The prevalent late-2010’s movie theme of eat-the-rich gets most explicit with horror films like the Purge franchise, Us, and the Gothic horror-comedy Ready or Not. From directing duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, Ready or Not is made to look like a period piece with its manor house setting and preference for edged weaponry, but it has a sardonic wit and a tongue-in-cheek approach to violence that, along with its mild fist-pump approach to feminism, places it firmly on modern screens. Written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murray, a coherent theory of class is also smuggled into a film that primarily exists as an audience-engagement vehicle from back when audiences were a thing. Ready or Not thinks seriously about its premise while not taking itself seriously at all, a strong combination of tone and substance in an appealing package.
For Sama stands alongside documentaries like Citizenfour in depicting the first draft of history. The best of breed of the several Syrian Civil War docs that have chronicled a brutal and bloody period of the 21st century, Waad al-Kateab’s first-person film tracks the initial ecstatic hopes of revolutionary optimism through its fatalistic destruction in the bombed-out husk of Aleppo. For an extra dose of you-are-there urgency, al-Kateab’s husband is a doctor drowning in emergency triage and surgery at one of Aleppo’s last working hospitals, providing plenty of opportunities for all the air to be sucked out of the screening room as he holds the life of one small child after another in his hands. Al-Kateab narrates throughout, and the grief that undergirds her every sentence is less for her neighbors, because with so many of the randomly killed surrounding her, she would be unable to function if she mourned each loss. Rather, the grief is for the lost opportunity of the Arab Spring which kicked off when she was a college student and an active participant when it spread to Syria. Where once she planted gardens and laid down roots for a hopeful future, now she tunes out the constant thrum of Russian fighter jets and wonders where the next barrel bomb is going to indiscriminately land.
The dark years of the AIDS crisis in France are depicted with detail and resilience in Robin Campillo’s BPM, an epic political drama that unites the personal and the political. With a foundation in the French tradition of protest and revolt, the young Parisian activists of Act Up trade the Phyrigan caps and barricades of their ancestors for barrels of fake blood and provocative posters. In the leftist fashion of many offshoot groups at various stages of militancy, Act Up and half a dozen others with similar acronyms share the common goal of recognition for the suffering of the ‘undesirables’ of society and a prompt and effective treatment. When he’s not filming meetings with intense debate over strategy and tactics, Campillo excavates his own memory as an AIDS activist in the early 90’s for deeply personal stories of his peers afflicted with the disease as they transform from vibrant pictures of youth and promise to mottled shells who need all their energy to summon arguments that used to flow out of them at a hyper-literate pace. BPM’s you-are-there historiography of this period makes for a vital transportation back to a time when governments ignored and discounted a rampaging disease because it was happening to people they didn’t feel responsibility toward, a situation thankfully banished to previous decades.
Between the HBO series Euphoria and Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, 2019 provided audiences plenty of ways to worry about teenagers. Sharing a freewheeling, sensuous style and a menacing tone, both works communicate the extreme levels of feeling and emotion that teenagers are capable of and the dramatic consequences that can arise when those extremes aren’t held in check. With Waves, Shults’ third film after Krisha and It Comes at Night, the young director maintains a simmering tension that boils over into operatic breakdowns as teens who were holding everything inside can only do so for so long. Featuring two distinct and complementary lead performances by Kelvin Harrison Jr and Taylor Russell, Waves suggests that, while the average US teenager lives in a safer and more comfortable world than any teenager before, they are still plagued by dilemmas beyond their emotional maturity.
Noah Baumbach bridges the gap between his former and future surrogates with While We’re Young. Starring, among others, Ben Stiller and Adam Driver as intergenerational opposites, Baumbach again does the frequently exceptional work of making compelling characters out of difficult people. This funnier-than-average-Baumbach film provides lots of opportunities for comeuppance for the male leads and solid exasperation for their respective partners, played by Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried. While We’re Young comes at a crossroads in the life of Stiller’s character, and the movie resonates with anyone contemplating or approaching one of their own.
Mary Harron’s Charlie Says was the first 2019 film to prominently feature the Charlie Manson murders. Specifically focused on the imprisoned Manson women and their induction into Manson’s Family, Charlie Says offers little of the vicious, history-altering catharsis of the second 2019 Manson-adjacent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In adapting the work of a prison criminologist who worked with the women, Harron identifies that there’s not much to be taken from the whole affair beyond investigation into how it could’ve happened, but a full understanding doesn’t alleviate the guilt and grief of anyone involved. Charlie Says works its melancholy magic as a blow-by-blow construction and destruction of a cult-infected brain and as a rebuke to the wave of true crime that imagines all of this as exploitative rubber-necking.
Eliza Hittman continues her realist deep-dive into the subverbal misery of the American teen with Never Rarely Sometimes Always. More procedural than earlier films It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, both of which lived entirely in the psyches of their protagonists as they acted out sexually, Hittman’s latest follows a young woman as she takes steps to quietly terminate a pregnancy. The film focuses on protagonist Autumn’s attempts to solve a problem, where Hittman previously made her bones on the leadup to riskier and riskier behavior. Never Rarely Sometimes Always loses some emotional and character beats in its step-by-step recreation of something that’s made more difficult than it should be, but it’s another strong outing from a director who has yet to make anything less than a compelling and piercing portrait of American adolescence.
The façade of stoic men being cracked open by a horse taps into a primal corner of the mind, planted by some ancient instinct to get closer to nature or bond with another species or who knows what. What better place for this story to get retold than in a prison? Perfectly cast with man-mountain Matthias Schoenaerts as a simmering inmate desperate to get away from people, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s soulful debut The Mustang hits all the right beats in a film that simply works. Everyone involved surely knows that audiences have been in cinematic places like this before, and Clermont-Tonnerre takes the audience down an exceptional version of this comfortable road.
An imagined dystopian past informs the dystopian present in Mark Romanek’s heartbreaker Never Let Me Go. Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, the film begins with text informing the viewer of an imagined medical breakthrough and a cut to a grim Tommy (Andrew Garfield) on an operating table while Kathy (Carey Mulligan) watches in mournful anticipation. However, we quickly learn in flashbacks to their creepy boarding school that they aren’t the beneficiaries of this breakthrough, but the breakthrough themselves. Tommy is prone to uncontrollable fits of impotent rage, both in his youth and his adulthood. Romanek’s tale of unbreakable caste bonds and the humanity that can’t help but grow in spite of it is its own primal scream, although we see that the boarding school did such an effective job that most students don’t even have that capability anymore.
Horror movies that attempt to achieve relevance based on their technological era are frequently duds. Leigh Whannell’s chilling The Invisible Man does better than the instantly forgettable schlock fests that rely on some social media platform and goes to the tech bro source for its shorthand scares. I don’t know that the Travis Kalanick’s or Adam Neumann’s of the world are using their obscene piles of wealth to jealously entrap women, but I would certainly believe it. Whannell, a veteran of the Saw and Insidious franchises, uses his considerable horror chops to construct a remake of a classic that marinates in what made said classic inherently creepy while also tapping into a modern-day zeitgeist of the rich and their greedy possessiveness.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.