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.
Dear Dana, Amy, and Bilge:
Hello from sunny, not-too-cold North Carolina! Where I’m cooped up at my grandmother’s house in a sweatshirt, eating too much, reading Bleak House, and laughing at the internet’s flush of Bird Box memes—a worthy demonstration of the role word of mouth plays in Netflix’s release strategy, if nothing else. Things I’ve been avoiding: Louis C.K. saying the N-word in 2011 (old news!), whatever Trump did to offend Santa Claus on Christmas, and the rush to overinterpret the newly released trailer for Jordan Peele’s Us. It looks fabulous! But I, for one, am not eager to get started on the 2019 take cycle.
I’m still getting over the 2018 cycle—by avoiding it, sort of. I opened last year’s Movie Club by saying that my annual gift to myself over the holidays was avoiding the previous year in movies. This is the time I devote to catching up on everything I’ve had to sideline in favor of staying caught up for work: all the minor streaming discoveries I’ve been hearing about, or the newly restored classics and curiosities I missed in rep theaters, or the great Blu-rays I binge-bought for my birthday but had to set aside to pop in those screeners for Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Vice.
Last year, all that entailed, really, was a FilmStruck subscription. But FilmStruck, like porn on Tumblr, has gone the way of the dodo bird—so I went the old-fashioned route, hauling a CD case full of Blus and an HDMI cable to hook up to my grandmother’s television. So far, I’ve cracked Martin Scorsese’s underseen Liza Minnelli musical from 1977, New York, New York; Short Cuts, Robert Altman’s mammoth Raymond Carver project; Alan Rudolph’s strange, wonderful The Moderns (1988), a trippy evocation of the Lost Generation; and Morocco, Josef von Sternberg’s first collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, from 1930. I also finally checked out Miami Blues—you know, that 1990 classic in which Alec Baldwin kills a guy by breaking his finger, which isn’t even the funniest thing about that oddball film.
The take cycle online would have you think that movies, among other things, are only relevant for as long as it takes our arguments and memes about them to die out. This is obviously untrue in the art-historical sense, but on the other hand, it means that the pressure is off to have vocal debates about older releases, because really, few people are looking. The only films I’ve really gotten a chance to debate over the past couple months—A Star Is Born, Roma, and the like—are, to be perfectly honest, not movies I feel particularly strongly about, either way. Whether Bradley Cooper’s Gaga vehicle is anti-pop (it’s not; it’s just pro–Bradley Cooper) or whether Roma transcends the problem of a rich artist making a film about his childhood maid (it doesn’t, but what the film reveals is often just as interesting as what gets obscured by this limit on its imagination) are probably worthy debates—I just wish they weren’t so all-consuming.
Part of this owes to the crooked myopia of the Oscar calendar and its sibling, the festival system, with their damagingly inflated stranglehold on the ways we talk about the year in new releases. We shouldn’t—to Dana’s point—have forgotten about Annihilation, a film that’s still slowly but surely finding its audience. It’s not even a film I love—I just want more people to get the chance to make up their own minds about it. On the job as a critic, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how best to steer the cultural conversation toward the films that, on the one hand, don’t push the right viral buttons or generate enough think pieces or mainstream conversation while also lacking the festival-and-awards momentum that might have let them hang around in the consciousness a bit longer.
Dana, you’re absolutely right to wonder what happened to The Tale; it’s exactly the kind of movie I have in mind, underseen despite tackling one of the most urgent subjects of our moment. I may have seen better movies overall this year, but I don’t think any of them had a conceit that shook me as deeply as this one. It all comes down to a simple, harrowing thing that Jennifer Fox does to depict how the heroine of the film, also named Jennifer Fox (and played by Laura Dern), remembers a sexual relationship she had with her tennis coach as a teenager. She initially remembers herself as confident and sexually self-possessed; she remembers herself, in other words, as a young woman somewhat in control of what happened to her, and, as the movie reveals, this has led her to remember what happened as a more consensual affair, rather than as abuse.
But then comes the moment that we see Fox correct her memory, replaying the same flashbacks using a teen actress closer in demeanor and body type to the scared girl Fox actually was, rather than the woman she supposed she was. It’s shattering—an exceptional feat of writing, and of course, Dern kills the performance. It’s not an easy scene to watch, but The Tale is an easy film to see and has been for most of the year—it’s right there on HBO! But short of the ability of Oscar attention to revive discussion about that film, the full-fledged online discussion cycle for it has come and gone. It’s bewildering.
Meanwhile, in Kameron-land: Not to unload a bunch of decades-old takes on you all, but I was surprised to walk away from Short Cuts thinking it was a superficial bore, which I’ve never felt about Altman; I was even more surprised to learn that New York, New York is one of my favorite Scorsese pictures.
It’s funny, though: I used to worry that art from prior eras becomes harder to access as recent ideological disruptions—our increased class awareness post–2016 election, or Black Lives Matter, or the #MeToo movement—make the social assumptions of these eras feel all the more incorrect. But my Christmas break spent watching these older films has often proved the opposite. I’ve been able to better see these films for what they are—or aren’t. New York, New York was sold to the public as a tribute to MGM musicals, rather than as the incisive rewriting of the romantic presumptions of those classic Hollywood films that it more accurately is. To me, in 2018, New York, New York plays like Jake LaMotta with a saxophone: a despairing account of male insecurity that is all the richer, and harder to watch, for not shying away from that fact. Critics in 1977 seem, almost uniformly, to have missed that.
Which inevitably makes me wonder about us, the critics of 2018, and the things we miss, and the ways we write about the complicated, shifting politics of our own era’s movies. What aren’t we seeing? What haven’t we learned to be alert to? And who’s “we,” anyway, when professional critics are dwindling in the same moment that we’re dramatically diversifying?
My Top 10:
1. First Reformed
2. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
3. You Were Never Really Here
4. If Beale Street Could Talk
5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
6. The Other Side of the Wind
7. Minding the Gap
9. First Man
10. Sollers Point