13. Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)|
I was the rare filmgoer who saw Margaret in a cinema before there was a #Team, and in the dogged manner of Anna Paquin's Lisa Cohen, I am not letting this one go any time soon. The unusually concerted, uncommonly effective rising up of Margaret's champions in the US film-reviewing community, with Richard Brody, Ben Kenigsberg, and Wesley Morris playing key roles, was maybe the greatest case study this decade of critics using their (our?) ever-attenuated power and increasingly marginalized public voice to revive a movie that was being shunted into oblivion by its studio and distributor. I afford myself some speck of credit for making sure that my UK-based friends, especially Tim Robey and Guy Lodge, cleared all necessary decks and made a beeline toward any opportunity to see it in Londona city whose critical establishment responded much more quickly to this movie and worked much harder on its behalf than New York's did. That's particularly insane since Margaret is among the very best New York movies anyone has made for eonsas indispensable as Do the Right Thing, which would have been an apropos title. But my real point is that I'll always be confused why we needed a #TeamMargaret to begin with. Not because you'd ever expect consensus enthusiasm for a movie this slippery in structure and circuitous in story, this stylistically committed to both pointillism and maximalism, this willing to be, in its protagonist's own words, "strident." What bewildered me was that cinephiles and critics hadn't been quicker to check it out in the cities where it was so fleetingly on offer. "The Times review wasn't that good," I kept hearing, or "I didn't know it was playing." Lisa's outflanked you on that one, rightly side-eyeing her hapless would-be suitor Darren (John Gallagher, Jr.) when he invites her out for a movie but admits he doesn't know what's out. What kind of cultured Manhattanite is he? The worst alibi, and yes this is a police interrogation, was always "Well, there was no press screening." And here I would rise into the high dudgeon of Jeannie Berlin's Emily, with her personality that's equal parts refreshing candor and steel wool. I know you know where the cinemas are. I know you have $10. I know you loved You Can Count on Me. I know you've been following this bizarre drama of postponement forever, rivaled only by the wait for Lauryn's always-imminent new album. Get. Your ass. To the theater!
So, yes, the chip on my shoulder remains as large as Mark Ruffalo's bus, and if I'm not careful, I'll kill somebody with it. So maybe let's just turn to the film, which feels almost as strange as the byzantine, litigious, endlessly contradictory epic of how it got made and not made, and then released but not released, culminating in the still-debated question of which Margaret is the "real" Margaret. (The Blu-ray hilariously refuses to settle this issue, including the theatrical version on one disc and an "extended cut" on the other, but the latter is relegated to a démodé DVD. Wherever Margaret alights, a gallon of stank from 20th Century Fox is never far away.) I'm not convinced Margaret would feel all that "strange" if the formal and narrative parameters for realist character dramas in the US weren't so chronically inhibited. I get plenty of information about Lisa by watching her gait and posture as she walks through the streets, in slow motion or in real time. I'm never sorry to pause for those interludes, even if suddenly "nothing is happening," just as I'm never sorry to gauge whether framing and costuming are making Lisa an unmistakable standout in her environment or submerging her within a sea of other potential Lisas treading through New York, who might be just as thorny, or headstrong, or morally confident but ethically uncertain. These dialogue-free check-ins are welcome, because at many points in Margaret, Lisa's exceptional qualities are on equally full view as her all-too-typical adolescent histrionics, her high-handed attitude, her loneliness, her different ways of seeking attention from the people whose attention she craves, which is almost everyone. It's perpetually interesting to see which facet of Lisa Margaret feels motivated to showcase at any given point, and illuminating to see what she's like in rare moments of silence, with nobody around to harass or impress.
Part of why Margaret is "strange" is that it lingers, committedly, with one person's protracted quandary of ethical deliberationone on which no jury trial, no pregnancy, no fate of any world or galaxy hangs, and for which any narrative payoff or court-mandated payout is likely to feel unsatisfying. The turning and turning and turning of the question(s) is the plot, and if that's not rare terrain for an American film, wait till I tell you that these deliberations are dilated across 150 minutes and centered in the mind of a teenage girl, whom the movie neither patronizes nor launders of her most abrasive qualities. I don't want to focus right now on how US art and US life have wandered so far out on so many off-ramps of off-ramps of off-ramps that watching a challenging but laudably reflective woman probe her own conscience, weigh different responses to a formidable but also mercurial dilemma, and fret over her rightful claim on a problem as "hers" feels like an avant-garde storytelling premise. Certainly it's true that most movies undertaking such a mission would undertake only that mission, or at least curtail any potential digressions so that priority and focus remained unambiguous. So I can see where it is almost avant-garde to make one movie that combines an intense cycle of moral and ethical self-scouring with regular blast-offs and slink-aways into superficially unrelated tangents, often regarding Lisa's family members and acquaintances. Chief among these is Lisa's mother Joan, whom nobody could possibly have played with more wit and sorrow or with a keener eye on character and context than J. Smith-Cameron does. Joan faces her own riddle about whether she really needs a warm and doting but quickly over-invested and somewhat inscrutable boyfriend. Besides that, she's got a play to keep fresh night after night, and some expectations to manage around her awkward and inconsistent ex-husband, and some masturbating to do, and a volatile daughter to placate, whose frenetic quest for justice Joan both understands and doesn't, and whose approval she desires to a degree that almost embarrasses her.
Margaret gives Joan more screen time and a fuller array of dimensions and conflicts than most movies would, but I imagine many hypothetical versions of this story would at least give Lisa a mother and frame their relationship as complicated. It's harder to conceive other versions than Lonergan's that would open on a dispute over classroom cheating that recedes almost entirely as a narrative concern, or that would encompass so many high-school dust-ups over Middle Eastern politics and the chronic immorality of U.S. presidents, or allow such drawn-out scenes in offices or bistros where an increasingly flustered lawyer tries to explain technicalities of litigation to increasingly ornery friends and clients, or (my personal favorite) admit a tense standoff between a student and a teacher over a passage in King Lear, which one reads from a stubbornly idiosyncratic perspective and the other refuses to countenance as remotely open to creative interpretation. Lisa watches that whole exchange with bemusement that rises to genuine interest, in direct proportion to how heated and intractable the two contestants become. Lonergan doesn't film the scene in ways that frame it as a metaphor for Lisa's own encounters with stonewalling authority figures, or as an occasion for Lisa to reassess her own habits of intractability and how they must look or sound to outsiders. At the same time, it's not a huge leap. An ongoing glory of Margaret is how it's able to marshal scenes like this as indirect but incisive means of deepening Lisa's characterization without ever denying other figures, even virtual supernumeraries, their own autonomy and particularity. Often these supporting characters don't outwardly serve Lisa's story or our grasp of her except as obstacles, foils, or glancing contacts, yet they still emerge as amazingly rounded, remarkably recognizable figures: the inattentive cousin who's suddenly hyper-present when she stands to win some money, and who thinks of other people principally in terms of what angles they're playing; the bus driver who admits yet doesn't admit his culpability in a deadly accident, and who tries to deflect Lisa's inquiries in manners both sympathetic and not; the wife of that bus driver, instantly conjuring a royal flush of reasons why this late-adolescent girl has appeared on her family's doorstep, none of them good; the dying woman, whom Allison Janney quickly makes into more than a "dying woman"; the teachers trying to instruct their students in the art of impassioned debate but also seeking to quell that passion; the cops and detectives trying to balance everyone's contemptuous mistrust of them with the same people's exhortations for them to fill their noble and socially pivotal role. And then, of course, there's Emily, the one movie character from the beginning of this decade, even more than Lisa herself, whom I've never stopped thinking about, more weeks than not, all the way through this decade's end, which no doubt disgusts her completely.
Person by person by person, spanning central and peripheral positions in the story, Margaret probably boasts the most sprawling ensemble of fully imagined characters, differently but equally piqaunt, of any new movie I saw since 2010. Of course this is only possible because Lonergan's writing is so astute at devising dialogue and at structuring scenes, some as compact as diamonds, some at the edge of dishevelment. He can suggest in 60 seconds things about a person that you'd normally have to be their therapist, spouse, or X-ray technician to know. Of course the flawless casting of Douglas Aibel (regular ally of Wes Anderson, James Gray, and Noah Baumbach as well as Lonergan) and the pliable, theater-trained gifts of those actors and Lonergan's sterling instincts for guiding their work also merit credit. Of course editor Anne McCabe, whose praises I've been singing for 20 years, should be a much bigger star in her field than she currently is. Her peerless gifts for performance-shaping and eccentric story structure have manifested everywhere from Adventureland to Marielle Heller's movies, and they're invaluable here, no matter how many editors were involved and over what length of time. For a movie that may not come across as craft-forward, in the senses that its lighting and camera behavior are fairly modest and it doesn't appear to chase any particular model of being "cinematic," every department in Margaret contributes demonstrably to its unusual and spellbinding power. Still, the sum of all these practical, professional contributions doesn't feel "practical" at all but mysterious, ineffable. There's Something About Margaret, similar to the Something that overtakes Lisa during the barcarolle of The Tales of Hoffmann in the final sequence. That said, I don't find the movie as emotionally overwhelming as I find it cognitively bewildering: how does Margaret manage to cover so much psychological, social, thematic, textural, and narrative ground, even more than its admittedly ample running-time would seem to allow? How does it manage to make New York seem so worrying and fascinating, and like a city we're seeing for the first time, rather than taking for granted that New York is fascinating, as at least 100 American movies do every year? Margaret, to me, is like a Thin Red Line of urban and national malaise in a millennium that's barely gotten going but already feels foreclosed, and where impetus toward righteous action has never been higher and yet rarely more muffled by a sense of its own futility. Lisa stays (mostly) focused, almost too much so, amasses some allies, tracks problems as close as she can come to their source, and technically achieves a victory, but it's not a real victory and there is no concrete source. Lonergan made a perfect 2019 movie and managed to do it
in 2011 in 2005 some time around 2008 or 2009 at least a decade ahead of time.
A final note, which has little to do with how good Margaret is but much to do with how important it is to me. I finished my doctoral dissertation in 2005, the same year principal photography took place on Margaret. It was made unambiguously clear to me that I had failed to write one that anybody else would ever want to read, and that mining a coherent and engaging book out of this material (a requirement for the tenure-track job I was still hoping to earn) was a next-to-impossible prospect. So commenced more than five years of wrestling with my sea of chapter drafts and crazy-looking notes, while Lonergan was off somewhere toiling with his footage. I cannot help projecting that he, too, felt simultaneously defensive of his vision and suffused with self-critiques, as well as despondent over his work's disarray, its relative dearth of advocates, and its no-end-in-sight gestation. Fitful journalism of the "Where is Margaret?" subgenre perpetually cast his whole career as hanging in the balance, even if the film did eventually materialize. To see the movie appear, suddenly and magnificently in late 2011, just as I was flailing in my own morose defeatism and nearing the last possible moment to retain my job and salvage my manuscriptrejected by all five presses to which I'd submitted itwas a better, fuller, more magical inspiration to fix and finish the damn thing than even a writer as gifted as Kenneth Lonergan could have devised. Ultimately, and not at all coincidentally, things worked out as well for me in my professional world as they did for Lonergan in his. I wanted to thank him in my book's Acknowledgments but couldn't figure out how to do it without sounding grandiose or giving a false impression. (I also wanted to thank Nora Ephron, Tim Gunn, and Mo'Nique, but those are three other stories.) I admire Lisa Cohen's unflappable pursuit of a goal she nonetheless can't quite articulate, even as I'm also disconcerted by her particular form of tenacity and by some of her strategies. I feel for her and look up to her and also don't really identify. With Lonergan's wilderness period and eventual triumph, I do identify. I'm sure it's a romantic and opportunistic delusion, like Lisa imagining herself as the temporary human vessel of Monica's deceased daughter, but there we are. Your spiritual epiphanies are your spiritual epiphanies. I saw the bus headed straight for me, and this movie pulled me back from its path. So, while Margaret remains a melancholic document of pyrrhic victory and of quests with no compass, it's alsoeven at the level of the text, but also in the tortuous arc of my own lifean emblem of unlikely, humbling, and contagious determination.
14. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2016)
The play was never even finished. Tarell Alvin McCraney felt the profound introversion of Chiron, his main character, needed the language of cinema to draw him out, whereas the dialogue-driven space of the stage felt stubbornly inhospitable to him. Unfortunately, McCraney wasn't yet a screenwriter, at least at the level this tale demanded. The piece also bore such personal stakes, bound up with the death and very difficult life of his mother, that facing this script was hard. Plus, sometimes you're out here winning MacArthur Fellowships or owing other scripts to major theaters, on deadline. Or maybe you're simply stumped, so that old mountain never gets moved. Meanwhile, director Barry Jenkins wasn't the obvious person to revive the project, or to revive any project. He has often described first learning about In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue amid several frustrated and increasingly self-recriminating years when he couldn't get a muse to strike or any money or mentorship to lock into place around his story ideas. Jenkins gave himself a writer's retreat in Berlin to prove he was still in the filmmaking game or else find a new calling. During those six weeks, he wrote Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. Yes. Right. One might take the lesson that if, like me, you've allowed a personal passion project to malinger on your "to do" list for decades at a time, never worry! Either you'll nail it perfectly with the right trip to the right city of your dreams, or someone else will finish it for you and you'll still get your own Oscar, alongside his. You could, and maybe should, also take heed that it's worth seeing through those slippery processes or those feelings of artistic mission that you're tempted to abandon because they never seem to resolve. We could also stand the reminder that most creative works, even those that ultimately coalesce so exquisitely that they seem to have emerged Athena-like, fully formed and unblemished from the skull of a genius, are the "miracle" offspring of postponement, frustration, self-rebuke, and endless revision, when no final draft was in sight. Hannah Beachler, the production designer on Moonlight and shortly afterward the Secretary of the Interior of Wakanda, recently described sitting there painting another wall of another set, a glamorous job for the department head, probably on no sleep, and asking Jenkins, "Do you think people will see this movie?" and him replying, "There's a queer cinema in Miami that I hope might be supportive," and she answered, "I hope so, too." And here we are.
Then there's the negative-space reading of this widely-circulated origin story for Moonlight, which I offer not to be downcast but to respect the worlds in which our artists labor. I include those who identify strongly as artists and grieve how little art they've been able or allowed to produce, compared to what they've imagined. For every Moonlight that gets made and told (and of course, there's really only one Moonlight, but you know what I mean...), we must spare a thought for all the Moonlights that never escape the traction of the Drafts folder, or live in unhopeful search of that now-or-never creative retreat, or survive the wars and manifest exquisitely on the page but still can't locate the well-intended, well-connected person who gets the vision and says, "We must make this happen." Jenkins and McCraney were already established, widely-admired figures with public records of accomplishment, and I'm sure both would hasten to underscore the number of fellow travelers with even fewer advantages than theirs, pushing through their own seemingly insoluble dilemmas or seemingly unsellable material. Moonlight, already three movies in one, is also, for me, two movies. One is the film we've (hopefully) all seen and re-seen and adulated, the film of all this decade's films I've probably thought about most, a film deeply in the running as the one I've taught or lectured about most often, a film that inspires me all the time to seek whatever I'm seeking and finish whatever I'm not finishing. That movie suffuses me with such joy and deference and pleasure and gratitude and optimism for the medium, the world, the storytellers. The other movie, while still all of those things, is also a candle lit for all the films even remotely like Moonlight that never get produced, or produced but not shown, especially the films that in style or subject feel like ones our culture industry is engineered to refuse. In that respect I still feel some optimism, because Moonlight still made it, to every corner of the world. But I also feel a profound sobriety. And of course it's a short step from there to the sobriety I feel about all the Chirons, sort-of Chirons, slantwise Chirons, or in-spirit Chirons in this world whom I know nothing about, past or present, but whose stories at least earn proximal tribute via Moonlight's unforgettable Chiron. Who is himself, of course, multiple.
The pleasures of audiovisual images, whether they're beautiful or sad, or both. The way the soundtrack of Little's life is both a choral work by Mozart and the shrillest of train blasts. The way black boys and their environments constantly look red, white, and blue, with irony but also earnestness. (This is America.) The way the red and white of Kevin's restaurant is an eye-popping change from the indigos and deep umbers of other scenes, but also a callback to reds and whites of childhood, percolating among all those blues. The way Juan and Teresa's yard is so emerald green, surrounding the butter-and-white refuge of their house. The way Juan's oceanside speech to Little is framed, scripted, and delivered as an all but explicit homage to Furious Styles. The way Juan always looks at Little, and the way he's forever licking his lips, but not at all wolfishly, in Mahershala Ali's impeccably heartfelt and richly detailed performance. The way the movie boldly fades in on the Boris Gardiner ballad whose title is yours to look up, if you don't already know. The way Teresa and Chiron fold a bedsheet, and have a conversation they are also not having, because he won't. The way Paula, a character the movie loves but is haunted by, whom it knows the audience will judge harshly even if we also empathize, at least gets her own magenta signature, repeated nowhere else, and her unbroached world of privacy, so it's visually and narratively clear that we don't know everything there is to know about this woman. The way even a cracked syringe held up to sunlight is beautiful, but no less sad for that. The way Kevin picks Little up from the ground, and the beauty of a grass staina Proustian madeleine for so many of us, even if some of the memories it revives are bruisy. The way Kevin coaxes Chiron out toward the beach and touches him there, and lets himself be touched. The way the waves sound as they touch, and the way the film does not entitle us to experience this whole scene.
The way Nicholas Britell's score is so hard to describe, because of the emaciation of my own musical vocabulary, but also because so many of its sounds resemble the way half-processed emotions feel, more than they resemble the way most instruments or at least most movie scores sound. The way no one instrument dominates this score, the way no one face is the face of Chiron. The way André Holland smokes into a camera, the way the movie says, "Fuck a Marlboro Man, this is a Marlboro Kar-Wai!" The way Black holds his utensils. The way Black drives to Florida in one black T-shirt and then changes in the parking lot to a different black T-shirt, a deeply self-conscious and micro-managed simulacrum of casualness. The way Paula's rehab facility is also a Jane Wyman garden, and the justly famous story of how Trevante Rhodes, unacquainted with Naomie Harris until they sat to film this scene, rescued her best take with a spontaneous kindness that also deepens and elevates this already-deep, already-elevated movie. The way Ashton Sanders walks leaning forward, as if into life's wind, as if weighed by another backpack even heavier than his actual backpack. The way editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders are willing to hold a few beats on the abruptly felled Terrel, a repeated menace who nonetheless merits our pity, at least a moment of compassion, as he lies there, broken and humiliated, after administrating earlier breaks and humiliations. The way Barbara Lewis sings. The way Aretha Franklin sings. (I mistyped "sangs," and almost left it.) The way Goodie Mob raps. The way Chopin isn't so sacred he can't be chopped and screwed. The way Trevante Rhodes acts, which is perfectly. The way Black starts to quiver, a sudden epilepsy of the soul, more than a stirring of the loins, as he prepares to confide something Kevin won't see coming. The way Kevin has a bulletin board but almost nothing on it. The way Little fills his tub. The way Chiron, adolescent Chiron, is so heartbreaking and bereft after a beating that his principal, and/or the actress playing her, cannot maintain the stone wall of tough love and becomes more outwardly solicitous mid-scene. The way Kevin and Black hold each other, no matter what this moment precedes or follows or replaces. The way Little looks back at us. The way Black listens to "Cucurrucucú Paloma" during his drive back to Florida.
The pleasures of unanswered questions. Does Black really listen to "Cucurrucucú Paloma," or is that the movie's own mixtape? The hard cut that finds him pulling into the restaurant lot finds Jidenna booming through his speakers with the bass on max. But is it really so hard to imagine Black listening to both during this drive? Mightn't you listen to both? Why does the high-angle on Black driving suddenly share the screen with a tenderly superimposed tableau of African American children playing in the surf? We know Little couldn't even swim before Juan taught him, and we never see him return to the waterthough, to be fair, we missed a lot of years. We see that the Little who returns our gaze in the film's final shot is on a beach alone at night, which is an easier way to envision him than amid this more boisterous scene. What is Black remembering, or fantasizing, in this image of group exuberance in a rolling tide? Is this Black's memory or fantasy, or the film's, or ours? Why, when Black arrives to Kevin's restaurant, does the building look exactly the way Black pictured it in a dream, as does Kevin, despite the emphatic point that Black has never seen this place, or this incarnation of his long-ago friend and temporary lover? What does Teresa know about how Juan makes his money? What are Teresa's days like, separate from Juan? What are Paula's days like, separate from her son, then or now? How did Jenkins find these three actors to play these three Chirons, who are incontrovertibly one Chiron, and yet many Chirons, and who had no permission to observe each other's performances mid-process? I didn't mean to exceed the bounds of the text, but it's one of the most stunning questions hanging over Moonlight, and I have to ask. Anyway. What does Black hope, fear, or expect, at any point during his reunion with Kevin, which he has driven miles and miles to ensure? What does Kevin hope, fear, or expect? Even in the moments we see, when are their hopes, fears, or expectations in sync, or not? What will become of Kevin and Chiron, together or separately? When Chiron asks if Kevin remembers, is he thinking of the sex or the violence, or both? What is Kevin thinking of? Is there any way for anyone, you, me, Chiron, to identify the most important or influential figure in their lives, positively, negatively, or neutrally? If there were such a way, is Chiron's answer Paula, Kevin, or Juan? How much must the movie love us to leave us with all these questions?
Moonlight debuted in 2016, rolling in like the Florida surf across September, October, November, December. That means it was ineluctably woven into the story I just told about how I lived that fall. I first saw Moonlight at a one-night, sold-out Chicago Film Festival screening on October 26. Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Naomie Harris, and André Holland were all there, in a very specific interval when it was tangible that Moonlight was becoming More than anyone had dared hope, but it wasn't yet what Moonlight eventually became, nor was it yet inevitable that things were trending that way, or that far. It was so exciting. The room was so bonded, almost molecularly. This was the world we now lived in. These were the movies that were now possible, so new and yet so openly indebted to and plainly influenced by movies that have always been here, in African America, across all Americas, around the whole world. I knew that night Moonlight would be in my life forever. I knew it would be the next topic for two-hour discussion in the monthly film group I lead. I couldn't wait to see it again. A deeply unlucky 13 days later, on November 8, the election. Was that world gone? Was it only ever in my head? Would we still belong to "the world," or had we just rudely recused ourselves? What would be the fate of Moonlight in a country with such an appetite for its own destruction, so fearsomely marshaled against men like Chiron? I saw the movie again on November 10, partly as balm, partly as brush-up. I don't know if Moonlight felt so much sadder to me that second time because of all these situated reasons or because of my frequent habit of feeling so elated by cinematic artistry, even in hugely depressing movies, that I don't fully absorb the sadness until a return trip. What would it be like as a white, liberal idealist suddenly brought so low to discuss this movie at this time with 30 white women, all liberals as far as I knew, all poring through our shared aesthetic experience, and surely fumbling at times in our language for conflicts and lifeworlds that none of ours approximated. Also, if somebody didn't like Moonlight, or if the whole room hadn't liked Moonlight, would I lose it? What exactly would I lose?
Talking about Moonlight with that group on November 14 remains my single happiest memory from a very beleaguered time. I can still access it fully, amidst an even more beleaguered time. The questions, the curiosity, the forthcoming descriptions of deep response, the candid admissions of caveats or likes that were not loves, the differing opinions over enigmas and whether the film should have allowed them to persist. The markings of our own limitations of perspective and the requirements of respectful spectatorship, even as the film issues full invites for broad participation and we eagerly RSVP'd to those invites. The way these stipulations of vantage and bias opened discussion further, rather than closing it, as some incorrigibily insist that they must. But also the women's knowledge, echoing Moonlight's own evocation of a world that is both big and small. One participant, just back from six weeks canvassing for Hillary in the exact district where Moonlight takes place, described what she experienced as an artistically motivated foregrounding of some milieus in Liberty City and a corresponding omission of othersand how it might, for example, have been possible if the film desired this to indicate a gradient of environments between Paula's projects and Juan's horn of plenty. What did it mean that such middle-ground was mostly invisible in the movie, if not in life? Well, shared another participant, I had my first teaching job in that exact school, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I was one of only four white instructors in the school, and whether it's a meticulous reconstruction or a snapshot of a facility that's been untouched for decades, it looked exactly like what I recall. And if I hadn't known already that classroom teaching would largely be about listening, boy did I learn it during those years in Miami. Not that I was who many of my students felt like talking to.
Worlds don't go away, or not as readily as it sometimes feels they do, for ample reason. Worlds are indeed smallthough also quite large, to say nothing of the smallness and largeness of internal worlds, such as the more or less incarcerated headspace of Chiron, possibly testing in those closing scenes whether his mental door must stay locked. My conversations about Moonlight have of course, even more than with most films, taught me more than my private reflections on it. One thing I've learned, or at least a knowledge that's been amplified more and more intensely, is that Moonlight means things to some viewers that it can never mean to others, no matter how much we love it or how well we feel we know it. And something else I've learned from talking about Moonlight on that day four Novembers ago, when I most needed a conversation like this, is that Moonlight can still to different degrees belong to all of us, or to everybody willing to let it in. And this isn't just a liberal, universalist bromide but a reflection that we've all had complicated lives, with details and cul-de-sacs unknown even to good friends. When a team of artists furnishes a world of bracing specificity, especially one that commercial cinemas have mostly neglected, we respond with our own specificities, and maybe even learn things about ourselves as well as others. Which is why Moonlight must always be cherished, and why I hope several unmade Moonlights might still get made.
Honorable Mentions: I wish reviewers and audiences had shown the same curiosity about Andrew Ahn's Spa Night (2016), another seldom-screened story of queer coming-into-being, that they did about Moonlight. Ahn's film treats David (Joe Seo), a Korean American teen in Los Angeles, maintaining a poker face through a palimpsest of at least three problems: his parents' restaurant is failing, and the only way their pride will tolerate help is if he sneaks cash surreptitiously into their wallets; his grades aren't good enough to get him accepted to college, so he'd better find a decent job to tide him over next year; and he's either finally realizing or finally facing his sexual interest in other men, but isn't at all ready for open, face-to-face conversation or even app-based hookups. Winning a night-shift job at the local Korean spa might be the perfect answer to all these pressures: money in the family bank, a stable gig, and visual access to nude men in a space where touch is expressly forbidden. As you're guessing, nothing goes quite to David's plan, but the movie works formidably well on every level. The photography, sound, editing, scripting, and acting are all transfixing, the story very poignant, and the cultural specificity a welcome and rigorous foundation for a film that remains totally accessible to any sympathetic audience. Among black queer protagonists in commercial cinema this decade, I admit the feature-length version of Dee Rees's Pariah (2011) didn't hit me as hard as her earlier and appreciably different short film, but I still love it, and still wonder often where Alike is and how she's doing, as I do with Chiron. From Bradford Young's lusciously saturated cinematography to the unforgettable youthfulness and discomfort of Adepero Oduye's Alike, so much of Pariah is seared in my brain.
15. Things to Come (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016)
Because I have the nicest readers in the world, I am trusting everyone not to steal the idea for a longer article I've wanted to write for a while and am feeling enough critical distance to attempt once this countdown has concluded. I remember at the end of 2016 feeling really floored by the number of movies released that year, more and more as its end approached, where women figured as the heirs, interpreters, custodians, and transformative agents of history. In Arrival, Amy Adams's linguist emerged as one of the United States's chosen envoys to an inscrutable delegation of aliens in enormous ships; as a professor myself, I can say this is the most distressing but also most exciting depiction in movie history of who might drop by during office hours, and what they might ask. More than this, Adams's Louise becomes an oracle of historical knowledge, of a type that practically explodes the whole notion of "history" without stripping it of stakes or seriousness. Terence Davies's A Quiet Passion privileged a view of Emily Dickinson as responding poetically to the historical and political crises of her timesomething virtually every Dickinson scholar has confronted for decades but which popular depictions still mostly closet inside Recluse of Amherst clichés. Bold anachronisms and time-lapse portraiture in that film also evoke history's passing as itself a formal and conceptual problem, for Dickinson and for cinema. Pablo Larraín's Jackie, a film I don't even care for, nonetheless bears a provocative vision of a First Lady, viewed initially as a history-making man's comely companion, revealing herself on television as the learned, media-savvy docent of a history-rich space. And that's not the half of it. She emerges, via a grotesque ordeal, as the fast-acting, forward-thinking, deeply self-aware author of a romantic narrative that becomes indistinguishable, as per her intents, from historical fact. In Aquarius, already covered on this countdown, Sônia Braga's Clara, aptly named, holds onto legacies of the past that her own children think she has unduly elevated. While the film does not regard her own past or standpoint as flawless, Clara wades into archival documents and legal arcana and then breaches corporate offices, where she becomes a club-wielding avenging angel of popular memory. In Mike Mills's 20th Century Women...well, we'll get to that one soon.
Emblematic of this trend is Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come (the original French title is L'avenir, or The Future), in which philosophy professor Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) discovers that some of her present students, in the heat of a volatile campus protest, find her political commitments insufficient. She then receives a sharper, unforeseen critique from a past pupil she greatly favors, now a philosopher himself. This former protégé, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), challenges Nathalie's longstanding self-perception as a radical thinker and admits he has always found her outlook fundamentally bourgeois. Nathalie totally contests this claim, but it does get to her. We feel her embark on a period of self-review that is more trenchant and interesting than a superficially flagellating self-rebuke. It also entails a film-wide reflection on what it means to live a lucid life, a just life, and how those ideals manifest in one's isolation from or connectedness to other people, including former intimates. More than anything, the movie ponders the historically specific predicament of an economically secure and socially privileged white woman reckoning with her own life's work of challenging ideas ("challenging" is a verb and an adjective here), which may, from a rising generational perspective, seem of little use.
That, at least, is how I took Things to Come, for reasons that already computed to me while watching it in early September 2016, then darkened and deepened after November 2016. What a year, indeed, for white women in relation to notions of history and global custodianship, or to debates about radical vs. reformist mindsets and whether they can possibly coexist. I first absorbed the movie amid the seeming ascendancy of the U.S.'s first (white) female president, rife with evident contradictions, repeatedly confronted with other people's withering assessments of what she perceived as a lifetime of progressive action. Her loss and, with it, the world's lossespecially excruciating to ponder on this night, as missiles launch and land, and citizens worldwide prepare for some likely cataclysm, all because of the deranged recklessness of our putatively elected leaderstemmed from a host of reasons that of course I won't probe or prioritize here. But there is no question in my mind that the civic rebuff of this wildly uneven, often infuriating, but nonetheless quite brilliant, quite effective, indisputable change-maker, a rebuff of historical scale and planetary consequence, derived in part from what I considered overstated and disastrously ill-timed attacks on the insufficient radicality of her reformism. I understand completely that genuine, comprehensive restructuring has always been treated as something "we" can get to in a minute, as a thing forever to come. I mean, fair e-fucking-nough. But given the scope of the diabolical alternative we all now know too well? I think full denouncing of the only credible alternative could have waited. And HILLARY = TRUMP, much less HILLARY < TRUMP, could have waited forever, till exactly never.
These attacks were prosecuted in no small part by white women, who as a collective demographic endorsed a madly unqualified misogynist, rapacious in more senses than the economic. I won't take the time to look up statistics for white women who voted for Stein or Johnson or nobody, and thereby also voted for Trump, but simply took more circuitous routes from Point A to Point ☠. The biggest reason I won't do that is that as a white man, no matter how I identify and operate politically, I belong to the one constituency that has no business casting collective aspersion on anybody, regarding this election or regarding virtually anything. And if I feel as I do, imagine the feelings of the many (many, many, many) white women who put everything on the line, more than I did, and long have done so, and still do, in so many ways, to create the world which that benighted election seemed once more to retract. So I'll just return to my basic point, which is this: art houses and multiplexes were full that year of women writing history, witnessing history (though often not as the main authors of record), making history (though often from segregated sidelines), reporting history (or being so blocked from doing so that despair engulfed them). Meanwhile, the most public and momentous history-maker-to-be, whom many of us hoped could be pushed even further left, as she had been through the drafting of her convention platform, was suddenly pushed off a cliff, as were we all. Everybody who voted against her, with core support from aggressively, rabidly white men, but also including plenty of women checking obviously noxious boxes and pulling plainly dangerous levers at the voting station, became the real history-makers. I envy Nathalie her access to philosophical sangfroid. I had little then and have little now.
But not every thought I carried into Things to Come or took out of it allows me to judge so imperiously. I am totally cognizant of being, like Nathalie, though lesser in years and in achievement, a white university professor who credits my research, pedagogy, and campus-based advocacy work with progressive upshots and motives. But by what standards or by whose criteria do I assume this? Which of my students, including those I might cast in my mind as fans or fellow thinkers, might harbor incisive critiques that they've never confessed, or may only develop later? Some, I am 100% clear, would (or will?) read the preceding paragraph and have very harsh words for me, whether or not I ever hear them. I had just that summer reorganized my faculty position and teaching load to accommodate a more formal role in campus-based equity work on behalf of students from underrepresented identity groups. I hoped this role could contribute to real, systemic changes but knew it might prove totally circumscribed in its radius of impact. I might feel better about serving exceptional young scholars too rarely served, which is a concrete and serious value. But would the role, would I extend further, disturbing more of what needs disturbing? Mentees and other students I met through this work might be especially well-positioned to perceive and verbalize the limits of my own liberal vantage point, which would be no less painful for being foreseeable, and no less true for being painful. So Things to Come did not land with me as a parable about a geographically and generationally distant woman whose inner and outer conflicts were alien to my own. I felt vicariously humbled by Fabien's soft-spoken but unmistakable castigation of an advisor who felt that, whatever the other limits of her job or her conduct of it, at least she had reached this young thinker even more gifted than herself. So when I returned post-election to Things to Come, was I only thinking about all the radicals who'd ridden Hillary so hard they convinced themselves she was Trump's mirror image (or even worse!), or of women whose electoral choices struck me as indefensibly out of sync with many of their own interests, and with most of the country's interests, and with all of the earth's interests? I admit I was thinking all of that. But no, I did not and could not exonerate myself from Nathalie's own work of self-critique.
And aside from that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? Since you apparently think you're Mrs. Lincoln. I know. I agree. This entry is laying bare where I was as a spectator of Things to Come and where I am tonight. Nowhere good. So let's juxtapose my own earnest messiness against the limpid style and crystalline focus of Hansen-Løve's script and direction. They are agitated over all the same ethical and philosophical issues, even before the Rubicons of Brexit, of Trump, etc., but she has nonetheless distilled them to the clarity of spring water. The movie has a flawlessly steady rhythm, not in the usual sense of well-paced crescendo to some ultimate climax, but in a way that refuses peaks or valleys. This movie's articulation of story, theme, and character is as steady as a healthy heartbeat. I don't know how anyone does that, especially when addressing intellectual and epochal and political issues that boil a lot of people's blood. And make no mistake, Nathalie's life in the period covered by Things to Come is not one that suggests such a measured rhythm, such utterly non-perspirant piloting. I've singled out the ideological challenge she withstands from Fabien, because I do sense it's the cut that goes deepest for her. Maybe more accurately, the thrill of Fabien actively renewing contact with her and then the sobriety of finding herself demoted in his eyesdemoted, at least, by the measure of what she'd assumedis the two-tined fork jabbing at her conscience, making her a bit more insouciant and a bit more chastened than her norm. But this is a woman whose husband of decades announces a half-hour in that he's leaving her for someone else. A woman whose mother, equally afflicted with narcissism and depression, summons her constantly for non-emergency reasons, or for emergencies others see as self-inflicted, and then, eventually, she dies. And a woman whose publisher tells her that the work of which she's proudest needs an intensive makeover in order to stay "relevant." Actually, scratch that, the work is being binned. And her daughter gets pregnant. And she joins Fabien's pastoral commune for a while, which is deeply invigorating but also has to be embarrassing, because Nathalie's twice as old as anyone else. Worse, she surely perceives that the youngsters all assume that she, a newly single bourgeoise, has arrived carrying a torch, for her student. Also, when back in the city, she spots, in a city of millions of people, her husband and his new lover on the sidewalk. And her cat disappears. And then the cat comes back, but somehow the old thrill is gone.
This is the level of push-pull tribulation that Mia Hansen-Løve assigns to her protagonist. And then, to interpret her, she recruits Isabelle Huppert, cinema's uncontested queen of psychic extremity, so the potential for fireworks only escalates. But then, this film, and this performance: both of them, to quote Pablo Neruda, "bright as a lamp / simple, as a ring." For both women this is a consummate creative achievement, albeit more surprising for Huppert, whose astounding emotional clarity survives in the total absence of anything volcanic. It is more typical of Hansen-Løve, though never more arresting or hard-won than here. Even the movie's proclivity for framing Nathalie looking out of bright windows or over mountain valleys does not translate as a crutch for rendering introspection in visible terms. The whole cadence, the visual and sonic texture of the movie suggest a contemplative ambiance. There remains a real, palpable, audible world around Nathalie, but its volume is slightly down, the light just a bit haloed and feathery, in ways that suggest to me a very slightly out-of-body quality or, better, a slightly lost-in-thought quality, consistent with Nathalie's point of view.
On top of all that, I see the movie's judicious tone, steady pulse, and narrative architecture as a major generic intervention. I say this because Things to Come is a divorce film, squarely based in a renounced wife's perspective, that refuses to depict her as shattered, bouleversée by the rejection. More than that, the movie stipulates the comparable importance, even in some ways the greater importance of Nathalie's other preoccupations. It's hard to think of other movies that similarly frame this experience, especially for a woman of Nathalie's age. To be clear, neither the script nor Huppert's performance suggest Nathalie's indifference to her newfound solitude; we are attuned to the grief she is feeling, sometimes at sudden, unspoken moments when she appears slightly distracted, in a conversation about something else. But Nathalie, ever the philospher, is interested in solitude as a human problem, one with its own ties to reason and ethics. Her occupation, her entire backstory, is not arbitrary scene-setting for who she really becomes: a woman in distress over a man, on behalf of a family that won't be the same. She's contemplating this, as she would anything. Reading lots, as ever. Experimenting with where she might go, how she might act, how other relationships might evolve vis-à-vis her new personas as ex-wife and as object of ideological skepticismnot necessarily in that order. And sometimes, none of this is remotely on her mind. This all might be a reform to conventions for telling this kind of woman-centered story, but it sure feels radical.
Hansen-Løve's refusal of histrionic directing or writing is utterly of a piece with her artistic self-presentation in earlier features, of which my prior favorites were The Father of My Children, a story of a woman and a family suddenly abandoned by very different means, and Eden, a kind of origin story for French house music that takes unexpected shape as a kind of mini-epic of inchoate affect. Who but Hansen-Løve would use Daft Punk and closely cognate figures to tell a story about inwardness, sometimes even isolation, rather than one of exuberance and noise? In the case of Things to Come, Hansen-Løve's temperament honors Nathalie's temperament, which in a way is no surprise, since she also wrote the script. But for me, it's a transformative reframing of how we might ponder junctures in personal and public history that would be easy to label as catastrophic, and accordingly scream into every wind. I'm hardly saying that "catastrophe" is the wrong label. I'm not anti-screaming. But there's wisdom and active choice, not passivity or mere expressive default, in Hansen-Løve insisting that all the threads of life keep unfurling, even when every loom seems to self-destruct, and every spool goes flying. Balanced perfectly on its own beam, Things to Come is a rigorous and gutsy display of something close to serenity, especially given its narrative and historical circumstances. It's a persuasive brief for Nathalie's own greatest conviction, which is the value, not remotely dated or quietist, of a philosophical vantage point. It's moving and, I think, ingenious and brave that Hansen-Løve even thinks to deploy an unsteady interlude in the life of a well-to-do white female intellectual as a credible prism for asking about the state of our world, and the nasty divorces that keep proliferating among different leftists who once imagined themselves as the same, or at least assumed each other as allies. It is almost old-fashioned, but in my view very vanguard and very tricky, to advance a contemporary film on this platform: there is value in critical distance, value in refusing cathartic excess, value in abjuring convenient biases and familiar genres, as we each attempt to face, really face, a world that has changed.
Honorable Mentions: I don't really know that Pedro Almodóvar's Julieta (2016) has all that organic a connection to Things to Come, and I have stalled a bit whenever I've tried to loop it into the article idea I described above. But I saw the two back-to-back at London's Curzon Bloomsbury cinema during an early-fall visit to the only Prince of England who interests me at all, Tim Robey. Spending four consecutive hours amid the internal lives and outside orbits of two complicated women, which two such thoughtful directors had found such totally different languages to articulate, is a ridiculously rare cinematic experience and one I'll always treasure, as I will the trip. And Julieta has nowhere near the number of champions it deserves, so it's worth a plug regardless. The summer prior, I saw the Blythe Danner vehicle I'll See You in My Dreams (2015) with my mom and two of her friends, and the long discussion we had afterward over food and drinks was a perfect encapsulation of everything movies miss when they don't pursue stories about intelligent, conflicted, inquisitive women in this age group. I'll See You... isn't aiming for the same kinds of themes or era-specific self-reflections that Things to Come is, but it catches a similar spirit of contemplative, bittersweet equanimity and wisdom, about living alone and about much else, when the end of middle age is closer than the beginning. It's become a personal pet. The Icelandic hit Woman at War (2018) stars a protagonist who's HAD IT with mere philosophizing. She heads out into the field with a bow-and-arrow, steadying it against that laudable chip on her leftist shoulder. The movie turns into a delicious genre composite of comedy and drama, of broad and subtle types, sometimes ticklish and sometimes sad. At heart, particularly as its end approaches, the movie is curious about the capacities and limits of effective protest in a drowning world, and the line between thinking radical thoughts and pursuing radical actions. I think Huppert's Nathalie would find it amusing, before turning back to her Pascal and Rousseau.
16. Life and Nothing More (dir. Antonio Méndez Esparza, 2017)
"At the end of the day, are you free, dead, or in jail?" This is the question an African-American man asks a small group of male high-school students, all of them black, in a Tallahassee classroom. Because we enter this scene in medias res and without much context, as often happens in Life and Nothing More, we don't know if he is these students' teacher, and if so, of what subject. Is he a military recruiter, or does every room in this school sport an American flag that huge? Are these students in detention, which would explain their sparse number and scattered placement in the room, and why this faculty member is riding them so hard about choices? Andrew (Andrew Bleechington), 14 years old, the only student we know in this room, pushed to the background but center-framed and clearest in focus, has been hearing a lot about his choices lately. A white born-again Christian, as dubiously friendly as a slice of pie that nobody ordered, approaches Andrew and two colleagues on a yard-cleaning crew, evangelizing them in a parking lot while they're on break and reminding them that "Life is based on decisions that you make." Afterward, the older man on this crew warmly counsels, "Stupidity is one thing you don't want to lose your life over." He suggests he already knows from Andrew's mother Regina (Regina Williams) that he's sliding on a scary slope, missing court-mandated counseling sessions after being caught breaking into cars, tempting fate in a country and a state not known for extending benefit of the doubt to young black men. Andrew's incarcerated father is the cautionary figure on Regina's mind, an object of omission or tart dismissal in conversation, his communications with Andrew effectively cut off. That info has already traveled to that disciplinarian in Andrew's school, whom the end credits list as an Anger Management Teacher and who folds in the jailing of Andrew's dad as relevant detail in his secular sermon about choosing to stay free. "You talk like you know my family or something," Andrew steadfastly repeats, by way of refusing this teacher's presumptions. "I know your family's locked up," he responds, and repeats his own trinity: free, dead, or in jail.
In proportion to its high quality, Life and Nothing More, is the most underseen American independent film of the 2010s. It's also a tricky movie to summarize but a perfectly straightforward and uncommonly absorbing one to watch. True to his title, director Antonio Méndez Esparza is less interested in a high-concept plot ("complicated family of three tries to stay together and out of harm's way"?) than in prioritizing the complexities, tradeoffs, and uncertain trajectories of day-to-day existence in a specific time and place, especially given its characters' class and identity positions. Here, nonetheless, are three attempts to encapsulate the experience, though you may want to rent it first on Amazon (free for Prime members) or directly from its consistently heroic U.S. distributor, Grasshopper Film before learning where it's going. One reading, moving forward from the film's beginning, weighs the relative truth and falsity for Andrew and Regina of that maxim that life is about choices, including their possible choice to stay connected or to drift apart as mother and son. As part of this open-ended deliberation, Life and Nothing More evokes multiple ways in which "choice" is a remote and constrained privilege in these two people's lives, and in some cases foreclosed by factors they didn't choose. A second reading, working backward from the film's end, might frame Life and Nothing More as a post-Trayvon drama about one sequence of threads and events that can land a 14-year-old kid squarely in the sights of the so-called juvenile justice system. As one prosecutor says of Andrew, with telling euphemism and another encore for the film's most fraught and most frequently repeated word, "He chose this path and now he should be held secure for it." Life and Nothing More manages to undertake this story without mounting the kind of explicitly violent scene that might feel most predictable and gruesomely familiar, and might have been especially impossible to watch after 90 minutes of getting to know these characters so deeply. What the movie does stage is distressing enough. While the closing scenes may suggest the worst has been avoided, you wouldn't call them reassuring, either.
A third way to describe Life and Nothing More, keyed neither to premise nor to culmination but to its entire production and the full experience of watching it, is as an unusually deep and extraordinarily generative act of collaboration between an expatriate filmmaker and a local cast of nonprofessionals. Together they try to elucidate a part of the country where life has temporarily brought them together. Méndez Esparza, a Spanish-born filmmaker in residence at Florida State's College of Motion Picture Arts, briefly relocated to Tallahassee for family reasons, wanted to make a film that he has described as "a journey of actually understanding the place where I lived." Having devised a loose narrative structure, but no script, Méndez Esparza searched for Tallahassee residents who could capably hold the camera but also inform and explore persuasively layered characters. Bleechington emerged in a nearby high school. Williams, a waitress and mother, like her character, accompanied her sister to an audition and, ten tryouts later, found herself with the part. Both used their real names, though these lives are not their own. Other people who appear secondarily or marginally across Life and Nothing More do the same: public defenders, doctors, teachers, tour guides, servers, day care supervisors, abortion providers. That parking-lot evangelist in the early scene wasn't even involved with the film; he spontaneously approached Méndez Esparza's crew, naïve to their task, and they captured the encounter. Imagine a group effort of mostly newcomers and amateurs, like Sean Baker's Florida Project or Tangerine, just as emotionally rich but played in a less neon key. Or imagine Boyhood about a working-class black family, covering less time in their lives but at equal or greater degrees of intimacy, opening up American experiences that even the gamest of Hollywood personages cannot inhabit or illuminate in the same way. Or consider Frederick Wiseman, with his propensity toward long, exploratory takes, and his preference for mosaic-style editing that leads you through without holding your hand, and his penchant for studying, learning, and reframing milieus by filming them at length. Imagine Wiseman bringing all of that to a two-hour fiction film about a hardworking single mother who loves her son but also battles with him, who dotes on her baby daughter Ry'nesia but is forced away from her for hours and hours of low-wage shifts, and who doesn't have time or patience for much else. And imagine Wiseman making the same film at the same time about a teenage son who loves but resents his mother, who resents even more her new boyfriend Robert (Robert Williams), who fears but misses his father, and who warmly tends to Ry'nesia but perhaps wishes this weren't his job. He carries and plays with a pocketknife the way that much younger child on Mr. Rogers held a sword, no doubt wanting to be asked if he feels strong holding that knife and why he yearns to feel stronger, but nobody asks him. Too many people just see a boy with a knife, or see the boy as a knife. You can guess how they respond.
People attempt this sort of film all the time, but rarely with such enormous payoffs. Part of why this one soars where so many stall out in listless mediocrity has to do with the casting and whatever generous, candid, alchemical process clearly transpired between the writer-director and his remarkable novices. Bleechington, like many performers I have praised in these entries, has to anchor so many images, from close-ups to long shots, alone or in groups, tranquil or volatile, without letting the temperature rise too much in his voice or the expression crack on his face. He's the still, quiet center of a movie that's nonetheless committed to preserving him as its subject, not its object, especially since his world's already rife with institutions, systems, and panicky white people with a quick trigger to objectify. Then there's Regina Williams, possessed of her own tranquility and stillness but capable, too, of tempestuous outcry and self-assertion. She crafts with zero prior experience one of the five or ten performances I'd soonest place in my cinematic time capsule of the last ten years. Her "Regina," who is and isn't the real Regina, fills the movie with dialogue, spirit, and a keen, lively watchfulness that give the audience plenty of entrypoints even as it remains clear that she speaks, acts, and exists for herself, not for our enjoyment. Her deflections of a too-assiduous suitor in her café is a great example of Williams's verbal quickness and shrewd assessments of the people around her and the situations she's inoften without her choosing, despite all those preachers and life coaches. But Williams also reveals, with the dexterity of a practiced performer, the paradoxes and dishonesties of Regina, as well as the loneliness she both confesses and conceals in the ways she engages her son and her boyfriend, who are very nearly the only people "in" her life. Her dialogue scenes are often minefields of flamboyance, guardedness, provocation, and retreat and would stymie many a lesser actor. Several scenes require even more fine-grained emotional and expressive parsing than that: Regina responding to an unplanned pregnancy, or surprising herself by enjoying a date with a man she doesn't trust, or confronting a woman who insists on seeing herself as a victim of Andrew's behavior, or challenging the two cops who arrested her son as a result. This is not just a miracle of finding exactly the right charismatic and camera-ready rookie for a low-budget film that will ride on the backs of unproven performers. This is a bonafide star, in a galaxy most films won't even explore.
As with the cast, the level of technique exhibited by the behind-the-scenes talent risks being under-appreciated because it refuses to parade its level of craftsmanship. The sound team, especially, might be misapprehended as simply recording life and nothing more, precisely as one might hear them in a stroll around greater Tallahassee. The mix and the individual sound edits, however, are doing much more than this. I'll take it as a sign of their perfect success that I didn't notice at all the first time I watched the movie, as they did their job of engrossing me in the environment and the scenario. But I couldn't stop noticing the second time, as I realized how crucial they'd been to what I felt as a first-time viewer, and still feel on repeat returns. The cleanness of the audio itself is a hard-won feat in so many heavily improvised scenes, many of them filmed in populous indoor or outdoor spaces where plenty of commotion is possible and even invited (life! nothing more, or less!). The closeness and clarity with which the characters' words arrive to us, feeling intimate even when the camera is distant, maintaining a direct connection with the listener even when the scene is about the characters being stifled, is a huge reason why Life and Nothing More feels so extraordinarily attuned to the lives it depicts. But sound also plays a major role as one of the suffocating forces over which characters struggle to breathe and be heard. Insects, woodpeckers, weed whackers, washing machines, dogs, sirens, car after car after car of unseen traffic: these and other ambient sounds are not just retained but loudly amplified throughout the movie. The mix is subtle enough that these noises can pass as "realism," but heightened enough that they, more than anything, conjure the level of existential claustrophobia that Andrew, Regina, and other characters are facing, even as they seem to inhabit wide-open spaces of sidewalks, strip malls, school yards, suburban parks, and undeveloped Floridian lots. Even the rolling white noise of air-conditioned rooms gives an agitating edge to domestic encounters, including those that remain docile. As with the sound, the editing work, spearheaded by Méndez Esparza and Santiago Oviedo, is both a practical coup of distilling so many years of long, separately-filmed, spur-of-the-moment sequences and a creative marvel of entering and exiting scenes at unexpected moments, raising questions we're not able or intended to answer completely about why events, conversations, and cycles of behavior are playing out as they do.
At one level, Life and Nothing More could be about anybody. "Populist" in the best sense, the movie starts on a shot of Regina and Andrew feuding on a public bus, but framed among several other passengers such that we can barely discern who's speaking. This moment and others like it remind us that everyone in Méndez Esparza's shots is a total castaway from most U.S. cinema and a great deal of U.S. media culture more broadly. Sensitive, detail-rich, non-idealizing movies about any of these bystanders' lives would also, I imagine, be plenty eye-opening, though it's foolhardy to expect every film, or any film, to be as nuanced and indelibly humane as this one, with its candid and compassionate eye on human conduct neither ugly nor beautiful. You could also take the film as a transformative dossier on things that get said at key moments in its script, and too often in U.S. life. The script and the actors beg to wean us of the disavowals of empathy, curiosity, and critical attention that these flat clichés bespeak. "I was just trying to protect my family." "This is not the time and place for us to sit and have this conversation." "I don't really feel comfortable talking about it." And of course, the eternally returning heavyweight, despite being such a flagrant lightweight, "It is what it is." The title of Life and Nothing More sounds like a virtual paraphrase of "it is what it is," but the movie's inquisitive spirit and profound dimensionality venture far in a totally opposite direction.
This inventive and revelatory fiction/nonfiction hybrid doesn't closely resemble most other movies to which you might apply the same label. It intervenes powerfully in other genres, too, from the courtroom drama to the dash-cam video, that I feel I've watched with even greater, deeper attention since seeing this film. When I saw it at Toronto, lured to it by nothing but a compelling capsule on the website and my own curiosity, the whole thing felt like a threshold of revelation but also an astute and dignifying proclamation of worlds and stories that many of us know but rarely see on screen. Williams and Méndez Esparza were meant to appear after that public screening, but they'd had to depart hastily the night before, so that she could go board up her home against the incoming Hurricane Irma, and Méndez Esparza could help her do it. Life and Nothing More is top-flight filmmaking from a team who seem to have maintained every connection, enviable and not, to a real world of insights, routines, and emergencies. Even when key scenes focalize the tenuousness or brokenness of important bonds, the filmmaking and, ultimately, the story emphasize the opposite. It's work, it's hard, it happens less often all the time, but we can still make the attempt, pay the visit, lift the receiver, quell the temper, put in the time, and be here for each other.
Honorable Mentions: New Zealand-born Jake Mahaffy, an interested and insightful newcomer to America like Antonio Méndez Esparza, also made a riveting and unusual drama about life among African Americans in the U.S. South. Free in Deed (2015), a Venice prizewinner that took two years reaching the States, tells a complicated story about miracles promised and attempted at a storefront Tennessee church. In the process, it touches some nerves that Life and Nothing More also touches, including several related to single mothers of young sons. Mahaffy's movie also centrally explores some areas that are pertinent but more peripheral to Méndez Esparza's, like the self-censuring failures of grown men to serve young boys in the ways they've pledged or intended to, inhibited either by systems they can't control or boondoggles of their own creation. Yet another expat, Roberto Minervini, previously represented on this list by The Other Side, mixed fiction and nonfiction modes of cinema in his own exceptional portrait of African American community and eclectic models of leadership in Louisiana and Mississippi, provocatively titled What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? (2018). Judy Hill and Regina Williams should run as a ticket for high office, though Minervini's film also makes clear why the New Black Panthers are suspicious of anybody who would run for office. Finally, I think a lot of people who disliked Trey Edward Shults's Waves (2019) may have been hoping for a film closer in spirit, style, and perspective to Life and Nothing More, with its equally refined but much less grandiloquent sonic and visual languages, and less sensational narrative turns. I understand why Waves is polarizing, but I think it earns most of its big leaps and gestures, and rises still further with the shifted focus of the second half, quietly anchored by Taylor Russell's perfectly porcelain performance.