There’s the potential for a cinephile in everybody we meet, probably with varying intensities, but there’s the potential nonetheless. There is always a hidden untapped passion brimming underneath the surface that even they might be unaware of – not necessarily cinephilia. But cinephilia was mine. Once I recognized the dormant passion that always resided in me and put it to exercise, I felt like a new man. It was like a new chapter for me. So, with this potential in mind, why do African nations in particular lack the knowledge and accessibility to lesser known, indie movies that are widely regarded as some of the best cinema today among more cine-literate circles? You can already tell this is going to be a personal essay which it very much is, but I’ll also evaluate connections between my own experience and the larger scope of things. Be ready to cringe because I’m about to get deep.
“You look fat and healthy, and you dress well,” Wang Zhun (Wang Xuebing) tells a fellow director at the beginning of The Pluto Moment. It’s a little hard to tell whether it’s a back-handed compliment or a thinly-veiled insult, but the way in which he walks away immediately after, leaving the other man staring on in bewilderment, suggests the latter.
An arthouse filmmaker himself, Zhun has found himself on the set of a glitzy international production by pure chance. His wife Gao Li (Miya) is the movie’s action star, delivering high kicks in an all-leather jumpsuit when he arrives. The production is a mess of mixed languages and moving parts, moviemaking on the sort of mammoth scale reserved for real blockbusters. From the way he is skeptically interrogated upon arrival, to the forlorn look he wears as he watches on from the side-lines, it is clear that this is not Zhun’s world.
When shooting is wrapped up and the couple have a chance to talk, we find out that Zhun is trying to tempt his wife away from her glamorous, big-budget titles to star in his next venture. He doesn’t have any money for the film. Or a script. She already has another film lined up. Why not just wait and star in the sequel, he asks? Because, of course, this kind of movie always has a sequel. Or the third one? She playfully suggests.
Even with only the half-baked beginnings of an idea and no funding, he seems confident that his movie would be more worthwhile than whatever franchise she has been asked to helm. Even if he does not yet know what it will be about, he knows that his movie will at least be about something.
In the midst of the scandals and snubs that have dominated the conversations surrounding Best Picture nominees of recent years, Phantom Thread and The Favourite are two contenders that have drawn the most specific comparisons. Given that they’re both British period pieces at their cores, and are helmed by prominent directors — Paul Thomas Anderson and Yorgos Lanthimos, respectively — these films seem just as primed for predictable Academy recognition as star-studded melodramas or Sam Rockwell playing racist characters a little too well.
But even as The Favourite and Phantom Thread have received well-deserved buzz and tick many of the boxes that often lead awards cycle domination, the general consensus remains: there’s something offbeat and singular about how these stories unfold. In spite of their lavish settings, the films seize upon social codes of the time to exacerbate conflicts between their characters, until the resulting atmospheres become increasingly confined and oppressive. This intentional, rather ironic claustrophobia helps the films to plumb deeper themes that arise from certain historical circumstances, moving the needle on what a “period piece” can explore.
By the time that Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) first encounters his lover and muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps) near the beginning of Phantom Thread, viewers have already been thoroughly exposed to the painstakingly choreographed rituals that dictate the designer’s opulent life. The film marks Paul Thomas Anderson’s first departure from the restless Americana of his seven earlier features, as he and the notoriously method-oriented Day-Lewis delved into the refined world of 1950s London couture houses.
Much more reliant on tradition than Paris — the other European dressmaking capital of the time — London fashion was predicated on the occasions of the city’s upper class. Scenes of royals and women of high society ascending the spiral staircase of the “House of Woodcock” to meet with Reynolds as Jonny Greenwood’s score swells carry an air of choreographed theatrics because they are meant to — these carefully manicured businesses are beautiful, but so steeped in privilege and British customs that they can easily turn suffocating if one steps out of line.
“I loved that”, said my friend after our screening of Love, Simon finished. The lights were coming up, ‘Aflie’s Song (Not So Typical Love Song)’ was playing over scrapbook style credits. She had been babbling since they started rolling. Her face was a portrait of the film we just watched, eyes red and puffy, mouth in a wide grin. “I loved that so much, I can’t wait to see it again”. I agreed. Love, Simon was easy to love. I wanted to see it again. And see it again I did, three more times in fact, and each with the same amount of joy.
Love, Simon is by all measures a crushingly average film. It is about as cliched as a high-school, coming-of-age, romance film can be. That’s what, in my mind at least, makes it so good. Prior to Love, Simon I had felt that while queer experiences had been depicted well in film, it was normally reserved for awards season or indie films. When queerness was in the mainstream it was usually packaged for heterosexual audiences rather than being for the queer community – 2013’s GBF sticks out as prime example of this.
While this had been improving, 2016 and 2017 certainly saw queer films pushed further into the mainstream with Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name respectively, much of the press surrounding the latter sought to detract from the queerness. With two white male leads in an otherwise common love story its only unique factor to me seemed to be the queerness – yet efforts were made to detract from this queerness, with the film frequently being touted as a ‘universal’ love story.
For Love, Simon to be as average as it was while simply letting its protagonist be queer was nice. “Everyone deserves a great love story” ran the tagline. I wouldn’t call Love, Simon exceptionally great but the queer community was finally getting a middling high-school romance and that did feel great. It felt great because it felt normal – we were finally being treated as normal. Love, Simon seemed special considering that 2018 was year where many films with queer narratives fell into the same clichés of queer cinema past. From these films, Boy Erased sticks out to me as the most egregious example.
Where Love, Simon was focused on the future, Boy Erased was trapped in the past. The story of Jared (Lucas Hedges) is one that we have seen before multiple times, from the 1999 cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader to this year’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which tells the conversion therapy narrative with far more delicacy and emotion than Boy Erased).
Riverdale’s greatest weakness is also its greatest strength. It compellingly criticises the culture which produced it, but this scrutiny reveals the show’s own inadequacies. Archie, played by KJ Apa, has an incredibly cliché arc in the first few episodes. Veronica calls out his struggle of balancing his passion as a musician and obligation as a football player as a tired dichotomy, something which they, as young people woke to the system, should actively resist, and seek greater depth in their lives. Despite blatantly criticising its own genre Riverdale got a lot of content out of that so-called tired dichotomy.
Riverdale, it seems, wishes to have its woke cake and eat it too.
It reeks, it lingers. Her Smell invades, it threatens, it’s aggressive and it’s dirty, draining. It’s a riot in full swing. Yet amidst the assumed chaos, it becomes tender and honest, an exploration into addiction and the punk rock scene of the 90s, but even more so into identity. What can be repaired after not only hurting the ones we love, but ourselves in the process?
Alex Ross Perry’s five-act tale of rockstar rampage and recovery is unapologetic and unpredictable, proving to be one of my favorite and one of the most exciting films I’ve seen this year. It was borne out of Perry’s incessant need to not only explore multiple act structure (after being inspired by the three act structure of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs and by Shakespeare), but push the envelope on his creative relationship with Elisabeth Moss. The pair had previously worked together on 2015’s Queen of Earth, similarly dark and ruptured. Her Smell raises the bar and sails clean over it.
The role of Becky Something, our enigmatic, perpetually inebriated, crass, and readily dislikable star was written completely for Moss. When she smiles, it’s more with wickedness and less with joy. We know little about her rise to the top. It is only shown in bits and pieces through the home videos played before each act, and all about her ruin.
Searching stars John Cho, who makes history as the first Asian-American actor leading a Hollywood thriller. The film is innovatively told purely through screens, as a desperate father attempts to find his missing daughter.
While it could be argued that having a film set through screens is extremely limiting and can create an emotional block, Aneesh Chaganty (co-writer, director) and Sev Ohanian (co-writer, producer) execute certain techniques successfully, that other movies filmed in a traditional format, couldn’t. David Kim (John Cho) often types messages and then deletes them, which successfully bridges the gap between appearance vs reality; what David truly wants to say vs what he actually says.
One thing that continued to surprise me throughout Searching was the extent to which Chaganty and Ohanian understand the relationship teenagers have with social media. I’m not referring to the general “social media is bad” sentiment other filmmakers instill in the audience, but a more nuanced message: social media allows people to be themselves (to an extent) but is also extremely isolating. Margot and David’s relationship from the onset is grounded in tension and unfamiliarity as they try and navigate life without Margot’s mother, Pam. Death brings people closer together, but the sad reality is that sometimes it does the exact opposite.