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.
Dear Bilge, Dana, and Karen,
Since you brought it up, Karen—the is-it-TV-or-is-it-a-movie debate felt like it reached an unbearable pitch this year, while also never mattering less. Cahiers du Cinéma plunked Twin Peaks: The Return at the top of its decade-best list in a move that seemed only partially intended as trolling. Avengers: Endgame became the highest grossing movie of all time, then settled onto Disney+ in what was always its true context at heart, as the season finale for the world’s most widely spaced and extravagantly expensive television show. That Twitter suggestion you mentioned, Dana, for how to break The Irishman up as though it were a miniseries echoes what Quentin Tarantino did himself with The Hateful Eight back in April, and what he’s apparently been considering doing for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It all starts to feel a little semantic when you think about the degree to which, for a lot of people, everything’s funneled onto and experienced via the same screen on their device of choice.
What’s felt more relevant, and more bang-my-forehead-against-my-desk-until-I-have- a-nice-circular-bruise-like-a-third-eye, are the skirmishes I keep seeing that pit individual authorship versus art by corporate committee. It’s a discussion that came to a head during those interminable bouts of Scorsese vs. Superheroes, but it’s also stretched before and after that, becoming a very 2019 quagmire involving canon and populism and representation and creative authenticity—the takes, the takes! It’s hard for me to understand how some people have talked themselves around to a point where executive control of a property is good and it’s progressive to treat filmmakers as component parts that can be popped in and out as needed. I know that seeing some Twitter rando equating auteurism with fascism does not an actual point make, but I confess to feeling increasingly disheartened by how many people seem to be more interested in declaring allegiance to a brand than to any particular artist.
Especially this year, which may have seen a new peak for the MCU in terms of audience, but which also saw a string of franchise failures, from Dark Phoenix to Men in Black: International to Terminator: Dark Fate, that were reminders of how dismal this stuff can be when it feels like no one involved seems to understand what they’re making, or why they’re making it. Meanwhile, the Star Wars sequel trilogy, which comes to an end this month, has basically ended up as a treatise on the difficulty of making distinctive work within a corporate structure. I’m not the Last Jedi devotee some of you are, but it inarguably felt like the work of an individual bringing his own sensibility to this well-established series. To see The Rise of Skywalker installment backtrack over so many of the big choices Rian Johnson made in order to please resentful fans demanding to be serviced? It really, well, felt like J.J. Abrams (or Disney, really) making Scorsese’s argument for him.
Man, all this talk about big studio series, in a year when they happened to end up resonating with me less than ever before. The closest I came on my Top 10 list was Little Women, which was the eighth adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel, making it in a roundabout way a kind of a franchise in its own right, one that moves forward through time and context rather than in narrative. I hadn’t wanted or needed another Little Women, yet the way that Greta Gerwig revised her source material while keeping its soul continues to blow me away. Her gentle but radical reworking of the March sisters and their story, the vibrancy of the historical setting she put on screen, the chopping up of the timeline so that something familiar also felt new—I ended up more smitten with it than with Lady Bird. And what is Jo’s argument with Mr. Dashwood about her own character’s ending if not an eternally timely one about the desires of a reader (or viewer!) versus those of an author?
Little Women felt like a shoo-in for the Oscars to me when I first saw it (not that they’re a reliable measure of worth!), and I confess to being confounded by the apparent lack of interest a lot of awards bodies have shown in it. It’s as though the debate that Jo and Amy have about whether the stuff of their lives can be considered important—the “domestic joys and struggles”—has fallen on unhearing ears. But then this year has also turned out to be heavy on notable movies about men, about homosocial friendships and professional worlds that are inseparable, and about bad dads. So many bad dads! Tommy Lee Jones in Ad Astra, Chris Cooper in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Neal Huff in Waves, Robert De Niro in The Irishman, Shia LaBeouf in Honey Boy, Brett Cullen (maybe!) in Joker. Dana, I’m curious as to what your take is on this surge of manly emotional pain, especially given how many of these films have to do with generational divides and trying to overcome old ideas about masculinity. Was there a better single tear on screen this year than the one that rolled down Brad Pitt’s face when he confronted his father out by the rings of Neptune?
1. Uncut Gems
2. The Hottest August
4. The Farewell
5. Ash Is Purest White
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
7. One Cut of the Dead
8. Under the Silver Lake
10. Little Women
And runners-up Aniara, American Factory, High Flying Bird, Hustlers, The Lighthouse, Marriage Story, Monos, Pain and Glory, The Souvenir, Sunset, and Wild Rose.
Read the next dispatch here.