It looked like a pillow fight in a movie: downy feathers of snow twisting and drifting through the air, with little space between the fluttering flakes. A midday flurry making landfall in heaps and mounds.
Yet it wasn’t too voluminous, this late-winter coating, and instead of pillowy tufts, the following day offers equal parts splash and crunch. Anything beautiful about the snow has thawed into a slurry swamp. Walking the dog, we slalomed around slush and brown puddles resembling polluted ponds. My sneakers got wet.
I love winter. I like the cold. But I can do without snow, which wasn’t true during my salad days of skiing down vertiginous slopes, laughing all the way. Nowadays I’m too reserved to even toboggan, and I am not squatting in one of those saucer sleds for the certainty that I will break my collar bone in a spectacular face plant.
Snow now means shoveling, one of the lowest forms of drudgery, right there with prisoners smashing quarry rocks in old-timey pictures like “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” No matter how frigid it is, I sweat piggishly when shoveling snow. I hate sweating. I hate heat. Did I mention I like winter?
But the season will soon cruelly vanish and shorts, a sartorial scandal, will be all the rage. It’s probable more snow will fall before that; March often gets dumped on without mercy. If there was a hill around here, I’d rent some skis. (And probably snap a femur.)
So this is a premature farewell to the fair season, when we abide icy irritants for the relievedly short days, chilly breezes, hot toddies, fashionable outerwear (is anything hipper than a natty scarf?) and indiscriminate cuddling. (About outerwear: I never don gloves or hats in winter. My mammalian blood takes care of the extremities, ears too.)
When another snow day comes this season, I will gripe and groan. But I will also be grateful that it’s still winter. That I can wear a parka with impunity. That I don’t have to attend barbecues and eat outdoors. That bugs and sunshine won’t assail me. And that I can, joyfully, unabashedly, freeze my ass off.
I’m having a tricky time getting jazzed about too much lately — only Socrates rivals my sage discernment and penetrating taste — yet I am alive, blood sluices through my veins. Some things I’m digging:
Caustically hilarious British TV series “Fleabag”; Sigrid Nunez’s quietly affecting novel “The Friend”;the reliably stirring Dia: Beacon museum, so serenely cluttered with minimalist and sculptural masterworks; poetic Polish romance (and Oscar nominee) “Cold War”; and Weezer’s “Teal Album,” featuring frighteningly faithful covers of Toto’s “Africa” to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” It’s a gas.
Mostly this entry is a sequel to my December year-end inventory of now-time enthusiasms, stuff getting my juices flowing. These are the current tops:
Strumming an acoustic guitar, her long hair swinging, she sings in a hushed girlish voice before belting like a banshee, loosing a squall of blazing catharsis. She has pipes that purr, then roar, then come back. You sway to twangy folk, then rock with giddy fury.
Intimate and Velcro-sticky, Bird’s music, performed acoustically or with a small band, circles Americana, punk and soulful indie pop. Country fans are drawn by her evocations of rocky, star-crossed relationships, and there’s country crunch in those folk-rock vocals. Her galloping cover of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” is a jam-session joy.
In this 21-year-old Brit, the Dixie Chicks are at their fiercest, alongside a banging Liz Phair, Courtney Barnett, PJ Harvey and other steely indie royalty. Bird’s lyrics pop and sear. In the unreasonably rousing “I Get No Joy,” Bird sings with such speedy agility, she’s almost rapping:
“Psychotic, hypnotic, erotic, which box is your thing?/How many days a week, do you feel/Electric, connected, unexpectedly/Affected, what do you need?”
His hair is a fluffy fiasco, a brown brushfire, his splotched face the seasoned mug of a gang member. He’s filthy and swears like a sailor. He’s homeless. He’s 12.
In Nadine Labaki’s Beirut-set stunner, a nominee for the best foreign language Oscar, the boy, Zain, is a resourceful renegade in the scrappy mold of Huck Finn and Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows.” Fed up with his struggling parents and their feckless care of their many children, Zain takes them to court, accusing them of the crime of giving him life. It’s a preposterous idea, a satirical glance at the Lebanese judicial system.
Zain (the extraordinary Zain al Rafeea) fast becomes a tough street urchin who finds a gig babysitting the gurgling infant of an illegal Ethiopian refugee, played by Yordanos Shiferaw. (The film’s devastating cast of non-professionals play versions of themselves.) When the young mother is arrested, Zain is stuck taking care of the baby on his own. In this harrowing situation — the movie is a tart indictment of Beirut’s corrupt state of child welfare — the fathomless despair can be unbearable to watch.
“Capernaum” — the title means “chaos” — owes much to the children-centric neorealism of ‘80s and ‘90s Iranian cinema, from “The White Balloon” to “The Color of Paradise” — heart-renders told in raw, wrenching lyricism that aren’t without political undercurrents. It’s a street tale alive with miscreants and thieves and few kind gestures.It’s so gritty and grubby the camera lens almost seems smudged. Redemption, however, is in the air.
Beautifully written, radiantly spun and shot through with smashing intelligence, Lisa Halliday’s first novel “Asymmetry” bristles with humanity as it mingles conventional and unorthodox structures. It’s a literary feat kneading the fictional form like Play-Doh.
I’m only a third of the way through its brisk 271 pages, but I’m sold. (Being part-way in a book you’re relishing is where you want to be; there’s more on the way to savor.)
The novel is chopped into three sections. I finished the first section, “Folly,” which traces the May-December romance between Alice, a 25-year-old aspiring writer, and Ezra Blazer, a famous author 40 years her senior. (If he rather resembles Philip Roth, it’s not chance: Halliday had a relationship with Roth while in her twenties.)
And so we get an old-fashioned affair of unpushy comedy and sweet asides set amidst Upper West Side means, with tender banter and the not uncomplicated theme of apprenticeship, much like a Woody Allen movie, without the deep-dish neuroses.
Alice has career issues, Ezra has health issues, and brewing in the background is the launch of the Iraq War. (The war plays a prominent role in the next section, “Madness.”) In this, one of The New York Times’ 10 best books of 2018 (and a favorite of Barack Obama), Halliday doesn’t flinch from the vagaries of love, including the sort, like Woody’s, peppered with literary chatter and throbbing with aching uncertainty.
The dialogue is unfailingly smart, wry, just right. Alice and Ezra conduct short, gem-cut conversations that bring a knowing grin:
“Is this relationship a little bit heartbreaking?” he said.
The glare off the harbor hurt her eyes. “I don’t think so. Maybe around the edges.”
In urban roller rinks across the country thousands of African-American roller-skaters are lacing up and getting down. Beneath rays of twirling disco balls an underground roller renaissance thrives among a force of skate buffs who throw after-dark rink parties and commit kinetic art on waxed wood floors: backflips and break-dances, tag-team acrobatics, backwards trains and other daredevilry. Many revelers simply trace ovoid loops in a kind of roller-boogie bliss.
With new and archival footage, much of it contagiously groovy, “United Skates” directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown chronicle the hip-hop-fueled scene with at once bracing and brooding electricity. They hopscotch the nation — Los Angeles to Baltimore — and capture the community-building soul of skating as well as the heartrending gentrification that’s swiftly shutting down classic rinks, dinosaurs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Few will survive.
Next to dwindling skate spaces, the film locates other troubles: the apparent profiling of black skaters at certain rinks that ban rap and the skinny wheels many black skaters prefer. When skaters organize “adult nights” — “Code for ‘black night,’” says one — police fill the parking lots and security is thick. No such hysterics are apparent on a typical “white” night. It’s a familiar microcosm of current race relations.
Yet the party rolls on. The subculture retains a die-hard exuberance not easily snuffed. The film’s final scenes are far from elegiac; against all odds they are tonically celebratory.
Meeting celebrities is easy. Interviewing them is a breeze. They are generally polished to a professional sheen. They know how to play the game, which is patently transactional. Some are harder than others (I’m squinting at you, Paul Thomas Anderson). Matthew McConaughey? He’s a cinch.
A good ol’ boy from East Texas, with a boingy twang, squinchy blue eyes, and bounding with bonhomie, McConaughey is much like what he seems: a smart, friendly dude you might want to shoot a shot with. He’s a charismatic lava lamp, alive and aglow.
To a journalist like me in 1998 — young, a smidge green — he was the most caring, amicable guy around. I was having a face-to-face interview with the actor in a Beverly Hills hotel room during a junket for “The Newton Boys,” Richard Linkater’s ill-fated western-comedy. A Texas guy, McConaughey was fascinated that I’d recently relocated from California to Austin for a newspaper job as a film critic.
He seemed genuinely interested, and we talked all things Austin and Texas, acting and movies. And from the room balcony he pointed out the groovy ‘70s-style van in the parking lot that he was driving cross-country for the hell of it. He was 27. We bonded enough that he’d remember me for years afterward.
Like when he was walking the red carpet at the premiere of his 1999 comedy “Edtv” and he spotted me, grabbed my hand, pulled me aside and asked me how I was enjoying my new Texas hometown. He was sincere and serious, with laser eye-contact, shutting out the bustle around him. Then he smiled wide, cheeks caving into dimples, before moving on down the line.
He didn’t have to do that. He could have said hi, answered my softball questions and walked on. But he was cool, concerned, a gentleman. He had class.
Months later, when I ran into him at a Wendy’s on the University of Texas campus before a rare screening of Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 “Some Came Running,” McConaughey seemed a little out of his element, a tad awkward, though he still made a point of making me feel welcome and an equal. He spoke in a hushed drawl. He barely smiled. He kept things low-key. I introduced him to my girlfriend. He bought a large Coke. He sat in the middle row, we sat in the back.
The relationship between journalist and subject/source is a dicey one. They are rarely seamless. There’s a give and take, a perilous reciprocity that often leaves one party feeling burned. And so there’s this:
McConaughey was working the red carpet for the local premiere of Kevin Costner’s 1999 baseball melodrama “For the Love of the Game” at UT. He was beaming, strutting out of a black limo, in all white and all alone.
He isn’t in the movie, he was just a celeb guest at the gala. And he was chomping a hunk of gum like cud. He approached me affably, answered two questions, then sauntered into the auditorium, chased by hearty cheers.
I report details. I like what’s called “color” in my stories. So in my piece about the screening I prefaced McConaughey’s quotes with: “He was conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum.” Readers want to know each iota of their beloved celebrities’ behavior. This, I thought, was a telling detail — innocuous but revealing. Or so I thought.
In 2003, four years after this gum-chewing reportage, the Austin Film Society threw a 10-year anniversary bash for the release of Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age masterwork “Dazed and Confused,” which was made in Austin and co-starred a cocky, hilarious young newcomer named Matthew McConaughey.
A red carpet press-line was formed. Here comes McConaughey, who I haven’t seen in four years. He is arm-in-arm with two young women, and chewing gum. I hurl him a question. He stops on a dime before me, and says, pointing to his mouth, “Tell them that I was ‘conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum,’ you got that?” Dimples flashed, this time with a shit-eating grin, and he brusquely walked away with an up-yours swagger.
Perhaps, just maybe, I had pissed him off.
Forward five years, to 2008. I hadn’t seen People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (2005) since the “Dazed and Confused” screening and I was a little nervous as Iwas scheduled to interview him for the micro-indie comedy “Surfer, Dude” in Austin.
He was there, in shorts and sandals, hair mussed and shaggy, mood ebullient. He greeted me with glowing teeth and cavernous dimples. He was almost ecstatic. He loved this movie. He was back.
At the end of a very friendly chat, I screwed up the nerve to ask him about that day when he repeated back to me, “Tell them that I was ‘conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum,’ you got that?”
He laughed heartily. “I didn’t like the use of the adverb ‘conspicuously,’” he told me, practically slapping my knee. “If you hadn’t used that word I wouldn’t have cared!” He was over it. We cracked up.
The intricate dance of writer and subject is a fragile one. Like that, it can topple in misunderstanding. It can snap on the perceived power of one simple word. But people, even movie stars with eggshell egos, are resilient, forgiving and, sometimes, like McConaughey, true mensches.
Critics and crowds made big stinks over these movies this year. I didn’t.
1. “Roma” — Topping many “bests of” lists, Alfonso Cuarón’s meandering memory drama, based on his early-‘70s childhood in Mexico City, was the biggest disappointment of the year. Flaccid and unfocused, this pretty black and white picture is about Cuarón’s middle-class family just as their father leaves it. Fatally, the film’s nominal main character is the live-in housekeeper, who, perplexingly, is a narcotized, non-verbal cipher. Her reaction when she discovers she is pregnant rivals Buster Keaton’s stone face matched with Harpo Marx. Some critics have tried to pass off “Roma’s” absence of structure as a “meditation.” It is not. Rather it’s a story-free stream-of-consciousness that leaves little to grab onto and be affected by. Dog poop, believe it or not, plays one of the liveliest roles. For all of Cuarón’s lush, gliding camerawork, swooshing this way and that, capturing rambling life as it happens, the affair is implacably inert.
2.“Leave No Trace” — A film that leaves no trace, emotionally or otherwise, this achingly static homeless drama about a father (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie — both shine) living off the grid in an Oregon forest suffocates on its own aridity. Scant happens when they’re hauled into social services, or when they attempt a run for the wild. For so much heart, little resonates.
3. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” — In this six-chapter Western anthology, the Coen brothers hew tightly to time-honored oater conventions while spinning them on their dusty Stetsons for typical tonal whiplash. Zigging from bloody to farcical at the speed of a bullet, with a game all-star cast, it’s handsome, violent, intriguing, and tediously quirky. (Earmark the episode with Zoe Kazan. She’s fantastic, and she’ll shatter your heart.)
4. “Shoplifters” — This sometimes playful Japanese social drama by the accomplished Hirokazu Kore-eda sporadically springs to life with small jolts that only make you hunger for more. The award-sprinkled film is about a family that relies on shoplifting to ease its poverty. Naturalistic and deeply humanistic, it suffers from a lack of movement, and the modest emotional punch comes too late.
5.“Private Life” — A hackneyed bourgeois dramedy about, sigh, a middle-aged couple that can’t have children in the traditional fashion, so try all manner of misadventure to conceive. The couple, played by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, great comic actors brought down by middling material, are New York writers (really?) surrounded by brainy friends (really?) who try and help. Marital friction erupts (really?) until a secret weapon appears. Hope abounds. This is slushy, sitcomy stuff that writer-director Tamara Jenkins (“The Savages”) is above.
6 more: an honor-roll of the overpraised, in no order:
“Isle of Dogs” — Wes Anderson, that leaping leprechaun of willed whimsy, presents a fun, funny premise about stray animated dogs sloughed off to a trash-heap island in Japan, until he, reliably, clutters things up with over-plotting and mirthless mayhem.
“You Were Never Really Here”— I wish someone could’ve said that to me after watching this turgid hitman character study, starring a grody Joaquin Phoenix and directed by the grit-addicted Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar”).
“Hereditary” — Toni Collette’s lashing performance as a beleaguered mother can’t salvage this confused supernatural horror tale that careers from realistic, upsetting family drama to near-laughable nonsense replete with séances, demons and covens.
“Mandy” — A full-on bonkers genre goulash of volcanic incoherence that, despite the presence of a teeth-gritting, eye-popping Nic Cage caked in baddies’ blood — just the way we like him — isn’t half as fun as it thinks it is.
“Black Panther” — As I wrote in June, I found this mega-hit a “slick, savvy vehicle that gets predictably bogged down in mythical mumbo-jumbo, comic-book convolutions and contrivances that I haven’t the energy to follow or care about.”
“Happy as Lazzaro” — Watching this coy Italian flirtation with magical-realism, I felt I was dying a slow, awkward death.
In Ivo van Hove’s new Broadway production of “Network,” frantic stagecraft whirls with clamoring bodies in a dance of hectoring topicality.
Multiple technicians wield video cameras, roving the stage, filling television screens small and large around the theater. Actors coax “live-studio-audience” applause from the crowd and demand that we bellow, not once but several times, that brimstone incantation: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Led by Bryan Cranston’s bristling performance, there’s a lot to take in visually, if not intellectually. It’s all very slick, stylish and duly explosive. It’s a bombastic mediocrity.
Unlike Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film, written with literary panache by Paddy Chayefsky, this “Network” — adapted both too faithfully and too diffusely by Lee Hall — lacks the prescience about corporate greed and TV’s noxious influence. We know all that now. We’re living it. It makes this adamant version too on the nose. It brays to the choir.
But there is Cranston. As Howard Beale — crusty anchorman-turned frothing oracular madman-turned vitriolic TV commentator — the actor is a one-man brush fire. His fed-up Beale, who declares he’s going to kill himself on air, becomes, in the words of one of his venal bosses, “a latter-day prophet, a magnificent messianic figure, inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times.”
In one blazing scene, Cranston cracks. Sara Holdren at vulture.com describes it with zest:
“Cranston’s disintegration is a hell of a thing to watch, especially in the excruciating moments of silence before Beale launches into his first famous tirade. With a camera up in his face and that face looming, distorted with pain, up on the set’s back wall, Cranston stumbles and sways, squinting through tears and groping to pull the scattering fragments of his brain back together.”
All well and good, and Cranston veers to greatness. The rest of the cast — chiefly Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) and Tony Goldwyn (“Scandal”) — is serviceable. No one stands out, meaning Cranston carries the lurching show, which never stops groping for to-the-minute provocation.
What really hobbles things, though, is a story diluted with redundancies and non-essential scenes. Goldwyn’s moments of midlife melodrama await merciful amputations.
Yet it might be argued that this “Network” is a raucous, rousing, gimmicky divertissement by master showman van Hove (2016’s knockout “A View from the Bridge”). He pulls many effective flourishes from his bag of tricks.
But van Hove underscores the text’s topicality with a crowd-pleasing urgency. The show is timely, perhaps too timely. By the end, this Beale reaches a point of clanging didacticism and facile relevance that’s tiresome for all its exertion.You yawn instead of wince.
People, places and culture — little consolations — that are turning me on (saving me?) in the waning days of a sometimes unbearably tumultuous year …
Courtney Barnett — Guitar rock lives. Or so we can dream, a reverie persuasively advanced by grungy guitar-slinger Barnett, a pop-punk pixie who’s making some of the crunchiest, catchiest, folky-fuzzy rock around, music that sounds improbably lasting. A devout DIYer with a Grammy nod and fervent following, Barnett traces the raw, minimalist contours of Nirvana and the Pixies, with squalling distortion and a voice so uninflected that her Australian accent claws right through. That voice echoes the talk-singing and slightly nasal tones of Liz Phair, Patti Smith and The Hold Steady. Wincingly intimate, her jagged, jangly songs are shot through with personal drama and cutting irony. Often they’re downright hilarious. Choice cuts: “Pedestrian at Best,” “Debbie Downer,” “Avant Gardener,” “City Looks Pretty.” Watch her in concert HERE. And visit her squiggly world HERE.
“Night Train”: New and SelectedStories by Thom Jones —I didn’t even know Jones died two years ago. He’s one of my favorite short fiction writers and I kept wondering where in the hell he went, when he would publish again. I was alerted to his fate by this posthumous assemblage, plucked from Jones’ classic ’90s collections “The Pugilist at Rest,” “Cold Snap” and “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine,” each worth owning, and cherishing. But with this chubby tome, featuring seven new stories, including the typically mordant title tale and spanning the biting, semi-autobiographical Vietnam War epic “The Pugilist at Rest” to the absurdist vermin mayhem of “Mouses,” Jones’ spare, sinewy, mean and bust-up funny realism comes into exhilarating focus. Fueled by grit, violence and the tough tenets of his hero Arthur Schopenhauer, this is essential contemporary fiction.
Gin and tonic at Angel’s Share—Last month I drank a gin and tonic with a Japanese gin I criminally did not get the name of at Angel’s Share, the dark, elbow-jabbing speakeasy in New York’s East Village. It was the smoothest, lightest, tastiest G&T I’ve ever sipped, spritzed with a gorgeously un-cloying tonic that was gently fizzy, not nose-tickingly fizzy. The drink was a perfect alchemical mingling of alcohol and mixer, a frosty masterpiece. (If only I could afford the $17 elixir more than once a year.)
“I Am Dynamite!”by Sue Prideaux — Penetrating and punchy, with an attractively light touch for the weighty subject, Prideaux’s new biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my dearest great dead thinkers — atheism! nihilism! iconoclasm! self-invention! and more furrowed-brow brilliance — is like literary windshield wipers, a slashing text of clarification and demystification. Despite the luxuriously daunting walrus mustache and monumental scowl worthy of a grumpus Mount Rushmore, the German polymath — yes: a prickly, willful malcontent — wasn’t the poisonous philosophical force we’ve been warned of. (For one, he abhorred antisemitism.) Reason reigned, until it crumbled amidst the famous crack-up that would kill him at age 56. Dead: first God, then him.
Istanbul — First come the post-vacation blues: the immediate despondency felt when you return home from a great trip. Crap, it’s over. And then there’s the afterglow: the crazy satisfaction and rapture you feel when the depression burns off. Damn, that was the best trip ever! I got back from Turkey last month and I’m basking in the afterglow. I was mostly in Istanbul, one of few cities that can hurl me into a dream state that’s as wondrous as it is ineffable, an otherworldly stupor of sights, sounds and flavors, pocked by the lovable multitude of stray dogs and cats and the unfailingly caring and splendid people. I still savor my Istanbul lodgings, the über-charming boutique Hotel Ibrahim Pasha and, in Cappadocia in Central Turkey, the Pumpkin Göreme Restaurant and Art Gallery, where the cheap and divine fixed menu delivers the allure of Turkey on many plates. If I sound a little intoxicated by it all, I am.
“Skate Kitchen” — The young women of this scruffy 2018 skateboard drama are hell on wheels — or is that Chanel on wheels? No way. The tribe of shredding female street teens are all about the clacking and scraping of boards on New York concrete, smoking spliffs and coupling with the opposite (or same) sex. The star here is bespectacled Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a taciturn 18-year-old from Long Island who defies her mother for the skate parks and subways of Manhattan, where she’s promptly absorbed into a rowdy posse of all-girl skaters. The film is predictably sincere about teen rebellion equating to freedom and addressing, softly, teen politics and gender politics. Yet it works; it has kick. Crystal Moselle (2015’s hit documentary “The Wolfpack”) shoots with a meandering vérité camera, the city captured with gritty love and bloodied-knee realism, and music to match. The movie is on DVD and streaming. The trailer’s HERE.
Cubby the Wonder Dog— The perennially pampered pup, huge heart, small bladder, gives as good as he gets — hugs and snuggles, mutual adoration, tricks and treats, ribald chit-chat over Scotch and cigars. We love the mutt with our lives, no matter if he begs, bedevils the cats or poops and pees on occasion and off the Wee-Wee Pad. Spiritual creatures, dogs are fuzzy founts of friendship, besting humans, I’m afraid. I’m rotten when I wake up, until I see that damn dog wagging his curled tail and things fall into place. Mused author Thom Jones (see above): “Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have.”
“Eighth Grade” — 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 with ruffled blonde hair, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly and slightly bucky, will break your heart. Played by a preternaturally perfect Elsie Fisher, Kayla is the can’t-keep-your-eyes-off lead in Bo Burnham’s indie wonder. She’s a compendium of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. But as some have noted, the movie is not about geezers and their times bridging, torturously, eighth-grade and high school. It’s about today’s kids, glued to their phones, glazed in technology. It’s about forging one’s individuality amidst willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for our 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 stronger after each posting. This rumpled, dimpled film is a marvel to behold, and one from which to learn.
2.“The Rider” — Chloé Zhao’s lo-fi drama moves at a painstaking pace, the clip of everyday life in action. But little is everyday here: Twenty-something Brady (newcomer Brady Jandreau) is a local rock star of rodeo bronc riding whose skull, we see in the opening shots, is stapled shut and oozing blood. An 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. 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 the year, “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. It won Best Feature at the prestigious Gotham Awards this week.
3. “A Star is Born” — Call me a sap but I fell hard for this high-sheen remake of a remake of a remake (of, yup, a remake) about a pair of star-crossed musicians working on love amid the ruthless, sometimes lethal brambles of showbiz. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga unswervingly possess their crooning characters, Jack and Ally, with explosive energy and heart-searing nuance. It’s a simple tale about mutual respect, and its flip-side jealousy, and how drugs can neuter talent and well-oiled ambition can nurture it. Cooper, whose steely direction wrests high drama from the grunge and glamor, sings and gives one of his finest performances. Lady Gaga is a blazing revelation. The picture boasts genuinely solid songs, including the hit “Shallow,” a soaring paean to the thrill, and fragility, of love.
4. “First Reformed” — The underrated Ethan Hawke, in his most hoarse, laser-beam performance, plays Rev. Ernst Toller, a 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. Veteran writer-director Paul 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. Austere and bruised, this is not an easy picture. But it feels like a necessary one. (Hawke won Best Actor at the Gotham Awards.)
5. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — Mister Rogers was a badass. Twinkly TV 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 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 that hagiographic image is tarred in this illuminating, touching documentary that follows the self-styled teacher of tots as he crafts his TV programs, mainly the paste-and-plastic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” 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. (Gotham Audience Award winner.)
Of course there’s a slew of buzzed-about movies I haven’t seen yet that might still make the list: “Roma,”“The Sisters Brothers,”“Mission: Impossible — Fallout,”“The Favourite,” “Widows,” “Blaze,” “I Am Not a Witch,”“The House That Jack Built” and more.
Then there are the acclaimed movies that left me limp: “Black Panther,” “Leave No Trace,” “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Isle of Dogs,” “Mandy,” “Shirkers,” “Miseducation of Cameron Post,” “You Were Never Really Here,” “Hereditary,” “Private Life.”
And there are films I enjoyed perfectly well, like Julian Schnabel’s heady portrait of van Gogh “At Eternity’s Gate,” the funny-sad triplets doc “Three Identical Strangers,” the melancholy horse saga “Lean on Pete,” the anthropomorphic, Wes Andersonian antics of “Paddington 2” and the asphyxiating thriller “A Quiet Place.”