Welcome to another installment of our monthly feature in which a rotating cast of film critics hold forth on the highs and lows of month of moviegoing.
Borrowing from the short stories of Maile Maloy, Kelly Riechardt’s latest poetic exercise provides a glimpse into the lives of three (very) loosely connected female characters in and around a spectacularly snow-dusted Montana. One is a lawyer (the always-excellent Laura Dern) dealing with a particularly disgruntled—and potentially threatening—client (Jared Harris), another is a wife and mother (Michelle Williams) whose domestic dissatisfaction finds expression in the building of a country home. The third is a recent law school graduate (a winning Kristen Stewart) reluctantly teaching a class in a very small town a very long way from home. Her student, a farmhand played with disarming openness by Lily Gladstone, develops a crush on her—and it’s the most painfully endearing crush you’ve ever seen. The two women exchange very few words, which only leaves more room for the mounting weight of repressed emotion as they scarf down burgers at a local diner each week. Reichardt’s ability to capture silences, spaces, and textures in a manner that’s as captivating as it is therapeutic is best on display in this vignette, which devotes a great deal of time and attention to the stable work of Gladstone’s character. It’s a totally transcendent experience to just sit back and watch as barn doors slide open and closed, horses graze in the open valley, while the melancholy of unrequited love hangs—almost visibly—in the crisp air.
4. Fire at Sea
Gianfranco Rosi’s Silver-Bear-winning documentary about the migrant crisis is not interested in spewing facts or presenting what might be described as “consciousness-raising” images, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t deeply affecting. Rosi shot on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which, due to its location roughly halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, serves as the primary entry point into Europe, particularly for those fleeing North Africa. A beacon of hope for some, Lampedusa unfortunately bears witness to far too many deaths. Rosi certainly doesn’t shy away from this painful reality: we see masses of desperate, frightened, and gravely injured people arriving on overcrowded boats while coast guard teams drag limp body after body onto rescue vessels. But the director also hones in on some of Lampedusa’s permanent residents—and one young boy named Samuele, in particular. His domestic routine, which includes regular visits to the ophthalmologist (he has a lazy eye), playing with his slingshot, and noisily slurping up spaghetti, slowly develops into a touching coming of age narrative that anchors the chaos swirling around him. Add Rosi’s stunning (and always overcast) vistas into the mix and the overall result is something indescribably impressionistic, often hypnotic, and disarmingly intimate.
A completely different style of doc: stats and facts are crucial to Ava DuVernay’s 13th, specifically, the astronomically disproportionate percentage of the American population currently in the prison system. Weaving together many threads—namely, race, (in)justice, economics, and politics—the film is as enlightening as it is enraging: a timely, passionate, and clear-eyed document in sync with Black Lives Matter and absolutely crucial to fully understanding the dangers surrounding the upcoming election. The movie takes its name from the 13th Amendment, which made involuntary servitude illegal “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”—an important constitutional loophole which becomes the crux of an argument equating mass incarceration with slavery. Beginning with the end of the Civil War, DuVernay draws an alarmingly straight line through history, from the takedown of civil rights activists to the War on Drugs (as started by Nixon and exacerbated by Reagan) right up to contemporary police shootings. The harrowing footage of violence that’s been inflicted upon black bodies in this country is viscerally sickening, while a number of frank admissions from politicians—Newt Gingrich and John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s key advisors, among them—will make your blood run cold. This should be required viewing for all Americans, but particularly those so willfully blind as to claim that racism isn’t a problem in this country.
The latest offering from Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden is an immaculately imagined and executed period piece turn sexual thriller wrapped in several narrative puzzles. Set in 1930s Korea under Japanese rule, the film begins by following Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a young pickpocket recruited by a charming swindler (Ha Jung-woo) to help cheat a wealthy heiress (Kim Min-hee) out of her inheritance. Sook-hee arrives at Lady Hideko’s estate posing as her personal servant, but the plan goes awry when she begins to fall in love with her target—the progression of intimacy between the two women is beautifully charted with a series of forthcoming sex scenes. The movie takes a sharp left turn at the end of the first act, however, before switching perspectives completely: as we revisit the same events from Lady Hideko’s eyes, the extent to which everyone is faking something becomes abundantly clear. The Handmaiden delves into some pretty dark and violent territory (including torture and bondage) before arriving at a powerful conclusion, which celebrates female emancipation from the unwelcome impositions of male desire—but there’s also a playfulness embedded directly into the visual structure. In being made to watch these characters watch each other, the film gleefully reminds us that seduction and deception are merely subtle variations of the same game.
There’s an early scene in Barry Jenkins’s achingly beautiful film in which a young Chiron is learning to swim for the first time. Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer and father figure for the boy, is patiently teaching him, cradling his little head from the crashing waves and encouraging him to find his balance in order to stay afloat: “You’re in the middle of the world, man.” These are powerful, liberating words to hear for a boy growing up black, gay, and poor in Miami, but Chiron is not simply in the center of the film’s world, he is the world of the film. Told in three chapters, Moonlight moves with elliptical grace between pivotal moments in Chiron’s life from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), he’s a man of few words at every stage, but he’s brimming with so many conflicted emotions—desire, shame, fear, love—that it physically hurts to watch him struggle so deeply to simply be. This is a film that doesn’t so much demand to be seen but rather oozes with a desire to be felt, the images, sounds, and textures taking on a kind of implicit, all-enveloping eroticism. The final act, in which a fully grown Chiron reconnects with his childhood friend and one-time lover (André Holland) is especially (if quietly) gut-wrenching. He may be physically reborn in a hard shell of a man’s body, but his eyes betray the same vulnerability he had as a little boy—wanting so badly to pierce through his own loneliness and feel the warmth of human touch.
Dud of the Month: Inferno
The Girl on the Train and Keeping Up with the Joneses nearly tied for this slot, but Inferno takes the cake for the “Dud of the Month,” which says a lot about this latest pairing between director Ron Howard and every airport bookstore’s favorite author, Dan Brown. Tom Hanks returns to play Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbology professor with a knack for traipsing around European museums while solving art-related capers under heroic time constraints. But this time amnesia is slowing him down: the film opens just as he’s waking up from a head wound in a Florence hospital under the care of Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), a plot device that does nothing for the visuals. With the exception of a few stunning shots of the Florence skyline, the first act is truly aesthetically abysmal, a total assault of rapidly edited, blurry memories and CGI-rendered apocalyptic visions, medieval style: think boils and raging rivers of blood. As it turns out, a Dante-obsessed billionaire (Ben Forster) has decided there are too many people in the world and designed a viral plague to thin out the population—but he’s also left a trail of clues to the yet-to-be-released pathogen, beginning with Botticelli’s painterly interpretation of Dante’s inferno. A lot of good guys and bad guys show up along the way—and frankly, it never really seems relevant which are which—though one of them is played by Irrfan Khan, who manages to inject this low-energy thriller with some deadpan zingers.
Best New Old Movie: Basic Instinct
Basic Instinct has sparked many a debate in its time; it’s been condemned by prudes, embraced by neo-noir enthusiasts, deconstructed by Women’s Studies majors, and, as its recent inclusion in Metrograph’s boldly programmed “Queer 90s” series pointed out, picketed by the LGBTQ community upon its release in 1992. While the main thrust of this still-entertaining erotic thriller might be the dangerously steamy (hetero)sexual relationship between Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone—a rough-edged cop and cunning murder suspect, respectively—the film also features two often overlooked gay characters: Roxy, Stone’s girlfriend, and Beth, a police psychologist. Both are driven mad with jealousy and killed off before the closing credits. Directed by Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven (and upcoming again at Lincoln Center’s retrospective), the film is certainly rife with moral and sexual ambiguity; if Verhoeven seems to be upholding certain narrative rules of the classic American noir, he’s simultaneously subverting (even satirizing) others. How often do we get to see a woman like Stone’s Catherine Tramell: free to fuck both men and women as she pleases, (possibly) murder people, successfully publish novels, outsmart the male cop chasing her, and get off scot-free? Basic Instinct is always worth re-visiting, but feels especially relevant now in anticipation of Verhoeven’s rape-farce-drama Elle, which stars Isabelle Huppert and is already positioned to be his most divisive work to date.