The Journey Is the Reward: In Transit (2015)

 

For one glorious week, documentarian and pioneer of direct cinema Albert Maysles’s last film, the posthumously released In Transit (2015), was free to watch online. In a fine bit of irony, it was Maysles’s death that threw the film’s distribution into limbo. Co-directed with Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, and Benjamin Wu (everyone also shared cinematography duties, except True, who edited), the film boards the Chicago-St. Paul/Minneapolis-Spokane-Portland/Seattle Empire Builder, the busiest cross-country train in the US, in search of passengers’ stories. You think you know where this is going (sorry), and you do—but knowing is one thing, experiencing another.

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False Prophet: Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało 2019)

Did you know that Poland has a fake priest problem? You’d think parishioners would catch on pretty quickly, but apparently some of these impersonators are sincere in their ministries, lacking only the credentials. What would drive someone to be a sincere fake priest? How might they handle their duties? Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało 2019), a religious high-wire act based on a true story, offers one tantalizing example.

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The Lucky One: Miss Americana (2020, aka Taylor Swift: Miss Americana)

People often say that you need to be objective to be a good critic, but I’ve often found that being invested in a work can illumine more pathways into what it’s trying to do and how well it succeeds. Of course, it’s not necessarily a “better” perspective, whatever that means, just a different one. Being a Swiftie, I find the Taylor Swift on screen in Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana (2020, aka Taylor Swift: Miss Americana) to be a familiar presence from all of the interview and behind-the-scenes footage of her that already exists, some of which is used in this documentary. As Swift suggests in an early interview, also included, fame and career longevity have always been on her mind, and the film grounds such abstract musings in raw and emotionally vulnerable moments, captured as they happen.

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The Moral Arc of the Universe Bends Toward Compassion: So Long, My Son (Dijiutianchang / 地久天长 2019)

Chinese New Year is almost upon us, a time for family and reflection—the perfect context in which to see Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (Dijiutianchang / 地久天长 2019). The Chinese title is also the title of the Chinese translation of “Auld Lang Syne,” and the two feel similar. And this is film whose (Taiwanese) trailer accurately reflects its feeling as well. It was my best theatrical experience of 2019.

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Ceci n’est pas un film: Cats (2019)

I don’t understand the visceral hate of Cats (2019), the latest offering from Tom Hooper. It’s a perfectly respectable recording of a stage musical performance, touched up with a bit of CGI.

What? It’s meant to be a film, you say? Well, that does change things considerably.

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Thoughts on Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)

First things first: Zombieland: Double Tap (2019) is worth a watch. With ten years’ acting experience and character familiarity on their shoulders, the four leads turn in better performances than last time, even if some (Emma Stone’s Wichita and Woody Harrelson’s Tallahassee) are better than others (Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus and Abigail Breslin’s Little Rock—you can’t really blame Breslin, as the script treats her character as a MacGuffin most of the time). Speaking of the script, by Dave Callaham, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick, now that there’s less need to spend time on worldbuilding and forming character dynamics, this second installment can get right to the conflicts and character arcs and zombie-bashing setpieces. And that’s where it falters.

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Thoughts on Ad Astra (2019)

James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019), co-written with Ethan Gross, is a stellar (sorry) achievement. Occupying the space orbited by Sunshine (2007), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time (2016) (not Life’s Journey but the shorter version narrated by Brad Pitt), it succeeds where First Man (2018) fails, to symbolize one man’s traumatized state with the infinite void of space; and it stands in good contrast to Blade Runner 2049, which loaded the atmospheric gravitas onto various earthbound locations. The film also draws from Solaris (both 1972 and 2002) and Gravity (2013) for certain sequences. Brian Tallerico wrote a rave, as did Richard Brody. Pitt’s acting, the cinematography (by Hoyte van Hoytema), the production design (by Kevin Thompson), and the score (by Max Richter and Lorne Balfe) are all to die for. But it’s not a perfect film, knowingly eliding over its weak plot structure by deeming it “beyond the scope of this” film.

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Thoughts on Weathering with You (Tenki no Ko / 天気の子 2019)

Weathering with You (Tenki no Ko / 天気の子 2019), Makoto Shinkai’s new feature, is a strange beast. The trailer conveys it well: stunningly beautiful, but with two plotlines that seem to be on different planes altogether, to the point where the trailer can’t find a way to put them together. Also, the characterizations are lazy archetypes and many points of tension are artificial. I still enjoyed it though.

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The Banality of Evil: Notes on an Appearance (2018)

Notes on an Appearance (2018), writer-director-editor Ricky D’Ambrose’s no-budget feature debut, runs an hour long but feels much longer, in both good ways and bad (the good and bad are mutually constitutive). D’Ambrose has made two shorts before, using them as experiments to prepare for Notes, and the thought and consideration that went into this film shine through.

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