This was a lean moviegoing year for me: although there were lots of movies I wanted to see, I was busy much of the time, and the venue where I usually watch movies, the DOC Film Series at Ida Noyes Hall (a University student operation that has a terrific large theater just two blocks from my place), has been going downhill in its film choices. (You can, however, buy a $30 pass that allows you to watch 30 films. And it’s the oldest college movie society in America.) It’s a sad fact that most of the movies I’ve watched this year have been on long-haul flights.
A few weeks ago the New York Times released its list of best movies of the year (click on screenshot)—actually, two lists of ten movies, one from each of its main movie critics. It turns out that I’d seen two of them, and it was two of the four that appeared on both lists.
First, the lists (each list at the NYT site links to the critic’s review). I’ve put asterisks by the movies appearing on both:
A. O. Scott
- The Souvenir
- The Irishman*
- Marriage Story
- Little Women*
- The Edge of Democracy
- Once Upon a Time. . . In Hollywood*
p.s. I just read Scott’s recent book on criticism, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, and found it pretentious, boring and unenlightening. It goes to show you that someone can excel at criticism but fail miserably when trying to analyze what they’re actually doing. Perhaps meta-analysis of criticism is a doomed enterprise.
- Pain and Glory
- The Irishman*
- Little Women*
- Once Upon a Time. . . In Hollywood*
- American Factory
- One Child Nation
- The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Scott talks about the dustup that occurred earlier this year when Martin Scorsese, a national film treasure, criticized mainstream movies in the U.S.
A big chunk of our collective attention — we don’t yet know how big, or with what consequences — is migrating to streaming platforms whose offerings include a lot of the stand-alone single-episode narratives that we used to see mainly in theaters. (Yes, I know: We saw a lot of sequels, too.) Movie theaters, meanwhile, are dominated by franchise, I.P.-driven spectacles like the entities in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, which Scorsese singled out, in an interview in Empire magazine and then in a New York Times Op-Ed, as “not cinema.”
The dust-up that followed his remarks was predictable. Members of the aggrieved superhero-loving community — some of whom draw Disney paychecks — tut-tutted Scorsese for being old, out of touch, overrated and, most of all, elitist. Accusing Scorsese (and his defenders) of elitism was exemplary pseudo-populism, a defense of corporate hegemony disguised as a celebration of mass taste. To question the apparent preferences of millions of consumers is to risk being labeled a snob.
In the imaginations of their sore-winner, alpha dog-underdog opponents, the snobs are simultaneously too dangerous to ignore and too enfeebled to take seriously. The response is basically, Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Nobody’s listening to you anyway! And the anti-elitist argument is at bottom a matter of numbers, of quantity trumping quality. That “Avengers: Endgame” and “Joker” broke records at the global box office surely means something, even if the movies themselves don’t.
I’m an unapologetic elitist like Scorsese. I’ve tried watching “action” movies, “superhero” movies, spy movies, space movies, and the popular blockbusters that fill America’s tiny multiplex theaters, and they all seem the same to me: formulaic, commercial, lacking any interesting character development, and, in the end, they all come down to One Big Chase Scene. (An exception is the movie Ford v. Ferrari, which I watched and greatly enjoyed, but that included some great acting.) My perennial favorites, like Tokyo Story or Ikiru, or—my favorite American film—The Last Picture Show, would be seen as snoozers by most Americans. I confess that I sneer internally when I hear how this and that franchise movie broke opening-day records. But I rarely recommend my favorite movies to others, who have too often found them boring.
As I said, I saw two of the movies above. I’ve already mentioned Once Upon a Time. . . in Hollywood, which I saw on a flight and liked, even though it was on a tiny screen. It was classic Tarantino, but with some great acting by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt (and others), and not as weird as other Tarantino films.
The other I saw recently, and give an enthusiastic two thumbs up: The Irishman. I didn’t read any reviews of it on purpose—so I could give my take here (I do know that it got great ratings on Rotten Tomatoes). I will be brief, as I’m not a movie critic.
This being a Scorsese movie, of course it has Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, but also stars Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. Yes, this is a crime drama with an underpinning of fact, but it’s far more than spilled blood (of which there’s a lot). It’s Scorsese as Woody Allen, musing on the futility of everything, but also emphasizing that in this world nobody is pure—even President John F. Kennedy.
The story begins with De Niro (playing Frank Sheeran, a real mob hit man), waiting to die in a nursing home, looking back at a career that began uneventfully with the theft of a few sides of beef. (There’s a long tracking shot through the nursing home at the outset that reminds one of the restaurant scene in Goodfellas.) Sheeran hooks up with Russell Bufalino, a mob boss played by Joe Pesci, who has lost his swagger with age. Both men get involve with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), whose ties to organized crime were well known.
The movie is 3½ hours long, but never boring. Against the ins and outs of the Northeast U.S. mob world, you’re drawn into a milieu where everyone is doomed, and everyone sells out somebody else to make a buck. Loyalty is at best temporary, and, in the end, all the principals get whacked or, worse, go to jail, degenerate with age, and die. (There is one redeeming note: De Niro’s daughter abandons him when she realizes that he killed Hoffa, a family friend.)
It is this sense of futility, of everything coming to nothing as death approaches, that has stayed with me, perhaps because mortality preys on me as well. And I wake up in the middle of the night thinking of the scene when all the principals still alive, playing bocce in the prison courtyard, enfeebled or in wheelchairs. In the end, De Niro seeks absolution from a priest, seemingly unconvinced that he did anything wrong.
The three principals do a wonderful job, especially Pacino, who plays a wild card along the lines of Scarface, sealing his own doom with his egotism. It is a master class in acting, and especially notable for showing how Pesci, De Niro, and Pacino have aged not just in the movie, or among their diverse movies, but in assuming the ability to act the transition from middle age to old age.
I could go on, but why bother? You should see this movie. And I should see the other sixteen as well. If you’ve seen any of them, weigh in below.
Here’s the trailer for The Irishman, which does give you a sense of the movie. Thank goodness that directors like Scorsese are still making movies that aren’t One Big Chase Scene.