In spite of being deprived of theaters, it was a good year for film. We saw only two of these in theaters (and now even they are available at home). In alphabetical order—so we didn’t have any arguments over which should go first, and because they are all worthy—below are synopses of, and links to, the reviews (within each review is accessibility online).
- “First Cow”
- “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
- “Martin Eden”
- “The Painted Bird”
- “The Painter and the Thief”
- “Palm Springs”
- “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
Honorable mention: “The Assistant” ★★★; “Cuties (Mignonnes)” ★★★; “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” ★★★1/2; The Traitor (Il Traditore)” ★★★1/2;
Bacurau ★★★1/2: A corrupt government, working with white supremacist mercenaries, withholds water and medicines from a small, idyllic, rural village, then attempts to wipe it off the map, figuratively and literally. The town musters a defense. Despite violence, the storytelling is remarkably subtle, and the themes—blatant racism and government disintegration—contemporary.
Beanpole ★★★★: At the center of this compelling drama, set in Leningrad in 1945, are two women, each damaged and traumatized by the war and its aftermath. “Beanpole” is the nickname of the very blond, blue-eyed, rail-thin, 6-foot tall, cool and neurotic Iya, a veteran of the Soviet artillery. Masha, Iya’s co-worker and friend from the front, is dark and short and round and vivacious, as well as pragmatic and clever. A survivor, she knows how to get herself a job, salt and fruit, and sex.
First Cow ★★★1/2: A charming caper, taking place in the rough-hewn wilderness of Oregon Country in the 1820s. The title is both literal and a metaphor of transition and change, representing that liminal moment between a hard, masculine, beaver-trapping (“soft gold”), frontier culture that‘s on the cusp of decline, and something gentler—still masculine and distinctly entrepreneurial, but with a feminine side—that’s making its first appearance. In the form of a biscuit.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things ★★★1/2: A couple drives out of a city towards his rural boyhood home so she can meet his parents. He’s funny, not particularly good-looking, maybe not funny, apparently knowledgeable about musicals, maybe a poetry expert, maybe a physicist. She’s melancholy, thinking of ending the weeks’-old relationship (“things”), or she’s perky; she’s maybe a student, maybe a literary critic, maybe a gerontologist, maybe a poet, maybe a waitress. As in all things Charlie Kaufman, there’s no stable ground. In this faux horror film there’s no real horror, except that of realizing the limits of one’s ability to shape one’s existence.
Mank ★★★1/2: “Mank” is ostensibly about writing the script for “Citizen Kane,” the 1941 film some consider to be the best ever made and historically understood as the product of one auteur—namely, Orson Welles. Welles is here a minor character. Although one can appreciate “Mank” as an historical treatment of the origins of the famous script and of the era, the film is in essence the story of one man’s struggle to preserve his identity—as a person and as a writer—in a world that seems committed to stripping him of it. Mank (a superb performance by Gary Oldman) is an unlikely hero. He’s unattractive, alcoholic, arrogant, pushy and acerbic. Yet he represents the last and best attempt to both be part of Hollywood and not succumb to it.
Martin Eden ★★★1/2: Based on Jack London’s semi-autobiographical 1909 novel of a sailor turned writer, “Martin Eden” is set in Italy in the Mussolini era. Its focus is on the charismatic Eden’s struggle to rise about his station, and then to deal with the loss of self caused by sudden fame. “There is no Martin Eden,” he tells an audience gathered to hear him speak and read, “you’ve invented me.” London’s character has been memorialized in Tom Waits’s 1974 musical ode to sailors, “Shiver Me Timbers.” A traditional story in some respects, unusual in others.
The Painted Bird ★★★1/2: A boy of about 9 is separated from his family, moving from one adult to another, from one isolated dwelling or village to another, in a desperate two-year effort to survive in the culture of racism, ignorance, superstition and intolerance that characterized Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945. Stripped of name and family, the child experiences life as a series of horrors that include animal torture, sexual abuse, assaults and attempted assaults, murder and attempted murder—of him and others. His nemeses are all blue-eyed; he is the other. Three hours of hard-to-watch but gripping cinema.
The Painter and the Thief ★★★1/2: A drug-dazed thief steals the paintings of Barbora, a talented Czech realist. Then they have a relationship. He becomes her model. “I can sit,” he says. The two are complex characters, whose dark, self-destructive, parallel pasts may never be fully revealed.
Palm Springs ★★★: The R-rated Romcom is alive and well in “Palm Springs,” a creative look at the 40-something slacker male and the woman destined to drag him into adulthood. Andy Samberg (“Saturday Night Live”) fully inhabits the role of Nyles, with exceptional physical as well as verbal humor. Cristin Milioti (the mother in “How I Met Your Mother”), is Sarah, the more thoughtful and somewhat less comedic side of the couple and a formidable match for Nyles. For those who demand more than laughs, there’s an existential subtext!
Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★1/2: Very French: slow-paced, quiet, subtle, restrained, thoughtful (even intellectual), this compelling love story between two women is impeccably crafted and narrated and exquisitely acted.