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.
Dear Bilge, Karen, and Alison,
As the second decade of the first century of the new millennium draws to a close—how’s that for a grandiose opener?—the season of lists, prizes, and sweeping statements of meaning is upon us. But happily, so is Movie Club, a place to share ideas both big and small (not to mention jokes, memes, crackpot theories, and poems) about the present state and future horizons of the medium we call cinema, which is … what again, now?
That question became freshly relevant, or at least annoyingly omnipresent, this fall due to the extremely silly Scorsese vs. Superheroes brouhaha. For weeks (if you were on Film Twitter, they were experienced as years) the cinematic legend was scolded by fanboys (and fanboy directors!) for correctly noting in an interview that Marvel movies are, first and foremost, products. Scorsese and James Gunn are doing two very different jobs, as evidenced by The Irishman, a three-and-a-half-hour masterwork that was in itself the year’s best argument for the value of theatrical viewing.
Even if most audiences digest the film at home on Netflix in manageably-sized chunks, it’s still clearly meant to be projected on a screen and viewed with others. My most fondly remembered screening of this year—I suspect Alison and Karen were both there, and I sat next to Bilge—was the New York Film Festival premiere of The Irishman, where a few hundred people lined up at 8 a.m. to sit through, laugh at, wonder over, and walk out discussing the same movie. It was our Avengers: Endgame. And it’s because of movies like The Irishman as much as the tentpole blockbusters that moviegoing remains at least in part a public act, even if that aspect of the medium is perpetually endangered and in need of protection, the white rhino of the cinematic experience.
I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on the gasps and giggles in the theater as Parasite made its twisty way into all our brains for the first time. And the sheer, shared duration of long and sometimes grueling movies like The Irishman or Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life—a film I know Bilge loved, and that I hope he’ll write more about this week—is a part what remains with me of them: Both are films about time’s passage that demand endurance and patience on the audience’s part. But what about the new modes of seeing and sharing that streaming and social media make possible? Is watching a movie on your laptop with one window open for a running commentary on social media a degradation of the viewing experience, or an opening of new possibilities within it? Is making Marriage Story memes just another way of hearing those theatrical gasps and giggles, only on Twitter?
One broad statement I do feel safe making is that this was a good year for big comebacks and grand returns to form, even for filmmakers who were doing fine already: Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Marriage Story, and The Irishman are just three of the highest-profile examples of long-established directors taking big swings at big pitches and connecting, both with the material and with more audiences and critics than they had in a while. It was also a year in which women directing major Hollywood releases started to seem like a normal thing: There was Olivia Wilde with Booksmart, Lulu Wang with The Farewell, Lorene Scafaria with Hustlers, Greta Gerwig with Little Women (and that’s not counting the female co-directors of big franchise films: Anna Boden with Captain Marvel and Jennifer Lee with Frozen 2).
In fact, over the course of a year when the body politic and the planet were both barely limping along, the cinematic landscape felt weirdly… healthy? For all the complaints, from Martin Scorsese and others, about corporate franchise dominance, this was even a relatively strong year for original stories, with films like Us, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Hustlers, and Rocketman cleaning up at the box office.
On that note of unexpected optimism, I convene the 2019 Movie Club not in the spirit of Jimmy Hoffa summoning Tony Pro to a meeting in The Irishman—you can wear shorts, and even be 10 minutes late, without me going ballistic—but with the expansive curiosity of Benoit Blanc, the genial detective Daniel Craig played in Knives Out. I want to know your backstories, your motives, and your alibis; the secret joys the movies brought you this year, and the moments of falseness that made you want to barf like Ana de Armas’ untruth-allergic heroine in that movie.
Bilge, I’ll throw to you first with one request: that you make the case, to me and to readers, for the No. 1 film on your Top 10 list, Gaspar Noé’s Climax. I confess that I have seen no Noé film since 2002’s Irreversible, the story of a rape told in reverse chronological order, which struck me as so brutal, nihilistic, and homophobic in its content that I was unable to appreciate whatever about its form was worth remarking. Ever since that movie I’ve thought of Noé, maybe unfairly, as a show-offy edgelord with a sadistic streak. But 17 years is a long time to hold a grudge, and your description of Noé’s new “techno-musical” as “a hellscape you can vogue to” piqued my curiosity—what more can we ask, at this hellish moment in history, than a movie that makes the viewer want to dance? Please tell me not just why I should give Noé another chance on this one, but whether there are any filmmakers you’ve similarly sworn off, not as a conscious act of “cancellation,” but simply because you could no longer stomach what they were dishing out.
In the interest of kicking off our conversation, I’ll also link to my top 10 of 2019 and list the titles here, and ask all of you to do the same in your first posts.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Varda by Agnès
Thanks so much for being part of Movie Club this year; you’re three of my favorite critics out there, and I can’t wait to see what rabbit holes you take me down.
Read the next dispatch here.