David Fincher’s newest film and his first in six years reaches back into his own history and that of Hollywood’s in Mank, a fractured narrative about the writing of Citizen Kane by Herman Mankiewicz. Working from a decades-old script by his father, Jack Fincher, the junior Fincher was supposed to direct Mank in the late 90’s, but things fall apart. Now, years after Jack’s death, Mank sees the light of day, or at least streaming in what is Fincher’s least commercial film. Shot in black and white and about a narrow slice of behind-the-scenes producing and writing, Mank is far away from Fincher’s adaptations of popular/controversial books, but box-office notwithstanding, the film contains that comforting sense that everything happening onscreen is purposeful and meaningful, even if the viewer doesn’t have the in-depth knowledge of Orson Welles and RKO Productions that would no doubt make Mank an even richer experience. After a too-long hiatus from film, Fincher churns out the ultimate one-for-me, paying tribute to his personal and professional predecessors, and finding camaraderie with writers everywhere despite him having never put his own name on a feature script.
Sean Durkin’s long hiatus from film directing finally comes to an end with The Nest. After breaking out with intense cult psychodrama Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film that also marked Elizabeth Olsen as a major talent, audiences have had to wait nine years for a follow-up and Durkin delivers with a marital drama that retains the level of unbearable intensity that his debut also demonstrated. A film that feels like it could’ve been made at any time during the last seventy-five years, The Nest has a timeless quality that evokes the great actors of Hollywood past and puts it out of step with the grand spectacle that so much of modern filmmaking is increasingly consumed with. Though it’s easily imaginable as a film that Elizabeth Taylor or Paul Newman could have acted in, The Nest also reaches back into recent history and presents a version of the kind of greed that will reshape the world for the worse, all while presenting a picture of a marriage with a rotted foundation. Durkin’s multi-faceted film represents a major leap for him as a filmmaker, or it would if The Nest received any of the widespread recognition that it deserves.
Gavin O’Connor’s three sports movies have moved from the straightforward Miracle to sports-as-therapy male weepie Warrior. O’Connor’s newest film, The Way Back, follows a similar track as Warrior wherein some kind of medical extremity forces a character with father issues through a physical transformation, only to find some kind of clarity through sports. It’s a more interesting tack than the head-down, work-hard, believe-in-yourself messaging so many lesser sports movies engage in. In fact, endless wind sprints won’t cure one’s alcohol problems and profane anger directed towards referees isn’t an appropriate way of releasing stress and pressure. Featuring a career-best performance from Ben Affleck in a period of his life that mirrors his character, The Way Back is less triumphant buzzer-beater and more incremental improvement over the course of a season. The former leaves the viewer in a cheerier place, but the latter contains far more truth.
By Jon Kissel
Watching movies at home just isn't as good as in the theaters. The drive-in isn't much better. As coronavirus shuttered theaters and decimated the release schedule, I realized how much the forced concentration of sitting in a dark room with a socially-enforced no-distractions custom boosts the viewing experience. Maybe that's why 2020 was the first year in a decade where I watched less than 70 year-of releases before it ended, or one that had so few to reach the A-tier. Maybe the heavier straight-to-streaming schedule made everything seem less urgent, even as it put more obscure fare in front of more eyes. I'm sure exactly no one would've seen Straight Up without a Netflix release. If a lessening of passion for cinema is the worst thing that happens to a person in 2020, then they sailed through a momentous period of history unscathed. That alone is something to be grateful for, and it's not like 2020 didn't have its fair share of exceptional movies, several of which are listed below.
Gina Prince-Blythewood’s directorial debut, Love and Basketball, puts her alongside other talented female directors like Lynne Ramsay, Debra Granik, and Dee Rees whose output is unjustly sparse. Prince-Blythewood’s quick first step should’ve earned her as much work as she wanted, but instead, she’s only directed three other movies in the intervening twenty years. Her first film knows a thing or two about struggling for a thing and not getting it, whether that be a career in professional sports or a relationship with a childhood sweetheart. Love and Basketball’s excellent grasp of its characters and their interplay is potent enough to power half a dozen films. Packed into one complete package, it makes for a fantastic experience.
Documentaries don’t tend to give me nightmares, though I’ll add the caveat that I’ve never seen the one about sleep paralysis that’s supposedly the most terrifying film of the 21st century. Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy lingered in my subconscious for a long time, to the point where I was having stress dreams about vicious mobs of burly men in yellow and green. Costa blends her own familial background with a propulsive story of 21st century Brazilian politics, spinning a yarn that considers centuries of history against recent events. It’s a story of collapse and retrenchment, of political icons tarnished and humiliated by their repulsive enemies, of the elevation of those who have a diametrically oppositional worldview to basic humanity. Thankfully, Americans have no way to relate to anything depicted here.
Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables has retained all of the raw power of its depictions of the French underclass some 160 years after its publishing, and in Ladj Ly’s fiery film of the same name, circumstances haven’t improved all that much. The gamins of the present-day Montfermil banlieue still grow up in an environment where state authority is abusive and local authority is corrupt. To paraphrase Hugo, both forces contribute to the clouds that will inevitably produce a thunderbolt, and Ly’s film does indeed strike lightning. A film that has only become more relevant throughout 2020, as France has its own version of Black Lives Matter protests in response to police brutality and stop-and-frisk tactics, Les Miserables is a work that places a lot of pressure on itself with its iconic name and meets those expectations by embracing an angry humanist streak that Hugo would recognize.
The second of Joshua Oppenheimer’s landmark documentary duo on the 1965 Indonesia leftist purge, The Look of Silence flips the perspective from those who did the killing to the relatives of those who were killed. In Oppenheimer’s earlier Act of Killing, he gets some of the perpetrators, responsible for the deaths of somewhere between 500,000 to a million Indonesians and presently celebrated as national heroes, to recreate their deeds under the guise of a mythic film. Bragging to a foreigner about what they did in that very strange and chilling film is one thing. There’s a level of distance that Oppenheimer creates that allows the killers to be completely free in what they say. With Look of Silence, Oppenheimer brings along a man whose brother was killed and lets him do the talking. These two films, each inseparable from the other, are required viewing for any thinking citizen. Darkly compelling and deeply human, Look of Silence is the antithesis to the hellish upside-down world of Act of Killing, a world that dominates Indonesia but festers with barely-contained rot and resentment.
Of all the Catholic hymns I had to sit through as a child, one that still sticks out is the one with its refrain of ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ A Catholic audience was surely supposed to take that as a ban on complaining about any matter large or small, but a better understanding of its accusatory nature would point its finger at god. Even Jesus on the cross wondered why he had been forsaken. Terence Malick opens his greatest film, The Tree of Life, with a similar question towards Job, except it’s god taunting Job’s misfortune and his daring to question god’s purpose. Where were you, Job, when I shaped all things? Malick proceeds to interrogate the god-to-subject and subject-to-god relationship in a film whose timeline spans billions of years. The Tree of Life is the ultimate in the universal drilling down into the specific, a scope that few filmmakers would be able to get their arms around. Malick, a director who has always found time for digressions on natural beauty, gloriously makes it work.
After three off-the-mark movies whose low stakes made a mockery of his trademark style, Terence Malick returns to a time period he’s visited before that’s more suited to his love of nature and spirituality. Gone are the American banalities of Midwest subdivisions and tony LA parties, replaced with nothing less than the essence of political participation and morality. Malick’s films, laden as they are with searching voiceover and contemplation, don’t work if the setting of the voiceover doesn’t warrant that level of introspection. In A Hidden Life, Malick finds the ideal union, a protagonist whose enforced loneliness and reliance on his religion requires the viewer to go into his head. The result is a film that has a crystalline, essential perfection, though its elegance and simplicity doesn’t justify a three-hour runtime.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.