In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.
All hail the queen.
I’m happy to gush about The Favourite, though that barbecue sauce has gotta stay on Dana’s chin, in deference to Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne doing an entire scene with her face smeared in cake vomit.
Yorgos Lanthimos is exactly my tempo, down to the sharp violins he uses as drums. I love his cynicism, his clipped sentences, his ability to see the strings that propel human behavior as clearly as if we were marionettes. Yet, I can’t argue with people who’ve grumbled that he wants his actors wooden—he’s the one guy who doesn’t allow Colin Farrell to wiggle his eyebrows. Personally, I get a kick out of Lanthimos’ Noh-style performances, which force us to pay more attention to the dialogue.
But in The Favourite, Lanthimos lets Colman bloom as a vulnerable, maddening queen whose moods change as fast as we can read them. No wonder Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, the two courtiers vying for her attention, can’t win. They can only destroy each other, and our empathy for them, which seesaws back and forth as their statuses get wobblier.
In a Lanthimos society, the characters who behave perfectly are the most ridiculous. Our rituals themselves are bunk. He’s got plenty to mock in Queen Anne’s court—that slo-mo duck race!—but he’s most interested in questioning the best way to be loved. Stone’s Abigail, a scullery maid whose big blue eyes have seen a lot of misery, lavishes the queen with praise. Weisz’s Lady Sarah is brutal. When the queen looks like a badger, she tells her. One loves how we want to be loved; the other delivers the love we might need.
Lanthimos tricks us into rooting for Abigail only to about-face and side with Lady Sarah. False kindness is worse than cruel honesty. And now that Lanthimos himself is poised to be hailed as one of this generation’s greatest filmmakers, I wonder if he’s uncertain about that crown.
Perhaps the provocateur fears that audiences will start to unquestioningly agree that he’s a genius. I suspect he needs his films to put up a fight. Colman’s puke-plastered Queen Anne earns our affection by being stubbornly, frustratingly, repulsively herself. He wants to do the same.
Speaking of foreign rulers, I spent a fair chunk of this year at international film festivals, many of which have a more complex relationship with their government than, say, the Toronto International Film Festival. My most far-flung trip was to the Eurasia International Film Festival in Kazakhstan, which was recently strong-armed into switching locations from the cultural center of Almaty, an ancient city on the Silk Road, to the country’s new capital, Astana, a once-empty wasteland now populated with futuristic skyscrapers, some designed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself. Literally—there’s a video of him sketching the Bayterek Tower, a 300-foot-tall structure featuring a golden egg where, at the top, visitors can touch his handprint. (It, too, is gold.)
The decision to trade Almaty for Astana is like if Sundance relocated to Mar-a-Lago. Not that I’m complaining that some festival screenings were inside a yurt-shaped mall with rollercoasters and an indoor beach with real sand. Real sand! I buried my toes in it and drank three mojitos to soothe the headache of watching Azerbaijan’s first horror flick.
Everything is politics, even Eurasia’s opening night party, headed by Serbian director Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra. Maybe you know Kusturica from winning the Palme d’Or, twice. Maybe you know him from that infamous picture in Moscow where he shared a dinner table with Vladimir Putin, Michael Flynn, and Jill Stein. Maybe you have a good theory about why he was rocking out in a huge sombrero and Zapata bandoliers? I just threw up my hands and danced.
There are two questions you ponder when you go to a lot of international film festivals. One: Why does every opening night hire a faux Charlie Chaplin? Two: What can we learn about the world from the stories their filmmakers tell, and how they tell them?
Bilge has much more authority on the topic than I do, but in Istanbul, I had long, wine-soaked talks with Turkish artists about what’s changed in the three years since the government began enforcing a registration certificate law that functions like censorship. Political films that displease the minister of culture can’t get a stamp. Without a stamp, they can’t be shown—not even at the festival, which had a tense standoff in 2015 over a documentary that humanized the Kurdistan guerrillas. At the last minute, the ministry canceled the screening. In response, two dozen directors canceled their own screenings, the jury refused to judge, the closing ceremony was called off, and the festival director quit.
This year was calmer, but what struck me about the films that squeaked through was that many of them, too, were political—they’d just hidden their anxieties, in time-honored fashion, in science fiction and absurdism. They told stories about towns being emptied because of an unknown stench, of immortal women who live to see every person in their life disappear, of Brechtian truth-tellers attacked for trying to keep their bosses honest.
Everything is politics.
At the Cairo International Film Festival, things appeared to be more liberal. One of the hot tickets was a local male director’s take on abortion, a confrontational film that boasted close-ups of a fetus in a Ziploc bag and a dead giraffe. I vastly preferred Meryem Benm’Barek’s Sofia, an agitprop drama about a single, pregnant girl who’s less scared of motherhood than of Morocco’s criminalization of unmarried sex. I don’t want to give away the ending, but let me just say there are even worse punishments than jail. On that topic: At our awards show, an Egyptian actress named Rania Youssef wore a dress with a see-through gauze skirt. The next day, she was arrested for public obscenity and faced up to five years in prison. Charges were dropped after Youssef begged for forgiveness. (Other female Egyptian celebs haven’t been so lucky, like the pop star sentenced to two years in jail for suggestively eating a banana.) Going forward, all actresses on the festival’s red carpet must adhere to a dress code, with Egypt’s actor’s union volunteering to discipline any woman who shows too much skin.
The best foreign language film I saw this year was Suleiman Mountain, a black dramedy about a con man and his two wives scamming their way across Kyrgyzstan in an East German camper. Suleiman Mountain has not gotten a real release in the states, but until it does, imagine Shoplifters on the road with a dash more bitters.
Boy, has it been a fantastic year for international cinema. Burning is terrific, though I agree with Kam that I’d have traded the whole third act for five more minutes of Jong-seo Jeon’s pantomimes. And Shoplifters knocked me sideways. I’ll admit, I clench up when a film threatens Uncannily Wise Children, but Hirokazu Kore-eda stripped away my reservations like I was a convenience store with lousy security. I’ll see Roma’s beach scene and raise it the image of this hodgepodge family holding hands in the surf as their obaasan watches on.
My favorite foreign festival, by the way, was the series of documentary shorts I saw at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, made by Syrian teenagers who’d spent the past three years living in small boxes with their entire families. I was there with a dozen volunteers from Epic Magazine to help guide the kids in making their own movies. My group, five boys between 17 and 20, had a stack of still photographs that they wanted to use to make something experimental, too, though they didn’t have the vocabulary—or really, the film library—to put their ambition into words. Someone smarter than me showed them their first clips of Gates of Heaven and La Jetée, and a lightbulb flicked on in their imagination. In a year of great movie moments from around the globe, that memory best proves the power of cinema to inspire people, wherever they are.
What’s that moment for you, Bilge? It’s a big question, but you’ve got a big brain.