In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Karen Han, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here. Read the previous dispatch in the series here.
Karen, that’s such an interesting question. There is one instance that comes to mind of a movie that I mostly enjoyed, but that kept me at arm’s length because of particular aspect I found lacking. That would be Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s rollicking Gen Z take on the one-nutty-night-out template. It was bawdy, and funny, and sweet, and oddly oblivious to the economic dynamics that would allow for a sizable percentage of a graduating class to glide into top-tier colleges with little noticeable effort. In the film, this revelation makes the main characters reckon with their own superiority complexes, but I couldn’t help but think that what it actually meant was their classmates just came from more money and more connected backgrounds than they did.
I got some flack when I wrote about this, as if teen flicks haven’t been dealing with issues of class for time eternal. But Booksmart is also filled with vestigial details that make it feel like a previous iteration of the heavily rewritten script did deal more with these themes—like the Encino Hills party mansion, and the apartment Beanie Feldstein’s character lives in when everyone else seems to have a house.
As for selected scenes I loved from movies I didn’t—there are a lot! I didn’t dislike Mike Flanagan’s The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, though it was overlong and on a certain level doomed from the start by setting up shop so determinedly in the shadow of Stanley Kubrick. But the sequence in which Rose the Hat, the sultry-crunchy-terrifying psychic vampire played by Rebecca Ferguson, astral projects in search of child prey was just aces. She doesn’t fly: She hovers there in the night sky and moves the world around her with her will and with the unsettling logic of a dream.
I couldn’t stand most of Climax (sorry, Bilge), but its choreographed initial dance number was glorious perfection from Sofia Boutella’s opening cigarette drag. I just took another look at it; the camera knows when to move, when to pull back, and when to look down from on high. I felt all the more appreciative of these skills in the wake of the disastrous dance sequences in Cats. Tom Hooper may not know how to shoot bodies in motion, but you know who does? Gaspar Noé.
The dance sequences in Cunningham, Alla Kovgan’s otherwise aloof-to-a-fault documentary about choreographer Merce Cunningham, were likewise remarkable and shot in a variety of locations, many outdoors. To be able to watch something that makes such essential use of 3D’s capabilities makes me all the more regretful that the technology was so generally misused and now seems pretty much on the way out.
To move on from dance to another kind of musical performance, I didn’t click much at all with Her Smell, which I found to be pretty phony-baloney, despite Elisabeth Moss’ valiant efforts. But the moment when Becky Something’s visiting daughter asks her to “play something that reminds you of me,” and the former punk rocker performs an achingly sincere cover of Bryan Adams’ cheeseball classic “Heaven”? It’s enough to break your heart.
Anyway, to get back to acting—my favorite performance of the year, and the one I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since first seeing it, was Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner in the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems. You know, every few years a famous comedian will take on a serious role, and if they’re good, then we as critics will usually praise them for showing us a whole other side of their capabilities. But I wouldn’t put what Sandler does in Uncut Gems in that category—it’s not another Punch-Drunk Love. Sandler just blends right in with all the movie’s New York City characters.
Howie’s a fast talker, a gambling addict, a guy who thrives on chaos to the point where he never seems to realize he’s yelling, maybe because he’s always yelling. At different moments, the two women in his life sum up his repellent charisma perfectly. His wife, played by Idina Menzel, does it when she informs him, “I think you are the most annoying person on the planet.” His mistress, played by Julia Fox, does it when she tries to patch things up with him after a fight by revealing she’s gotten his name tattooed on her ass. (“You can’t even be buried with me now!” he howls when he sees it.)
I fell for all sorts of street-smart strivers this year, from Howie Ratner to Jennifer Lopez’s awesome Ramona in Hustlers to Zhao Tao’s fierce, tragic Qiao in Ash Is Purest White—hell, I’d even throw in Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Here’s a man who seems to have seen (and done) more shit than anyone he comes into contact with really wants to know about. He may look more like a movie star than the actual actor he works for, but he’s pretty scary!
But enough about all these actors, let’s talk docs—especially since Dana has two on her Top 10 list. Has this been a good year for nonfiction? And if so, what do you make of the fact that the two most-watched docs at the box office, Apollo 11 and They Shall Not Grow Old, consisted primarily of previously unseen archival footage?
Read the next dispatch here.