There’s no way around this fact: Hollywood is failing. The Midyear Reckoning must acknowledge that so far this year, the most celebrated films (which are almost all films in our consumer-driven, criticism-free culture, from Black Panther to Isle of Dogs to Avengers: Infinity Wars to A Quiet Place and Solo to Hereditary) have been unedifying.
The best films to open were not from Hollywood; they weren’t even new. Two great revivals — Luchino Visconti’s complex, voluptuous Ludwig and Jean Cocteau’s still-ingenious Les Parents Terribles — were of such quality that nothing else this year can match them for their insights about the fragile creative spirit in the midst of international relations and the influence of intergenerational self-absorption.
Keeping up with what’s new is part of a film critic’s job, but so is recognizing the fact that Visconti’s and Cocteau’s visions of human experience and their demonstrations of aesthetic sensibility and political depth remind us of the standards we should always bring to movie-watching. Readers who still care about art and politics can no longer pretend, or fool themselves, that the average new release is worthy of their politics or that it fulfills their capacity for sight and feeling. When you look beyond Hollywood, it is surprising how honest, exploratory, and politically challenging, rather than predictable, filmmaking can be.
Ray Meets Helen is Alan Rudolph’s comeback. After16 years, his vision of all-American eccentricity makes you believe that different personalities (loners Keith Carradine and Sondra Locke) can find emotional harmony. A love story that is also a vision of national hope.
Uncle Drew is Charles Stone III’s comeback, returning to his loving, good-hearted vision of black American life. A b-ball-court reminder that people can live by principles rather than materialistic desperation.
The Double Lover is François Ozon’s foray into the charade of identity politics between patient Marine Vacth and doctor Jérémie Renier, mixing sexual misadventure with storytelling audacity (and cinematic panache) that is always morally based. Too scintillating to be popular in a new era of radical puritanism.
Chappaquiddick is a surprisingly honest, unhysterical review of the Ted Kennedy–Mary Jo Kopechne tragedy that also revisits class chicanery and the process of political legend-making (credibly performed by Jason Clarke and Kate Mara). It implicates us all in the scandal of morally duplicitous history.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is John Cameron Mitchell’s romantic alternative to the immaturity of most sci-fi/comic-book movies. The alien–earthling love story scores points on the banality of commercialized speculative fiction that has become disconnected from social need and the creativity of punk art. Nicole Kidman nearly steals it as a punk chieftess with regrets. This is the real Incredibles 2.
The 15:17 to Paris is Clint Eastwood’s bold experiment in realism, biography, vérité, and political sentiment. Three young American men (Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler) who actually stopped a European terrorist reenact their moment of bravery and ask audiences, What do you believe in?
The Misandrists (putting an obscure but necessary word into the conversation) is Bruce LaBruce’s feminist lampoon that dares to address post-PC extremism in a satire about political and sexual vengeance. It’s so ultra-timely that it almost seems prophetic.
Let the Sunshine In is Claire Denis’s relentless look into the self-gnawing delusions of the privileged art class and its dissatisfactions, literally embodied by a nervy, sensual Juliette Binoche and a wily Gérard Depardieu.
Death Wish is Eli Roth’s way of working toward the urban (and psychological) critique no one else would dare: a genre remake that expands on “the Chicago way” chaos that has mugged American social life along with its politics.
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc reimagines the religious pageant as a neorealist heavy-metal hip-hop musical about lost ideals: the simplicities of faith and devotion.
Catch the Wind is not on this list, but if an enterprising distributor or exhibitor had the good taste to open it, Gaël Morel’s cross-cultural story of a conservative French mother’s spiritual renewal would be the year’s best film so far.
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami contrasts Jones’s Caribbean roots with her iconic pop stardom in Sophie Fiennes’s on-stage, behind-the-scenes hybrid that searches out the creativity, uniqueness, nerve, and talent that have been replaced by the uninquiring celebrity worship of our largely unprincipled media — that means today’s shamefully politicized documentary genre.
Bernard and Huey is sort of a comeback for writer-cartoonist Jules Feiffer and the lost art of self-examination. He shines a spotlight on the effects of the late 20th century’s leftist liberties. An early better-than to Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts even though this film eventually turns reflection into self-justification, too.
Catch the Wind (Prendre le large) is not on this list, but if an enterprising distributor or exhibitor had the good taste to open it, Gaël Morel’s cross-cultural story of a conservative French mother’s spiritual renewal (and Sandrine Bonnaire’s career-reviving performance) would be the year’s best film so far.