Some of the most important, and underseen, photos in American history are the shots of lynchings. Smiling white men and women and sometimes their children pose next to the burnt and dismembered corpses of black men. In addition to the gore and snuffed-out life present in these pictures, they are most horrific from the fact that the dead men or women in the picture could be swapped out with some giant county fair pumpkin or a winning Little League team, and the smiles would be the same. There’s civic pride on those faces, prompting the viewer to wonder what the conversation was like on the trip back home. Did attendees gather at the soda fountain after and reminisce the next day? The banality of these pictures is a reminder that evil doesn’t have a tail and cloven hooves, but a family and an occupation and a house with framed pictures. The documentary A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did is about the now-elderly children in those frames reckoning, or not, with a different set of crimes committed by their parents, men who orchestrated monstrosities and then came home to their families. The existence of atrocity next to domesticity continues to hold great interest for this viewer, a universal human dichotomy that remains fascinating and chilling across all timelines and continents.
With only four films over a 19 year period, Lynne Ramsay is tragically not a prolific filmmaker. Her stylish direction and singularly difficult protagonists mark her as a notable talent, with each film better than the last. After the bracing psychological horror of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay finally returns to screens with the equally unsettling You Were Never Really Here. Led by Joaquin Phoenix, who’s adding another brilliant performance to his resume, the film moves quickly and packs a fierce punch, alternately thrilling and emotional and terrifying in its depiction of dark underbellies and psychic scars.
Chloe Zhao tells a traditional story untraditionally in The Rider. Her modern western and critical breakout about a rodeo rider adjusting to a life away from his calling could have easily cast some up-and-coming young males, maybe getting a ringer like Sam Elliot to play a supporting role and lend her film instant credibility. Instead, Zhao found the subject of her story on the South Dakota badlands and cast him in a loosely biographical film about his own life. Her cast plays themselves, a non-professional trope that doubles as a family. This blending of narrative and documentary achieves a Herzogian ecstatic truth where the details get lost amidst the broader emotional accuracy of what Zhao’s protagonist is experiencing. However, The Rider is most interesting in its background and its production; the film itself fades not unlike the many Dakota sunsets captured that grace the screen.
From Guardians of the Galaxy 2 through Black Panther, Marvel’s been on a roll through their last four films. They’ve started new stories and continued others, bringing in idiosyncratic directors, a broader audience, actual recognizable themes and allusions to the real world, and hardly a mention of the glowing Macguffin gems that dimly power the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Avengers: Infinity War, that run and the entirety of a decade’s worth of interconnected entries, culminates in an intergalactic conflagration that functions like a season finale as much as it does a single film. Marvel’s rewriting the rules of what can be expected at the movies, and the test of Infinity War is if a single entry with 40 hours of prologue can be at all understood or appreciated for someone who isn’t interested in all that backstory.
Brett Haley makes a pitch for himself as the American John Carney with his winning Hearts Beat Loud. Like Carney’s Once or Sing Street, characters use music to express thoughts they can’t speak, leaving them no choice but to sing them instead. These kinds of emotional dramas are continuously at risk of corniness or treacle, but like Carney, Haley avoids any eye-rolling by squeezing every drop of charm and charisma out of his characters, making earnest outbursts of raw feeling as potent for the viewer as they are for the character.
Great Gerwig recently gave movie viewers one of the best coming-of-age stories about a high school girl, or any teenager, in Lady Bird, and one year later, the cinematic world gets a middle-school complement with Bo Burnham’s stellar debut, Eighth Grade. Where Gerwig plumbed the depths of her own life with a semi-autobiographical story, Burnham turns his film into a sociological case study, investigating how young teens live now while also remembering to make his characters heart-wrenchingly real. Part bildungsroman, part satire, and part horror of the uncomfortable, Eighth Grade is required viewing, a painfully nostalgic trip to a universally awkward time and what feels like a deeply researched and observed voyage into this specific moment in cultural history.
There is an emptiness creeping into the Transylvania University of American Animals. Despite taking place in 2004, when the country is in a spasm of patriotism and war, young men who might have earlier exhausted their grandiose energy in the military instead utilize it for fraternity parties and sexual conquests. Even that’s not enough for the quartet of privileged doofuses at the center of Bart Layton’s quasi-docudrama. Not content with the title of ‘did the longest keg stand,’ they instead decide to steal rare books from the library for no discernible reason other than the possibility that it can be done. This is the young-male version of Spring Breakers or Bling Ring, an ecstatic and nihilistic dirge tolling for the end of the species.
The writing/directing combo of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman have made a film about teenagers and another about unmoored and bitter adulthood. With Tully, they continue their Linklater-esque journey down the path of major life events, usually starring an aggressively un-self-conscious Charlize Theron. In five years, maybe they’ll reunite again for a mid-life crisis exploration, but now, they’re concerned with motherhood and the porousness of different stages in a person’s life. Reitman and Cody both have been in the woods in recent years, with he languishing in overwrought romantic dramas and Crash-esque ensemble pieces as she takes lower-profile TV projects and has her own lackluster directorial debut. By reuniting with each other and with Theron, they’re able to recapture their earlier magic while also demonstrating more maturity, moving past the home-skillets of Juno and into something more grounded with the feel of lived-in experience and truth.
Andrew Haigh’s brief and eclectic filmography moved from lusty gay romance to elderly marital drama, and he takes another genre leap in the modern Western Lean on Pete. Haigh’s intimate and naturalistic work with his actors is well-suited to this tale of a preternaturally good kid who runs through an earth-shaking run of bad luck. In the lead, Charlie Plummer is on the level of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone for breakout performances, and every single actor down the cast list, no matter how small the part, gives him plenty to play against. Haigh has an affection for Lean on Pete’s characters, as much as Plummer’s Charley Thompson has for the titular beast, and out of that affection comes a deeply-felt film.
Within the bloody and ongoing Mexican drug war, there are hundreds of angles for journalists and documentarians to find human drama and misery. Director Shaul Schwarz finds an ouroboros of violence in Narco Cultura, a shocking and powerful film that refuses to blink from the active war zone across the US’s southern border. Overlooking the city of El Paso, where a handful of murders are committed each year in one of America’s safest cities, lies Ciudad Juarez, a metropolis with overflowing morgues in the aftermath of cartel violence and government crackdowns. Feeding and reinforcing this violence are narcocorridos, the equivalent of folk singers who mythologize cartel figures through albums that can be purchased at the local Walmart. Schwarz splits his time between narcocorrido group Buknas de Culiacan and morgue workers in Juarez, often juxtaposing the band’s braggadocio with a smash cut to horrific violence and gore on the Juarez streets. It’s a blunt tactic, but a cruelly effective one. American consumers of news have been so shielded to real-world violence despite nearing the third decade of forever war that to see the results face down in the dirt is cold slap of harsh reality.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.