Thoughts on a Post-COVID Cinema (and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”)

Usually (a key word, there, usually!) around this time, the Oscar nominations are out and I’ll have an essay on this site about my top ten movies from the year before and other things which caught my eye. But February 2021 isn’t a usual time…it’s been eleven months since I set foot in a movie theater and the nominations won’t be announced until next month! Even more to my shame, even though there’s several films that are available right now for free that will be legit Academy contenders, the amount and variety of choices you get from streaming sites…and between all of us in the Rostan family we’ve run the gamut…often results in my saying “screw it” more often than not. I look at all my options and then throw on The Great British Baking Show or Top Chef again.

(Note: Season Ten/Collection 7 of TGBBS is one of the most comforting things anyone could watch now, a dramatic show where part of the drama comes from how everyone genuinely cares about each other from the first episode and no one wants to see somebody else lose. It’s NICE PEOPLE doing COOL THINGS.)

That being said, I have seen more 2020 new releases than I have for previous years (in part thanks to splurging for a CIFF pass) as well as more old movies than I’ve seen in a long while…you can find my reviews on Letterboxd, where I’ve gotten pretty darn active! Doing so, combined with living on my own and thus having lots of time to think when I’m not writing or cleaning the house, has led me to consider what the movies will be like post-COVID.

I hadn’t even realized this was a thought of mine until September, when the rumination began under special circumstances. Part of what’s kept me even-keeled during the pandemic is I ended up becoming part of a circle who watches a film together every week in curated series like you’d get at a repertory house. There’s never been people I’ve loved diving into movies with more, and in our series we mix flat-out masterpieces with the occasional stinkers…that we didn’t know at the time were stinkers but we wanted to check out because they fit a theme.

What happened in September was I watched one of the single worst abominations trying to pass itself off as a movie I’d ever seen. I won’t even give these 90 minutes of unpleasant or thoroughly bland characters saying words that someone allegedly thought were jokes the courtesy of a name. But while processing my thoughts, I wrote this:

It astonishes me that Columbia Pictures thought that this film would appeal to anyone at all (Yes, this was a major release)…and it makes me hope that post-pandemic, as the studios gear up again and have to think more seriously about what they’re investing their money in for a changed world, we might not have unconscionable dreck like this anymore.

Of all the things, right? But that was what got my train of thought rolling. As soon as Biden and company have us all vaccinated and we can resume normal life or something like it again, there’s going to be so many factors going into how the movies carry on. Streaming is, again, a bigger deal than ever, and after a year people have gotten used to not going out to the point where the business of actual, physical theaters is on the brink. (Drive-ins were a fun substitute, but you’re also gonna get movies like Ammonite which aren’t designed for that sort of projection.) Moreover, production of movies is moving in two different directions. While the major Hollywood concerns shrink more and make less, with an emphasis on existing intellectual property with a few exceptions for awards season (The Walt Disney-Fox behemoth being the key here, as the MCU and more roll on with no end in sight), the democratization of film…the very aspect which defines all I love most about the medium…hasn’t stopped either. Judging by the reactions to Sundance last month and most of the pictures that are cleaning up at the critics’ awards, small-scale production is alive and well, maybe in even more of a position to thrive than ever as the responsible among us ease back into group activity.

I don’t see either of these trends slowing down, especially as theaters reopen and the industry wants to get people back into seats. Spectacle, of course, is one way to do that. And I, person whose favorite director of all is David Lean, who sweated through all my clothes seeing Dunkirk in 70mm, who considers Avengers: Endgame and Into the Spider-Verse Warholian-level pieces of pop art, isn’t going to turn down the return of mega-filmmaking.

But in rereading my Letterboxd diaries, I’ve found that for 2020 and now well into 2021, there’s a kind of story I’m drawn to more than ever. More than any of the above examples.

Which leads us to Never Rarely Sometimes Always.


Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the third feature film from writer-director Eliza Hittman, is hitherto the only 2020 release I’ve considered worthy of a five-star rating. Those who know me won’t be surprised when I say that it’s extraordinary. That I cried multiple times while watching it. These are what garner five stars from Andrew Rostan. But I want to talk more about what makes this film stand out for me, why it should stand out for you, and how I think it has a role to play in the future of cinema.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is about Autumn, a seventeen year-old living in Pennsylvania who discovers she’s pregnant. Autumn’s home life is far from the best, the crisis pregnancy center she goes to is (unsurprisingly) no help, and state law is draconian. The one person she can confide in is her cousin/best friend Skylar, and the two of them embark on a covert journey to New York City so Autumn can have an abortion.

That’s the plot. But as Ebert would say, a movie isn’t about what it’s about (although especially now what this film says about being a person who can get pregnant in America speaks volumes) but how it’s about it, and what Hittman does in showing the how is remarkable. Her gift at invoking the atmosphere of a location is one of the finest I’ve seen in years; for the first part of the picture, when she shoots schools and restaurants and big box stores and standard homes you could find in any suburb or small town in Pennsylvania, nothing looks artificial and nothing looks touristy, or filmed through a filter that Hittman is putting such places down. There’s a detail, a usage of color and editing and shadow, that makes everything feel so real you’re there in a way that someone with a pre-judgment of the location could never achieve. When Autumn and Skylar get to New York City, their journey begins at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Take it from someone who’s had to navigate it at 11:30 at night: there’s no better way to immediately feel the biggest city in the nation’s askew than to wander through the Port Authority trying to figure out where you need to go. There’s nothing romantic about Hittman’s New York but again, there’s nothing where she’s saying it stinks either. It’s a place full of endless streets and starkly lit rooms and divey corners that would overwhelm any newcomer but especially two teenagers.

But besides giving us atmospheres, Hittman excels at showing faces. There’s not much dialogue in this movie, and that dialogue is more given over to snatches of conversation and casual remarks than exposition. This is a movie that respects an audience in letting us know from a single look on a person’s face…and not a melodramatic look either…how they think and feel. It’s from those looks and not as much what they say that we learn Autumn doesn’t like her mom’s partner and doesn’t trust the people giving her information about her options, and that Skylar has a vague dissatisfaction with the way her life is now that makes doing something different an enticing prospect.

None of it would be possible if Hittman hadn’t cast Sidney Flanigan (who’s also a punk rock bandleader) and Talia Ryder (who’s also a Broadway dancer) as Autumn and Skylar. Flanigan and Ryder are really good actors, on the verge of greatness, and their chemistry through the film is so believable. But they have the gifts of supremely interesting faces and being able to do so much without words. I watch Flanigan and Ryder’s expressions and know I’m in the company of intelligent people operating on instinct, conveying the sense of being in the moment, of convincing you this is real life and not merely something from a script.

This work builds to the scene that most shattered me: Autumn meeting with a truly sympathetic social worker (wonderfully played by Kelly Chapman) before her procedure and being asked about her history with sex and relationships. It’s a long scene, the dialogue at the barest minimum, but in the intersection of Hittman’s camera, Flanigan’s reactions, and what we’ve seen come before, we get an entire, heartbreaking history of a girl’s growing up. It could have been a short film of pure genius all by itself, and that it’s a flowing part of a long, engrossing narrative is artistic spoiling.

It makes me think of my greatest takeaways from the film; Autumn and Skylar as figures of quiet desperation in an age where so much is uncertain the world over, but also quiet strength. There’s an unspoken potential that their lives in their hometown could go nowhere, and a spoken one in terms of cinematic language that those lives are full of heartache, and they’re ultimately headed towards more heartache to come. But the story unfolds to show Autumn, a private, quiet person, show more vulnerability and emotion than she has before, and Skylar, due to interactions with unexpected “ally” (and I use that word and the quotations with reason)  Jasper, played without guile by Theodore Pellerin, realizing what she’s capable of doing for someone she loves and what limits she will set for herself in the future. Hittman’s implication is that they can—not that they always will, but they can—overcome the obstacles in their way, and they now know they can overcome them and have learned more about themselves, and this is a powerful, earned victory. Between that message (which is 99% of this combo) and an unexpected shoutout to Gerry and the Pacemakers, this film won over every bit of my heart and soul.

Best of all, this film doesn’t have the classical stakes Hollywood would insist upon it having.

SPOILER ALERT: The trailers I saw in January during my last ventures to movie theaters (Again, remember those?) implied that there would be suspense from the girls losing all their money or getting stranded in a place with no assistance. These things don’t happen! And the film’s better for it!


All of this is to say that in giving Never Rarely Sometimes Always my highest praise and then looking back on what I’d also valued in my 2020 movie watching, I found that what I’m most drawn to now are not giant, sweeping epics, as much as they may help escape the unsettled life around us all, but stories told on an intimate scale. Stories where the conflicts aren’t traditionally major but the real dilemmas we go through every day. Stories that could come across as quiet and are always observatory…and that make us care about life more

The grandmaster of this type of filmmaking for me will always be Agnes Varda; especially with her masterpiece, Cleo From 5 to 7, but also in films like La Pointe Courte and Vagabond, she showed there was something revolutionary…and still revolutionary…in telling a micro-observed story of life, especially from a non-masculine point of view. And there’s so many more examples I could name. Kathleen Collins’s recently rediscovered early 1980s film of rare genius, Losing Ground. Stephen Cone’s beautiful, touching, occasionally hilarious tales of growing up and the intersection of the secular and spiritual, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party and Princess Cyd—the latter one of the most moving stories I’ve ever seen. Jonathan Demme at his most down-to-earth: Melvin and Howard, Rachel Getting Married, and the first part of Something Wild. (The second part of Something Wild is freaking great too but veers into a new tone more conventional trappings, while the first part, like the aforementioned films, revels in random, plotless, anything-can-happen quality). The works of David Gordon Green up to the deeply underrated Snow Angels. And most recently, Joanna Hogg’s inventive, dazzling The Souvenir.

What I want to believe is that films like these and Never Rarely Sometimes Always will in a post-COVID world find an audience; probably not one on the scale of Disney but one enough for them to play for long runs in theaters and have the best platforms pick them up. Again, I will never turn away from the gigantic that feels all the more awesome due to the big screen and the lights going down in a big theater. But the pandemic has reinforced for me that my soul craves movies where the stories are more intimate. Dare I say it…more everyday and commonplace. Because we’ve been missing out on the everyday and commonplace for so long that we’re being reminded how special it is. And one person or a few people’s self-discovery and transformation can and does carry all the impact of uniformed heroes or a plucky woman with a lightsaber saving the universe…and I’ll take the first over the second, with more of a chance to learn something about me, every time.

(But rest assured that as I praise intimate drama/comedy, I’m not including that new film where a man annoys his girlfriend and in all likelihood his neighbors by yelling about Barry Jenkins and William Wyler until sunrise.)

Considering SHE-RA

THERE really is no way for me to be able to write a single, unified take concerning She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which concluded on May 15th. My thoughts are too giant, too varied. So consider this a start.

And there’s going to be massive spoilers for the entire series.

If I could summarize the entire show in one frame, I’d pick this one.

TO begin with, I was just little enough that I missed the heyday of She-Ra: Princess of Power and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. (I do remember my cousin had the Crystal Castle playset.) By the time I was old enough to get into Saturday morning cartoons and action figures, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the apple of my eye. That said, I’ve never not been conscious of She-Ra, especially in nerd culture circles, where it’s treated with alternatively ironic appreciation and deep, heartfelt love. (I have friends who grew up with the original show and they have zero interest in the new show.)

In the midst of my complete series watch, I looked to Wikipedia to read about the 80s cartoon and watched several episode of that same show. Apart from all the characters being female except Bow and Hordak…it was basically the same as every 80s action-adventure cartoon. A whole lot of people with magic and weapons fighting each other, with an explicit moral lesson at the end.

That’s maybe the first of many things I appreciate about She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. We’ve witnessed so many attempts to resurrect beloved bits of pop culture that try to add weight and grandeur to them, and usually we get things that spin out of control and collapse under their own weight or self-seriousness. She-Ra adds weight and grandeur (and keeps teaching good moral lessons while thankfully not having a magical creature to sum it up for us) but does so by telling one complete story in 52 episodes and filling it with a tone that mixes seriousness and humor in a perfect balance, and also never tips too far into darkness. For that, Noelle Stevenson and her writing team deserve so much credit. (Disclosure: I’ve been friends since college with Josie Campbell, the story editor who also wrote some of the show’s best episodes, so I’m a touch biased here.) But credit also goes to…

Continue reading

Caring Hurts

There’s a quote by Reverend Dave Barnhart that’s gone around Facebook lately in conversations about the continuing battle over reproductive health and the basic rights of humans to have control of their own bodies, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. This is a slightly edited version.

“’The unborn’ are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated…they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct…they don’t ask you to question patriarchy…they don’t need money, education, or childcare…they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage you dislike…they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating and maintaining relationships…and when they are born, you can forget about them because they cease to be unborn. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, and privilege, without reimagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone.”

I think this statement is true and also goes beyond the unborn.

A few days ago, I had a very long-overdue dental check-up. The CTA trains all stopped running at Sheridan, so I walked thirty-five minutes to get to the office. The CTA trains and buses have been halting service a lot these past weeks as Chicago, like so many other places, has had protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

After my cleaning was done, I called a Lyft and stood on the sidewalk…thankfully a long sidewalk with plenty of ways to keep six feet apart from others…and waited.

And I saw an entire march pass by. In the front were police officers on bicycles. In the back were a row of officers on foot and twenty or so cars. In the middle was a mile and a half, two mile long line of people. Almost all of them looked under thirty-five. The vast majority wore masks. They held up every Black Lives Matter sign under the sun.

I stood on the sidewalk giving them a raised fist.

There’s two things here.

First, I’ve been having deep conversations with people the past week about what’s happening in America now. And since 2014, I’ve been a part of protests, rallies, and marches that blocked the streets and had uncertain, confrontational endings. For BLM, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, in support of federal actions, the March For Our Lives in 2018 in Washington. I love being one small part using my body and voice to support something I believe in. And the only reason I didn’t get off the sidewalk and join in was that after two and a half months, I also looked at that crowd and had the same thought come into the back of my mind. “Is COVID spreading here? And if it is, would I get sick or get someone else sick? Especially since I was just around a whole bunch of strangers?”

No one I’ve talked to about it disagreed with me. And I’ve been sending money to Chicago bond organizations and Black Lives Matter for the past week. But in all my writing, I need to be honest. I felt a bit like a coward.

So I’m going to work on changing that. Most of my life in Chicago has been about me putting myself in uncomfortable places. Even if I don’t end up on the streets this time, I’m going to make sure I do what I can.

Second, I know people who were fed up from the start by Black Lives Matter. Who thought Colin Kaepernick should never have spoken up. Who thought peaceful protests were wrong. Who wish all of this would go away…although they had nothing to say about the other set of protests this year when people with guns rallied in state capitals against COVID restrictions and police did nothing. And who have shown more comfort and concern for the police officers, the ones who have militarized gear and weaponry, than any protestors who were hurt or killed.

For me, that attitude is like what Reverend Barnhart says about caring for the unborn. It’s a show of compassion that allows a person to not challenge themselves.

While the people, including great friends of mine, who are out on the streets are risking something more than ever. Risking getting sick. Risking getting hurt.

Caring hurts.

It’s a lesson I learned shamefully late in my life but I’m glad I learned it.

Caring hurts on every possible level you can care about something or someone from the moment you make that commitment.

If you have deep, great friendships, if you have a true and strong love for another person, to care means to feel their pain alongside them, and to know that what you have could end in heartbreak.

If you have something in your life that’s a vocation which means everything to you, it’s going to involve the pain and sweat of hard work and a lot of failures and efforts that might never be seen by anyone but you.

If you’re part of a social movement that wants to change things in a city, in a state, in a nation, in a world, even within your block or on a school, there’s going to be personality clashes, the frantic tedium of organizing and making plans, the weariness of arguing with people who oppose you, setbacks, reversals, sometimes watching things slip away while you try to stop them and can do nothing.

You realize you all by yourself can’t change the world…you can’t will things into existence…you can’t keep a relationship that’s dead together…you can’t do these things simply because you care.

It’s easy not to care.

It’s easy to hate, of course. Hate is something that doesn’t require you to think.

But not caring is different from hating.

It’s easy to shrug off concerns and write a check. And plenty of people don’t even write a check!

It’s also easy to care about something sincerely and then assume that anyone who doesn’t share the same belief, or is earnest about something else for different reasons, is someone not worth caring about. Easy to take whatever goodness and ideals you stand for and ignore or twist them.

And one of the lessons I’ve had to learn is that I can’t hate in the end. I can argue with people, and I will (I’m getting better at standing on matters of principle too), but when I really think about it, it’s hard on an intellectual level to begrudge people who choose not to care. Why would you open yourself up to being hurt, more and more?

But we aren’t living in a world driven by intellect. We live in a world where our very existence itself is driven by emotion, by desire, by beliefs, where facts can and hopefully, usually should be the basis for such emotions and desires and beliefs, but not always.

And I like that it’s “not always.” We need to let our emotions take the front seat now and then, and to imagine. It’s what makes us truly alive.

Because as soon we imagine something, be it a work of art we want to develop or an idea for a better world, or we let our emotions out and talk to the person who becomes our best friend or our deepest romantic love, we’re going to care. And it’s going to hurt.

And yet, we still do.

I use art to make sense of the world.

Recently, I’ve been reading books by amazing writers like Roxane Gay so I can further understand this moment we’re in.

And I’ve been watching stories. Stories about lots of things. About people who grow into something beautiful together but come apart because they can’t agree on how people should care. People who push themselves to every limit imaginable and are ready to die for the sake of caring about others, even those who oppose or betray them. People who grow increasingly cruel and destructive, pushing everyone in their lives who get close to them away, and are responsible for so much death and near death.

And these stories have such beautifully happy endings. Endings with what Gay would describe as “the smooth surfaces of idyll.”

Real life doesn’t guarantee happy endings the way writers can. That’s no surprise. And I never expect them to happen.

But what I do know, and I know writing this I am going to sound corny, is that while caring about something isn’t enough, it’s always at the beginning. The first time you make yourself vulnerable, or sign up for a cause, or join a crowd speaking out, and every other time, knowing you will probably get hurt and doing it anyway…

Over time, that can lead to a happy ending. Maybe for yourself. Maybe for others in a future you don’t live to see.

Only happens when you care.

See you out there.

The Altar of the Dead

For the past few months, death has been dominating my mind.

I designed this website so I could share thoughts I have about writing and creating art from time to time, but this doesn’t seem too out of line with the topic.

Death, after all, is something I have lived with my entire creative life.

An Elegy for Amelia Johnson, for instance, is a book where the title character spends the bulk of it dying and it ends at her funeral. The most difficult parts of Form of a Question, which was a very difficult book to write to begin with, were about my grandfather Joseph Kacenga and his passing. And every single work in progress I have going now involves at least one character biting the dust in a pretty dramatic way.

So I’ve never stopped thinking about death.

But for the past few months, death has been dominating my mind.

2019 ended with me losing two people—my grandmother, Kathryn Rostan, who lived to be 98 and never lost a shred of her mental acumen and gargantuan spirit, and my oldest uncle, Thomas Rostan, a veteran who I know is somewhere feeling very happy that I am thinking of him a LOT on Memorial Day—both of whom, in different and irrevocable ways, shaped the person I am.

And since March 17th, I’ve been working out of a three-room apartment while a variation of existence passes by my window, a variation premised on the idea that we could well be transmitting a new way to die.

My current lifestyle makes me feel like one of my heroes, the man whom I consider the greatest novelist in American history, Henry James. James was also a bachelor who designed a quiet life for himself, alternating between time spent with the close friends whom he valued more than anything and a rigorously controlled solitude where he had nothing to do but write.

One of Henry James’s finest short stories is “The Altar of the Dead,” which would one day be turned into a movie by no less than Francois Truffaut. The story is about George Stransom, an artist who spends years grieving over the death of his fiancée, until one day he reads of the death of an old friend who betrayed him in an unspecified way. This causes Stransom to realize death as something universal beyond his personal loss and obsession. He begins a meticulous ritual of tending to a church altar and lighting candles for everyone he’s ever known who has passed, but he never lights a candle for the ex-friend. In the course of time, he meets a woman who goes to the same church, and a closeness develops between them that might turn into something more…until Stransom discovers that she lights a candle each time in memory of someone she cared about: his ex-friend. From there, the story builds to an emotional finish in which, at the least, Stransom achieves an internal reconciliation and sense of grace.

There’s a lot packed into “The Altar of the Dead,” which is typical of James, but what affects me the most is how driven (another quality typical of James’s protagonists) Stransom becomes with the act of mourning. It’s twofold: the mourning shows that the dead, including the ex-friend who dominates his mind, are not forgotten by the living, and it is through mourning that Stransom is himself able to mentally and emotionally change.

Death and mourning are supposed to change you.

I can recall when death changed the entire world…when I watched an airplane fly into the second tower of the World Trade Center on live television, and how decisions were made because of that which to this day reverberate.

And I can recall the mourning, in every corner of this nation, for 2,977 people—2,977 parents and children and spouses with rich lives we can only imagine—who died needlessly.

They were us, as a New York Times header declared.

Except that header wasn’t published in 2001.

It was published yesterday, when the Times listed the names and minute biographical notes for 1,000 people who died of COVID-19 on American soil.

(One of my best friends said that she’s going to remember certain parts of that list for the rest of her life. I understand that so much.)

Right now, 97,720 people in the United States are confirmed to have died from COVID-19. That number will top 100,000 in the next few days, and I am not sure where that will end.

I spend some time every day reading about COVID, considering it deeply, but it was as we approached that round number—because, and I say this as a lifelong baseball fan, there’s something about certain numbers that weighs on the mind and brings things into focus—that my own sense of grief, which was present from the start, itself grew into a deeper form, leaving a heavier impression.

I see a tragedy unfolding around me on three different levels.

The first, foremost, and highest is this: the deaths themselves, a loss I increasingly feel with every passing day.

The other two levels of tragedy…I am not sure which one is worse.

The people in charge of our country knew COVID was coming. There is no way we could have saved every single life, no matter who was running the government, but there was definitely a way we could have instituted procedures to keep the disease as contained as possible, developed a testing program to better track it, and keep that plan going until a vaccine could be found.

This did not happen because the government was focused on keeping the economy at a high level in hopes of a re-election, and doing anything to diminish economic activity would have been, in their eyes, a disaster.

So instead we were given a haphazard series of guidelines which were continually changed and reversed and now seem to be fully abandoned. Almost nothing was done to increase testing and tracing. New outbreaks are occurring on a daily basis. And the economy still collapsed…as this writer who lost his job can attest.

That is the second tragedy…that there was a significant number of people who didn’t have to die and did, and there are living people who lost so much that they might not reclaim.

Finally, there is the third tragedy…and that is the near-total absence of a sense of mourning.

Again, after September 11th, mourning was de rigueur. It was inescapable. And we were asked to make something of a sacrifice, to support giving things up in the name of honoring the dead and an ideal of freedom and safety…a smaller-scale version of the sacrifices made during World War II, a time so many people I know still point to of collective action, of doing something and giving up in honor of the dead and those who could die.

Today? With nearly 100,000 dead and that number rising? There is so little mourning. There is so little sacrifice. When I look at my windows to the outside world, I see footage of people in Florida, in California, in the Ozarks, in New York City, communing en masse without masks or distance. (And full disclosure…at the very beginning I was a touch too cavalier about it myself but that changed quickly.) I see people wishing others might get COVID-19, sometimes applauding when they do.

I see that President Donald Trump is far, far more concerned with the death in 2001 of one of Joe Scarborough’s aides than the deaths right now of the people he is supposed to lead and serve.

And I see that so many of our elected officials prioritize a working economy and a sense of normalcy, neither of which they did anything to put us closer to, over the health and safety of others, with an attitude of “well, people are going to die anyway.”

That so many who will carry on about the sanctity of life are so cavalier about death is not lost on me.

But that’s the thing at the end of the day, isn’t it? Pretty much since 2008, I’ve watched so many aspects of my existence that were supposed to be givens be proven terribly wrong. That those, on every end of the ideological spectrum, who speak of certain ideals and values—who speak of freedom and sacrifice and a society of respect where all people count, where all people have a chance—those ideals and values can be discarded so easily. That people don’t have the need to pretend anymore.

It’s enough to make one fall into cynicism and despair, on top of all this sadness.

So what is to be done?


One part of my life which has managed to carry on is the part given over to worship.

Church isn’t the same of course, without being in the pews and taking communion…

But on Sunday mornings, I log online for a virtual service where we read, we sing (and oh, does my voice sound bad without a crowd around me), and we pray together.

And on Sunday evenings, my church’s youth group checks in on each other, and these brilliant people half my age talk about their fears and uncertainties of this time but also show the same spirit of my grandmother, one completely irrepressible.

I do not write this—I never write such things—as a way of urging people to find faith, because God know that might not make sense for you.

I write this because the past few weeks, as the tragedy and the pain grew within me, I found myself paying attention more to these meetings, and the power (as my wise ministers put it) of prayer as a collective experience.

The kind of experience I desperately needed.

But it is not only prayer…when I have my facetime conversations, when I gather with people spread out across the city, the nation, to watch the same film or read the same book and we discuss what that means…these are collective experiences.

And what happens when you have a truly great collective experience, spiritual or secular, is that it ends up translating into more of your own life. That you take it and have a new sense of mindfulness of the personal level.

What that has come to mean to me is an even stronger form of something I already possessed: a love for those in my life.

And a love for the living easily gives way to a longing and a mournfulness for the dead. All of them. Maybe especially, as James’s story urges us to consider, those we might not even feel inclined to mourn.

When I was very little and going to St. Matthias’s Church in Youngstown, I would light votive candles at the altar. For the sheer childish delight of playing with fire. What it truly meant…what it would have meant to the real George Stransom and those like him…was a flicker in my perception.

Now I look back and want to be a real George Stransom…lighting candles and not caring in the end if the person you lit them for did some great wrong, because we are all in this together, and in the world I dream of, death would be felt with that in the forefront.

I may not be lighting candles. But I know I can take what I have from my collective experiences and turn it into something meaningful.

To think upon the dead, so they are not merely statistics or something to be used.

To act for the dead, so that just maybe no one else has to suffer loss in this way.

And hopefully, a little bit or a great deal, now in some ways as we keep muddling through this time of uncertainty, more on a day I cannot yet foresee when we have more confidence in how to live and deal with this age, all of us will be thinking and acting, each in our own way, for every living thing.

Top Ten Movies of 2019

2019 was a strange and wild year for the world, and that includes the world’s movies. I saw films from all the corners of the earth, telling stories I had never heard told before, or stories I’d heard before in ways I never expected them to be told.

It may have been the best moviegoing year of my life.

Even in a year that included Joker (the less said, the better) and High Life, a movie whose opening sequence locked me in for greatness and then proceeded to lose me as few movies ever have before in a mess of disgust and confusion.

To pick ten prime examples from this year was no easy feat, and I had to recalibrate the list several times, but this is how the chips fell for me in the end…and of course, I’m going to try to comment on the art of storytelling itself as I go because that is my thing after all.


  1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Celine Sciamma’s tale of a painter and an aristocrat who fall in love in the mid-eighteenth century is, on the surface, a very simple story, a few intense moments in two lives. What makes it special is how Sciamma (who wrote and directed) creates a chamber piece that fits with the masterworks of Eric Rohmer. Four characters (with a few intrusions from other societies), all women, with problems they care about solving so much that we would be heartless not to care. (The subplot involving the maid results in the funniest moments but the gravity is never lost.) Moreover, Claire Mathon’s cinematography received universal acclaim for a reason. This is a masterclass in composition, arranging every shot’s elements and lighting and how the actors move to create an effect that is never showy and always impactful. (I’m serious: teach this in film schools!) And in the cast, I have to single out Noemie Merlant as Marianne the painter for one of the performances of the year. Merlant is laconic, sardonic, and has a penetrating stare like few others, all of which make her more emotional moments believable as a release of great energy.

As a final, SPOILER HEAVY note, I had a conversations with female friends of mine about Portrait in its aftermath, specifically about the nature of the lesbian love story in general. Some are upset by how it continues the trope of queer romance ending unhappily. Some were deeply moved by how the story played into the realities of the time. It’s a situation I find myself unqualified to comment on but one where I see both sides of the coin. I want to see positive representation of everyone in film, but a story’s end also has to feel natural in relation to how you told it.


  1. Avengers: Endgame

I often say that one reason I love cinema is that it’s for the masses, and there is something wonderful when a piece of pop art does everything it’s supposed to do unbelievably well while still surprising you and throwing you for an emotional loop.

Endgame is pop art on the level of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and that’s a high compliment.

Endgame is one of two movies this year, 1917 being the other, that I don’t think anyone will successfully emulate. Pulling off a resolution after 21 films of set-up should be impossible, and I give credit to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for realizing the finish shouldn’t be the biggest battle of them all but a series of long character moments full of interplay, humor, and reckoning with the past, including long intellectual and emotional speeches from the likes of Tilda Swinton and Rene Russo…and then 45 minutes of the biggest battle of them all. The production values feel more expressive and present than many CGI fests, the dialogue crackles, and the set piece, despite its gargantuan size, is staged so well that I know where everything is and what’s happening at all times. Is it goofy? Yes. Is it corny? Indubitably. Is it as great as Spider-Verse? Hell no! But it was also three hours of me sitting in a theater with a giant smile, feeling others as they gasped, applauded, and had a collective reaction. If we’re going to live in an age where the Walt Disney Company is going to ply us with nothing but elaborate spectacle, that’s a problem in itself, but a bigger problem from an aesthetic point of view is that they gave us a standard they might never be able to meet again.

Kudos to Kevin Feige for making the MCU work, and to Downey, Evans, Hemsworth, Johansson, Renner, and Ruffalo for making us care about these characters. Especially the first two: Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans put so much of themselves into being the heart and soul of this ridiculous project and whatever lows of theirs are forgiven by this one.

And speaking of Chris Evans being terrific in a genre film…


  1. Knives Out

I saw Knives Out with a row full of friends and we got yelled at for laughing too loud (especially me) when Benoit tells Marta nobody’s read Gravity’s Rainbow. Reading over that sentence again makes me realize how weird a line that is for a murder mystery. But everything about what Rian Johnson and his incredible cast does in Knives Out is out of the ordinary. I never thought a film could accomplish what Clue did, but this one gets into that territory.

It all starts, of course, with the script, clearly the work of a man who has steeped himself in mysteries his entire life. Knives Out begins as an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, then inexplicably becomes the greatest Columbo episode never made, but as that stretch played out, I elbowed my friend Asher Stuhlman and whispered “this can’t be it…after all they’ve done, there has to be one more twist.” We got that twist. It left my jaw on the floor. And suffice to say that Johnson delivers the most incredible climactic surprise in a murder mystery since The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and he plays perfectly fair in doing it.

It’s also no surprise that the man who made The Last Jedi imbues the Thrombey house and grounds with detail and shoots it all well. But a murder mystery lives and dies (pun intended) by its cast. Johnson creates memorable modern-day versions of the Christie archetypes, then gets a cavalcade of outstanding actors to play them. In such an ensemble only a few people can necessarily stand out, and three key figures get a lot of screen time. Chris Evans as Ransom may have garnered attention for that sweater, but he nails the rapscallion who might have a bigger heart under a foul-mouthed surface. Ana de Armas is the breakout: she plays Marta, the nurse who might know more than she tells, with total sincerity and winning empathy, and nails her lighter notes…especially in the best cut-to-black shot of the year. And Daniel Craig gives a comic performance for the ages as Benoit Blanc of the undefinable accent, the beautiful analogies about donut holes, and the analytical mind that knows how to solve this case because it’s no spoiler to say he solves the case. That’s what master detectives do, even when they have to be in the stupidest car chase ever to do it. (Lakeith Stanfield walks away with the best line in the film as the Japp to Blanc’s Poirot.)


  1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Fair warning: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends with a scene of violence so visceral, disturbing, and long that my entire body shook.

That said, it’s the most beautiful and warm movie of Quentin Tarantino’s career.

Rarely have I seen a movie that I wanted to just live in forever. Tarantino’s screenplay with how people talk and think and act, Barbara Ling’s impeccable production design, Robert Richardson’s grand cinematography…they all combine into a picture of 1969 and an entertainment industry about to permanently transition, bursting with the life of variety and the period detail that’s present in every Tarantino film.

But the story told within this world is surprising. Always fixated on traditions, tropes, and more recently on the possibility of changing the past, Tarantino contrasts the aging, perplexed Rick Dalton, a would-be leading man at the crossroads of his career, and his best friend/stunt double/general assistant/man with a mysterious past Cliff Booth with Rick’s neighbor Sharon Tate, a rising star whose every muscle and bone pulses with vitality. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio (never better), Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie, they are figures to remember and get close to.

The idea hanging over the film was that Tarantino would tackle Charles Manson, his Family, and their murder spree, but that isn’t what Once Upon a Time is really about. Ethan Warren wrote of this far better than I could in Bright Wall/Dark Room, but Tarantino uses the Manson/Tate era to comment on the shifting nature of existence and challenge the idea of how the past determines our future, and with that future our perception of the past. It does not leave you with the triumphant spirit of his recent attempts to rewrite history, but nor does it conclude with the nihilism of The Hateful Eight. It leaves one sad with a nostalgia for what was lost yet ecstatic over visions of how people lived through what was lost and, more importantly, the possibility of what could be. It is Tarantino at his most complex and mature and, despite all his usual signifiers, his least indulgent in terms of giving you what you want, which is great in and of itself. It’s a film that makes you feel good, and feel weird about feeling good, then simply feel good.

A few other observations: Tarantino casts the Manson Family perfectly, with Dakota Fanning and Lena Dunham being startlingly good. The sequence of Cliff at Spahn Ranch is one of the most well-shot moments of his or anyone’s career. Kurt Russell is delightful. And the entire soundtrack, particularly a part that cuts from The Royal Guardsmen to Vanilla Fudge to Maurice Jarre, is all killer, no filler. What more do you want?


6.The Farewell

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell should have been a holiday release. Thanksgiving or Christmas weekend. It’s a picture full of feasts, celebrations, and family that you actually can take the whole family to. Apart from one scene in which a character comes across a room full of sex workers and their clientele, there is nothing to worry about.

It might have gotten more people to see The Farewell, a movie that should have been seen by everyone. It has an original hook that’s, incredibly, based on a true story: a Chinese-American writer discovers her grandmother is terminally ill and the entire family is keeping it a secret due to cultural norms. The writer, at her own personal crossroads, pushes back against this, but ultimately goes along after her grandmother gives her some valuable life advice, and it all builds to a surprise ending. (Yes, there’s a surprise ending!)

Wang finds all the humor in family gatherings: the gentle bustle of feasts, the arguments in bedrooms and hotel rooms, the rituals at cemeteries and old haunts, the cacophony of weddings, the little things you do with your grandparents and those outside the immediate family. There is an honesty and realism to this which is captured in Wang’s colorful but unflashy direction. She fills every frame with wonderful imagery and actors, then steps back to let them work their magic, all set to Chinese pop and Alex Weston’s score providing a lovely backdrop.

The Farewell is a picture that, like Lady Bird, has little actually happen but depicts everything happening; we firmly believe Billi will have a transformed existence based on these days with her loving but ineffectual parents, clueless relations, almost idiotic cousins, and very wise grandmother.

Awkwafina is perfect in the lead role, and Zhao Shuzhen is magnificent as the grandmother, cheerful and domineering in every scene, but the supporting cast is crucial to this movie in how they never overplay a single moment. As someone with a complex family himself, The Farewell is a fantastic depiction of how we’re able to love and co-exist despite any differences.


  1. Parasite

Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is one of the definitive movies of the decade. It is a story deeply rooted in modern society that says something about said society. It is by turns hilarious and terrifying. And, with one exception, represents more than any other movie on this list what movies can do.

For this film, Lee Ha-Jun, who should now be counted as a god amongst production designers, built a mansion and its street and designed a multi-layered city to represent the divide between the haves and have-nots in the late capitalist era. Joon-Ho’s direction, more assured than anyone else’s on this list, navigates these spaces perfectly for maximum dramatic impact.

And the story Joon-Ho and Han Jin-Won tell in their screenplay! I earlier wrote about how Parasite suffers from the problem of coincidence and so many plot points happening so fast, but the story is gripping in that it turns the meaning of the word “parasite” in every possible way, as all the characters in one way or another serve as parasites sucking off some quality of a host that can give what they need. Yet—and this is where the screenplay shines—despite the despicable moments given to most of the characters, Parasite successfully convinces that none of them are true villains, and their acts of desperation are the result of the system they live within. To create empathy for your entire cast in a story hinged around crime and death, and which includes the most unusual sex scene I’ve ever seen, is a work of genius. It is Bong saying that this way leads to death and there is an alternative.

I don’t want to write too much about Parasite since it depends on surprise, but I will say the cast is extraordinary. Song Kang-Ho has deservedly gotten the lion’s share of his praise, since his part requires a rare form of subtle transformation, but I want to single out Cho Yeo-Jeong as the matriarch of the wealthy Parks, whose total cluelessness proves surprisingly endearing, Park Myung-Hoon for his ability to go for it, and Park So-Dam for her beautiful Machiavellian quality.


  1. The Irishman

Martin Scorsese has another movie in production right now. I am delighted because this world needs all the Scorsese it can get. But The Irishman would have been a perfect valediction. It is an old man’s movie, and a movie with no fucks left to give.

The Irishman is an old man’s movie in that it is told as such, the rambling saga Frank Sheeran relates to an unseen audience at his nursing home…but within the digressions, the travels, and the possibly insignificant details piling up is the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy. The two men Frank loves most, Jimmy Hoffa and mob boss Russell Bufalino, destroy each other and the world they create through their violent stubbornness, while Frank, caught in the middle, suffers because while these two powerful men each believe they are the heroes of the story of existence and let that pride lead to tragic consequences, Frank is a man who has no idea what the story even is. He lets the sweep of a history he participates in pass him by and finally can only partially realize that his life in service to Hoffa and Bufalino has ended in him alone, widowed, and with no family he can relate to. Passivity to forces larger than himself has robbed his life of meaning, while whatever success and good Hoffa and Bufalino accomplished has been wiped away. For a tragic story of human existence meant to serve as a warning, one couldn’t ask for better tellers on all accounts.

Scorsese’s confidence is unmatched, and though Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography pales in comparison to early work (in part thanks to the CGI), Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is as assured as ever, and Steven Zaillian writes a confident, ironic, ultimately powerful screenplay.

And what a cast to enact it: Robert De Niro, quietly at his heights (something I think the awards bodies didn’t recognize because De Niro peaks during the final ninety minutes), Al Pacino, never more restrained, and Joe Pesci, who mixes real deadliness with a longing for love, are all unimpeachable. (Harvey Keitel, the other paragon of classic Scorsese, also shows up to deliver the film’s most hilarious line.) Anna Paquin, in the most controversial part, only speaks six words but carries weight on her shoulders as few could. Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, and Stephen Graham excel.

But this is Scorsese’s movie above all, a story that can only be the product of someone questioning the meaning of existence itself, a weight brought home at the end as Frank faces his own death and realizes all he worked for was forgotten. This message, and the length, and the white male-dominated cast, may turn viewers away. I hope it does not. The Irishman says as much about our frail lives and, in the words of Matt Zoller Seitz, asks “what do we want our lives to be?” as few movies ever could.

TheSouvenir (1)

  1. The Souvenir

At Emerson College, I took the step from being able to figure out I loved certain stories—in film, literature, elsewhere—to being able to articulate in detail why I loved them and learn how they worked. A bellwether for me was taking David Kociemba and Maurice Methot’s classes in freshman year. Watching everything from Wong Kar-Wai to Douglas Sirk to David Lynch expanded my artistic horizons, and more importantly gave me a feeling of wonder and surprise, of seeing things I’d never seen before or in ways I’d never expected to see them.

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is the first film in a long time to continually, delightedly surprise me.

Joanna Hogg makes films about the most intimate moments of life, and the dynamics we have with those closest to us. The Souvenir is her fourth film and the first to get major international attention, thanks to the backing of Martin Scorsese and A24. In it, Julie, an earnest, well-to-do film student in 1980s London trying to make her talent climb up to the level of her ambition, meets Anthony, a sardonic older man who works for the Foreign Office. A relationship begins. But Julie’s insecurities collide with Anthony’s addictions, and eventually she must decide whether she should stay the course with her passion or move on.

A tale of a relationship gone bad and a person coming of age isn’t new. But in every single scene—this is not an exaggeration—Hogg does something that astonishes me. She picks a particular angle. She moves in on an object or body part or detail with close-ups and focal tricks. She creates tableaux where placement of people and things becomes important. She uses a constantly shifting sound design. And in the midst of all of this sensory onslaught, she makes it clear how much every aspect of Julie’s life matters and how it’s all tied into her emotional state in a way few filmmakers would have the talent or originality to do.

It’s little short of a miracle what happens here, something on the level of Roma. The cumulative effect of this piling up of details is to dramatize how meaningful and important this is for Julie, her longing, heartbreak, success, failure, and coming of age, and it serves as a reminder of the dramatic struggles everyone around us is going through all the time that we may not notice; the point driven home by two absolutely perfect final shots which soar to heights the rest of the movie did not.

It helps that Hogg’s screenplay is a fantastic mix of the tragic and comic, and the cast is impeccable. Honor Swinton Byrne, only 22 at the filming, is note perfect as Julie—never forced, never straining, but living into every moment and feeling so natural all the while. It’s one of the finest debut leading performances I could ask for, and it is helped by Tom Burke playing off her as Anthony with a roguish arrogance which keeps slipping so we see what Julie sees in him. Julie’s mother is played by Swinton Byrne’s mother Tilda, of whom nothing but perfect things can be said, and as a bonus treat, we get the best one-scene part of the year from a full steam ahead Richard Ayoade.

These last films, which were coincidentally made by a real-life engaged couple, are awfully hard to rank at numbers one and two. I think number one wins out just a bit by being completely original. But they are basically interchangeable and should be treated as such.

Little Women

  1. Little Women

For those who follow me on social media, I picked Lady Bird as the best film of the decade, and I expected Greta Gerwig tackling Louisa May Alcott’s American perennial to be great. I did not expect it to be one of the greatest adaptations I’ve ever seen, on par with Doctor Zhivago, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Shawshank Redemption, and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. What Gerwig does, as those films do, is not only retell a story with her own personal spin on it, but also capture in cinematic language how the experience of reading the story feels.

Much has been well-said by others of Gerwig’s telling the story on two crosscutting timelines, complete with masterfully-chosen visual and oral parallels, as well as two distinctive color palettes courtesy of the underrated Yorick Le Saux. What I would add is that upon rewatching Gillian Armstrong’s superb 1994 film (which, like this one, I saw in the theater with my mother), I was struck by how Robin Swicord used almost no dialogue from the novel. Gerwig lifts at least half of her screenplay from the book verbatim, and her additions are mesmerizing. While Armstrong and Swicord inserted second and third-wave feminist loftiness, Gerwig, taking her cue from Alcott’s own life and diaries, makes her Little Women about the harsh reality of how women can, if possible, succeed in a world where the odds are stacked against them. Her March sisters are aware of social limitations and financial prospects, and their hard work is spent seizing as much control of such prospects as possible within the lives they all contentedly choose for themselves. It’s a flinty, straight to the gut take on the story that still builds to a singular and fully earned happy ending…which Gerwig manages to leave open to interpretation, no small feat for a story more than 150 years old!

The entire time, though, Gerwig also to me recreates the world Alcott wrote about and how she experienced the March sisters’ emotions. All these little touches create that sensation: Jo racing through the streets of New York City after selling her first story, Jo and Beth embracing on a beach as the tide changes, Amy walking through slow motion refinement in France, Meg transitioning from crowded society functions to a plain, dimly lit house and ultimately finding contentment, girls in multi-colored coats and scarves against a white backdrop, and the golden hour glow and loving detail of the final scenes. I could go on, but it has to be witnessed.

Gerwig also works with a cast for the ages. Her four March sisters are Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlan, and Florence Pugh. Watson and Scanlan must settle for merely being great. Ronan cements her place as the greatest actor of her generation, the natural successor to Daniel Day-Lewis for that title (when she plays opposite Meryl Streep as Aunt March, clearly having a ball, it feels like a torch passing); her Jo goes places I’m not sure any other person in the role would have gone, with the fiery spirit and the need to be loved working in constant tandem. Pugh, wrapping up a breakout year, is a magnificent Amy, bringing out all the qualities that make Amy a little bit of a piece of shit as well as her longings and her quiet wisdom, and both her ability to play Amy as young and old and her wry voice are delightful. Timothee Chalamet (equally divine, and capturing the playful gravity of Laurie), James Norton, and the amazing Louis Garrel, a man who lets his eyes do the work, are terrific as the men who love the women and are simply happy to be in their company, while a steely, loving Laura Dern, a heartbreaking Chris Cooper, and Bob freaking Odenkirk are terrific as the parental figures. You couldn’t ask for a better cast. (And Alexandre Desplat composes a score that almost equals Thomas Newman’s perfect 1994 score.)

So what could be better?

Marriage Story

  1. Marriage Story

I tell people, with embarrassment in this day and age, that Annie Hall was the work of art that made me want to be a writer. One thing I’ve realized is that if Noah Baumbach had made his canon two decades earlier, he would have taken the space Woody Allen holds in my life. Like Allen, Baumbach at his best tells stories so outstandingly written it isn’t fair about the lives, loves, and vicissitudes of people who live lives just a tad outside the ordinary; artists, professional and would-be intellectuals, eccentrics, combinations thereof. Unlike Allen, besides not being a disgusting human being, Baumbach isn’t constantly seeing his characters as people in need of deep psychoanalysis or figures to look down upon and scorn or combinations thereof. He has a sense of empathy, of love even, for his broken people trying and often succeeding to put something back together, that Allen never possessed. This sense fills Kicking and Screaming, Frances Ha, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). And it definitely fills what I think is his crowning achievement thus far, Marriage Story.

Marriage Story is a truly hilarious movie. It had more laugh-out-loud moments than any film I saw this year. It also made me burst into tears about six times. (Take that, Charlie!)

What drives Marriage Story is a remarkable convergence of two elements. One is the central figures of Charlie and Nicole, how their love for each other has not overcome the reasons why their divorce is necessary, a net positive even, and how they both want to do what they think is best for their son Henry. This is a story of weight and subtlety so great it provokes all of the feels, all of the sobs. Simultaneously, Baumbach creates a world of attorneys, family members, friends and colleagues and random people you hook up with, then situations ranging from Halloweens to ridiculous TV filming sets, that are so over-the-top and appropriate for a screwball comedy. The tones fit together, one balancing the other, to create a story that feels so natural and working perfectly, one mood never overwhelming the other, like life itself. And the production, with its sterling locations and unobtrusive camera, is quietly perfect, taking a backseat to the actors and their words, with only a beautiful Randy Newman score to fully intrude on the goings-on.

That cast by the way…they just keep setting up jokes and knocking them down. Wallace Shawn basically playing himself, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Nicole’s mother and sister, and the power trio of Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Laura Dern (the latter simply extraordinary and delivering a speech about the Virgin Mary that exemplifies why this movie should have won every award under the sun) as the divorce attorneys. And then little Azhy Robertson as Henry gives one of the more unaffected child performances imaginable.

But this is Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s movie. Johansson has never been better; this year, between Endgame, the fantastic JoJo Rabbit, and this film, she has shown that getting older has revealed an excellence at playing maternal figures as one of the strongest weapons in a formidable arsenal. Her five-minute speech about why she wanted a divorce is one of the moments you realize she’s been done a disservice by not getting such material her entire career because she’s beyond words. That Driver could be better seems unimaginable…yet his performance is one of the finest I’ve ever seen. He is understated, quiet, and able to convey tempests within those moments…and when he breaks, it’s more affecting than you could picture an actor being. His anger, his contrition, his growing sense of how Nicole changed and he needs to change as well, his singing voice, all of it comes together perfectly. (Regarding the latter, the idea proposed by Filmspotting is that the title represents Nicole and Charlie needing to tell their stories. Nicole speaks her truth to a sympathetic ear, and Charlie sings his to the world, but both are equal.)

Marriage Story is the kind of film the world does not make as much these days and feels more necessary than ever; something a bit more erudite yet accessible, made without pretension, and speaking to the heart of the human spirit rather than provoking sensation. I hope it gets watched for ages to come.

In conclusion, it bears repeating how many remarkable movies came out this year, and how much they can shine a light even in times of darkness, and remind us of values worth fighting for, and teach us how to be better. I have loved moviegoing in 2019…

But I would be remiss to overlook how the calendar year ended with me seeing these two images on the big screen and not being able to tell which was more ridiculous…a reminder that that there’s a whole lot of headscratching, WTF?, what-am-I-even-freaking-watching-help-me moments out there to counterbalance the gold.

Until next time, friends!

PARASITE, The Question of Storytelling Time, and a Brief Note on MARRIAGE STORY

I’m in the middle of NaNoWriMo and seeing what might happen to my comic works in progress, but in a pause from this beautiful madness, I have to talk about something I’ve realized about how storytelling works…at least for me and possibly for you!


Sometimes—most of the time—you learn lessons in how to be a better writer from utter failures (including your own) and mediocrities. (Paul Johnson has a great line that a committed writer reads the second-rate as much as the first.)


But sometimes I learn from a great piece of art that has something a little bit off.



On my birthday (my actual birthday), I went to see Bong Joon-Ho’s Palme d’Or winner Parasite. Parasite is outstanding. It’s impeccably filmed and beautifully designed. The cast is great. It says something truly powerful about the menace of unregulated capitalism. I went in taking everybody under the sun’s advice to see it without knowing a thing about the plot, and the surprise factor made the finale hit me in so many of the feels.


And yet…I didn’t love Parasite the same way everyone around me seems to love Parasite. Not in the same way I loved The Souvenir and Marriage Story (which I’ll be touching on later). During the second half of the film, when the twists start accumulating one on top of the other, the entire experience felt off. Only Joon-Ho’s mastery and the commitment of the actors kept me invested enough to overlook a tickling sensation.


I felt annoyed for a while, trying to deduce why Parasite wasn’t fully working for me.


Then I found the answer. It came from, of all the things, a tweet I casually tossed off a few weeks back during the “Marty v. Marvel” debate that rocked Film Twitter to its core.


One of my twitter acquaintances was saying how if you love Martin Scorsese, it’s okay to admit that Gangs of New York isn’t one of his best movies. There’s a lot of debate about GONY, but I agree with this. It may be due to Harvey Weinstein’s editing, but GONY is for me a film that’s working great for two hours and then utterly collapses in the last thirty minutes.


It happens because the tempo changes.


This is where I will refrain from making a J.K. Simmons joke and say that my mind is always subconsciously alert to tempo in storytelling. If events suddenly start speeding up or slowing down without inherent reason given by the story itself, then I feel myself being pulled out and confused.


With Gangs of New York, the film very carefully documents the relationship and ultimate rivalry between Amsterdam and Bill the Butcher for the bulk of the running time, until the rivalry takes over. At that point, everybody starts making decisions which compared to the rest of the movie seem hasty and overly dramatic and the step-by-step storytelling leaps into a final battle we have no groundwork laid for.


And in Parasite…




After meticulously going through all the elements that lead the protagonists to the place they want to be in for maximum conflict to occur, a chain of events that happens over an unspecified but consistent amount of time, the second half of the film has all of the plot twists gain critical mass over a period of less than 24 hours.


This is not to say that the twists weren’t a) individually effective, b) individually moving, and c) fit in with one of the film’s ideas which is so important a main character says it out loud and I don’t even get annoyed by it, but at the same time, the thing nagging at my brain was “this multitude of accelerating and unrelated events is all happening practically simultaneously with no warning? In what I am to believe is a realistic structure?”


Last year there was another great movie, Sorry to Bother You, which used genre (absurdist comedy) to comment on the destructive nature of late capitalism much the same way as Parasite (Hitchcockian thriller) does. But Sorry to Bother You is for me the better movie in part because its twists, reversals, and character revelations are equally plentiful, but moved along at a pace where I believed Cassius Green’s problems would accumulate this way, each problem peaking at the right time, with the subsequent resolutions logically building off those problems. Parasite’s speeding to the finale does not work the same way.




What I’ve discovered is that temporally consistent storytelling makes for effective storytelling.


If you keep the action moving at the same tempo throughout, with a few exceptions, then the conflicts, problems, and resolutions hit harder—at least they do for me. I think it’s because when the tempo is consistent, the dynamics of the story both hit harder (as deviations from the established norm) and they feel logical, not like a cheat.


In reading this over, I realize I might not be making what I mean by tempo clear. So let me use as an example one of my favorite movies of the year and one that’s in contention as the BEST film I’ll see in 2019: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story.


Marriage Story tells the story of protagonists Charlie and Nicole deciding to divorce and working towards a resolution that works for them and their child. After an opening montage which reflects their interior monologues at a mediation session, the film moves straightforwardly through a series of scenes, in chronological order, each capturing a few minutes of a different day.


This is a very common structure for a story’s tempo, as opposed to literal minute-by-minute action (Cleo From 5 to 7) or a specific timespan such as one day or night (Can’t Hardly Wait). It’s a structure my favorite writer, Anthony Trollope, used in his novels.


What this does for me is it creates a predictable framework in which all else is unpredictable. It signifies to the audience or reader, that each thing we’re watching is important except we won’t know why until the scene ends. In an expertly-written story like Marriage Story, the consistent tempo cements how the characters (Charlie and Nicole in this case) are changing and growing over time, making new decisions, and building off things that happened in the past in clear ways. Consistent tempo makes this feel natural, logical, and thus real.


And this works for science fiction, fantasy, or any genre that may dip into the unreal…consistency sets a tone for how we take the information in for the duration. To reference two authors I talked about in my last entry, Paul Kreuger uses this style in Steel Crow Saga, even leisurely lingering over the action pieces with the same style he employs to describe a good meal. Ashley Poston, both in her space operas and romance novels, works with an accelerated version of this tempo where action and detail fly thick and fast; we’re always aware of a goal to be reached and the perils of a situation that must be resolved within a specific timeframe.


All of the above is a concept it’s hard for me to explain without sounding like a dry theoretician, but it’s also a revelation to me that I’m still working out!


A couple more notes:


There are some stories where genre convention necessitates a tempo shift, such as when the story is building up to a big event and we know it’s building up to a big event…then we expect the tempo to slow down and focus on all the action and detail of said event much more than what leads up to it. My immediate example is the heist story, but it also works for stories with, say, a sporting event or a source of family drama (weddings, funerals, etc.) at the core.


Flashbacks, flash-forwards, and experimental structure do NOT negate the idea of consistent tempo. Two of the finest graphic novels I’ve read this month, Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu’s Mooncakes and Jarrett J. Krosozcka’s Hey, Kiddo both involve time jumps where months or years pass between scenes, but each scene plays out at the same tempo. (Other examples would be David Lean and Robert Bolt’s masterpieces, which play out like Trollope’s Victorian novels in skipping time to focus on what’s important to the story, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which leaps millennia into the future but keeps its pace.) Similarly, Quentin Tarantino’s greatest films—Pulp Fiction, Death Proof, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—have structures where two or three days are explored in microscopic detail. They can be out of sequence or have months pass between them offscreen, but the tempo remains the same.


Finally, one might ask if keeping a consistent tempo breaks the rule of variety in your writing. I do not think so. Within the basic structure discussed above, a scene can be a few lines of dialogue in a single shot or an extended set piece full of editing, but both represent the same “few minutes of different days.”


I’ll also add that in terms of practicing what I preach…my own major works in progress adhere to my idea of keeping a consistent tempo. Both my novels and comics are divided into scenes that represent continuous action on distinct days. Two of the only exceptions are my heist story, which slows time down for the 30% of the saga devoted to the crimes themselves, and the giant “nine drafts and counting” novel, in which the finale allows for one day to stretch over two chapters so elements hinted at in the beginning (structure again!) can come back in the ending.


Those are my thoughts. They might mean not a damn thing but I felt like getting them out there. And you all should see Parasite. And Marriage Story




I don’t want to talk dispassionately about Marriage Story. Noah Baumbach has written and directed a picture of stunning extremes. I went from hysterical laughter to uncontrolled sobbing within minutes on constant whiplash. Baumbach is this century’s Woody Allen in some ways, using very urban characters with unusual lives to tell witty, emotional stories that tap into the deepest reservoirs of humanity…but Baumbach doesn’t have Allen’s neuroses and does have extra levels of love for his characters that I don’t know if Allen ever fully showed. (This has become especially apparent since 2012’s Frances Ha, the start of a joint professional and personal merging with one of our greatest humanists, Greta Gerwig, whose presence is clear in Marriage Story.)


What makes the picture work besides Baumbach’s script and editing are Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in the leads. Both of them are very funny and very heartbreaking, but what makes them work is how low-key they are compared to the rest of the cast, especially the murderers’ row of actors playing the lawyers and family members, as well as Wallace Shawn basically playing himself. The supporting cast goes so big that Driver and Johansson can stay smaller, more natural, more getting through to everyone who’s had heartbreak and moments of decision and resolution. Johansson gets more dialogue and plays it very well, but Driver, with less to say, brings forth a performance that’s angry, tortured, and winning…a man who knows when his behavior tips into toxicity and walks it back immediately, and someone who’s committed enough to those he loves to fight and principled enough to know when to give in. It’s one of the finest pieces of work by a male actor—and a great movie star—I’ve seen in a long time.

My Stories of the Summer — and a New York Comic-Con Signing!


Over the past week, I discovered that Paul Krueger is a serial harasser of women. Our friendship is now over. I am not going to pretend I did not write the below, and I stand by my purely aesthetic criticism of Steel Crow Saga — to use an analogy by my friend Ursula Wagner, it’s akin to how Roman Polanski, of all people, made Repulsion, one of the greatest films ever made about the terror of being a woman, and turned out to be the way he is. That being said, I withdraw any overt recommendations of acquiring the book.

Hello, friends!

I wanted to post something during these last days as September turns into October. Mainly because on October 4th and October 5th, I’ll be back in New York City for my ninth consecutive New York Comic-Con!

But more than that, I’ll be at Boom! Studios headquarters on Friday morning (10-2:30) and Saturday afternoon (2:30 – 7).

If you stop by TABLE 1828 during those times, I’ll be there to sign Form of a Question or An Elegy for Amelia Johnson and have plenty of time to talk!

But because I can’t simply self-promote, I also wanted to take some time to write about art I’ve experienced lately. I’m currently handling a surfeit of different Works in Progress over a multitude of media, and as I plan out the rest of my writing year, singling out some movies, television, and literature that made me think about how I tell stories seems appropriate

Continue reading

Ten Years in Chicago

Ten years ago, I spent a night with my family in a building on 52nd and Kenwood that at the time was called The Breakers, a living space for people on extended visits. It’s not remarkable. A two-story brick building with long exterior corridors and large-ish windows. It’s not even called The Breakers anymore. Like so many of the old buildings in Hyde Park, including so many far more beautiful buildings that were once used as housing by the University, it’s been taken over as another apartment complex. But whenever I walk to places while going to and from the church of St. Paul and the Redeemer, I walk by it with a bit of reverence.


It was the first building I slept in on what has now become a permanent residency in Chicago.


Continue reading

2019 First Half Recap – Pre-San Diego Comic-Con

A week from today, I’m getting on an airplane and flying off to my first San Diego Comic-Con in eight years. Unlike my other two conventions this year, I won’t be tabling but will be roaming around, introducing (or re-introducing) myself to the world at large, and generally having a good time.

So if I haven’t seen you in a while or we haven’t gotten a chance to talk, I wanted to provide an update on what I’ve been doing and thinking about comics-wise lately.

Form of a Question: out everywhere!


Can’t believe it’s still here at last.

From what people tell me online and in person, it seems like it’s being received well, which as you all might imagine I’m grateful for—every bit as much as feeling overjoyed it exists at last. My greatest hopes are first, that people feeling really conflicted about themselves might read it and feel inspired and emboldened to lean into who they are, and second, that other people in comics who’ve read it might be interested in taking a flyer on one of the WIPs I’ve developed since we began work on the darn thing; the release was the clearest reminder of how much I love comics and want to keep making them. This is more important than any financial gain I might have; not even close.

Continue reading

Around the World, Fantastic and Not – My Top 10 (11) Films of 2018 and More


People were putting out their 2018 top ten lists, in some cases, on December 1st. Maybe by waiting until the dawn of a polar vortex-filled February, I compensate for all those who jump the gun. But I also had time to think, to see the movies still playing in cinemas, and to compare until I felt sure these were the best choices. And as you will see, I have eleven!

An interesting note on this list: December 2018 may rank as one of the finest moviegoing months of my life. The films ranked in places 8, 7, 4, 3, and 1 were all seen in one month, either in theaters or on Netflix, and I caught up with enough in January 2019 to make sure this was not a fluke.

  1. Can You Ever Forgive Me?

There is so much to admire in this work of beauty that gets biopics right where so many others fail. (Always, always, concentrate on one period of the subject’s life and never the whole story…but, for the first time, I digress.) In a year when it seemed a trove of great female filmmakers were passed over for recognition—though not on this list; four of the eleven films were helmed by women, and that was NOT due to me working towards gender parity but due to me really loving these movies—Marielle Heller particularly shines with a direction full of darkness, loneliness, and shadow. Even brightly lit rooms feel muted in Heller’s world. The film’s lucky enough to boast an extraordinary double act in Melissa McCarthy, shedding her comic skin to capture the anger of Lee Israel, and Richard E. Grant incarnating a trickster god. But what makes this a highly subjective pick for me is the screenplay, adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s memoirs—few films have so perfectly captured the psychology of the writer, the way writers deal with career uncertainty, crowds, talking to others, talking to others about their work, the painstaking act of writing itself. It’s almost frightening to be so seen.


  1. Set It Up/To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Another thing four of the eleven movies on this list have in common is that they’re Netflix productions, and these two movies tie for a spot on the list because I didn’t have a better time watching anything this year. One of the particular geniuses of Netflix is that they invest in movies which, over the past decade, the major studios stopped making as they retooled for the international market and the Oscars with little (broad comedies and horror) in between. The intelligent, not-that-expensive romantic comedy was one of many genres to fall by the wayside. Then this summer, Netflix unleashed this one-two punch that seemed to capture everyone’s hearts, and for great reason: these pictures barely broke the bank, were cleverly written, and most of all avoided the stupid traps that too many rom-coms fell into near their conclusions. There’s no moments where someone lies to someone else for two-thirds of the story and then finally get caught, no misunderstandings blown out of proportion, no Atonement syndrome (to borrow a phrase from the great Kal-El Bogadnove) where all the problems would be cleared up if someone said one sentence of information. These are movies where even the teenagers are mature, people communicate clearly and honestly, and the drama is genuine while the laughter keeps coming, all building up to endings that definitely feel earned.

(These were also movies written and directed by only women. Sensing a pattern here?)

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (directed by Susan Johnson and adapted from Jenny Han’s novel by Sofia Alvarez, with Netflix already having plans for the rest of the trilogy) ended up getting the most love and rightfully so! It took a great high concept premise—a teenage girl’s letters to the five crushes on get delivered—and never let happen any of the things I expected to happen, which is rare indeed. Throwing in Lana Condor and Noah Centineo as the appealing leads, a supporting cast full of surprising depth (the relationship between the older sister and the neighbor didn’t have to get that complex), and the always welcome John Corbett as the widowed father who loves chardonnay and heartfelt monologues only helped.

To All Of The Boys I've Loved Before

But I slightly preferred Set It Up (directed by Claire Scanlon from Katie Silberman’s screenplay), which kept me laughing from beginning to end thanks to a non-stop succession of terrific set pieces and great one-liners powered by four of the most charming leads you’ll ever see: Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs as the wealthy, ballsy executives, and Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell as the two beleaguered assistants who get through the dicking around and conspire to Cyrano their bosses. As Dorothy Parker said about Hemingway, it’s so simple, but you try to do it.


  1. Shoplifters

The Palme d’Or winner for 2018 is, along with the next film, one of the two great movies that speak to this moment in world history while holding the qualities that will make it endure. As a writer, Hirokazu Koreeda pens one of the cleverest screenplays of our time. His story of a Tokyo family crammed into the grandmother’s single apartment and living off hustles and shoplifting gets the inciting incident overwith as soon as the credits roll, as they take in an abused and abandoned little girl. This simple choice snowballs into consequences that fill the second half of the movie with multiple twists and emotional gut punches. As a director, Koreeda lifts from Ozu and Mizoguchi with a static camera that observes the natural behavior of actors you don’t believe are actors and the environment they try to navigate with intimacy both charming and so probing it hurts. As we follow the elderly, the adults with menial jobs and trying to get what pleasures they can from life, and the younger ones who are conflicted about sex work or face totally unknown futures, the look at life on the margins is nothing but searing and unforgettable.


  1. Private Life

Tamara Jenkins has only directed one film per decade. This is a crime. Her third feature, brought to us by the grace of God and Netflix, is all the proof one needs she should be working more often. It’s a chamber piece of a movie, mostly unfolding over conversations in rooms where people, comfortably or not, bare their souls. It also, like Shoplifters, strikes a perfect balance with its characters who are constantly aware of the world’s problems yet also focus on their own wants, needs, and dreams. Jenkins’s script delights in language and plays everything with a mix of hilarity, heartbreak, and a deep love that pushes people to do things for others even when they don’t always want to. In short, it’s a reminder of our humanity in a time when we need it and not all movies show it. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn are outstanding as the aging artists trying to have a baby in a time and place full of uncertainty; rarely have I loved two people more, as they make even Richard and Rachel’s flaws empathetic. And if there’s any justice, not only will Jenkins be granted more opportunities, but Kayli Carter, in an indelible role as a young relation who can lend a helping hand, will become a star.

Private Life

  1. A Star Is Born

Did we need a fourth version of what Karina Longworth calls Hollywood’s greatest myth about itself? It turns out, we did. There’s can be a magnificent pleasure in seeing a well-told story get retold, linking back to the past and pointing to the future. (For more on this, I refer you to my friend Sarah Welch-Larson’s essay reading the film through the lens of Ecclesiastes.) And this time, Bradley Cooper (along with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, pulling hard from the 1954 Hart and 1976 Didion/Dunne/Pierson scripts) adds a new layer to the story. Jackson Maine is still an addict fighting not so much for stardom as for survival, Ally Campana is still the determined ingenue who doesn’t realize how great she is, and their love is still tempestuous and old-school romantic (for good AND ill). But Cooper (who apparently read Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird multiple times during pre-production) introduces the idea that Jackson and Ally have been shaped by parents and parental figures with whom they have complex relationships…and how those ties are lessened as they find new figures and new people to strive for…and how this all plays out as they navigate their bond with each other. If the ending is the same, these details make Jackson’s fate and Ally’s last choices all the more poignant; I could feel people sobbing through the theater when I saw it the first time. Cooper and Lady Gaga, who is so reminiscent of Cher in her best movies, play it low-key and natural to great effect, Sam Elliott has never been so magical, Cooper’s novice direction is as confident and assured as you can get, and the music is great from the first frame to the last. You couldn’t ask for a more Hollywoodish time in the best way.

(Note: with this, Crazy Rich Asians, and the Conjuring series, Warner Bros. is singlehandedly reminding Hollywood that medium-budget films can make terrific money if you give the audiences an experience they haven’t had before.)


  1. Black Panther

Is Black Panther the finest live-action superhero movie ever made? It doesn’t feel like a mere chapter in an ongoing comic book her saga as it does an extraordinary alternate universe. Ryan Coogler, working with Joe Robert Cole, Rachel Morrison, and a production design team without peer makes Wakanda and the world surrounding it real as anything you could reach out and touch, effortlessly shifting from long takes that soak in the atmosphere to thrilling set pieces shot like few others could. More importantly, while so many recent movies fail to create compelling villains or conflicts as much as excuses to watch characters hang out and use their cool abilities, Coogler and Cole write the battle between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger as one not merely of good versus evil but one of different ideologies which complicate our notions of right and wrong. (As FilmCritHulk so magnificently puts it here.) Everything may be decided by a final all-out battle between superpowered men in tech suits, but the real war is one of ideas forged from the weight of history, culminating in the single most beautiful shot I saw this year in film. (That also made me cry for thirty seconds.) Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong’o effortlessly carry the movie and its themes leading a note-perfect ensemble cast…and the presence of Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, and others provide the final masterstroke. Black Panther has so much on its mind and says it in a way to make you think and not stop thinking, but unlike Nolan and Snyder’s similarly grandiose epics, it never forgets that at heart, superheroes are fun, and having a sense of humor and thrills to make you smile are just as important.

  1. The Favourite

Barry Lyndon and Dr. Strangelove get in the Large Hadron Collider and fuse…but Stanley Kubrick was never inclined to put the focus on women, and he rarely kept it as surreal as Yorgos Lanthimos does. A black comedy for the ages, Lanthimos crafts every moment with the knowing, graceful control of the Vivaldi music that provides the score, using different lenses and fluid movements to thrust the viewers into the action and balancing the serious talk with anachronistic dances, more animals than you’d expect, more mud and filth than you’d have guessed, and the most uninterested sexual act I’ve ever seen. But while the world of early 18th-century England and its nonstop barbed one-liners draw you in, Lanthimos and screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have something serious to say about how much things can get out of control when the personal and the political mingle in the most undesirable ways, when millions of people are affected by decisions they have no say in, made simply according to mood and caprice (This film isn’t timely at all.), and the politicians with their speeches and plans don’t hold the real power. If a director’s job is in large part working with the actors, Lanthimos gets superhuman work from his three leads. Olivia Colman as the lonely, recently widowed Queen Anne gives one of those rare performances that make you rethink everything she’s said and done when the movie’s over, as she balances a character both achingly sympathetic and crafty. Rachel Weisz, unruffled and fabulous, plays Sarah Churchill as a gamesmaster with layers of thought behind every word. And Emma Stone gives the most brilliant turn in her career, which is saying a lot; Stone’s Abigail Marsham has less dialogue than Colman and Weisz, but her facial expressions and gestures say more than page-long monologues ever could. It’s an acting clinic put on by three incredible women working with a director who knows how to get out of their way. The Favourite is aptly titled.


  1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The reason I qualified Black Panther as possibly the best LIVE-ACTION superhero movie ever made is that nothing could have prepared us for the genius of Into the Spider-Verse. Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, working with guiding producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, have done something unfathomable: bringing all the storytelling and artistic techniques of comics history to the big screen. It’s a mixture of larger than life animation with one style bouncing into the next with nary a moment to catch your breath AND an acknowledgment of how the superhero mythology is reborn in infinite variations on the same theme by making the variations fuse into one beautiful melody. Given the creative team and the players involved, the movie is full of laughter, but it also reconsiders and perfects the origin story in a way that may render it superfluous (Thank God) for the future, as Miles Morales’s unlikely path to heroism is shaped by others who’ve undergone the same origin, and who ultimately push him, by their lessons and by what he sees in their triumphs and failutes, to reach within and take the leap into his destiny in his own way, a way that feels earned, right, and inspiring as no other film has done. It’s corny to say that there’s a hero within us all, but Into the Spider-Verse proves that such corniness is real. And the laughter and heart comes to life thanks to the best ensemble of 2018, with the earnest, inspiring Shameik Moore playing with Jake Johnson (quietly brilliant), Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Nicolas Cage, the incredible John Mulaney, and more. It passes Mask of the Phantasm as the best animated superhero movie. It may be the best superhero movie, period. And it inarguably has the best post-credits scene ever devised.


  1. Sorry to Bother You

Continuing with the idea of non-stop laughs; a picture full of outrageous humor and sight gags that would have made Mel Brooks and Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams proud. But Boots Riley’s film about a gifted telemarketer who discovers a corporate conspiracy that—up to a point—defies imagination may be the defining movie of the late capitalist, Donald Trumpian era. A movie Fredric Jameson would put on the cover of his books. Sorry to Bother You isn’t subtle in what it rails against (capitalism, racism, sexism) and what it stands for (unions, personal freedoms, friendship rooted in shared beliefs). It’s a call to action. But all calls to action should mix infectious, righteous anger with hilarity as this does. It staggers the mind Riley had never made a movie before this. His direction is always assured as he handles the absurd tone with ease, and his screenplay is intricately constructed but easy to understand. The conceits are introduced early, each character’s role is defined, and the many personal conflicts between them tie into and are resolved by the overarching, nationally-scaled conflict. This is a movie you could teach in schools. And on top of that, Riley is helped by a terrific cast. Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green shares initials with Cary Grant, and Stanfield brings a Grantian charm to the protagonist: handsome, confused, a bit wrong-headed, and finally resolute. Tessa Thompson is magnificent as the loving, fiercely independent Detroit, the platonic ideal of Riley’s world, and Steven Yuen anchors the supporting cast in the fascinating role of Squeeze, the organizer who effortlessly blends passions causal and carnal. But the film’s real MVP is Armie Hammer, who should have been up for every Supporting Actor category for his depiction of Steve Lift as a man transcending wealth and power to reach a singular, messianistic state of domination. Few actors could have played Lift with the confidence that they’re benevolent and harmless. Hammer nails it and helps bring Riley’s points home. The voice cast is next-level as well, but the less said about them before you see the movie, the less said about anything in the movie, the better.


  1. Roma

I call Roma the impossible movie. Because I don’t understand how it exists. I don’t understand how director/writer/cinematographer/editor/total artistic visionary Alfonso Cuaron constructed shots where hundreds of people are moving not in any choreographed fashion but to the orderly pulse of life itself. How the camera moves to take in every single detail, no matter how small, from objects on shelves to cars passing down the road at the right second, that makes you feel you are in 1971 Mexico City. How the sound design is immaculately constructed to the point where half a dozen times I turned to see if people were aggressively whispering right behind me only to realize it was the film itself. How light and shadow play together in ways I’ve never seen. How I’ve never felt so immersed in a movie before.

Roma might still be my film of 2018 if all it boasted were these technical astonishments. But Cuaron, being Cuaron, uses them in service of a story that strikes you to the core. Roma is a meditation on existence itself and how the connections between us shape existence, how a countless multitude of lives observed and dancing around ours work with our lives. It doesn’t offer a secret to life or a big answer. Instead it observes Cleo, the maid, and Sofia, her middle-class employer (played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio and Mexican entertainment veteran Marina de Tavira), as the status quo of their lives is upended and how, amidst the tumult of a society in transition, they discover or rediscover things about themselves. And while the trajectories of their lives change, their state of affairs does not…and the bond between them becomes a question for heartfelt interpretation. While de Tavira leaves a great, empathetic impression, Aparicio is revelatory, playing Cleo with openness, honesty, and a quiet grace in a way no one can explain.

On a last, personal note; I saw Roma with my now ex-girlfriend, one of two movies we saw together during our relationship. And I think it’s one of the ultimate movies to watch while you’re holding hands with someone and letting things wash over you.

Roma Cinema Scene


Ready Player One – Bohemian Rhapsody

Neither of these films rank as the worst of their respective directors’ careers. Both have something to recommend. Ready Player One’s visual effects are truly a delightful funhouse ride to experience, especially in 70mm, and Bohemian Rhapsody boasts Rami Malek giving one of the finest physical performances I’ve seen in any movie, all without gaining or losing weight or wearing ridiculous make-up; he seems to work backwards from Freddie Mercury’s stage persona to imbue his actions with a singular air in a way that’s really tough to do. That said…

Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One was far from great literature, but it was a rollicking read that also took a stab at saying something about our responsibilities to the real world and the perils of being in a virtual world. I had thought Steven Spielberg would play into these themes. Instead, halfway through a movie that for the most part had been really entertaining, a choice is made, the film’s plot structure wildly breaks off from the novel’s, and from there, everything collapses. There are no thematic points made. The hero has no conflicts with his allies and learns zero lessons. It finishes as an even more masturbatory nostalgia trip than the novel, which is saying a lot.

Meanwhile, Bohemian Rhapsody tries to bring home messages about “living your own life” and “the power of love and friendship” except, and this may be even worse than saying nothing, it says the most banal somethings imaginable. This is a movie that never met a cliché it didn’t like, to the point where you have to seriously wonder how a movie like this can exist after Walk Hard destroyed the genre so badly it demanded a reinvention that still hasn’t happened. Some parts made with care and imagination are “balanced” by atrocious filmmaking, every montage is laughable, and while you expect certain elements of a true story to be fictionalized or elided for the screen, this gets so much about Queen wrong on a basic level that it doesn’t seem like it was worth telling this story in the first place. If not for Malek, who manages to push this to acceptable, this movie would be completely useless. As it is, he and the final twelve minutes, and I tip my hat to this in a cynical way, are enough to manipulate you into thinking that film was worth something.


And Finally…Great Performances Outside the Top Ten



Jesse Plemons – Game Night and Vice



Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams – Game Night

Christian Bale and Amy Adams – Vice

(I want to talk for a moment about Christian Bale in Vice. I expected Amy Adams to be wonderful. I did not expect Bale to be as truly great as he was.

Last year, Gary Oldman won an Oscar he didn’t deserve for Darkest Hour, in which he let makeup, weight gain, and an accent stand in for an actual performance. Bale transforms into Dick Cheney the way Oldman transformed into Winston Churchill, but Bale takes the further steps, letting the girth, the quiet voice, the air of a harmless-seeming, soft-spoken man build a real character whose words carry force, whose thoughts are terrifying, and whose motivations build into a thunderstorm of affect…and who ultimately comes across as a real person even though in one of his many terrible decisions, Adam McKay tries to undercut this.

There are two moments in the film which are surprisingly underplayed. At the start, Dick Cheney makes a promise which he will keep through the movie, until the chronological end when he breaks it. In both scenes, Bale conveys a deep, empathetic brokenness that definitely doesn’t make us like Cheney, but brings a moment of humanity in a film which refuses to let anyone be human most of the time.



Ethan Hawke – First Reformed



Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk



Ed Oxenbould – Wildlife



Danielle Macdonald – Dumplin’



Joanna Kulig – Cold War



Constance Wu and Henry Golding – Crazy Rich Asians



Harry Belafonte – BlacKKKlansman