Jesse Plemons

Is I’m Thinking of Ending Things 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 shortest review I can offer you for I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a comparison. Do you think Charlie Kaufman’s work is getting better or worse over time? If you think it’s getting better you are going to love this. If you don’t, that answer is probably complicated.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an adaptation of a short novel with a twist. Kaufman wrote the screenplay for the film and directed it himself, which seems to be a mistake. He’s the mind behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and (at least part of) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all masterpieces. He started to direct his own scripts after that, with the devastating Synecdoche, New York and the frustrating, messy, Anomalisa. I’m a fan of the former, though it really does ask a lot of you and I like it less than all three other films mentioned, but I really hated the latter. Anomalisa at least does challenge you. I thought about it a lot after I saw it. Even when I don’t like what he’s doing with the premise, I have to hand it to Kaufman on the premise itself.

I’m not alone in the opinion that he’s a better writer than director and it’s not uncommon for truly out there writers to benefit from someone who can reign in their impulses. I’m Thinking of Ending Things sets the bar really high with the combination of an adapted work and no one to tell Charlie Kaufman no. The result is a movie that is somehow both tedious and experimental, both frustrating and interesting, both extremely well-written and shockingly bad at times. It’s both ends of the spectrum, which is better than just being not very good, but it really just never settles into any lane for long enough to be something you will enjoy.

A theme of “classic film” that comes up again and again is that question: Are we having fun yet? Charlie Kaufman has absolutely no interest in making fun movies, which is fine. However, even from the guy who made Synecdoche, New York, this is dark territory. It’s made all the darker by what we don’t see.

Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) are going to meet his parents. During the drive and dinner at their old farmhouse both Jake and his parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette, both excellent in limited roles) call her multiple names, most often Lucy but also Lucia and Ames. She continually gets phone calls from people who may also have these names. Details change continuously, telling us things are not as they seem. For the first hour, the confusion is fascinating and slight enough that we are drawn in. It’s impossible to understand but not frustrating. The inaccuracies get bigger and bigger, with surreal elements that balloon into a full reality break. Both parents rapidly age and then shift back as they come in and out of scenes. Jessie Buckley’s character, who I am going to call Lucy though it’s important that you know she is not Lucy, can’t keep it together.

The title comes from Lucy’s inner monologue about potentially breaking up with Jake. At times he seems to sense this if not actually hear her inner monologue, though he pushes forward with inane chatter and long stories about poetry. This is supposed to be the pretentious conversation of this kind of person at this sort of age, but Kaufman falls into a trap by using two annoying characters in a two-person movie. Even if the joke is “can you believe how unbearable this is?” it doesn’t matter that it’s a joke, it’s still happening for really, really long scenes full of high-minded, lengthy quotes from scholarly works. It’s satire, sure, but it’s so much that it becomes the text itself.

We’ve talked before about how “pretentious” has come to just mean “bad” in criticism. This is not a bad movie, but it certainly is pretentious. If you buy the ticket to a movie that Charlie Kaufman has complete control over, this is what you’re signing up for. It’s hard to fault it on those lines, but I really have to insist in this case. The inner mystery of the film really is just variations of the question “what is happening?” The ending somewhat answers the question, but the drive there feels exceedingly long. A trip to the high school on the way out of town extends into a lengthy dream ballet in the style of An American in Paris. There is internal logic to why this happens, but I challenge you to not let out a groan when faced with a dream ballet in a Netflix movie in a year that starts with a two.

Pauline Kael was the film critic for The New Yorker and famously wrote the alternative history that led to the plot of Mank, though her positive contributions to film and criticism are extensive. That said, she was a film critic decades ago for The New Yorker. You don’t need to know who this is. You do need to know that one of the longest, most uncomfortable scenes in a recent film is the moment where Lucy quotes, at great length, Pauline Kael’s review of a John Cassavetes movie. She doesn’t attribute it in the scene, which does have some internal logic, just like the dream ballet, but even with an explanation, again, this is a long scene where someone rambles direct quotes of a movie review from five decades ago in the place of conversation. Writing for TIME, Stephanie Zacharek said “Who, out there, still reads Kael? Who will get his tricky little joke, and if you do, what do you win? Kaufman doesn’t care how smart you are, as long as you know how smart he is.”

On the other side, IndieWire wrote this bizarre piece that starts “Charlie Kaufman is not a fan of solving movies for his audience” and then solves the movie with spoilers in extreme detail and great length. It’s well written, but it’s a testament to the movie Kaufman made that he agreed to do a 3,000 word explainer that breaks down who characters are and what every scene means. If you aren’t going to watch this or already have, check that out, but really do not if you want to experience this first hand.

But should you? It’s way too long and frustratingly cute, though I did like some of the jokes and the central mystery hooked me more than it didn’t. The horror is muted and mostly contained in a retrospective look at what you just saw, especially once you realize what the different perspectives meant. I have a lot of patience for movies like this and even more for Charlie Kaufman, but ultimately I think this is too much. There’s a good story in here, probably the one in the novel that made him want to tell a slightly different story in the same space, but the end result is a meal that’s all spices and seasonings. A little goes a long way, and I cannot rightfully recommend wholeheartedly any movie where a major plot point requires you to be deeply familiar with the specific reasons Pauline Kael didn’t like A Woman Under the Influence in 1974.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I didn’t mean for this to follow a Cassavetes movie, but there’s a nice connection here. Opening Night is better than this. Both feature ambiguous endings, though I think you’re intended to walk away from this one with a more conclusive view of the world. The magic is all distracting and while every review I read seems focused on making sure you understand that the reviewer Definitely Got It, I stand by my point that even if the devices are devices, if we spend the whole movie with them then that’s the story you showed us, no matter what the point behind it all is.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. Sticking with Persona, and this is definitely on the lower end of the list. I liked it better than Anomalisa, but otherwise I think this is Kaufman’s worst work. A.A. Dowd said in his review for The A.V. Club that it would frustrate people who really liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and he is very much correct. Jessie Buckley especially is really fantastic in this and there are moments that I think are spectacular, but this movie needed a stronger hand from the editor very badly and probably a different director to sharpen Kaufman’s work rather than letting it sprawl out over 134 minutes.

You can watch I’m Thinking of Ending Things on Netflix. 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 Judas and the Black Messiah 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.

Less than a year before his death, William O’Neal was interviewed for what would become an iconic PBS documentary about civil rights called Eyes on the Prize. Lakeith Stanfield plays O’Neal, the informant who ultimately led to the death of Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers, in Judas and the Black Messiah. The full text of O’Neal’s interview is worth reading, but the most critical piece is this, which he gave as an answer to what he’d tell his son about what he did:

I think I’ll let your documentary put a cap on that story. I don’t know what I’d tell him other than I was part of the struggle. That’s the bottom line. I wasn’t one of those armchair revolutionaries. One of those people that want to sit back now and judge the actions or inactions of people when they sit back on the sideline and did nothing. At least I had a point of view. I was dedicated. And then I had the courage to get out there and put it on the line. And I did. I think I’ll let hi–let history speak for me.

William O’Neal was arrested for stealing a car and the FBI cut a deal with him by asking him to infiltrate the Black Panthers. The film portrays O’Neal as an opportunist who is conflicted, but not that conflicted, and follows the standard blueprint to some degree for informants. History has spoken for O’Neal, who died in an accident that was ruled a suicide but might not have been, but this may not be a story you know. Fred Hampton has a minor role in The Trial of the Chicago 7, and both that movie and this one have added relevance as America slowly, somewhat, starts to have conversations about race and police.

Both films present the reality that the government and the police feared the civil rights movement and sought to infiltrate it to discredit and destroy it. O’Neal drew a distinction between the FBI and “the police,” saying the former is dignified and positive and the latter is more complicated, but I don’t think most people feel this way or have this complication in their mind. O’Neal’s mind is important, however, especially where it doesn’t match what the viewer would feel. We’re seeing a betrayal, but we must understand William O’Neal to know what he’s betraying.

Daniel Kaluuya won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, which is true madness. It’s an amazing performance, arguably the best of the year, and it’s a movie about Fred Hampton, who he plays. The Academy is really bad at this distinction between the acting categories. Recent winners Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Mahershala Ali for Green Book are leads, certainly, but probably were slotted into the supporting category to assure their victory for strong performances. My favorite bit of trivia about the category is that Sylvia Miles was nominated for a single scene in Midnight Cowboy where she is on screen for less than ten minutes. Her “support” in that film is a few lines and a joke, albeit a good one. According to the Oscars, that’s about what Kaluuya did here. We should get back to the topic at hand, but it’s important to note how strong his performance is and how strong Stanfield’s is, as well. Them winning both categories wouldn’t be unthinkable, but slotting them both into supporting would be strange if it weren’t the kind of nonsense the Academy does every year.

Judas and the Black Messiah presents William O’Neal as apolitical, which seems to match how he saw himself. He infiltrates the Black Panthers because the FBI asks him to do so and pays him to keep doing it. Where he is conflicted it’s generally because he realizes the FBI isn’t really protecting him. During a shootout with police, he has to appear to the Panthers to be on their side but can’t risk anything that would actually get him hurt. The police don’t care that he’s a “good” Panther. O’Neal wants to quit, but he doesn’t want to quit because he’s actually being swayed by Hampton’s politics. There is some suggestion that he feels remorse, which the real O’Neal certainly did, but it’s mostly around the brutality of the FBI’s intentions. I think the suggestion of the film and O’Neal’s legacy, at least as he tells it, is that he wasn’t a true believer but that doesn’t mean they should kill Fred Hampton.

Fred Hampton, on the other hand, believes. Our introduction to Hampton shows him speaking to a group and demanding that true power requires force and sacrifice. He turns off an audience member by insulting religion and passive resistance as a viable option. As the story progresses and more people take to the streets with guns, we see this put into action. Hampton says in a speech that he knows how his life will end. There’s a powerful inevitability to this story from the very start, both from the title’s insistence that one will betray the other and deliver death and from just the way these things work. The powerful stay powerful and despite the song, the times are not necessarily changing.

Kaluuya really is incredible as Fred Hampton. His speeches are rousing and his slumped, exhausted portrayal “behind the scenes” of his very public life tell us that this is all taking a serious toll. During a meeting with a Chicago gang, Hampton responds immediately to what he knows will be the takedowns of his approach. This kind of writing feels stilted in The Trial of the Chicago 7, but here we see Hampton playing revolutionary speeches over and over again and honing his rhetoric. We have reason to expect he would act this way, which is a small thing but the kind of thing that makes the character feel lived rather than written.

O’Neal is written as an opportunist, as we’ve established, but Stanfield plays him scared. This is a great choice, as it shies away from the bluster that is the defining element of a similar relationship in The Departed. Jesse Plemons continues his career of playing terrifying characters as nice guys as the FBI agent. The real O’Neal looked up to this agent and insisted until his death that he thought the FBI were the good guys, but the film complicates this and offers a slightly more sympathetic view. There’s a case to be made that O’Neal said that because he saw that the FBI could and would kill him for saying otherwise, so it gets a little complicated to say if this choice is a true one or not. It serves the film to show us the FBI agent as a little unsure and O’Neal as a lot more unsure, but we have to accept this as something we can’t know in the real version.

This story is a tragedy, which the film never hides from. Obviously it’s a man’s death, but it’s a million other small tragedies. O’Neal is a complicated figure who saw himself as part of the revolution despite doing more to hurt it than help it, but even that is a statement that needs some unpacking. Judas and the Black Messiah has a point of view, but it does a great job presenting a complicated subject with only a small finger on the scale. It is possible to walk away from this with a true picture of what happened but to also have feelings about how the central figures may have felt. That should be table stakes in a true story, but so many films feel the need to demand one “maybe” was the definite fact that it makes this a revelation.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes, it’s better than The Trial of the Chicago 7, another historical film that was up for awards this year. Both films show the government’s attempt to crush a reasonable, necessary revolution for civil rights, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 is far too cute. Judas and the Black Messiah has more space to develop the leads, who are so obviously leads, again, and a more complicated view of what happened. There’s a moment in The Trial of the Chicago 7 where a similar opportunity arises and Aaron Sorkin bulldozes it. This is the better script and the better film because of the time it takes to breathe and sit with something complicated.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, we will stick with the iconic Persona, but I do think it probably should have done better at the Oscars. Nomadland is, I think, an easier to execute story and maybe a better movie, but the more I sit with Judas and the Black Messiah the more I am persuaded. Both look at parts of modern America that we don’t want to admit are part of modern America. I think years from now this will still feel like something great from this year and the performances, especially, will ring out for a long time. The Academy has bigger problems to address than how it organizes the award categories, but man, if you watch this and feel like Daniel Kaluuya is “supporting” one really must ask what a “lead” in this movie would look like.

You can watch Judas and the Black Messiah on YouTube ($19.99 at the time of this writing) or 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.