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.
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.
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.
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.
With Traffic, Steven Soderbergh popularized the hyperlink film, wherein multiple branching characters and plots intersect with each other around a broad theme, and perfects it eleven years later with Contagion. Scott Z. Burns’ rigorous and deeply-researched script combines with Soderbergh’s clinical yet empathic direction to produce a believable global response to a new pandemic, complete with both the dedicated public servants and the exploitative hucksters that can and do arise in such a scenario. Contagion tragically provides a window into a competent world that seems further and further away, as the antagonist of the film shares far too many qualities with the current president. This is a film that could be judged as accurate upon its release but now seems quaint. A unified governmental response and a population that grudgingly accepts what must be done? Soderbergh, you naïve rube!
Director Kitty Green’s past as a documentarian is all over her first feature, The Assistant. Her journalistic drama is the recreation of a single day in the life of a fictionalized movie producer’s office. This producer, never seen and only heard through doors and over phones, exists in a pre-MeToo world that allows him to flaunt his casting couch practices and berate his staff, particularly new-ish assistant Jane (Julia Garner). Jane’s day is so stressful that one can see her life expectancy shorten the longer she stays in her job. One more implied demand to look the other way, and her telomeres shorten. One more tacit acknowledgement that everyone is complicit in their own way, and her resting blood pressure rises. In its dedication to a single shift and its setting, The Assistant can become as interminable as an actual white-collar day but the complete experience is greater as a whole than in parts. It’s worth the gray atmosphere and harsh lighting to absorb the lesson.
Harry Dean Stanton’s final role must be in consideration for one of his best. In actor-turned-first-time-director John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky, Stanton’s wiry, weathered presence dominates a film that is, fittingly, about endings and death. Stanton’s titular character is a version of himself that never acted or became tangentially famous. Many of the details are the same. Neither Stanton nor Lucky ever married or had children, they both served in the Navy during WWII, both lived much longer than their actuarial tables would suggest, and they’re both friends with David Lynch, who plays a barfly who’s lost his tortoise. From that shared backstory, the film puts Lucky in a dusty California town and simply observes his daily routine and the philosophy that has guided his life. The film knows that Stanton is a charismatic presence in spite of himself, and it’s a pleasure to watch him do anything, even if it’s as acinematic as working on a crossword puzzle in a diner.
Singing show competitor turned rising film star Jessie Buckley’s gets a centerpiece role in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, a film bursting with charisma and energy thanks to its irrepressible lead. Harper and writer Nicole Taylor break out from the many movies similar to this one and find new wrinkles and pathways for the aspiring musician protagonist to follow. They incorporate class and the limited choices a lesser financial status provides with a clear-eyed vision of what it takes to distinguish oneself in a crowded market, and with Buckley at the helm, construct a lead with considerable stage presence while also showing how that might not be enough. With uniquely American country music as the chosen art form and a setting in Glasgow, Wild Rose pits the social strata of the old world against the optimism of the new and lets them fight it out.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.