Past Lives (2023, US & South Korea) - Just go ahead and give this the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s a beautiful movie about romantic love—the secondary loves who fit into our lives and the soulmates who don't. A-
Red Rocket (2021), The Florida Project (2017), Tangerine (2015) — All of these Sean Baker movies are outstanding. Baker belongs in a class with Chloé Zhao (The Rider, Nomadland). They each find stories to tell in the lands in between the over-represented cities of NYC and LA. Both Baker and Zhao often employ non-actors, who are so good they make you wonder if we ever needed professional actors in the first place. Baker’s movies are set in the dingy fringes of America, where people live beneath the shadow of industry, are assaulted by (or assault themselves with) noise, and who malnourish themselves to death with cigarettes and donuts. Their downtrodden towns might be grimy, but a few splashes of pastel joy speak to an indomitable American hope and an up-against-the-odds fierceness of spirit. A-
Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) - This movie was infuriatingly dull and long (3.5 hours!), but let me say nice things about it first. It did an admirable job documenting the step-by-step crimes committed by small-town mobsters against the Osage Nation. The movie seems determined to get us to remember a tragedy that was never properly remembered. I only wish this movie felt more like a story than a docudrama, with its tedious accounting of crimes committed by an endlessly long cast of characters, whose motivations are never explored and backstories never developed. The acting is great, but there’s hardly a likeable character or a trade of interesting dialogue in the film. Scorsese neglects to capture something meaningful, sublime, or Shakespearean—something story-ish. Instead, he seems obsessed with the smallest of details behind every crime. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is an interesting comparison. Schindler’s is also about evil, but Spielberg managed to make something beautiful with content that doesn’t get any darker. Spielberg took some creative risks, found poetic beauty in a story of genocide, and allowed himself a Shakespearean soliloquy or two. Scorsese, in fastidiously keeping things as true to life as possible, may have counterproductively made his movie and the memory of the Osage murders forgettable. C-
The Killer (2023) - It’s interesting how some of our great directors (Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon and Ridley Scott, Napoleon) are stumblingly taking on sweeping epics in the final stages of their career, while David Fincher has chosen to tell a much sleeker and specific story—about an assassin seeking revenge. I strain to figure out if this movie is trying to say anything or just be a more cerebral John Wick. To be generous, it’s a critique of the ascetic self-mastery — as well as the whole “quantified self” trend — which can shield us from the feelings that get in the way of accomplishing a hard task. That’s all well and good, but I just wasn’t buying it: There was no way Michael Fassbender’s robotic contours contained enough of a beating heart for him to keep a sweetheart in Central America. C+
The Killer Angels (1974) by Michael Shaara - This is historical fiction, from which the film Gettysburg was adapted. The author’s trick of telling each chapter from a different character’s point of view is effective, especially in capturing the Confederate and Union psyche. A-
A Thousand Trails Home: Living with Caribou (2021) by Seth Kantner - A wonderful mini-memoir about a man’s lifelong (and ever-changing) relationship with caribou. Kantner’s relationship must evolve alongside technological innovation in weaponry and snow travel, as well as state hunting politics and an Alaska now baking under the heat of climate change. It wrestles with the question, “How should we be with nature in the 21st Century?” B+
Encounters: Experiences with Non-Human Intelligences (2023) by D.H. Pasulka — I enjoyed the first 3/4ths of this book, in which the author introduces a whole bunch of interesting concepts (such as how a growing body of UFO sightings and other inexplicable encounters are manufacturing a new and interesting spirituality). But I wish the content was curated a bit more vigorously. I can take in stories about UFOs better (with the many documented sightings legitimized by stodgy institutions like the Pentagon and NY Times) than the unsubstantiated freaky bedroom encounters with St. Michael.
Elena (2011, Russian) - I can’t seem to write one of these newsletters without mentioning an Andrey Zvyagintsev film. Zvyagintsev’s Elena is about a nurse from a working-class family who has a kind of “business arrangement” marriage with a retired, wealthy man. In all of his movies, Zvyagintsev puts the Russian family under the microscope in his vivisection of Russian society. I admire Zvyagintsev for being neither didactic nor aesthetically enigmatic. These films all have something to say without saying it. Zvyagintsev leaves you just enough crumbs to feel like you made the discovery on your own. A-
In the Realm of the Senses (1976, Japan) - After finding this film on a number of “most erotic films ever” lists, how could I resist? (No reason to ask why I was seeking such lists...) It’s about female insatiability from a culture that doesn’t seem afflicted by the chastity belt that Augustinian Christianity clamped around our hips. Consequently, the Japanese culture it depicts — and the existence of the film itself — feel alien to my prudish American sensibilities. The sex scenes are as explicit, but the film is more likely to make you laugh out loud than turn you on. Halfway through, you start to roll your eyes. (There they go again!) Up-close shots of hair and bodily fluids remind you that sex is sort of gross. The film itself is ridiculous and repetitive. But there’s plenty to be appreciated: the cinematography; the snapshot of 1930s Japan; the one-of-a-kind example of a 1970s film that took every risk it could take. C
A Bronx Tale (1993, USA) - This film is most known for being Robert De Niro’s directorial debut and for 17-year-old actor Lillo Brancato’s terrific performance. I could go the rest of my life without watching another mob movie, but this one transcends the genre by being more about the mentors we get and the mentors we choose. B
Blackberry (2023, Canada) - It isn’t as funny as the trailer, but it’s an entertaining rise-and-fall tale about a start-up in a cutthroat industry. Give Glenn Howerton (of "It’s Sunny" fame) a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his depiction of a megalomaniacal businessman. There’s nothing comical about his performance, but Howerton manages to make his character’s dead-eyed rage funny, perhaps because Howerton’s character isn’t scary as much as he is pathetic, propelled forth by a deep-seated inferiority complex. B
You Hurt My Feelings (2023, USA) - This little movie — about a husband (therapist) and wife (memoirist) grappling with mid-life career disappointment — has plenty to say about the downsides of American niceness, encouragement, and positivity. B+
Coherence (2013, USA) A mind-bending sci-fi, on a ($50,000!) budget. B-
Stand By Me (1986, USA) - It’s one of those classics that I somehow never managed to watch from start to finish until recently. While watching, I couldn’t help but think about how unfortunate it was that we haven’t been able to follow the career of River Phoenix unfold, who gave one of the best kid performances I’d ever seen. There are hardly any adults in the film, but it’s as much a dad movie as a kid’s since these boys are all functioning in the void of good fathering. A-
To Leslie (2022, USA) - Controversy aside, Andrea Riseborough deserved every bit of her Best Actor nomination for her role as an alcoholic. While her performance never wavered, I thought the film teetered off course during its second half. B-
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. (2023, USA) - I have a little four-year-old girl, and this wonderful film — about a girl heading toward puberty — reminded me to cherish the sweet innocence of her early childhood. B+
Barbie (2023, USA) - Does it mean I’m dumb if I found Barbie confusing? It succeeded as a sugared-up feast of candy-colored silly dance numbers, but the messages of the film were muddled. What was Ken’s journey supposed to signify? Was he a “woman” struggling to make it in a man’s world? Or was he just a late adopter of patriarchal privilege? The moment Ken (and a bunch of other Kens) launched an amphibious assault on the Barbie Land Kens, I gave up trying to comprehend what the filmmakers were trying to say. Also, shouldn’t the Barbies, in the end, have chosen to share power with the Kens, in line with the feminist belief — that everyone is equal regardless of sex — that undergirded the film? The film is a safe jab at patriarchy and also a kick into the brittle carcass of a dead horse. I commend the filmmakers for making a complicated movie out of a billion-dollar brand. That was risky, but it was the only risk they took. C-
Women Talking (2022, USA) - It seems a number of screenplays critical of men (Bombshell, She Said, The Assistant, Men, The Last Duel) were green-lit in the wake of #Metoo. But now some of these movies are coming out when the conversation has shifted to the troubles of men, making the likes of Women Talking and Barbie (the latter of which wallowed in mistimed victimhood) feel like they missed their moment. Women Talking (which was well-acted, atmospheric, and well-written) felt, in the end, ideological and didactic: men are brutes; women don’t need men (to the point where they can pack their wagons, abduct the kids, and leave all men behind); and women can and will live without men until men have reformed. It’s a kind of fantasy of empowerment and independence. You might counter by pointing out that the film takes place in a remote and cut-off Hutterite community and therefore has nothing to do with our 2023 concerns. But it’s a movie of and for the times, with themes just as apt to be discussed in their timeless barn loft as well as on our 21st-century social media. The story begins to show its ideological colors when the character of August, played by the always-loveable Ben Whishaw, is presented as the modern ideal of manhood: gentle, subservient, emotionally available, physically unimposing, and quick to tears. I love the Augusts of the world and I agree that there ought to be more of them. His is also a good variation of masculinity. But the truth is most women don’t want August in the flesh even if they want him on paper. In characterizing men as so brutish that the whole lot needs abandoning, and Whishaw as the man they want crying on their shoulders, the story feels true to ideology but out of kilter with reality. B-
2023 has been my year of returning to old favorites: Tolkien’s LotR, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I read two of these, for the first time, almost twenty years ago, and I find a refreshing affinity with my younger self when I see that our tastes (young Ken’s and old Ken’s) have not altered with time. Knowing I’ll have access to these pleasures for the next sixty years (should nothing contemporary catch my eye) gives me comfort.
In my twenties, I went through a 19th-century British novel phase. I gained a lot from those books (examples of elegant prose), but few of them actually resonated with me and my twenty-something concerns. Pride and Prejudice (1813) may be the most timeless of the lot, as we’ll always wonder if we should couple up with someone for connection and romance vs. comfort and “situation.”
But it’s more than that. Just as I feel a refreshing affinity with my younger self’s taste, I feel the same affinity with Austen’s sense of humor. It's the same wry, subtle humor that still exists in Britain (and, to a lesser extent, in the U.S.), best exemplified by Mr. Bennet, who mirthfully observes all of life's absurdities (namely the behavior of reverend doofus, Mr. Collins). It’s nice being connected to a different era by the same sense of humor.
Big Beacon (2023, UK) by Steve Coogan playing Alan Partridge - I love everything Coogan does with Partridge. The humor is fast and dry, lowbrow and highbrow. Partridge is always funny, but Coogan and his co-writers never get enough credit for writing extremely well. You might like to start with his, I, Nomad.
I’ve subscribed to and have been binge-listening to Sarah Hepola’s and Nancy Rommelmann’s “Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em” Podcast. These women are open, honest, perceptive, smart, and charming. Here’s a shining example: Hepola’s voice-essay on her relationship with a homicide detective.