David Lynch

Is Dune the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I was always intimidated by Dune, the book, even though I assumed I would like it. It has a glossary of terms to explain the confusing language that’s used early and often. It has a million sequels that people will passionately tell you are either essential or terrible. When I finally read it, I saw what people were talking about but I also couldn’t believe I’d let that make my decision for me. The book is great. It’s a tough read and, yes, the language is dense, but it pays off consistently and the result is incredible.

I feel like every review has to walk the reader through the history of Dune as a cinematic property. David Lynch made a version that no one (especially Lynch himself, who still talks about it as a terrible experience even decades later) seems to like, though I will offer the hot take that it’s not anywhere near the disaster people claim it is. It’s a fairly decent adaptation of the novel, though it’s confusing to audiences with no context and it tries to be all things to all people. Especially towards the end, you may wonder why certain conflicts are either beginning or resolving. I do not mean to suggest we need to rethink David Lynch’s Dune. The director and the masses are right and it is a mess. I saw someone today say it’s better than the 2021 version, so we clearly need to pump the brakes very hard.

There are other versions, but we don’t need to go any more in depth. Denis Villeneuve has adapted it again, and anyone who knows the history knows the challenge and the reputation that he was up against. The 2021 version is a masterpiece, plain and simple, and it might be even more so because of how famously the other major attempt failed.

Dune is a story about heroes. Central character Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, who nails the part but we’ll get back to that) is thrust into a need for heroics when a conflict between two royal families gets him lost in the desert on a hostile planet. If you know anything about Dune, you probably know the giant sandworms or the race of native people to the desert planet itself. These are the lasting images from the novel, but the film walks right up to this part and ends. Lynch covered the whole story and lost the audience, even with some distracting exposition techniques, and Villeneuve’s choice to tell this in (hopefully) two parts works very well. It just might not be the story you’re expecting to see.

The choice to make it two parts is obviously the right one, but it does divide the audience. If you don’t know anything about Dune it may not matter to you, because I think you have to know what you’re missing to miss it here, but it robs Chalamet of the chance to do a lot. Paul as a character has no real arc in the first half of the story of Dune, which makes him feel a little like a cipher here. Chalamet’s performance works for that and it’s not a criticism at all, it just stands out because of where the film has to cut to divide the narrative in two. But even by mentioning this I’m nitpicking, because this isn’t even a problem. It’s just what happens when you watch half of a movie.

I think Villeneuve’s Dune will probably work for you whether you know Dune or not. Criticisms of Dune always say that it’s too confusing, but I think this version shows some of the creative ways you can explain a world to people without having someone barrel down the camera and tell you a story. Some of these are less subtle, like when Paul watches a video that explains the planet they’re going to, but some of them are just the context of the character conversations. When one person tells another they will inform the Landsraad about a betrayal, they don’t tell them what that is because the character would already know. The audience doesn’t need to know. If you do, from the book, that’s great, but if you don’t, you still follow what’s happening. There are dozens of examples of this trust in the viewer that Villeneuve displays and they make the difference between a pretty good epic and a great piece of storytelling and worldbuilding.

We won’t really know if this all works until we get the rest. The ending to Dune is convoluted in ways the rest isn’t and the middle includes a lot of wandering around in the sand. Can Villeneuve weave all that together in a way audiences will follow and enjoy? I think you have to assume yes based on this version, but the degree of difficulty gets much higher when you get into the arc of who Paul must become. I hope we get to see it, which I don’t think many people would have said ten years ago.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No, I don’t think it is better than The Third Man, though it’s a weird choice for me to have made here. The Third Man is one of my all time favorite films and I think it changed cinema, where Dune feels in the moment more like a culmination of what a ton of other “big” films have done decently well but never this cohesively. Obviously I am hamstrung here by my own premise because Dune is a totally different kind of movie.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but it certainly has a chance to be. Almost all of the reviews focus on how it’s an incomplete film, which is not a legitimate criticism of a film that is very literally incomplete. It will be interesting to see how the whole thing lands in the end, but for what Dune is, today, it’s a staggering success that accomplishes a nearly impossible feat of being both an interesting movie to watch on a whim and an effective visualization of a world nerds really want to see on a big screen. We can quibble with specifics, but folks calling this “slow” watched a different movie than I did or wanted something that is not possible to deliver. You have to watch movies for what they actually are, not what you want them to be, and if you’re able to do that, you will really love this.

You can watch Dune on HBO Max until November 21, but Villeneuve would really rather you go see it in the theater. 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.

Is PlayTime the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The title of the film PlayTime is sometimes written as two words and sometimes written as one word with the standard capital letter, but it seems to be most correct to inner-cap the T and write it as PlayTime. Jacques Tati’s experimental 1967 masterpiece starts with the language games before you even press play. It asks you why the title is so odd and what it could mean. It will not answer this, so be prepared for that. The best answer I can give you is that “PlayTime” is not a word, but it does convey a kind of meaning. That’s the kind of answer Tati is most interested in and it’s what PlayTime is about, such as it can be said to be about anything.

There are hundreds of characters and a half-dozen settings. It’s all in a mashed up version of French and English that any viewer who speaks any of either language will understand, at least as much as they need to understand. By way of example, I’ll mention a German man who mistakenly believes that a character has gone through files they were not supposed to go through. The German yells at the Frenchman, but shifts between French and German to do so. When he speaks German, his speech is no longer subtitled. We’re not supposed to understand that part and it is implied that the recipient of this dressing down doesn’t, either. It doesn’t matter. The sooner you get on that wavelength, the more likely you are to find something to love in PlayTime.

The great critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote a ton about PlayTime and is one of the primary defenders of the film’s legacy. I think the most important point he makes is this one:

For viewers trained to follow stories that lead to narrative payoffs — morals, solutions, dramatic climaxes — one can easily understand how PlayTime, if viewed less interactively and creatively, might seem empty and uneventful rather than teeming with lively possibilities.

Rosenbaum is a genius and one of my favorite critics, but I think we need to unpack this point. PlayTime is a crazy movie with very little plot and a tremendous amount of work put into aesthetic. The sound was dubbed later to apply precise sound effects and muddled dialogue that gets across an idea of what’s happening but never really gives a full picture. Tati cared enough to have different leather chairs make different odd noises and he wanted individual footfalls to make individual noises. He built an entire set to approximate an airport and office complex and made, at the time, the most expensive French film ever made. He did not, necessarily, tell a story.

Rosenbaum separates viewers into buckets to prepare them for PlayTime, but the first group of viewers who are “trained to follow stories that lead to narrative payoffs” is, essentially, everyone. We watch film for a variety of reasons, but we watch stories because we want to know what happens next. PlayTime is the ultimate subversion of this expectation. You do not want to know what’s coming next when you watch PlayTime, you want to understand why you’re seeing what is happening now. It absolutely is “empty and uneventful.” A man tries to meet someone and instead is confused by modern Paris while a tour group sees modernity in action but does not see what we think of as the sights of traditional Paris. This is criminally reductive, but that is the literal viewing of PlayTime. If that’s all you take away then you won’t like it and you’ll wonder why this much effort went into saying this little.

The Criterion special features include an introduction from Terry Jones and a brief interview with Paul Feig. Jones talks about seeing it in Paris on release and then recounts funny moments of it in an uncontrollable way, as if he cannot help but tell a friend that “this one part” is very funny. It’s a testament to the lasting humor and the truly massive scale that Tati wanted to create that these two masters of slapstick and broad comedy really connected with PlayTime. It’s funny, but in a fairly subtle way a lot of the time. When a character gets on a bus and cannot find a pole to hold on to, he holds on to a lamp that another person is holding. When a man goes to light a cigarette for someone else, they both realize during a panned out shot that they are on either side of a huge piece of glass. You won’t scream with laughter, but you’ll smile a lot.

Tati wanted complete control to ensure these moments landed, which necessitated building the set from the ground up. During a scene in a bland office full of identical furniture, a character wanders into a trade show where people are selling the same chairs as the design of the future. They’re everywhere already. They’re impractical and clearly uncomfortable, which adds to the ridiculousness of marketing them at all, but the real joke is that they already are what everyone uses, as far as we can see, literally everywhere. Tati’s message isn’t as bitter as a lot of other movies about the perils of modernity, but there’s a strong implication that technology and the push towards a “better future” is not actually going that great.

PlayTime will test your patience at times. The shot I pulled out as an image is from the middle of PlayTime, where the main character, a famous bumbling character played by Tati in other films named Monsieur Hulot, runs into an old army buddy who insists he come in for a drink. We watch this scene along with several others as cubes on the screen. We hear the street, from our perspective they are inside and we only hear that distantly. We see tricks of perspective, as there are walls between these families but they appear to be watching each other then they look at walls we don’t see. You murder a joke by explaining it, but I want to go this deep to explain what makes PlayTime special. There are tons of shots like this that don’t necessarily offer greater commentary but are just neat to take in.

I think the first half is stronger than the second. Hulot wanders around confusing office structures and can’t figure out how to meet with a character he needs to meet. My favorite shot in the whole film finds Hulot facing cubicles and a receptionist facing forwards who rotates as Hulot turns a corner. He doesn’t see her move, which tricks him into thinking he’s turned a corner to end up exactly where he was originally. I love the identical designs and similar colors through this section and the monotony really makes a statement. The second half follows Hulot trying to navigate a restaurant’s nightmare opening night and it feels like an elevated scene that could be in a lot of other movies. It’s very funny and very crazy in a very French way, but it feels very long to me and runs out of steam.

Rosenbaum is right, of course, and this is a movie you need to watch a certain way. It’s a pretty big thing to say that this movie subverts the entire idea of narrative, but if you’re going to do that you’re going to need to have a lot of flash to get by. Tati famously said that the expense of PlayTime was justified because it would have cost just as much to hire a famous star to play the female lead. He was right about the cost, but PlayTime didn’t make a profit and it functionally bankrupted the director. It’s one of the ultimate “risky” movies and you have to think that, in some small part, it makes a lot of the lists of movies directors love because they want to validate that risk. We all hope if we take a big swing we’ll be rewarded, and history has validated Tati even if not everyone understood what it was all going for at the time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets also doesn’t really “go” anywhere, but it has more to say about the world. It’s hard to imagine a smaller risk than “film a fake bar,” but there is some comparison to be made despite this major difference in design and intent. Both Tati and the Ross brothers built a custom world that is similar to the real one but just different enough to feel a little off. Both wanted to show you something you know, but in a space they could control entirely. PlayTime is a film for the ages and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is really just a social experiment. I have to take PlayTime even though I’m a big defender of the style on display in both films.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I am sadly a viewer who really needs a story, and I am sticking with In the Mood for Love. I was really fascinated by the first 30 minutes of PlayTime and I grew less so as it progressed. I liked all of it, but it’s more accurate to say that I appreciate PlayTime than I like PlayTime. David Lynch was a big fan and you can see some of that in his choices. Lynch obviously creates a more horrific world than the mostly silly PlayTime world, but you can see the connection even in Twin Peaks as Dale Cooper wanders through a world he doesn’t understand but largely doesn’t question. I love Lynch, but it’s impossible not to feel that some of the style wanders so far away from narrative that it gets to be difficult to follow. That’s part of the fun, as it is with PlayTime, but sometimes you just want something that art like this isn’t designed to do.

You can watch PlayTime on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or on Amazon Prime ($3.99 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.