movies

Is Last Year at Marienbad 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.

In 2009, critic John Powers wrote, for my money, the best introduction possible to the 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad. He said he was “bored and baffled” by it and that it was “art cinema with a vengeance.” In recalling a conversation he had after it seeing it, he asked a question that really is such a smart way to phrase an exercise that comes up a lot when you watch “classic” film: “can something be great if it’s not any good?”

Last Year at Marienbad is a mess. It’s tremendously boring and feels very long despite being a short experience. Roger Ebert called it “a deliberate, artificial artistic construction” but says it’s possible to be bored when watching it. He listed it among his list of greatest films list but gave a review that makes it seem like he doesn’t seem to like it that much.

Just about all critical discourse I read follows Powers and Ebert in calling this a critical piece of cinema history and a true accomplishment but also a bore and, frankly, a not very good movie. Why and how have we constructed a world where it does not matter if your piece of art is entertaining? I will confess to liking a lot of movies that are not enjoyable (Magnolia is one of my favorites but I definitely ruined a party with it once) but there has to be something said for a baseline of “good,” right? We should care first if it’s a positive experience, if not also a pleasant one, to watch your film. You can certainly make art on top of that and you really should try, most of the time, but it should be a movie first.

There are three characters in Last Year at Marienbad. They are not named, but are traditionally referred to by single letters, though not in the film itself. X is a man who tells Y, a woman, that they met last year, possibly at Marienbad. Possibility is the theme, as Y does not believe they’ve ever met, but X is insistent. It is not clear who is correct, though X has a photograph of Y that complicates her story. M, who may or may not be her husband, may or may not believe either of them, and may or may not interfere as X tries to pursue Y.

The one positive thing I’ll say is that this is a bold choice. Nothing officially happens here, as every character is shown doing some things and not doing others, sometimes within stories. When X details what happened last year, at Marienbad, we see Y doing those things. This doesn’t mean it happened, but it also doesn’t mean it didn’t. Director Alain Resnais says it’s critical that you believe this did happen and seems to want you to think about why she would say that it didn’t. Writer Alain Robbe-Grillet says it didn’t happen and seems to say the director is tricking you. The inconsistency is part of all of this, as the text itself doesn’t answer the question. The trailer for the film at the time leans into this as a mystery for the viewer to solve, going so far as to say that you get to be a writer of the film yourself. This is a Choose Your Own Adventure Movie, which is to say that it is barely a narrative. Arguably it’s not even a narrative, as every version of the story is contradicted and subverted.

Powers’ review is scathing, but it concludes by saying this is something you have to experience for yourself. I don’t know if that’s true. If this sounds frustrating and silly to you, then you know already that you don’t need to see it. If you’re even slightly interested in a complex experience that honestly doesn’t pay off for everyone, then you do. A lot of care was put into this film, even if it’s not always in service of an experience you can recommend. The characters move through a haunting castle filled with background characters who mostly stand perfectly still and stare. It’s immersive despite being so stylized. It’s remarkable, in a way, but I kept expecting something to happen. Nothing happens.

I don’t think this is the worst movie I’ve ever seen, obviously, and it’s a classic for a reason. I’d much rather be frustrated by an art film than watch an actual bad movie, but I hope to not watch any bad movies for this series. Last Year at Marienbad is an oddity because nothing that makes a movie stand out is present. The performances aren’t necessarily memorable. The visuals are interesting but repeat over and over. The dialogue is often meaningless, when present at all. It’s all about the ultimate question of if the titular event happened or not, wrapped up in the fact that you aren’t even intended to get an answer.

That piece is what keeps me from suggesting you watch it. When you watch a great film with a question at the center, you are expected to form an opinion that changes your view of what you saw. That will happen here. You may believe this couple met last year and that this woman, deliberately or not, is blocking the memory. You may believe they didn’t and this is his way of hitting on her. You may believe she is married to the tall, serious man who appears to be her husband or you may believe he has kidnapped her or otherwise has control over her. You may find whatever conclusion you draw to be enough for you, but I did not. It all comes down to that question, which is possible to be answered in the affirmative. I just couldn’t get there, but I think it’s interesting that even for people who could, they still felt the need to acknowledge, even in a list of the greatest films of all time, that this one is a tough one.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No. Judas and the Black Messiah is a great experience with a message worth hearing. People who take issue with it don’t like that it’s a story told through the lens of a betrayal, but I’m always fascinated at that kind of critique. It’s fair to not like what a movie chose to do, but that’s different than discussing what it actually did. Last Year at Marienbad does what the writer and director intended. I don’t like that, but it makes Ebert’s list because of execution, not intention.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. I think Husbands is a more compelling film to watch but might be the only movie I’ve watched for this series I enjoyed less than this one. I’m glad I saw it and I think the idea of a story that alternatively may or may not be true is obviously interesting, but Persona asks similar questions within an actual story. You walk away from Persona with some big questions and a sense that potentially what you just saw was not entirely real, but you have so much more to unpack. A movie does not have to be a pleasant experience to be worth your time, but it really ought to try to be a movie.

You can watch Last Year at Marienbad 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.

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.

Is The Trial of the Chicago 7 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 Trial of the Chicago 7 is the least strange thing that was up for an Oscar this year. It was nominated for six awards and lost all six, which is not unheard of, but the one surprising detail is that it didn’t win for writing. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote and directed it, has been nominated three times before but only won for The Social Network. Maybe it’s not strange that he didn’t win given that history, but this felt like the Most Writing, at least, and that has to be worth something. Emerald Fennell won for Promising Young Woman, and should have, but it’s surprising to see the Academy agree with that.

Aaron Sorkin complaints are a little predictable in 2021, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t appropriate. I loved Sports Night and The West Wing like everyone else and I think The Social Network is great. You can pick a ton of other pieces of work from his career to highlight, but I still think his best work is the very strange, but necessarily strange, Steve Jobs. The script is designed to sell a tightly wound, intense person as the centerpiece that holds things together and to then unravel to show us how that isn’t always true. The performances are strong, but it’s the script that makes it go. There are none of the problems that dog The Theory of Everything or a million other “real” stories from the era. It’s way too tight, but so was Jobs himself. It works because the style fits the subject.

This gets to the complaints. Sorkin can apparently only do this one thing, though he does it to such a degree that he’s made a career out of it. Sorkin wrote The Trial of the Chicago 7 more than a decade before he directed it and it feels like it, at times. Every creative person has their “tells” and the Sorkin dialogue is his. There are unbearable moments in The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the entire movie feels relentless. It does what he wants it to do, which is what makes it an unquestionable success. It’s simply a matter of taste of if that is what you, the viewer, want it to be, that will determine if this is good or not.

I think people are too hard on Sorkin, usually, but this movie really make me question that defense. I liked it, broadly speaking, but I don’t remember the last movie watching experience where I was that aware I was watching a movie. Characters never take a moment to listen to each other. Everyone barrels into every scene already talking and leaves still talking. It feels unnecessary to belabor this point because if you know anything about Sorkin you already expect this. He wrote his version of this story and then directed it. It ended up as you’d expect and everyone liked it enough to nominate it but no one liked it enough to let it win anything.

The Chicago 7, which were 8 before they were 7, were men on trial for inciting a riot after the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Sorkin met Steven Spielberg and agreed to write the screenplay after hearing the story, but ultimately he had to direct it after several directors moved on from the project. It all came to fruition when a cast of lots and lots of strange, but great, people joined Sorkin and told the story. Eddie Redmayne is surprisingly great as the straight-laced Tom Hayden who just wants everyone to take this whole trial seriously. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong play the buddy duo of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin who want to get high and make jokes. Mark Rylance brings a lot of humor to a simple part as the defense attorney for the group. The list goes on and on and on.

I won’t mention everyone, but Frank Langella as the crooked judge who famously likely lost this case for the state, ultimately, by going over the top in courtroom antics that the audience will find ridiculous but mostly happened, really steals the show. Cohen was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Daniel Kaluuya, who somehow was not the lead of Judas and the Black Messiah, but you could pick a lot of these people and call them the best performance here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is convincing as the state’s lead dog trying to nail the group. The term “ensemble cast” is obvious, but it’s rare that it’s this big. I just don’t have the room to go into everyone, but even the smaller parts here are carried with serious weight, down to essentially a cameo from Michael Keaton.

All of these truly excellent performances are why you should watch it, but Aaron Sorkin is why you maybe shouldn’t. If you aren’t buying what he’s selling already, you’re going to hate this. It’s even more of what he always does and it really does come over and over like body blows. The one-liners are constant and the writing is so tight it chokes any moment you might reflect on the seriousness of the situation. The story is already grand, but not necessarily one everyone will already know, but Sorkin really does pound it into a tight cube with insistent, witty dialogue. Every individual line is perfect, you could not dispute any of this, but the result of them all chaining together makes everyone feel like someone pretending to be a person.

Which they are, right? It’s only a real complaint when you compare it to everything else you’ll see this year and, really, every other year. Sorkin cannot let go and let the movie be more than a movie. He can’t let people make mistakes and catch those genius accidents. Everything is so perfect that you’d think someone painted the frames. It’s not that it’s beautiful, though it looks fine, it’s that it’s paced like someone cut every syllable together and sweat over the perfect final version. It doesn’t feel as totally starry-eyed as The West Wing, though the ending is a little too twinkly, but it just isn’t as messy as it should be.

It’s still pretty solid and it’s extremely watchable, but it’s just the best possible version of what Sorkin seems to be interested in making. It all feels disposable, though, but that may be the nature of a courtroom drama. There are familiar beats to these stories that lose their weight once the verdict comes down. There is a version of this that complicates the characters further and paints history as complicated and as grainy as it actually was, with more complex arguments than Hayden and Hoffman debating political power as voting through a clear, direct, heavily pointed at modern lens, but that isn’t what Sorkin wants. He got what he wanted by writing and directing, and the result is a very watchable, very tiresome, very perfect version of what he wanted to make. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No, Persona has a strong case to be the best movie ever made. This is not the best work that anyone involved in it has ever made, except Eddie Redmayne, who I don’t really like in anything else.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, because it failed the last check. I do think it’s fine, if the review didn’t make that clear, I just think Sorkin is capable of more than this. I think we’re capable as an audience of making connections he refuses to let be subtle. I think if you pull out any two minute clip of this movie you will be impressed, but the entirety of the whole thing feels insubstantial. I diagnose the problem as the too-tight writing, but I’d love to hear what other people think. It’s not a bad movie, just a missed opportunity, and only one I call out because what is there is good, but could have been great.

You can watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 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.

Worst Best Picture: Is Nomadland Better or Worse Than Crash?

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2021 winner Nomadland. Is it better than Crash?

Now that the majority of this site is something other than this feature, I feel like I need to reset this. A few years ago I watched every single Best Picture winner and compared them to Crash. I’m now updating it once a year to add a new movie after the Oscars each year. Now that Nomadland has won, I have to ask the question I’ve now asked almost one hundred times: Is it worse than Crash? In recent years it seemed like an increasingly silly question, with Moonlight and Parasite winning and ranking among the best films to ever get this honor. Green Book showed that the Academy still has some Crash in them and that the old habits would die hard. Nomadland is a great movie, not as good as those two but better than many of the movies on this list, but still, we do this once a year so let’s get on with it.

This year everyone will talk about the Oscars because they messed up. I’m sure much will come out by way of explanation, but it seems likely that the producers felt like Chadwick Boseman would win and thus having Best Actor close out the night would be a dramatic ending. It’s unheard of in recent memory to not close with Best Picture, so that is the only possible explanation. Anthony Hopkins winning for The Father will overshadow everything else. Would it still have if they hadn’t changed the order this year? Probably, but not to this degree. I love the Oscars for what they could be a celebration of Hollywood and an increasingly global recognition of excellent film that you should see but they continue to fall short of that. For all the progress and all the greatness of the last few years, and even that has been inconsistent, this year’s was a mess of unforced errors. I think they largely got the major categories right, in my opinion, but in a way that no one will find satisfying.

The story won’t be Nomadland, but it should be. The film won three Oscars, the most of the year, which is in turn the least for a top competitor in many years, and won Best Director and Best Actress on top of the main prize. This is the first year since 2016 that I think nothing truly awful was nominated for Best Picture, but the top of the category was less crowded than usual. This felt foretold, which may contribute to the deflated feeling after the ceremony. It will all be about that Best Actor mess, but I try to keep this series focused on legacy and on the future. And on Crash, but we’ll get to that.

Nomadland is the story of what you do in America when you have no more options. The film shows real “nomads,” or people who live out of vans and RVs and work seasonal or otherwise temporary jobs to survive. Much has been written about Fern, Frances McDormand’s character, working at Amazon but only saying the pay is great and that she wants to come back to the work. There’s an enormous social conversation going on about Amazon workers being forced to work in impossible conditions and the consequences of globalization and capitalism. The argument is that by mentioning Fern’s role in this but not using the platform to condemn it, you’re doing a disservice. I get this argument, but I feel like it misses the point of Nomadland.

Fern’s husband dies and the mine in their company town closes. These are catastrophic losses that threaten to unravel the things at the center of Fern’s world. She has to learn to cope, both logistically to cope with the actual challenges of loss of income and loss of her physical home and metaphorically to cope in a world that’s unexpectedly empty. Fern tells one of the nomads late in the film that she felt like she couldn’t leave because she had to stay. Fern doesn’t condemn Amazon because the lesson of her life was that dedicating one’s self to work, whether it’s in a positive, affirming sense or a frustrated, raging sense, is to ignore what’s right in front of you. Fern chooses an epiphany about the “now” of life and the missed opportunities by not moving and being open. It’s a coping mechanism, sure, but it’s also an entire philosophy. You could view this cynically, but I don’t walk away from it that way.

The best movie I saw in the last year was Another Round, which was nominated for Best Director but lost to Nomadland, though it did win Best International Feature Film. Another Round and Nomadland have similar messages. Both films want you to find something life affirming, but they want you to do it yourself. I would really encourage you to watch both of them, as they have incredible lead performances that are largely in the eyes and the way the actors take in situations. Nomadland is an incredible film that came out in a very weird year and beat a lot of really great pieces of art. MinariJudas and the Black Messiah, and Promising Young Woman were all excellent and any of them could have won this year.

The Oscars have a long way to go, which I feel like I’ve included in this series every year since we caught up to real-time. They have managed to make a product that effectively no one really likes, as they lean into what conservatives condemn as the same old Hollywood “issues” stories but don’t lean far enough to make consistently clear real statements or to hold a true perspective that any other viewer would appreciate. They continue to do things that any viewer could tell them will be met poorly, like speed up the “In Memoriam” section during a year of a global pandemic. They do a better job of picking nominees, but put on a performance that drags during boring sections and then spends less than five minutes on three categories 99% of the audience is locked in to see. They still take three hours to do all this, even after removing most of the “film” that they are supposedly there to honor.

Five years ago, the Academy honored Spotlight and ten years ago it was The King’s Speech. The wheel of time moves very quickly and I’m worried Nomadland will get missed under the weight of the weird ceremony and, uh, the end of the world that seems to keep looming. Frances McDormand spoke passionately at the ceremony and asked people to go see movies again and to really make an effort. Really, that’s what the Oscars should be doing, albeit less directly than she had to do it. This should be about getting you excited to see these movies and honestly, you should be excited with this year’s crop. Almost everything nominated this year is great, if not a little better than great. I’m sure the ratings will be bad and the response will be worse, but even as the Oscars lose their shine more and more, the films they mean to bring attention to deserve it. Just not Hillbilly Elegy.

The Best Part: Towards the end of the story, Fern revisits the closed town she left before the narrative started. We hear about Empire a lot, but only see it in these closing moments. There is so much storytelling done with the visuals and the absence of humanity that it feels like a scene from a movie about the apocalypse. Really stunning stuff.

The Worst Part: It takes a little bit to get going and does feel pretty slow. This is a contemplative story, a “movie for grownups” I guess, and calling a story about the modern world that finds a way to make you think without reading as preachy “slow” feels reductive, but it really does become something outstanding once Fern speaks with the real nomads.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is better and everything nominated for the big award this year is better. I thought Mank was the worst of the eight Best Picture nominees, but even that has some charms. There were a few movies nominated this year for the other awards that weren’t perfect, but the only movie nominated for anything this year that would give Crash a run for the money is Hillbilly Elegy. It’s written from the same miserable worldview but with even fewer things to say. I think it’s a worse movie, on message and on craft, and while it obviously couldn’t win and wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, I’m saying for posterity’s sake that it would have killed this whole exercise because it would have dethroned the legend. Nomadland is a thoughtful work of art, but the Academy still wanted to make sure to throw one nomination, at least, to something miserable and frustrating.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the NightAn American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight | The Shape of Water | Green Book | Parasite | Nomadland

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Is Persona 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.

Back in an era where it was much harder to watch “classic” films, I sought out Wild Strawberries. Ingmar Bergman is one of those names you know even before you spend any time with serious film, but I had no idea what I was going to see. I specifically didn’t look up anything, I just knew it was a movie I was “supposed to” see, so I saw it. I didn’t really get it. I didn’t like it or dislike it, it just washed over me and I went on to other things.

There’s a lot that’s been written about how you’re supposed to watch movies. You need to know what you’re doing, which seems a little crazy to say but is definitely true. I didn’t know, then, and I’m not sure I do now, but I’m at least closer to it than then. David Lynch famously gave a profane quote about watching movies on your phone and called it “such a sadness.” I watched Wild Strawberries on a DVD I got in the mail, which must sound like a very silly thing to do to someone who isn’t a very specific age. I’ve watched a few other Bergman films since then, but only recently did I tackle Persona, the top of the mountain, and not on a phone.

The experience of Persona reminded me of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey as a teenager. I felt like it was a joke, somehow, and that everyone kept telling people it was a classic because they wanted other people to have to deal with it because they’d had to sit through it. I liked a lot of it, but some of the more expressionistic stuff felt impenetrable, as though it wasn’t just that I didn’t get it but that there wasn’t something to get. It’s since become one of my favorite films. You don’t owe any movie that level of work, but as Lynch says, it’s a sadness if you aren’t willing to try, given the assumption that the movie is worth it.

Persona reminded me of that experience because the opening is the most daring thing I’ve ever seen put to camera. A series of horrific images mixes with a projector showing a film. We see a spider walking and we see nails being driven into hands. We see brutality even beyond that and we are shocked, immediately, before we even see a character. The character we do see, a boy, isn’t identified until much later and we only see that he sees other people before we get anything that could pass for narrative.

This is one of the greatest films of all time and there’s consensus, such as it is possible for that to happen, beyond reasonable doubt. If you don’t like Persona, the math suggests that you must be wrong, which is always a weird place to approach a film. I was horrified, immediately, but you’re supposed to feel that way. You’re supposed to be disoriented, maybe even frustrated, and to wonder what the point of this is. That’s a very weird way to start one of the greatest films of all time.

This is the inspiration for the elements of the story in Fight Club where a projectionist cuts together horrific things to shock audiences. There’s a direct reference in Fight Club to one of the images in Persona, and the techniques in the film further this reference. The story even owes a really strong nod, though that’s more complicated. It’s surely not only the relationship to Fight Club that does this, but the only negative thing anyone can find to say about Persona is that it is a dreaded “pretentious” movie.

That word doesn’t really mean anything anymore when you’re talking about a movie. It’s just a stand-in for “I don’t like it.” It’s the thing you accuse 2001 of when you’re a teenager. It’s looking at something you don’t get and, yes, demanding that there is no there there. As you age out of that you open yourself up to realizing that it’s possible, and even likely, that the problem lies with you.

Persona demands this immediately. The opening is horrific, but it’s a test. The viewer has to be prepared to be shocked and frightened by things they are already frightened by, but this is all to get you in the mood. It’s for much better minds than me to explain, but it inarguably prepares you to see something that’s just a little off. When we join the narrative and it’s so straightforward, it feels like a relief.

A nurse, Alma, is assigned to take care of a woman, Elisabet. The patient has opted to no longer speak or move, but the hospital staff have deduced this is not an actual illness, but a choice. An especially intense doctor suggests they retire to the seaside and recoup. The two women go to the sea and we see the contrast between the two women play out over and over. Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann were cast partially because they look similar, allowing for visual tricks where the two appear to become one another and to create a sense that these two belong in this setting.

It’s all these two women. No one else is on screen for more than a few minutes or a few lines. This is almost entirely a mute part from Ullmann and a nonstop ramble, sometimes confident and sometimes nervous, from Andersson. It’s incredible and gripping, partially horrific because of how we got here but partially because of the creeping hope that Ullmann will speak. Her armor cracks as Andersson challenges her motives and it provides space to discuss themes in a way that other films would struggle to do naturally.

This is all part of what makes Persona one of the most talked about movies of all time. I couldn’t believe it, over and over, and I’m still not sure I do. It can be frustrating to see a movie where the given reality at any moment might be up for debate, but that shifting here suggests that maybe it never happens. Maybe this is all as it seems, which might even be worse.

Andersson gives one of the all-time monologue performances during a graphic description of a surprising day from her youth. If you somehow haven’t seen it but plan to, I won’t give the game away, but it is iconic for a reason. It briefly suggests these two might connect, but their paths are headed towards an entirely different thing. The tension comes from Elisabet’s silence, but also from the impact the silence has on the talkative Alma.

During high points of tension, Bergman cuts away to show the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in South Vietnam and a famous photograph of the Warsaw Uprising. These are some of the most significant and memorable acts of resistance in modern history, and here they are meant to ratchet up the intensity of what the characters are experiencing. Elisabet is said to be silent because it’s all too much. Her doctor hypothesizes this is a response that allows her to take no action and risk no mistakes. Is this true? Is it a simplification? Does it matter?

The performances are world-class, but the mystery of why it’s happening goes so much deeper than asking why one will not speak. The visual effects are one thing and it’s fair if a cutaway to a horrific world event or an unexpected frame skip works for you or not, but you cannot deny what you’re seeing. It’s important to see movies like this, if only to recognize when they get cribbed down the line. Bergman made something undeniable that will haunt people forever, but he also had that Velvet Underground kind of influence on filmmakers. People saw this and started a band, so to speak, and it won’t leave you for a very long time after you see it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. I liked PlayTime fine, but Persona is a masterpiece. I thought PlayTime was ambitious and surprising, but especially for the last hour I was checking my watch a lot. The restaurant scene is extremely long and doesn’t necessarily build on the premise, though I think the first half of PlayTime ranks among the best things I’ve ever seen.

Is it the best movie of all time? Yes, so far. I will dethrone In the Mood for Love, unexpectedly, for Bergman’s horrific look at what it actually means to be you. I intended to write mostly about how Persona is an inspiration for Mulholland Drive, which is not really a new idea or anything, but I left it out entirely because I ran out of space. I just loved it, not because I liked the experience, but because I was so surprised. It’s a really nice feeling to be surprised by what a movie can do, even if that surprise isn’t a good one. This is one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen, but by that I mean that you owe it to yourself to scale the mountain.

You can watch Persona on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or HBO Max. 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.

Is Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets 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.

Almost every review of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is almost entirely about if the premise behind the film is correct or not. If you’re the kind of person who wants to avoid 100% of potential “spoilers” about media then make sure you see it before you read this. If you can handle discussion about a thing without seeing the thing, read on either way.

This is not a documentary. It pretends to be a documentary about the last night a dive bar is open in Las Vegas, but it’s actually a two-day shoot organized by a crew filled with actors in New Orleans playing characters pretending to be in Las Vegas on a bar’s last night. The opening shots follow people walking around Vegas, unmistakably the part of Vegas where you’d find a bar like the film’s Roaring 20s. The news on the TV in the bar talks about Vegas. The people talk about Vegas. It’s impossible to get away from Las Vegas in this movie.

And yet, we’re not in Vegas. It’s sneaky, sorta, but it also doesn’t matter. It’s interesting to engage with reviews of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets because they all seem to focus on this issue of if this is or isn’t a documentary. It’s not, obviously, because it’s a fictional story that actors play out rather than a true story. But there’s a case to be made that it doesn’t matter. This story isn’t real, but there’s a lot happening here that is. It’s certainly more real than most films, which is why the “documentary” label works even though it is not, strictly speaking, a documentary.

Directors Bill and Turner Ross want to present a vision of a dive bar that is “real” without being real. There’s an angle here that’s really important to recognize, as they cast actual people with limited acting experience but big personalities. The result is a realistic view and characters that feel fleshed out even though they really aren’t. We spend less than two hours in this story and outside of one or two central figures, most people barely get enough time to establish a few traits. Even still, the whole scene feels so, so real. This bar isn’t real, but this night is.

The bar opens early in the day and the regular we’ll spend the most time with, Michael, who sleeps on a couch in the bar and shaves in the bathroom every morning. Michael is the main character in the film, but also the main character in every bar like this you’ve ever experienced. The Ross brothers clearly understand the setting and what makes these places go, because they keep the camera on Michael for a significant amount of time. He double fists coffee and booze all day long, explaining the world to anyone who will listen. The difference is, these are all regulars. In the conceit of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, everyone will listen because they want someone to listen to them, too.

There is a veteran with aphorisms and worldly truths to share. There is a powerfully drunk woman who playfully comes on to people. There is a jokester who calls the bartender from the end of the bar to mockingly ask if he can call in an order for a beer. Even the daytime bartender is a character, with a guitar and a put-upon, fun-grumpy attitude. If you go in any bar that’s a little too dark and a little cheaper than it would necessarily have to be in any city in America, you’ll find someone on all of these wavelengths, if not to these degrees.

As the night progresses and the shift changes, a woman takes over the taps and chastises her son about staying out late and getting into trouble. Some younger folks come in, though few of the older crowd leave. The atmosphere gets drunker and more fun, then less fun, then no fun. It’s the natural path of a night like this in a place like this, which the directors capture successfully. They also capture each other in background shots, reminding the audience this is a film.

It’s all undeniably a neat trick, but it really works because it’s so accurate. The camera stays on as people get mean, at times, and nearly violent, at others. This is all an act, for sure, but it feels real. This is real booze, unless I’m seriously mistaken, and beyond the suggestion of where the characters should interact, this is a real story. The people are themselves, even if they aren’t really, exactly in a documentary. That’s why the line is so blurry and why I don’t think the distinction really matters.

Is it interesting to watch a bar? Anyone who has gotten a drunk dial while they were sober or anyone who has had to drive someone home after they had a night and you didn’t can tell you there is certainly a line. A few conversations feel agonizing and a few characters are less fun than others, but that’s true of any story. It never goes over the line and the story never goes into “shocking” territory. Even the sad moments where you’re forced to understand what this bar closing means for the regulars never stick around long enough to really grind you down. You just wonder what happens when that person goes through the door, just as you might after three longnecks with them as you watch a movie with the sound off from a stool in real life.

There is not one character that will stick with me, though an argument between two characters towards the end of the film delivers as much of a “message” as any in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Immediately after I finished it I texted two friends to tell them to plunk down the dollar the film costs because I wanted to know what they saw in it. I think everyone will see something else. It’s not really a universal message movie, though the setting is one that is absolutely, immediately familiar if you’ve seen it before. It’s not a documentary, I guess, but why does it need to be? Everyone in this movie is showing you something about themselves that you could never coach them to show you. You could write something from scratch that would look something like this, but what you’d lose is what makes this work.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The strongest comparison between Sound of Metal and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is that both are about people who are down but not necessarily about how down they are. Rueben in Sound of Metal is in recovery, while no one in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is headed even towards that path. Sound of Metal is much riskier and obviously shows a more complex concept, but I don’t think it’s a better movie. The central performance in Sound of Metal is amazing, but I am more fascinated by this one. Maybe it’s because the bar is a little lower for a true-to-life night in a bar than the story of hearing loss and how you choose to get back up or not, but between the two I feel like I’d recommend this one to a neutral observer more.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but I think it would be interesting to ask if it’s the best documentary ever, though that’s a line of questioning for someone else. The only true documentary we’ve watched in this space is Dick Johnson Is Dead, and I think this is better than that. It’s not more thoughtful and the highs aren’t nearly as high, but I think Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets does exactly what it set out to do. I think a lot of people would say that about Dick Johnson Is Dead and would be right, but for me, I’ll take the night in the bar.

You can watch Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets on Amazon Prime ($0.99 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.

Is Sound of Metal 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 don’t know what it is about me that is always more interested in negative reviews than positive ones. The Oscars bring this out of me more than most things, but I’m always fascinated by the contrary opinion. We’ve spent a lot of this space over the last few weeks talking about the nominees and we have a handful to go, but today we’ll talk about another nearly universally loved film — except by a few people, who we’ll get to — Sound of Metal.

The only movie that critics hated that’s nominated this year is Hillbilly Elegy. People hated it because it feels false, which is always the risk of a politically charged biopic. This is no longer a “risk” when the subject is still alive and tweeting preemptive support of Tucker Carlson, at that point it’s just an unforced error. I don’t think it’ll win anything, the more movies up against it I see, but I call it out as an extreme example. Naturally, obviously, you would expect that any movie up for an award would be something that folks, y’know, like.

Sound of Metal is just that. It’s a movie about a subject everyone can somewhat relate to, if only as an abstract fear, and it’s a vehicle for a powerful central performance that never takes the camera away. It shares a lot of DNA with another Best Actor and Best Picture nominee, The Father, in that both films never spend significant time away from the star. It’s potentially possible to have a Best Actor film where the cast gets a chance to bloom away from the lead, like Minari, but more and more you see this category as a chance to see “most” acting as well as “best” acting, as we’ve discussed before. Typically that term is a cudgel swung at a hammy performance, but I’m just interested in how this trend has evolved. We don’t even necessarily have scenes where other characters talk about the lead, we just follow them around, nearly inside their head, for two hours.

Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a drummer in an experimental metal two-piece with his girlfriend on guitar and vocals. From the first shot we see Ruben wide-eyed and shirtless, intensely slamming away. His most visible tattoo reads “please kill me.” It’s not subtle visual storytelling, but it doesn’t really need to be subtle. Ruben gets ready in the RV they live in and we see a breakfast montage of lunges, pushups, and healthy green juice. We’re supposed to understand that these two are in recovery, or at the very least are healthy punks that tilt towards a straightedge lifestyle. This is the opposite of a “please kill me” tattoo. Fifteen minutes in and you understand who you’re dealing with without anyone turning to camera and explaining it.

Even the best films fall into this trap. There’s a ton of it in Mank, though that’s wrapped up in jokes and early Hollywood slang, and it always comes across as insulting when a movie feels the need to explain what you can pick up visually. Sound of Metal tells us who Ruben is at a basic level right away. The problem, I think, is it stops the development there.

Ruben loses his hearing dramatically and goes to a pharmacy for a solution. He’s convinced there’s something he can do today, he just needs to figure out what it is. The pharmacist sends him to a specialist, today, and the specialist tells him he’s lost almost all of his hearing, permanently, and he’s in danger of losing the rest. This is shocking, both to Ruben and to the audience, and it’s incredibly paced. A trend in the negative reviews I read is that people wanted this to be stretched out, but I think that’s a mistake. It’s extremely powerful to see the experts tell Ruben the news, sure, but the key here is that they do tell him there’s no real solution. They see who Ruben is, as everyone in his life does, and they realize this isn’t something that needs to be sugarcoated. They have to get this man to understand the limits of solutions available to him, but they can’t break through his armor. Ruben is told, just about right away in the story, how it’s going to end. He just doesn’t listen.

I guess that could be unsatisfying for some people, but that’s only if you want this to be a story of someone overcoming a problem and finding a solution. That’s not the story of Sound of Metal, and it’s really on you if you need it to be something else. Sound of Metal tracks Ruben’s resistance to partial solutions. He’s in recovery from heroin, which means accepting that you’re an addict and admitting it. His loss of hearing mixes with this and the people in his life want him to apply the same solution. You don’t get “cured” of addiction, you manage it. That works, somewhat, for Ruben in that he isn’t using, but you get the sense that he’d like this problem to have a more concrete solution.

Ruben spends the bulk of the film at a shelter run by a man named Joe, played by Paul Raci. Raci is up for Best Supporting Actor for the performance and it’s very well deserved. Raci grew up with deaf parents and brings the experience to the character. The world of the shelter feels like it’s been there for decades when Ruben enters it, and this is no small feat. It’s all montages and speeches about learning to accept that deafness is not a disability. This is the primary beef that reviewers, even ones who liked the film, take with Sound of Metal. Ruben wants to hear, but Joe insists that until he accepts a life of silence that he can sit in, he’ll always act like an addict.

I can see both sides of this argument. Ruben doesn’t really get any time to adjust before his new support structure demands he be okay with this life change. The film asks the viewer to side with Joe, and Raci’s performance makes the argument a noble one and a realistic perspective, but it’s a tough ask of Ruben in reality. Ruben sticks with his sobriety, but he’s angry that he’s lost the one thing that he enjoyed (music) and something he hadn’t ever expected it to be possible to lose (one of his senses). Sure, Joe is selling a perspective that would help Ruben adjust, but the position that Ruben is unjustly angry just doesn’t come through.

Sound of Metal makes a strong connection between addiction and accepting your lot in life. This part definitely works and it allows Ahmed a lot of space to explode and contract and seethe. He’s relatable at times and extreme at times. It’s exactly what a Best Actor performance generally is, for better or worse, and I think he’s in the top half of the category this year if not outright the best. The script does his character few favors, with his addiction story revealed in a literal interview and his backstory through a breakfast table conversation during the falling action. Most of it is just him emoting and trying to find the next desperate step forward, which makes Sound of Metal feel like an addiction story even though it’s really a recovery one. It’s a neat trick, even if there are unexplored directions that could add some more depth.

The sound design is the real centerpiece. We often hear literally what Ruben hears, which offers distorted, quiet moments as his hearing fades out and true silence as it leaves him completely. It’s a powerful technique to put us in Ruben’s perspective and it rightfully will be what most people talk about when they talk about Sound of Metal, but I think it’s used too infrequently. It’s possible that it would be frustrating if it came up more often, but as-is there are long stretches in the way-too-long center of the film where it doesn’t come up at all. We spend nearly every second of Sound of Metal with Ruben, but we’re only in his head a few times. The ending makes up for a lot of the lost time, but it also makes you wonder what might have been. The result is powerful and interesting, but I can’t help but feel like there is more you could do here.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The last 20 minutes of The Father is heartbreaking and intense. The first 20 minutes of Sound of Metal are shocking and intense. This may be unfair, but I do think Sound of Metal starts strong and gets a little less so with each act. The Father goes in the other direction, building on what you know and creeping towards where you suspect you might be going. Sound of Metal is the more interesting story, but the gimmick of The Father serves the story being told there better and is applied more consistently.

Is it the best movie of all time? I would have liked to see them go for broke with the sound design. Maybe that movie is unwatchable, but at least more of Ruben’s difficulties would have been nice to see. We don’t ever really get to know anyone, so even though Raci and Ahmed deliver excellent, award-worthy performances, it’s very hard to care the way you need to for the movie to get into your bones. There’s also a weird effect of it both feeling a little long but also rushing the ending and Ruben’s decisions. He seems to have accepted what Joe wants to sell him in one moment and then rejected it in another. This is all part of the addiction cycle, but there’s just something missing that could connect everything just a little bit better and make this feel more realized. It’s worth your time because of what it tries to do, but to dethrone In the Mood for Love, it would need to stick the landing.

You can watch Sound of Metal on Amazon Prime. 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 The Father 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.

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.

Is Another Round 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.

Another Round has a chance to make history at the Oscars this year. The list of movies that have won Best Director but not Best Picture is relatively short. It’s under thirty films, and most of them are not crazy upsets. There are notable exceptions, like The Godfather and Cabaret or Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan, but most of the time if a movie won one of the two “big” awards it deserved to win it. It’s almost unheard of for a movie to win Best Director but not even be nominated for Best Picture, though, which is the rare position we are discussing today.

I don’t think Another Round has any realistic shot. It’s up for Best International Film alongside Best Director, and the last time that happened Roma won both. Interestingly, that year Poland’s submission Cold War was also up for both awards and obviously won neither. Roma is the better film, but Cold War is really remarkable. It’s especially dumb that year that Green Book won in a year with such a competitive group of international films, but let us not digress. Another Round is a joint effort of several countries but is officially a Danish submission as that’s the language that’s used.

Mads Mikkelsen plays Martin, a teacher at a prep school in Copenhagen. He’s lost his zest for life and he’s in a marriage that is going nowhere with a wife who works nights and is detached. His kids don’t listen to him. His friends mock him but don’t really have any malice behind it. His life just happens to him. The turning point comes when he is engaged at school by a group that asks him if he’s so indifferent, will his students even be able to pass?

There are hundreds of movies that would find themselves at the 40th birthday party that Martin finds himself at and all of them would have the scene that happens next. Martin is staying sober to drive, but he is talked into having some of the fancy liquor. The gang finds their spark again and gets wasted and roughhouses in the park. Everyone finally remembers how to live. Booze loosens everyone up and it’s all, finally, great again. Why don’t we all do this all the time, they wonder?

If you hit pause at this point in Another Round, you’d probably be able to guess a lot of what comes next, but not all of it. We’ve previously discussed Cassavetes’ Husbands in this series, and Another Round owes a lot to that film. Both are an exploration of running away from problems and embracing an apparent solution that actually does not address the real problem. Both are alcohol-soaked fantasies of a good life with the real, actual good life eschewed purposefully. Both require you to look a little beyond what’s on screen to understand that this is a look into what the characters think, but not what’s actually right.

In Husbands, everyone is afraid of death and responding to a fear of mortality by hiding in booze and “the old ways.” In Another Round, supposedly the four guys are experimenting with a social theory that mankind is just slightly below the level of drunk needed to have balance. Supposedly, the theory goes, everyone is born .05% below the necessary level of alcohol. Just one or two drinks in the morning would even you out. It’s ridiculous.

What makes it work is it’s just enough artifice for the standard, everyone runs away from their problems mid-life crisis plot to make some kind of sense. Your experience may vary, but it seemed clear to me that the guys didn’t really believe in this to start. To start it was just a fun, weird thing to do because life was so boring, so why not be drunk? As it advances, it becomes clear that they really do think their lives are getting better and there really is some logic to being just a little bit drunk during the day.

I really think it’s important that there’s some belief in the theory. Most of the film centers on this idea, and ultimately how far each of the four teachers are willing to go to test it. Martin has a moment where he feels like it has served him well but everyone else wants to go deeper and he says “this is where I get off.” He then downs a Sazerac and it spirals from there. That he believes they were doing something scientific, even to a small degree, is important. That’s the moment it no longer is about that, or really anything.

It is inherently boring to tell a story about characters who feel their life has become boring and it is especially difficult to do so when your central characters are all men who are frustrated by actual real life with real problems and daily annoyances like a family and a job. We’ve seen so many of these stories and it is hard to not roll your eyes. It is required that something else happen to make you care about characters that you normally would want to just wise up and get back to life.

The device here is just enough. When everything goes brutally wrong in different ways it’s not unexpected and it’s not easy viewing, but you care. That alone is some magic, but the trick of making you almost, just slightly, agree with the guys and their plan is something else. You see all four of them and they really do appear to be improving, drunk as hell, and it seems like they’ve figured something out. Then, as always, reality sets in.

The drunk acting is incredible, which is saying something because it’s one of the hardest challenges in film. Mads Mikkelsen has become a cult figure in acting for good reason and this is the best performance I’ve seen him execute. Even if the premise here is uninteresting to you, I really cannot recommend this high enough just to see him teach history lessons blacked out and manic.

The premise undersells this film. If I told you Another Round is a celebration of alcohol, that wouldn’t really be accurate. If I told you it was a dark parable, that’s also not strictly true. This movie does something more complicated than most mid-life crisis films or most booze-as-villain stories. There’s commentary about how to embrace life’s complications as well as how to enjoy successes. It’s really an incredibly complex approach to a pretty rote idea.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Promising Young Woman will probably stick with you longer. One of the yardsticks I’ve used to break ties when I’ve liked both movies is “degree of difficulty,” and I think this is an idea that most people won’t immediately buy into. I think it’s extremely hard to tell the story of Another Round and have it feel fresh. Promising Young Woman is probably the better lead performance with more choices and more notes hit and is justly nominated for it, but I think I give the slight nod to Another Round as a film.

Is it the best movie of all time? I still stick with In the Mood for Love, but this is very close. The interstitial scenes to show the gang’s alcohol intake and the tight shots on Mikkelsen’s face just kept surprising me, but part of me still thinks a movie about drinking to fix your problems is a tough sell. I don’t think I can call it the best movie of all time, but it’s the best version of this thing I can think of and really, so, so many of them exist.

You can watch Another Round on YouTube ($3.99) or Amazon Prime ($3.99). 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.