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2020 Oscars

Voilà my annual Oscars post. I’ve seen all of the films in the top categories that have opened so far in France (or Germany). The list of nominees is here. Here are my brief takes, beginning with the Best Picture nominees.

Ford v Ferrari: Best popcorn movie of the year, not to mention the best on auto racing since the terrific Rush (which is to say, one of the two best movies ever made on the auto racing theme; okay, there’s also Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, so one of the three best). I thoroughly enjoyed it (as did movie-goers in France, who gave it the thumbs way up). It’s a great story (a true one, of course) and with a first-rate cast (Matt Damon and Christian Bale are tops). If you haven’t seen it and can appreciate a well-done, entertaining movie for the grand public, by all means do so; you won’t regret.

The Irishman: I’ve had mixed feelings about Martin Scorsese’s films over the years (having seen all but two or three). Of his gangster pics, I thought ‘Goodfellas’ was excellent (there’s a general consensus on this), though not so much ‘Casino’. ‘Mean Streets’ is a little dated but still worthy (I saw it recently, for the first time in four decades). ‘The Departed’ was okay and all but the Hong Kong original, ‘Infernal Affairs’, did not need a remake. ‘The Irishman’, while not a chef d’œuvre, is up there with ‘Goodfellas’. The story is gripping, the acting exceptional (particularly Joe Pesci; and Anna Paquin’s character—Frank Sheeran’s catatonic daughter—was as it should have been), and one simply does not see the three-and-a-half hours go by. As for the story—of the mob of the era, the heyday and demise of Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino), and, more generally, of an important slice of American labor history, indeed modern American history tout court—the pic is worth seeing for that alone (here in France, I’ve had to tell people the story of Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters, which are unknown). All the characters were real, as the events, though with a few exceptions and one major one in particular, which is the big issue with the film. As one is probably aware (though not in France), Scorsese’s screenplay is based on an account—that of the real-life Frank Sheeran (“the Irishman,” played by Robert De Niro)—that is almost certainly not credible, and particularly in regard to the murder of Jimmy Hoffa. In other words, the story is, at crucial moments, bullshit (on this, see the articles by Bill Tonelli in Slate and Jack Goldsmith in the NYR Daily). Now a movie may recount historical nonsense and still be riveting, top-notch entertainment, e.g. Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’, which is based on a crazy conspiracy theory. And such is the case here. But still. If Scorsese’s œuvre were not driven by a bullshit version of history, he wouldn’t have been able to make the movie, and least not as he did. It’s still a good one, though.

Jojo Rabbit: It takes an addled mind IMHO to conceive of and make a light comedy about the Nazis and Hitler, and with children at the center. What an unpleasant movie, and which is, moreover, not at all funny (I didn’t chuckle even once, let alone laugh out loud). Its Oscar nominations—and particularly for Best Picture—are incomprehensible. That’s as much as I have to say about it

Joker: I was initially not going to see this one, as it’s not the kind of movie I normally see and I have not been a fan of Joaquin Phoenix, but relented in view of the hype. When asked by friends what I thought of it, I replied that it’s both a horrible movie and a very good one. It’s horrible because of the extreme violence—actual and psychological—and from practically the opening scene. The violence and psychological abuse visited upon the Phoenix character, Arthur Fleck, are almost unbearable to watch, and all the more so as Fleck is, in the outset at least, a harmless man with a miserable life and suffering from mental illness plus a neurological disorder (on the mental illness theme and controversy over it, see this piece in The Guardian). Watching cruelty and humiliation visited upon vulnerable persons, I just hate that—though it’s a fact of life (there are so many cruel, sadistic people in this world) and not at all gratuitous in the film. It is indeed central. The ramped-up Bernhard Goetz-style vigilantism that Fleck indulges in after getting the pistol also unsettles—and in part because one feels grim satisfaction, at least initially, in his actions. As for what’s good about the film, there’s first Phoenix’s extraordinary performance. It’s an acting tour de force. Then there’s the image of “Gotham City,” which is, as those over a certain age will readily recognize, 1970s-80s New York City on steroids. It’s been a few decades since one has seen such a dystopian depiction of NYC (recalling ‘The Warriors’, ‘Escape from New York’, even ‘Taxi Driver’). Except that this one is not cartoon-like. The demagogic mayoral candidate—and Fleck’s putative progenitor—could be contemporary (suivez mon regard) and the nihilistic mob at the end—though whose rage against the injustice of the system is comprehensible—is positively Black Bloc-like, though in a polity where there has been a breakdown in state and civil society institutions, and with massive cutbacks in public services (causing Fleck to lose his mental health benefits). If the unspeakable person in the White House is reelected this November and then succeeded by a member of his family in 2024—the system having been thoroughly rigged—then this Gotham City vision could await us a decade down the road. But I digress. On account of these “very good” features of the film, I thus scored it a 4.0 (very good) on Allociné, though won’t recommend it to everyone (and definitely not to my mother).

Little Women: I was not familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s novel (what it’s about) before seeing the movie, which I am not ashamed to admit, as boys did not read such books in my day (and it was not assigned in any of my English classes in middle or high school). I found the first half of the film a little slow-going but got into it in the second. It’s a good period piece (of 1860s New England) and with a fine ensemble cast. And it’s a nice, heartwarming story to boot. So good movie.

Marriage Story: This one has been praised to the high heavens across the board but I frankly thought it overrated. Adam Driver is first-rate and Laura Dern is good, that I will grant, but Scarlett Johansson underwhelms IMHO. Grosso modo, I just didn’t relate to the marriage crisis and the way husband and wife interacted, which just struck me as so American. Their scènes de ménage irritated. I couldn’t imagine French couples acting out in such a manner. But one French friend of my generation liked it (and his wife even more) and with Paris critics and Allociné spectateurs alike giving the pic top marks. So maybe I’m the one who is à côté de la plaque. Go figure.

1917: I’ll see any epic film on WWI—not that many come out—in part because I’ve been teaching the subject (to American undergraduates) for a number of years and have been making the rounds of WWI sites in France (and with some major ones still to go). This one (set in the Pas-de-Calais) is engaging and well-done, and effectively conveys the horrors of the war on the front line, though I felt that the depiction of the trenches was maybe just a little sanitized, that they were in reality more insalubrious. But just a detail. Peu importe.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood: I see everything by Quentin Tarantino, though not everything he does need necessarily be seen. This one was perfectly entertaining—and several notches above the execrable The Hateful Eight—the cast is great (Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio are fun), and it has its moments, but I gave the pic no thought after leaving the theater. It’s empty calories. So it’s said to be a tribute to the end of an era in Hollywood. Bon, d’accord. Personally I have nothing in particular to say about it. C’est tout.

Parasite: I’m a total outlier on this one, which absolutely everyone—critics, audiences, and friends (with a single exception), and on both sides of the pond—has been showering with gushing, dithyrambic praise. I mean, everyone thinks this a chef d’œuvre. Quite frankly, I’m mystified. I found the pic entertaining enough when I first saw it last spring, with the grifter family adorable in its own way and its con job on the rich family amusing. This part was fine, though nothing to knock one’s socks off IMHO. Pas de quoi en tarir d’éloges. What turned me off, though, was the violent, over-the-top denouement, which I didn’t like, thus causing me to downgrade my score of the pic on the Allociné scale to 2.5 (so-so). The film is, according to critics, a metaphor for class struggle, which is to say, it has a neo-Marxist message. I’ve never thought of South Korea as a class-ridden society—or more than others—mais qu’est-ce que j’en sais? So there are rich people and poor people in South Korea. Quoi de neuf sous le ciel? Class struggle is indeed a theme in some of Bong Joon-ho’s films, e.g. his 2013 ‘Snowpiercer’, which was praised across the board but that I hated. So in view of the gushing, dithyrambic praise of ‘Parasite’—and consequent slew of accolades (Golden Globes, Oscar nominations, etc)—I decided that I should see it again—give it a second chance—which I did last month, at a special screening at my local cinéma municipal. The verdict: I upped my appreciation a notch—to 3.0 (okay/not too bad) on the Allociné scale—but continue to deem it overrated. One thing: as a foreign language film, it does not belong in the Oscars’ Best Picture category to begin with.

And then there are these:

Judy: A biopic of a once-famous, now forgotten American actress and chanteuse, of her profoundly sad life, from cloistered, regimented childhood to alcohol and drug-fueled demise in middle age. One still listens to Frank Sinatra but does anyone Judy Garland? The pic is entertaining enough, though not essential. One may see it or decide not to see it. Renée Zellweger (Best Actress nominee) is very good. She carries the film. The sequences with the gay couple are touching. C’est tout.

Bombshell: A good movie for the grand public of the fetid swamp of Fox News—and the culture of the American right more generally—and, in particular, of powerful, malignant narcissistic men obsessed with their quéquettes (translation here), the despicable male here being Roger Ailes, though to be fair and balanced, this syndrome of course spans the political spectrum and knows no ideological boundaries. An open and shut case for #MeToo. The actresses are all good: Charlize Theron (Best Actress nominee) and Nicole Kidman as Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, respectively, and Margot Robbie (Best Supporting Actress nominee) as the fictitious Kayla Pospisil (your generic ditzy Fox News blond).

The Two Popes: A remarkable film about the relationship Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins, Best Supporting Actor nominee) forged in the latter years of his papacy with his future successor, the then Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce, Best Actor nominee). The two men are, as one knows, on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum—such as it is in the Catholic church—though the flashbacks to Argentina in the 1970s show the future Pope Francis to have been no leftist. I was thoroughly absorbed in the film. And the performances are first-rate.

My vote:

BEST PICTURE: ‘Joker’.
I hesitated on this in view of its downsides, but such is likewise with the n° 2 choice, ‘The Irishman’.

BEST DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips (‘Joker’).
I would have gone with Martin Scorsese had he not based his screenplay on an account recounted by a mythomaniac.

BEST ACTOR: Joaquin Phoenix (‘Joker’).
Hands down. Adam Driver (‘Marriage Story’) is also worthy. Antonio Banderas (‘Pain and Glory’), while excellent, does not speak English in his movie and which ain’t American to boot, so no to him.

BEST ACTRESS: Renée Zellweger (‘Judy’).
Saoirse Ronan (‘Little Women’) is second. As I haven’t seen ‘Harriet’ I can’t speak to Cynthia Erivo.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Joe Pesci (‘The Irishman’).
Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’) is also good. Haven’t seen Tom Hanks in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Laura Dern (‘Marriage Story’).
Sort of by default, as there’s no obvious choice (but definitely not Scarlett Johansson in ‘Jojo Rabbit’!). Don’t know about Kathy Bates in ‘Richard Jewell’.

BEST INTERNATIONAL FEATURE FILM: ‘Les Misérables’.
A no-brainer (I’m also rooting for the home team). ‘Pain and Glory’—perhaps the best I’ve seen by Pedro Almodóvar (I’m normally not a fan of his, so am not familiar with much of his œuvre)—would be worthy. As for ‘Parasite’, see above. I haven’t seen ‘Corpus Christi’ or ‘Honeyland’.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: ‘For Sama’ and ‘American Factory’ ex æquo.
Both are terrific (and which will soon be posted on). ‘Edge of Democracy’ is good. ‘The Cave’ is superb documentary on Syria, so Robert F. Worth informs us in the NYR Daily, but I have yet to see it.

Sad day

Credit: John Thys/Getty

A profoundly sad day, one should say. That’s what yesterday—January 31, 2020—was, with Brexit finally done (it was another kind of day outre-Atlantique—an outrageous one, with the US Senate Republicans voting to protect the criminal in the White House—but we won’t get into that here). I predicted after the 2016 referendum that Brexit would finally not happen, and held to that until last December’s general election, banking on a second referendum that would necessarily result in a ‘remain’ victory. Guess I was a little off. But I will insist, as I have all along, that there is no valid argument for Brexit. Not a single one. None whatever. And this assertion is only confirmed when listening to or reading pro-Brexiters, as in this NYT piece by journalist Tanya Gold, who checked out the Brexit celebration party in London last night and sought to engage the revelers in discussion. A lot of blather about “sovereignty”—whatever that’s supposed to mean in our globalized world—”taking back control,” and other vacuous slogans. Little England’s Trump base.

The UK will, of course, now be free to conclude a free trade agreement with the USA, and with Trump dictating the conditions: chlorinated poultry, hormone-treated beef, the NHS thrown open to the US pharmaceutical industry and  its pricing practices, et on en passe. Somehow I don’t think BoJo will take this leap.

The best commentary one will read on yesterday’s day in infamy is by novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan, published today in The Guardian, “Brexit, the most pointless, masochistic ambition in our country’s history, is done: The magic dust of populism has blinded reason, and damage and diminishment lie ahead.” This passage is nice:

Take a road trip from Greece to Sweden, from Portugal to Hungary. Leave your passport behind. What a rich, teeming bundle of civilisations – in food, manners, architecture, language, and each nation state profoundly and proudly different from its neighbours. No evidence of being under the boot-heel of Brussels. Nothing here of continental USA’s dreary commercial sameness. Summon everything you’ve learned of the ruinous, desperate state of Europe in 1945, then contemplate a stupendous economic, political and cultural achievement: peace, open borders, relative prosperity, and the encouragement of individual rights, tolerance and freedom of expression. Until Friday this was where our grown-up children went at will to live and work.

That’s over…

Why any state would renounce the free movement and right to live and work for its citizens in the 27 European Union member states is beyond comprehension. And particularly as the UK gains nothing in return from being outside the EU. As McEwan reminds us, none of the Leavers’ visions of a ‘Global Britain’ or other such ambitions were any way thwarted by membership in the EU—and a privileged one at that, with the UK’s opt-outs from the single currency and Schengen. And absolutely none of the problems in the UK that fueled Brexiter sentiment were in any way a consequence of it being in the EU. As for the influx of migrants from Poland and other post-2004 enlargement states, it was the UK’s sovereign decision to immediately open its labor market to nationals of those states, whereas all the other EU member states save Ireland maintained restrictions for at least two years. No one in Brussels told the Brits what to do. But I know I’m preaching to the choir on all this, as it’s just so obvious.

Another reminder from McEwan:

The door out of Europe was held open by Corbyn for Johnson to walk through. In this case, if you travelled far enough to the left, you met and embraced the right coming the other way.

Unless something big and unexpected happens, this will be the last time I will post on the UK and EU until at least the end of this year.

[update below]

What a way to ring in the new decade. I’ve been reading about the Qasem Soleimani assassination for a good part of the day, plus discussing it with dear friend Adam Shatz, who has an instant commentary up on the LRB website, “Trump declares war.” Soleimani was certainly a “bad guy”—in a world where bad guys are a dime a dozen—but terminating him with extreme prejudice was a colossally stupid thing to do and for a number of reasons. E.g. one reads in a must-read portrait of Soleimani in The Daily Beast, dated August 7, 2018, by the well-known Middle East correspondant Borzou Daragahi, “Is the Iranian general taunting Trump on a U.S. hit list?”:

Many described the idea of targeting Suleimani as counterproductive, entailing untold risks without any guaranteed benefits. In 2008, Suleimani, famously approached then U.S. General David Petraeus to inform him that he was the guy who could stop the rocket attacks hitting U.S. bases in Iraq. Since then the U.S. has managed to communicate indirectly with Suleimani through Iraq’s Kurds and other officials. The senior Obama administration national security official said the U.S. contemplated directly reaching out to Suleimani to ask him to rein in militias bombing American troops as they were attempting to withdraw from the country in 2011.

In the pantheon of rogues, troublemakers and warlords playing the Middle East’s games of infiltration and subterfuge, Suleimani’s a guy you can at least talk to.

Andrew Exum, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration, writes in The Atlantic that Soleimani was Iran’s “indispensable man,” thus irreplaceable. I’m dubious that anyone in a large organization is indispensable and, as Daniel W. Drezner reminds us, ‘[s]tandard international relations theory suggests that decapitating a key leader would not fundamentally affect that state’s capacity to act.” And political science MENA specialist Marc Lynch tersely tweeted, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Borzou Daragahi continues:

“There’s a verified public history of the U.S. making outreach efforts,” said a former CIA official who served in Iraq and worked on Iran. “[Suleimani is] still an asshole. But we know his mentality. We know him. It’s not a secret what he does.”

There’s another consideration. Some former officials liken Suleimani to a sort of Ho Chi Minh, overseeing a cabal of brasher, bolder and more ruthless young men eager for action and recognition. Get rid of Hajj Qasem, as he is known by his supporters in the Shiite world, and power might pass into the hands of a more reckless young tough eager to make a name for himself. ”If there’s a younger, more ruthless generation waiting in the wings, I’d rather stick to granddad,” said the former CIA official.

N.B. The Israelis have had plenty of experience assassinating top bad guys in Hizbullah and Hamas, with both now stronger than ever.

If one missed it at the time, Dexter Filkins had a lengthy portrait of Soleimani, “The shadow commander,” in the September 30, 2013, issue of The New Yorker.

Gary Sick has a particularly excellent analysis, “Trump lit a fire by exiting the Iran deal & poured gasoline on it by assassinating Soleimani,” posted on the Responsible Statecraft blog.

Also see the irate post by The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, “Four years ago, Trump had no clue who Iran’s Suleimani was. Now, he may have kicked off WWIII.” Money quote:

This is not a column, however, about the consequences of the United States government assassinating the second-most powerful man in Iran… Rather, this is a column that allows me to express my ongoing astonishment that Donald Trump is president of the United States; my ongoing bewilderment with a world in which an unhinged, know-nothing former reality TV star and property developer, with zero background in foreign affairs or national security, may have just kicked off World War III. (From his golf course, no less.)

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment has a tweet storm on Soleimani (here) that is worth reading. Likewise with Politico Europe’s Rym Momtaz (here). Both are dubious that we’re looking at WWIII.

Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution writes in The Washington Post that Iran will “bide its time” and that we should not “expect immediate retaliation for Soleimani,” though concludes that “[n]either Trump nor Tehran may really want a war, but each side has proved unwilling or incapable of detouring from a path that will almost inexorably precipitate a much wider and more costly conflict.” Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative writes in the NY Times that “Qassim Suleimani’s killing will unleash chaos.” Robin Wright, who has been writing about the Islamic Republic of Iran forever, and Fred Kaplan are very much on the same wavelength.

As for “The Democrats’ gutless response to Trump’s airstrike,” maybe more on that another time.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Julia Ioffe, who is normally a first-rate journalist, has a piece in GQ arguing that a war with Iran would all but guarantee Trump’s reelection (people rallying around the flag, etc). Arguing the opposite is UC-Irvine political scientist Michael Tesler, writing in Monkey Cage, who posits that “[a]ttacking Iran won’t help Trump win reelection.” A key initial factor in public opinion supporting a war and thus the president, he says, is a bipartisan elite consensus, which was the case in past major wars (Iraq, Vietnam, etc). This is not likely to obtain if Trump launches a war with the Islamic Republic.

À propos, Bernie Sanders gave a speech (excellent) last night (Jan. 3rd) at a town hall in Iowa strongly condemning Trump’s Iran action and talk of war (watch here, from 46:00). And Elizabeth Warren had a strongly-worded series of tweets (here) in the same vein. Andrew Yang is also on this wavelength. If Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and other candidates occupying the moderate lane—plus Nancy Pelosi and the congressional leadership—were to acquiesce in a Trump war with Iran—or even tone down the critique—this would blow the Democratic Party apart, a consequence being that Trump would indeed win in November. For this reason, I will wager that in the ghastly eventuality that a war happens, Biden, Pelosi & Co will align themselves with the Sanders-Warren-Yang position.

Best (and worst) movies of 2019

Voilà AWAV’s annual list (for last year’s, go here). The movies here opened in theaters this year in France. I see a lot of movies in the theater—two a week on average—but inevitably miss a few. As usual, several well-reviewed American movies that have come out over the past couple of months have yet to open in France. For the first time, the list includes Netflix exclusives. N.B. There was a higher-than-usual number of particularly good French movies this year.

TOP 10:
An Officer and a Spy (J’accuse)
Ash Is Purest White (江湖兒女 Les Éternels)
Balloon (Ballon)
Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano)
Joker
Les Misérables
Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)
So Long, My Son (地久天长)
The Irishman
The Specials (Hors normes)

HONORABLE MENTION:
By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu)
Only the Animals (Seules les bêtes)
School Life (La Vie scolaire)
Someone, Somewhere (Deux moi)
The Dazzled (Les Éblouis)

BEST MOVIE FROM ALGERIA:
Papicha (بابيشة)

BEST MOVIE FROM TUNISIA:
Noura’s Dream (نورة تحلم)

BEST MOVIE FROM SENEGAL:
Atlantics (Atlantique)

BEST MOVIE FROM URUGUAY:
A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 años)

BEST POLITICAL THRILLER FROM ARGENTINA:
Rojo

BEST POLITICAL THRILLER FROM SPAIN:
The Realm (El Reino)

BEST MOVIE FROM IRELAND ABOUT ECONOMIC PRECARIOUSNESS IN THE AGE OF NEOLIBERALISM:
Rosie

BEST MOVIE FROM SWITZERLAND ABOUT THE VALUE ATTACHED TO HUMAN LIFE IN THE AGE OF NEOLIBERALISM:
Those Who Work (Ceux qui travaillent)

BEST MOVIE FROM GREECE ABOUT A SUBMISSIVE HOUSEWIFE WHO TAKES CHARGE OF HER LIFE:
Her Job (Η Δουλειά της)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ABOUT THE CRAP WOMEN HAVE TO PUT UP WITH IN THE WORKPLACE:
Working Woman (אישה עובדת)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ABOUT CONSERVING THE MEMORY OF A HOLOCAUST MASSACRE COMMITTED BY AUSTRIANS:
The Testament (העדות)

BEST MOVIE FROM ROMANIA ABOUT CONSERVING THE MEMORY OF A HOLOCAUST MASSACRE COMMITTED BY ROMANIANS:
“I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (“Îmi este indiferent dacă în istorie vom intra ca barbari”)

BEST MAFIA MOVIE FROM ITALY:
The Traitor (Il traditore)

BEST CINEMATIC ADAPTATION FROM ITALY OF AN EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICAN NOVEL:
Martin Eden

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN OVER-THE-HILL POLITICIAN AND HIS SPRIGHTLY YOUTHFUL ADVISER:
Alice and the Mayor (Alice et le maire)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ON HOW REALLY HARD IT IS TO BE A SMALL FARMER:
In the Name of the Land (Au nom de la terre)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN INTREPID REPORTER DURING THE SIEGE OF SARAJEVO:
Sympathy for the Devil (Sympathie pour le diable)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN INTREPID REPORTER DURING THE CIVIL WAR IN THE CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC:
Camille

BEST FRANCO-BELGIAN MOVIE FROM RWANDA ABOUT RWANDAN SOLDIERS IN THE EASTERN CONGO:
The Mercy of the Jungle (La Miséricorde de la jungle)

BEST FRANCO-BELGIAN MOVIE ABOUT A PRISONER IN NEVADA AND HIS HORSE:
The Mustang

MOST MACABRE FEMINIST COMEDY FROM FRANCE:
Rebels (Rebelles)

MOST AMUSING NETFLIX COMEDY ABOUT A 1970s BLAXPLOITATION FILM DIRECTOR:
Dolemite Is My Name

MOST AMUSING ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN COMEDY MAKING SPORT OF THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT:
Tel Aviv on Fire (תל אביב על האש)

MOST LIGHTWEIGHT NETFLIX SATIRE ON HOW ORDINARY PEOPLE ARE SHAFTED BY THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL SYSTEM:
The Laundromat

MOST NOT BAD BY-THE-NUMBERS NETFLIX MOVIE SET IN A PARIS BANLIEUE:
Street Flow (Banlieuesards)

BLEAKEST FILM NOIR FROM CHINA SET IN WUHAN:
The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会)

MOST TEDIOUS MOVIE FROM RUSSIA SET IN POSTWAR LENINGRAD:
Beanpole (Дылда Une grande fille)

MOST OVER-THE-TOP MOVIE FROM BRAZIL SET IN THE SERTÃO OF THE NORDESTE:
Bacurau

MOST FATIGUING INDIE MOVIE SET IN MY HOMETOWN MILWAUKEE WISCONSIN:
Give Me Liberty

BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE ABOUT FORMULA ONE AUTO RACING SINCE ‘RUSH’:
Ford v Ferrari

MOST ENTERTAINING BIOPIC OF A GREAT ENGLISH POP MUSIC SINGER:
Rocketman

MOST ENTERTAINING CINEMATIC TRIBUTE FROM ENGLAND TO A GREAT AMERICAN ROCK MUSIC SINGER:
Blinded by the Light

MOST ENTERTAINING HOLLYWOOD WHODUNIT MOVIE THAT DOES NOT NEED TO BE SEEN UNLESS ONE LIKES ENTERTAINING HOLLYWOOD WHODUNIT MOVIES:
Knives Out

BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE WITH MELISSA MCCARTHY AND RICHARD E. GRANT IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Can You Ever Forgive Me?

BEST NETFLIX MOVIE WITH ADAM DRIVER AND SCARLETT JOHANSSON IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Marriage Story

BEST HOLLYWOOD REMAKE OF A GOOD MOVIE FROM CHILE WITH JULIANNE MOORE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Gloria Bell

MOST FAR-FROM-PERFECT HOLLYWOOD MOVIE WITH CHRISTIAN BALE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Vice

MOST FAR-FROM-PERFECT HOLLYWOOD MOVIE WITH VIGGO MORTENSEN AND MAHERSHALA ALI IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Green Book

MOST NOT-PERFECT MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH JULIETTE BINOCHE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Who You Think I Am (Celle que vous croyez)

MOST DEFINITELY NOT-PERFECT MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH VIRGINIE EFIRA AND ADÈLE EXARCHOPOULOS IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Sibyl

MOST ABSOLUTELY NOT-PERFECT MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH CHIARA MASTROIANNI IN THE LEAD ROLE:
On a Magical Night (Chambre 212)

MOST ONLY OKAY MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH DANIEL AUTEUIL IN THE LEAD ROLE:
La Belle époque

CREEPIEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH KARIN VIARD AND LEÏLA BEKHTI IN THE LEAD ROLES:
The Perfect Nanny (Chanson douce)

MOST RIDICULOUS MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH JEAN DUJARDIN IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Deerskin (Le Daim)

MOST COMPLICATED COURTROOM DRAMA FROM FRANCE WITH MARINA FOÏS AND OLIVIER GOURMET IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Conviction (Une intime conviction)

BEST MUST-SEE DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE POLITICS OF MEMORY OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR:
The Silence of Others (El silencio de otros)

BEST DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE MEMORY OF A DEMOCRACY EMBRACING ASYLUM-SEEKERS FROM A DICTATORSHIP:
Santiago, Italia

BEST MOST MOVING DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE MEMORY OF SUDAN’S INCIPIENT FILM INDUSTRY AND THE POLITICAL SYSTEM THAT PROVOKED ITS DEMISE:
Talking About Trees (الحديث عن الأشجار)

BEST MOST POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE WAR IN SYRIA:
For Sama (إلى سما)

BEST NETFLIX DOCUMENTARY FORESEEING THE FUTURE OF AMERICA’S DEMOCRATIC PARTY:
Knock Down the House

MOST FASCINATING DOCUMENTARY ABOUT AN INDUSTRIAL POTEMKIN VILLAGE DURING THE SOVIET ERA:
The Cacophony of Donbass (Какофонія Донбасу)

MOST UNSATISFYING DOCUMENTARY ABOUT A SMALL TOWN IN THE AMERICAN HEARTLAND:
Monrovia, Indiana

BEST MOVIE BY PEDRO ALMODÓVAR:
Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria)

BEST MOVIE BY ARNAUD DESPLECHIN:
Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, une lumière)

BEST MOVIE BY JEAN-PIERRE & LUC DARDENNE:
Young Ahmed (Le jeune Ahmed)

BEST MOVIE BY KEN LOACH:
Sorry We Missed You

BEST MOVIE BY YORGOS LANTHIMOS:
The Favourite

BEST MOVIE BY BARRY JENKINS:
If Beale Street Could Talk

MOST ENTERTAININGLY TENDENTIOUS MOVIE BY COSTA-GAVRAS:
Adults In the Room

MOST ENTERTAININGLY OFFBEAT MOVIE BY ELIA SULEIMAN:
It Must Be Heaven

MOST NOT-ALL-THAT-BAD OF A MOVIE BY CLINT EASTWOOD:
The Mule

MOST MERELY OKAY MOVIE BY WOODY ALLEN:
A Rainy Day in New York

MOST MIND-NUMBING MOVIE BY JAMES GRAY:
Ad Astra

MOST FORGETTABLE MOVIE BY QUENTIN TARANTINO:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

MOST PROMISING DIRECTORIAL DEBUT BY HAFSIA HERZI:
You Deserve a Lover (Tu mérites un amour)

MOST UTTERLY FAILED DIRECTORIAL DEBUT BY CAROLINE FOUREST:
Sisters in Arms (Sœurs d’armes)

MOST SOMEWHAT OVERRATED MOVIE BY CÉLINE SCIAMMA:
Portrait of a Young Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY HIROKAZU KORE-EDA:
The Truth (La Vérité)

MOST FRANKLY OVERRATED MOVIE BY BONG JOON-HO:
Parasite (기생충)

MOST CRINGEWORTHY MOVIE BY FATIH AKIN:
The Golden Glove (Der Goldene Handschuh)

MOST NOT GOOD MOVIE BY RABAH AMEUR-ZAÏMECHE:
South Terminal (Terminal Sud)

MOST INSUFFERABLE MOVIE BY NADAV LAPID:
Synonyms

MOST PREPOSTEROUS MOVIE BY JORDAN PEELE:
Us

A NO DOUBT BEAUTIFUL MOVIE BY TERRENCE MALICK BUT THAT I COULDN’T BRING MYSELF TO GO AND SEE AS IT IS CERTAINLY VERY SLOW-PACED AND WAY TOO LONG:
A Hidden Life

The inevitable Brexit

[update below]

The UK general election is two days away and I am crossing my fingers—hoping against hope—that it will result in a hung parliament—though without the Tories, like last time, being able to form a government with the DUP (or any other party). A Labour-LibDem-SNP-Plaid Cymru-Green majority would be able to put an end to the Brexit folly, with a second referendum and inevitable Remain victory. After which another general election would be held and the world outside the UK wouldn’t care one way or the other who came out on top.

But I’m realistic enough to know that this is not the likely scenario. The Tories are well ahead in the polls and, barring a polling failure of the first order, will win a comfortable majority in the House of Commons—and with the UK leaving the UK next month and Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street to the end of 2024. And the responsible party for this calamitous outcome will be the unreconstructed 1970s communist Jeremy Corbyn, who is Britain’s answer to Georges Marchais, though less entertaining in front of a TV camera (and two decades and some after the French Communists abandoned Marchais’ political vision). If the Labour Party hadn’t changed its leadership election rules in 2014—thereby enabling far leftists to hijack the party—the UK would most certainly not be in this Brexit mess. Maybe more about that another time.

Like lots of people, I have been appalled by BoJo and dismissive of him, viewing him as a sort of Trump wannabe. But I’m rethinking this after having read a lengthy portrait of him—”a great read,” as one friend emailed me; “brilliantly written,” so another tweeted—in New York magazine (December 9th issue) by Andrew Sullivan, “Boris’s blundering brilliance.” The lede: “Brexit has given the U.K’s self-seeking Prime Minister the opportunity to show he actually knows what he’s doing.” The piece is indeed a must-read. Sullivan may be interesting or irritating but, on this specific question, I instinctively trust him, as he is a product of Oxford, crossed paths with BoJo there, and as a working class ex-Tory (and anti-Brexit), has a critical distance on the matter. Sullivan presents BoJo as almost a social democrat—pragmatic in any case and hardly an ideologue—who will not sell Britain out to Trump’s America. I want to believe Sullivan here. The proof will be in the pudding. But Sullivan does convincingly argue that BoJo is not a right-wing populist in the mold of Trump, Orban, Salvini et al. And certainly not Marine Le Pen.

This YouTube video of BoJo reciting a passage from The Iliad in ancient Greek certainly proves that he is no Trump.

Regardless of what Sullivan says, the rhetoric coming out of the Brexit camp on the economy and social policy has been worrisome indeed, with talk of a “Singapore-on-the-Thames,” a free trade agreement with the US—that would lead to the gutting of the NHS, entre autres—and regulatory and fiscal dumping on a massive scale at the doorstep of the European Union. On this neoliberal vision/nightmare, one thinks of the last two films by the très engagé Scottish director Ken Loach. The most recent, which opened in France in October, is Sorry We Missed You, about a working class family (in Newcastle) in which the husband/father has lost his steady job and forced to become an independent contracter, and with the wife/mother working impossible hours—and neither earning enough to make ends meet. It’s the most incisive cinematic critique—denunciation, in fact—of the “Uberization” of our neoliberal economies that I’ve seen. Workplaces in France are not what they are in Great Britain such as depicted in the film—where no one mentions a Code du Travail—but if Emmanuel Macron were to get his way, it will only be a matter of time.

The other Loach film is I, Daniel Blake, which won the 2016 Palme d’Or. The protag in this one is a 59-year-old manual laborer (also in Newcastle) who is put on disability and thus entangled in the social service and unemployment agency system, which have been privatized and whose organizing principle is thus the bottom line—not in actually accompanying clients—and getting public charges off the dole. The film is a biting critique of precisely that: the privatization, or outsourcing to profit-making enterprises, of social service delivery, which had been—and should still be—assured by public employees. Having had personal experience with this here in France, where the state functionaries are dedicated professionals and whose objective is to help you, the citizen, I feel more strongly than ever that this sector must remain public and never be allowed anywhere near the private sector. Again, if Emmanuel Macron were to receive carte blanche, France would resemble its neighbor outre-Manche before too long.

Ken Loach is a gauchiste—more so than I—no doubt about that, but he makes good movies and that do not descend into caricature, bons sentiments, or manichaeism in their social critiques.

À suivre.

UPDATE: So the election resulted in the predictable Conservative victory, with a modest 1% increase in the Tory vote over 2017—a defeat for Theresa May—but a landslide in seats, which is all that counts. A huge victory for Boris Johnson and the incontestable brilliance of his strategy—of smashing Labour’s famous ‘red wall’ and uniting the entire Leave camp behind his leadership. And a corresponding debacle for Labour and the calamitous Jeremy Corbyn, who is incontestably responsible for the counter-performance. When a party’s share of the vote plunges from 40% to 32% in the space of two years—and witnesses its greatest loss in seats since before most people reading this were alive—the party leader is necessarily responsible. Nick Cohen nailed it in an instant post-mortem comment in The Spectator, “The polling that shows Corbyn is to blame for Labour’s decline.” It begins

The reason Jeremy Corbyn is not preparing to lead the first majority Labour government since 2010 is Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader is proving the falseness of the cliché that ‘oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them’. Unless enough people are convinced of an opposition’s competence and decency it will not take power, even when all it has to do is beat the mendacious rabble that make up today’s Conservative party.

Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition did not win a majority and could never win a majority because millions could not vote for the incompetent and indecent Jeremy Corbyn. It’s that simple.

I am not just repeating anecdotal evidence from Labour MPs and canvassers. A vast poll of 12,000 voters, released tonight, showed Jeremy Corbyn was by far the single biggest reason voters gave for deserting Labour. Of those who voted Labour in 2017 but were less than 50 per cent less likely to vote Labour now, Deltapoll found the overwhelming reason people gave was they ‘don’t like Jeremy Corbyn’ with 46 per cent agreeing with that blunt statement.

As tonight’s epic defeat shows, Labour could not win because of Jeremy Corbyn and the rancid political clique he led. Do not underestimate the scale of the rout for a moment. Johnson’s triumph is absolute. The Conservatives could be in power for most of the 2020s because a bunch of student politicians and narcissist performance artists destroyed a once viable party.

To continue reading Cohen’s comment, go here.

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee likewise nailed it in her post-mortem column, “Devoid of agility, charisma and credibility, Corbyn has led Labour into the abyss.” The lede: “Yes, the manifesto was magnificent. But Corbyn has allowed his party to be riven by sectarianism, antisemitism and Brexit.”

For his part, The Observer’s political editor Toby Helm wrote, “I saw for myself just how hostile many voters were to Jeremy Corbyn.”

Paul Mason has an incisive comment in the New Statesman, “Corbynism is over – Labour’s next leader must unite the centre and the left: Only a pluralist movement can counter a dangerous alliance of conservatism and authoritarian nationalism.”

The tyke with a toque

Various people today have been wishing me a happy Thanksgiving, though here in France it’s just another day. Thanksgiving is every American’s favorite holiday, though if one is not in America—with family and/or friends, the turkey dinner in the afternoon, and football game (Dallas Cowboys vs. whoever) on in the background—it loses context, so no point in celebrating.

As Thanksgiving is principally about food, I will use the occasion to post a wonderful article in the current issue (November 25th) of The New Yorker by my dear friend Adam Shatz, “The tyke with a toque,” on his life as a child chef, from middle school years through high school, in western Massachusetts—and which took him to France. I’ve known Adam for almost twenty years but he only started to tell me in the last couple about this episode of his early life. He was on track to become a great chef but decided to take the intellectual route instead. I’ve had occasion to taste his cooking and it is indeed that of a gourmet fine gueule. If you read just one article today—or want a break from politics, climate change, and other malheurs—make it this one.

Today is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, which is receiving a fair amount of media attention here in France. As I told my American students this week—born a decade after the event—it was, geopolitically speaking, one of the most important events in my lifetime, not to mention exhilarating (I further specified that states that put up walls on their border normally do so to keep people from entering, but the Berlin wall was to prevent people from leaving). I followed the unraveling in East Germany from Algiers, where I was living at the time, via the BBC World Service (on my shortwave radio), International  Herald-Tribune, and Le Monde (when I could find it): the opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border to fleeing East Germans, the demonstrations in Leipzig, and the sudden opening of the wall on the night of the 9th-10th. Unlike the Tienanmen Square movement in Peking five/six months earlier—which I was also riveted to via the BBC—this one did not end tragically.

For the anecdote, I went through the Berlin wall once, in August 1974, with my friend and traveling companion, along with a couple of Swedish girls we met at the youth hostel in West Berlin. One could visit East Berlin for the day without a visa (and that included US military personnel). So we went through Checkpoint Charlie in the morning and headed by foot to the center of the eastern side of the city, through several blocks of buildings that were abandoned or hadn’t been rebuilt since the war. On the Unter den Linden we crossed a guy around my age (late teens) standing at a table, maybe selling or distributing something. He asked me in a hushed voice, and in English, if I had a map of West Berlin (the city stopped at the wall on maps available in the east). I said no or shook my head. Who knows, it could have been a set-up. Crossing back to the west at Checkpoint Charlie, toward 6 PM, we watched the East German border guards slide a big mirror on wheels under the cars, to see if anyone was clinging underneath. What a system.

As it happens, there have been several very good films over the past two years on East Germany, of the nature of its system—of “actually existing socialism,” as the Hungarian philosophers Agnes Heller and Ferenc Féher tagged Eastern Bloc communism—and people trying to flee it. One is Balloon (the title in both German and English; the French title, Le Vent de la Liberté—the wind of freedom—is better), directed by Michael Bully Herbig and which opened here in April. It’s set in 1979 and based on a true story (there’s a lengthy Wikipedia page on it), of two families (of eight people) in a town in the hilly, forested southwestern GDR (in Thuringia), who concoct a plan to flee to the West in a hot air balloon, which the two men—who work together in a factory, one an electrician, the other who knows how to sew—have the skills to make. The attempt fails, however, as the balloon hits the ground just short of the border (with its electrified barbed-wire fences and minefields). They manage to make it back to their homes in the dead of night undetected but when the balloon is discovered, the Stasi launches a massive manhunt to find out who it was who tried to flee. The importance accorded to it at the summit of the East German state and mobilization of manpower and resources to tracking down the culprits—simple, otherwise non-political law-abiding people—takes one’s breath away. Knowing that they are in danger of being discovered, the families decide to confection another balloon and try again, with acquiring the materials without arousing suspicion riskier than ever. So it’s a race against the clock as the Stasi closes in on them, and which is hot on their heels as they take off from the forest in the second attempt (spoiler alert: it has a happy ending). It’s a terrific movie; a riveting, edge-of-the-seat thriller (the high-octane final scene recalls that of the movie ‘Argo’). A slam-dunk for AWAV’s Top 10 of the year. It seems not to have been released in the US or UK yet, though no doubt will be at some point. Trailer is here.

Another first-rate film, which opened in France in May 2018, is The Silent Revolution (In France, La Révolution silencieuse; the German title translates as ‘the silent classroom’), directed by Lars Kraume and also based on a true story (of course), this one set in autumn 1956 In Eisenhüttenstadt (then called Stalinstadt), at an elite high school, where the students are all members of the Communist party’s youth league, being tracked for elite careers and presumably with party membership. Two students, learning via RIAS—which listening to in the GDR could get one into trouble—about the reality of the Hungarian revolution underway—of the mass nature of the uprising and the bloodiness of the Warsaw Pact intervention—inform their classmates (equivalent of 12th grade), who decide to hold a minute of silence before class begins for the Hungarian victims. When the school authorities demand to know what the minute of silence was all about, the students make up a story that it was for the Hungarian soccer star Ferenc Puskás, who had reportedly been killed. But the reports of Puskás’ death were false, as it turned out, and could have only been heard via Western radio, so the school authorities demand to know who the ringleaders of the minute of silence are, informing the class that they will all be expelled—with their entrance to university thus compromised, future career plans scuttled, and parents punished for good measure—if they don’t cough up the names. It becomes an affaire d’État, taken with the utmost seriousness in East Berlin. But the students stick together and, one after the other, plot their escape to West Berlin (the wall hadn’t yet been built but there were checkpoints leaving the Soviet sector, making the crossing risky for East Germans and other citizens of Warsaw Pact countries). Crazy system. Trailer is here.

Another very good film—which was a nominee for this year’s Academy Award for best foreign language picture—is Never Look Away (in France: L’Œuvre sans auteur, which, like the German title, translates as ‘work without auteur’), by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who directed the 2006 masterpiece The Lives of Others, which remains the best film to date on the GDR and its system. The pic, which is over three hours long—split into two parts for some reason; I had to leave the theater and buy another ticket for the second part—is loosely based on the early life of Gerhard Richter—from his childhood in the mid 1930s to the mid 1960s—who has been one of Germany’s leading contemporary artists for the past few decades. The A-list cast, of actors/actresses one has seen in other German films, includes Tom Schilling, who plays the adult Richter character, Kurt Barnert; Sebastian Koch, a gynecologist and Nazi-turned-communist collaborator named Carl Seeband; Paula Beer, Seeband’s daughter and Barnert’s wife; and Saskia Rosendahl, the young Barnert’s beautiful, beloved, free-spirited aunt, who is committed to an asylum, and then sent to an early death, by the Nazi Seeband. I’m not going to recap the complex story—for that, one may consult the Wikipedia page—which takes us from Barnert’s childhood in Dresden during the Nazi era, coming of age as an artist in the communist GDR, suffocating under the reign of socialist realism, defecting with his wife via West Berlin (before the wall), coming into his own as a cutting-edge artist in Dusseldorf, and settling scores with his father-in-law Seeband, who was, as Barnert learns, responsible for the death of his aunt twenty-five years earlier. I was totally engrossed in the film from beginning to end. It is sure to make AWAV’s Top 10. Trailer is here.

And then there’s Cold War by Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, which is set mainly in Poland in the late 1940s—the Stalinist deep freeze—to the 1960s (also in Paris and Italy), and has nothing to do with East Germany except for a scene in East Berlin (pre-wall), when the protag gets past a checkpoint to defect to the West. It’s short film (barely an hour-and-a-half), a mood piece (with the jazz soundtrack adding to the moodiness), shot in a haunting black-and-white—it’s aesthetically beautiful—of a torrid love affair between a prominent pianist and a young singer. And it gives an idea as to how “actually existing socialism” persecuted artists who fell afoul of the system, as did the protag musician. I was engaged with the film and, like most people I know who saw it, thought it quite good, though didn’t have a tremendous amount to say about it afterward. Trailer is here.

Finally, there’s an animated film, ‘Fritzi – A Revolutionary Tale’, which I saw last month at the annual Festival du Cinéma Allemand in Paris (at the Arlequin cinema on Rue de Rennes). I hesitated on this one, as I don’t normally go to animated films, but as the theme sounded sufficiently interesting, I thought what the hell. Here’s the description from its English website:

East Germany, 1989.

Twelve-year-old Fritzi lovingly takes care of her best friend Sophie’s little dog Sputnik, while Sophie’s family is on summer vacation in Hungary. When Sophie doesn’t come back, Fritzi and Sputnik set out in search of her. That adventure leads her into the Monday´s demonstrations of Leipzig and towards the heavily-guarded border…

Historically accurate, authentic, and with lots of rich period detail and atmosphere, this moving animated movie for the whole family retells the story of the peaceful revolution of 1989 from a child’s perspective. An entertaining and exciting tale of the Fall of the Wall, and of the people who were brave enough to change the world, which will make a lasting impression, not only on young viewers.

The salle at the Arlequin theater was packed with some 150 exuberant 8th and 9th graders on a field trip from middle schools in the Paris banlieue, whom I learned (asking a few afterward) were all taking German as their principal foreign language (LV1). They applauded and cheered at the end. The youngsters liked the film. Nice. Trailer (dubbed in English) is here.

 

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