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.
Dear Dana, Karen, and Alison,
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. For so long I’ve lamented the fact that modern movies were rarely generating the kind of digital-water-cooler buzz that TV shows were. Over and over, great films would get ignored while people talked and argued and then talked and argued some more, on social media and elsewhere, about the dumbest, most inane-looking TV fare. But then, this year, cinema—that is, non-superhero, non–Star Wars, non-“franchise” cinema—seemed to break through again. Marriage Story, The Irishman, even Parasite … people were talking about these movies. Ordinary people. With opinions. And, even better, they continued talking about them. People debated Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time, up and down and side to side, for weeks and weeks. And yeah, The Irishman’s exposure was perhaps amplified a little extra thanks to Martin Scorsese cleverly kicking off his press tour by taking potshots at everybody’s beloved costumed superhero series … but dammit, the gambit worked.
And then came the bad takes. (I won’t name which ones. My pantheon of bad takes might not include yours, and besides, bad takery is always in the eye of the beholder.) And then the bad takes in response to the bad takes—the ones that accused the bad takers of being too dumb/ignorant/lazy to actually have good takes, or whatever. Still, let’s not deny the right of a free people to express their opinions about the products they’ve consumed, or half-consumed, or barely even consumed, or merely thought about consuming. Maybe we film nerds were simply not ready for the idea of so many people having opinions that did not always conform to our vision of these works or that didn’t show sufficient reverence to the cinematic heroes who made them. I do know this: I much prefer the bad takes to no takes at all.
Which brings me to Climax. Maybe I should be grateful that almost nobody is talking about my favorite film of the year, because Gaspar Noé’s picture would have generated bad takes the way that Chinese plant rolled out windshields in American Factory. It was, believe it or not, one of the must-see titles at Cannes in 2018—which meant that I got to write about it for the Village Voice (R.I.P.)—but the movie’s early 2019 theatrical release here meant that it had all but vanished from critical memory by the time Hyperbole Season rolled around.
I do realize that Gaspar Noé is a director many have decided they just don’t want to bother with anymore, as Dana notes, so your mileage may (and will) vary. But while Noé certainly has a sadistic streak, he’s also a bit of a cornball, and I love the weird struggle between embarrassing humanity and fashionable cynicism in his works. Climax involves a group of dancers (played by a bunch of real-life dancers from all over the world, many of whom Noé discovered via YouTube) who, over the course of an evening, gradually lose their minds thanks to a bowl of spiked sangria. Their first dance, performed in front of a giant French flag, with occasional shouts of “Vive la France!,” is a wild, incredibly well-choreographed routine that finds them connecting in different interlocking patterns to create moving figures that are larger than they are—a remarkable vision of cohesion, unity, beauty, and, yes, multiculturalism. But as the night rages on, they descend into tribalism, paranoia, uncontrolled lust, violence, and madness, and it feels hard to shake the feeling that we’re watching a surreal microcosm of society at large, and maybe even France (or Europe) specifically. Along the way, they keep dancing—it’s a party, after all—and their moves continue to reflect their states of mind as well as their various disintegrating relationships. The camera also seems to lose it: One scene is played out entirely upside down. By the end, we feel almost as broken and spent as the dancers (the surviving ones, at any rate).
That said, can I recommend Climax to everybody? Not really. Nor could I recommend A Hidden Life (No. 6 on my year-end list) to everybody, though it’s gratifying to me that so many people—even some who haven’t cared for Terrence Malick’s work in many years—have embraced it. I do wish my Top 10 list for this year were a bit less predictable, and I am embarrassed that there are no documentaries on it. I also am against Top 10s in general these days because in any given year, with so many movies being made, I think there are way more than 10 films worthy of recognition. Ideally, I prefer to do a Top 20. Here’s what that might look like for me. Even then, there are a lot of titles I wish I could have made room for.
2. Marriage Story
4. Pain and Glory
5. The Wild Pear Tree
6. A Hidden Life
9. The Irishman
10. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
11. Ad Astra
12. The Souvenir
15. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
16. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
17. Ford v Ferrari
19. John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum
20. The Beach Bum
Dana, regarding your other question: I don’t think I’m able to “cancel” any directors, aesthetically speaking. Even the worst ones have done something worthwhile at some point in their careers that I hope they’ll go back to. I wasted a perfectly good recent Friday evening trying to make my way through a Michael Bay movie on Netflix. (I failed.) And Harmony Korine, a director whose work I have not cared for in the past (save for the bizarre, glorious exception of Trash Humpers), somehow landed on my Top 20 this year with The Beach Bum, a movie that I’m sure many were hoping would be another Spring Breakers, which, thankfully, it wasn’t. Lars von Trier’s been repeatedly “canceled,” aesthetically and morally, but there he was at the top of the best-of-the-decade list that Alison and I recently contributed to over at Vulture, with Melancholia sitting pretty at No. 1. They even let Roland Emmerich direct again. I’m not sure Movie Jail is real anymore, though I am hoping that the creation of a Space Force will mean Space Jail finally becomes a reality.
Read the next dispatch here.