In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Justin Chang, Odie Henderson, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the previous entry here.
Dear Slate Movie Collective,
At your request, Dana, and for the sake of a 2020 cinematic discourse that was mostly, blessedly superhero-free, I’ll try not to spend too much time on Wonder Woman 1984. Especially since, like you, I have already dropped 1,500-plus admiring words on what struck me two weeks ago, and strikes me now, as a disarmingly insouciant, gratifyingly human, endearingly messy throwback to an earlier, smilier era of comic book movie entertainment. And unlike you, I was completely sober! When you ask me which 2020 release’s hostile reception left me sheepishly mumbling, “Well, I kinda liked it, actually,” inducing that dreaded pit-of-the-stomach feeling all critics wrestle with at one point or another—that sense of impostor-syndrome embarrassment gradually giving away to defiant quasi-contrarian retrenchment—well, I’m right there with you, my friend: There’s no getting away from Wonder Woman 1984.
And maybe we shouldn’t try to get away from it. Since we’ve now reached the self-flagellation round of Movie Club, I may as well fall on my own Sword of Athena. I stand by my affection for Patty Jenkins’ sequel for many of the reasons you cited, Dana, chief among them the movie’s unfashionably sincere tone and the emotionally robust villainy of Pedro Pascal and Kristen Wiig, Cats get-up and all. But I can certainly acknowledge lapses and oversights in my review: I mean, yeah, that whole dumb Egypt subplot—not to mention the larger spectacle of a major Israeli star pitted against a cluster of one-dimensionally nefarious Arab characters—did strike me as queasily misguided, though in the end, preferring not to wade too deep into the movie’s dizzying narrative jumble, I opted not to mention it. But the risk of excessive plot summary is never a good reason for a critic to sidestep a movie’s deeper meanings, including those that may be inadvertently ignorant at best and insidiously malignant at worst.
Was I a coward not to engage? Or, for that matter, not to more closely ponder the troubling implications of that body-switching subplot, which sees Chris Pine’s Capt. Steve Trevor temporarily inhabit the figure of a character (credited, accurately if reductively, as “Handsome Man”) played by Kristoffer Polaha? I’m less convinced on this point: The particular metaphysics of body-switching—a convention of countless sweet-spirited ’80s comedies, to which WW84 playfully tips its tiara—are very much their own deranged thing. I myself naïvely assumed that Handsome Man’s soul was harmlessly shunted off into a nether-dimension somewhere while Steve returned from the dead in his flesh, but again, I may be granting the movie a benefit of the doubt that it doesn’t, in this instance, deserve. (I’m also reminded that the conceit was taken to much more unapologetically vulgar lengths in that lousy, oddly memorable 2011 body-swap comedy The Change-Up, which kicks off with Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds peeing side by side into a magic fountain before morphing into a feature-length game of Whose Dick Is It Anyway?)
In 2020, the problematics of bodily possession—which is to say, the difficulties of reengaging this playful fantasy conceit at a time when issues of bodily autonomy are rightly being taken more seriously—are hardly limited to WW84 alone. You mentioned Soul, Dana, and chief among the ingenious narrative formulations of Pixar’s enjoyable latest, another clever animated foray into the labyrinth of human consciousness from Inside Out director Pete Docter (and co-director Kemp Powers), is a subplot that finds Jamie Foxx’s protagonist, Joe Gardner, suddenly possessed by a bodyless soul named 22, which is to say by the voice of Tina Fey. It’s just one narrative wrinkle of many in a movie that, like WW84, unfolds in a busy screwball key: You’re not really supposed to think too hard about the finer details and their implications, which of course is no reason why you shouldn’t. Especially in a movie that—again, like WW84—aspires to be a moral fable, a cautionary tale about the perils of blinding yourself to the needs and emotions of others.
Such moralizing doubtless rings hollow for WW84 haters and the much smaller faction of Soul detractors, and I say that as someone who considers himself neither. That said, I know I’m not the only one who cringed a little at the notion of Fey—whose 30 Rock came under renewed scrutiny this year for episodes featuring characters in blackface—stepping all clumsy and Gumby-like into a Black protagonist’s shoes (or hospital gown, rather), even with the somewhat mitigating buffer of computer-generated animation in place. If memory serves, this development occasions the first time a Pixar character has ever uttered the words “I washed your butt for you!”—probably as close as Disney-branded entertainment will ever get to exploring the dirtier underbelly of a plot device often played for squeaky-clean fun.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, morally and cinematically, was Brandon Cronenberg’s deeply unnerving, sensationally gory and very, very live-action thriller Possessor, which had the wicked honesty to show Christopher Abbott—playing a vessel, it should be noted, that has been commandeered by a murderous Andrea Riseborough—stand in front of a mirror, pull down his shorts, and briefly contemplate his own junk. Abbott’s astonishingly physical performance, utterly convincing in its sense of a soul alienated from its temporary environs, was great enough to land a spot on my crowded Best Actor ballot at this year’s Los Angeles Film Critics Association meeting—an event that I should probably unpack a little, so long as we’re on the subject of critical self-flagellation and Film Twitter fury.
LAFCA gave its award for Best Picture, as has been celebrated by some and derided by many more, to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, a choice that set off at least two distinct layers of complaint: one, that we’d effectively claimed the best movie of 2020 was a television series, and two, that we’d chosen to honor all five episodes of that series rather than more sensibly honoring one of them, most likely the rapturous Lovers Rock (prominently placed on Alison’s and Odie’s Top 10 lists, and a runner-up on Dana’s and mine) or the sturdy and resonant Mangrove. My own thoughts about the vote are already on the record: I find it tedious to dwell on the already-blurry distinctions between cinema and television in a year when, for those of us streaming at home, the two became one and the same. (In a normal year, both Lovers Rock and Mangrove would have played at Cannes; instead, they made their world premieres, along with Red, White and Blue, at the New York Film Festival.) At the same time, I remain very much a fan of drawing distinctions between individual movies, and I couldn’t help but feel that in this case the award was given less for Best Picture than Most Picture.
My three Best Picture votes, for what it’s worth, went to Nomadland (a movie so unassailably great that none of us has written at length about it yet), Martin Eden (high-five, Alison! Scusa, Odie!) and, yes, Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela. Which brings me, in the spirit of a full and proper emotional unburdening, to a story that I’ve lately gotten more comfortable telling friends and colleagues and that I may as well share with the whole internet now. Back in 2006, attending my first Cannes Film Festival, I was assigned by my then-employer, Variety, to review Costa’s magisterial Colossal Youth—which, for a young trade critic with zero knowledge of the director’s work and precious little time to familiarize himself, now seems like professional hazing. Facing a tight deadline, and with nary a clue what to write about a challenging, statically composed, defiantly unhurried work I had barely understood, I filed a lazy, dismissive review, jejunely labeling Colossal Youth “a colossal bore.”
Fourteen years later, that review still haunts me: It remains the one piece I would gladly recant in its entirety, less for any stinging rebukes I may have gotten from my betters at the time than for the fact that Costa’s work has genuinely, and in the best possible way, stayed with me, in part because I’ve been curious, in the intervening years, to experience more of it, at my own pace and with a more open mind. His films, Vitalina Varela included, challenge me as much as they ever did, but now in ways I find quietly stunning rather than hopelessly enervating, and that leave me with an honestly deeper sense of cinema and its aesthetic possibilities. Or maybe it’s just that the years I’ve spent doing this job have taught me that authority, often presumed to be a critic’s stock in trade, is in fact a close cousin of humility. And while eating humble pie is never fun, I’m choosing to score that as a win and even a source of hope: We all want to believe that time will make us better writers, better thinkers, and better critics. We all hope that our best days on the job—and given this pull-out-the-stops horror show of a year, our best days in general—might still be ahead of us.