Monday, November 25, 2019

All About Eve


ALL ABOUT EVE (Mankiewicz, 1950)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 26, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Watching “All About Eve” (1950) for the first time in fifteen years, I was astonished at how faulty my memory of the film was. I mainly remembered a boozy Bette Davis staring daggers at the conniving Anne Baxter and the many caustic zingers (“Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night.”), all of which combine to form a scathing portrait of the cutthroat world of Broadway theater, all narcissism, backstabbing, and gossip.

Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, loosely adapting Mary Orr's short story “The Wisdom of Eve”, encourages such an impression by framing the film's opening scenes through the acerbic narration of Machiavellian theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). DeWitt guides us through what turns out be the end of the story, a ceremony at The Sarah Siddons Society where newcomer Eve Harrington (Baxter) receives her Best Actress Award while her former mentor, Margo Channing (Davis), and Margo's friends seethe with resentment. DeWitt hypes up the juicy rivalries just as he would in his daily column, a throwback to an era when critics actually wielded considerable cultural power (Did such a thing ever really exist?) In short, “All About Eve” is all about cynicism.

That's how I remembered it anyway. Yet once the film flashes back to the beginning of the story, the Margo Channing we're introduced isn't a jaded star or a jealous diva, but rather a sympathetic listener. As young, wide-eyed Eve, the absolute biggest Margo Channing fan in the world, relays her sob story (a husband killed in the war, scraping all her pennies together just to go to the theater and see her favorite actress) Margo does, in fact, sob. Well, not quite, but she's sincerely touched as are a host of her fellow theater veterans, including playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), his wife Karen (Celeste Holm), and Margo's crusty and trusty Gal Friday, Birdie (shameless scene-stealer Thelma Ritter).

Margo's so moved she takes Eve under her wing, which turns out to be a critical mistake. The doe-eyed girl allegedly from the boondocks has some secret schemes of her own, most of which involve being a star like Margo. Exactly like Margo, in fact. So much so she even makes a play for Margo's director and fiance, Bill (Gary Merrill, who would marry Davis shortly after filming.)

Davis is such an appropriate choice for the role of aging theater star Margo Channing, it's hard to believe she actually stepped in fairly late in the project after Claudette Colbert was injured shooting another film. If Davis was at her commercial peak in the early '40s in films such as “Now, Voyager”(1942), by the start of the new decade, some felt she needed a comeback to rekindle her career as a hitmaker (her talent, of course, remained at its peak). Davis also happened to be, in Hollywood terms, on the wrong side of forty and perhaps wondered how many leading roles the studios would still have for her.

Mankiewicz has often been described as one of the most literate of Hollywood's writer/directors, often grouped with the likes of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. With “Eve” he showcased his trademark wit in his most beloved setting, the theater. His script takes glee in demeaning cinema as the shameful inferior cousin of the legitimate the-a-ter while also poking fun at the various stage players, from writers to directors to the stars. Playwright Lloyd puts Margo in her place with the admonishment that “It's about time the piano realized it has not written the concerto!” But the super-savvy writer is putty in the hands of a resourceful ingenue like Eve.

“All About Eve” creates a convincing social circle in which the numerous complex interrelationships are fully fleshed out. Margo can be vain and selfish, but her insecurities, some related to being engaged to a younger man, are entirely relatable. Lloyd wants to be loyal to his star, but he really could use a younger actress for his next play. Karen cares deeply for her friend Margo, but wouldn't mind teaching her a little humility. Bill somehow manages to remain a true-blue faithful lover even while shuttling back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway. Eve is the intruder that threatens this whole delicate structure, but it may prove to be strong enough to endure even her assault. As for Addison DeWitt, well, he's the heel critic non-pareil, and Sanders was practically born and bred to play him.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The “new digital restoration was undertaken by Twentieth Century Fox” and the 1080p transfer looks sensational with a thick grainy texture and sharp black-and-white contrast.Fox released a much-praised Blu-ray transfer of this film several years ago. I don't own that release and I don't know if this is sourced from a different restoration, nor can I compare the two. But I'm sure you've never seen it look better unless you've seen a 35 mm print.

Audio:
The LPCM mono audio mix is crisp and distortion-free. Alfred Newman's score sounds great too. I've never quite figured out what to say about the audio on most Blu-rays unless there's a noticeable problem. No problems to talk about here. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has pressure-packed this two-disc Blu-ray set with extras, almost all of which are on Disc Two.

Disc One includes the film (in maxed-out bitrate) and two 2010 commentary tracks that were both included on the older Fox release. The first commentary includes actress Celeste Holm, author Kenneth Geist, and Christopher Mankiewicz, son of director Joseph. The second commentary features Sam Staggs, author of “All About 'All About Eve.'”

Disc Two is so stacked, it's going to take a while to get through it all.

The producers of this disc went out of their way to shine a spotlight on writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and have provided three substantial features centered on him.

“All About Mankiewicz” (106 min.) is a 1983 documentary which consists almost entirely of extended conversations between the filmmaker and film critic Michel Ciment. The interviews take place both in Germany and in the director's home in Bedford, NY and cover his early childhood through much of his career. Mankiewicz is a gifted raconteur and entertains while narrating his own life at length. This is a real gem.

The disc also includes two related and sometimes overlapping features, one called “Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz” (26 min.) and the other “Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Personal Journey” (26 min.) Both features consist largely of interviews with the director's sons Thomas and Christopher, the director's wife Rosemary, author Kenneth L. Geist, and others. Both features celebrate the director and provide some interesting insights and information. However, “A Personal Journey” offers one of the more glaring mistakes I can recall in a Criterion extra. One expert (who I won't name here) extols the virtues of Joseph's older brother, Herman, a gifted screenwriter best known for the script for “Citizen Kane.” This expert launches into an attack on critic Pauline Kael for taking credit for the script away from Herman and giving it all to Orson Welles. Considering that Kael's book “Raising Kane” is both famous and infamous for making the exact opposite argument, this attack is a wee bit misplaced.

We also get an episode of “Lux Radio Theatre” (60 min.), an Oct 1, 1951 performance of “All About Eve” with most of the film's cast except with Reginald Gardiner in place of George Sanders.

A few short features: Film costume historian Larry McQueen (18 min.) discusses the film's costumes. “The Secret of the Sarah Siddons Society” (7 min.) shows us the real society formed in response to the film's make-believe Sarah Siddons Society. Siddons was a real 18th/19th century English actress and this society has given out real awards to theater actresses for quite some time now. There's also a very short (1 min.) promotional film featuring Bette Davis on the set of “All About Eve.”

Not enough for you? Fine, let's keep going with two episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show” - an excerpt of the Dec 31, 1969 episode (20 min.) with Bette Davis in fine form, and then the full Jun 18, 1980 episode (29 min.) with actor Gary Merrill.

The collection wraps up with the gossipy “Hollywood Backstories: All About Eve” (24 min.) that can easily be skipped and then the more interesting “The Real Eve” (18 min.), which relates the story of German actress Elizabeth Bergner and her protege Martina Lawrence, the inspiration for Mary Orr's short story “The Wisdom of Eve.” Lawrence was, to say the least, not happy about having her life story adapted by Orr.

The 44-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty and the Mary Orr short story “The Wisdom of Eve.”

Final Thoughts:
Criterion has put together a jam-packed two-disc set showcasing a sleek high-def transfer of one of Bette Davis's most beloved films. What more do you need to know?

Now, Voyager


NOW, VOYAGER (Rapper, 1942)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 26, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

In “Now, Voyager” (1942), Bette Davis portrays Charlotte Vale, one of THE Vales of Boston. Membership in the moneyed Vale family grants considerable privilege, but doesn't guarantee happiness or a life without obstacles. Charlotte is well aware of this, and summarizes the challenges facing her in six simple words: “My mother! My mother! My mother!”

Oh what a mother! The marvelous British actress Gladys Cooper spits fire and passes judgment on all as the domineering matriarch who reigns supreme at the Vale mansion. In the film's opening, Mrs. Vale has reluctantly called psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) to the secluded family home to discuss her troublesome daughter Charlotte. Who is Charlotte? Well, Mrs. Vale explains in stark terms that Charlotte was the unwanted and unexpected child of her “old age.” Charlotte is “My ugly duckling. Of course it's true that all late children are marked.”

Bette Davis an ugly duckling? You can't be serious. But mother has indeed marked her, which sets the stage for one of Davis's most unlikely and memorable screen introductions. Charlotte clomps down the stairs and enters the screen as a unibrowed, bespectacled frump stuffed awkwardly into a lumpy dress. Shy and frightened, she can barely meet Dr. Jaquith's gaze as he quickly diagnoses his new patient (the problem: “Her mother! Her mother! Her mother!”) and prescribes a few weeks of rest and recuperation at his facility.

This might sound like an ominous setup, but the film's presentation of mental health treatment is surprisingly positive if now antiquated. Mother may be ashamed (“No member of the Vale family has ever had a nervous breakdown”) but Dr. Jaquith soundly rejects the notion that any stigma should be attached. The doctor is a genuine do-gooder whose primary goal is to bolster Charlotte's self-confidence and free her from the smothering clutches of the Monstrous Mother.

Soon, a slimmed-down Charlotte (sans glasses) emerges from her stateroom aboard a cruise ship in a more flattering outfit, and swiftly draws the attention of a suave architect with the unlikely name of Jerry, unlikely because he's played by Austrian-born (and accented) Paul Henreid, recently relocated to Hollywood. Jerry is so silky smooth he can identify an old family picture of Charlotte as “that fat lady with the heavy brows and all the hair” and not miss a step in his dance of seduction. Unfortunately, Jerry happens to be married and even if it's a miserable marriage that means that, in the Hays Code era, Charlotte and Jerry can never truly be together. Except for that one night in Rio...

This ill fate only makes their romance all the more potent, one that still sizzles more than 75 years later. Director Irving Rapper, a relative newcomer hand-picked by Davis, and screenwriter Casey Robinson (adapting a recent novel by Olive Higgins Prouty) depict sublimated desire through several ingenious gambits, most memorably the repeated lighting of two cigarettes from one flame. Hubba-hubba! Their relationship can ultimately be realized only through an unlikely channel, Jerry's young daughter Tina (Janis Wilson), an “ugly duckling” unloved by her mother who Charlotte unofficially adopts. Yeah, it gets weird.

Some viewers may have a stereotype of Davis as the flinty broad who takes no crap from anyone, but she renders Charlotte as simultaneously vulnerable and strong. The real Charlotte is neither the complacent servant repressed by mother or the glamour-puss aboard the cruise ship, and Davis convincingly navigates a path between both extremes while discovering Charlotte's true character.

This recalibration requires the careful management of mother who is predictably unhappy to find her obedient wallflower has grown into a woman with her own plans. An unwanted child had best do what mother wants! Fortunately, the liberated Charlotte is strong enough to stand her ground and guide mother to a surly resignation to the new status quo.

Bette Davis was at the height of her stardom as one of Warner Brothers top stars (she was sometimes called the fourth Warner Brother) and “Now, Voyager” would become her top box-office draw of the 1940s. Pitched as a women's picture to female viewers, its appeal has proven to be both universal and enduring. It kicked off a pretty good year for both Henreid and Raines as well, as they would leave the set to start shooting on a flick called “Casablanca.” 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Criterion doesn't offer much detail beyond describing this as a “new digital transfer... in 4K” created from the original 35 mm nitrate original camera negative with some scenes scanned from a 35 mm fine-grain master at the Museum of Modern Art. The result looks fabulous with strong black-and-white contrast and sharp image detail throughout. The transfer retains a thick grain structure and surely looks better than any version most viewers have seen.

Audio:
The LPCM mono track is clear and sharp with no obvious distortions or dropoffs. It does a fine job of showcasing the Oscar-winning score by composer Max Steiner. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English dialogue.

Extras:
It's Bette Davis week at Criterion, and if they haven't loaded this disc quite as heavily as they stacked their “All About Eve” set, they certainly haven't cheated fans.

The film is accompanied by a selected-scene commentary by scholar Jeff Smith who discusses Max Steiner's score over about 27 minutes worth of scenes.

My favorite feature on the disc is an interview (31 min.) with Farran Smith Nehme, one of the best critics writing today. Nehme discusses the evolution of Davis's career from her early and often unhappy days with Universal to her hard-won commercial success at Warner Brothers. In career terms, Nehme views this film as Bette Davis “on top of Mt. Everest” and it's tough to dispute her claim.

The disc also includes a lengthy episode of “The Dick Cavett Show” (53 min.) which aired in November 1971 and features Davis in a typically lively interview.

We also get a very brief excerpt of a 1980 interview (4 min.) with actor Paul Henreid at his Los Angeles home, and an interview with costume designer Larry McQueen (11 min.) who talks about the close relationship between Davis and costumer designer Orry-Kelly.

Finally, Criterion has also bundled two audio episodes of the “Lux Radio Theatre” program, two different performances of “Now, Voyager.” The May 10, 1943 episode (45 min.) features Ida Lupino and Paul Henreid in the lead roles. The Feb 11, 1946 episodes (49 min.) features Bette Davis and Gregory Peck.

The 32-page insert booklet includes an essay by film professor Patricia White and a reprint of an essay written by Bette Davis which originally appeared in the 1937 book “We Make The Movies.” Davis discusses the craft of the Hollywood actress, assuring readers they're just common working folk like everyone else.

Final Thoughts:
I had a blast watching both of Criterion's Bette Davis releases this week. I'm starting to think I might actually like “Now, Voyager” a little better than “All About Eve.” Of course, there's no need to choose. The transfer looks great and the disc includes plenty of extras. Fans should be delighted.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The Decade - Part Three

I have some more thoughts about my favorite films of the decade. You can read the previous installment in this much-loved, widely-discussed series here.


16. THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV (Serra, 2016)

I'm not claiming that Jean-Pierre Leaud was the only actor who could have embodied director Albert Serra's vision of Louis XIV, but casting little Antoine Doinel as the setting Sun King was a stroke of inspiration guaranteed to touch the soul of any faithful cinephile. Just compare fresh-faced teenage Leaud in freeze frame circa 1959 (“The 400 Blows”) to this craggy, withered, royal wreck and marvel at the power of cinema (or at least photography) to span a lifetime in just two images.

Great, gangrenous Louis waits (in full regal luxury, of course) for the inevitable end that sure takes its sweet time arriving, while his faithful advisers fuss nervously in hushed, helpless meetings. Neither they nor Louis have any choice in the matter as the French Apollo has spent most of the seven decades of his reign accruing virtually unprecedented power by forcing everyone to relocate to Versailles and attend to the court's every need in elaborately proscribed daily rituals. Behold the era-hopping power of cinema once again by jumping back half a century to Roberto Rossellini's extraordinary “The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV”(1966) for the beginning of the story whose denouement Serra chronicles with panache here.

The array of charlatans who scrutinize Louis' various body parts with magnifying glasses and propose ineffective cures provide some quietly hilarious scenes – bull semen cocktails for all! Serra's gem may vault Louis into the lead as the most cinematic European monarch ahead of Elizabeth I and Henry VIII, or maybe it would if anybody still watched arthouse cinema. Leaud is riveting while remaining largely motionless and bedridden throughout, just sinking deeper minute by minute into the grave.

I think the film still works as a study in mortality (everyone finishes the race in a tie) for audiences unfamiliar with either “The 400 Blows” or Rossellini's “Louis XIV” but for viewers with a greater familiarity with film history, it carries a special resonance.


15. THIS IS NOT A FILM (Panahi, 2012)

When I think of the definitive film locations, the screen spaces established and explored most vividly, the first two that spring to mind are The Overlook Hotel from “The Shining” and, of course, Jeanne Dielman's apartment at 23 Quai duCommerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Especially her kitchen.

Jafar Panahi's Tehran apartment from “This Is Not A Film” merits serious consideration as well. After all, at the time of shooting, the apartment is virtually the entire world for the filmmaker who has been placed under house arrest by the Iranian regime for supposedly creating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” Perhaps ex-filmmaker is the more proper term since, in addition to a potential six-year prison sentence, Panahi also faces a twenty-year ban on directing and screenwriting. So he stays at home all day with his pet iguana Igi and doesn't make films.

Certainly not “This Is Not A Film” which is really shot by his colleague Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and not at all by Jafar Panahi, which is proven when we see Panahi reflexively yell “Cut!” only to be ignored by Mirtahmasb who keeps rolling. Because, of course, Mr. Panahi isn't allowed to direct a film or write a script, and he wouldn't want to flout the law. He can, however, read from the screenplay he wrote before the ban or mark out the spots where his actors might have stood had he ever shot that project. If Mr. Mirtahmasb wants to film Panahi while he's doing such things and not at all making a film, that's entirely Mr. Mirtahmasb's business.

“This Is Not A Film” was allegedly smuggled out of Iran on a thumb drive hidden inside a birthday cake after which it wa screened to rave reviews at Cannes and other festivals. This (not a) film is a clever, bracing portrait of a courageous, resourceful, and resolute artist who intends to resist to the best of his abilities, and perhaps to entertain and amuse viewers in the process. Panahi had already established himself as one of the greatest directors of the previous two decades with masterpieces such as “The Mirror” (1997), “Crimson Gold” (2003), and “Offside” (2008). Even a legal ban by a repressive regime couldn't restrain such a talent from continuing to shine through the 2010s. Panahi's “Taxi Tehran” (2015) was damn near every bit as brilliant as “This Is Not A Film.”


Saturday, November 16, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The Decade - Part Two

I have some thoughts about my favorite films of the 2010s. This is Part Two in that series. You can read Part One here.

18. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (Russo, 2016)

In “Introduction to the Documentary,” film theorist Bill Nichols discusses the power of the “indexical whammy” in non-fiction filmmaking. To grossly oversimplify, Nichols argues that when we watch film footage that we recognize to be linked (indexed) to real events we react differently than when we watch footage we recognize to be make-believe. We may feel horror or sympathy while watching news coverage of a real tornado ripping through a real town, but even if the images looked identical, we might have fun watching that tornado shred a make-believe town in a blockbuster film. It's not the footage itself, but the received context that determines our experience. If we recognize it as originating in the real world, the image carries a different and often more potent force.

I believe something roughly analogous to the indexical whammy can be at play when dealing with film adaptations. A character or scene or setting very faithfully adapted from book to screen can produce a potent reaction for a fan of the source material: “That's how it really happened!” Y'know, for real, in that fictional novel. There's a distinct thrill in recognizing that moment in the movie as being linked to that “real” source. Perhaps a more useful way to sum up the power of the indexical whammy in this scenario is with four simple words: “They got it right!”

The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) movies have been getting it right in this manner from the beginning, relying heavily on the real books and characters as their lodestars. Since, in some cases, these characters have existed for more than half a century and their personalities and mythologies have been fleshed out in thousands of installments by hundreds of writers and artists, there's a substantial body of pre-existing comic-book reality to “index” to. Producer/overseer Kevin Feige has wisely counseled the many MCU filmmakers to “get it right” as often as possible.

For comic-book fans, this can lend the films a special heft (whammy!) one would not expect from tales of spandexed people who call themselves Scarlet Witch or Starlord and fly around and shoot energy bolts at space gods. I fully understand why non-fans would scoff at such a notion or perhaps diminish it as fan service. Quite frankly, I'm surprised so many non-fans of the comic books like these goofy escapist movies so much, though I'm delighted that they do. I'm just telling you that, for a life-long reader, that power's real and the Marvel filmmakers understand that (unlike their not-so-distinguished competition).

I've loved most of the MCU movies (not you, Guardians 2!) and I could have easily chosen “The Avengers” (2012), “Black Panther” (2018), or “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) for this list, but I'm going with “Captain America; Civil War” because it produced the most “They got it right!” thrills for me of any of the movies. Also, I think this is the MCU movie that Film Twitterati dumped on the most, persuasive evidence that it gets it right.

When Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) makes his first MCU appearance in costume, the sun glinting off that sleek costume as he prepares to spring into action, wow do they get it right. Then they top that by introducing Spider-Man to the MCU and within five seconds of hearing Tom Holland speak, I'm there screaming (silently – I'm not an “out loud” kinda viewer) “Oh my God, that's Peter Parker, just leaping off the Lee/Ditko pages right onto the screen! That's him! They got it right!” Actually, as it turns out, the MCU Peter Parker is way more chipper than the morose, self-pitying wallflower of the early books, but there's no need to get webbed up on minor details.

And oh, man, there's that beautiful, silly airport battle, a big old messy, hyper-kinetic comic-book fight adapted flawlessly from splash page to cinema. A dozen or so heroes divide into factions and slam-bam-kapow into each other in different combinations with no concern whatsoever for mass property damage, all capped off by my favorite moment in the MCU. Teensy-tiny little Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) presses a button on his glove and explodes into the towering Giant-Man who's so big and strong now that he can just reach out and pluck War Machine (Don Cheadle) out of the air with one hand. The action stops so we can focus on the giddy look in Ant-Man's eyes as he actually giggles loudly because he can't freaking believe what he just did. He's laughing because being a super-hero is so damn cool and so damn much fun, which is the primary source of pleasure in comic books in the first place.

Those sparkling eyes are the pulsing heart of the MCU. Face front, true believers, because they sure got it right!


17. SILENCE (Scorsese, 2016)

Of course, even the finest of the MCU movies can't match up to the best films of a true maestro like Martin Scorsese. For me, “Silence” is by far Scorsese's greatest accomplishment not just of the decade, but of the 21st century.

I had the odd experience of finishing Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel “Silence” a week before I read the first announcement of Scorsese's planned adaptation. I struggled to imagine how even Scorsese could translate this story for the big screen (I was also unaware of Masahiro Shinoda's 1971 film adaptation, which I still haven't seen). A tale of Jesuit priests in Japan persecuted for their religion is one thing, but how do you express on film that ineffable moment when a man makes not a sacrifice FOR his faith, but a sacrifice OF his faith as the most Christian act?

Heavy narration would seem the most obvious choice to provide access to characters' interior life and Scorsese employs a little of that, but he's more interested in situating the viewer in a devotional space, one of both distance and powerful tactile evocations (mud and wind and water). Scorsese's greatest act of faith is believing in an audience that has the patience to go on such a journey, and that may be the most inspiring aspect of this stark, rigorous work. In a film industry increasingly built around tent-pole properties, test screenings and big-data-refined pandering, Scorsese trusts that you'll meet him in his terms and that you might even choose to do so at the multiplex. He's had fifty-plus years to build up the justified confidence to make such a gamble, but at a time when my own commitment to the cinema isn't as unwavering as it once was, I'm moved by his gesture.

I was perhaps slower on the uptake than some other cinephiles, but “Silence” was the movie that solidified my belief that Adam Driver may be the most compelling actor of his generation. I don't intend to slight the film's lead, Andrew Garfield, who is phenomenal in a trying role, but Driver's face is the image that lingers in my memory the most, a face that I think could pull me into any time period or milieu from working-class Paterson, NJ to the 17th century to long, long ago in a galaxy far away. Need a convincing face for your upcoming biopic about a forgotten Italian renaissance painter? Adam Driver's your man for that too.


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

My Top 20 Films of the Decade - Part One

Finally, I can announce the launch of my long-unawaited Best Films of the 2010s series. I should begin by noting that I watched far fewer films this decade than in the previous one, and far, far fewer in the second half of this decade than in the first half because I realized I needed to spend much more time reading books and studying for Jeopardy! even though I'll never get on the show. We love you, Alex!

Therefore, I can't claim any authority regarding what's actually best, but then again nobody else can either. So consider this my Top 20 Films of the Decade Out Of the Relatively Limited Selection I Saw And That I Can Remember Right Now.


20. ENTERTAINMENT (Alverson, 2015)

Most films that set out to provoke audiences fail to do so, in large part because they try to shock with content. Just try to forget our graphic gang-rape scene, so lovingly rendered in hand-held close-up for ten minutes! We can go fifteen minutes if that's what you want. Just pretend you don't know it's all pretend and you'll be absolutely appalled!

Rick Alverson's “Entertainment” provokes much more effectively through lack of content. Gregg Turkington portrays a stand-up comic condemned to a no-budget tour through the hollowed-out purgatory of Mojave Desert California, where both prisons and dive bars feature the same apathetic audiences. The film's long silences and unpopulated marginal spaces evoke “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971) but now imagined as the comedy set to nowhere.

The Comedian's stage act is a mutated version of Turkington's real-life (if that's the right term) persona Neil Hamburger, the greasy-haired anti-comic whose phlegm-choked “epater la bourgeoisie” act is rendered impotent in this desperate hellscape. How do you puncture the illusions and delusions of consumerist society for audiences who've already abandoned all hope? How do you offend people who don't even care enough to pay attention anymore? Uncertain that his “mission” still has any relevance, The Comedian gradually cracks up which, to be fair, seems like an entirely reasonable reaction to the modern iteration of the American Dream.

I'm sure many viewers will stare blankly at this idiosyncratic film, perhaps the same ones who can't even begin to understand why Neil Hamburger is the funniest comedy act of the century. But “Entertainment” captures a sense of American malaise so vividly and so perceptively that I can't stop thinking about it more than four years later. I also love the fact that perhaps the single scene in American film this decade that so perfectly captures how I feel about the culture right now is currently indexed on YouTube as “Fart Trophy.”

“Entertainment” is the defining film for Fart Trophy America.




19. A QUIET PASSION (Davies, 2017)

I can understand just about any reaction to “Entertainment” from love to hate to boredom to bewilderment, but I'm completely baffled by viewers who found Cynthia Nixon's portrayal of Emily Dickinson to be alienating or unlikeable. I cannot think of a more moving performance this decade.

Director Terence Davies and his crew construct a formally restricted world, not just of tight interior spaces but also of a society of increasingly limited and unappealing choices, and Nixon's Dickinson is a spirit so expansive she can't help but slam into its walls every day, and every bruise she absorbs in the process draws us deeper into her experience. Her righteous anger at a world that can't accommodate her talent is perhaps the most lingering impression, but there's so much more to her performance, such as the simmering joy that struggles to find an appropriate outlet when she interacts with friends and family.

And, man, what a screenplay by Terence Davies. His dialogue is every bit as formally restricted as his sets and it's magnificent from start to finish. And all the more reason to shower praise on Cynthia Nixon because only a handful of actresses could have embraced that clipped diction with such, well, passion. I watched a few clips online to refresh my memory for this capsule write-up and I'm astonished anew at how brilliant Nixon is. I'm trying to think of a better author biopic, and not coming up with any obvious contenders. Though I suppose it's fair to resist applying the term “biopic” to a movie with so much more on its mind. Perhaps it's only appropriate that audiences failed this movie as badly as we all failed Emily Dickinson.