What Got Me Through 2020

A year like no other, 2020 negates the traditional “Best of…” year end lists when it comes to movies, books, music and art. Instead I’ll leave you with a simple sampling of what spoke to me the most. Whether it was through escapism or reflection, here is what got me through this helluva year…

This Film: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and THAT CLOSING SCENE!

Completely transportive and oozing art in all the best French ways, I said of Celine Sciamma’s searing tale of once-upon-a-time forbidden romance…“Once the tension breaks in the later third of the film, some of the novel magic disappears, but the closing coda is one for the ages, echoing literary allusions from earlier in the film, showcasing the women’s resolve even after parting, forging their own ways in their own way and culminating in that scene at the orchestra that is among the best closing scenes of any film in recent memory…”

This Music: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and let me tell ya something, ladies, ladies, ladies…

Has there ever been a more serendipitiously timed release than when Fiona dropped this bomb (leaving shrapnel permanently embedded in me) at the height of the Spring Pandemic Lockdown? Gobsmacked upon its release, I said…Fetch the Bolt Cutters plays straight through true and true, not a wasted track. It’s all at once angry and joyous, polished and raw, soulful and angsty, defiant and willful, dark and tragic and funny and honest and blithe. There are themes of self-care, female empowerment, speaking up, acting out, messing up, surviving, and thriving. Her stories, her songs, her words, they are hers but also ours. She is speaking about our times, not as a passive witness, but as a tortured participant crawling through the muck, learning, growing, and trying to pull some of us out of it with her…if only we would listen…”

This Photograph:

At the height of the civil unrest and heated protests in the summer, Julie Rendleman’s photograph of ballerinas Ava Holloway and Kennedy George striking a pose in front of a graffitied Confederate monument in Richmond, VA spoke a thousand words.

This Book: Overboard by Ivy Ngeow

This indie novel came out of nowhere. I met the author on Twitter and I downloaded the book on a lark…and this globe-hopping thriller miraculously checked all my boxes. I swooned…

“Like Christian Petzold’s film Phoenix and Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, identity, amnesia, and transforming oneself hang over the proceedings like a pall. Ngeow’s spin on the themes, however, are decidedly modern and channeled through technology and interior design. Her characters foolishly build protective walls around themselves with their possessions and hobbies, often unaware of their true selves and how others perceive them through the veils of technology and language. Ngeow’s sardonic wit and voice echo back to the best of Graham Greene. And much like Greene’s work, Overboard, finds that delicate balance between thrilling entertainment and keenly observant literature inundated with the slippery complexities of human behavior. Overboard is a modern, novel masterpiece. An absolute must-read.”

This HBO Limited Series: The Undoing

Oh, man, where do I even start? The first episode seemed like it might be just another Gypsy-style tawdry therapist-with-bad-boundries psychological melodrama, but it quickly pivoted into a murder mystery, legal thriller, and domestic drama all rolled into one. I loved every aspect of it: the strange accents, the Euro-pall hanging over the Manhattan setting, director Suzanne Bier’s eyeball piercing cinematography, the emo-acting, the David E. Kelly elitism, all the histrionic twists and turns. It turned into the best thing HBO has done since Sharp Objects and a perfectly entertaining distraction from all the post US election drama.

Special Shout-outs to…

  • The binge-worthy laughs of Schitt’s Creek and The Good Place, two shows my wife and I probaby would’ve never watched otherwise but happily binge-watched during the pandemic.
  • Laurie Metcalf – the unsung hero of character-driven comedy. We just discovered the exceptional (and painfully funny) Getting On, and her work on The Conners (which has re-emerged from the ashes like a modern day Norman Lear sitcom) has been exceptional as always.
  • The recently discovered novels of Ru Freeman (On Sal Mal Lane) and William Gay (The Long Home and Provinces of Night).
  • The HBO docu-series The Vow…oh the fuckery of Keith Ranier, may he rot in jail forever (and he will).

List Compiled by D. H. Schleicher

Revisiting Phoenix – The Best Film of the 2010s

Nina Hoss in Phoenix – The Performance and Film of the Decade
Denis Villenueve (directing Amy Adams in Arrival) – The Director of the Decade
Ryan Gosling in Drive – the Performer of the Decade

The 2010s: the decade of Obama and Trump, hope and hate, dashed dreams and heightened anxiety, increasing interconnectedness that lead to both positive grassroots movements and sharper divisions, social media overload, hacks into our privacy and once sacred institutions, political chaos, and drones delivering both presents and bombs.

Personally, this was the decade I traveled abroad for the first time and ultimately visited six different countries. I advanced multiple rungs in my corporate career. I met an amazing woman – our first date was seeing the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself – who I married. We then bought a wonderful old house together in a charming neighborhood, and became parents to an awesome little boy. I also published a novel, Then Came Darkness, that will likely always be my own sentimental favorite piece of work.

Film was right there with me every step of the way, mirroring the light (La La Land) and increasing darkness (most of Villeneuve’s output) in the world at large, sometimes in the breadth of the same film (Arrival, Drive, The Tree of Life).

It’s terms of consistency of output, Denis Villenueve had a banner decade and directed more list entries than any other auteur: Arrival, Enemy, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049. It was also a great decade for Ryan Gosling, who is the performer who shows up on more list entries than any other: Drive, La La Land, The Place Beyond the Pines, Blade Runner 2049. The Gos also brought my wife and I together as our shared love for him was one of the first topics of discussion the night we met at a rooftop party, both of us reluctant guests of mutual acquaintances. Her favorite Gos performance was Half Nelson, mine was Drive. We abhorred The Notebook. Both of us passed each other’s first test.

But I digress. Back to the decade at hand where some films reflected the anxious yet still somehow hopeful mood of the moment through depictions of complex modern relationship (Moonlight, Waves), while others just flat out broadcast our deepest modern anxieties (Take Shelter, Enemy, Sicario, Us). Still others looked back and reminded us there were times before ours even more tumultuous (Phoenix). Still others bent time (Inception, The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) while others stood austerely outside of any context and proved the timeless nature of art (Phantom Thread).

Some could’ve only been made with the boldness of young auteurs finding their voice (Moonlight, Us, Waves), while some could’ve only been made by a reflective master looking back on their career (The Irishman). Then there were others that could’ve only been made by auteurs in their prime (Arrival, Inception, Phoenix).

Yet some could’ve only been made by a depressed madman looking for the beauty in the end of the world (Melancholia). And still some blazed a trail so defiant in their logic and reason for being (a continuation of a series thought long dead directed by a senior citizen) that they perfectly reflected the madness of our times by showcasing an even madder future (Mad Max: Fury Road).

But the movie that I think about probably more than any other film of the decade; a film whose climax features a haunting, emotional, draining, and ultimately uplifting rendition of Sarah Vaughn’s “Speak Low” that was so memorable my wife and I later added it to our wedding song list; a film that I compared to such classics like The Third Man (routinely in my Top Five of All Time) and Hitchcock’s Notorious…is none other than Christian Petzold’s neo-noir psychological slow-burner about survivor’s guilt and hidden identities, Phoenix. Just as Nelly (played by Nina Hoss in a performance for the ages) survived her husband’s betrayal, WWII and the Holocaust, so did all of us looking back now survive the wild anxiety-riddled ebbs and flows of the 2010s. Phoenix is without a doubt, the greatest film of the decade.

FilmYearDirectorDecade Rank
Phoenix2015Christian Petzold1
Phantom Thread2017Paul Thomas Anderson2
If Beale Street Could Talk2018Barry Jenkins3
Inception2010Christopher Nolan4
The Tree of Life2011Terrence Malick5
Mad Max: Fury Road2015George Miller6
Waves2019Trey Edward Shults7
Melancholia2011Lars Von Trier8
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives2011Apichatpong Weerasethakul9
Drive2011Nicolas Winding Refn10
The Irishman2019Martin Scorsese11
Arrival2016Denis Villeneuve12
12 Years a Slave2013Steve McQueen13
Winter’s Bone2010Debra Granik14
Interstellar2014Christopher Nolan15
Moonlight2016Barry Jenkins16
La La Land2016Damien Chazelle17
Cold War2018Pawel Pawlikowski18
Lean on Pete2018Andrew Haigh19
The Place Beyond the Pines2013Derek Cianfrance20
Take Shelter2011Jeff Nichols21
Biutiful2010Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu22
Transit2019Christian Petzold23
Us2019Jordan Peele24
Personal Shopper2017Olivier Assayas25
A Separation2011Asghar FarhadiHM
Lincoln2012Steven SpielbergHM
The Grey2012James CarnahanHM
The Impossible2012Juan Antonio BayonaHM
The Master2012Paul Thomas AndersonHM
Gravity2013Alfonso CuaronHM
Inside Llewyn Davis2013The Coen BrothersHM
Mud2013Jeff NicholsHM
Blue Ruin2014Jeremy SaulnierHM
Enemy2014Denis VilleneuveHM
Sicario2015Denis VilleneuveHM
The Salesman2016Asghar FarhadiHM
Dunkirk2017Christopher NolanHM
Blade Runner 20492017Denis VilleneuveHM
Wind River2017Taylor SheridanHM
BlacKkKlansman2018Spike LeeHM
Roma2018Alfonso CuaronHM

Written by D. H. Schleicher

The Lurid Humanism of BlacKkKlansman and Sharp Objects

Spike Lee uses D. W. Griffin’s incendiary Birth of a Nation in quasi-meta fashion in his masterful comeback film about racists getting their comeuppance, the wildly entertaining yet sobering BlacKkKlansman.  If the former film was “history written by lightning,” then the latter might be “satire written by thunder.”  But while Lee and his screenwriters are thunderous in their political leanings, the filmmakers are most effective in delivery of the message because of how taut, understated and meticulous they are in the weaving of their storytelling craft.

BlacKkKlansman is a procedural undercover cop jawn about Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington in a “star is born” type performance and a chip off the old block of his dad Denzel) who infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK (almost on a lark, in prank-phone call style) in the 1970’s.  When the KKK agrees to meet him in person for the purpose of initiation, he convinces his sergeant to let him use his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, shockingly good) to pose as the eager new racist recruit.  Thus we end up with Jewish cop pretending to be a black cop pretending to be a white supremacist…and getting away with it…and stopping a terrorist bombing to boot.  It would all be ludicrous if it wasn’t true (though apparently some of the details of the actual case are played with loosely here for the purpose of entertainment and message delivery).  There’s a lot more going on in the film, and it’s tonally played to expert effect flipping between a satirical comedy of manners and a cop thriller about the worst kind of criminals.

Continue reading

The Heart of the Matter in Beirut

There’s a great scene in Brad Anderson’s latest film, Beirut, where a former party-diplomat turned washed-up labor contract negotiator Mason Skiles (a frazzled-yet-still-dapper-perfect Jon Hamm) settles into his Beirut highrise hotel after returning to the city for the first time in a decade and after finding it a hostile, gunshots-outside-of-the-airport-and-checkpoint-riddled mess, pours himself a drink and walks to the window to take in the bitter, shattered view of a stooping, bombed-out skyline.  Anderson’s camera then shifts POV’s to that of the bombed out skyline as it pans out and we see Mason staring out his window, the hotel itself one of those battered buildings, a shell-hole and tentacled crack blighting its side just a few windows away from Mason’s own.

You can imagine a late-era Graham Greene having written the scene, but it’s Tony Gilroy who penned the screenplay instead.  Gilroy adroitly uses the civil war-torn era Beirut of the 70’s and early 80’s the same way Greene used WWII blitzkrieg era London (in The End of the Affair) and post-WWII era Vienna (in The Third Man).  It’s a cluster **** of diplomatic nightmares, crumbling buildings, intrigue and perils (of both the heart and the body).  Continue reading

Is The Death of Stalin Funny?

Seriously.  Is the Death of Stalin funny?  Not the actual event of Joseph Stalin’s historical death (no death, not even that of a mass-murdering dictator is funny…right?) but the movie, The Death of Stalin…is it funny?  I’m asking for a friend.

Can a film that ends with a central character being shot dead, and his body then burned, being placed literally into the ash heap of history, be funny?

Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Steve Buscemi…as Nickita Khrushchev!  He’s brilliant, as per usual.  Buscemi deftly goes from neurotic joke-man to cold-blooded power-grabber (oh, that’s so Buscemi).  But is the performance…funny?  I mean, yes…it is (as is Jeffrey Tambor as an air-headed and feckless Georgy Malekov)…but funny how?  Funny how it looks?  How it sounds…Steve Buscemi…as Khrushchev?  Funny ha-ha?

Armando Iannucci (of In the Loop and Veep fame) has become the modern master of the politic satire (usually aimed at current events), but here is a historical period-piece.  What’s his end-game?  A correlation to Putin’s Russia?  Trump’s America?  Any cult of personality that innately leads to gas-lighting the public and internal chaos?  Is this a cautionary tale? Continue reading

To Serve the Governed not the Governors in The Post

Could it be more a more timely moment than now for Hollywood to remind the public (and Washington) of the purpose of the free press?

The first hour of The Post is a rather hum-drum by the numbers affair about the lead up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, first by the New York Times (who instantly get sued by the Nixon administration) and then by the Washington Post.  But hey, it’s Steven Spielberg directing…and Meryl Streep as the “I can’t believe I got into this mess but by golly am I gonna make something of myself by leading with my gut here!” owner of the titular Post…and Tom Hanks as chief editor Ben Bradlee (previously featured in All The President’s Men, to which this film cannily sets itself up as a prequel in the final moments)…and just look at all those TV stars in supporting roles (Carrie Coon!  Bob Odenkirk!  His comedy pal David Cross!  Bradley Whitford!).  So what the heck, the humming looks and sounds great, even if it’s all a bit dry.

But then, thanks to Spielberg’s midstream change of pacing (and the work of excellent editors), and John Williams’ score that hums like that of a great thriller, all of a sudden this little bit of “history we already knew” plays like a cracker-jack suspense flick as reporters feverishly try to meet the printing deadline working out of Bradlee’s drawing-room, and lawyers and whatnot weigh in on the implications of publishing the top-secret stuff. Continue reading

My Thoughts Will Never Be Final on Twin Peaks

When that final gut-curdling scream rang out on that oh-so-familiar street in front of that oh-so-familiar house in that oh-so-familiar town from our oh-so-familiar anti-heroine, just as I had after every other hour, I raced to my laptop to churn out my blog post without much thought. I was a bit flippant, and ill-tempered, as that newly settling frustration of Lynch pulling the rug out from under us (again) was just beginning to simmer, and in my post (and haste) I wrote off the whole series to that Lynchian trope of being caught in an endless loop of suffering from which you can never escape no matter how hard you try.  And I still basically stand by that assessment…but oh, Twin Peaks, you are both just that and so much more.  Much like life itself, you are a walking contradiction.  A mirror unto yourself.

Now I’ve had time to digest the finale and read all the wonderful (and eloquent and thoughtful) theories out there in the media and on fans’ feeds.  And I agree with them all.  Those theories are mirrors of my own thoughts.  Nothing I write about here hasn’t been thought of by someone else who already wrote it down (and probably more astutely conveyed). Continue reading

How Does a Man Become a Cow in The Salesman and My Cousin Rachel?

“How does a man become a cow?” a student asks in reference to a realistic story with one, odd, fanciful element being analyzed in class.

“Gradually,” Emad, the teacher (Shahab Hosseini) responds in a prescient scene in the beautifully layered, rightfully Oscar-winning Iranian domestic melodrama, The Salesman.

The better animal choice might be a pig…but the answer, crypto-Feminist writer-director Asghar Farhadi implies, is the same.

(SPOILERS AHEAD – READ WITH CAUTION)

No man is born a disgusting, sexist pig. You become one…gradually, based on the choices a misogynistic society forces you to make. When you live in a religiously repressed and politically oppressed society that systematically puts value on their women based on what their men do (or don’t do) to them, and in turn puts value on the men based on the value put upon their women, men will often too easily devolve into metaphorical pigs obsessed with shame, dishonor and possessions…even unwittingly sometimes.

Take for instance Emad, the teacher who brings to his students eye-opening Western literature and moonlights (along with his loving, lovely wife, Rana, played by the powerfully emotive About Elly alum Taraneh Alidoosti) as an actor, currently putting on a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” where he is Willy Loman and Rana is Linda Loman. The play, by the way, is being threatened with censorship by the government. I loved how this threat of censorship is presented as a throwaway line, a common, all-too-everyday annoyance in Iranian middle-class society (and don’t think this couldn’t happen here…or anywhere, with the right strongman in place). This couple seems like a liberal bastion in a repressive society, self-aware and quietly trying to bring about enlightenment through education and the arts.

But the world they live in wants to turn women into objects and men into pigs. Continue reading

Matterlightblooming and Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

In an ancient cemetery on a hill near Washington D. C. the dead-who-know-not-they-are-dead rise from their sick boxes at night to cavort, cajole, console and wonder, wander, ponder. They have developed their own culture, their own shadowy cadence of “living” in this self-inflicted purgatory, patiently waiting for some sign to know what to do next, while fellow spirits vanish in the matterlightblooming and others join them in fresh sick boxes, an eternally spiraling phantom world of temporary inhabits…ships passing in a melancholic feverishly nightmarish harbor where the waters are haunted by memories of thier life in that other place from before they so long for…

One such spirit is left dispirited by another (who committed suicide)…exclaiming…

“You did not give this place a proper chance, but fled it recklessly, leaving behind forever the beautiful things of this world…Forgoing eternally, sir, such things as, for example: two fresh-shorn lambs bleat in a new-mown field; four parallel blind-cast linear shadows creep across a sleeping tabby’s midday flank; down a bleached-slate roof and into a patch of wilting heather bounce nine gust-loosened acorns; up past a shaving fellow wafts the smell of a warming griddle (and early morning pot-clangs and kitchen-girl chatter); in a nearby harbor a mansion-sized schooner tilts to port, sent so by a flag-rippling, chime-inciting breeze that causes, in a port-side schoolyard, a chorus of childish squeals and the mad barking of what sounds like -” (p. 140-141)

Apparently in George Saunders’ purgatorious bardo, every ghost is a poet…and a grammarian champion of the semi-colon. Saunders’ ghosts go through the metaphysical motions, getting bawdy like Shakespeare in their regaling of tales and nihilistic like Beckett’s Godot waiters…waiting, for something…someone…to rock their boats. Continue reading

A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance: The Popular Appeal of Hidden Figures and Rogue One

rogue-one

hidden-figures

Americans love movies. The movie theater has in many ways always been (even through the golden age of television and our current age of social media) our most beloved and nostalgia brewing institution. Often when our other beloved institutions, namely of a political nature, become maligned (and most recently, tainted a most toxic orange) Americans will flock to the darkness of the communal cinematic space and revel in stories of real and fantastic rebellion. Could there be a more perfect milieu for the crowd pleasing and rabble-rousing likes of Hidden Figures and Rogue One? Continue reading