Documentaries are usually—aesthetically speaking—very, very boring. Man on Wire (2008), which holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, put me to sleep at the theater (though a lack of sleep the night before surely didn’t help. It’s the only time I’ve fallen asleep at the theater). (Editor’s note: Actually, he also fell asleep in front of the 2009 Keats biopic Bright Star, but that doesn’t count, because he wasn’t there by choice.) The problem is that, just as a majority of fiction filmmakers think that plot is key and forget the rest (I’m looking at you, Christopher Nolan), and just as a good number of filmmakers of a more literary bent make the same mistake with character (I couldn’t finish Blue Valentine (2010) for this very reason; but at least I finally got to see Ryan Gosling do some real acting), documentaries are often so focused on the truth of their subject matter, and how important it is for it to be spread far and wide, that they prioritize writing an exposé over making a film. Such motivations are noble and worthy, but they are political rather than aesthetic, and as such they can be equally well served using other mediums. In other words, this common kind of documentary doesn’t consider itself first and foremost a film. Not all documentaries are like this, of course. The Act of Becoming (2015), which I bet you’ve never heard of, is a good case in point.
When I first read this review of Zero Dark Thirty (2012), a quirk in the reading app I use led me to believe it was written by a critic I’d never heard of. “My god,” I thought, “I have to read more of this amazingly perceptive and eloquent critic!” Turns out it was Richard Brody, who once again put into words the vaguely deep feelings I had after watching the film. He explains perfectly the mix of technical mastery and conscious hollowness that left such a deep impression on me. There ain’t nobody like him.
The only thing I would’ve added is to call the film a post-Western.
I’m not usually one for scenes of awkward tension—even Craig Ferguson could pull those off with his guests on a regular basis—but the extent to which Archipelago (2010) is infused with repressed energy is quite astounding, even including the almost always static camera. It’s interesting how the film uses its vast landscape shots in relation to this repressed energy.
The past decade, we’ve seen loads of films convincingly portray the fantasy world of superheroes. Blue Jay (2016) is a film that portrays a fantasy world that actually exists: the world of lovers. You know how couples in love say stupid idiotic nonsense and act like mentally underdeveloped people? That’s because they literally occupy a different world than me and you. The miracle of this film, acted to near perfection with improvisation based on plot outlines, is that it not only portrays this world, it lets us in.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) is not a coming of age story, despite what its promotional materials say, which is why Richard Brody can have a field day trashing the contradictions and superficialities of the film; rather, it’s a return to the classic superhero secret identity plot, in which keeping the identity secret is the major conflict. Ever since Tony “save-the-world-with-technology-and-has-never-read-Heidegger” Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) outed himself at the end of Iron Man (2008), the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been lacking this most traditional of superhero narrative elements. Well, now it’s got it. And because Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is a kid, the film gets to incorporate that most annoying of kid movie tropes, the Cassandra who’s right about everything but listened to by nobody. Thus, because it’s a return to generic form, skin-deep characterization is not a letdown but just baked into the pudding.
There really isn’t much that hasn’t been said about Terrence Malick’s amazing debut feature, Badlands (1973), which basically made the careers of everyone whose name was attached to it. I just wanted to point y’all toward this oral history of the production process, a record of the first time Malick and his idiosyncrasies were unleashed on the filmmaking industry.
I won’t deny it: Tarkovsky’s classic put me to sleep (full stomach, stuffy room, subtitles—you get the idea). But one thing about Andrei Rublev (Andrey Rublyov / Андрей Рублёв 1966/2016) stayed with me after I awoke.
Don’t know if you can tell, but I’m a pretty brainy sorta guy. So it should come as little surprise that my favorite kind of comedy is the kind that actively forces my brain to shut down: slapstick, farce, and absurdism. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017) just barely misses the mark, but the way it misses it is very interesting.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Vous n’avez encore rien vu 2012), Alain Resnais’s penultimate film (in the style of any other filmmaker’s last film) is a stupendous achievement. Featuring a veritable Who’s Who of the French cinema playing themselves in a film (based on the premise of a play) about a play performed alongside the same play caught on film (which is adapted from an actual play), it manages the rare feat of evoking multiple levels of emotion and intellectual delight with a single conceit.
My first thoughts on finishing Zootopia (2016; early 2016—timing is key) were about the same as Matt Zoller Seitz’s over at the Roger Ebert website; in his review, after praising the animation (that train sequence!) and voice acting (shout out to Jenny Slate’s Dawn Bellwether!), he points out that although the film’s message is that people shouldn’t be taken at face value according to the broad, superficial categories they belong to, most of the gags in the film do precisely that. But then I remembered what George Clooney says to Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air (2009): “I’m like my mother: I stereotype. It’s faster.”