Alex Garland’s Annihilation, the follow-up to his other heady sci-fi film Ex Machina, has apoptosis on the brain. This biological process, in which a cell is induced to commit suicide due to damage or simply outliving its usefulness, is vital in the entropic soup of a multicellular organism, preventing negative effects like cancer. It’s the biological equivalent of a soldier throwing oneself on a grenade, an altruistic act in miniature. Destruction in pursuit of survival and reinvention. The characters in Annihilation, all badly scarred in their own ways, are going through a similar process, both literally and figuratively. Annihilation demands the viewer’s attention, and though Garland still has difficulty building up the emotional sides of his films, it’s encouraging that someone with his interests is able to create at this level.
Joel and Ethan Coen are comfortable in any genre, but one can divide their monumental careers into tonally-similar baskets. While those baskets bleed into each other and overlap, a Coen film is going to be either a tense tragedy of errors, a philosophical puzzle, or some kind of goofy screwball comedy. My favorite version of their work is a combination of the second and third category, where classics like A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis, and O Brother, Where Art Thou can be found. The Coens have a specific and elegant way of handling characters whose great efforts are buffeted around by the impartial forces of civilization, hapless strivers desperate for meaning in a universe resistant to it. When they add some slapstick and some humor, so much the better. Hail, Caesar falls into this camp, an homage to the classical Hollywood of the 50’s whose inhabitants want to believe they’re doing something important when they’re actually lining the pockets of unseen studio heads and narcotizing restless audiences. True to form, the Coens make a film where every scene begs to be interpreted, even the ones that rank amongst the funniest in their long careers.
If the Marvel Cinematic Universe were a network TV show, we’d be closing in on the season finale. By the time Avengers 4 comes out in the spring of 2019, that’s 22 feature length episodes in a series that acknowledges that TV is the medium with the more powerful cultural voice and therefore apes the format where possible. Sometimes there’s an overarching story that advances the larger plot, and sometimes there’s a bottle episode that reduces the scale and scope by focusing on one corner of the world. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is one of those MCU bottle episodes, shut off from the larger superhero world, and all the better for it. TV is for the living room and film is for the theater, and it’s refreshing when a studio can eschew the increasingly dominant model for a self-contained story. That Black Panther is also impeccably cast, richer than it needed to be, and a pleasure to take in doesn’t hurt either.
Under assault from declining readership, corporate consolidation, and ideological fragmentation, Steven Spielberg clearly thought journalism could use a pick-me-up. His latest adult drama, The Post, dramatizes one of the profession’s greatest hits as a clarion call for speaking truth to power while also finding of-the-moment hot-button topics like women in the boardroom. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight tread similar ground in 2015, and The Post shares a co-writer with Spotlight in Josh Singer, but that earlier film resisted the triumphalism that Spielberg cannot help but indulge in. As old-fashioned as it is contemporary, The Post makes the viewer wonder if more cynical times still have a place for optimists like Spielberg.
Forsaken is a prime example of great acting elevating subpar writing, though in this particular case, the acting is surely helped by circumstance. Donald and Kiefer Sutherland star as a father and son in Jon Cassar’s western, and while nothing should be taken away from their work here, it must be easier to fully inhabit roles that superficially mirror real ones. When footage of Kiefer drunkenly tackling that Christmas tree emerged, did he imagine Donald scolding him for his foolishness, not unlike what happens in Forsaken? If the familial relationship helps them in their performances, it also cannot help but impact the viewer, never forgetting that there is something real happening onscreen when they argue with each other over their life choices. Without that potent dynamic, Forsaken becomes a substandard frontier tale, complete with rapacious industrialists, cowed townsfolk, and a man with a bloody reputation trying and failing to put that life behind him.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film for me is The Master, and his latest, Phantom Thread, is masters all the way down. Masters on the way out, masters continuing their brilliance, and new masters emerging into the mainstream. Daniel Day Lewis stars in what he claims is his final performance, putting a restrained cap on an expressive and dominant career. PTA continues to make surprising idiosyncratic films finely tuned to his voice, distinct from the homage and imitation of his superlative early career but of a piece with a resume that marks him as the greatest director working in film today. Co-star Vicky Krieps, an unknown Luxembourgian actor, also emerges in one of the finest performances of PTA’s filmography, standing toe-to-toe with Day Lewis and forcing him to share the film with a person whose name on a poster could someday soon reap the Day-Lewis-ian levels of anticipation. A film about perfectionists by perfectionists, Phantom Thread lives up to the high standard that’s come to be expected from PTA.
South Korean jack-of-all-trades Bong Joon-ho puts his unique stamp on a genre and then moves on to a new one. Memories of Murder is one of the definitive serial killer hunts, while Snowpiercer is a singular dystopian action film. Bong’s attempt at a monster movie, The Host, is a small-scale homage to Japanese kaiju films, where environmental degradation and national humiliation creates a rampaging fiend. However, while The Host fits neatly into Bong’s filmography, it’s easily his worst effort to date. Effects that would later wow in Okja are not up to par in the mid-2000’s, and his topsy-turvy use of tone furrows brows instead of bringing the viewer in. Immersiveness is not a problem for Bong, having created multiple lived-in environments, but The Host is an outlier for a director who’s other work always strikes center mass.
The 19th film from Pixar studios, Coco, takes liberally from the animated masterpieces that have come before it. Outliving one’s usefulness is here, as it has been in the Toy Story films. A magical moment of Proustian recall evokes personal favorite Ratatouille. A theme of reunion runs through Coco, as it did in Finding Nemo/Dory and The Good Dinosaur. This kind of connection to Pixar’s artistic past is anything but a crutch, especially when Coco itself is dedicated to keeping the past alive. This applies to the characters within Lee Unkrich’s and Adrian Molina’s beautiful film and to Coco itself, another Pixar masterwork that slots in next to the studio’s many other highlights.
Olivier Assayas’ lengthy resume has been barely tapped into by this viewer, but what’s been seen is admired and sometimes loved. Summer Hours is one of the best films of the 21st century while Clouds of Sils Maria features exceptional acting from its main trio of actresses. One of those actresses, Kristen Stewart, returns to work with Assayas in Personal Shopper. Clouds of Sils Maria was one of several recent films that have established Stewart as a serious artist, obliterating the stink of the Twilight saga. Personal Shopper is another entry in her critical ascendance. Assayas has a habit of returning to the same actresses in his work, and while Personal Shopper can be irritating in its worldview for this skeptic, the partnership between the director and Stewart is plainly one that is working out for both of them.
In Margot Robbie’s brief career, she’s played the wife of a camera-addressing unreliable narrator and she’s had a memorable camera-addressing cameo. In I, Tonya, she gets to be the camera-addressing unreliable narrator, bringing as much desperate passion to the role of Tonya Harding as her former screen-husband Leonardo DiCaprio brought to Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street. Besides sharing Robbie’s presence, those two films have much in common, from the incriminating finger it points at the audience to Craig Gillespie’s aping of Martin Scorsese’s propulsive style. Scorsese is constantly in the margins of I, Tonya, but this is no kneecapping insult to a master’s patented form. I, Tonya has a big heart towards its real-life inspiration and its cinematic one as well, a combination that sits comfortably next to the derision and disgust the film holds for this peculiar tale’s less sympathetic characters. Of course, whether or not Tonya Harding herself is a sympathetic character remains an open question.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.