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.