I know it's been difficult for so very many of you to wait so long for this next installment in my top films of the decade series, but I had to take a brief break out of respect for Bette Davis week. Ms. Davis wouldn't take kindly to anyone stealing the spotlight from her, and I respect that.
In the previous part, I shared my appreciation for a dying French king and for an Iranian filmmaker just hanging out with his pet iguana. This time I want to write about:
Director/producer/writer/cinematographer/sound designer/editor RaMell Ross chronicles the lives of two young African-American men and their families in rural Alabama over the course of several years. That description doesn't even begin to do justice to Ross's remarkable feature-length debut.
Combining impressionistic imagery with on-screen text and a dense, evocative soundtrack, Ross crafts a unique audiovisual language that allows viewers to adapt to its rhythms. Ross juxtaposes the personal with the celestial, sometimes playfully like when he cuts from a Chick-Fil-A waffle fry to the ghostly image of a partially eclipsed sun. The result is a movie that feels both entirely grounded in quotidian life and transcendent, a philosophical work that I would think any viewer could connect to on a personal and visceral level.
In a stream-lined 78 minutes, “Hale County” expresses both unbridled joy and inconceivable tragedy. Ross has made a cinematic poem of radical empathy, and the most beautiful documentary I've seen in years. I rewatched it recently to see is any of the magic of the first-time viewing had worn off, but the film has only grown in power for me. No single movie can claim to be the definitive American film of its time, but I'm unable to think of a more perceptive and moving portrait of American life in the 21st century than “Hale County.” There's plenty of reason to be skeptical when the word “visionary” is deployed by critics to describe a movie, but believe it this time.
Screw it. I'm putting it on my list. I wasn't going to. But I am.
I really need to see “The Lighthouse” again. I might be significantly overrating it just because I love its gauzy black-and-white look so much. Or because the movie is so endlessly quotable - “'Tis begrimed and bedabbled!” Or even just because of that all-time great Willem Dafoe rant (“Hark!”) that I've now watched on YouTube over 100 times. (Ed. Note: 102 times now. I watched it twice more while writing this.)
I'm not certain the movie really goes anywhere in the end either, but it just doesn't matter to me. In Robert Eggers' follow-up to his remarkable debut feature, “The Witch” (2016), the director creates such a tactile hermetic space – a claustrophobic fever-dream reeking of sea-brine and “goddamn fahts” all swirling around in a giant pox-ridden phallus - that there really is no better place to go. Some critics found that unsatisfying and hollow, viewing “The Lighthouse” a curated collection of stylish signifiers that signify nothing in particular.
Maybe they're right. I really do need to watch it again. All I know is that I can only think of a tiny handful of recent movies that generated more pure audiovisual pleasure (oh man, this sound design!) for me in the immediate moment of viewing. I'm in awe of how gracefully the film shifts tone wildly not just from sequence to sequence, but even within scenes. The “Hark!” rant ranges from slapstick comedy to Lovecraftian horror to “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” domestic psychological warfare all in the course of a few minutes. And God what a punchline (“All right, have it your way...”)
I love every single choice Willem Dafoe makes in this movie; every time he clenches his pipe upside down in his rotted teeth, every time he delivers his trademark toast (“Should pale death with treble dread...”), and every bilge-stained bristle of his bushy beard. Pattinson is sensational too. In almost any other film, he'd be the only performer anyone would be talking about, but Dafoe is so damned elemental that his sheer force of will cannot be denied. He's still in that lighthouse right now, just fahtin' up a storm. Pair this with his work in “At Eternity's Gate” (2018) and I'm not sure there's an actor working at a higher level and choosing more interesting roles than Dafoe right now.
I already feel bad enough for only briefly mentioning Pattinson's brilliance, so I'm going to finish with a shout-out to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. This black-and-white photography – washed out in patches, grubby but starkly beautiful – looks like nothing else I've seen in a theater in years. I don't care too much about awards, but we can go on ignoring them all if Blaschke gets shut out.