Hi Amy! And Dana! And Mark! What short names you have—all the better to write you with.
Amy, I am in the exact (if not polar) opposite of a Cartagena mud bath: my parents’ dining room, which is located in a dreary land that the natives refer to as “Connecticut” (and that non-natives don’t really refer to at all). And let me tell you, this is truly the place to go if you’re looking to escape the imperial pull of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
I’ve spent the last 31 years honing my apathy toward George Lucas’ culturally encompassing space opera, but I had no idea just how indifferent I could be to that galaxy far, far away until my dad died three days after the release of the franchise’s newest installment. (Cue the Debbie Downer trombone.) Here’s what I’ve learned about grief, so far: It makes it spectacularly difficult to give a damn about anything else. That’s a trite observation, to be sure, but what could possibly be more trite than death, itself?
A new Robert De Niro movie, that’s what!
When my family gathered in the living room the other night for some desperately needed escapism, I chose the latest Nancy Meyers joint, figuring it’d be slightly more diverting than, say, The Revenant. Egg on my face! An urban fairytale with all the weight and believability of Supreme Leader Snoke, The Intern went over about as well as a screening of El Norte at a Donald Trump rally. Approximately 25 seconds into the movie, 70-year-old Ben Whittaker (De Niro) glumly confessed that his wife had died, and that his life as a retiree consisted of doing yoga in Prospect Park and deflecting the sexual advances of a horny Linda Lavin. My widowed mom crumpled on the couch across the room: “Is this going to be me?” Never in my life have I so desperately wished for a horse carcass in which to hide.
Fortunately, the movie isn’t really about Ben. It’s about Jules (Anne Hathaway), the overworked entrepreneur for whom Ben toils. The femme twist on the Disney Dad trope was appreciated by all—especially my sister, a hard-working lawyer who’s pregnant with her second child—but that only got us so far. My girlfriend, whose body physically shuts down when she’s confronted with art she doesn’t enjoy, was snoring loudly by the end of the first act. Even our dog was slumped over in a heap on the floor.
As I watched the film, Amy’s and Dana’s first Movie Club emails fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but think of this Guardian article about how male critics were to blame for The Intern’s mere 60 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The author is right, of course, profoundly so. Male critics were to blame for the response to The Intern because male critics are to blame for the response to all new releases. Amy, you couldn’t have been more on the money when you said that there are a ton of great female film critics out there (hell, you were one of them until you put American Ultra on your Top 10 list!), but the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of film critics have dicks, and many of them feel compelled to remind you of that at every possible opportunity.
I couldn’t agree more with that Guardian article’s ultimate point: “Giving voice to more women in the film industry doesn’t simply mean more female directors and writers, but critics too.” Amen. My beef with the piece was simply that it argued an urgent and extremely valid point by using the poorest conceivable examples. Really, you’re going to cite the cynical open letter that the filmmakers behind the repugnant Lola Versus wrote after their movie was rightfully trounced by critics? By my count, 18 of the 28 critics that gave that garbage fire a pass are men. Rallying around The Intern during a year that included Mustang, Girlhood, or even the comparatively limp Diary of a Teenage Girl is like using Ben Carson as proof that we need more black politicians during Obama’s badass second term. Good point; dumb example.
We need female critics because it’s genuinely insane to discount the opinions of half the population, as genuinely insane as it is not to represent them on screen or have their voices heard from behind the camera. We need female critics because, to paraphrase Amy, girls can see things that boys can’t. We need female film critics because there is a certain degree of piling-on when a female-driven movie underwhelms or underperforms, like someone shaming a minor leaguer for having the gall to give it a go in the majors.
Most of all, we need female critics because the role of criticism must not automatically default to male. Never has that seemed more urgent than now, when—contrary to what’s implied by that weirdly myopicGuardian thing—so many of 2015’s best (and best-reviewed) films were about women.
Inevitably, this brings me back to something Dana said, something that bobbles to mind whenever I think about the best films of 2015: Despite the fact that the majority of the year’s best films were aboutwomen, very few of them were actually directed by women. Once again—sigh—it’s a numbers game; women aren’t afforded the same quantity of opportunities to direct feature films, so it stands to reason that they also direct fewer of the good ones. On the bright side, while only 6.4 percent of films are directed by women, 12 percent of the films on my top 25 (video above) were directed by women. It would seem, at least according to one critic (and one ace showrunner), that women are inherentlybetter at directing than men.
Given the rash of great new movies about women directed by men, it seems to me that one of the year’s big themes was looking at women—what it means to see them, and what it means for them to be seen. The concise and brilliantly cast Ex Machina may never become more than the sum of its parts (one of my favorite film tweets of the year absolutely defused my ability to take it seriously), but the moment in which Ava slips into a dress and transforms from a robot into Alicia Vikander remains a brilliantly concise illustration of the moment in which a woman evolves from being the object of a story to the purpose of a story. Or, to quote a message that’s literally writ large in Mad Max: Fury Road: “We are not things.”
Peter Strickland’s remarkable The Duke of Burgundy took men out of the equation entirely, normalizing what might reflexively be contextualized as a queer romance by stripping the otherness away from a same-sex S&M love story. (Peeing into your partner’s mouth is just as romantic whether you do it sitting down or standing up.) Even The Force Awakens (so much for ignoring it!) was a movie about a young woman finding her rightful place in a myth dominated by men. I like to think that’s why one of Rey’s lines from the trailers didn’t survive to the film’s final cut: “I’m nothing. I’m no one.” I mean, there’s keeping a lid on your mystery box, and then there’s just false advertising.
This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive rundown of the year’s femme-fronted movies, but I still feel like I’m forgetting one of the most important examples … ugh, this is so frustrating—it’s right on the tip of my tongue. Oh wait, that’s right:
CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROLCAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROLCAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROL CAROLCAROL
Carol, the very best film of the year (if not the decade), is obsessed with the visibility of women, the gazes they cast, and the gazes cast upon them. In Todd Haynes’ unspeakably beautiful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's semi-autobiographical novel about a 1950s Manhattan shopgirl (Rooney Mara) who is thunderstruck by a mutual infatuation with a well-to-do housewife (Cate Blanchett), the film illustrates—among other things—how falling in love is an act of looking, while being in love is an act of seeing.
Whichever way you slice it, it’s a lot easier to find a woman in front of a camera than it is to find one behind it. But does it matter that so many of these stories about women were directed by men? In a word: duh. Just because Todd Haynes is a super genius (smart enough to let screenwriter Phyllis Nagy pliably reshape the perspective of Highsmith’s novel) doesn’t mean that we don’t need women to tell their own stories.
This train of thought, for me, inevitably crashes into Quentin Tarantino. Not because he foolishly slagged “these Cate Blanchett movies” in his bananas New York interview, or because he’s made at least three different films about righteously strong women, but because he seems to be going out of his way to pen historical revenge fantasies for groups to which he doesn’t himself belong. Traces of this trend can be found in Kill Bill, but it truly took root with Inglourious Basterds, in which Tarantino giddily allowed a squad of Jewish assassins to murder Hitler with great vengeance and furious anger. As a Jewish assassin myself, I have never cared for one moment that it was a goy who made the most satisfying work of Holocaust revisionism ever created (er, maybe the only satisfying work of Holocaust revisionism ever created). I’m just glad that I can watch it in GIF form.
Does that mean that people should ipso facto let him off the hook for using the N-word as liberally as I do adverbs and rhetorical questions? Still, it’s tough for me to square with Dana’s suggestion that Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a gruesome parable about frontier justice that’s currently shit-storming its way across the country in glorious 70mm, might be “evil.” Tarantino is, at heart, a moralist. Bill gets Killed. Django is Unchained. There’s a reason that Samuel L. Jackson survives Pulp Fiction, but John Travolta doesn’t. The Hateful Eight is a movie defined by the contrast between black and white and set in a world of grey, but—as I recently wrote about—Tarantino is nothing if not a unique American director contending with a uniquely American problem, and sometimes it takes a lot of squibs to make an omelet.
It seems we’re infatuated with the relationship between the message and the messenger. And hey, few people understand that dynamic better than Mr. Mark Harris (whose book Five Came Back will compel you to see some of the most iconic films in Hollywood history through a new pair of eyes). So, Mr. Harris, I turn it over to you.
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