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Writing for Uproxx, Vince Mancini wrote one of the four total negative reviews of The Father written by a major critic. I say negative because Rotten Tomatoes lists it as “rotten,” though that criteria is, generously, imperfect. On Twitter, Mancini called The Father “a thoroughly brilliant movie that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.” It’s unfair to pick on his review as one of the only negative reviews of one of the most universally praised movies of the year, but the other three are by people and publications I haven’t heard of and Mancini has a point.
Mancini’s review argues that a movie about dementia is “like watching someone pull the wings off of a fly.” He offers Dick Johnson Is Dead, which we’ve talked about recently in this space, as a better approach to the topic. I don’t agree with his take but I see where he’s coming from. He appreciates the positive spin and magical moments of Dick Johnson Is Dead, but I found those elements to be distracting from what I loved about the film. Mancini praises everything about The Father but ends his review with a question: “Who needs this?”
The Father is an extremely difficult watch. It’s based on a 2012 play and directed by the play’s author, Florian Zeller. In the film, Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony, an elderly man with dementia. His daughter Anne, played by Olivia Colman, visits him often and hopes to improve his quality of life with a caregiver. Both performers are up for Oscars this year, as is the film itself for Best Picture. I wouldn’t be surprised if it swept all three. For the performances specifically, even amongst the bodies of work these two have put up these are strong outings.
It’s fairly indisputable that it’s well-made and that the leads put on a master class. Where it may break down for you, as it did for Mancini, is if you’re willing to watch an extremely depressing movie about an extremely difficult subject either during or just after a full year of lockdown and pandemic, depending on where in the world you live. This may not be part of your recommended diet right now.
Anthony’s memory has deteriorated, both short-term and long-term. He struggles to remember where he put his watch every day despite doing the same thing every single day. He remembers he has two daughters, but not where either of them is or who they may be married to at the moment. He engages with everyone he meets, but oscillates between charming tapdancing and angry, insistent yelling.
These stories are either told through the character themselves or through what happens to people around them. Both approaches have merit, but The Father shows us the “real” story by showing both. Anthony experiences a conversation that seems normal, but then people around him change. Either they fully change, down to the actress or actor portraying them, or they just act surprised that Anthony mentions something odd. We aren’t having guests, dad, it’s just the two of us. But then there are guests and Anthony is at dinner with several people. Was he right when he said guests will be there, was he mistaken, or is this, the third option, actually wrong, and there aren’t people here now?
It’s deliberately disorienting, as the condition would be. Anthony keeps mixing things up, as he asks Anne how she’s going to move to Paris if he’s still married to a man in London. In one funny, but deeply sad scene, he informs who he thinks is her old husband that she actually is moving to Paris and he’s sorry he’s ruined the surprise to this guy who is clearly on his way out. Several times he makes the same joke about Paris (“they don’t even speak English there”) to diminished returns and in incongruous situations.
The cast physically changing is an excellent touch. In one moment it’s Anne, Olivia Colman, and then it’s Olivia Williams playing a woman who might be Anne or might be someone else. Anne’s husband or a friend or her new husband or someone else rotates between several men. Scenes repeat with different characters, which provides some stability but continuously plays with the idea of what’s real. When this happens in fantastical movies it can go overboard and become confusing by design (see Late Period of Nolan, Christopher) but here, the confusion is a feature, not a bug. Anthony doesn’t experience brief moments of clarity, his whole life is falling down in a steady, rapid way. By the end you will be exhausted and the transformation will shock you. Colman maybe, arguably, doesn’t fully disappear into Anne, but that’s fine, it isn’t necessary. Anthony Hopkins, even playing a man named Anthony, becomes this patient. It would be easy for a performance like this to be a checkbox, but this is as much as you can possibly execute.
I understand where Mancini is coming from and I think there’s a certain bravery to saying it. Still Alice is, for my money, still the best film on this topic, though that plays more like a predictable horror film than the inventive approach here. It’s more terrifying, I think, but they both are earth-shatteringly difficult. There seems to have been a shift lately in more films about realistic terror than aliens and monsters, and while I can’t prove that with figures it feels more like audiences “want” to be scared of something that might happen. Whether that’s true or not, The Father is deeply real, which is both to its credit and what makes it so difficult.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so, and not just for the reasons above. I really loved Another Round and I really loved the performance at the center of it. Both movies have solid surrounding casts but really rely on the guy in the middle to sell a tough collapse. The Father is great, no doubt, but I think Another Round is something I’ll come back to a lot over the years.
Is it the best movie of all time? Still Alice is a very similar story and I think a more effective one. The final scenes of The Father are terrifying for the right reasons, but Still Alice still haunts me to think about even years and years later. I still will have to leave this as In the Mood for Love, a movie that has evolved in my mind over the months and still seems to have things to fascinate me even when not watching it. Strong recommendation for everything mentioned today, but as we talked about up top, make sure you’re in the right place for the difficult ones.
You can watch The Father on Amazon Prime ($19.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.