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.
With her tale of teaching documentary filmmaking in a refugee camp in Jordan, Amy offers an antidote to the sense of contraction and entrapment that’s so prevalent in America right now: We should all just get as far out of the country as possible and experience the world through the eyes of someone radically different. The furthest away a 2018 release may have taken me, in time as well as place, was the never-named South American colony that was the setting of Lucrecia Martel’s mordantly satiric Zama. Kam and Amy, I see that both of you, like me, have this one on your Top 10 lists for the year. How to describe the charms of a film so brutally uncharming in its subject matter? Zama is the intermittently violent but mostly static story of an 18th-century colonial official, Don Diego de Zama—played with magisterial absurdity by Daniel Giménez Cacho—waiting year after year for a transfer out of the backwater settlement where he’s posted. But as Martel’s film unfolds in laconic, sometimes enigmatic vignettes, it becomes clear that not only is Zama going nowhere, there may be nowhere to go, then or now, that’s free of the moral corruption that’s rotting his world from the inside out.
Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang aptly described Zama as a “dense, sweltering miasma of a movie”; it lets you smell the humidity on the walls and the patriarchal oppression in the air. Though he writes self-martyring letters to a faraway wife and family, Zama has a child he ignores by a local indigenous woman (María Etelvina Peredez) who appears to despise him even as she submits to his crude advances. In an early scene he tries and fails to bed a noblewoman (Lola Dueñas) while a silent slave (Tendjyb Manigat) stands only feet from the two of them, wielding an intrusively creaky straw fan. Zama, based on a 1956 novel by the Argentinian writer Antonio di Benedetto, proceeds according to a jagged, dreamlike rhythm that can be alienating, but once you enter its world every visual and sonic detail has a nightmarish inevitability. If Martel’s three previous masterpieces La Ciénaga, The Holy Girl, and The Headless Woman hadn’t already done the trick, Zama would confirm her as one of the world’s essential filmmakers.
Bilge, thanks for pitching me a fun-to-smash softball with that question about 2018 movies we thought would hit big but that somehow failed to catch on. I didn’t share your personal excitement about First Man, but I admired its craft, its sparseness, and its resolute indifference to feel-good jingoism. (Only in 2018 would we have to spare three seconds for a ginned-up argument about whether Movie Neil Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon with sufficiently ostentatious patriotism.) Those closing scenes on the moon, with their silent pans of a blank, open expanse, felt somehow lonelier than any previous cinematic glimpse of the lunar surface. Framing a space-travel biopic not as a triumphal epic but as an intimate domestic drama with a less-than-happy ending was a bold (and maybe not that marketable) decision, but Damien Chazelle is a bold filmmaker, gifted beyond his years and commendably eager to take on new formal challenges. I won’t be joining in the chorus of jeers until he makes a bad movie—and even then, why? We all deserve the chance to screw up.
The 2018 movie I would cite as one I went in certain I would love, and was confused and disappointed when I didn’t, was Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s giallo classic about a girls’ dance academy run by murderous witches. Maybe it was just that diminishing-returns phenomenon that sometimes happens in films built around the occult—Amy, you observed this in the last 20 minutes of Hereditary, when all the richly suggestive questions the movie has raised about motherhood, memory, trauma, and grief narrow down to (spoiler alert?) a semicircle of naked people chanting in a treehouse. It’s hard for plots about black-magic cults not to end on a discordantly silly note, especially if you, like me, regard slow psychological disintegration—what we assume may be happening in the first two-thirds of both Suspiria and Hereditary—as more deeply and lastingly scary than, say, sacrificing a goat with a pentagram shaved into its flank. (Not that that happens in either movie, but you know what I mean—every occult-themed horror flick has its own version of Pentagram Goat.)
As a Guadagnino enthusiast since his operatic melodrama I Am Love (which also starred a resplendent Tilda Swinton), I was excited to see what this artisan of color and mood would do with the painterly schlock of a B-movie maestro like Argento. I hoped either to sit through Suspiria in a state of sickening suspense or to luxuriate in its campy visual excesses. But this two-and-a-half-hour witchstravaganza never quite allowed for either reaction. Instead the movie’s intricate structure seemed labored—again, as with The Favourite, all those fussy intertitled chapters!—and its attempt to incorporate a Holocaust subplot felt both cheap and strained. Casting Swinton in two roles—as the manipulative dance mistress and, credited under a fake name, as the old man who decides to investigate the suspected coven—was a playful coup on the director’s part, but the movie itself is so leadenly unplayful, so insistent on pointing up its own artfulness and multiplicity of meaning, that I wound up resenting Guadagnino’s attempts to shock me with gangrenous dancers and up-close compound fractures.
I tried to rewatch Suspiria a few weeks ago, wondering if a home viewing—which as Inkoo notes can sometimes allow for a different, more private response than encountering a movie in the company of an audience—would soften my irritation with what struck me the first time as its inordinate self-love. But I couldn’t make it past that excellent early sequence in which Dakota Johnson’s frenetic dancing operates as a kind of telekinetic weapon, remote-controlling the torture of another dancer in a separate room. I knew the movie would never get that viscerally scary again, and two and a half hours felt like a long time to wait around for a few dozen exploding ballerinas.
Kam, tell me not about your surprise disappointments of 2018 but about your moments of unexpected ravishment. What were some performances this year that showed you a new side of an actor you thought you had figured out, or introduced a previously unknown performer into your personal pantheon?
Off to shave a pentagram into my goat,