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 7.
Dana, Alison, Odie,
Thank you guys for tossing me a subject near and dear to my heart: great performances in not-so-great movies.
I’ll start off with what might be my most upsetting choice: Kathryn Hunter’s performance of the Witches in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Upsetting not because people don’t think her performance is great (she actually won Best Supporting Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle) but because most critics seem to have liked the film a lot more than I did. For me, the strained austerity of Coen’s approach to the material never really paid off—in part because he’s not an austere director, and his sensibility is all wrong for such a minimalist aesthetic. And he also completely lost the thread on any and all characters not named Macbeth or Lady Macbeth (or, I guess, “the Witches”), which to me is fatal with that play.
But whenever Hunter and her surreal, contortionist performance were on screen, the whole film suddenly came into focus, as that kind of expressionism is so much more in line with Coen’s strengths. In her review, Alison noted that Hunter’s performance seemed to liberate something in Denzel Washington as well, and wondered if the movie “could be pared down even further until it was just Macbeth and the witch, enacting this cycle in another of the purgatories that the Coen brothers have always specialized in.” That’s a brilliant idea. Maybe Joel has some extra footage saved for a new cut of the film. That said, I’m sure I’ll see Macbeth again at some point, so maybe I’ll like it more. I did get a kick out of seeing Kathryn Hunter in Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing, which is a 2002 film that finally came out on Blu-ray this year. (I interviewed Leigh for it—my coping strategy for the past two years has been to try and interview my heroes whenever possible, even if it’s for a home video release—and he was the one who pointed out that was Hunter as the snobby French lady in the back of Timothy Spall’s cab. Now that’s range!)
I didn’t love Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, but I was transfixed by Daphne Patakia’s turn as Sister Bartolomea, the impoverished wild child who’s taken in by Benedetta’s convent and eventually winds up becoming her lover, her adversary, her co-conspirator, her victim, her everything. I liked King Richard OK, but I loved Will Smith in it (Odie is dead-on, however, when he writes that the film keeps trying to make his character “unimpeachable,” despite the actor’s far more complicated and thorny performance), and I adored Jon Bernthal, whose performance was so utterly transporting that I was immediately reminded of like 15 different people I knew in the 1980s. David Dastmalchian was hilarious and heartbreaking as the Polka-Dot Man in the otherwise mostly forgettable The Suicide Squad. I was not a Dune fan (though, unlike Dana, I kind of do want to get Dune’d again, because the film ended just as it was getting interesting), but I was very much a Rebecca-Ferguson-in-Dune fan. I thought Benicio del Toro and Jeffrey Wright were both excellent in The French Dispatch, a movie that otherwise consistently failed to hold my interest. It’s perhaps the only Wes Anderson film that I’ve ever found to be exhausting, and not in a good way.
Stillwater was a disappointment (especially after that idiotic third act kicked in), but Matt Damon was kind of phenomenal in it. In her review, Alison described his character as “embody[ing] a certain instinctive obstinance, a habit of holding on to what he knows and only what he knows, no matter how much the world might change around him.” Which sort of seems to describe Matt Damon in general, no? (And might even apply to his character and performance in The Last Duel, come to think about it. More on that movie in a second.)
I was mostly fine with the performances in House of Gucci. I thought Lady Gaga was terrific (so much so that I offered to write the tribute to her in the NYFCC awards booklet), and Jared Leto was delightful. Crazy accents and makeup, sure. But the cast seemed to understand something about that movie that Ridley Scott apparently forgot—that the whole thing should be played as a heightened, theatrical tragicomedy. (It could have been a musical, frankly. Maybe it should have been; this would have been the year for it.) I found myself frustrated with Scott’s visual style in the film, or rather, lack thereof. The whole thing felt so rushed. I only later found out that he dashed the whole thing off earlier this year, while finishing up editing on The Last Duel, and, honestly, it kind of shows. House of Gucci should have been as formally crazy as its performances. I tweeted this a few weeks ago, too, but it should have basically been Bram Stoker’s Dracula set in the world of fashion. Alas, all too often, it felt like I was watching a rehearsal. That said, it does feel to me like one of those Ridley Scott films for which there might be a far better and longer director’s cut someday. I’m reminded of my initial disappointment at the tepid, lifeless theatrical release version of The Kingdom of Heaven, which turned out to be a masterpiece once the director’s cut was released.
Anyway, before Sir Ridley intrudes on our conversation with a fusillade of fuck yous, I should note that I did indeed love his other film this year, the much-discussed but evidently underseen The Last Duel, which was both his most entertaining picture in decades and also his most disturbing. Much has already been written about Ben Affleck’s scene-stealing performance (some of it by me), but I will reiterate here that his turn isn’t just a bunch of disjointed, meme-friendly anachronisms. His character’s profane heartlessness actually underscores the alienation of the wealthy from the consequences of their actions, and also reveals how so many of our rituals, traditions, and laws are there to codify the cruelty, contempt, and carelessness of the powerful. It might be a funny performance, but it’s also an infuriating one.
Before I sign off, I will see your Licorice Pizza takes and raise you one The Hand of God, Paolo Sorrentino’s far more personal coming-of-age film, which (in my opinion) has both the sex and the spine that Odie found so lacking in the Paul Thomas Anderson picture. Now, there was a nostalgic reverie that wasn’t afraid of being alienating or weird or even distasteful, while also somehow being rapturously beautiful. Or maybe I was just excited to see a movie by and about a fellow Maradona-head.
Justice for Diego,