Friday, January 1, 2021

The Binge (and Sort-of-Binged) Watches of 2020 - Ranked

 I watched a ridiculous amount of television this year.  And you probably did too.  With all of us spending a significant part of our year hunkered down in hiding from the coronavirus, what else would we do with our plentiful spare time? (If you're one of the eager beavers  who worked out everyday with the Peloton app or read the complete works of Shakespeare, please don't answer that question.)

The shows I write about here represent only a small percentage of what I watched in 2020. In a year where every week brought us new, unpredictable horrors, I found it comforting to re-watch my favorite television series of the past where I already knew how everything would turn out. So I binged the entire runs of Mad Men, Seinfeld, Veep, Sex and the City, Frasier and the Andy Griffith Show. (Yes, one of those things is not like the others. What can I tell you?  Some days, the most challenging things I could wrap my brain around were the up and downs of Barney and Thelma Lou's romance. Or maybe just seeing what Aunt Bee cooked when the preacher came for Sunday dinner.)

I also watched about 240 movies this year - almost a fourth of those were repeat viewings of old favorites. I'll get to those in a future post.  The takeaway here is: I've become an extra starchy couch potato this year, and I'm going to tell you all about it!

Normally this post is titled "Binge Watches of (insert year here) Ranked."  But most of the limited series or seasons of a series that I watched dropped in weekly installments of 1-3 episodes so it wasn't practical to binge them. 

As usual, this list skews heavily towards streaming platforms and premium cable rather than network television, and - of course - it only includes the shows I actually watched.  Many popular series of the past year don't appear here because they either didn't pique my interest or I started watching but quickly bailed on them. (The latter of those categories includes The Good Lord Bird, Normal People, The Great and Ratched. Also The Queen's Gambit, but I plan to give that one another shot, based on recommendations from many people whose opinions I respect.)  

It is also a particularly cranky and contrarian ranking. I was unimpressed with many of this year's high profile/prestigious offerings and more drawn to some of the less-celebrated or even the sneered-at series (Tiger King is on the list, and probably ranked higher than you would expect.  Judge me all you want, I stand by my ranking.) Feel free to take my rankings with a large grain of salt. But if you see something here that appeals to you, watch it and like it, then my work here is done.

 Anyway, here are the series I actually did complete, in reverse order of preference:

13. The New Pope (HBO)            

I'm not sure whether writer-director Paolo Sorrentino has some actual point to make about the modern Catholic Church  or just likes throwing together a bunch of visually sumptuous but batshit-crazy scenes to give the illusion that he's saying something.  Some critics have found this series to be relevant and profound, but I thought it was just an exhausting mess. It's all outrageousness and sacrilege and weird juxtapositions of sex or pop culture with religious iconography. You may admire Sorrentino's inventiveness, but you'll long for some emotional or intellectual hook to really engage you in the narrative. It never comes.

In this series' 2017 prequel, The Young Pope, Jude Law played Pius XIII, a Pope who worked out a lot, drank Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast and collapsed from a sudden heart attack in the finale. (And also let a kangaroo loose in the Vatican Gardens - see my reference above to batshit craziness.) As The New Pope opens, we find Pius XIII in a coma and preparing for a heart transplant. He later appears in an opening credit sequence, striding along a beach full of bikini-clad women in a teeny, tiny Speedo and winking insouciantly at the camera. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

In this series, we've also got John Malkovich on hand as Pius XIII's successor. Malkovich, a reliable purveyor of eccentricity and off-kilter line readings, dives right into Sorrentino's nuttiness with deadpan conviction but even he never quite makes sense of the gratingly weird character he's given to play.

I'm as susceptible as anyone to the fun of watching nuns dance to Europop disco tunes in the glare of a giant neon cross or a pope who summons Sharon Stone to the Vatican for a flirty private audience. (The actress plays herself and makes a gift of her Christian Louboutin high heels to Malkovich's grateful pontiff.) But honestly... political machinations and sexual hijinks at the Vatican aren't exactly fresh or original plot points, and throwing in a catchy pop song or (most offensively) a dwarf or a developmentally disabled character as set dressing now and then doesn't make it any more interesting. The New Pope is fun for a little while, but its relentless and pointless sacrilege wears mighty thin long before the ninth episode finale.

12. Hollywood (Netflix)

In Ryan Murphy's fantasy/alternate history of 1940s Hollywood, a woman gets to run a major studio, an actress of color gets the Oscar-winning lead role in a blockbuster drama  and Rock Hudson goes to the Oscars with his boyfriend.  All of which is not only very nice, but underlines just how limited and backwards the thinking of that day actually was. Unfortunately. Murphy's ham-fisted melodramatic tendencies are exhausting; he'll take any opportunity to titillate or shock, but nuance and subtlety are forever lost on him. What's more, his incorporation of real people into this fictional story is frequently problematic. I'm fine with his re-creation of George Cukor's Sunday night dinner parties winding up with naked men in the pool and Vivien Leigh hooking up with a hot guy in Cukor’s guest room. But  I will never forgive him for depicting Hudson as a good-looking but dim-witted lunk with no acting ability whatsoever. 

11. The Undoing (HBO)

Despite its A-list cast and veneer of artistic respectability, The Undoing amounted to a good opening episode, a good final episode and four hours of utter nonsense sandwiched in between.  Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant play a wealthy and well-respected Manhattan couple (she a psychotherapist, he a pediatric oncologist). The mother of their son's classmate is brutally murdered while Grant is mysteriously out of town without his cell phone. Then we learn the dead woman had ties to both of them. Did Grant kill her ? Did Kidman?  Or their 12-year-old son? Or was it Kidman's ultra rich, creepy dad, played with icy relish by Donald Sutherland? 

Throwing in a few red herrings to keep us off balance is one thing, but The Undoing is a near steady stream of irrelevant distractions, stray story threads that never get resolved, and stuff that just plain doesn't make sense. Just one example: Kidman briefly becomes a person of interest when a video surfaces showing her walking near the murder scene in Harlem around the time of the crime. She says she was just talking a walk to clear her head. But she lives on the Upper East Side, so that means she walked about 50 blocks from home and I assume her head was thoroughly cleared by that point. Most of the show's audience won't know Manhattan well enough to realize how insane this is (although there is a whole Reddit thread about it.) But the people who wrote it should - and so should the police characters in the show. Why don't they dig deeper into Kidman's story?

Most problematic for me is Grant's performance. His character's alibi is tweaked and amended so many times you'll get whiplash trying to keep up with it, but there's no consistent subtext or discernible personality behind his ramblings.  He performance doesn't so much suggest a man who's desperate to be found innocent as it does an actor who was seemingly never told whether his character was the actual murderer till the final day of shooting.  (For the record, Grant is normally one of my favorite actors; if you want to see him at his best, I recommend streaming the British mini-series A Very English Scandal on Amazon Prime.)

The final episode is so unaccountably good - unnerving, tense and impeccably acted - that it almost makes you forget how frustrating everything was that preceded it. Almost. But, like me, you may find it to be too little, much too late.

10. Mrs. America (FX/Hulu)

I'm just old enough to remember when the Equal Rights Amendment slowly made its way through the state-by-state ratification process, including the well-orchestrated campaign of right-wing darling Phyllis Schlafly to stop it.  I can even remember picking up a STOP ERA flyer in a local drugstore when I was about 13, and briefly jumping on Schlafly's bandwagon until I became the early '70s version of a "woke feminist" a year later at 14. 

So I came to Mrs. America - which the battles between the conservative the Christian homemakers of STOP ERA and the feminist icons of NOW and Ms. magazine - with heightened expectations that weren't entirely met.

There's some good stuff in Mrs. America - including terrific performances, not only by Cate Blanchett as Schlafly but notably by Uzo Aduba (playing Shirley Chisholm, the first woman of color to run for president) and Margo Martindale (perfectly cast as Bella Abzug). But too often, the series feels like it was made by people who aren't actually old enough to remember the '70s but watched a lot of documentaries and talked to some people. (And my suspicions appear to be at least partly correct; the series creator, Dhavi Waller, is a Canadian writer whose age isn't listed anywhere on the internet, but whose television writing career began in 2003.) I suppose it comes down to me feeling about this series the way British royalists feel about The Crown: it should come with a disclaimer reminding us that it's not a history lesson. It's speculative and clearly fictionalized.

I'm completely on board, however, with the portrayal of Schlafly as a woman forced to sublimate her own considerable political ambitions into being the self-appointed figurehead of an ERA opposition group. Blanchett plays Schlafly as smarter than any of the men in the room, but too ladylike to press the point. She's icy, intimidating and quietly conniving, yet Blanchett manages to give her just a soupçon of vulnerability, as much a prisoner of the patriarchy as the women she so vocally opposes.

Less impressive are capsule episodes devoted to Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and the fictional character played by Sarah Paulson - a Schlafly acolyte whose ambivalence towards the STOP ERA movement feels more underwritten than authentic.  Paulson gives it her usual full commitment, but even she can't make the character compelling.

9. The Vow (HBO)

Here's my idea for The Vow drinking game: pour yourself a drink every time someone pulls out a kitchen knife and a couple of avocados. Because when former NXIVM cult members gather to process their post-traumatic stress, it almost always takes place at a kitchen counter while one of them makes guacamole. I'm not even kidding about that.

I'd like to believe that if I'd ever met Keith Raniere, the dweeby leader of the NXIVM cult, I wouldn't have fallen for his bullshit. And watching The Vow initially reinforced that confidence, as I watched some ostensibly smart but incredibly gullible people fall hook, line and sinker for Raniere's airheaded, self-serving psychobabble. NXIVM, by the way, is pronounced "Nexium" - like the heartburn pill. Also, its members didn't refer to Raniere by his name, they were required to address him as "Vanguard." Seriously. Are you starting to understand my skepticism?

Every time I was ready to bail on this docuseries - every time the NXIUM escapees launched into another guacamole-fueled round of Raniere-bashing laced with survivors’ guilt  - there'd be some new revelation that pulled me right back in, if only because it was so lurid or bizarre that I thought it couldn't possibly be real. The Vow unwinds in a sort of narrative spiral, cycling from talking head testimonies to footage from the cult's meetings, seminars and nighttime volleyball games to jaw-dropping revelations. But it leaves its most horrifying details for the final episode, when the full, frightening picture of Raniere's manipulative power and misogynistic rage comes into view.

I’m being deliberately evasive about what NXIUM preached and what happened to its members because The Vow is more powerful if you go in cold. But you don’t have to. The New York Times has covered the whole sordid saga in extensive detail over the last two years, including the criminal trials of Raniere and others who were ultimately convicted on charges ranging form wire fraud and racketeering to sex trafficking and possession of child pornography. Raniere himself was sentenced to 120 years in prison not long after this series aired. In the final episode, we hear him speak by phone from prison where he insists there is another story to be told. Yes, The Vow: Part 2 is coming in 2021. Clear your calendar, and get your avocados ready.

8. The Trouble with Maggie Cole (PBS)

This genial, slightly goofy British mini-series succeeds largely due to the welcome presence of Dawn French in the title role. (You may remember her as The Vicar of Dibley or perhaps as the '80s comedy partner of Absolutely Fabulous star Jennifer Saunders.) Maggie Cole is the town historian in the kind of quaint, sleepy English village where everyone knows everyone. After being plied with gin and tonics by a devious radio interviewer, Maggie spills all the gossip whispered around town regarding certain residents. As she sets about attempting to repair her relationships with those she drunkenly slandered, we learn that the truth about these people is actually far more interesting than the gossip about them. French is the friendly, funny heart of the show, but really all the characters are easy to take to heart, and it all goes down as comfortingly as a warm mug of tea

7. Tiger King (Netflix)

What makes a show binge-able if not the delivery of a tantalizing hook at the end of each installment that keeps you wanting to know more? Eccentric, outrageous characters don't hurt either, nor does a lurid true-crime story that you probably haven't heard before and can just barely believe.  Tiger King, the ratings hit of the early COVID lockdown days, is tailor-made to be your compulsively watchable guilty pleasure.  Watching the first episode is like tearing into a party-size bag of Lay's Potato chips; betcha can't watch just one.

Your interest may be dependent on how much time you want to spend with the flamboyant, platinum-blond-mulleted Joe Exotic (real name Joe Molanado), a Florida roadside zoo owner and collector of exotic animals.  But he's only one character here of many, and the whole world of exotic animal ownership (and exploitation and abuse) proves to be a pretty tangled web.  The series is laid out in a tightly structured series of revelations, nested like Russian dolls, and unwinds like a good, pulpy detective novel.

For those who have avoided the show due to the concerns about animal abuse, let me me assure you that while the abuse is frequently referenced in later episodes, it goes virtually unseen in the actual footage.

6. Emily in Paris (Netflix)

There's no accounting for how addictive and enjoyable this supremely silly little confection turned out to be, but I devoured it like it was a box of Ladurée macarons. Lily Collins plays a Chicago PR flack sent to manage a Paris-based luxury brand marketing firm.  In the real world, she'd probably at least have learned to speak French before taking this job, but this is Fantasy Paris, so instead she's the gauche American that the snotty French people eventually learn to tolerate and even admire. Emily fills her Instagram feed with pictures of croissants and sidewalk cafés and falls into all kinds of romantic entanglements with handsome Frenchmen.  Not one moment of the show is remotely believable, but if ever there was a year when we needed an escape from harsh reality, 2020 was it. So I went right along with the fantasy. Besides, Collins is charming enough to carry the day. A second season is on the way in 2021; it will be interesting to see if it remains popular.

Favorite moment: Emily meets another young American woman who asks her (with no irony whatsoever)  "Are you from Indianapolis? Because you seem really friendly."  As a native Hoosier, may I just say how nice it is to hear someone identify a positive character trait with my home state, even in a piece of fictional fluff like this.

5. The Flight Attendant (HBO)

As HBO Max murder mystery series go, this one far surpassed The Undoing for me, if only because the characters had plausible human reactions to the occasionally very shocking events and the plot was actually tied up in a way that made logical sense. Those aren't particularly high bars for a murder mystery to clear, but here we are.

Kaley Cuoco (best known as Penny on The Big Bang Theory) takes the title role of Cassie, a flight attendant who, after a night of partying in Bangkok with a handsome passenger, wakes up next to him to find him murdered - and has no memory of what happened.  Cuoco, with her enormous eyes and tousled blond locks gives off a strong "Goldie Hawn in the '80s vibe" here - and honestly, this is  exactly the kind of role in which Hawn would have been cast then.  She certainly has her work cut out for her: the story covers a lot of ground including an intermittently grim look at her character's raging alcoholism and suppressed childhood trauma. At the other extreme, there are a fair number of comedy bits that Cuoco delivers with the practiced charm of a sitcom veteran..

And if that's not enough, there's also a contrived but mostly successful plot device in which Cuoco has extended 'conversations' with the dead man as she struggles to piece together the events of that horrible night in Bangkok. Plus we've got subplots involving Cassie's best friend and laywer (Zosia Mamet) and a wholly unnecessary espionage side story involving a fellow flight attendant (Rosie Perez).  

Clearly there are moments when the storytellers bite off more than they can chew, but mostly The Flight Attendant is good, unfussy entertainment delivered with a zippy visual style (lots of split-screen action, àla early Brian DePalma), a jazzy musical score that effectively heightens the suspense, and just enough glamorous 'travel porn' shots of Bangkok and Rome to keep a unhappily grounded traveler like myself happy.

4. I May Destroy You (HBO)

A stunning achievement by writer/director/star Michaela Coel who distills her own experience of  a sexual assault into a prismatic 12-part drama that examines her post-traumatic emotional landscape  from a multitude of perspectives.  In that respect, it perfectly mirrors her mental state and uneasy, 'one step forward, two steps back' progress towards healing.  The heavy use of British slang can be a little difficult for an American to get a handle on in the early episodes, and the extreme casualness of the all the characters' drug use and hooking up was a bit hard for this quaint old fart to get her mind around. But there's an almost dreamlike quality to the series that captures you and pulls you in. You can feel Coel's sense of confusion, disorientation, rage and, ultimately, forgiveness and release.  

3. The Crown, Season 4 (Netflix)

Art imitates life in a startling and unexpected way this season. On The Crown, as in real life, Princess Diana steals the show.

Newcomer Emma Corrin takes on the most intimidating assignment of Season 4: playing the much beloved "People's Princess" whose good looks, charisma and natural emotional intelligence both invigorated and shamed the British monarchy. And she nails it! Corrin replicates the late Princess' speech patterns and mannerisms with eerie authenticity; from some angles, she even bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the princess. But the performance is no mere impersonation; there's a solid core of emotional truth at its heart, a fully and impeccably developed character behind the side swept bangs and shy upward glances.

All of which is not to take away from the predictably excellent performances of Olivia Coleman (the Queen), Tobias Menzies (Prince Phillip), Josh O'Connor (Prince Charles), Erin Doherty (Princess Anne), Helena Bonham-Carter (Princess Margaret) and Emerald Fennell (Camilla Parker-Bowles). There's some shockingly great acting going on this season, especially in two-character confrontation scenes like Philip and Charles squaring off over their duties at Lord Mountbatten's funeral. Or the exquisite cat-and-mouse game between Diana and Camilla at lunch. Or Princess Anne's futile attempts to explain the cold rules of adultery to a petulant, Camilla-besotted Charles. And also every time the pissed-off Queen tells Charles to stop whining and commit to his marriage.  Charles is presented as so unrelentingly villainous towards his young wife, that these angry smackdowns from his mother are particularly satisfying. 

I must not forget Gillian Anderson who plays Margaret Thatcher.  While I love Anderson, I found her performance overly mannered and a bit grating.  Or maybe that was just really good acting.  Because I was no fan of Thatcher's either.

2. After Life (Netflix)

This is the series that redeemed Ricky Gervais for me.

Once upon a time, Gervais was a chubby, self-deprecating, genuinely funny man. Then he lost weight, got famous and became an insufferably arrogant prick.  But After Life finds him with some weight back on and dealing with grief and loss in a painful and recognizably accurate way.

Gervais plays a bereft and deeply depressed widower who can't get past his wife's death from cancer. Some days, only the need to feed the dog gets him out of bed and moving. Through the first season (which originally aired in 2019), he makes halting, painful progress towards healing, transforming from a shut-down curmudgeon to a decent guy who puts his head up to see that other people around him are struggling, too.  In this year's second season, he must contend with a parent's Alzheimer's and the dread of dating again.  It'd all be unbearably sad if it weren't for Gervais' talent for inserting a sarcastic remark at just the moment it's needed. Yet he doesn't back off the honest emotions required. It's his best performance since David Brent on The Office - and maybe his best ever.

This series was timely, relevant and cathartic for me; I lost both parents in the first half of 2020, and I've also been through the sudden death of a long-term romantic partner a few years back. I cried buckets during this show, but I found it genuinely moving and helpful to me in processing my own grief.

And the good news is, there will be a third season.  Since Season 2 ended on a hopeful note, involving another character played by Gervais' frequent co-star, Ashley Jensen, I'm looking forward to sunnier episodes ahead.

1. Unorthodox (Netflix)

Unorthodox is loosely based on Deborah Feldman's memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, the subject of which is pretty much obvious from its title. What is particularly impressive about this adaptation is the efficiency and lack of fussy exposition in the storytelling. The writers (Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski) trust us to figure the roles, rituals and narrowly proscribed roles for women in the Hasidic sect by jumping right into the story at its point of highest tension. We open on a young woman named Esty (Shira Hass playing a fictionalized version of Feldman) who's  about to leave her husband and her Brooklyn-based Hasidic community - on the Sabbath of all days - and is clearly violating major tenets of her religion to do so. 

Esty makes it to Berlin (an ironic place for a Jewish woman to seek freedom, but one that makes sense as more backstory is revealed) and tentatively starts a new life. But no one - especially a woman - is allowed to leave a Hasidic community without being hunted down and dragged back. So the tension about whether Esty will finally be able to build a new life is sustained throughout all four episodes as her husband, Yanky (Amith Rahav) and a friend follow her to Berlin on a mission to bring her home.

Unorthodox skillfully blends the tropes of an espionage thriller with those of a woman's journey of self-discovery, and seamlessly weaves in copious flashbacks to Esty's early life and her courtship and and troubled marriage to Yanky.  Winger and Karolinski are particularly brilliant at distilling the dynamics of Esty's unhappy relationship with her husband into the smallest telling details.  Their very first conversation, just after Esty is selected for him by the sect's matchmaker, opens like this:

Yanky: My father took us to Europe last year. We saw the graves of all the great rabbis.
Esty: You went to Europe and all you saw were graves? Nothing else?
Yanky:  I wanted to, but my father would not allow it.

That simple exchange actually lays all the groundwork for the trouble to follow. Just the fact that Esty makes a smart-ass comment about seeing nothing but graves on a trip to Europe - rather than professing wide-eyed admiration - tells you she's got a mind of her own and won't be the kind of passive, docile wife her community requires her to be. And Yanky, firmly under the thumb of his domineering parents, won't begin to make her happy.

Hass, an  Israeli actress who learned to speak both English and Yiddish for this role, has a quietly commandeering presence. Through her expressive eyes, you can clearly see her every fleeting emotion, ever when she's required to otherwise suppress them.  I wanted to spend more time with her character and see where else she goes, but the series ends abruptly after four episodes. And maybe that's enough. Sometimes we need to be left with our own imaginations to decide where the story goes next (a lesson I wish the makers of The Handmaid's Tale had taken to heart).There are worse things than an ambiguous conclusion to a great television series.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Three more from the Festival - CIFF Report Part 2

 Here are more capsule reviews from the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF):

I'm Your Woman (director Julia Hart)

This is the latest entry in the ever-growing list of films that tell typically male-driven kinds of stories from a female point of view.  Here it's the mobster crime thriller that gets a welcome inversion from writer/director Julia Hart. 

Rachel Brosnahan (better known to Amazon Prime subscribers as "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel") plays the pampered wife of a low-tier mobster; her stagnating, childless marriage has subsisted on a "don't ask-don't tell" basis for so long that she barely reacts when her husband brings home a baby boy one day and tells her "This is our baby." After her husband kills a mob boss, she and the baby are forced to go on the run, with occasional help from one of his associates (Arinze Kene). 

I'm Your Woman is, in many ways, a standard story of lost innocence, but it feels fresh and emotionally astute. It's moody, suspenseful and engrossing to the end - even after the plot mechanics go into overdrive in its final act. Brosnahan gives a skilled, nuanced performance as a woman who gradually discovers her own strength and cunning when forced into desperate circumstances.  

The Comeback  (Director Patrik Eklund)

The Comeback follows every standard beat in the sports underdog trope whilst adding a welcome sprinkling of dark, absurdist comedy into its good-hearted mix.  It centers on AnnBritt, a washed up former elite athlete who saw her career destruct after losing a match due to an umpire's bad call (after which she physically assaulted the umpire.)  She's stuck in a spiral of heavy drinking and near-poverty, unable to move on from the ignominy of the incident some 30 years later.  

Through a series of interventions by family and a kindly therapist, AnnBritt is able to get a rematch with her fellow adversary and a new umpire  - and I wouldn't dream of revealing what happens from that point on.

The Comeback began life as a 10-part Swedish television series; it's apparently been trimmed down to a 94-minute feature film (much like Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, to use a completely different example from the same country). Though it follows a standard and almost predictable story arc, it never seems to feel cliched.  I particularly liked that AnnBritt's old rival is living only a marginally better life than she is, and that both women have problematic adult sons who seem overly invested in their mothers' rematch.  In the midst of a festival slate that seem always to skew toward the serious, the heavy and the complex, it's a treat to find a genuinely heart-warming and funny little film like this.

Kubrick by Kubrick (Director Gregory Monro)

The selling point of this documentary on Stanley Kubrick is a series of never-before-heard taped interviews of the legendary director by a French journalist.  In truth, they don't amount to much - they're heavier on banalities than on fresh insights. Kubrick admits at the outset he can't really explain what attracts him to certain types of stories; he makes lots of observations along the lines of "Directing isn't a lot of fun, it's hard work, it doesn't make you popular with your actors, blah, blah blah." (And I'm obviously I'm paraphrasing there.)

Still it's always great to revisit scenes from the likes of Dr. Strangelove, Spartacus, Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey and so on. (Lolita is curiously absent from all discussion here.) And even if Kubrick's own words aren't particularly revelatory, the interview clips with some of his actors are. We get, for example, Marisa Berenson talking about the tedious difficulty of acting in Barry Lyndon's interior scenes which used only natural light and candles. Elsewhere, in a talk-show clip, Peter Sellers gives us the lowdown on the inspiration for Dr. Stangelove's black-gloved, Nazi-saluting hand.

It struck me more than once that talking to Kubrick about his own films isn't nearly as interesting as hearing the people who worked with him talk about them.  I was especially reminded of Film Worker, the 2018 documentary about Leon Vitale who played Ryan O'Neals stepson in Barry Lyndon and went on to be Kubrick's slavishly devoted assistant for the rest of the director's career.  If you want a real sense of what Stanley Kubrick's film sets were like, I'd recommend that film over this one anytime.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Report from Chicago International Film Festival 2020 - Part 1


COVID changes everything - including film festivals.

This year, I won't be taking my usual trip into the city to attend the Chicago International Film Festival. Instead, I'll be streaming a number of festival selections in the safety of my own living room.

A handful of high profile films at this year's festival are being shown only in a drive-in theater and not being made available for home viewing. (Among them: the lesbian romance Ammonite; Nomadland starring Frances McDormand; and a documentary on the life of John Belushi.)  But there's plenty of good cinema available to experience at home. I will be streaming no fewer than 11 films this year - and I'll be writing here about everything I see. 

The festival started on Wednesday night, and I've already managed to see three films (all of them directed by women, interestingly enough). Here are my capsule reviews:

For Madmen Only (director Heather Ross):

Del Close was a legend in the world of improvisational comedy - an eccentric but inspired teacher and performer who co-founded Second City and created a long-form improvisational style known as "the Harold" which is still performed at Improv Olympic in Chicago. But even if you don't know or care much about improv, you've likely experienced Close's influence on comedy through the careers of his many disciples (inlcuding John Belushi, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Adam McKay and Jon Favreau).

Many of  those who learned from Close are here, not only to pay him homage but also to testify to the many personal demons (mental illness and addictions to a variety of illicit substances) that - more than once - nearly destroyed his career. Director Heather Ross employs a kaleidoscopic approach to Close, constantly shifting between dramatizations based on actual taped conversations, comic book panels (from an actual Marvel comic book based on Close's life), filmed improv classes with Close and the usual, obligatory talking head tributes. To some degree, this approach imbues the film with a sort of restless, manic energy that seems to mirror both Close's own inner torment and his crazed drive to make great comedy.  But it also fragments the story and ultimately deflects as much attention from Close as it gives him.

Throughout his life, Close was repeatedly frustrated and hurt to see so many of his students and co-stars go on to spectacularly successful careers while he worked in relative obscurity.  The sad irony of For Madmen Only is that, even here, Close himself gets a bit lost amid the never-ending parade of testimonials, tributes and performance clips from the successful performers he mentored. In the end, he's still the shaggy mad man on the fringes rather than the star of his own show.

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (director Lili Horvat)

I laughed when I first heard the title of this film; it suggested to me a story about a family frantically stocking up on groceries and toilet paper at the start of the coronavirus lockdown.

So it was a bit a relief to find a tantalizingly ambiguous romantic mystery shot in Budapest. 

As the film opens, a neurosurgeon is heading to Hungary after working in the U.S. She's met a fellow doctor at a medical conference and shared an intense connection with him.  They've arranged to meet at certain spot on Budapest's Liberty Bridge at a certain time and date.  But when she arrives at their meeting spot, he isn't there.  And when she manages to track him down a couple days later, he doesn't recognize or remember her.  Has she concocted this romance in her own imagination?

That possibility lingers throughout the film, but is never finally settled.  The woman moves back to Budapest and finds work in a hospital there, while cyberstalking her crush in her off-hours.  Eventually their professional lives lead them to cross paths again and a genuine relationship seems to develop between them. But every scene is open to interpretation; we're never sure if what we're seeing is an actual romance or if she's escaped into a fantasy. 

At the festivals where Preparations... has already screened, first-time director Lili Horvat has frequently been compared to Krzysztof Kieslowski (director of The Double Life of Veronique and the acclaimed "Colors" trilogy). That's not just a flattering comparison, it's an accurate one. Like the Polish cinematic master, Horvat is adept at sustaining mood and tone in a film that is primarily concerned with the emotional lives of its characters.

And Tomorrow the Entire World (director Julia von Heinz)

Here's something I learned in the opening credits of this film:  the German constitution specifically states that their nation is a 'democratic and social state' and that German citizens have the right to oppose anyone who seeks to abolish that state - so long as no other remedies are available.

It's the business of determining whether there are other remedies (i.e. alternatives to violence) available to fight the growing number of far-right extremists in Germany that drives the drama here. I'm honestly not sure where the film comes down on this question. By the time it ended, we've seen questionable tactics on both sides of the divide.

The central character is Luisa (Mala Emde), a privileged if somewhat naïve law student who joins a peaceful, predominantly female Antifa group. (Their most controversial act is throwing cream pies into the faces of far-right activist speakers). In time, she comes under the spell of a charismatic leader on the fringes of the group (Noah Saavedra) who insists that their opponents won't take them seriously unless they unleash violence themselves, and goes on to participate in some dangerous, destructive stunts with a startling enthusiasm.

 It feels like we lose the dramatic through-line at about the two-thirds point.  (The group seems to distance itself from Luisa after she is excluded from an indictment of the group's activities; they later reconcile with her, but it's never clear how or why. ) This is unquestionably timely stuff and I wish von Heinz had taken the time to better shape the material and clarify the dramatic arc of the story.  It's a sporadically compelling but confusing film, and it ends on an unexpectedly bleak note.

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Films of Mike Leigh - Ranked


I did not accomplish much during the Coronavirus lockdown.  I did not succeed in losing weight, getting the closets organized or writing a memoir. My ratio of Door Dash meals to home-cooked meals was about 3 to 1. But I did do one thing of lasting value - I watched every feature film Mike Leigh ever made. It was a labor of love.

I will happily tell anyone who asks that Mike Leigh is my favorite living film director. I love his humanity, his affection for the oddballs and cast-offs of the world, and the mysterious way in which he makes even the most mundane aspects of ordinary people's lives so completely fascinating and endlessly rewatchable. His films are often political even when the subject matter is not, always informed by the restless, angry moral conscience of a dedicated leftist.  Sometimes he is excessive - the villians are cartoonishly villainous, the ridiculous people not merely ridiculous but grotesque. But more often, he is empathic and compassionate in drawing the details of his characters' lives.

Leigh is not so much a storyteller as he is an observer. His films are character-driven rather than plot-driven with characters who are often sad, lonely, or struggling to make ends meet. But Leigh always takes time to give their lives a greater dimension -  to show us where they work, how they interact with their families, and what they do to let off steam. 

For me, Leigh's films are a welcome corrective to the cozy Anglophilia of the whole PBS/Downton Abbey/Acorn TV experience that dominates most Americans' ideas of Great Britain.  Both as traveler and as a cinephile, I soon get weary of gazing at the furnishings of 'great houses' or watching quirky provincial characters sip tea and solve mysteries.  I always long to know more about how ordinary people in other countries live their day-to-day lives, what worries them and what brings them joy.  Leigh's films have given me an authentic sense of that experience in the UK.

Famously, Leigh starts each film not with a finished script, but with a general premise. He chooses his cast and then they work together in long sessions of improvisation to discover and define the characters and the details of their lives - and from the process, the actual script is created.  This fascinates me. First of all, it requires a lengthy and intense commitment for the actors. But it also sounds like a wonderful, rewarding and egalitarian way for an actor to work, to have some stake in creating their character and contributing to the film's overall vision.  And apparently the actors would agree, since so many of them work with Leigh over and over again, to the point where he's essentially formed a reliable repertory company.  Among the supremely talented actors who regularly show up in his films: Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Allison Steadman, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Dorothy Atkinson, Peter Wight, Phil Davis and Martin Savage. And the list grows continually.  

Over the past few months I finally filled in the gaps in my viewing experience of Leigh's work and also spent happy hours re-visiting those of his films I'd already come to love.  Ranking these films in order of preference is probably a specious and pointless exercise - even the worst of these films is infinitely better than so many other directors have to offer. But such an exercise satisfies my left-brain-dominant need to organize things and put them in order.   And the rankings are unapologetically subjective, but I'm always to open to civil, respectful debate and challenges in the comments thread.

A caveat: this includes only Leigh's theatrically released full-length films; as such, it is not wholly representative of his career. He is a prodigious playwright and a creator of numerous television films as well.  But for an American, his feature films are by far the most accessible examples of his work, and so I have limited myself to those. (For now...)

13. Naked  (1993)

There was a strong feminist outcry against this film at the time of its release, and I am now adding my voice to theirs. Despite its generally enthusiastic critical reception and spectacular showing at Cannes (where David Thewlis received the Best Actor prize and Leigh won Best Director), I find Naked to be overwrought and disturbing.

Thewlis' role of Johnny is an actor's dream: a manic, drug-addled street philosopher whose thoughts and observations are so rapid and literate and urgent that he necessarily becomes the energy force that drives the film. And Thewlis is indeed dazzling; the performance ultimately feels more like an extended jazz improvisation than a straightforward acting role, and Thewlis maintains the unrehearsed quality of that improvisation to the end. But Johnny is an ugly and conniving character as well. The film opens on him raping a young woman in Manchester then fleeing to London where he inveigles his way into the home of a former girlfriend and her flatmate, the latter of whom is joining him in pill-popping and rough sex mere minutes after meeting him.

The women in this film are pathetic doormats who succumb far too easily to Johnny's dubious charms; this is, for Leigh, uncharacteristically mean and dismissive. It's as if no one else in the film is allowed to have any depth or personality so that Thewlis can be the show pony.  (Or no woman, anyway. Even Peter Wight as the security guard who tries to make a real connection with Thewlis is allowed to have some interesting dimensions.) And the introduction of a predatory, coked-up landlord who terrorizes his female renters only adds to that unsavory dynamic of women as ciphers and victims who orbit around pathologically charismatic men. 

12. Life is Sweet (1990)

In a film filled with loveable screw-ups and misfits, the characters played by Timothy Spall and Jane Horrocks are oddly repellant.  Spall's buffoonish, Edith Piaf-obsessed would-be restauranteur is a much nastier caricature than I ever expected to find in a Mike Leigh film. The scene in which he drunkenly destroys his failed eatery (the "trés exclusive" Regrette Rien) is almost unwatchable.  Horrocks, for her part, doesn't so much play a character as perform an elaborately overcalculated acting exercise. She's all tics and twitches and painfully strident line readings, but with a hollowness where a recognizably human vulnerability should be.

There are some lovely moments to be found here. The sweet, easy-going chemistry between Allison Steadman and Jim Broadbent  - a relentlessly cheerful, long-married couple intent on making the best of things - and a shattering, climactic confrontation between Steadman and Horrocks that almost redeems the latter's character are chief among them.  But the lingering aftertaste of those two grotesque characterizations overwhelms the film's quieter charms.

11. Peterloo (2017)

When I first saw Peterloo, I eagerly embraced its moral anger and its story's obvious parallels to contemporary injustices, even naming it one of the 40 best films of the last decade. Sadly, a repeat viewing has forced me to admit that, despite its very good intentions, this is just not the movie I remembered it to be.

This history of a little-remembered massacre of striking mill workers (dubbed "Peterloo" for taking place in St. Peter's Square in Manchester) proceeds with a great deal of back-and-forth between intimate family scenes, political meetings where the mill workers are rallied to strike for decent wages, and glimpses of the oppressors in the upper class registering their horror that workers would demand anything better than the paltry wage and grueling work hours they already have.

With its abundance of grandiloquent political speeches and expository details shoehorned into ordinary conversations, Peterloo places strenuous demands on the attention span of a 21st century audience; unlike most reviewers, however, I don't consider that a flaw.  Where it falls seriously short is in its strange lack of escalating tension as the day of the strike/massacre approaches. Leigh's weakness as a storyteller works against him here. The events leading to Peterloo demand a traditional story arc, and this collection of admittedly well-shaped vignettes don't build on each other to create a forward momentum. The massacre scene itself is disjointed and ineffectively chaotic.  It's as if Leigh couldn't bring himself to show the us the full, bloody horror of the carnage, so he cuts around to individual vignettes within the mêlée and somehow makes it all seem less awful in the process.

Also unfortunate is Leigh's choice to turn the upper class oppressors into Villians with a Capital V. They're grossly overstated caricatures of evil. Either Leigh doesn't trust us to figure out who the bad guys are without putting obvious sign posts in every five minutes or his rage at the senselessness of this episode in history overcame any impulse on his part to show restraint.  Either way, this choice doesn't work.

In spite of all that, however, I did rather like the penultimate scene in which a hideously bloated Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny in a fat suit and artfully applied jowls) receives a report of the massacre while being fed sugared jelly candies by his fawning, desiccated mistress. This scene, at least, provided the perfect horrible/ridiculous characterization of a ruling class whose indifference allowed the Peterloo massacre to proceed.

10. High Hopes (1988) 

High Hopes has a scrappy, scattershot energy that's amiable enough to breeze you past a few rough spots. Leigh sets his comedy in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of former council houses.  It's no surprise that the most likable characters are a young leftie couple in a ramshackle flat (Ruth Sheen and Phil Davis) and Davis' elderly mother (Edna Dore) who stubbornly refuses to leave her council house even as insufferably pretentious upper-middle-class couples start to fill in the block

It's also no surprise that the upwardly mobile characters are broadly drawn cartoons of clueless unearned privilege, but some work better than others. Lesley Manville and David Bamber are riotously funny as Dore's new neighbors, even if their scenes feel as though they were spliced in from an updated Noel Coward farce.  But Davis' sister (Heather Tobias), who obviously married up and is intent on flaunting it,  is a screeching, hysterical harpy who makes Jane Horrocks' character in Life is Sweet look like a woman on a heavy dose of Xanax by comparison.  The tonal shifts can be a little jarring, but every time we return to quiet, intimate scenes between Davis and Sheen, the film finds its sweet, goofy heart again.

9. Bleak Moments (1971)

My initial reaction to this film was one of frustration, and not just because I was watching a low-quality upload on YouTube (the only place you can currently watch Bleak Moments.) But then I find few things as frustrating  - in life, as well as in films - as listening to people talk past and around each other without ever really saying what's on their minds. So I'm probably not the best audience for a film filled with emotionally stunted characters who talk a lot  but never manage to say what they really want.  No one here has a breakthrough moment where they finally let their feelings out so that they get closer to or more honest with someone they care about. On some level I admired that refusal on Leigh's part to grant us a tidy resolution. But on a deeper level, I craved that kind of catharsis. 

Even so, I can admit that Leigh's debut film is accomplished and promising,  with an especially fine performance by Ann Raitt as an attractive but lonely young woman who tries and fails to form genuine connections with people. She cares for a developmentally disabled sister, tolerates a chatty co-worker, attempts a friendship with a scruffy, guitar-strumming lodger and tries like hell to get a romantic relationship going with a man who is clearly attracted to her but has no idea how to talk to her.  It's hard to watch all this without thinking "What's wrong with these people?  She's lovely - don't they get it?"  Raitt radiates intelligence and deep yearning throughout and, despite my initial misgivings, I have to admit that some scenes stayed lodged in my brain for hours after I watched it.

8.  Career Girls (1997)

Probably the most neglected of Leigh's films, and unfairly so. Career Girls is a slight, agreeable film of modest ambition. Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman play former college roommates who are reunited for a weekend in London; the film alternates between flashbacks to their days as scruffy, good-hearted but socially awkward university students and the present day where they have evolved into polished, poised - but no less good-hearted - professional women.  If the film has a flaw, it's the abundance of coincidences that pile up in one 48-hour period, allowing the two women to randomly encounter every significant person in their shared past.  Steadman and Cartlidge have a lovely, natural chemistry together and they're fun to 'hang out' with.

Cartlidge, who also appeared in Naked and Topsy Turvy, tragically died just five years later at the age of 41; you can read Leigh's lovely remembrance of her and their work together on Career Girls here.

7. Secrets and Lies (1996)

Secrets and Lies is far and away the Mike Leigh film best known to Americans - the highest grossing of his films at the US box office by a very large margin. And it was the only one to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  So you might already be aware of its main plot in which a lonely, disheveled woman named Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is unexpectedly reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption 27 years earlier (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). And that daughter, named Hortense, happens to be black. 

I recall that 'big reveal" being a bit of a big deal back in 1996, and it's the kind of twist that probably made the film more interesting and accessible to American audiences at the time. Seen again in 2020, this plot twist feels a bit gimmicky and underdeveloped.  We never find out how Hortense feels about discovering she has a white mother, nor do we learn much of anything else about her apart from the fact that she is an optometrist whose adoptive mother has recently died. Jean-Baptiste is restrained and dignified, apparently so all the drama in the film can be about the white people. Also, Cynthia's horror when she remembers Hortense's father and her refusal to talk about him suggests a traumatic experience, probably a rape - and that's another plot point that, quite rightly, won't sit well with a 2020 audience.

But none of us were particularly 'woke' in the 90s, not even Leigh apparently, and there are many commendable facets to this story as well. Cynthia and Hortense quickly develop a genuinely warm relationship.  Hortense finds Cynthia to be funny and good company, whereas most of Cynthia's family finds her whiny, needy and (least charitably of all) a "slag."  Cynthia becomes happier and finds meaning in her life, but reconciling this newfound daughter with rest of her family relationships proves to be more complicated. If Bleak Moments denied us a moment of cathartic truth-telling, Secrets and Lies provides one for the ages. In the climactic birthday party scene, all the titular secrets kept and lies told by Cynthia's family are exposed and addressed openly, amidst copious tears and many sharply raised voices. Ultimately, though, everyone ends up happier - emotionally cleansed and closer to one another than ever before.

Secrets and Lies marks a turning point from Leigh's earlier work in  a couple of significant ways. Up to this point in his career, Timothy Spall had specialized in playing weird, eccentric characters (in Leigh's films included - see the above entry for Life is Sweet).  Here Spall played Blethyn's sensitive, generous, unspectacularly decent brother, and it changed the course of his career. Also Spall's wife (Phyllis Logan, better known to American audiences as Downton Abbey's Mrs. Hughes), is initially shown as status-seeking, materialistic and obsessed with decorating her home; she's brittle and unlikable, but thankfully not ridiculous.  But she is fully redeemed once she shares her own heartache and sense of failure in the climactic party scene.  It's welcome evidence of a new generosity on Leigh's part towards a character he once would have ridiculed mercilessly.

Cutaways to Spall at work in his photography studio, with their montages of the people who come in for photo shoots, are great fun to watch - particularly to spot the Mike Leigh regulars who make cameo appearances (among them are Ruth Sheen, Peter Wight, Phil Davis and  Leigh's then-wife, Allison Steadman).

6. Mr. Turner (2014)

Exquisitely shot after a painterly fashion by Leigh's longtime cinematographer, Dick Pope, this unconventional biopic of the artist J. W. W. Turner is easily the most visually sumptuous of the director's films.  Timothy Spall's portrayal of Turner - all grunts, grimaces and servant-groping - is not particularly engaging or easy to watch, but that's probably the point.  There's a lot of meticulously rendered period detail here, but ultimately, Mr. Turner remains as impenetrable and self-contained as its titular subject.  There's a chilly, detached veneer over this entire film; it's not only the most beautiful but also the most intellectual of Leigh's films and its inspires more respect than love.  I give Leigh endless props, however, for sidestepping every cliché of the standard 'tortured artist' biopic, and allowing us to see the complexity and difficulty of Turner without ever quite telling us how to feel about him. Instead, Turner's paintings themselves are allowed to speak for him.

5. Happy Go Lucky (2008)

"This is a deceptively lightweight and free-wheeling film that actually touches on profound truths about our capacities for happiness and overcoming personal loss and pain."  That's what I wrote about Happy Go Lucky after seeing it in 2008, and I stand by that observation today.

Poppy Cross, the film's heroine (magnificently played by Sally Hawkins) is more than a beautifully realized, infinitely complex character; she also proves to be a sort of Rorschach test for the viewer.  What you see in her, how you react to her, is like to reveal how good or bad you think the world is and how much you believe you can do to change it. It's not just that watching Poppy in action forces you to identify whether you're a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person; it goes deeper than that. She forces you to think through your entire worldview.

Through Poppy, Leigh explores what happens when a perpetually cheerful person - in whom no darkness resides - collides with the less cheerful remainder of humanity. That includes everyone from a cranky bookstore clerk to a schizophrenic homeless man to a driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) whose bigotry and misogynistic rage becomes a little more apparent with each subsequent lesson. Poppy's compulsive need to break into a comedy routine whenever confronted with another person's bad mood can be exhausting, even for us the viewers; fortunately, Hawkins also finds compensating layers of warmth and compassion in her character as well.

The scenes between her and Marsan are perfectly realized. Their final ride together is heart-stopping; it culminates in Poppy's' sobering realization of her instructor's emotional pain and potential for violence.  Marsan quivers with inexpressible anguish while Hawkins wordlessly conveys both Poppy's sadness for him and her own sadness at seeing how her relentless buoyancy is perceived by someone who is truly and deeply unhappy.

4. All or Nothing (2002)

Phil (Timothy Spall) and Penny (Lesley Manville)  - long married and struggling to make ends meet - have lost their joy in life and in each other.  Penny, perpetually stressed and angry, wears her resentment like a old, comfortable jacket, no longer even aware of how bitterly she speaks to her husband. Phil moves warily through life  - hunched over as if expecting to be beaten at any moment, his downcast eyes watery and sad. Their son, Rory (a very young, almost unrecognizable James Corden) is a massively fat , foul-mouthed lay-about who verbally abuses Penny and does little but move from the sofa to the dinner table and back, while their daughter Rachel (Allison Garland) is nervously watchful, but keeps her feelings resolutely to herself.

Believe me, I've read the preceding paragraph numerous times and I realize how depressing this all sounds.  Of all the films on this list, All or Nothing is the hardest sell based on the story alone.  But here is where Leigh's skills as an observer and a collaborator with his actors prove transcendent. These characters feel so real, the performances so transparent and lived-in, that you can't help but be emotionally connected to them and invested in their stories.  And be assured, we do get some occasional moments of comic relief. When Penny's wisecracking best pal (Ruth Sheen) belts out a show-stopping rendition of "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?" on karaoke night at the pub, it almost makes you forget everything you've seen up to that point.

If that's not enough to interest you, let me just assure you of this: there is a happy ending.  When the chatty French lady shows up as a passenger in Phil's cab - carrying an enormous vase and asking him about his life and his family with genuine interest - she almost mystically becomes the catalyst for the film's hopeful resolution.  Trust me on this.

3. Topsy Turvy (1999)

"My object was to subvert period movies, to do it with people scratching their asses and being in relationships for real. If I just had been interested in period, I could have done poverty in the East End in the 1880s....I thought it more interesting to subvert the chocolate box subject itself."

That's Leigh on his decision to tell the story of how Gilbert and Sullivan revived their stagnating career in light opera by creating The Mikado.  And while there's no ass-scratching per se, Leigh manages to cover a whole lot of territory we wouldn't expect to find in a frothy musical biopic: Sullivan's merry trip to a Parisian brothel;  Gilbert's depressive personality and his apparently sexless marriage (and the toll it takes on his long-suffering wife);  the comic lead's secret morphine addiction and the leading lady's 'little problem' with alcohol.  

When a director announces an intention to subvert a well-worn movie trope, that subversion is all too often informed by a detached cynicism (see the career of Robert Altman).  Topsy Turvy, by happy contrast, celebrates rather than satirizes the world of 19th century light opera.  Sure, Leigh delivers some almost lurid backstories, but not at the expense of recreating the silly pleasures of Gilbert and Sullivan's best work.  The staged, full-length musical numbers (from both The Mikado and an earlier G&S opera, The Sorcerer) are presented in vivid color with hammy, period-appropriate acting intact and are great, delicious fun. They're all the more delightful for having seen the rehearsals, costume fittings, coaching and fussing that preceded and shaped the actual performances.

Critic Amy Taubin gave the best summation of Topsy Turvy in the liner notes to Criterion's DVD. I cannot say it better (and I have tried!): "It is both an anomaly among the films of Mike Leigh and, contrary as it may seem, a Rosetta Stone. One the one hand, it is....a far cry from the bittersweet, realistic films about contemporary working class life for which he is known.  On the other hand, it is an examination of the creative process and the collaborative work involved in putting on a show that mirrors his own methods as a filmmaker."

2. Vera Drake (2004)

Imelda Staunton's impeccably played Vera Drake is so full of good cheer, she even smiles while she's dusting furniture, as if it's her favorite thing to do.  Amidst the gloom of working class post-war London, she is a beacon of kindness and warmth to her family and neighbors - always looking to help, coyly playing matchmaker between her shy daughter and the lonely mechanic who lives in the flat upstairs. Among her good deeds is "helping girls out," her delicate euphemism for "helping pregnant girls to not be pregnant anymore." She perform abortions in a brisk, efficient manner using a rubber hose and a concoction of castor oil and carbolic soap; we witness several such procedures being administered within the first half-hour of the film. Significantly, though, Vera, never receives so much as a shilling for her services (although the conniving friend who refers her to girls in trouble does take a fee, offering Vera only some questionable deals on rationed supplies like sugar and tea in return.)

The miracle of Vera Drake is that Leigh takes a highly charged, potentially political subject and presents it as intensely personal, character-driven drama. And it's all the more powerful for that choice.  We aren't explicitly shown which characters are good or bad; there are no broad, caricatured performances to be found here (save, perhaps Vera's status-seeking sister-in-law, a minor character). We don't even find out for sure why Vera agrees to perform abortions in the first place.  A subplot involving an upper middle class girl (Sally Hawkins) who easily obtains a safe abortion is presented without comment. The officers who arrest Vera (after one of her procedures goes wrong and nearly kills a young woman) seem ambivalent about executing their duties and genuinely concerned for her, though they put her through every interrogation and procedural that the law requires.  Even the judge who hands Vera an unexpectedly severe prison sentence seems measured and almost reasonable (a welcome contrast with the Dickensian villians presiding over the courts in Peterloo). 

What we're finally left with is a deep sense of how many lives have been shattered by the time Vera is sent away.  The closing shot of Vera's family, sitting silently and forlornly around her kitchen table, resonates long after the closing credits have rolled away.

1. Another Year (2010)

Why are some people able to create happy, fulfilled lives for themselves while others remain lonely and miserable to the end of their days?

That's a question that Mike Leigh has revisited constantly throughout his career. In Another Year, his greatest and most profound meditation on that puzzle, no easy answers are proffered. Both the happy and the sad characters appear to have come from the same social class and have received more or less equal educational and economic opportunities. Yet some land in comfortable lives with happy, companionable marriages, while one has an apparently bad marriage and no happiness in life whatsoever. One has a solid career but no significant personal relationships, and yet another can't seem to master any area of her life. Yet you can feel Leigh's love and compassion for all of them in every frame.

Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) are a seemingly ideal husband and wife who've enjoyed a good life of travel, parenthood and professional success. Their cozy home is a welcome refuge for their single friends, most notably Mary (Lesley Manville) who is fifty-something and working overtime to put an upbeat, fun-loving face on a life that's become messy and unbearably lonely.  Mary is all tight skirts, low necklines, excessive white wine consumption and inappropriately flirty behavior (particularly with Tom and Gerri's 30-year-old son).  Her idea of getting her life on track is to "get up really early this weekend, sort my winter clothes, put them into plastic bags and stuff them under my bed," a plan she'll likely be too hungover to execute. Manville, in a somewhat broad but ultimately heartbreaking performance, is the chaotic whirlwind in every one of her scenes, in stark contrast with Tom and Gerri's low-key warmth and domesticity. 

Another Leigh regular, Peter Wight, makes a memorably heartbreaking appearance as Tom and Gerri's pal from university days.  Apparently never married and now surrounded by much younger people at work, he stuffs down his sadness with excessive portions of lager and crisps, and gets weepy and angry by turns after a few too many.

I've often said that not much happens in Another Year, but the little that does occur is positively fascinating to watch.  That's down to the superlative performances of the actors. Sheen, Manville and Broadbent are three of Leigh's most frequently cast repertory players and here all three are working at their peak of their craft. And yet while it's clear the actors have done their homework and fleshed out their characters to a fine point, it doesn't feel like you're watching actors at work - it feels like you're eavesdropping on real people in their actual lives.  

You can see the whole history of Tom and Gerri's marriage in just a exchanged glance or a couple of tossed-off asides between Sheen and Broadbent.  A two-second cutaway to a reaction shot from Broadbent after Manville makes one of her inappropriately flirty wisecracks and we know exactly how little Tom really cares for Mary, that he's merely tolerating his wife's friendship with her.  And these subtle layers aren't just limited to the performances of the main players.  In Oliver Maltman's performance as Tom and Gerri's son, we can see that he's appropriated his father's tendency to lighten potentially sad situations with a well-timed quip or joke, but he hasn't developed the same core of compassion that informs his father's comic tendencies. His behavior to Mary sometimes borders on cruelty. And I think we can reasonably chalk that up to the son's growing up in relative privilege, while his father came from a hardscrabble, working class background and has known some actual suffering in life.  But those details are telegraphed through the performances rather than explicitly spelled out.

In truth, something does happen in Another Year.  But it's Mary who has the tragic story arc, while Tom and Gerri's marriage continues on the same path of contented ritual from season to season. Watching Mary hit rock bottom is devastating; seeing her take very tentative, shaky steps towards a healthier life in the film's final chapter will not entirely relieve your sadness for her. But you will come away in awe of Lesley Manville, who very well may be the greatest actor in Mike Leigh's formidable company of players.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Streaming Suggestion for the Day, March 22: All About Margaret Atwood

During these trying days of social isolation, I will be passing on recommendations on good films and shows to stream.

I've loved Margaret Atwood for what feels like forever, and it has little to do with The Handmaid's Tale.

So I was thrilled to find a comprehensive, highly entertaining documentary about the author newly dropped on Hulu.  Margaret Atwood: A Word After a Word After a Word is Power has an unwieldy title, but an efficient and engrossing approach to its subject.  There's a long, late section devoted to the worldwide popularity (and multiple stage and screen versions) of The Handmaid's Tale, of course. (This is a Hulu documentary, after all.)  But more importantly, it delivers a fascinating and full-bodied portrait of an exceptional woman - warm, loving, uncompromising, sharp-eyed, good-humored and insatiably curious all at once.  And it's a welcome reminder that, long before she created the tale of Offred and the handmaids, Atwood was a potent force for feminism in literature.

The highlights of this film are a recurring series of interview clips with Atwood over the years where she reliably shuts down condescending questions (mostly from men, but not exclusively) about the harshness of her work or the unlikability of some of her characters.  She is soft-spoken and blunt in the same moment - always cutting through the bullshit, but in a seemingly patient and nice way.  She steadfastly refuses to suffer fools gladly, but manages to do so without intimidating her questioners. I'll chalk that up to her being Canadian; either way, it's an admirable trait.

But it's not all feminist polemics here.  We also see Atwood cuddling grandchildren, taking bird-watching walks in the woods with her husband, travelling and chatting pleasantly with fans who approach her in public.  What emerges is not a just a tribute to her writing, but an inspirational portrait  of woman, now 80, who is comfortable in her own skin and who has created a full and vibrant life based on solid values, creativity and restless intellectual curiosity. I came away from it not just remembering how much I loved her books, but wanting to be more like her in my life.  She's a role model for a well-lived life.

For those who may only know Atwood from the recent, resurgent popularity of The Handmaid's Tale, this documentary provides a perfect introduction to the full spectrum of her literary achievements. She was first a poet who then became a groundbreaking feminist writer in the early 1970s with The Edible Woman, Surfacing and Lady Oracle.  Her dystopian literature is not limited to The Handmaid's Tale (or its recent sequel, The Testaments - check out her MaddAdam trilogy). She's written children's books and graphic novels, too.

Obviously, the best way to delve into Margaret Atwood's genius during these long days when we're all stuck in our homes is to read her books. Libraries are closed, of course, but Kindle and Ibooks downloads are available, as is delivery from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

As I mentioned above, my Atwood fandom has little to do with The Handmaid's Tale - though it's a very good book, it's not even in my top four of her works.  (In order, my preferred titles are: Alias Grace, Oryx and Crake, Cat's Eye and The Blind Assassin.)  But dig in wherever you feel motivated to start.  

And if you really aren't ready to crack a book, but want to experience her work, may I suggest you stream the Netflix mini-series of Alias Grace. It is a masterful adaptation of Atwood's novel, written and directed by fellow Canadian Sarah Polley who finds ways to make the story startlingly relevant to our current times.  See my review here, where I ranked it the best binge watch of 2017.

That's it for today. Remember - be kind, stay safe, don't hoard.  See you tomorrow.

Friday, January 10, 2020

My 40 Favorite Films of the Decade - a Very Personal List: UPDATED 3/14/20

(NOTE: This post has been updated to show where these films can be streamed - there is also a late-breaking addition to the list.)

I did not make this list using my brain. This list came straight from my heart.

I could have assembled a list of prestigious films representing the greatest artistic achievements in cinema from the years 2010 through 2019. Instead, I have listed the 40 films that sprang to mind when I asked myself  "If I had a week to do nothing but watch movies from the last decade, which ones would I most want to see again?"

So you won't see The Turin Horse, Lincoln, Boyhood, Tree of Life, Roma. Twelve Years a Slave or any number of other great and lauded films here, even though all of those films made my individual "year's best" lists.  What you see here are the films that have stuck with me, the ones I can't shake loose and can't stop wanting see again.

In fairness, it's still a pretty impressive list overall, with a significant number of widely celebrated cinematic achievements included.  But I hope the odd, idiosyncratic choices here and there will strike a chord with my readers as well.

For any of these films which I've reviewed previously, I've included a quote from my original review - the rest have some brand new verbiage to let you know why I loved them.

In reverse order of preference, they are:

40. Paddington 2 (2018, dir. Paul King) -"There is such a welcome sweetness to a film where the stakes are no higher than Paddington's quest to send his beloved Aunt Lucy an antique pop-up picture book of London. When was life ever that simple?" (Rent on Amazon or Apple TV)

39. Brooklyn (2015, dir. John Crowley) -
"Old-fashioned in the best sense of the word, this story of a young Irish immigrant learning about who she is, what she wants and who she loves is distinguished by a beautiful performance by Saoirse Ronan and a keen sense of storytelling that it sorely missing from the hipper films of our time. (Rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

38. Under the Skin (2014, dir. Jonathan Glazer) - "It has little in the way of a conventional narrative or even intelligible dialogue, but it's seductively creepy and will more than reward your patience if you stick with it." (Netflix or rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

37. Perfect Sense (2011, dir. David McKenzie) - "A melancholy apocalyptic love story in which humans gradually lose their senses of smell, taste, hearing and sight as the world hurtles towards the end days.  The last-chance romance between two lonely commitment-phobes (Ewan MacGregor and Eva Green) is ostensibly the main story, but even more compelling is the imaginative resilience of all the characters as they adapt to, cope with, and even rise above catastrophic changes." (Rent on Amazon)

36. Gloria Bell (2019, dir. Sebastian Lelio) - One of a trio of films on this list that perfectly captured my experiences as a fifty-something woman thrown back into the dating pool.  (I've seen the original Chilean version, and liked it, too. But Julianne Moore's performance here is a triumph.) (Amazon Prime)

35. Certified Copy (2010, dir. Abbas Kiroastami) - "A fascinating fugue on the nature of authenticity in art and relationships.  And if that sounds intimidating, be assured the film is not.  An engrossing brain teaser with a lovely, emotionally supple performance by Juliette Binoche." (Netflix or rent from Amazon or Apple TV).

34. The Handmaiden (2016, dir. Park Chan-Wook) - A gorgeous and erotic adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, transported to early 20th century Japan. (Amazon Prime or rent from Apple TV)

33. Peterloo (2019, dir. Mike Leigh) - Leigh's political drama is informed by a strong, angry moral conscience; it speaks to the issues and injustices of our time as powerfully as to those in the historical era it depicts. (Amazon Prime)

32. The Congress (2013, dir. Ari Folman) - "Imagines a deceptively candy-colored but ultimately chilling and soulless future world whose harrowing consequences will only be meaningful to adults. Along the way, there's some moderately trenchant commentary on the way Hollywood disposes of actresses over 40 as well as the potential dangers of the ever-burgeoning pharmaceutical industry, There is also a testament to the enduring power of maternal love.  And about a third of the way in, the film morphs from live action to animation, employing a dazzling, sometimes nightmarish style that recalls the work of both Ralph Bakshi and Max Fleischer. Audacious, ambitious and haunting." (Netflix or rent from Amazon or Apple TV).

31. Moonlight (2016, dir. Barry Jenkins) - "A  beautiful, poetic, emotionally shattering coming-of-age drama of a young, gay, black man growing up in the projects of South Florida.  It's a linear narrative, but one that communicates most powerfully through images and wordless sequences." (Netflix, Kanopy, or rent from Amazon or Apple TV).

30. In the Fade (2017, dir. Fatih Akin) - " Diane Kruger gives a stunning, ferocious performance here as a grieving, traumatized woman whose Turkish immigrant husband and young son are killed by white supremacist bombers...Her character is equal parts broken-hearted and bad-ass - a tricky kind of duplicity to pull off, but Kruger dives deep to find the character's shattered soul and makes every step of her journey heartbreakingly transparent." (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

29. La La Land (2016, dir. Damian Chazelle) - "Chazelle infuses La La Land with a spectacular visual beauty that underscores its themes of yearnings for love, for times and art forms that are passing away, for success and artistic fulfillment. That the film builds to a bittersweet climax in no way dashes the hopefulness that drives its narrative."  (Rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

28. Of Gods and Men (2011, dir. Xavier Beauvois) - "A group of French monks in North Africa are caught between peaceful friendship with their Muslim neighbors, the violent activities of an encroaching Islamic terrorist group and a corrupt government.  Should they stay in their monastery and face whatever fate awaits them, or should they flee?  This is the question at the heart of this film, and it is not approached in any traditionally suspenseful way, but rather through a respectful and detailed depiction of the rituals of monastic life and the ways they shape and strengthen the men's faith."  (Rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

27. Museum Hours (2012, dir. Jem Cohen) - A quiet, lovely film about friendship and the power of art, in which a Canadian woman and a Viennese museum guard strike up a friendship that alleviates their mutual loneliness. Starts out in “what is this movie and where is it going?” territory - but its emotional power sneaks up on you as you go.  (Rent on VUDU or Apple TV)

26. A Quiet Passion (2017, dir. Terrence Davies) - "In the life story of poet Emily Dickinson, Davies has found his greatest female subject yet, and Cynthia Nixon gives an exceptionally complex and impressive performance in the role. Behind the period trappings and the florid, sometimes stilted dialog, we can see and feel Dickinson's passionate intensity struggling to channel and express itself within a rigid society and under the specter of her declining health." (Amazon Prime or rent from Vudu or Apple TV)

25. The Ghost Writer (2010, dir. Roman Polanski) - "Polanski's political thriller crackles with energy, tension, dark humor and edge-of-your-seat suspense. It's a throwback to the best kind of old-fashioned storytelling and one helluva entertaining film."  (Rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

24. The Shape of Water (2017, dir. Guillermo delToro) - "Del Toro's gorgeous fantasy film is a fairy-tale for grownups, embracing both the enchantment and the darkness that true fairy tales possess. It ultimately celebrates love, goodness, tolerance, and the movies themselves, while dazzling us with its gorgeous visuals and heartfelt performances."  (Rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

23. BPM (2017, dir. Robin Campillo ) - "It's full of righteously angry characters given to fiery debates, yet the film itself never feels angry or polemical.  It does, however, have energy and a well-calibrated rhythmic intensity as it cycles through scenes of Act Up meetings, dance clubs, and intimate encounters between the two lovers at the story's center.  These particular types of scenes recur at predictable intervals, and yet the shape and focus of those scenes evolves as the stakes become more desperate."  (Rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

22. The Great Beauty (2013, dir. Paolo Sorrentino) - "Paolo Sorrentino's rambling meditation on modern-day Italy as seen through the eyes of an urbane, insouciant writer named Jep Gambardella.  I could follow Toni Servillo's Jep around forever; he never runs out of interesting friends, gorgeous places to visit or profound reminisces.  And it opens with what is possibly the greatest party scene in film history, a wildly exhilarating rooftop extravaganza for Jep's 65th birthday that makes you wish you were there." (Criterion Channel, or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

21. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018, dir. Marielle Heller) - "Heller infuses the film with a palpable sense of melancholy in everything from the low-lit bars that Lee and her drinking buddy  frequent to the perfectly curated, jazz-inflected musical soundtrack.  From start to finish, it's a sad valentine to the end of an era in New York: a time when books and writers truly mattered and it was possible to live in shabby-genteel poverty on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Melissa McCarty and Richard E. Grant are wonderful together. (HBO Now or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

20. Margaret (2011, dir. Kenneth Lonergan) - "Brilliantly captures the heightened, desperate emotions of a young person's first experience of tragedy (a tragedy she may have, unwittingly, helped to bring about) against a richly detailed landscape of post-9/11 Manhattan. It's a long and meandering film, but it's ambitious in scope and rarely dull." (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

19.  A Separation (2011, dir. Asghar Farhadi ) - "I clearly remember siting in my theater seat though the closing credits as if shell-shocked.  I couldn't move and I didn't want to leave.  It is very rare for me to be so completely moved and engrossed in a film that the world falls away and I become totally involved in the character's lives  - without thinking, at all, about whether I like the film as I'm watching it or what I'm going to write about it later.  That's what seeing A Separation was like for me." (Netflix or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

18. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, dir. Wes Anderson) - "It's set in early 20th century Europe, awash in the kind of Old World elegance that I'm a complete sucker for.  But there's an undeniable heart and a sadness beneath its deceptively shiny surface. Set in a fictional middle European country on the brink of war, its hijinks are almost reminiscent of early Lubitsch comedies, but with elegiac undercurrents to remind us that this sort of civilized elegance will soon give way to brutality and never be seen again." (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

17.  The Lobster (2016, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) - "In this oddball dystopian tale, single people are rounded up and taken to a remote hotel where they have 45 days to find a mate or else be turned into a animal of their choosing. If you (like me) are a single person, you'll especially appreciate how Lanthimos finds the absurdities in society's disapproving take on the unattached and cranks them to a lunatic nth degree." (Kanopy, Netflix or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

16. Let the Sun Shine In (2018, dir. Claire Denis) - "Much the same as Juliette Binoche's character here, I did a lot of dating in 2018, and ultimately none of it turned out very well. It was oddly comforting to watch a chic, gorgeous Frenchwoman having all the same disappointments and frustrations in her dating life that I've experienced in mine.  For me, it will always be the French film version of my year on" (Rent from Vudu or Apple TV)

15. Nebraska (2013, dir. Alexander Payne) - "Nebraska is very funny and, at the same time, sad and elegiac, a perfect evocation of small-town life in the flyover states as lived by a generation that is aging into oblivion.  It may play like satire to those unfamiliar with the territory, and some may dismiss it as more of Alexander Payne's condescending comedy at the expense of rubes, but they'd be wrong on both counts.  Nebraska, a deceptively simple film, evinces a profound understanding of its characters - their unspoken dreams and disappointments, their hard-nosed common sense - as well as the slow, quiet decay of the American small town." (Kanopy or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

14. Clouds of Sils Maria (2015, dir. Olivier Assayas) - "I've recommended this film to a few friends; their reactions have been evenly split between "WTF was that?" and "That was AWESOME!"  I can't predict which of those camps you'll fall into, but maybe, like me, you'll wind up watching it four times in the space of a couple weeks. Juliette Binoche is an aging actress, Kristen Stewart is her assistant and Chloe Grace Moretz is the Lindsay Lohan-esque youger actress cast opposite Binoche in an upcoming play. Binoche and Stewart take a house in the Swiss Alps where they run lines, often while hiking in the Alps; they are electric together and fascinating to watch, sparks fly off their interactions." (Criterion Channel, Netflix or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

13. Frances Ha (2013, dir. Noah Baumbach) - "Frances Ha is a joyous and charming fable of deferred adulthood shot in the manner of a French New Wave film, right down to the black-and-white photography and the Georges Delerue score.  Gerwig - gawky, goofy and good-hearted - gropes her way towards stability through a series of odd jobs and bruising mishaps, including a literal pratfall in the street. Her full-out run through the streets of New York's Chinatown to the accompaniment of David Bowie's "Modern Love," punctuated with the occasional ecstatic pirouette or jete, was one of my favorite film moments of the year." (Netflix or rent from Amazon or Apple TV)

12. Enough Said (2013, dir. Nicole Holofcener) - "Anyone who's been on a date in middle-age will recognize themselves in the characters portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late, great James Gandolfini. Director/writer Nicole Holofcener and her actors recreate the nervous mating dance of battle-scarred-but-hopeful, forty-something singles with exhilarating accuracy, right down to the skittish, defensive comic riffs that pass for flirtation."  (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

11. Never Let Me Go (2010, dir. Mark Romanek) - "An exceptionally fine screen adaptation of Kasuo Ishiguaro's acclaimed novel, "Never Let Me Go" is a dsytopian tale with a deeply broken heart. Set in a meticulously rendered alternative version of 1980s Britain and suffused with a deep and pervasive sense of melancholy that never once abates, it lays out the terrible secrets of its characters' fates in haunting and deeply moving fashion." (Netflix or rent from Amazon or Apple TV)

10. The Death of Stalin (2018, dir. Armando Ianucci) - "Even if you've watched one of Iannucci's television shows (e.g.Veep, The Thick of It or the Alan Partridge comedies), you won't be prepared for the undercurrent of true horror in this very black political comedy.  This time, the history is true (mostly) and the stakes are real; you can hear people pleading for their lives and/or being shot just off camera even while breathlessly funny bureaucratic squabbles play out before your eyes.  It takes a particularly masterful director to get that balance right - Iannucci is up to the task." (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

9. A Dangerous Method (2011, dir. David Cronenberg) - "David Cronenberg's drama of the interconnecting relationships between Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Jung's patient, Sabina Spielrein -  brilliant in her own right and an underappreciated influence on both men's work - was a film of ideas, driven by superlative performances.  It's thrilling even when it's doing no more than reconstructing actual correspondence between the doctors; Cronenberg finds a visual rhythm that keeps these frequent epistolary passages from stopping the film dead." (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

8. Carol (2015, dir. Todd Haynes) - "I was unprepared for how beautifully screenwriter Phyllis Nagy adapted and even improved on Patricia Highsmith's odd, difficult stream-of-consciousness novella about the forbidden love between a young woman behind a shop counter and the older, affluent woman who meets her while Christmas shopping. Haynes and Nagy have created a classic love story in which both women's yearnings and heartache are distilled into the simplest, most subtle expressions and gestures, as the times they lived in would require. Ultimately it is a story about passion that is transmuted into genuine, mature love as both characters grow and sacrifice to be true to themselves while protecting the ones they love." (Netflix or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

7. Lady Bird (2017, dir. Greta Gerwig) - "You could call Lady Bird a coming-of-age story or you call it a mother/daughter drama; either or both is true, but confining it to a neat category would reduce and misrepresent what it achieves.  It's really a story about being human - about being young, unformed, hopeful and figuring life out - while at the same time, it's about the disappointments of adulthood and the anxieties and hopes that parents have for their children." (Amazon Prime or rent from Vudu or Apple TV)

6. The Master (2012, dir. P. T. Anderson) - "An enigmatic work of flawed genius, P. T. Anderson's epic was a thing of beauty, graced with exceptional acting by Joaquin Phoenix and Phillips Seymour Hoffman.  I still don't fully understand it, but I could look at it all day." (Netflix or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

5. Another Year (2010, dir. Mike Leigh) - "At first glance, not much seems to be happening in Mike Leigh's portrayal of a year in the life of a happy marriage.  But, as is the case in Leigh's best work, there's a lot going on beneath the surfaces of things, and the brilliance of the ensemble cast brings them sharply to light. It's a film that richly rewards repeat viewings, and shows Leigh's reliable repertory of players (Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville) doing some of their finest work yet."(Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

4. Phantom Thread (2017, dir. P. T. Anderson) - "I don't just watch this film - I luxuriate in it.  It's big and gorgeous, with a lush, romantic musical score... and a few distinctly creepy plot twists involving lightly poisoned mushrooms being fed to a cranky man to keep him in line.  P.T. Anderson borrows heavily from both Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean for this strange romance between a fussy fashion designer (whose life is carefully managed by his icy, controlling sister) and the deceptively mild, mouse-like woman he falls for." (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

3. First Reformed (2018, dir. Paul Schrader) - "I'm going to come right out and say it: this isn't a film for everyone, or even for most people.  Sure it's won its share of critical acclaim, but that's largely from people who've seen and studied the two European films on which it's directly based (Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light). It's austere and formal, deliberate in its pacing and sometimes downright bizarre.  But if you're inclined to give it a chance - and willing to embrace its slow rhythms and intellectual challenges - you may find yourself richly rewarded. Schrader seriously confronts questions about our responsibilities to God and one another; his film is brutal and phantasmagorical by turns." (Amazon Prime)

2. A Hidden Life (2019, dir. Terrence Malick) - This is a impressionistic art film about the terrible, lonely cost - and the ultimately transcendent value - of true Christian discipleship. It's based on the true story of a simple Austrian farmer who refused to serve in Hitler's army and the steep price both he and his family paid for that act of defiance. Yet it's not tortuous to watch; it is, in fact, a stunningly beautiful film made up mostly of quietly observed moments and details.  Malick weds his penchant for fluid tracking shots and jittery, fleeting images to an uncharacteristically (for him) linear narrative and succeeds brilliantly. It was the most intense emotional experience I've had in a movie theater in years. (Rent from Vudu or Apple TV)

1. Melancholia (2011, dir. Lars Von Trier) -  If you have the time, read my essay (linked here) from the 2016 countdown of the gratest sci-fi films at Wonders in the Dark - that article says it all.  (It's not really a sci-fi film though - the essay tells you why...) (Kanopy, Netflix or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)


I saw it too late to include it in the original post, and someday I'll figure out where it ranks on this list... but I need to add one more recommendation for ...

Rank TBD. Parasite (2019, dir. Bong Joon-Ho)

Carve out a few hours of your coronavirus-avoiding social isolation for this brilliant tragi-comedy, and see what all the fuss and jubilation at this year's Oscar ceremony was about.  Highly entertaining, provocative and sad, this tale of one South Korean family's doomed attempt to transcend their social class is a compelling and chilling wild ride.  Even my friends who normally hate sub-titled foreign films have embraced it.  One friend aptly described it thus: "If Dostoyevsky wrote a screenplay and Alfred Hitchcock directed it, it would be Parasite."  I can think of no better recommendation - see it for yourself. (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)