Have Damaged The Best Actress Oscar

If you have spent enough time with me you will hear my pet theories. Some of them are young, some are decades old. I shared my take on George Lucas’ shifting identification from Luke Skywalker to Darth Vader and how it ruined the Star Wars Saga with my wife on one of our first dates. Another theory revolves around how the true subject of Godfather Part III, should’ve been Michael Corleone masterminding the assassination of President Kennedy.

But the theory I am most prone to share revolves around the predictable voting patterns of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Once again, the category of Best Actress in a Leading Role was the most safe bet of the 2017 Oscar pool. The Academy, famously made up of largely old white men (though that is changing), always gives acting awards along the same patterns. For men: pretty boys need not apply. Hunky, handsome dreamboats, irrespective of their talent, don’t win Oscars (40 is the magic number, handsome men can win once the crow’s feet and gray hair show up). For women: cute, young women always win. Meryl is the only wild card (she can sometimes overcome this tendency).

I can already hear the MRA types nodding, as if this tendency shows how men are the real victims of sexism. Let me quickly reject this view. Yes, the tendency to vote this way does unfairly hurt handsome male actors under 40 (sorry, Fassbender), but that’s because patriarchy hurts men as well as women. One of the dazzling aspects of Mad Max: Fury Road was how it understood that toxic masculinity damages men in different but no less poisonous ways than the ways it hurts women, quite literally in the case of the tumor-ridden warboys who made a religion out of dying too young.

Last month’s Academy Awards were a perfect example. Natalie Portman had once been viewed as the favorite but Pablo Larrain’s direction of Jackie proved to be too off-puttingly artsy for the Academy. Plus Portman had already been a beneficiary of the Academy’s cute young thing sweepstakes. Ruth Negga was nominated for the little seen Loving, but the paucity of other nominations for Jeff Nichols’ film doomed her nomination. And then there was Meryl, nominated for another little-seen, under-nominated film.

It was clear the Best Actress Oscar was really between two redheaded actresses: American Emma Stone, 28, and from France, Isabelle Huppert, who turns 64 today. This matchup brought a smile to my face because I knew it would once again prove my theory correct. Indeed, Stone was triumphant though Huppert, who had won a Golden Globe in January and an Independent Spirit Award the night before, gave the younger actress a run for her money.

Emma Stone, it should be said, is a fine actress. But Huppert is beyond that. Aside from her body of work which goes back to the 1970s and contains scores of great performances, Huppert is an auteur. That is to say, when you see a film starring Huppert, you know it will reflect her sensibilities as much as the director’s. Paul Verhoeven, the iconoclastic director behind the film for which Huppert was nominated, confessed that Huppert self-directed herself and made her own choices where her character was concerned. Verhoeven is not exactly a shrinking violet as a director but he knew that working with Huppert entailed a true collaboration of equals, not the typical director-actor hierarchy.

By this score alone, Huppert should have won: many other actresses could have played Emma Stone’s part in La La Land without changing the movie significantly, but without Huppert Elle cannot exist. There is no other actress alive that could pull off the character at the heart of Elle or her make choices believable. The depiction of rape won Elle many enemies, but regardless of your feelings about Verhoeven’s take on rape, Huppert’s performance is a triumph.

Huppert may not have won the big prize (this was her first Academy Award nomination ever, which is shocking) but she certainly received plenty of accolades for being the most formidable and fearless film actress on the planet. I can also attest to Huppert’s stage bonafides as I saw her perform Sarah Kane’s Psychosis 4:48 at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA. Huppert stood onstage alone for 100 minutes nearly immobile and was utterly riveting.

This kind of performance speaks volumes about Huppert. She does things that would terrify almost any other actor and does them with inimitable cool. The Oscar clip for Emma Stone offered a striking contrast. When I saw this moment in La La Land, I knew this would be the clip played when her name was called at the Academy Awards. In it her character, at her personal and professional nadir, confesses to her boyfriend that maybe she has been fooling herself like the rest of the doomed hopeful legions who come to Hollywood filled with big dreams. He tells her she is wrong but her huge expressive eyes indicate that she isn’t buying it. I can’t really imagine Huppert playing this scene, even as a young woman. This scene, which earned Stone the Oscar isn’t in Huppert’s vocabulary.

Though diminutive in stature, Huppert is the kind of woman that terrifies Hollywood. Icy, confident, unapologetic, Huppert has no place in the universe created by American filmmakers (a few exceptions: David O. Russell and Hal Hartley worked with her in the last 20 years and she was in the late Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate- she sat next to her co-star from that film, Jeff Bridges, on Oscar night). Terrifying is the last word that comes to mind when thinking about Emma Stone. So even though Huppert’s distinguished career exceeds Stone’s lifetime, and even though hers is a singular and seasoned talent, Huppert lost to the charming ingenue.

But we knew this would happen. Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow won for Shakespeare in Love in 1999, the Academy has rarely missed an opportunity to fête a blushing pretty young (white) woman who has shown some talent. The numbers speak for themselves: since Paltrow, the number of women under 40 who have won the Best Actress trophy is at 71% (14 out of 19). Eight out of that 19 were under 30 when they won the award (that’s 42%). Meanwhile the youngest man to ever win Best Actor, Adrien Brody in 2003, was 29 when he won. He is the only twentysomething to win Best Actor. Ever. Going backwards in time, the next youngest Best Actor winner was Richard Dreyfuss who won at age 30 in 1978. And neither would count as a pretty boy (Brody’s win was a shocker and likely only happened because his competitors Cage, Nicholson, and Day-Lewis split the vote).

Looking over the list of Best Actor and Best Actress winners, it will come as no shock that the women on average are younger than their male counterparts, but this trend has intensified in the last 18 years. And yes, there are exceptions (Helen Mirren, Julianne Moore) but nevertheless the trend is there. As for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, the male actors skew older but the women are more ethnically diverse and not nearly so ingenue heavy. Clearly the Academy has a very different approach to the two actress categories.

So what do we do with this knowledge? For one thing I think this noxious combine of patriarchy and ageism has to be added to the list of grievances that fit under the hashtag movement #OscarsSoWhite. That bit of clicktivism has been incredibly effective and moved the needle, but clearly more needs to be done. And discussing this trend in the awards leads us to the more important discussion: why can’t our 64 year old lionesses get parts as juicy as Huppert gets? Of course the answer is rooted in our culture, our misogyny, and the Death of Adulthood. But change is possible.

Standing outside all of this is Kristen Stewart. Surely she must know that all she’d need to do is star in the next earnest romcom with festival cred and she too would be cradling the Oscar, but she isn’t interested in playing that game, clearly. Like Brando, Stewart was doubtlessly offered a look inside a studio machinery that filled her with such revulsion she ran away and never stopped running.

Like a lot of people I dismissed Stewart as vacant and dull, but she’s acquitted herself in a succession of fine performances, two for no less than French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. Stewart should be commended for seeking out challenging work with auteur filmmakers but I suspect doing work she cares about is reward enough. She’s won a Best Supporting Actress Cesar Award in France (the first American actress to do that) but has thus far received no Oscar nominations. My guess is Stewart will hear her name called someday but if it isn’t right away that’s probably for the better. Winning the top acting honor at a young age can be a burden. We’ll see how Emma Stone manages it. If she’s lucky, she’ll find herself collaborating with directors the way Huppert did with Verhoeven. That power can’t be endowed with an award, it comes from creating a body of work that towers above everyone else’s and saying “yes” to parts that everyone else says “no” to. We can’t know today which young actress will achieve Huppert’s master status 40 years from now, but if the bet is between Stone and Stewart I think I know whom I’d put my money on.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Get Out, Logan, and the Persistence of Genrephobia

This past weekend, the number one film was a perfect specimen of Hollywood’s new paradigm. I have not seen the latest attempt to bring King Kong into the 21st century, so I cannot comment on its quality. It is directed by a young white male director whose only previous feature credit is a coming-of-age story that premiered at Sundance. This strategy of pairing newbie directors with hoary properties is Hollywood’s newfound religion. It has produced mixed results. I like to imagine the bewilderment golden age producers like David O. Selznick would express over this current state of affairs.

But the big story of this still young year are the wild successes of two genre pictures that offer lessons the movie business is loath to learn. The first thing that unites them is both films are focused, specific, and adopt a minimalist approach to their subject. These films work because they try to do one thing, not everything, and they don’t try to wow us with spectacle. The second lesson is simpler still but nevertheless, often rejected.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out and James Mangold’s Logan have plenty of differences. One is original, the other is the 10th film of a loosely grouped cycle. Both were released by major studios but Peele’s film (his first feature after a successful TV comedy series and last year’s action pastiche Keanu) cost around $5 million whereas Logan cost just under $100 million. That last sum is vast but for a studio superhero film that’s a low budget film.

Both films made a lot of money in their first weekend. Logan made its budget back, Get Out made 6 times its budget that first weekend and has gone on to cross the $100 million mark. And once again, people marveled that genre films can be more than just diverting entertainment.

Peele’s horror film especially was met with near-disbelief that a horror film could also have something to say. Fans of horror have been quick to point out that this is absolutely nothing new. Horror has always been about real things. Confronting what we’re afraid of is serious business. And from the beginning of storytelling, we have always told stories that tap into our greatest fears. It is easy to forget what horror is capable of when so much of it is so poorly done and aims so low. But the moment Night of the Living Dead cruelly dispatched its Black hero by having racist lawmen kill him as a matter of reflex (a stunning moment slyly invoked with the final scene of Get Out) it should have become clear that horror is no less capable of reaching the grand level of art as any earnest parable made by Stanley Kramer.

Night of the Living Dead came out at the tail end of 1968. So why do we still treat genre filmmaking and literature as second class? From whence does this middlebrow instinct emerge and why is it so persistent? It should be said that most genre filmmaking/fiction is not, by and large, good. The expectations that create a framework all too often reduce storytelling to paint by numbers. Genre storytelling is looked at as comfort food because we know what to expect before the story even begins. At its worst, genre storytelling feels entrepreneurial, like an investment scheme determined to see a return; and this offends the earnest sensibility of the middlebrow.

Genre may be a vulgar mode of storytelling but when you really come down to it, perhaps genre storytellers are simply more honest and upfront about their intentions. They want you to invest in their story based on the genre, and when the story itself is executed badly, without any personality or originality, the result is indefensible. But it’s unfair to suggest all genre storytellers are the same. Some try to sneak in just a little originality or social commentary while taking care to give the audience the sex and/or violence it dutifully shows up for. But then we have the category Get Out falls in, where the filmmaker clearly is utilizing a genre for a range of reasons.

Peele brilliantly taps into the anxieties and fears that come with being Black in modern America. Get Out works because he clearly loves the genre (he doesn’t treat horror as simply a vehicle for his exploration of race), while simultaneously filling the genre with themes that resonate with him. That’s the tightrope Peele successfully walks. I initially thought Get Out, which invokes the paranoia of crypto-Jewish narratives crafted by Ira Levin and Stanley Kubrick, was effective but instantly dated. The Obama era is over. As elected members of Congress increasingly become comfortable using white nationalist rhetoric, the threat of white liberalism almost seemed quaint. But, as my brilliant wife pointed out, the election of Trump actually serves Get Out well. The paranoia that fuels the film has become even more profound as we process how many of our white neighbors, co-workers, and family might have voted for a man in spite of the fact that he gleefully turned racist dog whistles into air horns. They smile, they give us small talk, they voted for Obama even, but what exactly are they capable of? The horror of Get Out is mined from that question.

Hugh Jackman’s final outing with the claws is not as overtly political but the degree to which the future Logan imagines seems like a post-Trump America is well, uncanny. This is an America that long ago did away with hope or lofty ambitions. This America is about survival. The borders are filled with deportees, casinos have terraformed every Red State city into an ersatz Vegas, and big faceless entities tower over the lives of regular people. It’s striking that the grandest feat of computer generated imagery in Logan is not dedicated to awesome spectacle, but instead comes in the rendering of gargantuan farming robots, seen from a distance, that symbolize the futility of one farming family’s attempt to sustain itself.

Something terrible has happened. Actually many terrible things have happened. The X-Men are all dead, the mansion is gone, and Logan ekes out a living as an Uber driver while caring for a dementia-addled Professor X with help from the mutant detector Caliban. Borrowing from Alfonso Cuaron’s nearly-prophetic Children of Men, mutants have stopped being born and the man who was once Wolverine grapples with the reality that he is the last of his kind. Until he realizes he isn’t the last. He is given the charge of a young girl with powers suspiciously like his own and embarks on a cross country trek with cybernetically enhanced mercs dogging their heels (from the U.S.-Mexico border up to the Canadian border, not unlike the path taken in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey).

One of the breathtaking details of Logan is the detail that the titular mutant is carrying a bullet made of the same unbreakable alloy that has been fused to his skeleton and is likely killing him slowly. Superheroes are expected to make grand sacrifices for the rest of us, and sometimes that includes taking on missions that all but guarantee their demise. But that’s not why Logan is carrying that bullet. He’s carrying it because he wants to die.

This immediately brought to my mind Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon which was released almost 30 years to the day that Logan hit the theaters. I know this because when I saw Lethal Weapon during its opening weekend I was one week into my new life of being a son without a father. I’ll never forget the jaw-dropping moment when Martin Riggs, established in the previous scene as a uniquely dangerous individual with an almost preternatural skill at killing that he can barely control, puts his gun to his head. I had just lost my father a week earlier to suicide.

It was quite a moment for me. It was not a moment I was prepared for. I had been watching action films for a few years at that point and I thought I knew what to expect. But at that moment Shane Black, the screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, crossed a line. A suicidal hero violated the expected machismo of the 1980s action film. Riggs doesn’t pull the trigger but he weeps, holding his dead wife’s photo to his face. What Shane Black did could be looked at as violating the rules of the action film genre, but I think what he did was show us that the genre was more elastic than we ever thought. He showed us that an action film could own the fact that the hero’s derring-do might be a cry for help as much as sign of strength because deep down, we had suspected that some of our heroes might not be the most mentally/spiritually sound individuals.

So rather than leave the theater shaken or upset by what I’d seen, I was somewhat agog over the fact that something as entertaining as Lethal Weapon could also deal with something as serious as suicide. My personal life and my passion had converged.

Learning that Logan is considering suicide isn’t as shocking as Martin Riggs’ attempt but it owes a debt to it. Shane Black’s script changed forever what an action film could do and I think we’ll see that Logan has done similar things for the superhero genre. The analogy is apt. Superhero films are every bit as derided as action films of the 80s were. In a wonderful bit of irony, Richard Donner, director of Lethal Weapon and Superman: The Movie, recently joined in on the widely held condemnation of superhero films as being shallow and childish.

If anything, action films were viewed as more disposable than comic book movies, which on average get better reviews than even the high profile action films of the Reagan era. The closest cousin the superhero film has is the western. The western has been a big influence on superhero films and Logan wears that on its sleeve. Laura, the mute mutant girl who Logan must get to the border, watches Shane with Professor X (Shane was my father’s favorite film, by the way; a perfect encapsulation of his own baby boomer childhood and a foreshadow of his short-lived fatherhood).

The western has certainly given us great films, a few Best Picture winners even (Logan is profoundly Eastwoodian: it is the Unforgiven of the superhero genre and owes a debt to Outlaw Josey Wales as well). Same for horror (in a just world, The Exorcist would’ve won Best Picture). But nevertheless, genre storytelling continues to have second-class citizenship and it likely always will. For whatever reason, human beings create dichotomies easily and often cling to them even in the face of contradictory evidence.

Sadly, this kind of dogged illogic may be what makes us what we are. Having a Black First Family that represented us with class and dignity without a whiff of scandal should have dealt a deathblow to racism but instead the opposite has happened. So if evidence can’t combat racism, I don’t think it will do anything to change the perception that genre storytelling is the narrative equivalent of junk food. So we will be forever amazed by the genre films that show the framework of that narrative mode can be used to explore social ills or dramatize existential crisis as well as any non-genre film.

Both horror and the superhero film will continue to be held up by people who profoundly lack imagination as exhibits A & B of our cultural and moral bankruptcy, and films like Logan and Get Out will be dismissed as exceptions to the rule. Genrephobia is attractive because it is puritanical. And it places those who embrace it into a warm and luxuriant bath of smug superiority. Much like the Obamas, exceptions can be dismissed as either not that great or simply ignored. As a species, we excel at that.