Bilge’s thoughts on the enigma at the center of 2018 films like the is-it-even-possible-to-ever-know-whodunit documentary Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? got me thinking how many movies this year were built around absent middles. In addition to the languorous mysteries of Lee Chang-Dong’s class-conscious chamber noir Burning—a film whose shock ending seemed to undo the spell the previous two hours had so painstakingly, some might say laboriously, cast—there was that final embrace in Annihilation, a movie I didn’t go that hard for at the time of its release but that’s stayed with me, shimmering, all year. As she looks over Oscar Isaac’s shoulder, Natalie Portman’s iris briefly gleams with the telltale iridescence associated with the movie’s alien dimension. But what was the tale that spark was trying to tell? Had she been occupied by a foreign body, or come to inhabit her own more completely? Since we’ve all agreed to let movies of any era crisscross our conversation at will (a decision I heartily applaud): Annihilation’s soaring-yet-sinister ending was the moment at which it most resembled Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the Russian sci-fi classic whose philosophical ambition and fairy-tale quest narrative appear to have inspired writer-director Alex Garland. In both movies, our last glimpse is of a character who’s been transformed by the new presence on earth of some metaphysical force. Shimmer Natalie and Stalker’s telekinetic little girl are emissaries from a future world—possibly a better one, possibly not, but at any rate (we’re meant to understand) one that will no longer need the un-shimmering likes of us.
There was no ultimate way—or, really, reason—to know what specific past events had so badly damaged Joe, the emotionally fragile brute-for-hire Joaquin Phoenix played in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. The same with whatever lay behind the door of that ominous boardinghouse in the last shot of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. In these movies, opacity is part of the point: Though the first takes place almost entirely inside one man’s messed-up head and the second on a canvas as broad as the Great Plains, they’re both concerned with the limited ability of film, or any storytelling medium, to capture the totality of human experience. (Hence the fascination of those framing shots in Buster Scruggs of a book that appears, from the glimpses we get of the text, to tell the same stories in a different voice.)
Though I still need to be convinced that every story in Buster Scruggs was strictly necessary—have you noticed no conversation about that movie ever includes the words James Franco?—its best bits, among them the compact mini-epic starring Zoe Kazan as a pious settler crossing the plains, rank among the strongest work the Coen brothers have ever done. But those generically marauding Native American warriors, holdovers from an unreconstructed “cowboys and Indians”–era Hollywood that the movie was otherwise at pains to subvert, pointed up a blind spot that even the Coens, for all their interest in historical reappraisal, seemed unable to detect.
But for all this talk of ambiguity and unknowability, the most surprising cinematic experience I had was my own enthusiasm for that unambiguous slab of Hollywood cornbread, A Star Is Born. I get the feeling as awards season grinds into gear that loving this movie (almost) without reservation has come to be regarded as embarrassingly basic, the opinion equivalent of clutching a Starbucks latte while wearing Uggs. Sure, ASIB’s entertainment-centric subject matter and A-list actor pedigree make it an awards and box office overdog, and I too will be annoyed if it sweeps the Oscars. But I make no apologies for my loyal ASIB stannage; this movie earned its place in the year’s cultural firmament by overdelivering on nearly every front. It was just so much better than it needed to be: a serious-minded but pleasure-filled remake that transcended franchise culture to reinvent the show business mythology of the original story (whatever that means in the case of a tale so often retold it’s become part of Hollywood’s DNA). In a time of fragmented niche markets, ASIB became that rare thing: a big studio musical that everyone’s still talking about and meme-ing and karaoke-ing, months after its release.
The Star Is Born soundtrack has become essential listening in my household the way no new movie soundtrack has since Inside Llewyn Davis. And not just “The Shallow” and Lady Gaga’s soaring piano ballads, though I admit we replay those the most, but Bradley Cooper’s agreeably growly faux-rock headbangers and, yes, Amy, even the ass song, which we sing, for our own amusement, in a Beverly Hillbillies–style country drawl. (“Why da yew look so good in them jeans?”) The debate about whether the movie is “pro-” or “anti-” pop music seems—no offense to those of you who have engaged in it—entirely beside the point: Neither pop nor Gaga’s Ally emerge as damsels in need of defending. The movie is keenly aware that Cooper’s Jack has the tastes of a musical dinosaur—as he laments in the song heard under the movie’s first frames, he’s already “all alone by the wayside”—and hardly seems to ratify Jack’s dismissal of her turn toward pop. That bathtub scene isn’t about two people debating their relative stances on poptimism; it’s about the pain of having a partner who picks fights when he’s drunk. Also: Ally can have a transitional struggle in her career, pick a dumb song to perform on Saturday Night Live, and still be an artist worthy of her husband’s and the audience’s respect. If anything, her near-saintly character needed to make a few more such missteps, just as the sleazy British manager played by Rafi Gavron needed his heartlessness dialed down by about 20 percent.
A task for each of you, if you choose, a la Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s fuselage-clinging Tom Cruise, to accept it. Bilge, I want you to expand on your closing point that Vice is “not a good film, but a fascinating one nonetheless.” Why is it that the free-associative editing and direct-to-camera address that made Adam McKay’s financial-crash comedy The Big Short feel both edgy and playful somehow sink this movie like a stone? Is it just definitionally impossible to make the George W. Bush administration funny? And not to be all “whither political comedy in our time,” but … whither? Amy, please give us a riff on the year in horror, a genre I know you can freestyle on after listening to your wildly fun Halloween-centric podcast series this fall. And Kam, please help me bring more audiences around to seeing the quietly radiant If Beale Street Could Talk, which I see you put on your Top 10 list, calling Barry Jenkins’ James Baldwin adaptation “a lush, inventive melodrama of the kind American directors rarely make anymore.” When did they, why don’t they, and what does it mean that Jenkins, free to choose his project after his Moonlight Oscar, is trying his hand at this stylized romantic genre? As long as we’re dipping in and out of movie history, I would love to hear what echoes from the past you hear in Beale Street, and what rumors of the future.
Yours in Uggs,