1.The copout final shot in the Chloë Grace Moretz LGBTQ drama “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” Without resolving anything dramatically, director-writer Desiree Akhavan avoids the hard work of crafting an actual ending, letting her and her characters off the hook by sticking them in the back of a pick-up truck to literally drive off into the sunset, then: fade to black. Such open-ended fade-outs — what will happen to our beloved heroes? — are not only lazy but a rancid cliché of undercooked indie filmdom. (Wait. Was I supposed to say: Spoiler alert!)
2.The local wallpaper-tattooed hippie-hipster barista who, when asked how he’s doing, invariably replies, “Livin’ the dream!” (Spoken in a groovy Jeff Spicoli cadence.)
3. Pro sports. I have no stomach for fans’ foaming-at-the-mouth, chest-thumping, near-nationalistic posturing, the players’ obscene paydays, the blanket machismo and braggadocio, the snarling, whooping competitiveness. It’s a gross, alien world that, save the occasional semi-civilized soccer match, I find revolting. Any artistry is sheer brute. I’m a bit like author Roxane Gay: “As a child, I was awkward, unathletic and uninterested in becoming athletic. I was not a team player. I was a dreamer, something of an oddball loner. I wanted to spend all my time with books.” Then there’s the waspish H.L. Mencken who injects venom: “I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.” Oh goodie: Football season is upon us.
4. If you don’t read the weekly book reviews byDwight Garner in The New York Times, you are missing some of the freshest, funniest, metaphor-drunk reviews in mainstream newspapers. You are, alas, culturally bereft. But I have a pet peeve (even the best aren’t immune): his unfailing penchant to quote other writers in 99-percent of his essays. Not writers he’s reviewing — that’s expected and apropos — but other writers, as if he can’t think up his own ideas. (“As Hunter S. Thompson said about firearms …,” or “To quote Bob Dylan on heartache …”) It’s a crutch he can’t relinquish. I devour his stuff, but his quotation-happy habit stops me cold. (Yes, I use quotes, too, but I’m not writing for the rarefied Times.)
5.Middling to badstand-upcomedy specials flooding Netflix. Such jollity as the new “Demetri Martin: The Overthinker,” a depressingly anemic stand-up hour showcasing a once-hilarious comic in full sputter. Also schticking up the streaming service: Patton Oswald, who, on stage, is a peg above pedestrian; Judah Friedlander, a wan, wannabe Mitch Hedberg; the meh Noah Trevor; the slick Iliza Shlesinger, all harpy cutes; the shrill, aggressively pregnant Ali Wong (watch how she practically weaponizes that big old baby bump); and floundering fat-joker Gabriel Iglesias.
But let’s cool down and depart with a smiley-face emoji, tongue out, winking. Netflix tucks sparkling gems into the mix, like Fred Armisen’s joyfully sui generis “Standup for Drummers,” John Mulaney’s knock-dead “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City,” Aussie comedian Hannah Gadsby’s devastating “Nanette” (caveat: she may change your life), and the beyond-words brilliant “‘Oh, Hello’ on Broadway,” starring John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, whose marksman satire is so inspired and athletically sustained, you’ll be craving the most overstuffed tuna sandwich you’ve ever seen. (Watch the show. Then you’ll know.)
Her chin and forehead dappled with continents of acne — I thought I spotted an inflamed Australia — 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy with rumpled long blonde hair, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly-crooked and slightly bucky, will break your heart.
Kayla, played by a preternaturally perfect Elsie Fisher, is the can’t-keep-your-eyes-off lead in Bo Burnham’s indie hit “Eighth Grade,” and she’s a compendium of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged.
I kept wincing, re-feeling those awful transitional days, the insecurities, the free-floating dread, the fluttering anxiety — and the irrepressible excitement of the new.
But that’s not the movie’s point. “Eighth Grade” isn’t about me and my cohorts’ feathered hair, terrycloth polos, flared corduroy Levi’s and those giant combs hanging out our back pockets. Or the flubbed first kisses and mortifying social fumbles.
As Owen Gleiberman puts it in Variety: “The beauty of ‘Eighth Grade’ is that it’s highly specific and generational. It’s the first movie to capture, in a major way, the teenage experience of those who have only existed on this planet during the digital era.”
In other words, it’s not about us geezers and our times bridging, torturously, eighth-grade and high school. It’s about today’s kids, like my niece, who’s exactly in Kayla’s fashionably beat-up sneakers. She’s 13. She’s glued to her phone. I wish her good luck.
It’s about forging one’s individuality amidst willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for our times, I truly believe, 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 stronger after each posting.
For all the bracing, spot-on scenes in Burnham’s dynamic debut — the movie is really a 90-minute reel of the smashingly real — I picked out my favorite midway through. Kayla is alone in bed at night and she’s surfing a kaleidoscopic stream of videos, social media, Instagram and whatever kids sift at no attention-span speeds. The music, playing loudly on the soundtrack, is sublime.
It’s the most affecting use of Enya’s 1988 harp-heavy hit “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” I’ve ever heard. The scene actually redeems the woozy, New Agey song. Lush, lyrical and frenetically up-to-the-minute, the sequence is a masterpiece of visual-aural agreement. It weirdly moved me, and it encapsulates the undeniable artistry, the tender emotional truth of this excellent film. For a brief moment, Kayla soars.
It’s one of the highest rated movies of the year — people love this thing — but I wasn’t enamored with Marvel’s “Black Panther,” a slick, savvy vehicle that got predictably bogged down in mythical mumbo-jumbo, comic-book convolutions and contrivances that I hadn’t the energy to follow or care about.
I’m pretty sure my Marvel/DC movie days are behind me. The films are tedious, head-rattling, kind of stupid and rarely fun. That said, I crushed on last year’s tough-minded “Logan” and relished the smart-alecky wit writer-director Taika Waititi smuggled into the whomping cacophony of “Thor: Ragnarok.” (If that movie amused, see Waititi’s whip-smart “What We Do in the Shadows,” a hilariously deadpan vampire mockumentary whose cult-classic status continues to swell.)
So even skirting the lumbering, stumbling franchises — sorry “Solo” — I’m still behind on this year’s movies. I haven’t even seen Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” which I expect to be a mild amusement, more cracked smiles than snorts and giggles. I will see it, more because I like dogs than I like Anderson.
What I have seen of note are four features that regaled with smarts and originality. To wit:
Mister Rogers was a badass. Twinkly television host, child advocate, public broadcasting pioneer, musician, writer, Presbyterian minister, seat-of-the-pants puppeteer, colorful cardigan fetishist and all-around super fella, Fred McFeely Rogers (McFeely!) held a special passport into fledgling hearts and minds to become a noble pied piper of cheering children across the land.
He worked his educational magic with a voice of honey and silk, a lilting, cooing instrument so soothing it could place you in a spontaneous coma, and a dapper dependability that made him seem like the safest person in the world. He was made of gumdrops and hugs, and soaring imagination.
Not a scintilla of this hagiographic portrait is tarred in the straightforward, illuminating and touching documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a critical and audience smash that follows the self-styled teacher of tots as he crafts his TV programs, mainly the paste-and-plastic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran from 1968 to 2001 on PBS.
It’s an adoring snapshot, a trippy bit of time-travel effusive with nostalgia and bolted together by Rogers’ nearly A.I. perfection. His virtuosity almost cloys: he was a wonderful husband and father (no! Not gay!), and his Midas touch with preschoolers was no fool’s gold. In the sphere of pedagogy, his sainthood is locked.
You slip behind the scenes ofthe papier-mâché realm of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and meet the show’s gallery of ragged thrift-shop puppets (the meow-meowy Henrietta Pussycat looks like a relic of the Victorian age), actors and crew, with lots of laughter and nary a wisp of negativity. Showered in praise, Rogers’ native humility pops open like a big umbrella.
It’s all here, all fascinating, all squeaky-clean. The movie’s about the imperishable legacy of Mister Rogers, who died in 2003, that’s cheery, oozing empathy and strenuously loving till the very last huggy squeeze.
Rogers was a smiling, sugar-dusted Presbyterian minister — a whole other animal than Ethan Hawke’s furrowed, profoundly conflicted Protestant minister in Paul Schrader’s searing spiritual drama “First Reformed,” one more knockout picture of the season.
The underrated Hawke, in his most hoarse, laser-beam performance, plays Rev. Ernst Toller, a plainly clinically depressed man of enforced solitude who is too enmeshed in overwhelming epistemological questions for all that mainstream life stuff. He lives on the margins. He lives for God. He lives to save others, if not himself.
Schrader taps into his unshakable lodestar — Bergman and Bresson’s transcendental cinema of existential turmoil, spiritual struggle and personal despair — and fashions a dire universe for Toller, one consumed by crises of faith, guilt and penitence. Toller drinks too much. He suffers ominous stomach pains. He keeps a troubled diary. He meets a woman.
Eco-terrorism, love and redemption crash his cloistered life, which Schrader portrays with verbal maximalism and visual minimalism. And he leaves you with an ending that invites either bewilderment or overdue catharsis.
Like Toller, viewers will find themselves entangled in the film’s philosophical and theological brambles. Austere, glacial and bruised, “First Reformed” is not an easy picture. But it feels like a necessary one.
Pain is also a prevailing theme in another of the year’s best, “The Rider,” but it’s physical rather than psychic pain, the kind inflicted when the hoof of a bucking bronco jackhammers into your skull.
That’s the case for young Brady (played by non-actor Brady Jandreau with heart-pulping sensitivity), a one-time rodeo hero whose injury in the ring has sidelined him for good. Lost, his story is one of recovery and rediscovery, of a stubborn cowboy trying to compromise in a desolate, hardscrabble environment that’s unforgiving that way.
Easily the most moving film of the year —I rhapsodizedabout how affecting this people-scale drama is here — “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie by writer-director Chloé Zhao. It’s probably my favorite movie of the year.
Staying in cowboy country but in an artificial version compared with the unflinching realism of “The Rider” is “Damsel” by the reliably off-kilter Zellner brothers, whose mischievous m.o. is to rock your equilibrium, and their own storytelling, with assertive peculiarity.
Braiding the movie with trusty tropes of old-timey westerns — grit, guns, horsies and hangings — and that ineffable Zellner zing, the result is a lumpy kinda-comedy, kinda-drama in which both elements could have been amplified for the sake of coherence.
A spirited Robert Pattinson, with a twang and one gray tooth, plays the heartsick pioneer Samuel who’s in search of his lost love, Penelope, played by a spunky Mia Wasikowska. He tows behind him a darling miniature horse named Butterscotch (an aimless visual gag) that he plans to give to her as a wedding present. Risking his life, he finally locates Penelope. Things get very messy from there.
Its erratic pacing, pesky dead spots and jokes that don’t land hold “Damsel” from crackpot classic. It’s slapstick and slapdash, and keeps you watching if only to make sure lil’ Butterscotch fares well.
If I didn’t love “Damsel” I appreciated it and its sometimes squiggly logic. It could be a lot funnier, but as it is — a shaggy road movie not fully sure what it wants to be — it’s an oddball original. Keep an ear peeled for the snazzy period-inspired score by whirlingly inventive The Octopus Project. And Adam Stone’s photography — you can’t miss it — is beyond lovely. It’s often ecstatic.
If you want to have your heart gently removed from your chest and dropped softly into a Cuisinart that’s switched to purée, go see the quietly devastating rodeo western “The Rider,” now in select theaters, mainly arthouses, which are so often repositories for rich, challenging, downcast dramas reeking of raw humanity so true it sears.
Chloé Zhao’s lo-fi drama — the Dakota prairie lushly shot by cinematographer Joshua James Richards — moves at a painstaking pace, the clip of everyday life in action. But little is everyday here: Twenty-something Brady is a local rock star of rodeo bronc riding whose skull, we see in the opening shots, is stapled shut and oozing blood. A terrible accident in the ring has left him slightly brain damaged. He’s forced to give up the rodeo, the only life he knows, outside of breaking colts, which he does with a calm, tough-love Jedi mastery. His skill and sensitivity with the beasts are sublime to behold.
Brady (played by crisp, affectless non-actor Brady Jandreau) lives with his drinking and gambling father (gruff Tim Jandreau) and mentally challenged little sister Lilly (an extraordinary Lilly Jandreau, who is actually disabled) in a ramshackle trailer. It’sa hardscrabble existence with scant room for creativity or reinvention.
“The Rider” 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. This is Brady’s task, and he goes at it with gimlet-eyed resolve and a proudly perched ten-gallon hat.
We see Brady drinking beer with his cowboy bros, working valiantly in a drug store and, most exquisitely, visiting his best friend Lane (Lane Scott), another former rodeo luminary, who, now severely paralyzed from a car accident, lives at a rehab center. Scott, who is really paralyzed and non-verbal, is spectacular in a turn of heartbreaking clarity. He’s hard to watch, but you can’t take your eyes off him.
Elegiac and painful, wreathed in dusty, grassy beauty, the film wears a gritty, documentary patina. It’s been called “American regional-realist,” which sounds about right.
“The Rider” is easily one of the best movies of the year — it has a 97% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes — partly because it doesn’t rub your nose in sadness; the emotion just organically, effortlessly surfaces. It’s driven by an ensemble of untrained actors behaving like actual people — people so achingly authentic, it sort of tears you up.
The great authors Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth died eight days apart this month. I heard nothing about the startling proximity of the loss of two of America’s towering writers. And nothing about the theoretical third death of someone else famous when two celebrities die back-to-back. Nothing about that ghoulish trifecta.
If that make-believe third fatality does indeed occur soon, and he or she happens to be another English-language writer, which giant will fall? Toni Morrison? Stephen King? Alice Walker? John Irving? Ian McEwan? Cormac McCarthy? None of these literary lions are spring chickens, excuse the mixed animal metaphors.
Such morbid business is the stuff of cocktail party parlor games, slightly sick, if innocuous: King? No way. McCarthy is next, just watch. He’s 84! Or some such scintillating blather.
When a popular artist dies it makes a loud rip and a mighty hole in the cultural fabric. A sometimes-fan of Wolfe — I couldn’t get through much of his work, but “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities” thrilled with reportorial breadth and linguistic virtuosity — I am a confirmed Roth acolyte. His death briefly shook me and cast me in a blue mood. Celebrity passings rarely have this effect on me. I took it personally.
Yet the sting faded, and I was gladdened to see book shops and libraries erecting proud shrines to the author of “American Pastoral,” “Sabbath’s Theater” and “The Human Stain,” small mountains of hardbacks and paperbacks as monuments to genius.
I’ll get back around to the books, but for now I’m revisiting the PBS documentary “Philip Roth Unmasked,” an incisive portrait for the budding Rothian, a reminder of what made the novelist a colossus and worthy of the Nobel Prize that so shamefully eluded him.
I should say I was also hit harder than usual by the deaths last year of novelist Denis Johnson and playwright-author-actor Sam Shepard. Johnson was a marvel, his seminal short stories “Jesus’ Son,” the hypnotically chiseled “Train Dreams” and the haunting Vietnam epic “Tree of Smoke” funny, hallucinogenic and wildly transporting.
Shepard, who I met and interviewed (see here), was always a personal favorite. An artist disguised as a road-weary bohemian cowboy, his acting was consistently spot-on (he was ace in the 1983 movie adaptation of Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”) and I’m deeply partial to his 1980 play of fraternal fury “True West,” a raging comic masterstroke about bad blood, beer suds and the prickly craft of screenwriting.
Watch it on YouTube, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise as riotously bickering brothers. It will, like Philip Roth at his best, knock you out. When you come to, the whole world will be a little bit different.
So many affronts, so little space. Ergo I will call out only six middle-brow cultural irritants that make me ponder the arc of civilization. Expect a sequel. For now, this:
David Sedaris — Snicker-worthy at his very best, Sedaris, an author and humor essayist for The New Yorker, has made a cottage industry out of wan, admittedly embellished autobiography, droll pieces about his family, his lover and his privileged moves to the French and English countrysides. Turning life into literature, he is frank, irreverent, sassy, yet sensitive, as any good writer should be. And he is a good writer, even if his language is surprisingly prosaic, stylistically flat-footed. Overrated, with thousands flocking to theater-sized readings to hear his nasally, high-pitched deadpan, he’s not exceptionally funny or insightful, though he taps a reservoir of honest empathy. He’s a queer, urban Erma Bombeck, flattering a particular strain of hipster and sophisticate with teeny tee-hees.
U2 — Because Coldplay is too obvious and Wilco too irrelevant, I’m picking on the most deserving of all bloated, self-important, grandstanding white-people bands. As much as I appreciate the group off-stage — humble, bleeding-heart humanitarians, endlessly concerned with leftie causes and global injustice — as a rock band they represent bombastic blandness. Recycled guitar riffs, repetitive drum beats (if Larry Mullen isn’t rock’s most boring drummer, I don’t know who is), Bono’s predictable pleas for world wonderfulness, and stadium shows of gargantuan gaudiness that exemplify the elephantine excess U2 so vocally rails against. They are an enigma, and forever annoying.
Wes Anderson — Once upon a time the promising filmmaker was so good — inventive, with witty stylistic flourishes and a big, boyish heart: “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” But amid and after those gems, the dandy-as-director became the worst: a manic, preening showoff. Fussy, hyper-designed, mannered, cloying and overwritten — I’m looking at you, “Grand Budapest Hotel” — his movies are like stuffing fistfuls of pure cane sugar into a mouth filled with painful cavities. Cinematic sadism.
Jimmy Fallon — Television’s embodiment of cutesy, mugging, please-love-me sycophancy. Dancing, playing charades, lip-syncing, giggling like a tipsy toddler, pitching guests marshmallow questions while fawning over them with googly eyes and panting tongue — “You’re so awesome!” — he’s the only TV personality I know of who looks like he’s going to piss his pants at any moment.
Outdoor Music Festivals — My nightmare epitomized. I’ve survived many of these, from Pearl Jam at San Francisco’s Polo Field to numerous Lollapaloozas and Days on the Green, to al fresco jazz festivals. Terrible, all of them. Acoustics meant to reach 100,000 people are stretched to gauzy echoes — bands have never sounded worse. Bare, sweaty, whooping flesh is crammed together in slick seas, unbudging, except for girls wiggling on their boyfriends’ shoulders blocking the view of miniature musicians on stage (thank god for JumboTron). Crushing summer heat. Rip-off food and drink booths. Hemp and beeswax candle vendors. Misting tents. Fragrant porta-potties with show-missing lines. Two more words: tie-dye.
Man buns — This is simply inexcusable. Enough has been made about how embarrassingly stupid these pseudo-samurai top-knots are and yet men, mostly young, insist on sporting them (invariably with metrosexual beards, no less). Begging, wheedling, outright shaming, nothing can stop them. It’s a mass delusion — they honestly think they look cool and that these baleful hairballs are not the ultimate caricature of hipsterism run amok. I’ve actually seen seemingly sensible women with their arms around man-bunners. Yes! True! I have! Shoot me now.
A long time ago in the hip and happening capital of Texas …
AUSTIN — Motorcycles have their place: soaring over rows of parked trucks; buzzing maniacally inside the Globe of Death; revving on stage at Judas Priest concerts. But they really stank up the city over the weekend, when nearly a billion rumbled in with their owners and the chicks who ride on the back for the annual hog-athon.
The bikes were gorgeous, exotic creatures: fetishistically sculpted chrome and steel, sparkling in the sun, low-slung and high-maintenance. Many appeared like they just vrooomed out of TV’s “American Chopper.” And they were everywhere downtown, rolling in parade formations and shredding the muggy air with hot chainsaw screams and crackling flatulence.
In other words, they were noisy and they took every single parking space. (One bike per meter? Please. You can stuff four of those things between the painted lines.) Still, I’m glad these hairy, leather-laden compatriots, who seem to believe a well-tied head scarf serves the same protective function as a helmet, enjoyed the weekend fellowship and Austin’s renowned ethos of tolerance. It gives the city that rowdy edge.
I didn’t even mind that the bikes’ symphonic violence (thousands of tubas played in a rain of napalm) sporadically drowned out my conversation with Speed Levitch at Casino El Camino. Through the bar’s ambient chatter, through the jukebox punk and metal, the choppers chopped.
Speed’s the star of the garrulous documentaries “The Cruise” and “Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor.” The movies reveal a young eccentric whorling through funny, far-out reveries, spinning streamers of soliloquy around the neon rave of his own mind. He’s a performance artist, a living one-man show, radiating an internal spotlight. He’s pretty charismatic, if kind of freaky.
Part poet, part gypsy-hippy, Speed has lots of friends in town and performs here often. He came from New York to do his show over the weekend. Saturday night he was merely hanging at one of his favorite local bars to get one of his favorite local dishes, Casino’s eggplant sandwich.
As we wove through flotillas of idling two-wheelers, Speed told how he’s reinvented his famed New York tour-guide shtick into ambulatory sidewalk theater. (Watch the above movies and you’ll understand.) He was inspired by a friend who coached the late Spalding Gray, Speed said. “He told me, ‘Do what you feel and keep a clear communication with your soul, amplify it, and then call it theater.’ ”
Then Speed sped off.
Later, at the city’s premiere arts venue: Some two hundred people attended Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi fugue “Solaris” at the Paramount Theatre.
The turnout surprised me. “Solaris” isn’t action-packed summer adventure. It has more in common with Ingmar Bergman, fog and glaciers than George Lucas, androids and lasers. It’s a challenging, deeply spiritual and very long trip. It’s been called the Soviet answer to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But Kubrick’s film is “Spaceballs” compared to the abstruse, though fascinating, eye-squinchingly wise “Solaris.”
Nearly everyone endured all three hours, despite an intermission — an invitation to flee. As the red velvet curtains closed over an elegant “The End” tag, the audience sat in dumbfounded silence. Eventually, murmurs were heard. Blood returned to vital organs.
I’m picturing some of these brave souls walking to their cars in a stun-gun stupor. They drive silently through the dark, the radio off. At home, they strip, lie on their bed in the dark, and softly weep.