In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Alison Willmore, and Odie Henderson—about the year in cinema. Below is Entry 8.
Dear D., O., B.,
You all have excellent taste—in general, if that even needs to be said, but especially when it comes to performances that stand out apart from, or in spite of, the movies that contain them. Like Bilge, I was also very taken with Ben Affleck in The Last Duel (Odie, I confess to having never made it around to The Tender Bar—I’ve just been burned by Clooney-as-dull-director too many times before). The movie was one hell of a rile-up all around, but Affleck still managed to be the stand out for the way he played his medieval count as a louche, mercurial godling, hovering above the mortals whose fortunes he was capable of making or ruining on a whim. I wrote, earlier this year, about the strange contradictions of Affleck as a movie star, and about how the industry has struggled to cast him in roles that are as compelling as his outsized, and sometimes troublingly out of control, public image. And then a part like Count Pierre d’Alençon will come along, and he’ll be electric in it, suggesting that his best work as an actor is still to come.
I adored the aforementioned Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright, a journalist who was two parts James Baldwin and one part A. J. Liebling in The French Dispatch, a movie I suspect I’m more kindly disposed toward than the rest of you. It’s Wes Anderson at his most smothering, to be sure, and it felt at times as if he were trying to seal himself into his own intricately laid out world, caulking all the seams so no air could escape. But that’s the thing about Anderson’s work—it has always been bent on conjuring up wistful imagined sanctuaries for his collections of wounded characters. Wright’s heist-by-way-of-cop-cuisine story was far and away the best of the three “features” in The French Dispatch, and also the one that made you actually feel what was being lost with the closure of the fantasy version of The New Yorker—a haven for difficult, idiosyncratic, persecuted, and sometimes entirely useless writers—that the film was centered on. It’s inherently solitary work, writing, and Wright plays a character who, because of his sexuality and race, stands separate even from his colleagues, and yet his lovely performance is melancholy without ever being sad.
Who else, who else? Odie, I’m so glad you mentioned Swan Song—Udo Kier is magnificent and heartbreaking in that movie, and I’m tearing up just remembering all the ways in which his character is the proud embodiment of a challenge that the changed world is no longer inclined to take up. I preferred The Souvenir to its Part II, but am still madly in love with Richard Ayoade’s character, who’s promoted into the role of a wonderfully withering artistic conscience to Honor Swinton Byrne’s budding filmmaker. The greatness of Tony Leung hardly needs to be discussed, but it was funny to watch him effortlessly steal Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings away from the new superhero it was trying to establish. It’s hard to feel anything other than trepidation when Marvel hoovers up great actors for roles that may lock them into formulaic fare for years—Leung’s commitment to the MCU looks like a one-off, but Florence Pugh’s is obviously ongoing, and yet she’s just so delightful in the otherwise forgettable Black Widow, dryly funny and vulnerable and so alive. CODA achieved almost toxic levels of Sundance-ness in its framing, its arc, and its sense of humor, and yet I keep thinking back on Troy Kotsur’s performance as the fisherman father, and his face when his character puts his fingers on his hearing daughter’s throat to feel the vibrations from her singing. We understand that it’s not the sound that he’s trying to connect with, but the passion she feels for what she believes to be her calling.
I’m drifting into writing about stand-out scenes rather than performances per se, so I’m just going to lean into it with a few more favorites. I loved the vision toward the end of The Green Knight, when the film suddenly accelerates toward a future in which Dev Patel’s character fails in his quest but is nevertheless given power and wealth, all of it poisoned by his own personal shortcomings. Belfast is a just fine movie that gives way to one of the more unexpectedly joyous sequences of the year when Jamie Dornan sings “Everlasting Love” at his father’s wake, and Caitriona Balfe strikes poses down on the dance floor. There’s something so very entertaining about Kenneth Branagh making a semi-autobiographical movie and casting two of the hottest people working today to play his parents, but what acts as an occasional distraction for much of the runtime suddenly makes sense in that scene, which feels like a child suddenly able to see his father and mother as vibrant adults. Speaking of Dornan breaking into song—no recap of the year would be complete without a mention of his fabulous lovelorn musical number to the seagulls in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.
But my single favorite scene of the year has to be one from Bergman Island, Mia Hansen-Løve’s ode to the strange connection between real lives and what artists opt to put on screen. In the movie within the movie, Mia Wasikowska plays an American woman who’s traveled to Fårö island for a friend’s wedding and for a chance to see the defining love of her life, played by arthouse dreamboat Anders Danielsen Lie. Throughout the multi-day event, the two characters (who are both in relationships with other people) come together and pull apart, with Lie’s always the more elusive. On their last night, Wasikowska gets lured out onto the dance floor by ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All,” looking at Lie as he leans on the bar and looks at her. She abandons herself to the music, bouncing to the beat and singing along to the chorus—and then she turns around, notices that Lie has left, and hurries out, distraught, to find him. It’s a scene that’s awash in huge emotions, longing and joy and grief, in contrast to the sturdy but passionless relationship of the characters in the framing story, which makes it all the more perfect.
I’m all verklempt just from thinking back on these scenes, so while I go wallow in clips, Dana, I’ll leave you to take us to our next and final round with this question—while star quality certainly isn’t dead, I’ve definitely been left wondering if movie stardom might finally be, especially when watching something like Netflix’s astoundingly dismal but reportedly record-breakingly expensive A-lister vehicle Red Notice. What say you?
Though it’s hurting me / Now it’s history,