As with every year, it was a great year for cinema if one knew where to look. After serving as a “screener” for one film festival (Chicago Underground) and a juror at another (Lake County), I probably watched more feature films in 2021 than I have in the past few years — although, because I spent most of the year working on anew featuremyself, I spent less time writing about them. Below is a list of my top ten favorites and ten runners-up that I’ll be submitting to Cine-file Chicago, along with links to my original reviews where applicable.
10. Faya Dayi(Jessica Beshir, Ethiopia/USA)
9. In Front of Your Face (Hong Sang-soo, S. Korea)
8. The Souvenir Part II(Joanna Hogg, UK)
7. Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, France)
6. Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood, USA)
My esteem for this late-period Clint Eastwood masterpiece has only grown since my first viewing. After some bumpy narrative exposition and the introduction of some red-herring genre trappings, it settles into a sublime, near-plotless meditation on the importance of slowing down and enjoying life: you know, just hanging out with other people, petting animals, taking a nap, dancing, making food. That sort of thing. To paraphrase something Roberto Rossellini once said about Chaplin’s A KING IN NEW YORK, it’s the film of a free man. You can hear me discuss it with Bennett Glace on the Split Tooth Media Podcasthere. You can read my original review for Cine-file here.
5. Annette (Leos Carax, France)
4. The Power of the Dog(Jane Campion, New Zealand)
3. Shadow Kingdom (Alma Har’el, USA)
A lot of film people aren’t even aware of the Alma Har’el/Bob Dylan masterpiece SHADOW KINGDOM. Or, if they are aware of it, they don’t realize that it’s actually a movie. It was advertised as a “livestream event” in advance of its premiere on Veeps.com, which led many people to assume that it would be a concert (whether live or pre-recorded). What we got instead was a gorgeously photographed black-and-white art film, shot over seven days on multiple sets on a soundstage in Santa Monica, in which Dylan and a group of masked musicians mime along to a sublime set of new recordings of old Dylan songs. In my brief Letterboxd review, I called it “a visual album, not unlike Beyonce’s LEMONDADE as directed by Straub/Huillet” but if you want a deep dive into what makes it a truly exceptional film, you should listen to Laura Tenschert’s amazing analysis here. It was only available to stream for a week via Veeps (presumably before disappearing into the ether forever), but I might be able to show it to you if you want to come over to my place…
2. Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan)
1. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan)
It isn’t often that I feel this way about a movie but when I saw the first of the two masterpieces that Ryusuke Hamaguchi released this year, I felt like I should have made it myself. Reviewed for Cine-file here.
Runners Up (in Alphabetical Order) :
The Card Counter (Schrader, USA)
Feast (Leyendekker, Netherlands)
Malignant (Wan, USA)
Memoria (Weerasethakul, Colombia)
Our Father (Smith, USA)
Procession (Greene, USA)
Shiva Baby (Seligman, Canada/USA)
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (Mosese, Lesotho)
Topology of Sirens (Davies, USA) – Reviewed for Cine-file here.
The Logan Theatre and Various Multiplexes – Check Venue websites for showtimes
If RICHARD JEWELL (2019) was Clint Eastwood’s FRENZY—a dark, angry movie that revisited some of the director’s pet themes in a more disturbing fashion than ever before—then CRY MACHO is his FAMILY PLOT—a surprisingly sweet and gentle about-face that feels like a career summation while showing the old master has a few new tricks up his sleeve. Like MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004) and GRAN TORINO (2008), CRY MACHO tells the story of an older man haunted by his past who finds redemption in becoming a surrogate father to a wounded younger person. The relationship unfolds on a picaresque road trip similar to the ones in BRONCO BILLY (1980), HONKYTONK MAN (1982) and THE MULE (2018), and Eastwood also throws in a cross-generational romance (a la BREEZY  and THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY ) for good measure. Most of all, CRY MACHO is quintessentially Eastwoodian for how the filmmaker finds new ways to interrogate and subvert his own macho persona as an actor, even though (or perhaps precisely because) he was a physically frail 90-year-old at the time it was shot. Jonathan Rosenbaum once balked at the reception of Manoel de Oliveira’s CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS – THE ENIGMA (2007) because he was convinced that some fans of the then-98-year-old director valued the film only because Oliveira could be seen in it driving a car. There will no doubt be similar skepticism in some quarters towards the neo-western CRY MACHO for containing images of the now-ancient Eastwood riding a horse, punching someone in the face, and dancing with a much-younger señora (the wonderful Natalia Traven). But Eastwood’s performance here is genuinely and subtly moving: there’s a scene where his character, a retired rodeo star, cries while talking about mistakes he’s made, and it’s filmed in such a daringly offhanded manner, with the actor’s cowboy hat slung low over his eyes, that many viewers likely won’t even notice the single tear that streams down his face while he’s reminiscing. The low-key, no-fuss approach is characteristic of both the director and the movie as a whole. CRY MACHO features perhaps the most beautiful widescreen landscape shots that Eastwood has ever composed (with New Mexico credibly standing in for Mexico), even though, typical for a director famed for his visual economy, he refuses to linger on any of them for a second longer than necessary. A small masterpiece that deserves to be seen on the big screen. (2021, 104 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]
I wrote the following piece on AMERICAN SNIPER a few years ago for a book of essays dedicated to different aspects of Clint Eastwood’s controversial film that was to have been published by a University press. I was specifically asked to analyze the movie through the lens of “reception studies.” Unfortunately, the book was postponed indefinitely, so I’m offering the piece here instead. I enjoyed researching and writing it and I hope some of you find it interesting.
American Sniper: A Critical Historiography
By Michael Glover Smith
While American Sniper was an unmitigated success at the American box office upon its initial theatrical release (it was in fact the highest-grossing domestic film of 2014), its critical reputation has been far more controversial, drawing praise and ire in equal measure. Interestingly, the movie’s divisiveness has extended beyond the realm of traditional film criticism, as many cultural commentators have also felt the need to weigh in with editorials and “think pieces” on whether it is a xenophobic and racist recruitment tool for the United States military, a thoughtful examination of post-traumatic stress disorder with a decidedly anti-war bent, or perhaps, most maddening of all, somehow a combination of both of these things at the same time. Interestingly, as in the movies of the late, great Samuel Fuller, Clint Eastwood appears to have succeeded in the difficult task of angering viewers on both the left and right wings of the political spectrum simultaneously, arguably the surest indication that he has done something right.
American Sniper is therefore an ideal candidate to be looked at through the lens of reception studies; this essay will provide an overview of the many articles, scholarly as well as more pop-culture oriented, that have appeared in print and online examining Eastwood’s controversial film, and will illustrate how American Sniper’s formal complexity and thematic ambiguity ultimately provide a kind of Rorschach inkblot test for the political and philosophical points-of-view of each individual viewer.
American Sniper is also important as a case study for how reactions on social media – not only by film critics but also celebrities and ordinary people – can shape the cultural conversation surrounding a movie and help to lift it into the zeitgeist as a subject of proverbial “water-cooler conversation.” American Sniper had its high-profile world premiere at the American Film Institute Festival in Los Angeles on November 11, 2014. This “secret screening” was publicly announced by the AFI only one day before it happened, which meant that the instantaneous reactions to the movie’s first public exhibition on Twitter, even at (or especially at) 140 characters or less, were scrutinized more closely than they otherwise might have been. The immediate narrative created by these tweets had nothing to do with the film’s perceived politics, as would later be the case, but instead focused on the fact that American Sniper was simply Clint Eastwood’s “best work in years” as a director.
Context is important: Eastwood’s reputation as a filmmaker had undergone a period of major critical reappraisal between the years 2003 and 2007: from the release of Mystic River to the Oscar glory of Million Dollar Baby one year later to 2006’s “Iwo Jima diptych” comprised of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, the latter of which, a predominantly Japanese-language movie seemingly conceived of as a more modest afterthought to the former film, scored a surprise but well-deserved Best Picture Oscar nomination. Between 2008 and 2014, Eastwood produced and directed an additional six feature-length motion pictures (Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus, Hereafter, J. Edgar and Jersey Boys), all of which, with the exception of 2009’s Gran Torino, had failed to generate the same positive critical and/or commercial response as those from his earlier “miracle run.“
Late-period Eastwood (like the divisive work of “late Ford” or “late Hawks” in the post-Hollywood studio system era just before Eastwood directed Play Misty for Me in 1971) had become, and to a certain extent still is, something of a litmus test for critics subscribing to the auteur theory – with only a small cult of diehard Eastwood aficionados willing to testify to the director’s ingenious, “Brechtian” use of terrible pop songs in his Nelson Mandela biopic Invictus. One could practically hear the sigh of relief then in a typical post-American Sniper premiere tweet like this one from the Hollywood Reporter critic Jon Frosch: “Following a couple of sub-par efforts, American Sniper is a pretty major return to form for Eastwood. Bradley Cooper superb #AFI”
This “return to form” theme was also emphasized in the first two reviews to appear in industry trade publications. Justin Chang’s review in Variety, which was posted on the website of that venerable daily paper on November 11 at 11:30 pm (i.e., at the exact moment that the end credits had begun rolling at the AFI screening), noted that the film was “arguably the director’s strongest, most sustained effort in the eight years since his WWII double-header of ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima.’” Todd McCarthy’s Hollywood Reporter review, which was posted online one minute later at 11:31 pm, likewise announced in its opening paragraph that American Sniper was “Eastwood’s best in a number of years” before correctly – and impressively – predicting that it would go on to become a box office phenomenon on the basis that “its ‘God, country, family’ aspects . . . will draw that part of the public that doesn’t often go to the movies.”
Ironically, American Sniper’s AFI Fest screening had immediately followed the world premiere screening of another important new American movie, Ava Duvernay’s Martin Luther King biopic Selma. Going into the 2015 Oscar race, some journalists would pit these two films against one another in think pieces based on the dubious premise that they constituted an ideological dichotomy of contemporary American cinema – with DuVernay (young, African-American and female) representing its more “progressive” side and Eastwood (old, white and male) representing its more “reactionary” elements. This contrast would become even more pronounced after Eastwood’s film earned triple the Oscar nominations and nearly seven times the box office gross of Duvernay’s movie. But in the days immediately following this provocative double feature at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, most of the press focused not on contrasting the films with one other on ideological grounds but on merely pointing out that their jointly positive reception meant that they were likely to “shake up” an imminent awards season whose potential candidates were previously thought to have been set in stone.
Between American Sniper’s world premiere and its limited theatrical release in the United States on Christmas Day of 2014 (a launch that indicated Warner Brothers executives felt they had a sure-fire Oscar contender on their hands), the vast majority of the reviews were positive and echoed the main talking points first laid out by Justin Chang and Todd McCarthy: that it succeeded as a powerful portrait of the psychological toll of modern warfare, that it fit snugly into the Eastwood canon as a meditation on masculinity and the consequences of violence, and that it featured a terrific performance by an almost unrecognizably bulked-up Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. David Denby’s review in the New Yorker, published in the December 22, 2014 issue, was typical: in a positive dual review alongside of Selma, titled “Living History,” he praised Eastwood’s assured and economical directorial style, which he claimed “makes most directors look like beginners,” and hinted at the film’s thematic ambiguity by noting that it “is both a devastating war movie and a devastating anti-war movie,” without bothering to delve too deeply into what such a seemingly contradictory statement might mean.
One of the first articles to find American Sniper problematic from an ideological perspective was Keith Phipps’ mixed review that appeared on the popular but now defunct website The Dissolve on December 23, 2014. Phipps linked to an article in the Washington Post that understandably questioned the veracity of some of the “unverifiable” stories that Chris Kyle had told, both in his memoir on which the film is based (American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice) and during his interviews to promote the book, while also implicitly criticizing Jason Hall’s adapted screenplay for never addressing this issue and “adopting an uncomplicated print-the-legend attitude toward Kyle, who’s portrayed as unfailingly kind, humble and courageous, if prone to the occasional funk.” Later in the review, Phipps also points out that “Kyle never stops referring to Iraqis – enemies and otherwise – as savages, and the film presents them as such, a mostly undifferentiated mass of anger out for American blood.”
These are mere asides, however, in a review that stops short of calling the movie outright propaganda, and Phipps, who also praises the power of Eastwood’s direction and Cooper’s central performance, concludes his piece by arguing that American Sniper’s primary flaw is its failure to invest Kyle with greater psychological complexity: “Eastwood flirts with the idea of exploring the toll Kyle’s time in hell takes on him, but then backs away as the gunfire and the talk of duty overwhelm more tender human feelings. It’s ultimately a film about putting a kid in crosshairs, pulling the trigger, and learning not only to live with that action, but to live without regret. Is that possible? In the end, AmericanSniper doesn’t really care. It’s hard not to leave all that chaos with an admiration for Kyle’s heroism, but just as hard to not feel like Eastwood missed a chance to make a more substantial film about the man’s experience, the experiences of all the others who volunteer for duties most would do anything to avoid, and what it’s like to come back from it all to resume the life they fought to protect.”
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s review in the A.V. Club, which appeared online the same day as Phipps’ Dissolve piece, nimbly argues that the movie does achieve a degree of psychological complexity while also making the crucial point that Eastwood’s perspective as a filmmaker was subtly at odds with Kyle’s point-of-view as the protagonist. “American Sniper never undermines the sincerity of Kyle’s worldview,” Vishnevetsky writes. “This isn’t a man haunted by guilt or violence; as far as Kyle is concerned, he did necessary but troubling work in a necessary but troubling war. What the movie does, instead, is complicate that sincerity; much of the direction and script – by Jason Hall, who wrote David Mackenzie’s very underrated and ambivalent Spread – hints at the idea that Kyle isn’t really cognizant of the effect killing so many people has had on him. Instead of giving him an ah-ha moment of self-awareness, the movie preserves this essential part of his character, and then plays it against him, perhaps too subtly for most tastes.”
Prior to its theatrical release, it was still possible for a true Hollywood liberal like Jane Fonda to show support for the film on social media, with either little or no fear of a public backlash. On December 21, she tweeted: “Just saw ‘American Sniper.’ Powerful. Another view of ‘Coming Home.’ Bradley Cooper sensational. Bravo Clint Eastwood.” Among the nearly 100 responses to this tweet in the days that followed were comments ranging from those who predictably called out “Hanoi Jane” for her supposed hypocrisy in praising Eastwood’s ostensibly patriotic movie to film critic Sean Burns who hilariously evoked the gruesome, head-exploding opening of one of David Cronenberg’s most notorious movies when he imagined the response of certain right-wing pundits: “Fox News now a scene from SCANNERS.”
The December 29 issue of New York Magazine featured a mixed review by David Edelstein that amplified both the kind of criticisms and praise seen in Keith Phipps’ review; Edelstein lauded American Sniper for Eastwood’s command of film form but condemned it for its supposedly propagandistic content. On the plus side, according to Edelstein, “It’s a crackerjack piece of filmmaking, a declaration that (Eastwood’s) not yet ready to be classified as an Old Master, that he can out-Bigelow Kathryn Bigelow.” On the minus side: “Morally, though, he has regressed from the heights of Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) . . . The people Kyle shoots always represent a ‘savage, despicable evil,’ and the physical and mental cost to other Americans just comes with the territory. It’s a Republican platform movie.”
But it was not until after American Sniper’s wide release on January 16, 2015 that the furor over its perceived politics truly exploded. Without mentioning American Sniper by name, Fahrenheit 9/11 director and outspoken liberal pundit Michael Moore implicitly criticized the film in a tweet on January 18 in which he stated that his uncle had been killed by a Japanese sniper during World War II and that, as a result, he had been “…taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot you in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes.” This tweet inspired over 10,000 responses on Twitter alone, many of them hostile, including one from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who suggested that Moore would better appreciate American Sniper if he spent “a few weeks with ISIS and Boko Haram.” (This is, of course, hardly a fair suggestion since neither of those terrorist groups are among the “enemies” actually depicted in Eastwood’s movie). After the Hollywood Reporter and Deadline Hollywood reported on this Twitter controversy, Moore took to Facebook to elaborate, presumably because of its option of unlimited characters, and praised some aspects of the film (Cooper’s performance and some “anti-war sentiment”) while also criticizing Eastwood for getting “Vietnam and Iraq confused in his storytelling” and “having his characters calling Iraqis ‘savages’ throughout the film” (though this latter criticism again makes the assumption that Chris Kyle and other characters serve the function of being mere mouthpieces for the filmmakers).
Just as controversial was a tweet by actor and comedian Seth Rogen, also published on January 18: “American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious (sic) Basterds.” This tweet, which referred to the faux Nazi propaganda documentary Nation’s Pride, created by Quentin Tarantino expressly for his celebrated 2009 World War II film, was “liked” by over 16,000 people, retweeted over 9,000 times and elicited nearly 5,500 replies on Twitter alone (again, many of them hostile). Following the outrage, Rogen quickly walked back his jokey criticism by claiming, rather disingenuously, that his words were only meant to compare two movies that both happened to be about lethal snipers and insisted that he was not implying Eastwood’s film was in any way propagandistic. But these controversial celebrity tweets were only the most high-profile examples of a culture war that was being waged by ordinary men and women across the United States at large. An article by David Boroff in the New York Daily News on the Monday following the sensational opening weekend of American Sniper’s wide release claimed that the movie had sparked a “hateful reaction to Arabs on Twitter.” Among the offensive and bigoted statements in the tweets that Boroff cited: “American sniper makes me wanna go shoot some fucking Arabs,” “Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are – vermin scum intent on destroying us,” and “American sniper made me appreciate American soilders (sic) 100x more and hate Muslims 1000000x more.”
Boroff’s piece was one of many articles detailing a correlation between American Sniper and a fresh wave of hate speech against Arabs and/or Muslims on social media. Which begs the question: if the film had not been intended as a work of jingoistic hate mongering but ended up being misinterpreted that way by ignoramuses seeking to have their prejudices flattered, to what extent (if any) should the filmmakers be held responsible for this misunderstanding? The tenor of the reviews going forward would thus be very different: the question of whether Eastwood, Hall, Cooper and Co. were responsible for inciting hatred against Arabs, even if unintentionally, became a question that no one writing about the film could avoid. This phenomenon was not dissimilar to how critics and other journalists felt the need to address the thorny moral question of whether or not Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty had shown in 2012 that “torture worked” in the CIA’s acquisition of intelligence that led to locating and killing Osama bin Laden. In the instance of the reaction to both films, the uproar seems to have begun first on social media before bleeding over and eventually becoming an important part of the critical discourse surrounding each movie on a journalistic level.
Author and journalist Matt Taibbi wrote an op-ed in Rolling Stone published on January 21, 2015 titled “‘American Sniper’ is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize” – less than one month after that same magazine’s official film critic, Peter Travers, had given the movie a three-and-a-half out of four stars rave. Taibbi, who is not a film critic and was therefore unconcerned with Eastwoodian aesthetics or Cooper’s performance, faulted the filmmakers on moral grounds for creating a simplistic “fairy tale” that he felt should have done more to contextualize the war on terror that it depicted (e.g., they should have explicated its root causes as well as clarified that there was no actual connection between the country of Iraq and the terror attacks on 9/11): “. . . filmmakers like Eastwood, who could have cleared things up, only muddy the waters more. Sometimes there’s no such thing as ‘just a human story.’ Sometimes a story is meaningless or worse without real context, and this is one of them.”
Conversely, Mayukh Sen wrote an essay for Vice titled “Is Jane Fonda Right About ‘American Sniper’?,” published on February 4, that used Fonda’s then six-week-old tweet as a jumping-off point to examine how the film had become “the moral outrage police’s latest punching bag.” Sen noted that some of the think pieces criticizing the film were penned by writers who admitted to not having seen it (like the New Republic’s Dennis Jett) and mounted an intelligent defense. While Sen acknowledges that the act of killing undeniably “thrills” Chris Kyle in the movie, he also elaborates on one of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s most salient points – that “the experience has numbed him in a way he doesn’t entirely understand” and cites as examples a couple of the film’s subtler details: Kyle not feeling like his alarmingly high blood-pressure is a big deal, and the truly disturbing moment where Kyle almost attacks the family dog. Sen then addresses the broader question of “So what if the American public misses the finer points?” and reminds us that Eastwood has never been a filmmaker to provide easy answers.
The final paragraph of this essay, in which Sen doubles down on his critical defense by going so far as to claim that American Sniper functions as a subversive critique of the “pathology of patriotism,” is worth quoting at length: “Fonda is right. The film shows a side of war that Coming Home glossed over: the troubling pathology of patriotism. In one scene in Sniper, Kyle watches the collapse of the World Trade Center on television, and it’s as if he freezes in time. The moment recalls an early scene in Coming Home, when Fonda, before she becomes ‘radicalized,’ stands firm as she listens to the national anthem on television. In those moments, Cooper and Fonda’s faces cut deep, getting at something perversely authentic —the sad, sorry myth of American exceptionalism some of us never outgrow.”
In an era of instant “hot takes,” one critic who benefited from waiting a while to write about American Sniper was J. Hoberman, whose review, titled “The Great American Shooter,” did not appear in the New York Review of Books until February 13 (nearly two months after the film’s limited release and nearly one month after its wide release). This delayed response allowed Hoberman to explicitly incorporate the controversy surrounding the movie into his carefully considered review, which cheekily begins with a bit of misdirection. “A country boy, who is a fabulous, natural shot,” Hoberman writes, “goes to war and neutralizes an unprecedented number of enemy combatants. Books are written. A respected Hollywood director makes the movie that will be the biggest hit of his career: it’s received with near-unanimous praise, an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and no small amount of controversy.”
Hoberman’s second paragraph begins by informing readers that he is not talking about American Sniper. Rather, “The movie is Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper as the real-life World War I hero Alvin York, which opened five months before Pearl Harbor, and went on to be the most popular movie of 1941 – a ‘phenomenon of staggering proportions,’ according to Hawks’ biographer Todd McCarthy. The same can be said of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper.” Hoberman’s comparison between the war films of Hawks and Eastwood, made over 70 years apart, is instructive. By showing how Sergeant York had become a similar cultural phenomenon in the United States on the eve of World War II, he provides some much-needed context; the popularity of Eastwood’s movie may have been due in large part to the way it stoked feelings of nationalism in a certain segment of the American audience but, as had been the case with the unexpected popularity of Sergeant York, American Sniper may also have ended up fulfilling deep cultural needs in ways that its makers could not quite have anticipated nor even intended.
Hoberman, always one of America’s most astute ideologically minded film critics, goes on to invoke Eastwood’s controversial appearance at the 2012 Republican National Convention (where the filmmaker’s mental health was questioned by liberal commentators for merely reviving the old vaudeville routine of speaking to an invisible guest in a chair), compare and contrast American Sniper to Selma, and quote responses to both films by figures as diverse as Jane Fonda, right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh, and former Alaska governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Hoberman also mentions that a French journalist had asked him if he thought the movie’s popularity was a response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre (“I told him that, on the contrary, the success struck me as symptomatic of American self-absorption”).
Perhaps surprisingly, Hoberman’s review of American Sniper was an unequivocal rave; unlike most other critics writing with an undeniably leftist slant, Hoberman saw American Sniper’s status as a cultural bellwether not as any kind of sop to patriotism but rather as proof of its relevance and vitality. In his concluding paragraph, Hoberman acknowledges that Eastwood’s film performed the unique feat of providing a blank canvas onto which different spectators could project different, even contradictory, desires: “American Sniper embodies a national repetition compulsion, what Freud defined as ‘the desire to return to an earlier state of things.’ For the artist that state may be the memory of watching the unambiguously heroic Sgt. York in the reassuring company of his father. For some members of the audience, American Sniper may offer a similarly comforting sense of a guardian angel and a cathartic righteous anger. For others, the movie may serve to assuage contrition for a war that, twelve years after it was begun, has left Iraq, as well as many of our own returning combatants, shattered. But for many, I suspect, American Sniper may be weirdly liberating — gratifying a perhaps hitherto unsuspected desire to see their pessimism, hopeless and unchanging, projected on the screen.”
The further away from opening weekend a piece of critical writing about American Sniper appeared, the less it seems the author felt the need to claim a stake in a hot-button issue cultural battle. Greater distance from the film has arguably provided greater clarity and objectivity, as evidenced by Matthew Gault’s essay “Reality Check – ‘American Sniper’ is an Anti-War Film,” which appeared on the website War is Boring on August 31, 2016, almost two years after the film’s World Premiere. Gault reconciles the film’s ostensibly contradictory elements by noting that “Kyle, the character, is pro-war and the film does glamorize his achievements” before going on to also claim: “But Eastwood takes pains to contrast those glories with painful scenes of Kyle coming home to a country he doesn’t understand, and a family he has trouble connecting to. It’s an anti-war film and obviously, staunchly so.
“Eastwood’s genius is that he crafted a movie that achieves its anti-war message without becoming preachy or overbearing. Unfortunately, that subtlety blew past viewers in their rush to reinforce their preconceived notions about a man who, by all accounts, killed a lot of people.
“For me, it’s hard to imagine a film that opens with the death of a child, even one cast as an enemy combatant, as anything but anti-war.”
It is perhaps surprising that it took almost two years before anyone felt the need to pen an article explicitly stating the idea that the movie could be anti-war even while its protagonist is pro-war; but Gault not only had the benefit of critical hindsight, he was also able to incorporate statements made about the film by Eastwood himself from a talk that the director had given to students at the Loyola Maramount University School of Television and Film in 2015. In response to a question about whether American Sniper glorifies war, Gault quotes Eastwood’s halting reply at length: “’No I don’t think it glorifies,’ he said before switching track. ‘I think it glorifies it, sure. I mean in the first sequence he shoots down . . .’ he trailed off, choosing his words carefully.
“’Yeah, the sniping part is. But you know then eventually as that scene indicates that he’s getting . . . you can see it’s starting to tell on him, and later on when he visits a psychiatrist and has to talk to him, and the psychiatrist says did you do anything along the way over there that you felt you shouldn’t have? And you could tell by the look on his face that yeah, he’s got some regrets in there . . . I think it’s nice for veterans, because it shows what they go through, and that life – and the wives of families and veterans. It has a great indication of the stress they are under. And I think that all adds up to kind of an anti-war [message].”
Gault goes on to cite scenes from the film that he sees as exemplifying what Eastwood termed the film’s anti-war message, chief among them the startling moment where Chris Kyle runs into his younger brother Jeff in Iraq. When Chris embraces the newly enlisted Jeff and tells him that both he and their father are proud of him, Jeff’s response is to grimace and mutter, “Fuck this place,” before backing away and repeating the same phrase in a louder tone of voice. Gault does not go so far as to claim that the point-of-view of the filmmakers is more in line with Jeff’s disillusionment with the war in Iraq than it is with Chris’ unswerving patriotism; rather, he shows that the complex substance of the movie is to be found in Eastwood’s powerful reaction shots of Chris Kyle’s confusion and incomprehension that “someone so close to him” could ever express such disillusionment in the first place.
If Chris Kyle is a tragic hero, a single-minded, deeply flawed and even racist figure, but one who also nonetheless inspires awe because of how his near-superhuman marksmanship differentiates him from the crowds of civilization, then perhaps the character in American cinema he most closely resembles is Ethan Edwards, the unforgettable protagonist played by John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers. It took decades for critics to understand the full psychological complexity of Edwards and how Ford deliberately presented the character in a negative critical light for his pathology and racism while also simultaneously asking viewers to bask in the awesome glory of his heroic feats. It is entirely possible that critics writing about American Sniper are still too close to the “war on terror” today to understand how Eastwood could have intended to paint a similarly complicated portrait of Chris Kyle.
For now, I’ll leave the final word to Titus Techera whose article “Clint Eastwood and the Recovery of Manliness as a Civic Virtue” appeared in the National Review on June 3, 2017. Techera sees a direct link between American Sniper and Eastwood’s 2016 follow-up Sully in that both tell the true stories of heroic American males who took responsibility for the lives of others in times of crisis (a trend that apparently continues with Eastwood’s next movie, The 15:17 to Paris): “His movies offer Americans worthwhile stories of leadership, and that’s one part of prudence in our times,” Techera writes. “He wants to give America something that it had when he himself was growing up but that it lost somewhere along the way: popular stories that beautify what’s good about America, in order to inspire, and which include dramatic renderings of what’s gone wrong without inducing despair. He has insisted on true stories for the most part to show that hope is grounded in American realities and that escape into fantasies is not the path to take in a time of troubles.”
Below is a list of my 100 favorite feature films of the decade. I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and added some new commentary not available elsewhere. The top 25 are presented in order of preference. The 75 runners-up are presented alphabetically. Enjoy!
Countdown of the Top 25:
25. (tie) Li’l Quinquin / CoinCoin and the Extra Humans (Bruno Dumont, France, 2014/2018)
L’Humanite aside, I didn’t really become interested in misery-specialist Dumont until the inauguration of his surprising, new “wacky period” with Li’l Quinquin in 2014. And I love that he both doubled down on the slapstick humor and introduced a batshit-crazy supernatural element for the brilliant 2018 sequel. I hope there are more misadventures involving Van der Weyden and Carpentier, the least competent and funniest buddy cop duo in film history, to come.
24. The Mule (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2018)
88-year-old Clint Eastwood, in what is likely his last outing as both director and star, created a work of infinite moral complexity with 2018’s The Mule – a film as deeply moving as it is goofy, told with a visual economy worthy of comparison to late John Ford.
23. Right Now, Wrong Then(Hong Sang-Soo, S. Korea, 2016)
“By having the same chance meeting play out in two separate realities, Hong offers a whimsical, droll and ultimately profound metaphysical inquiry into the nature of communication. He asks viewers to question how minor variations in word choice and intonation of speech can lead to different outcomes. It’s fun to watch — and even more fun to think about afterwards.” Time Out Chicago capsule here.
22. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr/Agnes Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011)
“Tarr is sometimes unfairly labelled an austere ‘miserabilist’ (let us not forget that Satantango actually contains a fart joke) and there is a vein of mordant deadpan humor running through this movie that did not elude the packed house I saw it with. Eliciting the most chuckles was a scene where the cabman gives a curt response to a long-winded and pretentious monologue by a visiting neighbor, which mirrors Tarr’s own responses to those who attempt to analyze his work.” White City Cinema capsule here.
21. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010)
“The Social Network uses dark, lush digital images (the kind that only Fincher seems able to capture), wall-to-wall dialogue, hyperkinetic editing and a discordant techno score to paint a portrait of America in the internet age that’s as frightening as it is beautiful.” Full White City Cinema review here.
20. Happy Hour (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan, 2015)
“The story of four 37-year-old female friends living in Kobe who are given occasion to re-evaluate their personal and professional lives after they spend the night together at a spa/hot-spring resort in a town nearby (think GIRLS TRIP as directed by Yasujiro Ozu). This quiet, absorbing dramedy is written, directed and acted to perfection and its moment-to-moment narrative unpredictability belies a rigorous structural ingenuity, which only becomes obvious in hindsight.” Cine-File capsule here.
19. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2013)
“By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption apply to three characters instead of one, Diaz retains the Russian author’s trademark first-person psychological intensity while also offering a panoramic view of society that more closely resembles that of Count Tolstoy.” White City Cinema capsule here.
18. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, UK/Germany/France, 2010)
“The Ghost Writer is a query into the dark heart of our new global society and how the major players on that stage use, betray, victimize and discard one another.” White City Cinema capsule here.
17. Bitter Money (Wang Bing, China, 2016)
It’s tempting to call this incredible documentary a non-fiction analog to Jia Zhangke’s portraits of modern China in that it shows how the increasing privatization of China’s economy sews violence in the hearts and minds of ordinary Chinese citizens. But no narrative filmmaker, including Jia, could’ve staged something as disturbing as the epic scene, captured in a single take with panning camera, in which a husband angrily rebuffs his tenacious wife’s demands for money inside of the shop they co-own.
16. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2019)
Paul Schrader recently asked on Facebook if The Irishman was “the Wild Bunch of gangster movies.” I think it would be truer to say that it’s the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance of gangster movies. Not only does it feel like an elegy for the entire genre, the fact that viewers are always keenly aware of the elderly age of the lead actors even when playing young-to-middle-aged men (more apparent to me through their physical movements than the much-talked about “de-aging” CGI, which I forgot about pretty quickly) adds an extra layer of poignance to this memory-piece par excellence – in much the same way that Liberty Valance achieves a Brechtian sublimity precisely because John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old” to play the younger versions of their characters.
15. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)
“Uncle Boonmee is a masterful tone poem that expands on the spiritual themes of Joe’s earlier work to encompass a graceful, feature-length meditation on dying and death. I emerged from the theater as relaxed and refreshed as I typically feel after watching a film by Yasujiro Ozu.” White City Cinema capsule here.
14. Vitalina Varela(Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2019)
Pedro Costa has been making films about African immigrants in Portugal for decades but the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric across the globe in recent years has made his project take on a newfound sense of urgency. Out of all the films I saw in 2019, this dark, challenging and exquisitely beautiful work of art is the one that best exemplifies what I most hope for every time I go to the movies: an authentic religious experience. My interview with Pedro at Cine-File here.
13. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France, 2012)
“In this most kaleidoscopic of films, Carax frequently intertwines his feeling for beauty with a singularly pungent melancholy and, far from coming off like the novelty it might have in lesser hands, it ends up packing an emotional wallop.” Full White City Cinema review here.
12. Life Without Principle(Johnnie To/Wai Ka-Fai, Hong Kong, 2011)
“’Expect the unexpected’ might as well be the motto for To’s entire career, for no other director of the past quarter century has done so much to reinvigorate genre filmmaking by so consistently pushing genre conventions in as many surprising, intelligent and highly personal directions.” Full White City Cinema review here.
11. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014)
“What’s remarkable about Inherent Vice is the way Anderson has been able to remain extremely faithful to Thomas Pynchon’s novel while also creating something that feels as deeply personal as his other work.” White City Cinema capsule here.
Chantal Akerman’s final narrative feature transposes Joseph Conrad’s 1895 debut novel to 1950s Malaysia, turning it into a contemporary rumination on colonialism and racism every bit as radical and breathtaking as her brilliant re-imagining of Proust in 2000’s La Captive. The use of Dean Martin’s “Sway” is unforgettable.
9. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, Portugal, 2010)
“This four-and-a-half hour distillation of a six-hour made-for-television miniseries is the most fitting swan song for Ruiz that one could imagine: an adaptation of a 19th-century novel about a fourteen-year old orphan whose investigation into his origins opens up a Pandora’s box of stories (and stories-within-stories) that make it feel like Ruiz’s magnum opus.” White City Cinema capsule here.
8. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China, 2013)
“This angry, provocative, disturbing and beautiful anthology film, consisting of four loosely linked vignettes, represents a triumphant return to narrative filmmaking for Jia, the most important member of the Chinese film industry’s ‘sixth generation.’” Full White City Cinema review here.
7. The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2010)
“This is full of the director’s usual digressions on science, art and history but it also features a new twist in a number of charming fantasy sequences involving CGI that, appropriately for someone who began working in the silent era, recall nothing so much as the primitive ‘illusionism’ of Georges Melies. A beautiful, complex, deeply spiritual and essential film.” White City Cinema capsule here.
6. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2017)
Lucrecia Martel confronts colonialism in 18th-century Argentina by focusing on an “unexceptional man,” and turns viewers into aliens in the process. My interview with the director at Time Out Chicago here.
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014)
“Boyhood‘s central conceit, which allows Linklater the uncanny ability to capture the ebb and flow of life as it is experienced over an extended period of time, also dovetails nicely with his chief strengths as a writer and director, namely his sincerity and generosity of spirit.” Full White City Cinema review here.
4. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, 2015)
“The substance of the film is to be found in the God-level mise-en-scene — where characters converse on fog-enshrouded mountaintops and behind the billowing silk curtains of exquisite, candle-lit interiors. This amazing recreation of the crumbling Tang Dynasty proves to be the most ideal backdrop imaginable for what Hou posits as Nie’s universal and timeless dilemma: should she obey her sense of professional duty or the desires of her heart? The result is a meditation on violence and morality that would make an excellent double bill with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; Nie chooses her destiny and then, like a character from a folk tale, vanishes back into the pages of history.” Time Out Chicago capsule here.
“I’ve heard Abbas Kiarostami’s latest masterpiece described as both a comedy and a metaphysical horror film. Certified Copy, which seems to be both a curve ball and a true-to-form puzzle film from the master, is great enough and slippery enough to accommodate both descriptions simultaneously.” White City Cinema capsule here.
2. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, 2014)
“Godard’s poetic use of 3-D in GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE, the best such use of the technology in any movie I’ve seen, puts this groundbreaking work in the class of his (and the cinema’s) great achievements.” Cine-File capsule here.
1. Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, USA, 2017)
Is it a movie? Is it T.V.? What year is this? If Twin Peaks should be considered a film, it’s not because it “transcends” the medium of television (whatever that means) but rather because it was written, financed, shot and edited the way that movies are and other serialized T.V. shows are not (i.e., all of it was co-written and directed by the same person based on a 500+ page script with no regard for how it would be broken up into separate “parts” until post-production began). Regardless of what you call it, the bottom line is that the latest iteration of Twin Peaks is David Lynch’s magnum opus — a career-defining work made on the largest canvas that he’s ever had to work with that summarizes everything he’s done before while simultaneously also striking out in bold new directions. I wrote a lot about Twin Peaks in 2017, the most substantial piece being one where I discussed how Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost use western movie tropes to make some surprisingly trenchant political points about life in America today. You can read that here.
The 75 Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):
13 Assassins (Miike, Japan, 2010)
About Time (Curtis, UK, 2013)
Aquarius (Mendonca, Brazil, 2016)
Atlantics (Diop, Senegal, 2019)
Before Midnight (Linklater, USA/Greece, 2013)
Black Mother (Allah, USA/Jamaica, 2018)
Brooklyn (Crowley, UK/USA, 2015)
Burning (Lee, S. Korea, 2018)
Chevalier (Tsangari, Greece, 2015)
Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA, 2013)
A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, UK/Germany, 2011)
The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea, 2011)
The Death of Louis XIV (Serra, France, 2016)
Despite the Night (Grandrieux, France, 2015)
Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2011)
Elle (Verhoeven, France, 2016)
Felicite (Gomis, Senegal, 2017)
First Reformed (Schrader, USA, 2018)
The Forbidden Room (Maddin/Johnson, Canada, 2015)
Good Time (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2017)
The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2013)
Hard to Be a God (German, Russia, 2015)
A Hidden Life (Malick, USA/Germany, 2019)
High Life (Denis, France, 2018)
Horse Money (Costa, Portugal, 2014) I Was at Home, But… (Schanelec, Germany, 2019)
The Image Book (Godard, France, 2018)
In the Shadow of Women (Garrel, France, 2015)
In the Shadows (Arslan, Germany, 2010)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA, 2013)
Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, USA, 2012)
Life of Riley (Resnais, France, 2014)
Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran, 2012)
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi, China, 2018)
The Lost City of Z (Gray, USA/UK, 2017)
Love & Friendship (Stillman, USA/UK, 2016)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, Australia/USA, 2015)
Madeline’s Madeline (Decker, USA, 2018)
Magical Girl (Vermut, Spain, 2014)
Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014)
No Home Movie (Akerman, Belgium, 2016)
Nocturama (Bonello, France, 2016)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey, 2011)
The Other Side of Hope (Kaurismaki, Finland, 2017)
All of these films first screened theatrically in Chicago for the first time in 2018. I’ve linked to my original reviews and podcast appearances where applicable and offer new thoughts on a few films I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy.
10. The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz, Philippines) A companion piece to Diaz’s earlier Norte: The End of History, this nearly 4-hour epic — about a woman being released from prison after 30 years and searching for the man who framed her — has more intelligent things to say about “revenge” than all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies put together.
9. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, USA)
Schrader’s howl of despair about the fucked-up state of our planet risks becoming ridiculous in order to reach the sublime.
8. Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, China)
Jia again examines recent Chinese history, this time in a gangster movie/perverse love story about a couple whose tumultuous fortunes mirror those of their country.
7. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker, USA)
This wild and beautiful film, a quantum leap beyond Decker’s first two movies, cuts deep into the heart of the dubious emotional exploitation inherent in almost all director/actor relationships.
6. 24 Frames(Abbas Kiarostami, Iran) Kiarostami’s final film — and final masterpiece — contains the most innovative use of CGI I’ve ever seen. My capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.
5. Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, S. Korea)
S. Korea’s greatest living filmmaker adapts a Haruki Murakami story and whips up a bizarre love triangle/murder mystery/class-conflict exposé/art film as only he could.
4. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA/UK) Anderson’s cinematic feast is equivalent to a breakfast of Welsh rabbit with a poached egg, bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam, a pot of Lapsang souchong tea, and some sausages. Capsule here.
3. The Mule (Clint Eastwood, USA)
88-year-old Eastwood turns out a work of infinite moral complexity, as deeply moving as it is wacky, told with a visual economy worthy of comparison to late John Ford.
2. Zama(Lucrecia Martel, Argentina) Martel confronts colonialism in 18th-century Argentina by focusing on an unexceptional man, and turns viewers into aliens in the process. My interview with the director at Time Out Chicago here.
1. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, USA)
In the same paradoxical way that the famous breakfast scene in Citizen Kane is both depressing (because it charts the dissolution of a marriage) and hilarious (because of the cleverness of the montage), The Other Side of the Wind is a profound meditation on death — the death of the old Hollywood studio system, the death of Orson Welles and, ultimately, the death of everything — that feels more thrillingly alive than any movie I saw in 2018.
11. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc(Bruno Dumont, France) – Dumont’s batshit-crazy electronic/metal musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc. My capsule review for Cine-File here and a discussion of it on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.
12. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, USA) – Lee’s best in a long time. Capsule review on this blog here.
13. Claire’s Camera (Hong Sang-Soo, S. Korea/France) – Hong in (deceptively) light comedy mode. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.
14. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA) – Gripping neo-noir that offers further proof Joaquin Phoenix is the finest actor working in American movies today. 15. Good Manners (Juliana Rojas/Marco Dutra, Brazil) – A lesbian love story that mutates into a werewolf movie and has a lot to say about class, race, sexuality and gender in contemporary Brazil besides.
16. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA) – A darkly clever anthology film all about death and storytelling. 17. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (Julien Faraut, France) – This idiosyncratic doc is as much about cinema as it is about John McEnroe’s nearly perfect 1984 season. Capsule review for Cine-File here.
18. Blaze (Ethan Hawke, USA) – A star isn’t born.
19. Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski, USA) – A great movie about work, friendship and America.
20. Shoplifters(Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan) – A film that shows, in great unclichéd detail, what it’s like to be poor.
21. Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene, USA) The best kind of political film, one that encompasses the past and the present and shows how they’re inextricably tied. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.
22. Happy as Lazzaro (Alicia Rohrwacher, Italy) – You think it’s a work of neorealism then it shifts, unexpectedly and delightfully, into magical realism.
23. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu, USA) – The most harrowing movie moment of 2018: “You can’t beat up women but some bitches need to get slapped sometimes.”
24. Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas, France) – Assayas at his wittiest, Juliette Binoche at her most radiant. Capsule review at Cine-File Chicago here.
25. A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, USA) – A good old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama.
At Time Out Chicago yesterday, I interviewed Sara Vaux, author of the fine new book Clint Eastwood: A Biography. In our brief e-chat, she does an eloquent job of defending American Sniper, a film released after her book went to press. I highly recommend both Vaux’s book and Eastwood’s movie (the latter especially to those who’ve been circulating articles and memes about it on social media without actually watching it). Peep the interview here: http://www.timeout.com/chicago/blog/interview-with-clint-eastwood-biographer-sara-vaux
I also have something old and something new to recommend in today’s Cine-File: Michael Curtiz’s immortal Casablanca turns up for a single screening at the Park Ridge Classic Film Series next Tuesday night and Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood opens at the Siskel Center for a one-week run beginning tonight. You can read my reviews for both films here: http://cine-file.info/list-archive/2015/FEB-15-2.html
I’d like to spare a few additional words for Sciamma’s film because I feel that, unlike Casablanca, it may need a little push to find the audience it deserves. When was the last time you saw a film with a black teenage girl as its protagonist? Never? This coming-of-age story, chock-full of the kind of naturalistic performances in which French filmmakers seem to specialize, is warm and wise and captures life in the banlieues in a way that you’ve never quite seen before. I was quite taken with it and so I’m linking to a clip of the best scene below, in which the main characters get drunk and dance to a Rihanna song. Featuring gorgeous blue-tinted lighting, ‘Scope framing and exuberant performances, it’s a two-minute blast of pure cinema:
In honor of Bob Dylan’s birthday on Friday, this year’s movie-related Dylan birthday post is the inverse of last year’s list of the best Dylan references in movies; I’d now like to highlight some of the most memorable movie references in the work of Bob Dylan (whether in song lyrics, poems or Dylan’s own films). Happy 72nd, Bob!
10. The appropriation of a joke from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera in the song “Po’ Boy”
In spite of its fame, true Marx brothers fans know that A Night at the Opera (1935), along with all the other films the brothers made at MGM, is inferior to the anarchic, truly batshit-crazy slapstick movies they had made earlier at Paramount (e.g., Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, etc.). The problem is that, while the brothers were always the star of the show in their Paramount films, they tended to be shunted to the side in their MGM vehicles, while some wooden young romantic leads took center stage. Still, A Night at the Opera has its share of zingers. One of the best comes when Groucho calls room service to ask, “Room service? Send up a larger room.” This joke found its way into a couplet on the wryly funny “Po’ Boy,” one of the best cuts on Dylan’s celebrated “Love and Theft” album (2001):
“Po’ boy, in a hotel called the Palace of Gloom
Calls down to room service, says, ‘Send up a room'”
Of course, almost as funny as the room service joke itself is the notion that a hotel would be named the “Palace of Gloom.”
9. The homage to Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player in the poem “11 Outlined Epitaphs”
“there’s a movie called
Shoot the Piano Player
the last line proclaimin’
‘music, man, that’s where it’s at’
it is a religious line
outside, the chimes rung
are still ringin'”
So ends “11 Outlined Epitaphs,” the long poetic liner notes Dylan wrote for his legendary 1963 album The Times They Are A-Changin’. Truffaut’s seminal French New Wave movie Shoot the Piano Player (1960) doesn’t end with anyone literally saying that music is “where it’s at” but that is the general impression of the scene: after the lead character, played by Charles Aznavour (long one of Dylan’s favorite singers), loses his girlfriend in a tragic shootout with gangsters, he simply returns to playing the piano — the thing he knows how to do best (and a sentiment with which the ever-touring Dylan can probably relate). Dylan seems to have been influenced by watching many foreign-language — especially French — films in Greenwich Village arthouse theaters early in his career. He would speak of being influenced by Truffaut and Godard in interviews for years to come.
8. The description of seeing Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in the memoir Chronicles: Volume One
Bob Dylan first arrived in New York City in January 1961. Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) opened in New York only three months later and seems to have made a particularly strong impression on the young folk singer. Dylan name-checked Anita Ekberg, one of the film’s stars, in I Shall Be Free, the last track on his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and referenced the film’s title in the song “Motorpsycho Nitemare” one year later (see entry number two on this list). When Dylan met the German singer Nico a year after that, he claimed to remember her from her bit part in the film (when she was known by her birth name, Christa Paffgen). In his intentionally — and hilariously — inaccurate 2003 memoir Chronicles Volume One, Dylan used vivid language to describe seeing Fellini’s movie for the first time:
“There was an art movie house in the Village on 12th Street that showed foreign movies — French, Italian, German. This made sense, because even Alan Lomax himself, the great folk archivist, had said somewhere that if you want to get out of America, go to Greenwich Village. I’d seen a couple of Italian Fellini movies there — one called La Strada, which means “the Street,” and another one called La Dolce Vita. It was about a guy who sells his soul and becomes a gossip hound. It looked like life in a carnival mirror.”
Dylan then intriguingly adds that he watched La Dolce Vita “intently,” unsure of whether he would ever have the chance to see it again. “Life in a carnival mirror” is exactly how many have described Dylan’s best lyrics from the 1960s.
7. The use of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance as an “opening act” in 2010.
Dylan puzzled many longtime fans in 2010 when the early shows of his fall tour began with the opening 30 minutes of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916) being screened via digital projection. In a neat coincidence, some of the theaters Dylan was playing were old movie palaces that had originally shown Intolerance some 80-odd years earlier. What kind of message was Dylan trying to send? Some commentators speculated he was comparing 21st century America to the decadent, ancient Babylon depicted in Griffith’s film. Whatever the case, Dylan, as usual, kept mum. Midway through the tour, the projection of Intolerance stopped just as mysteriously as it had begun.
6. The appropriation of dialogue from Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy in the song Seeing the Real You at Last
Dylan has long used movie dialogue — along with lyrics from folk songs, stray lines from other works of literature, etc. — as a source for his song lyrics. In the mid-1980s especially, he was apparently spending a lot of time with classic Hollywood films on VHS, the dialogue of which found its way verbatim into his songs. This list could have been much, much longer if I had wanted to point out film dialogue appropriated solely for the 1985 album Empire Burlesque. Instead, I’ll settle for highlighting a single line from Clint Eastwood’s highly personal 1980 comedy Bronco Billy that turned up in the song “Seeing the Real You at Last.” At one point in the movie, Eastwood’s title character, a Wild West show impresario, says, “I’m looking for a woman who can ride like Annie Oakley and shoot like Belle Starr.”
The verse in “Seeing the Real You at Last” goes:
“When I met you, baby,
You didn’t show no visible scars,
You could ride like Annie Oakley,
You could shoot like Belle Starr.”
Incidentally, the “no visible scars” line is a quote from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Almost every line in the song has been traced back to one film or another.
5. The homage to Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents in the song “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)”
One of the unlikeliest hits of Dylan’s career is the drunken sing-along/nonsense song “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” which originated as one of many such songs he spontaneously wrote and recorded with The Band in the legendary 1967 sessions that would form the basis of The Basement Tapes. Although nothing in the song’s lyrics corresponds very closely to anything that happens in Nicholas Ray’s underrated 1959 drama, it is generally assumed that the title is a reference to the protagonist of The Savage Innocents, an Inuit man played by actor Anthony Quinn. The song title itself would inspire yet another movie — the 1989 Jamaica-set thriller The Mighty Quinn, starring Denzel Washington as a detective.
4. The influence of Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise on the entire Rolling Thunder Revue-era
Along with La Dolce Vita and Shoot the Piano Player, another film that can be said to have had a major impact on Dylan’s career is Marcel Carne’s 1945 masterpiece Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis). It isn’t known exactly when Dylan first saw this tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century Parisian theater but a revival screening at a Greenwich Village art house (with Suze Rotolo?) seems likely. At one point in the movie, the female lead, Garance, says, “You go your way and I’ll go mine,” which would form most of the title of a well-known song from Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. But Dylan clearly must have watched it again at some point in the early to mid-1970s because the film’s biggest influence was on the recorded music, live performances and film work Dylan was involved in from 1975 – 1978. Dylan’s bittersweet love song “You’re a Big Girl Now” from 1975 features the line “Love is so simple / to quote a phrase.” The phrase being quoted is a line from Children of Paradise, spoken by Garance twice during the movie. Dylan’s live appearances on the Rolling Thunder Revue tours of 1975/1976 saw him wearing “white face” make-up in what is widely regarded as an homage to Baptiste, the mime protagonist of Carne’s film. And Dylan’s own 1978 movie Renaldo and Clara, a fascinating four-hour experimental epic shot during the 1975 tour that mixes live performances with improvised fictional scenes, has several elements clearly inspired by Children of Paradise. In an interview to promote Renaldo and Clara, Dylan even cited the Carne film as the only one he knew of that could “stop time.”
3. The appearance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Titanic character in the song “Tempest”
Many Dylan fans were surprised when it was revealed in early 2012 that his forthcoming album, Tempest, would contain a 14-minute epic about the sinking of the Titanic. Even more surprising was when word leaked out that the title song included references to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jack Dawson, who, in typically perverse Dylan fashion, is referred to by the actor’s name rather than the character’s name:
“Leo took his sketchbook
He was often so inclined
He closed his eyes and painted
The scenery in his mind”
Dylan fans are split on the song’s worth. Some find it overlong and monotonous while others have claimed it is one of the bard’s most extraordinary compositions. Dylan himself acknowledged the reference to DiCaprio in an interview with Rolling Stone: “Yeah, Leo. I don’t think the song would be the same without him. Or the movie.” What Dylan doesn’t say is that he was essentially repaying a compliment: DiCaprio’s character anachronistically quoted Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone in a line of dialogue in Titanic: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
2. The parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in the story-song “Motorpsycho Nightmare”
Some of the funniest lyrics Dylan ever penned can be found in the story-song “Motorpsycho Nightmare” from 1964. The song essentially mashes-up the plot of Hitchcock’s proto-slasher film with the old joke about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter. In the Dylan tune, a farmer grants the narrator a place to sleep for the night under the condition that he doesn’t touch the farmer’s daughter and in the morning milks a cow. In the middle of the night, the farmer’s daughter, who looks “just like Tony Perkins” (a line that rhymes, hilariously, with “I was sleepin’ like a rat / When I heard something jerkin'”), wakes up the narrator and implores him to take a shower. This leads to a slapstick fight between the narrator and the farmer, from which the narrator is lucky to escape alive. The song ends with the farmer’s daughter moving away and getting “a job in a motel” and the narrator thanking his lucky stars that he’s not “in the swamp” (the fate of Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho).
1. Myriad eferences to Henry King’s The Gunfighter in the song “Brownsville Girl”
One of Dylan’s very best songs is the 1986 mock-heroic epic “Brownsville Girl,” written in collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard (who was also, once upon a time, implored by Dylan to watch Children of Paradise and Shoot the Piano Player when he was hired to write scenes for Renaldo and Clara). The song begins with the line “Well, there was this movie I seen one time / About a man riding ‘cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck.” The song’s narrator tells the story of an ill-fated love affair with the title character that plays out in various locations across the state of Texas but he continually interrupts this narrative with reminiscences of seeing Henry King’s 1950 western The Gunfighter. The film indeed stars Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a famous gunfighter who is shot in the back by a “hungry kid trying to make a name for himself.” Ringo, on his deathbed, lies to the local sheriff, saying that it was he (Ringo) who drew first; his rationale is that he wants the kid to know what it feels like to have gunfighters out to get him. Dylan and Shepard get a lot of comic mileage out of having their narrator, who appears to be something of a coward (“I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran”), identify with Peck’s noble outlaw. When Dylan became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1997, the award was presented by none other than Gregory Peck who, amusingly, made reference to the song:
Today’s post might be subtitled “The Old Guys Still Have It Edition.” While looking over the list of my favorite films of the year, it is striking to see not only how many titles were made by directors well past “retirement age,” but also how it was precisely those same directors who seemed to be the most engaged with contemporary life. Several months ago I listened to a couple of my colleagues talk about how their young children will watch YouTube videos uninterrupted for hours. Yet the only movie I’ve ever seen that featured a child character actually watching YouTube is Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (made when the childless director was 79). Likewise, in an era when everybody and their uncle has a blog, the only movie I can recall seeing where a substantial character identifies herself as a blogger is Road to Nowhere, made by the 78 year old non-blogging Monte Hellman. At 81, Clint Eastwood stretched himself by making the most formally complex movie of his career (and one that can be seen as a kissing cousin of The Social Network in its examination of the destruction of privacy). Martin Scorsese, 68, worked in 3D for the first time with inspired results. And then there’s the strange case of Manoel de Oliveira who utilized computer generated special effects for the first time ever as a one hundred and one year old, and arguably did so more purposefully than most directors young enough to be his great grandchildren. Hell, even Woody Allen (who is incapable of embracing the modern world) at least had the moxie to mock himself at 75 for his tendency to romanticize the past.
Below is the list of my ten favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2011 (even though some debuted elsewhere last year or the year before), each accompanied by a capsule review, as well as a list twenty runners-up. Anyone reading should feel free to contribute their own lists in the comments section below!
10. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea) – Music Box. Rating: 8.9
Unlike his South Korean contemporaries Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, writer/director Lee Chang-dong doesn’t make genre movies. Nor does he cater to a specific art house audience by focusing on characters who are artists or intellectuals like Hong Sang-soo (the other member of the South Korean New Wave’s “Big Four”). Rather, Lee makes films about ordinary people and observes them in scenes that feel like minutely detailed slices-of-life. Poetry, a calm, contemplative and compassionate study of human nature, is an ideal introduction to his work; the plot concerns an elderly woman, Mija, who enrolls in a poetry course while contending with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and the revelation that her grandson has committed a shocking crime. While this subject matter may sound melodramatic, it is well-served by Lee’s signature relaxed pacing and an incredible, naturalistic performance by Yun Jeong-hie as Mija, which almost make you forget you are watching a finely wrought morality play . . . until the final scenes, when the cumulative force of the previous two-plus hours hits you like a ton of emotional bricks.
Pedro Costa’s first feature-length movie since the colossal Colossal Youth is this deceptively simple documentary about French actress-turned-singer Jeanne Balibar. Like the previous film, a dissection of a notorious Lisbon slum, Change Nothing was shot digitally and is predicated on static long takes that may test the patience of the uninitiated. (A woman sitting next to me at the Siskel Center asked, “Did you know this was going to be like this?” about a half an hour in. I silently nodded. Several minutes later, she walked out.) But adventurous viewers should find much to love in the way Costa focuses relentlessly on the process of making music – whether the smoky-voiced Balibar is recording with her band in the studio, playing club shows (a live performance of “Johnny Guitar” is spectacularly cool) or even rehearsing for an opera. Gorgeously shot in high contrast black and white, this is one of the best music movies of recent years. Full review here.
8. J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.0
Clint Eastwood’s latest drew a lot of flak from misguided critics who couldn’t see past the old age makeup and/or their own biases regarding the life and legacy of the notorious FBI director. And that’s too bad because the wily Eastwood, working from an excellent script by Dustin Lance Black, delivered one of his very best films with J. Edgar – one that functions as both an exceedingly poignant (though unconsummated) love story between the title character and his number two man Clyde Tolson, as well as an allegory for the loss of civil liberties in post-Patriot Act America. Eastwood, always a great director of actors, coaxes a career best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as an intensely neurotic, OCD-version of J. Edgar Hoover. In the memorable words of Amy Taubin, this is nothing less than “a late, kick out the jams masterpiece.” Full review here.
7. The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.1
The Skin I Live In triumphantly reunites Antonio Banderas, stranded in the Hollywood wilderness for far too long, with writer/director Pedro Almodovar for a darkly funny, sexually perverse mind-and-genre bending melodrama/thriller. Here, Banderas plays Dr. Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who has recently perfected a new kind of synthetic skin, which he uses to test out on Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful, mysterious young woman being held prisoner in his home. The narrative is presented as a puzzle, moving back and forth from the present to tragic events from years earlier that shed light on Vera’s identity and how Ledgard came to hold her captive. Gorgeous cinematography and production design — always a highlight in Almodovar — combine with especially provocative story material and characters to result in a masterpiece that one would like to call the Spanish maestro’s Vertigo.
6. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.3
No director in recent decades has dramatized the adversarial aspects of the mind/body relationship as effectively as David Cronenberg, a propensity that makes him the ideal interpreter of Christopher Hampton’s play A Most Dangerous Method. Like Midnight in Paris, A Dangerous Method shows us larger than life personalities from the early twentieth century, titans in their field, who look a bit younger than we’re accustomed to thinking of them – though in this case the subject is men of science and not art. Michael Fassbender is brilliant as a tortured Carl Jung who helps to found psychoanalysis with his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson – unrecognizable but radiating a charismatic paternal authority) before the two have a falling out. This occurs over, first, Jung’s affair with an hysterical patient, the future psychiatrist Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley) and, later, Jung’s attraction to what Freud labels “second hand mysticism.” Some critics have acted incredulous that Cronenberg, who gave us exploding heads and human VCRs in the 1980s, would opt for such a “classical” approach to this material but don’t let them fool you; this is a surprisingly witty, genuinely erotic (and not just because of the spankings) and, yes, intensely cinematic experience. Knightley’s brave performance has come in for criticism in some quarters for being “mannered” but she’s the heart of the film – I can’t imagine a better physical embodiment of Cronenberg’s central idea of sexuality as a disruptive force. The final word again belongs to Taubin whose definitive review correctly identifies this as a rare “intellectual adventure movie” as well as a “major film.”
5. Film Socialisme(Godard, Switzerland/France) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 9.3
Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, and some say last, feature film uses a tripartite structure to first show Europe at play, then Europe at work and, finally, a brilliant associative montage of footage mostly shot by others that examines what Godard sees as the historical roots of modern Europe. The substructure holding it all together is the theme of first world luxury built on a foundation of third world labor, which is delineated in ways both obvious (the immigrants who staff the cruise in the first part of the film) and subtle (the unseen source of oil supplying the family’s gas station in the second). Shot entirely on a variety of digital cameras, and chock-full of exhilarating visual and aural “mistakes,” this feels more like a first movie than Breathless; like Bob Dylan, JLG is younger than that now. U.S. distributor Kino is showing some serious balls by putting out a blu-ray of this uncommercial and lo-fi masterpiece next month. Full review here.
4. The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.5
I’m no expert on Hungarian director Bela Tarr, who announced this would be his final film, but from the handful of his movies I’ve seen this strikes me as one of the best and most essential. The Turin Horse begins with a narrator recounting the anecdote about Nietzsche going mad shortly after witnessing a horse being flogged in Italy. The film is a fictionalized version of what happened to the horse and its owner in the six days following their encounter with the philosopher, which reminds us that people who constitute even the smallest footnotes in history have their own stories and their own points-of-view. This is simultaneously more straightforward and more abstract than Tarr’s masterpiece Satantango; unlike the earlier film, it focuses relentlessly on two characters (a cabman and his daughter) instead of an ensemble cast and proceeds in linear fashion instead of a chronology that doubles back on itself. What remains the same is the use of epic long takes, in which entire scenes unfold with elaborate camera movements and little to no editing. The images themselves – decaying walls, wrinkled faces, and leaves and dirt constantly swirling in the air – take on the thick, tactile textures of a charcoal drawing. Aiding them is a wonderfully hypnotic musical score, where strings and an organ play a repetitive, circular motif. The result is a mesmerizing and unforgettable experience. More here.
3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.7
The crown jewel of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was the latest from Turkish photographer-turned-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the best movie yet in his estimable career. This is a profound inquiry into the concept of moral responsibility as it pertains to both personal and professional duty. The story centers on the police escort of a confessed murderer to the supposed scene of where he buried a victim, but the killer’s inability to remember the exact location means his captors find themselves on a wild goose chase in rural Turkey over the course of one very long night. Ceylan’s uncanny feel for landscapes (the ‘Scope framing is more impressive here than in The Tree of Life) and philosophical situations mark this as a serious work of art in a long tradition of similar “art films” (think Antonioni and Kiarostami), but this nonetheless contains a vein of excellent Beckett-style absurdist humor. More here.
2. Mysteries of Lisbon(Ruiz, Portugal/France) – Music Box. Rating: 9.8
The great Chilean director Raul Ruiz passed away this year at the age of 70 and, shortly thereafter, his final masterwork turned up at the Music Box theatre. This four and a half hour distillation of a six hour made-for-television miniseries is the most fitting swan song one could imagine: an adaptation of a 19th century novel about a fourteen-year old orphan whose investigation into his origins opens up a Pandora’s box of stories (and stories-within-stories) that make it feel like Ruiz’s magnum opus. The theme of the film is creation, whether it’s the construction of narratives or of self-created identities (my favorite narrative threads concern the intertwined destinies of an assassin who transforms himself into a nobleman and a gypsy who becomes a priest), which is perfectly captured by a restless camera that is constantly tracking around the characters in semi-circular fashion. This movie has a little bit of everything in it – Orson Welles, Charles Dickens, Carl Dreyer, Jorge Luis Borges and Luchino Visconti — while also remaining uniquely and supremely Ruizian.
1. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Portugal) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 9.9
The Strange Case of Angelica sees Manoel de Oliveira returning to the same theme as his previous film, the superb Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, but where the earlier movie was one of his lightest and most purely entertaining, the newer one tackles “the unattainability of the ideal” in the slow, deliberate, weighty style we’ve come to expect from the master. Angelica is adapted from a script Oliveira originally wrote in the 1950s about Isaac, a photographer haunted by the image of the title character, a deceased woman he is asked to photograph on behalf of her wealthy parents. Pretty soon he is, in the words of Keats, “half in love with easeful death.” (It doesn’t help that when Isaac first spies Angelica through the camera, she opens her eyes and appears to come to life, thus making the story a parable about cinema as well.) This is full of the director’s usual digressions on science, art and history but also features a new twist in a number of charming fantasy sequences involving CGI that, appropriately for someone who began working in the silent era, recall nothing so much as the primitive “illusionism” of Georges Melies. A beautiful, complex, deeply spiritual and essential film.
Runners Up (listed alphabetically by title):
13 Assassins (Miike, Japan) – Music Box. Rating: 8.5
Another Year (Leigh, UK) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. More here. Rating: 8.1
Bridesmaids (Feig, USA) – Wide Release. (I’m the first to admit this film has little aesthetic value. However, it also possesses a welcome quality lacking in any other film on this list: it features lots of scenes of women talking to other women.) Rating: 6.5
The Buzz and Beyond: Reporting the 2010 Midterm Elections (Drew/Kattar, USA) – Chicago International REEL Shorts Festival. Filmmaker interview here.
The Catastrophe (Smith, USA) – Illinois International Film Festival. More here.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D (Herzog, France/USA) – AMC River East. Rating: 7.5
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, USA/Sweden) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.6
Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 7.6
Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 8.2
dir. Clint Eastwood, 2011, USA Rating: 9.0
The bottom line: The year’s best love story.
Now playing in theaters everywhere is J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s 33rd film as a director and, judging by the reviews so far, his most critically divisive. It currently has a shockingly low rating of 41% on the popular critical aggregate site rottentomatoes.com, in spite of the fact that it has received raves from a lot of America’s most prestigious critics, including Roger Ebert, The Village Voice‘s J. Hoberman, MSN‘s Glenn Kenny, The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis and Artforum‘s Amy Taubin. This split decision means that J. Edgar is virtually guaranteed to be shut out during this year’s awards season, which is regrettable because it arguably represents a career high point for everyone involved – screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (whose smart, ambitiously non-chronological script shows a dazzling complexity that advances on his Oscar-winning Milk from two years ago), Leonardo DiCaprio (who gives what Taubin has rightly referred to as his best performance “as an adult”) and Eastwood (who can count this alongside of Unforgiven and Letters from Iwo Jima as one of his three best movies). Where then does the critical antipathy come from? I believe that examining the criticisms that have been hurled at the film so far should also provide some insight into why some other observers, including me, regard it as a masterpiece.
From a formal standpoint, J. Edgar is easily the most complex film Clint Eastwood has ever made. Black’s screenplay spans J. Edgar Hoover’s 48 years as the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a time frame that saw him serve under eight U.S. Presidents, positing him, in the words of the film’s tagline, as the “most powerful man in the world.” Black and Eastwood’s ingenious narrative structure recounts Hoover’s life as a series of flashbacks as he dictates his memoirs as an elderly man in the late 1960s to a series of junior FBI agents – including one who pointedly looks like Barack Obama, one of the film’s many references to American life in the 21st century. These early expositional scenes contain reams of names, dates and places, thrown at the viewer with lightning speed, sometimes through the dialogue and other times through Hoover’s voice over narration. This is not the relaxed pacing we’ve come to expect from Eastwood but something that feels closer to the “sea of information” approach of David Fincher’s Zodiac and The Social Network instead. For many critics, the sheer arduousness of this exposition, which I argue will handsomely pay off for the patient moviegoer, is strike one against J. Edgar.
What is not immediately apparent is the extent to which the flashbacks are meant to represent Hoover’s own highly revisionist and self-aggrandizing version of the events of his life. This is slyly hinted at (but only hinted at) early on in a scene where Hoover is being questioned at a Congressional briefing about his supposed cooperation with the production of comic books and Hollywood movies to promote a more romantic image of the FBI. The full extent of the film’s tricky subjectivity doesn’t register until the final act when Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s “number two man” and longtime companion (brilliantly played by The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer), explicitly denounces what viewers have been led to believe is the “truth” of Hoover’s memoirs. If, as Tolson claims, there was no white horse at the scene of an early FBI raid, if Hoover himself wasn’t responsible for arresting Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, then how much of the rest of these flashbacks, which constitute the bulk of the narrative, are we supposed to take at face value? (I guess by the time of Tolson’s denunciation, most critics have checked out of the film anyway.) Imagine a version of Citizen Kane where Kane himself narrates his life story and you’ll have some idea of what Eastwood and Black are up to. Incredibly, some critics have claimed that the film is “overprotective” of its title character or that it somehow “soft pedals” the Hoover story. Even while Eastwood extends sympathy to his protagonist on a personal level, I can’t imagine a more damning indictment of the man’s deeds; his abuses of power and violations of civil liberties are meant to be disturbing even during his glory years, long before his insane harassment of Martin Luther King.
Many critics have drawn parallels between J. Edgar and Kane not only because of the flashback structure and the story arc of an idealistic young man tragically corrupted by power, but also because of the extensive use of makeup and prosthetics. Whether intentionally or not, DiCaprio as old Hoover looks strikingly like Orson Welles as old Kane and most of the barbs aimed at J. Edgar have come from critics unfavorably comparing the former to the latter. The best rejoinder to this criticism comes from Taubin who compares the J. Edgar makeup to what one would find in an “amateur production of Tennessee Williams where the actors are 20 years too young for the roles they are playing, but nevertheless their struggles move you to tears.” I too find the performances of DiCaprio, Hammer and even Naomi Watts (as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s fiercely loyal secretary) moving precisely because I am aware of the actors being “too young” in much the same way that I am moved by the flashbacks in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another great memory film, precisely because John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old.” I would go so far as to say that Hoover’s old age makeup is meant to look like make-up in a film whose main character always wore a figurative mask and whose motto was “we must never lower our guard.” Think that’s a stretch? Consider that the first shot we see of Hoover in the movie immediately follows a close-up of John Dillinger’s death mask on the FBI director’s office desk.
Most of the praise that the film has received, even from its detractors, has been aimed at Leonardo DiCaprio’s bravura lead performance, and rightfully so; in much the same way that we are aware of the old age makeup, we are also acutely aware at all times of DiCaprio behind Hoover. This is as it should be. As a director, Clint Eastwood has gotten a lot of mileage out of manipulating his own iconic persona as an actor. Gran Torino, for instance, is enriched by our understanding that we are watching not only the character of “Walt Kowalski” as the film’s inevitable climax approaches, but also Dirty Harry and even Unforgiven‘s Will Munny. Here, Eastwood does something similar with DiCaprio’s persona; the post-Titanic penchant DiCaprio has shown for playing intensely neurotic, obsessive-compulsive characters reaches its apex in a scene where J. Edgar Hoover, following his mother’s instructions, stares into a mirror and repeats the mantra “I’m a proficient, remarkable lad capable of proficient and remarkable feats. I’m a proficient, remarkable lad capable of proficient and remarkable feats . . .” At this moment we are looking not only at Hoover but DiCaprio and Howard Hughes, a multiplicity that makes the film more resonant.
It is in the more intimate scenes, alternating between Hoover and his mother (a terrific Judi Dench) and between Hoover and Tolson, that Eastwood reveals the film’s surprisingly poignant emotional core – especially since these scenes can be seen to inform each other in a subtle dialectical play: Mrs. Hoover telling her beloved Edgar that she’d “rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son” is a disturbing but bracingly believable explanation for why Hoover and Tolson, even as grown men in the privacy of their own homes, are incapable of consummating their platonic love affair. (Some critics have bizarrely claimed that the film is “ambiguous” in its treatment of Hoover’s sexuality. It strikes me as inarguable that the film presents Hoover unambiguously as a repressed homosexual who is incapable of acting on his desires.) Even after Mrs. Hoover’s death, the specter of her domineering presence can be felt in the furnishing of her Victorian bedroom, which we see her son has immaculately preserved for decades, in one of the film’s several nods to Psycho, right up until the moment of his own death. But the film’s true emotional climax comes a little ealier, in the staid final scene between Hoover and Tolson as old men; the frontal compositions, marvelous underplaying of the actors and patently restrained Eastwood score put me in the mind of nothing so much as the transcendental final scene of Dreyer’s Gertrud, another masterpiece unjustly criticized for “theatricality” in its day.
Technically, J. Edgar is a tour de force. The low-key lighting and desaturated color palette of Tom Stern’s cinematography perfectly reflect the shadowy morality of Hoover’s universe. The period details of James Murakami’s sets and Deborah Hopper’s costumes, from the 1920s to the 1960s, all feel impeccably right. And the tight, highly compressed quality of the zig-zagging narrative (the two hour and seventeen minute running time was pared down by Eastwood and his longtime editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach from an initial three hour cut) always feels supremely confident. Like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, J. Edgar offers an audacious mix of darkness, intelligence and complexity aimed at adult viewers that may seem out of step with contemporary critical tastes, but it also seems destined to age exceedingly well with time.