Archive for January, 2020

Little Women

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Greta Gerwig.  Staring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep, and Tracy Letts.

One of three scenes from Greta Gerwig’s first film Lady Bird that I think about frequently is the final exchange between Saoirse Ronan’s titular senior and Sister Sarah Joan, the principal of her Catholic high school, when they discuss Lady Bird’s college essay. The nun sees through the rebellious teenager shtick and directly tells Lady Bird that her attention to the minute details of life in Sacramento reveals just how much she loves her home. Via Sister Sarah Joan, Gerwig posits that one way to show love is to pay attention.

There is so much Gerwig pays attention to in Little Women—the relationships between all of the March sisters, the music that Beth plays, Amy’s paintings, the filters and lighting for different timelines, the ink stains on Jo’s hands, the delight of children on discovering a beautiful story. All of this conveys a love of sisterhood, family life, movie making, art and literature, women authors, and above all her characters, her actors, and her audience.

Gerwig loves her audience enough to respect their intelligence. She assumes that most people in 2020 have some familiarity with the source material either through reading the novel or seeing previous film adaptations. Instead of remaking Little Women for it’s fifth silver screen adaptation, she reimagines the story in ways that highlight often overlooked elements from previous adaptations, strengthening the bonds between each of the sisters and giving each one of them their own arc.

She achieves this through her nonlinear telling of Louisa May Alcott’s famous story. This decision has earned her some criticism. To be fair, the reordering of the chronology with frequent flashbacks and crosscutting within the same timelines could be confusing for someone not familiar with the story. However, the bond among all the sisters is strengthened by Gerwig’s presentation, and her lighting and filter choices always make it clear whether we’re in the earlier or later timeline.

The earlier timeline begins with the ball at which Jo (a perfectly cast Saoirse Ronan) meets Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), and it starts seven years before the later timeline that opens the movie. The earlier timeline is always lit with a soft golden hue, contrasted with the lack of filters for the later timeline, suggesting a fond recollection of earlier years, which will serve as inspiration for the later years when Jo writes her novel.

That novel is Little Women, and Gerwig plays up the quasi-autobiographical aspects of Alcott’s novel making it clear that Jo is a stand-in for Alcott. The opening shot of Jo as she stands outside the publishing office ready to stride in to offer her first short story for publication makes clear the film’s celebratory attitude toward women succeeding in male-dominated fields. Considering film directing is another field in which women are woefully underrepresented, Gerwig’s recent Oscar snub for best director is all the more painful.

The published with whom Jo collaborates is Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts, an actor Gerwig clearly loves working with), and the exchanges between Letts and Ronan are as delightful as they are different from their scenes in Lady Bird. The scene that changes his mind on the quality of Jo’s writing is wonderful, and that alone makes the quasi-biographical approach worthwhile.

Following this first scene focused on Jo, the film cuts to Amy (Florence Pugh) in Paris with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) when she runs into Laurie for the first time. This juxtaposition is brilliant. First of all, it sets up Amy and Jo as dual protagonists allowing each of them to grow with one another from their more contentious times as children to their full support for one another when they’re older. Secondly, it references Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s proposal while simultaneously foreshadowing Amy and Laurie’s marriage, which is a plot point that often feels like a hurried afterthought in other film adaptations.

The nonlinear approach enables Pugh to play both the younger and older Amy, since her exact age is never specified. It’s wonderful to watch Pugh’s gradual transition from playing cavalier and immature to responsible and supportive, and she is equally believable as both.

The other sisters are introduced immediately after Jo and Amy. It’s easy to miss that Gerwig does that, but it’s a great way of highlighting the unity of the March family. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is first seen at her piano, her passion and the thing that helps her overcome some of her shyness when she later plays Mr. Lawrence’s (Chris Cooper) piano. The acts of kindness that lead to that scenario are what temporarily extend her life. Meg (Emma Watson) is shown to have become a Marmee herself, even as she used dream of fashion and high society until that dream was replaced by another one, even if it was hard for Jo to accept that.

We meet Marmee (Laura Dern) a little bit later when Laurie takes Meg and Jo home from that first dance and meets the entire family. Dern plays the matriarch with quiet grace and compassion, but she also captures Marmee’s controlled anger and frustration that is often not included in adaptations. Dern’s balancing of emotions enables the four actresses to play off her and the safe home she provides. Gerwig once again shows the importance of a mother’s influence and relationship with a daughter or daughters.

If there’s any particular scene where the nonlinear approach pays off in spades it’s Beth’s scarlet fever and later sickness and death. Gerwig freely cuts back and forth between both illnesses, comparing and contrasting the emotions of Jo and Marmee for the two different outcomes. It is always clear which sickness is onscreen due to the filters, but the pain of losing a loved one and the joy of their recovery are felt so strongly from the way the shots are edited together.

After watching this for a fourth time, the friend with whom I saw it said afterward, “I thought Beth’s death would be easier to watch a second time, but no.” I concurred that the emotions Gerwig captured only become stronger after each viewing. The richness of relationships, joys of success, and pains of loss are all presented with care and precision by Gerwig, and each scene plays out so perfectly that the entire film becomes a celebration of the ways we, and the characters, show and live their love.


Personal recommendation: A+

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Favorite films of 2019

For many of my friends, 2019 was a rough year. At the rate 2020 is going, this year may not be better. For myself, this was one of the most time-consuming years I’ve had in a while, as can probably be seen by the unexpected four-month hiatus I took from writing film reviews.

I saw even fewer films than I normally do, and yet there seem to be fewer that slipped through the cracks this year. I still need to catch up with Pain and Glory and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but most of the films being placed on other yearend lists I’ve seen.

At the same time, this was one of the richest years movie-wise for this entire decade, with enough great titles to chose from that narrowing my list down to the top twenty was difficult, let alone the top ten.

I have not seen Joker. This review by Andrew Spitznas convinced me I would hate it, but in light of its surprising 11 Oscar nominations, I will make time for it, and I will keep an open mind. This essay gives me some hope it might have something of value. Regardless of how I end up feeling about it, nothing I have heard makes me think it would be in contention for the list below. You are welcome to tell me how wrong I am or how excellent my instincts are.

I have been informed that Joker features a performance of a Sondheim song, which makes it one of at least three films this year to do so. The other two made my top ten, but I still doubt Joker is on par with them.

One thing that strikes me looking over all thirty-five titles below is how many of them relate to one another. Two films about the importance of sisterhood made the top ten. There are two comedies with strong political overtones, two films about the evil of money, two films about the horrors of British imperialism, two films about opposing the Nazis, two films about people close enough to one another to drive each other insane, and two films in black and white.

The calls below are mine, and I make no claims that these are the best films from last year. Indeed, there is more than one choice that I’m sure will leave people scratching their heads. However, these are the ones that meant the most to me, and I make no apologies.

Good Films Worth Noting (35-21):

A Hidden Life, Peterloo, Transit, Ad Astra, Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood, Rocketman, Dark Waters, Burning Cane, Diane, The Report, Everybody Knows, High Life, Non-Fiction, For Sama, Waves

Honorable Mentions:

20. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller) – Casting Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers was a stroke of genius, but Marielle Heller’s decision to frame the entire film as an extended episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was an ever greater stroke of genius, allowing Rogers (Hanks) to address the audience directly asking them “What do you do with the mad that you feel?”

19. Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack & Alan Elliott) – A front row seat to watch Aretha Franklin perform is a great thing. A front row seat to watch her work with her band and choir over a two-night recording session is transcendent. Filmed in 1972, and only being released now, Amazing Grace is a testament to the power of Franklin’s music and her use of her talent for the glory of God.

18. Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller) – For anyone who was not alive for the original moon landing, this documentary recreates the excitement and awe with visuals and sound that place the viewer right alongside the NASA scientists and more stunningly the astronauts taking the first steps on the moon.

17. Light from Light (Paul Harrill) – A modern day ghost story starring Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan beautifully and sensitively explores the human need for connection—both physical and spiritual—as a single mother investigates whether a recent widower is receiving communications from his late wife.

16. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers) – Eggers’ follow up to The Witch is a Lynchian nightmare in the middle of the sea. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe play two men assigned to keep the titular lighthouse, but mermaids, gulls, and their own paranoias being to drive them insane. It’s a descent into madness and warning of the dangers of obsession, but a breathtaking and stunning one to behold.


15. The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent) – On the one hand, this is a brutal story bluntly stating that colonialism is horrible and screwed over women, immigrants, and people of color. At the same time, it’s a brilliant frustration of the rape-revenge narrative, showing how futile violence is, especially in a world run by and for the most powerful. Kent subjects the audience to horrors that surpass her debut film, The Babadook, but she celebrates solidarity between victims of different backgrounds and shows the true cost and goodness of progress in a way that prevents this from becoming gratuitous or exploitative.

14. One Child Nation (Nanfu Wang & Lynn Zhang) – A sobering documentary about the horrific effects of China’s one child policy and the unwitting accomplices to that policy around the world. In tracing her own childhood co-director Nanfu Wang reveals the horrors and abuse against women, children, and families that stemmed from blindly following orders and a nation’s desire to put profits ahead of people. As a stark contrast to the subject matter, the beauty of children and celebration of life remind the audience and the directors what China stole from its citizens. Most striking is witnessing Wang’s own journey as she cross-examines the propaganda she was taught throughout her childhood.

13. Missing Link (Chris Butler) – After several weaker entries, Laika studios have returned to the top of their game, or at least very close to it, with this Jules Verne-ian tale about Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), an arrogant British explorer who goes to America to prove the existence of the Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis). As with Laika’s previous films, wokeness forms an inherent part of the plot, but here it’s not tacked on as gratuitous moralizing, instead being an integral part of the story. The visuals are as stunning as ever, and the labor of love about leaving old dreams behind for newer and better ones and overcoming prejudice is as timely as ever. Best of all it eschews many of the cliches that have plagued family films of late. (full review)

12. Shadow (Zhang Yimou) – Political intrigue, double crossing, honor, and exquisite martial arts all take center stage in this story of an elaborate coup between opposing kingdoms in ancient China as one king’s desire to honor a peace treaty clashes with his general’s desire to avenge his honor. Yimou’s choreography of the martial arts is some of his most stunning work ever, and the black and white cinematography heightens the looming tragedy and breakdown of trust and relationships in games of political intrigue, in which everyone puts their own interests first, even if it seems otherwise.

11. They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson) – If anyone ever wanted to imagine what it would have been like to live through a battle in a WWI trench, Peter Jackson manages to place them there with They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary constructed from WWI footage and letters from the trenches. It’s a stunning technical achievement that rivals Jackson’s groundbreaking special effects from two decades ago in The Lord of the Rings, but also a painful reminder that war is hell, evoking compassion for the soldiers forced to suffer through the barbarity, keeping their memories alive. In many ways, the contrast between the humanity of the soldiers and the carnage of the battlefield maintains a Tolkien-esque spirit that possibly surpasses what he captured of the same in The Lord of the Rings.

The Top Ten

10. Frozen II (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee) – Is this one of the ten greatest cinematic achievements from 2019? Probably not. Is it a very good musical, with beautifully written songs that are placed perfectly throughout the film for maximum emotional impact? Absolutely. I’ve seen it twice now, and the sisterly bond between Anna and Elsa (once again Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel) that was the heart of first film is even stronger here. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s songs likewise top the strong score of the original film, building from the opening lullaby to Elsa’s inspiring power ballad to Anna’s heart-wrenching testament to the difficulty of change and loss. Along the way, Olaf provides even wittier comic relief, and Kristoff and Sven continue their welcome support with a thematically cohesive song of their own. (full review)

9. By the Grace of God (François Ozon) – I’m sure this has already been called the French Spotlight, but that description is misleading, because this chronicle of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is not a story of investigate journalism bringing a monstrous evil to light, but a tale of survival from the perspective of three victims. Ozon balances the shifting narrative from one victim to the next perfectly, organizing each chapter as a progression to the realization of the full horror, not just for the viewer but the survivors as well. Based on a true story of an abusive priest in Lyon, France and the coverup by the diocese, the importance and difficulty of speaking out are at the center of the film as the consequences of sexual abuse and the subsequent silence become more deafening and widespread.

8. The Farewell (Lulu Wang) – The opening title card of The Farewell reads “based on a true lie.” It’s a lie that exposes a cultural and generational clash between Chinese customs and American ones as well as between parents and children. Billie (Awkwafina), having grown up in America, is horrified by her family’s intentions of honoring a Chinese custom not to tell her grandmother she has cancer. The family reunion under the guise of a cousin’s wedding brings out the differences not only between the emotional Billie and the more stoic Chinese traditions, but how time and environment change all the family members. Underneath the differences, however, is a strong love that manifests itself the best way each family member knows how—even when those ways are less than ideal—and it is that love Lulu Wang captures with beauty and sensitivity.

7. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot) – Why do we tell stories and what purpose do they serve? That question is at the heart of this poetic, quasi-fantasy, semi-autobiographical film about Jimmie Fails (himself) and his devotion to the house built by his grandfather in San Francisco. Directed by Fails’ childhood friend Joe Talbot and written by both of them, this film depicts not only a cultural and family legacy but a celebration of art, plays, and cinema and how all of them can help us wrestle with our past and help us prepare for the future. Deeply indebted to The Wizard of Oz, the quest of Jimmie and his friend Mont for a home that has a special emotional value for them ends up revealing the ways each individual shapes a community.

6. The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch) – The first socially conscious comedy on this list and the second of three Adam Driver performances, The Dead Don’t Die is a typical offering of droll Jarmusch humor. Excessive fracking has shifted the earth off its axis, which interferes with the earth’s cycle around the sun, which in turn causes a zombie apocalypse. Adam Driver, Bill Murray, and Chloe Sevigny play a team of cops fighting the legions of undead, even though it’s pretty clear that the events will end badly. In the face of certain death, Jarmusch never loses his sense of humor, highlighting the importance of caring for one another, the environment, and the importance of fighting for a cause that seems hopeless. (full review)

5. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho) – The first of two movies in which money is the ultimate curse to appear in my top ten. It’s tempting to call Parasite: Shoplifters, the dark and gritty remake, but that would be selling short this melodramatic, borderline fable of class warfare. Whereas Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner from last year was concerned with a family motivated by altruism doing their best to survive in the only ways they know how, Bong’s film is primarily concerned with the corrupting influences of money and materialism on everyone it comes into contact with, as can be seen through the central family who are motivated more by greed than anything else. The film escalates to the finale, where Bong pushes it to an eleven, but the quasi-surreal nature throughout makes it a satisfying payoff in which the true parasite (money and the love of it) turns on its hosts, and the morbid humor punctuates the bleak atmosphere at perfect intervals to offset the tragic nature of the story.

4. Knives Out (Rian Johnson) – Probably the most fun of any movie released this year, Rian Johnson’s whodunit is a riveting mystery with a conscience and delightful sense of humor. When the 85-year-old Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by apparent suicide and detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is anonymously hired to investigate foul play, the greed of the millionaire’s family quickly becomes contrasted with the inherent goodness of Harlan’s assistant Marta (Ana de Armas). It’s a modern-day Agatha Christie inspired parable on “woe to you who are rich,” and as obvious as the politics are, Rian Johnson’s sizzling dialogue and eclectic cast of characters prevents the movie from ever becoming a sermon, even with villains who literally quote current political talking points. (full review)

3. I Heard You Paint Houses (aka) The Irishman (Martin Scorsese) – This may not be Scorsese’s final film; and with the streak he’s been on, I hope it isn’t. Nonetheless, it is a stunning and epic culmination to his career both as a love letter to a bygone era of cinematic gangster epics (many of them his own) and a thoughtful, heartbreaking story about the ways that violence wrecks communities, friendships, and families. Robert De Niro plays Frank Sheerhan, an Irishman whose skill at “painting houses” earns him an in with the Italian mob, notably Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), even as it estranges him from his family, notably his oldest daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina, then Anna Paquin) whom Frank pushes out of his life, even as he laments her absence. The reverse aging CGI is surprisingly effective at allowing the titans to play younger versions of themselves as Frank’s recollection of his life gradually reveals the hollowness of what it was, and that now it is what it is.

2. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach) – The second film starring Adam Driver in my top ten, and the first starring Laura Dern (so you should know what #1 is), Noah Baumbach’s brutal story of a marriage ending is unflinching in its portrayal of the ways we can hurt one another out of anger. Making that hurt even more painful is the fact that Charlie and Nicole (Driver and Scarlett Johansson) still clearly love one another, even though neither is willing to accommodate the other. A relationship this toxic may sound like excruciating cinema, but the journey of both protagonists to learn how to be alone and not use one other for their own happiness is hopeful and inspiring. It also features the best scene of the year in a soul-bearing single take performance from Driver. (full review)

1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig) – Gerwig’s approach to retelling Alcott’s famous story is one that has earned her both praise and criticism. For my money, her nonlinear approach to the story of the four March sisters is a stroke of genius—heightening the bonds between each sister, while giving each one of them their own arc. The filters are different for each timeline—golden for the earlier years of fond memories and none for the later years, enabling her to cut effortlessly between the different time periods as she juxtaposes scenes to draw comparisons that deepen the joys and sorrows of family life and sisterhood. Gerwig blatantly loves her characters, their unique personalities, their triumphs, as well as Alcott’s novel. Reuniting with Gerwig from Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan is phenomenal as Jo, but the rest of the family stands out along with her: Florence Pugh as the carefree and later world wise Amy, Emma Watson as the quietly supportive and occasionally materialistic Meg, Eliza Scanlen as the sensitive Beth, and Laura Dern as the longsuffering Marmee who holds the family together. (full review)

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