I’ve aired it here before, and if I haven’t I will now: almost every comic book movie bores me to suicidal tendencies. They make zero narrative sense and are the most cynical kind of anti-art — soulless, silly, self-inflated money machines. They’re a cineplex pox.
That said …
A couple of weeks ago auteur Martin Scorsese volunteered his opinion about Marvel comic book movies. Here are his now notorious words, which sparked howls of defensive dialogue, mostly from comic book movie writers and directors (naturally):
“That’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
As one might exclaim in the cartoony Marvel universe: kapow!
Then, yesterday, Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese’s esteemed comrade in canonical ‘70s Hollywood, hurled perhaps a bigger grenade into the controversy:
“When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration. … I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”
Not enough? Lauded British filmmaker Ken Loach offered his two pence this week about superhero films:
“I find them boring. They’re made as commodities … like hamburgers … It’s about making a commodity which will make profit for a big corporation — they’re a cynical exercise. They’re a market exercise and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema.”
(What superhero movies do I like, you might ask? I love “The Dark Knight,” “Logan,” “Iron Man,” “Unbreakable,” and one of the early “Spider-Man” flicks, I can’t remember which one because there’s like 12.)
In no particular order, the movies I’m excited about at the year’s half-way point …
Puckishly sadistic, Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier remain cinema’s great pessimists, glib nihilists and gleeful provocateurs. Look, without flinching, at Noé’s masterwork “Irréversible” or von Trier’s “Antichrist” and you’ll see my point. With the head-spinning, hallucinogenic swirl of body (and camera) movement that is “Climax,” Noé takes his visual and thematic tics past the edge of woozy chaos. When an extraordinarily talented dance troupe’s party is ruined by a bowl of LSD-spiked punch, hell uncorks with fury. What was a glorious pageant of writhing bodies becomes a descent into a violent nightmare of screeching, thrashing individuals trying to relocate reality. The camera rides a liquid wave of neon hues, racing and corkscrewing down halls and weaving through rooms. Frequently indulgent and meandering, with no real characters or story, just sensation and electro-shock, the film is pure immersion, a sustained climax. I didn’t say it was pleasant. But it is novel, and queerly riveting. And purely Noé. Watch the trailer HERE.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”
At once arty, elegiac, poetic and tough-minded, this is a tale, a beautiful reverie, that strikes on topics of race and class and gentrification with sparks and lyricism and primary-color Spike Lee sizzle. It’s something singular, and it slowly intoxicates with its emotional and sociological depths. Following Jimmie Fails (played by the actor of the same name — he’s as charismatic as a young Don Cheadle) as he presses to reclaim the giant Victorian home of his grandfather, the film is both a call to honoring blood bonds and a plaintive hymn to a troubled city. Joe Talbot directs (and co-writes) with soaring vision and intense feeling. The result is dire, daring, dreamy. Trailer HERE.
In this gorgeously observational documentary, weathered, middle-aged Hatidze lives in the rocky Macedonian mountains, where she cares for her ailing mother and tends to several beehives that produce honey for a tenuous livelihood. A large, rowdy family moves next door and decides to try beekeeping, but without expertise, they flail and almost comically get stung more than they harvest the sweet goo. Tensions arise between the neighbors, but this achingly humanistic look at an exotic if seriously impoverished way of life is mostly a portrait of Hatidze, a steely, lonely woman who has as much soul as those mountains can contain. The doc won a record three awards at Sundance 2019, including for its ravishing cinematography. Trailer HERE.
Breaking a horse is a bitch. Triple the challenge if it’s a rearing, snorting wild desert mustang. That’s what Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is tasked with as a violent criminal in a Nevada prison program in which convicts break mustangs for auction, preparing them for work in law enforcement. “We’re not training these horses for little kids’ birthdays and pony rides,” growls Bruce Dern’s crusty bossman, who knows both man and horse require an especially prickly strain of tough-love. If Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut falls into a formulaic groove — the apex of the depiction of trust-building between human and wild horse remains Carroll Ballard’s 1979 “The Black Stallion” — the film doesn’t flinch from gritty, violent twists. The dangerous dance between Roman and his horse Marcus retains tension, as the two captives, both scrappy and obstinate, circle each other in a face-off that could end in injury and defeat, or mutual respect and friendship. Roman’s frustration boils — “Just fucking listen to me!” he snaps. “I’m not going to hurt you! You hear me, you stupid animal!” — and it’s no surprise the horse is listening. Trailer HERE.
Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it isexterior, spiked with physical fits and spasms like a lunatic child in a druggy tantrum. In my favorite performance of the year, Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a cackling, hand-flinging cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois, Charles Manson and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw-nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze. She’s as shattering as this ballsy, surprisingly sensitive film by writer-director Alex Ross Perry. Trailer HERE.
Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this breakneck coming-of-age comedy, actress Olivia Wilde’s impressive directorial debut, screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused,” John Hughes’ oeuvre and last year’s “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade” — “Booksmart” piles on twists with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTQs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques, and, duh, the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration. Starring a terrific Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as boundary-pushing besties, who learn, in a fleeting haze, that maybe bongs are as fun as books. Trailer HERE.
A glowing Julianne Moore — is there a more radiant actress? — assumes the title role in this sweet, ebullient, slightly melancholic snapshot of a middle-aged divorced woman seeking love and connection in modern Los Angeles. A touching remake of the 2013 Chilean film “Gloria,” by the writer-director of that movie, Sebastián Lelio, the movie follows its wise, free-spirited character onto her favorite place, the dance floor, where she finds romance with a nice guy (a fine, empathetic John Turturro) and all the attendant delights, complications and disappointments of love. No matter how sore things get, Gloria’s joie de vivre stays infectious. Trailer HERE.
French writer-director Olivier Assayas‘ dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the warm faces and colors of the bustling scenes. That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by an enchanting Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit. It’s heady and human: They’re just people, with all of our people-ly problems, and it’s more exciting than you think. Part tart publishing-world satire, part feast of infidelity, part anatomy of midlife crises, “Non-Fiction” is light on plot, more enmeshed in ideas about love and life, loyalty between friends and lovers, and, in a topical concession, a pointed conversation about new media vs. the printed word. It’s like a Gallic Woody Allen comedy, without the tootling clarinet and stammering, gesticulating neuroses. Trailer HERE.
Not an easy film, Joanna Hogg‘s elusive, divisive relationship drama is boobytrapped with qualities that repel people from the arthouse. It’s glacial, elliptical, remote. It makes you work with loosely hanging scenes, a jagged structure and oblique characterizations. I broke a small sweat trying to solder the plot together, identify with the actors and figure out where Hogg was taking me. The entry point is young film student Julie, played with winsome diffidence by Honor Swinton Byrne. Julie’s lover Anthony (Tom Burke) is a heroin addict, a secret until it’s not, which inevitably snarls their relationship. The story is mostly scenes of the couple muddling through their unconventional, occasionally off-putting upper-middle-class affair. With drugs. And spats. And sex. And dinner parties. And the making of a student film. And an IRA bombing. Somehow, Hogg’s disparate elements crazily fall together. Trailer HERE.
Writer-director Alex Ross Perry and actress Elisabeth Moss have a special relationship: He puts her through the wringer and she acts her guts out.
In two films, this year’s “Her Smell” and 2015’s “Queen of Earth” — deep-dish psychological studies of women flailing and wailing on the verge — the result is explosive symbiosis, a convulsive give and take between a director who lays out a vision and lets his muse run with it at breathtaking velocity.
Run she does, maybe too far, too fast (as some have argued). Moss’ performance in “Her Smell” is athletically interior and exterior, jagged with physical fits and spasms like a lunatic child having a druggy temper tantrum. It’s my favorite performance of the year so far.
Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a hot, cackling cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois, Charles Manson and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw-nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze.
Eyes drizzling mascara, teeth gnashing, arms and hair thrashing, lipstick smeared with a paint-roller, Moss spews apoplectic, apocalyptic poetry in what’s less a performance than a detonation of eye-popping possession. It’s an electric and crazily entertaining one-woman show, the kind Oscar never sees and wouldn’t know what to do with anyhow.
What grabs you is the devotion Moss brings to both Becky in “Her Smell” and the more quietly unhinged, clinically depressed Catherine in “Queen of Earth.” Dramatically different than her more contained, yet reliably strong women in “Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Top of the Lake,” these characters are solipsistic, narcissistic, unbalanced, straight-up unwell.
Director Perry grants them close-up, single-take soliloquies that are so chiseled they avoid becoming indulgent workshop exercises. The camera eye stares Moss down, never letting her off the hook. Moss gives right back. You watch shaken, exhilarated.
It’s important to note Moss isn’t performing in a vacuum, despite the fact the characters, especially punker Becky, would make arresting (abrading?) Off-Broadway solo turns. Both films have slight but linear stories — they are the definition of soul-baring character examinations — populated with superb co-stars, from the bandmates and manager (Eric Stoltz, wonderful to see you) in “Her Smell” to the great, flinty Katherine Waterston as Moss’ increasingly estranged best friend in “Queen of Earth.”
Without other players, Moss’ fascinating creations would just be feral, foundering head cases bouncing off the walls and slipping into oblivion. Her cast-mates keep Becky and Catherine in reality, our world. They are friends and antagonists, yang to Moss’ yin, and they haul her from the edge.
Still, what this formidable actress pulls off on her own, between her and the camera, is remarkable. With scary conviction, she summons wrenching human meltdowns in all their grim and glorious beauty.
“Her Smell” and “Queen of Earth” are on DVD and several streaming outlets.
This is the very first image I ever saw of Chewbacca:
It was spring 1977 and I was young. I had hair like a mid-career Beatle. Movie-wise, I was obsessed with “Jaws” from two years prior. And, even at that early grade-school age, I thought “Dog Day Afternoon,” watched repeatedly on cable, was the dope. (Later movie manias would include “Close Encounters,” “Alien” and “The Elephant Man.”)
My dad came home with a thick press kit for the summer movie roster from 20th Century-Fox. (A journalist, he often arrived from the office with public relations goodies from movie studios and, maybe coolest, the Mattel toy company. We were the first kids in town to have Slime and Shogun Warriors.)
I don’t recall any of the movies in the 20th Century-Fox press kit but one, a mysterious little picture called “Star Wars” that was slated to hit theaters May 25. My immediate fascination with the movie, well before I saw it, is so clichéd that I will keep the recollection trimmed and distilled.
Amid a sheaf of black and white stills of characters from the film, bound in a colorful folder emblazoned with the now-iconic “Star Wars” logo, my attention zeroed in on one particular photo. The caption read: “Chewbacca, the hundred year old Wookiee, co-pilots the Millennium Falcon, a Carnelian pirate starship.”
Chewbacca? Wookiee? Yes! This was the baddest movie character I’d ever seen, a hair-covered giant holding an automatic weapon in what appeared to be the desert with a Clint Eastwood, “Go ahead, make my day” expression on his Sasquatchian puss. The pure, scorching exoticism of it blew my little mind. I immediately stuck on my wall the 8-x-10 with four silver tacks. Anticipating the day I could see this creature move and (not quite) speak on the big screen became a pastime of electric excitement.
The man I would soon learn filled the Chewbacca fur-fest was Peter Mayhew, a 7-foot-3 Briton who died of a heart attack at 74 yesterday at his North Texas home. (Check out his personal site Chewbacca.com.) The galaxy weeps.
As Chewie, Mayhew growled and laser-gunned his way through five “Star Wars” features as sidekick and co-pilot to Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling Han Solo. They were a dynamic duo, BFFs who fought together, cried together, drank together and probably had a secret handshake. That’s all the speculation I will pursue.
Chewbacca wasn’t the most complex character. He had moist, soulful animal eyes and teeth like a German shepherd’s. The mournful, bestial yowls he had to rely on for vocal communication without the gift of speech could shred your ears, and rend your heart. (His voice was created with recorded animal sounds.)
“He put his heart and soul into the role of Chewbacca and it showed in every frame of the films, from his knock-kneed running, firing his bowcaster from the hip, his bright blue eyes, down to each subtle movement of his head and mouth,” Mayhew’s family said in a statement.
Valiant, righteous, a fighter, friend and even funny, Chewbacca as portrayed by Mayhew was more than a guy pantomiming in a gorilla suit. He lent the Wookiee spirit, spunk and purpose. I absorbed all of this when I finally, in a one-screen art-deco movie theater in the summer of ’77, saw my hero in action, this towering benevolent beast, who fleetly dispensed with Imperial baddies and didn’t complain when saucy Princess Leia dismissed him as a “walking carpet.”
It’s why as a kid I was so crestfallen when, at the end of the film, everybody got a Medal of Bravery for saving the galaxy and blowing up the Death Star except Chewie, who just stands there during the ceremony, tall and noble, nothing dangling around his neck. Only his mighty ammo-filled bandolier, worn like a sash on his left shoulder, bedecks him.
But that’s Chewbacca — humble, honorable, tough and self-effacing. He deserves a medal. If not for assisting in nearly killing Darth Vader, then for being both a literal and figurative colossus.
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.
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.
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.
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.