Free Solo (2018), the documentary by the married climber duo Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin about Alex Honnold’s successful quest to be the first person to scale up the vertical face of Yosemite’s El Capitan in 2017 alone and without ropes or tools, is a vertiginous puzzle both visually and conceptually.
Mark Olexa and Francesca Scalisi’s documentary Half-Life in Fukushima (Demi-vie à Fukushima 2016) is an hour-long glimpse into the life of Naoto Matsumura, a man of almost sixty years of age who refused to evacuate with his wife and son, instead staying with his elderly father. The film follows him around as he takes care of his livestock and other affairs, and nothing too formally special is needed or deployed: The mere existence of these arresting images of abandoned civilization, often in long takes, is enough to continuously remind us that everything we see is radioactive.
The Danish real-time single-set thriller The Guilty (Den skyldige 2018), debut feature of writer-director Gustav Möller, is a trip and a half. Asger (Jakob Cedergren) is relegated to emergency response operator while a case he’s entangled in goes through the courts. He doesn’t like it, but he plays nice. Then he gets a call from Iben (Jessica Dinage), who says she’s been kidnapped in a van. Despite everyone telling him to just do his job, Asger feels responsible for getting this woman safely back to her two young children, and his personal overinvolvement proves to be his downfall.
In Chiwawa (Chiwawa-chan / チワワちゃん 2019), a group of friends get their hands on a truckload of money, burn through it in three days, and drift out of each other’s lives. Then, we learn in the opening scene, Chiwawa (Shiori Yoshida), the new friend they met that very night who spearheaded the dumbest robbery in cinema history, winds up dead, her body parts tossed into the sea. To counter the moralistic news reports focusing on Chiwawa’s promiscuity and party lifestyle, Miki (Mugi Kadowaka) canvasses their shared group of friends for their memories of her—despite the fact that Chiwawa stole her boyfriend, Yoshida (Ryô Narita), who turns out to be a playboy. We thus get Citizen Kane (1941), complete with nostalgia for lost youthful innocence, in the non-moralistic sense.
I have a running theory about Rachel McAdams and Natalie Portman. I think the former is more telegenic when expressing emotions such as joy, exuberance, mirth, while the latter is favored by the camera for anxiety, ambivalence, despair. Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s second feature as director, stars Portman and only strengthens this impression. But even in Celeste’s (Portman) on-the-edge neurosis, Portman still isn’t the perfect fit for the character’s exuberance.
Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer (1969) features a young and handsome Robert Redford as a gifted slalom skier and grade-A egotistical asshole. Aside from some seriously exhilarating racing shots, including a couple of lengthy POVs (cinematography by Brian Probyn), the film is basically a character study of a one-dimensional man (written by James Salter), mostly from the outside, which makes it kind of boring. But the few moments we do get inside his head make him a tragic figure indeed.
Starring a naive and indignant James Stewart alongside the wisecracking Jean Arthur, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), written by Sidney Buchman and an uncredited Myles Connolly, constructs compelling drama out of institutional procedures and political machinations (literally, the political machine). One would think that it would therefore make great pedagogical material for a civics class or something, especially given how it celebrates Smith’s (Stewart) patriotic idealism, but it goes too far and reveals a seldom mentioned truth of democratic politics: Everything is subjective.
Paweł Pawlikowski’s 85-minute-long black and white Cold War (Zimna wojna / 2018) is laser-focused on its story, the tortured, romantic-to-the-hilt relationship between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig), and the thing that both unites and confines them: music. The ending suggests that a truly lasting love exists only after specific commonalities end. But the script, by Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki, and Piotr Borkowski, hints and signifies rather than expressing or emoting. We love the leads not because we know them, but because they’re gorgeous.
Even though just the trailer had me in tears, Morgan Neville’s Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is, aside from being a major nostalgia trip, somewhat aimless. We don’t get a deep dive into the man, who by all accounts is not hiding any skeletons in his closet; nor do we find much exploration of the impact of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1962-2001) on the nation or the culture beyond the mere existence of groundbreaking episodes. The only argument that I could discern has to do with tracing various aspects of the show back to the man.
Editor’s note: This piece is on the Far Out in the 70s: A New Wave of Comedy, 1969-1979 retrospective at the Film Forum.
Being There (1979) tells the tale of Chance the gardener (Peter Sellers), a TV addict with an extremely low-level intellect who, through a series of absurd coincidences and by dint of his inherited upper-class raiment, is mistaken for an elite businessman down on his luck named Chauncey Gardner, taken seriously by the president (Jack Warden) on economic issues, and as the film ends is being considered for president himself. Truly, WASP men fail upward.