The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2019

There are 37 feature films nominated for the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony. We here at Swampflix are conspicuously more attracted to the lowbrow & genre-minded than we are to stuffy Awards Season releases, so as usual we have reviewed little more than half of the films nominated (so far!). We’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees, though. Last year was an incredibly rare occurrence where three films from our own Top Films of 2017 list were nominated for Oscars, two of which won major awards – Get Out (our Movie of the Year) for Best Original Screenplay and The Shape of Water for Best Picture. That’s astonishing, given the Academy’s historic distaste for the weirdo genre films we passionately seek out. I doubt we’ll ever see that anomaly again (not that I wouldn’t love to be proven wrong). This year’s list of nominees, for instance, has zero overlap with Swampflix’s Top Films of 2018 list; none of our consensus picks even snuck into the technical categories where bizarre phrases like “The Academy Award-Winning Suicide Squad” are born. Still, plenty of movies we enjoyed did land some high-profile nominations, and 50% of the Best Picture nominees were reviewed with great enthusiasm on the site (the less we say about the other 50%, the better). The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing winners, but the last two Best Picture victories (for The Shape of Water & Moonlight) have felt like a welcome change in the tide. Even if the statues ultimately go home with the wrong nominees, though, the list below isn’t half-bad as a representation of the cultural landscape of 2018 cinema.

Listed below are the 20 Oscar-Nominated films from 2018 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best, based on our star ratings. Each entry is accompanied by a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

1. Black Panther, nominated for Best Picture, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing

“Representation can and must transcend dramatization and metaphor-making of real world trauma; the past and the framework it created for contemporary existence cannot be denied, but looking to the future is important too. This movie may not be for you, but you will be better for having seen it, and the huge numbers of white Americans who would never pay to see a movie with an (almost) all black cast were it not a Marvel property will also be better for it. This is a film company that has become an indomitable box office powerhouse using that power for good, and that’s worth celebrating.”

2. BLacKkKlansman, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver), Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay

“It’s been a while since a movie had me ping-ponging from such extremes of pure pleasure & stomach-churning nausea. What’s brilliant about BlacKkKlansman is that it often achieves both effects using the same genre tools. Even when it’s taking the structure of an absurdist farce, its humor can be genuinely funny or caustically sickening. Racism is delivered kindly & with a wholesome American smile here, without apology; shamelessly evil bigotry is presented in the cadence & appearance of a joke, but lands with appropriate horror instead of humor. Lee only further complicates his genre subversion by mixing that horror with actual, genuine jokes, so that the film overall maintains the structure of a comedy.”

3. Roma, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio), Best Supporting Actress (Marina De Tavira), Best Cinematography, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and Best Original Screenplay

“The crisp black & white cinematography and the epic scale of its cast of extras could cynically be perceived as an empty attempt to ‘elevate’ domestic labor to the perceived prestige of Oscar Worthy filmmaking. The film is not pretentious or coldly distanced enough to fully justify that cynicism, however, as it’s packed with enough flaccid dicks, dogshit, and general pessimism about the routines & familial dynamic of this kind of labor to be dismissed as ingratiating or watered down.”

4. The Favourite, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Olivia Colman), Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, and Best Production Design

“The jokes fly faster & with a newfound, delicious bitchiness. The sex & violence veer more towards slapstick than inhuman cruelty. The Favourite is Yorgos Lanthimos seeking moments of compromise & accessibility while still staying true to his distinctly cold auteurist voice – and it’s his best film to date for it.”

5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“A shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium combo that should be a total drag, but instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t seen the feat achieved onscreen with my own two eyes – which are still sore from the vibrant, hyperactive swirl of interdimensional colors & spider-people that assaulted them in gloriously uninhibited 3D animation.”

6. If Beale Street Could Talk, nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Regina King), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score

“On just a basic level of aesthetic beauty, If Beale Street Could Talk is a soaring achievement. The fashion, music, and portraiture of its vision of 1970s Harlem are an overwhelming sensual experience that fully conveys the romance & heartbreak of its central couple in crisis. It’s initially difficult to gauge exactly how tonally & structurally ambitious the film will become, but by the time Tish is recounting America’s long history of Civil Rights abuses over real-life photographs from our not-too-distant past, it almost feels like an excerpt from the James Baldwin-penned essay film I Am Not Your Negro, a much more structurally radical work from start to end. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s merits as a boundary-testing art piece require patience & trust on the audience’s end, but it’s something Barry Jenkins has earned from us (and then some) with his previous work.”

7. Can You Ever Forgive Me?, nominated for Best Actress (Melissa McCarthy), Best Supporting Actor (Richard E. Grant), and Best Adapted Screenplay

“Marielle Heller’s greatest achievement in this film is in inhabiting Israel’s voice & POV, the same way the infamous forger inhabited the voices of the literary figures whose graves she robbed. No matter how prickly or destructive Israel can be in the film, we never lose sight of the fact that the world let her down first, that life is a bum deal that doesn’t deserve a single ounce of effort whether or not she’s willing to give it.”

8. Shoplifters, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film

Shoplifters is a little less patient, a little more formalist, and a lot more blatant in its themes about the unconventional shapes families form in poverty & crisis, but the overall effect is just as tenderly devastating here as it was in Kore-eda’s earlier film Nobody Knows. I think I even slightly preferred the less documentarian approach here, if not only because Nobody Knows is so punishingly somber while this one is more open to notes of sweetness & sentimentality even if both films share in the same grim themes.”

9. A Quiet Place, nominated for Best Sound Editing

“Disregarding Platinum Dunes’s shaky reputation within the horror community and Cinema Sins-style logic sticklers’ nitpicky complaints about its premise & exposition, it’s remarkable how much personality & genuine familial tension John Krasinski was able to infuse into this genre film blockbuster; it’s the most distinctive film to bear Michael Bay’s name since Pain & Gain.”

10. Isle of Dogs, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Best Original Score

“A stop-motion animated sci-fi feature about doggos who run wild on a dystopian pile of literal garbage, the basic elevator pitch for Isle of Dogs already sounds like a Madlibs-style grab bag of the exact bullshit I love to see projected on the big screen, even without Wes Anderson’s name attached. As he already demonstrated with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director’s twee-flavored meticulousness also has a wider appeal when seen in the context of stop-motion, which generally requires a level of whimsy, melancholy, and visual fussiness to be pulled off well. That’s why it’s so frustrating that Isle of Dogs is so flawed on such a fundamental, conceptual level and that I can’t help but thoroughly enjoy it anyway, despite my better judgment.”

11. Ready Player One, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“I’m baffled by the consensus that Ready Player One is intended to be seen as a fun popcorn movie. To me, it’s a nightmare vision of a plausible near-future Hell that we’re helplessly barreling towards. Maybe that qualifies me as a hater. I wouldn’t know; you’d have to ask a fanboy. I do suspect, though, that the film’s director shares that same point of view somewhere beneath his King Nerd exterior.”

12. Hale County This Morning, This Evening, nominated for Best Documentary Feature

With the fractured, narrative-light meandering of a photojournal in motion, Hale County This Morning, This Evening plays more like a diary than a proper documentary. Ross appears to be gathering moving images to either calcify a concurrent photography project or to supplement those photographs with a curated installation piece. Either way, the experiment makes for rich raw material to pull from in the editing room when repurposed for a feature-length non-fiction piece, no matter how disjointed the result.

13. Solo: A Star Wars Story, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“The dependency upon references to past material (and presumably planting seeds to be reaped in future Star Wars stories, every year from now until you’re dead, so just shut up and give Disney your money already you pathetic fleck of lint) drags this movie down. Although it’s occasionally buoyed back up by strong performances and jokes that actually land, and it somehow manages to stick the landing, there’s just so much here that you’ll want to forget. There’s almost a good film in here, but there’s also definitely a pretty bad one. If you happen to miss the first thirty minutes, you’ll likely have a much better time, but there’s no guarantee.”

14. Cold War, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography

“As impressed as I was with the film’s storytelling efficiency, it felt like the deadly attraction at its core kept getting cut short every time it started to heat up. The result was very pretty to look at, but also frustratedly stilted in its movement.”

15. Minding the Gap, nominated for Best Documentary Feature

“We’re so used to seeing skateboarding highlights meticulously edited into the music video-cool montages that make it seem like the most transcendent sport on Earth. That informal training ground is exactly where Bing Liu cut his teeth as a filmmaker, but Minding the Gap finds him stripping all of that perceived cool away to reach for a difficultly intimate level of honesty & vulnerability.”

16. Avengers: Infinity War, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“I’m sure that future re-watches (especially at home, on a screen that’s smaller and thus better at hiding the flaws of bad computer imagery) will likely leave me with a more positive feeling (and I reserve the right to change my opinion at a later date), especially after the second half of this narrative is released next summer. For now, though, I just can’t bring myself to love this. It’s not because it’s a bummer; I think that was a good choice and I usually prefer that. It’s not because it’s popular, either; that’s never been a problem for me. Ultimately, the problem for me has nothing to do with what’s in the movie, but everything that it’s missing.”

17. A Star is Born, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Lady Gaga), Best Supporting Actor (Sam Elliott), Best Cinematography, Best Original Song, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Adapted Screenplay

“Someone with a much kinder ear for the proto-country Dad-rock Cooper & Gaga perform as a duo in the film will likely have a much easier time swallowing its attacks on the Authenticity of high-gloss pop music than I did. Even if not, the improv looseness of the film’s early, pre-popshaming stretch is infectiously charming, enough so that it carries the film though much of its second-half rough patches.”

18. Mary Queen of Scots, nominated for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup

“Had the potential to function like a one-on-one rivalry on Drag Race All Stars, but instead quietly passes the time like an especially subdued BBC miniseries. My desire for the former is certainly more a result of boisterous portrayals of Elizabeth from actors like Bette Davis, Quentin Crisp, and Judi Dench than anything to do with historical accuracy, but dutiful scholarship isn’t really this movie’s main concern anyway.”

19. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Song

“‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is a wonderful novelty in isolation; it’s the ‘Other Tales of the American Frontier’ that drag this anthology down into regressive tedium as a collection. The Coens’ usual fixation on the philosophy & brutality of Death are perfectly at home with the genre – to the point where they get perilously uncomfortable with its worst trappings.

20. First Reformed, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“Without Travis Bickle’s moral repugnance making his physical & mental decline a complexly difficult crisis to engage with, Reverend Toller’s unraveling feels like a much less interesting, less essential retread of territory Schrader has explored onscreen before, even if the political anxiety driving it this time is more relatable.”

-Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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Oscar-Nominated Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 2/21/19 – 2/27/19

In so, so many ways it’s crunch time in New Orleans right now.  Parades are rolling, Mardi Gras costume supplies are frantically being hot-glued together, and everyone’s social calendars are bursting at the seams.  Awards Season movie distribution slows down for no one, though, and the 2019 Oscars ceremony is arriving this week whether or not this city is prepared for it.

To help keep the volatile clash of Oscar buzz & Bourbon Street daquiri buzz manageable, we’re going to keep this week’s local screenings round-up as simple as possible. Here are some recommendations for Oscar-nominated movies that are screening around New Orleans, what they’re nominated for, and where to find them.

Roma, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio), Best Supporting Actress (Marina De Tavira), Best Cinematography, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and Best Original Screenplay – Alfonso Cuarón’s staggering black & white period-piece epic & personal memoir is a major Oscar contender, but most people have  only had a chance to see it at home on Netflix. We’re one of the few cities where audiences can fully immerse themselves in its lush cinematography & meticulously detailed sound design on the big screen. Returning for a second theatrical run at The Broad Theater.

The Favourite,  nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Olivia Colman), Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, and Best Production Design – Yorgos Lanthimos follows up the stubbornly obscure The Killing of a Sacred Deer with his most accessible feature yet: a queer, darkly funny costume drama about a three-way power struggle between increasingly volatile women (Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz). It’s both a gorgeous laugh riot and a pitch-black howl of unending cruelty & despair. Fun! Only playing at The Broad Theater.

If Beale Street Could Talk, nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Regina King), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score Barry Jenkins follows up his Best Picture winner Moonlight with an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel set in 1970s Harlem. Brimming with gorgeous costumes, sensual romance, and a seething indictment of America’s inherently racist system of “justice.” Only playing at The Prytania Theatre.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse nominated for Best Animated Feature Film – In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & a medium that should be a total drag, but instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity. Playing at AMC Elmwood & AMC Westbank.

Cold War, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography – A Polish romance drama from the director of Ida, covering multiple decades of a single relationship in 90 swooning minutes of crisp black & white splendor and despair. Playing only at The Broad Theater. Playing at The Broad Theater & AMC Elmwood.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #76 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Eastrail 177 Trilogy & Lady in the Water (2006)

Welcome to Episode #76 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-sixth episode, Brandon & Britnee dive deep into the murky waters of M. Night Shyamalan at his nerdiest. They discuss the director’s so-called Eastrail 177 Trilogy (Unbreakable, Split, Glass) and Britnee makes Brandon watch her personal favorite Shyamalan joint, Lady in the Water (2006). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Paul & Jill & Therapy & Divorce

One of the most immediately apparent virtues of our current Movie of the Month, Paul Mazursky’s late-70s divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, is its verisimilitude. The movie follows Jill Clayburgh as a well-to-do Manhattanite divorcee as she struggles to establish a new identity as an independent woman. Despite the scope of that lens, Mazursky continuously seeks for moments of small, intimate honesty rather than making grand, sweeping statements about Clayburgh’s gender or era. We watch with tender voyeurism as she dances to Swan Lake alone in her underwear, sings “Baby I’m Amazed” off-key with her daughter at the piano, and becomes dizzy to the point of puking when first hearing of her husband’s affair. It’s in this intimate naturalism where the movie finds its strongest voice, a virtue that comes through most clearly in the protagonist’s private therapy sessions with the real-life feminist psychotherapist Dr. Penelope Russianoff. There’s such a dedication to verisimilitude in those therapy sessions that they’re staged in Dr. Russianoff’s own Manhattan apartment where she actually practiced. This tactic of using therapy to tear down the comforting veil of cinematic artificiality to achieve something intimate & true to life was not new to Mazursky in An Unmarried Woman. In fact, it was also an integral part of his most iconic, breakthrough work.

Paul Mazursky first made a name for himself as one of the New Hollywood brats with his Free Love marital drama Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Starring Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, and Dyan Cannon as a pair of married couples struggling with monogamy in the swinging ’60s, all of the film’s promotional materials & cultural context promise a steamy, risqué drama about wife-swapping & group sex. I imagine it was something of a shock, then, when Mazurky instead delivered a drama mostly about intensive group therapy. The opening sequence of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is set at a group therapy retreat held at an isolated facility known simply as The Institute. A documentarian filmmaker and his free-spirit wife arrive at The Institute as smirking skeptics, only scoping out the place as a potential film subject. The intensive, performance art-reminiscent therapy session (recalling similarly discomforting methodology in Josephine Decker‘s work) breaks down the couple’s defensive barriers and leaves them dazed, vulnerably open-minded, and radically honest for the remainder of the picture. Dr. Russianoff’s therapy sessions in An Unmarried Woman are much more traditional & subdued, but they similarly challenge the societally-reinforced assumptions & barriers Jill Clayburgh is burdened with when she arrives. Although the style of therapy is wildly different in both films, their common goal is apparent: to challenge the shortcomings of traditional marital structure with a newfound, unflinching emotional honesty.

If there’s any major difference between these two films’ relationship with therapy & New Age Californian self-care, it’s in Mazursky’s deployment of humor & irony. An Unmarried Woman is far from humorless (it does open with a top-volume joke about dogshit, after all), but its therapy sessions with Dr. Russianoff are handled with a quiet, direct intimacy and are characterized as an unquestined good for Jill Clayburgh’s lost-soul divorcee. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is much cheekier in its own approach. The challenges to monogamy & traditional marriage’s pressures for partners to be all things to their husband or wife are treated with appropriate emotional heft. However, this earlier work finds Mazursky more willing to poke fun at his characters for their New Age navel-gazing. Middle age “free souls” dress up like Peter Fonda, smoke ditch weed, and grow their hair long as if they were young radicals. They shamelessly blurt inane dialogue like “That’s gorgeous, man; the truth is always beautiful,” and “The gaspacho was astonishing,” entirely unaware of how silly they sound to eavesdroppers. Yet, Mazursky takes their exploration of the difference between physical & emotional fidelity and the marital benefits of casual sex just as seriously as he takes Jill Clayburgh’s devastating unpreparedness for a husbandless life in An Unmarried Woman. The only difference is that Mazursky was initially more willing to poke fun at his characters for that self-exploration, whether that’s a sign of immaturity on his part or on the part of the more therapy-adverse audiences of the 1960s who would have appreciated the jabs.

In a way, it’s entirely appropriate that An Unmarried Woman is more sober in tone & sentiment than Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, given the varying severity of their subjects. Both films sincerely advocate for the emotional & romantic benefits of therapy, but their respective eras call for drastically different tones. The Free Love 60s vibes of Mazursky’s earlier work invites a more fun, freewheeling tone as the promise of wife-swapping & group therapy loosens up the traditional boundaries of marriage to something more honest & playful. An Unmarried Woman arrives in the grim fallout of Free Love nearly a decade later, even set in the grimy streets of NYC instead of the cheery LA sunshine. Once traditional marriage began to break down and divorce became less taboo, women were much worse off in their newfound freedom than men, as they were socially conditioned to define their personal worth as wives, not individuals. The intimate, naturalistic therapy sessions of An Unmarried Woman can only lead to the subtle, quiet payoff of self-realization, then, while Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice benefits from barreling towards the promise of an orgy. With both films, Mazursky appeared to be making a statement on the nature of romance & autonomy in their respective times. His frank, direct honesty in both films guides their opposing tones, but his seriousness about the benefits of therapy remains constant between them. It says a lot about both films that their respective topics are still relevant to modern marital romance and that (extreme outliers like Josephine Decker aside) the standard approach is still closer to the winking humor of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (which was practically remade recently in The Overnight) than the emotional vulnerability of An Unmarried Woman.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the late-70s feminist drama An Unmarried Woman, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its most substantial guiding influence, Dr. Penelope Russianoff.

-Brandon Ledet

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Coen Brothers’ last feature, Hail, Caesar!, was one of my very favorite films of 2016 and one of my all-time dearest favorites from the directors’ mighty catalog. It’s a testament to how little interest I have in the Western as a genre, then, that it took me so long to catch up with the Coens’ follow-up to that philosophical Old Hollywood farce. Readily available on Netflix for months, nominated for several Academy Awards, and elbowing its way to the top of many critics’ Best Films of 2018 lists (including James’s), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs should have registered as must-see-ASAP material in the scramble to catch up with the best films 2018 had to offer. Early in its runtime, I even felt foolish for having let it cool on the shelf for so long, as its opening ten minutes are an energizing, over-the-top subversion of a genre that normally bores me to tears. My appreciation quickly plummeted from there, however, as it more often participated in the standard tones & tropes of the classic Western without subversion or update – sometimes to disturbing political implication, often to by-the-numbers tedium. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t transcend genre so much as it gleefully rolls around in it.

This is an anthology of Western tales with an elegantly simple wraparound: an illustrated hardcover collection of short stories set in the Old West titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (And Other Tales of the American Frontier.” As a disembodied hand flips the pages of the book it becomes clear why the titular story was highlighted as a standout and the other tales were grouped together beneath it. Coens veteran Tim Blake Nelson stars as the eponymous Buster Scruggs, parodying the exact smiling, singing cowboy archetype from Old Hollywood Westerns that Alden Ehrenreich played in Hail, Caesar!. Against the intensely artificial desert backdrops & drunken saloon shootout settings of classic cowboy musicals, Buster Scruggs exists as a kind of Bugs Bunny anarchist – mugging directly to the audience while enacting a brutal trail of slapstick violence. The segment’s Looney Tunes-level exaggeration of the typical Western’s brutality and anarchic mockery of its usual somber adherence to a strict moral code were a welcome subversion of a genre that could use some shaking up. It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the film felt so grim & macho (and weirdly racist) in the exact ways I’m usually bored with in this genre template.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a wonderful novelty in isolation; it’s the “Other Tales of the American Frontier” that drag this anthology down into regressive tedium as a collection. The Coens’ usual fixation on the philosophy & brutality of Death are perfectly at home with the genre – to the point where they get perilously uncomfortable with its worst trappings. Tall tales of brutish men fearlessly carving out a space for themselves in harsh, untamed terrain, nary a woman in sight; tone-deaf vignettes of white celebrities playing cowboy by slaughtering the indigenous nations of the land without subversion or critique; the indignity of having to continue looking at James Franco: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is so often an unpleasant, outdated bore that by its final segments it’s difficult to remember all the way back (over two hours earlier) to the live-action cartoon subversion that opened the show. There’s something to be admired in how the Coens use the avatar of Buster Scruggs, billing him as The Misanthrope, to exaggerate the way their cruel, ironic pessimism is often interpreted by critics despite their ostensible role as singing, dancing entertainers, before then leaning into the exact prolonged misanthropy they’re too often dinged for. The problem is the contrast between those two modes – the self-parody and the business-as-usual – is unfavorable to the majority of the runtime.

As someone who’s bored by Westerns almost by default and doesn’t have the same scholarly, intensive interest in the Coens as a lot of serious Film Nerds do, I’m probably the exact wrong voice to weigh in on this film’s merits. After several unsuccessful attempts to watch their much-beloved No Country for Old Men in its entirely without falling asleep, for instance, my opinion here is likely not to be trusted. Either way, I do believe “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is worth a look. I just don’t think the “Other Tales of the American Frontier” have much to offer beyond what you’d expect from the “Coen Brothers Western” premise of the anthology.

-Brandon Ledet

Minding the Gap (2018)

In one of those unexplainable parallel thinking overlaps, 2018 saw the release of three high-profile arthouse movies about skateboarding: the coming of age teen girl docudrama Skate Kitchen, the coming of age teen boy melodrama Mid90s, and the emotional powerhouse documentary Minding the Gap. Only that third title landed an Oscar nomination, however, as debut filmmaker (and seasoned cinematographer) Bing Liu is up for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. Pulling from a decade of home movie footage & informal interviews among his close circle of skateboarding buds in the Rust Belt economic rut of Rockford, IL, it’s easy to see how Minding the Gap’s richness in raw material made it a clear standout for awards attention in its weirdly crowded field. Skateboarding is an inherently cinematic subject (meticulously edited highlight reels are an essential part of its DNA) and both Skate Kitchen & Mid90s use that platform to cover a wide thematic range, but neither quiet reach the scope in emotional & political topics addressed in Minding the Gap: domestic abuse, toxic masculinity, addiction, economic desperation, casual racism, and the list goes on. I wouldn’t personally single it out as the most substantial skateboarding film of 2018 (for me, that would be Skate Kitchen), but it’s not at all difficult to see why this is the one from that trio that ate up all the awards nominations & most of the critical attention.

As an act of documentary filmmaking, Minding the Gap often plays like an extended episode of Teen Mom or MTV True Life. That sounds like more of a reductive insult than I intend it to. The music video aesthetic of skateboarding clips and the stubborn continuance of Gen-X mall punk sensibilities into the 21st Century feels very much in-line with the template of the early aughts MTV docuseries. Some of this out-of-fashion, post-MTV aesthetic is a result of Liu’s profiling of a small, intimate subset of skateboarders (his close friends) from their early teens (when that MTV style would’ve been relatively fresh) into their early twenties (now). It’s also just reflective of the economic & cultural rut this underemployed, increasingly desolate end of Rockford has been stuck in. It’s a stalled, rotting aesthetic that also matches the lives of its subjects. As teens, the heartbroken kids of Minding the Gap used skateboarding to escape physically & emotionally abusive home lives to find a more supportive, self-chosen community. They state in plain terms, “Skating is more of a family than my family,” which is essentially the shared thesis of Skate Kitchen & Mid90s. This isn’t a film about that youthful comradery, however, so much as it’s about when these kids grow up into unprepared adults and the full destructive brutality of their childhood roars back into their learned, adult behavior. The exact alcoholism, domestic violence, explosive anger, and parental abandonment that traumatized them as teens echoes thunderously in how they either sink further into the corrosive rut or become brave enough to break out of it.

It’s likely unfair of me to discuss Minding the Gap in terms of the 2019 Oscar pool, 2018’s other skateboarding dramas, or the outdated aesthetics of the mid-00s MTV docuseries – especially since the film is so blatantly personal to Liu and (what’s left of) his crew. The truth is I didn’t find much to be impressed with in the film’s construction or chosen subject, as opposed the more adventurous arthouse style of recent docs like Flames, Shirkers, or (fellow Oscar nominee) Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Like its deliberately out-of-fashion subject matter, however, this lack of stylistic flourish feels perfectly matched to the material at hand. We’re so used to seeing skateboarding highlights meticulously edited into the music video-cool montages that make it seem like the most transcendent sport on Earth. That informal training ground is exactly where Bing Liu cut his teeth as a filmmaker, but Minding the Gap finds him stripping all of that perceived cool away to reach for a difficultly intimate level of honesty & vulnerability. This is a deliberately tough watch that challenges its audience by taking away nearly all the visual aesthetic appeal of skateboarding to examine why else its participants were initially drawn to it. Tougher yet, it bravely asks questions about how the same patterns of abuse & trauma that drove those kids to skateboarding culture are being continued in their own adult behavior – a cycle that only gets uglier the more it’s repeated and the further out of step it becomes with the changing times. This isn’t the flashiest documentary you’ll see all year, nor is it the raddest portrait of skateboarding in recent memory. It is, however, unflinchingly honest & unembarrassed in a way that more than justifies its accolades.

-Brandon Ledet

Cold War (2018)

There’s an expensive type of fine art photography print—one with processing names like Ilfochrome & Cibachrome—that makes black & white prints look positively silver, vibrantly metallic instead of merely devoid of color. It’s a look that’s been digitally replicated recently in comic book noir visual experiments like (the positively dreadful) Sin City & Mad Max: Fury Road’s (surprisingly worthwhile) “Black & Chrome” reissue. It’s also so old-fashioned to cinematic language that the phrase “on the silver screen” is a well-worn cliché. The most striking thing about the romantic Polish drama Cold War is the silver glow of its cinematography – so visually stunning it recalls seeing an expensive Cibachrome print in person instead of in recreation. Shot in a boxy “Academy” aspect ratio and covering nearly two decades of a tragic romance in 90 rapid-fire minutes of editing room efficiency, Cold War is undeniably impressive as a formalist object. It’s absolutely stunning as a fine art photograph – both handsome & haunting in its cold, metallic imagery. Yet, as a motion picture it’s a little too formally rigid for its own good, and staring at any still image photograph for 90 consecutive minutes is going to test your patience, no matter how well composed.

That’s not to say there’s no passion, music, or movement to the story Cold War tells. In fact, its story about two mismatched lovers whose passionate, unavoidable attraction to each other inevitably leads them to ruin is full of life & music. It’s just that its overwhelming, soul-consuming emotions are directly at odds with its art gallery formalism. A music director of a Polish folk preservation project falls in love with one of the more mysterious, magnetic performers in his cast – a young woman with a violent past. Their lust for each other is consummated quickly across class lines, but they subsequently fail to establish a normal, healthy life together as romantic partners. As an artistic musical project meant to preserve authentic Polish folk culture is coopted as nationalist propaganda under Stalinist rule, indicating the general political landscape around them, the two lovers make drastically different choices in how they relate to their shared homeland. Their mutual attraction to each other is deadly powerful, however, and they continually cross social, political, and ethical boundaries over a decade or so of dangerous cat & mouse “romance.” The problem is that the harshly segmented edits, rigidly formalist photography, and overall machine-like precision of the filmmaking does little to match or enhance their passion. As impressed as I was with the film’s storytelling efficiency, it felt like the deadly attraction at its core kept getting cut short every time it started to heat up. The result was very pretty to look at, but also frustratedly stilted in its movement.

The opening “Poland’s Got Talent” portion of Cold War, where hipster sophisticates “elevate” “peasant-style” folk art by affording it a proper stage, matched the rigid fine art photography of its formalist structure perfectly. As the wild, destructive passions of its story heat up & flame out, however, the film does little to signify that change in any noticeable way. It’s like watching a handsomely composed still photograph try to break form and become a motion picture, but it never leaves its fixed spot on the art gallery wall. This is a complaint I saw lodged much more frequently (and, to me, erroneously) at another one of this year’s Oscar frontrunners: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. If any film’s form does not match its subject, it’s Cold War, where it’s easy to be impressed with the silver screen artistry of the projected image, but difficult to get swept up in the music, movement, and emotion before they’re harshly cut short. I can’t deny the potency of the film’s visual achievements, but I wonder if they were applied to the right project.

-Brandon Ledet

Roma (2018)

In general, it’s always better for your mental health to not stress too much about what the Oscars and other awards & critical bodies inevitably get wrong. Awards are an excellent platform for exposing & advertising smaller, artsy-fartsy movies to a wider audience who typically only pay attention to Disney-scale franchise filmmaking for the rest of the year. Awards also direct the flow of production money as a result, making anyone who walks home with an Oscar statue a lot more likely to get their next creative project off the ground. It’s worthwhile, then, to celebrate the few films you do enjoy that receive awards attention and to ignore the omissions & snubs of films you feel should be held up on the same pedestal; the Academy and other awards bodes are rarely, if ever, going to get things “right.” Still, I often find myself getting worked up about these things (despite them being entirely out of my control) and this year’s Best Picture race is especially nerve-racking in its potential for disaster. In a reflection of the stubborn yet rapid changes in its voting body, the Academy has nominated exactly 50% Best Picture candidates I’d love to see recognized for their achievements in craft & their political thoughtfulness (BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, Black Panther, Roma) and 50% nuclear meltdown levels of trash with the exact opposite effect (Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, Vice, A Star is Born). That potential for both elation & disaster is sure to make for an exciting nail-biter of a ceremony (if the event’s haphazard producers can pull their shit together long enough to even stage a ceremony). Of all the films I feel passionately about in that paradigm, though, the one I least expected to be pulling for so passionately is Roma. It’s far from an underdog in this year’s Best Picture race, yet it’s a film I feel exceedingly protective over given some of the absurdly regressive alternatives.

A semi-autobiographical memoir of Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood in privilege, Roma details the life, love, labor, and loss of a domestic worker in Mexico City, 1970. Economically chained to a life defined by labor and professionally pressured to put her live-in employer’s personal life above her own, an indigenous woman tends to the minute-to-minutes whims & demands of a wealthy white family in transition. The routine of domestic maintenance eats up her entire schedule from pre-dawn to bedtime and the rare moments where she finds tranquil peace are, without fail, interrupted by chaos: screaming children, earthquakes, fires, political violence, etc. Her employers – a married couple on the verge of divorce & their small army of bratty offspring – claim to love her as member of the family, but she’s treated more as a beloved pet or a trustworthy appliance than a human being. This dynamic is challenged when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant and her vulnerabilities & personal needs as a human being become increasingly unavoidable at the exact moment when the family structure is strained by a looming divorce. We don’t see much of our protagonist’s inner life reflected in her dialogue or moments of privacy (which are essentially non-existent). We come to know her instead through her physicality (as excellently performed by new-to-the-trade actor Yalitza Aparicio) – whether in the detailed maneuvers of her never-ending labor as a servant or in the body language of her quiet reactions as a powerless observer. That’s why it’s so emotionally impactful when she loudly confesses a carefully-regarded, devastating secret of great personal importance to her “family” of employers in a grand emotional climax. It’s even more impactful, then, to see that intimate human moment punctured by the family slipping right back into relying on her to fetch them snacks and to sweep up the ever-replenishing piles of dogshit, as if they hadn’t just shared in the heartbreak of one of the most vital members of the family.

Even before you soak in its attention to the microscopic details of domestic labor & the subtly policed boundaries of this particular live-in-maid dynamic, Roma is incredibly impressive as a feat in filmmaking craft. The crisp black & white cinematography and the epic scale of its cast of extras could cynically be perceived as an empty attempt to “elevate” domestic labor to the perceived prestige of Oscar Worthy filmmaking. The film is not pretentious or coldly distanced enough to fully justify that cynicism, however, as it’s packed with enough flaccid dicks, dogshit, and general pessimism about the routines & familial dynamic of this kind of labor to be dismissed as ingratiating or watered down. The camera often oscillates from left to right in a machine-life precision with complex choreography of the onscreen players (sometimes numbering in the hundreds) following along with its carefully paced ebb & flow. It’s a calculated back & forth movement, like a security camera on a timer, that doesn’t at first register as purposeful in any way other than purely showing off. However, when you consider the way that motion matches up with the punishing tide of the waves in its devastating emotional climax on the beach shore, its inclusion & repetition takes on a more satisfactory purpose. Even the solemn washing of dogshit into a courtyard drain that opens the film starts to feel like foreshadowing of the beach scene in retrospect, as the sudsy waves of the bucket water mechanically wash past the camera. It’s a motif that loudly echoes the consistency of the cycle the movie depicts – the engrained ebb & flow of a domestic worker’s daily chores as she’s pulled into the edges of the family circle then washed right back out again. The larger scale of the world outside only provides perspective for the intimacy of that dynamic, and the camera’s careful oscillation announces & reinforces the setting where the boundaries & patterns of that bond will ultimately be tested.

Roma might suffer slightly in its self-awareness of reaching for Great Cinema in every moment. However, it’s an admirable ambition that often leads to sharply memorable images: smoke-filled theatres, wall-mounted taxidermy, furniture shopping in the middle of a riot, the absurdity of wealth parodied in the tone of a luxury car commercial, etc. It might also be true that Cuarón’s guilt over being a wealthy brat isn’t the noblest inspiration for telling the story of someone once under his employ. Even then, the details of how that worker’s language is policed out of existence, how she’s pet on a pillow besides the couch like a lapdog, and how people who’ve lived in the same home with her for untold years don’t know her full name or birthday are damning & insightful in a way that reaches far beyond vanity or simplistic remorse. This is ambitious, heartfelt, precise, memorable filmmaking with scathing political intent & deep emotional hurt – the exact kind of achievement that, when nominated, feels like The Academy “getting it right.” I don’t mean to say that Roma winning the Best Picture Oscar this year is the only acceptable outcome, or even the ideal. Personally, my favorite picture in the race remains Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which is being regarded as a longshot despite the director’s longstanding prestige. It’s more that it’ll be a lot harder to stomach than usual if the Academy gets its wrong this year, given that the poorly slapped together political misfires Green Book & Bohemian Rhapsody both have a strong chance of winning instead of four vastly superior nominees. Long after the Oscars are over, Roma, BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, and The Favourite will stand on their own as great, distinct, risk-taking art. I can still feel myself getting worked up about the likelihood of impending doom this Oscar season, though. I’m both excited by the possibility of great art like Roma getting some much-deserved recognition and also just ready to get this dogshit over with & move on.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week (French Film Fest Edition) 2/14/19 – 2/21/19

 

In so, so many ways it’s crunch time in New Orleans right now.  Parades are starting to roll, Mardi Gras costume supplies are frantically being hot-glued together, and everyone’s social calendars are bursting at the seams.  Movie distribution slows down for no one, though, and there are two major cinematic events on the horizon worth keeping an eye on: the 22nd annual New Orleans French Film Fest and the 2019 Oscars ceremony.

There are over a dozen titles screening at The Prytania in the coming week for the New Orleans French Film Festival, and The Broad Theater is the final resting place for many of the more worthwhile artsy-fartsy Oscar nominees, so we’re going to keep this week’s local screenings round-up as simple as possible. Here are some recommendations for movies to see at the city’s two most essential indie spots.

Essential Movies Screening at The New Orleans French Film Fest

Beauty and the Beast (1946) Jean Cocteau’s masterful black & white fairy tale adaptation, included as part of Prytania’s regular Classic Movies series. Beauty and the Beast is screening Sunday 2/17, 10am, and Wednesday 10/20, 10am, at The Prytania.

The Nun (1966) A controversial French New Wave political drama about a young woman (played by Anna Karina) who is locked away in a nunnery against her will. The Nun is screening in a new digital restoration Sunday 2/17, 2:15pm (preceded by live music at 1:45pm), and Tuesday 2/19, 12pm, at The Prytania.

The Image Book The latest sensory film collage essay from French New Wave iconoclast Jean-Luc Goddard, a deliberate deconstruction of cinema as an art form. The Image Book is screening Thursday 2/21, 5:30pm, at The Prytania.

Non-Fiction A drama from indie cinema mainstay Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper, Cold Water, Clouds of Sils Maria) set in the publishing industry of Paris, co-starring Juliette Binoche. Non-Fiction is screening Thursday 2/21, 7:45pm (preceded by live music at 7:15pm) at The Prytania.

Oscar Nominated Films Screening at The Broad

The Favourite Yorgos Lanthimos follows up the stubbornly obscure The Killing of a Sacred Deer with his most accessible feature yet: a queer, darkly funny costume drama about a three-way power struggle between increasingly volatile women (Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz). It’s both a gorgeous laugh riot and a pitch-black howl of unending cruelty & despair. Fun! Only playing at The Broad Theater.

If Beale Street Could Talk Barry Jenkins follows up his Best Picture winner Moonlight with an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel set in 1970s Harlem. Brimming with gorgeous costumes, sensual romance, and a seething indictment of America’s inherently racist system of “justice.” Only playing at The Broad Theater.

Shoplifters Hirokazu Kore-eda continues the themes of makeshift families struggling to survive in the bowels of poverty that he explored in previous works like the stunning drama Nobody Knows. Awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes and recently nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, this film is an event, albeit an emotionally traumatic one. Only playing at The Broad Theater.

Cold War A Polish, Oscar-nominated romance drama from the director of Ida, covering multiple decades of a single relationship in 90 swooning minutes of crisp black & white splendor and despair. Playing only at The Broad Theater. Only playing at The Broad Theater.

-Brandon Ledet

Dr. Penelope Russianoff: The Secret Auteur of An Unmarried Woman (1978)

Our current Movie of the Month, the 1978 divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, is not at all an outlier in director Paul Mazursky’s career. With his signature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Mazursky established himself as a filmmaker who discusses America’s sexual & romantic taboos in a more direct, honest way than they’re usually handled onscreen. It’s a style that carried through his career all the way until he was making outlandish studio comedies like the Bette Midler & Woody Allen two-fister Scenes from a Mall. An Unmarried Woman fits snugly in the tone of that oeuvre, frankly & assertively challenging the sexual autonomy & newfound independence of the Modern Woman in 1970s New York. In the film, Jill Claybugh plays a well-off Manhattanite who unexpectedly finds himself divorced & heartbroken at middle age, unsure what to do with her newfound singlehood & the scraps of her former life. Her lengthy, unflinchingly honest discussion of her fears & desires within this new paradigm shared with the other women in her life are very familiar to the typical Paul Mazursky narrative, but one of the women in her life in particular may have had an even bigger influence on the tone & messaging of the film than the director did: her therapist.

Tanya, the tall, physically imposing but soft-spoken therapist who helps the titular divorcee piece her life back together, is an incredible show-stealing presence within the film. In scenes where the protagonist shares confessions with friends over cocktails or sings “Baby I’m Amazed” off-key with her daughter at the piano, you can feel Mazursky reaching for a matter-of-fact authenticity to ground his tale of a woman undone by a romantic fallout. None of these moments, engaging as they are, can match the simple, confident authenticity of Tanya’s screen presence. She’s the real deal. Referred to Mazursky by director Claudia Weill, Tanya was played in the film by real life NYC psychotherapist Penelope Russianoff. The therapy sessions in the film were staged in Russianoff’s Manhattan penthouse, where she would regularly see patients in real life. At 6’2” and the only notable non-professional actor in the cast, Russianoff stands out as a striking screen presence, a face & demeanor we are not accustomed to seeing in Hollywood fare. Just her physical presence as the fictional therapist Tanya is enough to change the tone & authenticity of the movie entirely. More importantly, though, it was her life’s work & the specialization within her field that really made an impact on the film, one that nearly matches Mazursky’s own.

When asked about her experience working on An Unmarried Woman, Russianoff chipperly responded “it was great fun, because I could change the lines,” noting that the original script contained dialogue that was “not things a therapist would say.” For instance, “The script called for me to say, ‘If I were you, I’d go out and get laid,’ but I said to Paul, ‘I can’t say that. I’d never say that.’” The collaborators, director & therapist, settled on the compromise line “I’m me and you’re you. But if I were you, I’d go out with my friends a lot the way you’re doing,” a drastically different sentiment. Much of her dialogue was revised & improvised in this way, but her collaboration with Mazursky was earnest, not contentious. When asked what An Unmarried Woman is about, Russianoff explained “A woman doesn’t have to be married to have a life.” That’s as succinct & as accurate a summation of the film’s mission statement as you’ll find, but it also works just as well as a mission statement in Russianoff’s own career as a therapist. Russianoff’s specialty within psychotherapy was in advising women how to assert themselves & shed the helplessness taught to them at an early age, as early socialization makes women feel dependent on male companionship. When considered in that context, An Unmarried Woman feels almost like a feature-length adaptation of her lectures, not a movie she just happened to bolster with an improv-heavy cameo.

When asked whether the feminism inherent to her teachings that women should feel independent of men was an intentional choice, Russianoff explained “I’ve always, without thinking, been a feminist therapist. Both my mother and father were achievement-oriented and intellectually-oriented people, so I was never programmed to be a sex object.” Her goal was never to alienate women from men completely. She was simply alarmed that, “About 95% of my female patients think they are nothing without a man” and made it her life’s work “to get them unfixated on men . . to stop pivoting around men as the core of their security and to learn to pivot around the core of security they build up in themselves.” That’s the exact crisis at the center of An Unmarried Woman: the titular divorcee is panicked that she does not know how to live a life without a husband, that she was socially unprepared for independence. Russianoff herself was married to a respected clarinetist for a large portion of her life but had been socialized early on by her parents to have passions & concerns outside of that relationship. She was horrified by the growing number of divorcees in the 1970s who did not have the same confidence or independence, and she made a life out of helping them find it. Her presence in An Unmarried Woman is more than just as an authentic, real-world therapist then; she’s a ground-floor witness & frontlines fighter to the film’s core themes, an essential part of its DNA.

Although it’s her only onscreen role as an actor, An Unmarried Woman was huge boon for Russianoff’s career. She doesn’t have enough cultural clout to have earned her own Wikipedia page (most information available about her online is hiding in her obituaries from 2000), but she did say that working with Mazursky afforded her “instant celebrityhood.” Much to the annoyance of her colleagues, her appearance in An Unmarried Woman directly led to a book deal, resulting in bestselling titles like When Am I Going to Be Happy? & Why Do I Think I Am Nothing Without a Man? She also made several in-demand appearances on talk shows & expanded her practice to help patients suffering from stage fright, thanks to her on-camera experience. I have a feeling that Penelope Russianoff would have been just fine without Paul Mazursky’s film, however, that she would have been perfectly successful treating patients in her Manhattan penthouse for her remaining decades of practice. The question, then, is whether the movie would have been just as well off without her or whether her presence & influence had a dramatic impact on the themes & tone of the film. To me, there’s no question at all. An Unmarried Woman is just as much her film as it is the director’s, a remarkable thing to be able to say about a non-professional actor whose screentime practically amounts to a cameo.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the late-70s feminist divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet