Nick Cave — Australian musician, composer, filmmaker, writer, artist, actor, all-around Renaissance man, with slick black hair and natty suits hanging off a long, pencil-thin frame — runs a sage, funny and heartbreakingly sincere advice column on his website The Red Hand Files. His counsel is so sharp and impassioned, you wonder: What can’t the guy do? I bet he can fly.
Recently, a precocious 13-year-old boy wrote in, asking this: “How do I live life to its absolute fullest, and not waste my potential? Especially as a creative. Also, what is a great way to spiritually enrich myself, in general, and in my creative work?”
I relished Cave’s response so much, I am excerpting a chunk of it here.
These are, to me, words to live by:
“Read. Read as much as possible. Read the big stuff, the challenging stuff, the confronting stuff, and read the fun stuff too. Visit galleries and look at paintings, watch movies, listen to music, go to concerts — be a little vampire running around the place sucking up all the art and ideas you can. Fill yourself with the beautiful stuff of the world. Have fun. Get amazed. Get astonished. Get awed on a regular basis, so that getting awed is habitual and becomes a state of being.”
Last year in Lisbon, Portugal, I was served a 12-course meal that stuffed me so brutally, I was this close to dashing to the restaurant bathroom and purging myself. I felt like an engorged zeppelin, about to burst with the sloshing goulash bloating my belly. I was in theatrical distress.
And the food, which was amazing, kept coming. And coming. I finally had to hold up a hand when the server brought the final course, which was a square of baklava the size of a matchbox. That hand said, “Cease. Go back wherefrom you came. Take that morsel of food with you. Be gone before disaster strikes.”
Still, he insisted on boxing up the dessert. I conceded. All the while an argument raged between my mind and my stomach. The mind won. By the grace of god, I did not vomit.
I was reminded of this fine-dining discomfort the other night at an eatery that’s the opposite of the gourmet Portuguese blowout: La Tapatia, a homey, festively painted Mexican restaurant/cantina in Concord, Ca., some 30 minutes east of San Francisco.
(My brother and I are in the East Bay clearing out my late Mom’s townhouse and putting it on the market. Wading through Everests of old photos is by turns amusing, exhausting, and wildly depressing.)
We adore La Tapatia and anticipated its decadent cuisine before we left the East Coast. It’s a destination spot dishing up fiercely old-school Mexican food: chips and salsa, margaritas, rice and refried beans, tacos, burritos, the whole enchilada.
With a tangy margarita, I had a chicken taco and chicken enchilada. The plate was massive, flooded in a sea of beans and rice:
It was deliriously good. But here’s the thing: I got so gorged on chips and dinner, I spontaneously puked when I got back home. It was quick and painless, and I topped it with a gin and tonic. I’m disgusting. (A girlfriend once told me I have the “constitution of a bird.” I cannot argue with this.)
To offset the stress and gloom of this seven-day trip, we’ve turned it into a foodie foray, hitting many good places — we’re eating out twice a day, every day — as well as favorite restaurants we’ve long loved in the area.
Like the scrappy, frantic joint in San Francisco’s Chinatown. From the SF airport, we went straight to our reliable haunt House of Nanking, where I had the celebrated Nanking Sesame Chicken, a dish of cosmic savoriness:
I’ve mentioned before that I own a House of Nanking t-shirt. It’s that good. I learned that scenes from “The Matrix Resurrections” were filmed there. Photos of Keanu Reeves with the beaming owner paper the windows. For some reason, I’m proud.
Yesterday we met our old friend Tony for lunch at the classy, very bougie Acre Kitchen & Bar on College Avenue in Berkeley. Though the sardines, arriving with three tiny bottles of Tabasco, were wonderful, Tony was the highlight. He’s about the nicest guy you could know, a real mensch, radiating a gentle joy that inspires faith in the world. He ate a French dip and took a selfie of us.
In Berkeley, where my brother went to Cal, we kicked around used book and record stores, working up an appetite for an early dinner at Alice Waters’ legendary restaurant Chez Panisse. Considering this could be our final trip to the Bay Area, we splurged on the crazy-expensive four-course dinner menu, which changes daily, and it went like this:
California white sea bass tartare with Meyer lemon, ginger, and fried capers
Wild mushroom ravioli in brodo with Parmesan
Corvus Farm guinea hen roasted in the hearth; with potato-rutabaga purée, spring onions, and spinach
Hazelnut sherbet and chocolate ice cream meringata
Pretentious? Nuh-uh. Chez Panisse keeps it real with a humble farm-to-table ethos that’s exquisitely prepped and presented. Service is impeccable, always with a smiling expansiveness, never fussy, and often with a quip or two. The food: spectacular without being show-offy. It’s special but to the point.
I don’t think I’m overselling the experience, because we went back two nights later (after scrambling for a coveted reservation) for the more modest à la carte menu, no less delicious and memorable. My appetizer was “sprouting broccoli roasted in the wood oven with preserved lemon and mint yogurt”; my main course was “grilled lamb leg with shoestring potatoes, glazed carrots, and red wine butter” — all of it superb, as expected.
I haven’t seen, and will not see, James Cameron’s latest self-regarding epic of glorious wonderment and spine-tingling astonishment “Avatar: The Way of Water.” I loathed the first “Avatar” — its stupefying clichés, cornball story and embarrassing gravitas gave me the willies — and I have no need for three more hours of blue-hued pablum and pixie dust.
Still, the movie — which The Guardian torpedoed as “a soggy, twee, trillion-dollar screensaver” — is of course making bundles and is, Christ, nominated for Best Picture at the upcoming Oscars. It’s all so predictable, and so terribly depressing.
Cameron’s mammoth, mystical, magical 3-D cartoon joins nine other Best Picture contenders, a few of which look interesting. I’ve only seen four and a half of the 10 films, but I know what I like — and what to shun.
The list isn’t totally offensive, yet it’s certainly not in the league of, say, the Best Picture roster of 1976: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Barry Lyndon,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Jaws” and “Nashville.” (Top that.)
Still, I did enjoy Martin McDonagh’s chatty, touching tale of a foundering friendship, “The Banshees of Inisherin,” as much for its shattering performances (led by Colin Farrell, all knitted brow) as for its emotional fragility. Baz Luhrmann’s typically over-caffeinated “Elvis” biopic was fine if rather pat and conventional considering its Visine-demanding razzle-dazzle.
I could not finish the highly (and curiously) lauded metaverse mess that is “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” its great and fitting title aside. I don’t know who this steroidal video game is aimed at (yes, I do: freaks and geeks) and I found it incoherent, unfunny and frenetically unwatchable. The baffling part: It will probably win Best Picture. Seriously.
I long ago stopped trusting Steven Spielberg not to bow to bathos, and his latest, the autobiographical melodrama “The Fabelmans,” looks like a hot, bubbly bath of bathos. Respectable reviews apart, I’ve heard it’s dreadful, only confirming my hunches. Michelle Williams is up for an acting award and I hope she gets it. She’s terrific and is likely one of the few watchable things in this movie I will not watch. I don’t even like the title.
Nothing against that elfin egomaniac Tom Cruise — I happen to think he’s an underrated actor — but I also won’t be squandering two and a half hours on “Top Gun: Maverick,” a popcorn flick without the laughable high-minded pretensions of “Avatar.” How this show about penises with wings got nominated I will never know. Because I won’t be seeing it. But good for it!
In Todd Field’s “Tár” a commanding Cate Blanchett plays the titular classical conductor, an imperious and imposing figure, the artist as viper. A chamber piece cum character study, this coiled drama entrances with theatrical flair and a seriousness that lends it a sheen of prestige. I like it.
Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s famous anti-war novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a huge German production directed with gloomy zest by Edward Berger and starring piles of mutilated war dead. It’s grisly, affecting and deeply human. The film shimmers with ghastly beauty and unstinting realism — irresistible Oscar bait.
Snubs? While I’m happy Noah Baumbach’s irritating “White Noise” was dissed wholesale, the rejection of delirious Indian action orgy “RRR” for Best International Feature Film is scandalous. (Though it is — whoopee — up for Best Song. Watch it on Netflix. Please.) James Cameron, self-proclaimed King of the World, was denied a Best Director nod for “The Way of Water.” I bet he’s having a seismic hissy fit.
Finally in the Best Picture race are Sarah Polley’s #MeToo-ready drama “Women Talking” and Ruben Östlund’s dark international satire “Triangle of Sadness,” neither of which I’ve seen yet. Critics love them. They are probably good, maybe even superb, and for that they will win nothing.
1. Way behind on the cult British crime saga, I’m discovering the gritty and gruesome pleasures of “Peaky Blinders,” an uncompromising gangster epic bristling with politics, razor blades, gamblers, guns, and unvarnished thuggery.
Set in Birmingham, England, just after World War I, the Netflix series is a fearsomely atmospheric blood opera starring a rogue’s gallery of dapper gangsters with deep family roots and a hunger to stay in power. It openly, inevitably recalls “The Godfather,” “The Sopranos” and, on a knife and knuckle street level, “Gangs of New York,” with perhaps more thematic tentacles.
The show is fronted by Cillian Murphy as crime boss Thomas Shelby, whose smoldering menace can burn a hole like a bullet. One website has voted him the Greatest TV Character of All Time, a testament to Murphy’s pit bull commitment and conviction. He unnerves every time he’s onscreen, makes you shift in your seat. Pepper the grimy period setting with tunes by Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and White Stripes and you get more than anachronistic friction; you get gang-banging with a boogie beat.
2. Listening to Nirvana’s short, punchy songs, it struck me again why the band is so good and lasting: Almost lick for lick, Nirvana is as infectiously hooky as the Beatles.
And on the Beatles — my favorite band, and I’m not a hundred years old — I liked this line from “The Idiot,” Elif Batuman’s riotous novel of the head and heart: “The Beatles turned out to be one of the things you couldn’t avoid, like alcohol, or death.”
3. You also can’t avoid Marvel and its muddleheaded mayhem in the current cinema, a soul-battering bummer. But there do exist little oases floating past the aesthetic carnage, attractive indie films like the raunchy, uproarious “Zola” and my latest favorite, “The Worst Person in the World.”
The grabby title is slyly misleading in this dark rom-com drama about a young woman who skitters between jobs and lovers while surfing life’s foibles. Joachim Trier’s prickly Norwegian charmer, ablaze with insinuating characters and sexy anecdote, is told in 12 fluid chapters, led by endearing star Renate Reinsve, who won best actress at Cannes for her intricate portrayal of a woman in flux. Hardly the worst person in the world, she’s a millennial supernova.
4. Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel “Lapvona” is grossing out reviewers with its blithe violence and panoramic depravity. (Is Moshfegh the worst person in the world?) The medieval fable, set in a village rife with plague and other misfortunes, is earning wildly mixed reviews, many of them lashing in their displeasure, even from fans of Moshfegh’s previous dark fictions (“Eileen,” “Homesick for Another World”).
I’m a fan as well, and I’m steeling for a rough ride. I’m only on page nine, and here’s a verbal taste: “disemboweled” “heads of the dead,” “a bone sticking out through the flesh,” “animal excrement.” (Page nine.) The book, in all its gloppy mucus and viscera, came out this week — which makes it the perfect summer beach read. You heard it here first.
Stay away. We’re contagious. First my nephew caught Covid, then I did. Now my brother has it. Next up: the dog.
This too shall pass, this rottenness, and I’m happy that the virus, for now, is behind me. It’s just one small blessing in muddled times, a jagged slab of flotsam to hug while the ship sinks.
There are other things. Like Elif Batuman’s new novel, “Either/Or,” which I’ve plugged here before briefly. It’s one of few passing pleasures right now, be it a startling observation about love or a suave turn of phrase that knocks me dizzy.
Or a jab of insight glinting with wry misanthropy:
“Of course, you couldn’t have a party without alcohol; I understood this now. I understood the reason. The reason was that people were intolerable.”
Or any number of absurdist gems:
“I hadn’t a clear mental picture of his new girlfriend, Lara, and realized that I had almost expected her to look blurry.”
But what’s a small delight to me may be imperceptible to you.
Unless you’re traveling abroad and you’ve just learned that the U.S. has lifted its Covid testing requirements to return to the States — a major hassle deleted from an already stressful travel climate. I recently had to take the test in Portugal and Italy to get back home and the logistics were near-traumatic.
So rejoice for that minor miracle. And why not the same for Monkey 47, a richly aromatic, botanically fierce, impishly named gin that I’ve rediscovered and is well worth the price. Even the gin-averse extol its ample virtues. It may be the best gin on the shelf, a smooth bracer for rough days.
What else is keeping me warm, now, when the skies are dark? The crack and screech of Brandi Carlile’s voice on her song “Broken Horses.” The zesty mazeman noodles at Ani Ramen House. Penélope Cruz’s febrile, heartrending performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s stirring melodrama “Parallel Mothers.” My unquenchable wanderlust. Bongos. That woman at the cafe. Books, mountains of them.
Just yesterday, Argentina lifted its Covid test requirements to enter the country. That had me high-fiving the heavens, until I realized it’s not that big a deal, just the removal of a minor headache on the to-do list of travel planning. Still, I’m very happy, as it’s one less document hassle, one less trip to the pharmacy and one less molestation of my mucus membranes.
Even more exciting is my finding a flight to Buenos Aires in July for $200 cheaper than the flight I almost bought. And I’ve also realized the time difference between here and Argentina is a piffling two hours, which should mean minimal to zero jet lag. These serial boons bode well for a trip that was hatched just days ago. What next? I get bumped to First Class with my own personal masseuse?
That’s all good news for this pessimist (aka: a frequently disappointed idealist), who tends to see the glass not half-full, but smashed to pieces on the floor after accidentally bumping it with a clumsy elbow, the half-empty contents gone splash. July is three months off, and a lot can happen. The world walks on rickety stilts, and banana peels abound.
For now, I’ll keep planning for the nine-day trip, while life cartwheels forth. Outside, birds tootle like madmen and the sun beats down with self-satisfied ardor. The dog grumbles at the plumber. I play drums to an old-school roster that includes Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” and Metallica’s “Sad But True,” with B-sides of Black Crowes and Beck.
I finally saw “Licorice Pizza” — Paul Thomas Anderson’s charming, frustrating mess (it’s a big shaggy dog licking you all over the face), led by the seductively quirky Alana Haim — and shut off the Will Smith tennis-dad vehicle “King Richard” when it failed to transcend ingratiating, made-for-TV pablum.
I’m beguiled by the snappy, scrappy Netflix sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” whose 22-minute episodes I dip into like greasy finger snacks. And in the spirit of Argentina, I might, just maybe, watch the goopy 1997 musical “Evita,” starring Madonna as Eva Perón.
(Fun facts: The director of “Evita,” Alan Parker, was a master genre-hopper: “Fame,” “Pink Floyd — The Wall,” “Midnight Express,” “Angel Heart,” “The Commitments,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Angela’s Ashes,” and more. I once interviewed him. He was a mensch. Then I was assigned to review his new movie, “The Life of David Gale.” I gave it one star.)
But back to Buenos Aires, because that’s what really has me in its clutches. More good news on that front: I cinched a seat for in-demand steakhouse Don Julio, which is rated #34 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I probably eat steak four times a decade, and since it’s an Argentine thing, I’m definitely tucking in. My chest may implode. I don’t care.
I’m sure I’ll eat a mess of foods I don’t normally eat, as I recently did in Portugal (veal, pork sausage) and Italy (beef cheek, suckling pig). I like to do what the locals do. I feel all authentic — and often horribly guilty.
To me, that’s the point of travel. Tasting the new (an entire cobra in Hanoi), witnessing the exotic (billowing funeral pyres in Kathmandu), grazing danger (being detained by Hezbollah in Beirut), meeting cool people (all those faces!).
Buenos Aires is sure to offer some of that. Places rarely fail me. And things are going well already. That thumping you hear is me frantically knocking wood.
There was the one-legged kid with the giant mouth who sold us homemade firecrackers for 25 cents a pop on the playground. That was Clayton, grade four, with a wooden leg and a broad freckly face topped by a shaggy pageboy. I still don’t know why Clayton had one leg. But he got along, though with a strenuous limp that made him look like a lurching scarecrow.
Those were some times, grade school in Santa Barbara, Ca., when John Travolta, John Ritter and Jonathan Livingston Seagull soared. When skateboarding became a bowl-swooping craze and the Boogie Board vaulted bodysurfing to radical crests. And when Pong and Space Invaders rocked high-tech recreation with bleeps (and, face it, creaks).
Jim Jones and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Darth Vader and “Dancing Queen.” The time machine churns and Clayton, poor Clayton, is probably selling TNT to demolitionists in Arizona these days. Light the fuse …
Boom! That’s KISS, circa 1978. All fire and folderol. And, for a fourth grader, everything alluring wrapped in one blinding bundle: sex, rock ’n’ roll, explosions, noise, mayhem, tongue-flinging personas in makeup and costumes.
Not a good look. Things rarely age well, unless it’s wine, or Cheryl Ladd.
Some things last. Queen and the Ramones. “Annie Hall” and “Apocalypse Now.” Bowie and Belushi. Richard Pryor and Richie Cunningham. Didion and De Niro. Rodney Allen Rippy and priggish Charmin pitchman Mr. Whipple. And yes: “Maude.”
What we’re getting at is memory and endurance, how they’re braided, and the randomness of it all. It started with Clayton’s cheap firecrackers — painted silver, with the fuse strangely in the middle, not the top — a fond memory from when I wore Keds sneakers and Sears Toughskins and had hair like Adam Rich.
Apparently out of nowhere I had a flash of Clayton, always with that enveloping smile, his disability be damned, and everything came rushing back in mere seconds, and with it the world.
It’s safe to say Quentin Tarantino doesn’t like me. We enjoyed several years of mutual respect, perhaps even admiration. But some time ago we lost that loving feeling.
I’m not entirely sure what happened. Was it the fact that I pretty much loathe his movies, except for ‘90s masterworks “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” and that, as a film critic, I got to say that and more in wide-circulation print? Probably.
The last interaction I had with the hopped-up hipster helmer was when he cancelled our interview mere minutes before the appointed time. No official word why — the publicist was at a loss — but I was still oddly flattered, even thrilled. QT had cut me off. Shucks. Cool.
And things were so good! I’ve sat down with and interviewed Tarantino at least four times, and watched many classic grindhouse flicks with him during his annual QT Film Festival in Austin. I wrote an effusive article about the festival that he told me he loved and went on and on about. I’ve been at several parties for him. I once honked and waved when I saw him walking down the street. He waved back.
Yet he’s always been thorny and brusque, too, like when he sat behind me during Richard Lester’s 1973 swashbuckling comedy “The Three Musketeers” and I left early to chat with someone in the lobby.
After the movie, back in my seat, I turned to him and told him how much I loved the movie as a kid. “That doesn’t mean shit if you weren’t watching it now,” he snipped. I turned back around, chastened, a whipped mutt.
Being berated by a major talent isn’t so bad. It’s kind of exhilarating. For two seconds they’re lavishing undivided attention on you. You feel a tiny bit important, even if you’re wincing.
Mouthy and explosively passionate, Tarantino gives great interview. The man can gab, and he has plenty to say. Intense, garrulous, profane and scary-smart, his encyclopedic film knowledge rivals Scorsese’s, if the elder director was obsessed with biker schlock and zombie-cheerleader exploitation. His tireless hands make wild semaphores and he accents thoughts with assertive “All rights?” — a rhetorical flourish that he’s almost trademarked. I liked this whorl of energy quite a bit.
He still makes garbage. Accomplished garbage, but garbage nonetheless. People often ask me why I find QT’s movies almost unbearable. The short answer is that they’re sophomoric, shamelessly derivative, self-satisfied, indulgent, juvenile, unfunny and, worse, brutally tedious. The fetishized violence is exasperating and the three-hour run times denote an egomaniac’s lack of discipline. The films, from the asinine “Inglourious Basterds” to the odious “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” are baggy and boring.
I never told him he made crap. I did write a negative review of the first “Kill Bill” and I may have talked up my aversion to nonsense like “Death Proof” to fellow film folk. The Austin movie scene, in which Tarantino often hung, is insular and gossipy.
One of my last QT encounters was at the party for “Grindhouse,” a double feature that includes the rotten “Death Proof.” I conducted a quick stand-up interview with Tarantino before he joined friends and colleagues.
Later, my friend got a free poster of the movie and asked Tarantino to sign it — a searing faux pas. Tarantino was livid. “This isn’t some Target opening and I’m not Ronald McDonald greeting the kiddies,” he told my friend. “This is just me hanging out with my friends at a party. So, no, I won’t sign it.”
He was genuinely miffed, gesticulating, that iconic jaw jutting. The group of guys sitting around him passed around a joint and cracked up. I was mortified, my friend devastated.
But that’s QT. I don’t begrudge him that emasculating dressing-down. In fact, he sharply cautions fans not to approach him for autographs at his festivals and parties. Come talk about the movies, great, but no panting fanboy b.s. (A paradox, since Tarantino is the biggest fanboy of all.)
My autograph-hound friend: guilty. Off to movie jail.
Which is where I feel I am after Tarantino fired me as a journalist and an acquaintance. I’ve been upbraided by other disenchanted celebs — Sandra Bullock, Bud Cort, Ethan Hawke, Mike White — but this felt personal. We had a years-long rapport, bumpy but true. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t have to like me, and I don’t have to like his movies.
God bless him: He has sworn he is done making films, that he would quit “at the top of my game” (in which I ask: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is the top of your game?). And I’m done with panning films (well, mostly).
I suddenly picture Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi pointing guns at each other in “Reservoir Dogs,” two killers gripped in a dangerous truce. QT and me, after a fashion.
This actually happened. From 2012 to 2015, the Disney Channel aired a sitcom called “Dog with a Blog,” which was about the loopy shenanigans of a cookie-cutter suburban family whose dog just so happens to talk.
And type. And write. So good is the dog, Stan, at writing that when everyone’s in bed, he slinks off to the glow of the family computer and authors a blog entry, reflecting on the day’s events, affairs and lessons. He does it in a wry voiceover mash of Steven Wright and Woody Allen (furnished by comedian Stephen Full).
In the TV-spotless house of five, only the kids know Stan can talk. Of course the parents, big dopey grownups, have no clue the mutt can mutter. A show description: “The children learn of Stan’s talking ability and agree to keep it a secret from their parents, fearing if the world finds out that Stan can talk, he will be taken away for experimentation.”
I watched “Dog with a Blog” with my pre-tween nephews, and it was one of the few kid’s shows I survived (the essential, wackadoodle “Adventure Time” is another). It’s actually very funny; not excessively clever, but wreathed with Stan’s dry, sardonic quips, which have a soft adult edge.
Now, my dog, Cubby the Incandescent, also happens to blog. He’s followed my lead and decided he needed a forum for his daily observations and deep contemplations, things the world should know. Blogs: the great dumping grounds.
I’ve got Gnashing and, Cubby, as a canine, aptly has Gnawing. He’s quite adept at navigating the laptop keyboard, even if he occasionally hits the wrong key. As Stan says on the show, “Delete. Well, that couldn’t be clearer. Or more hurtful.” (Dear doggies, man isn’t your best friend; Command Z is.)
Though the kids know Stan talks, no one on the sitcom is aware Stan blogs. I sort of wish no one knew I blogged, and in fact, most of my closest friends are oblivious. If they find this place, great. I just don’t feel like advertising it.
Why? Plain shyness. Writing is partly a private act, I think, though obviously I want to get some of it out there. It’s complicated. (Notice I post no recent photos of myself or my last name on this site. I’m the stealth blogger.)
Cubby is more of a hambone. (Stan, I don’t know. It’s never clear who his readership is, if anyone.) Cubby will carry on about chasing the cats away from his bone, like a big hero. He’ll crow about yelping maniacally at the FedEx guy, as if the FedEx guy gives one goddam. He’ll lament the trauma of getting groomed (even though he takes sedatives before his haircuts). And somehow he wrings material from napping 16 hours a day. I’m pretty sure that’s where he cooked up the entry about hunting dik-diks on the Serengeti.
Me, I go for the absurd, offbeat, anecdotal and reminiscent, with some straight-up travel dispatches and lots of made up phooey. Unless you’re hawking a service — all those preening fashion, workout and health sites — the point of a blog, I think, is to entertain, elicit a laugh, enlighten with fun facts and regale with good photography. It’s to get personal, reveal who you are, and sometimes wrap it all in old-fashioned folderol.
Like this whole post. Purely asinine. Though it goes to show the variety of blogs and bloggers out there doing hard work for their respective audience. We’re a motley crew.
So my movie-watching in this Covid cocoon is drastically spotty — I have yet to see Korean-American family drama “Minari” or Anthony Hopkins as “The Father,” both Oscar winners — and I find myself returning to favorite films, classics new (“John Wick”) and old (“The Thin Man”).
What’s stuck with me of late is a passel of small newish movies, from “The Rider” to “Eighth Grade,” that could easily be missed by casual viewers, despite the pictures’ celebrated exceptionalism.
I’ve culled 10 semi-obscure indie pearls from the past several years, 2013 to 2020, a few of which I’ve gushed about before, and many coincidentally released by A24, the hot independent distributor that’s crushing the competition with curatorial savvy.
I’ve seen the following titles at least twice, except for “Uncut Gems,” whose mad, relentless intensity has, two years later, left me spent. It’s a bruiser. And a winner.
Onward. These are 10 great indie films highly worth your time, in order of release:
“Locke” (2013) — A desperate everyman (the brilliantly intense Tom Hardy) is in the driver’s seat, literally, for the movie’s entire 85 minutes. Yes, he’s driving the whole time. The camera never leaves him as he negotiates via smart phone personal tumults on the winding highway of life. It sounds grueling, claustrophobic and static. It’s not. It’s gripping, hypnotic, and exhilarating.
“The Witch” (2015) — The smartest, creepiest, most stylish horror picture in years, Robert Eggers’ frightfully immersive period chiller lands us in woodsy 1630 New England, where a family is torn apart by the disappearance of one of its children. Suspicions target eldest daughter Thomasin (wide-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Queen’s Gambit”), who may have flirted with the dark arts. Then there’s that menacing dancing goat, who’s not quickly shaken. Beware Black Phillip.
“Tangerine” (2015) — Oh, is she pissed. When transgender hooker Sin Dee hears that her boyfriend and pimp cheated on her while she was in jail, she pops with glorious fury, tracking down him and his new lover and exacting a kind of sassy L.A. revenge that includes an inordinate amount of hair pulling. Move over, she’s stomping the sidewalk in teetering heels, cracking wise and hunting heedlessly. Sean Baker shot this scruffy, no-fi, Day-Glo gem on an iPhone, with stunning results. Raunchy and hilarious, it shimmers like a smoggy SoCal sunset.
“Good Time” (2017) — With flickers of the young Pacino and De Niro, Robert Pattinson is revelatory as a scrappy, dangerous two-bit criminal who’s on the lam after a comically/tragically botched bank robbery. The feisty film, by the gifted Safdie brothers, pulls you on a rousing run-for-your-life tumble through nocturnal Queens that’s at once loose-limbed and sweatily taut. A raw portrait of redemption and ruin, pocked with ground-level authenticity, it thrills as it harrows.
“The Rider” (2017) — Chloé Zhao’s understated drama moves at the painstaking clip of everyday life, much like her recent Oscar-winner “Nomadland.” But little is everyday here: Brady (non-actor Brady Jandreau) is a rock star of rodeo bronc riding, until an accident in the ring leaves him slightly brain damaged. He’s forced to give up the only life he knows, outside of breaking colts, which he does with a calm, tough-love Jedi mastery. The film is a fine-grained portrait of the pains of getting back on your feet after life-altering disappointment, about rebuilding your spirit after it’s been body-slammed and shattered. Easily the most moving film of 2017, “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie.
“Eighth Grade” (2018) — Her chin and forehead dappled with islands of acne, 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly and bucky, will break your heart. Played by the perfect Elsie Fisher, Kayla is the magnetic lead in Bo Burnham’s indie wonder. She’s an arpeggio of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. It’s about today’s kids, glued to their phones, glazed in technology, and forging one’s individuality amid willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for the times, lives by her words, the dictums she professes on the videos she so bravely records on her phone. It doesn’t always work out, but watch her grow mightier upon each posting.
“Los Reyes” (2019) — In this inadvertently poetic, profoundly affecting doc from Chile, the camera veers from the skateboarding youth who cruise sinuous bowls to examine the laidback lives of BFFs (best furballs forever): Football, the elder, creaky-jointed cur, and Chola, the frisky female chocolate Lab mix that occasionally tries to hump a large pillow. Dispensing with anthropomorphic cutes, this astonishingly patient film relies on the dogs’ alternately mirthful and mournful antics, quizzical gazes, the way they doze unfazed among the rackety-clackety skaters, or a simple shot of Chola standing statue-still in the rain, getting soaked with the patience of a penitent.
“Uncut Gems” (2019) — Adam Sandler is off the hook, and it’s enthralling, like a buzzsaw to the head. In full serio-comic mode — he’s funny and foredoomed — Sandler plays a blingy, dingy New York jeweler who sees dollar signs even when there aren’t any. When he makes a reckless, big bucks bet that could set him up for life, he gets ensnared in a web of business buds, family and foes who all want a piece. Writers-directors the Safdie brothers (of the above “Good Time”) sustain such a frenetic frenzy in this chamber dramedy, you may feel wrecked.
“My Octopus Teacher” (2020) — The octopus cautiously unfurls a tentacle like a flower blooming in a time-lapse photo to the human hand before her. It glances the hand then suddenly sucks it, gently pulling it toward her. The moment carries the pitter-patter of courtship. Could this be love? “That’s when you know there’s full trust,” says the owner of the suction-cupped hand, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster, in his rare doc. A viral smash, the film won this year’s best documentary Oscar. It’s something else: a simple tale about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery cephalopod in the swaying kelp forests of South Africa. Quietly instructive, it goes from lush nature doc to poignant octo-poetry.
“Saint Maud” (2020) — Poor innocent Maud. A reclusive nurse seeking Christian devotion after a vague trauma, she becomes the caretaker of an aging dancer dying of cancer. Detecting weakness, and death, Maud (a pretty, pallid Morfydd Clark) kicks into high gear, striving to save her ward’s soul from hellfire with an eerie resolve straddling the sacred and profane. Supernatural phenomena unfurl with a tang of Christian creepiness. Nothing is obvious in Rose Glass’ weird spiritual thriller, especially an amazing climax that will leave you snickering in squirmy, baffled awe.