Call Me By Your Name

This review contains what I would consider spoilers, because at last I’m just giving in. Do know that any smartass comparisons to the subject matter have already been noted, by me when I made them at myself.

**

It was the last workday before our holiday break, so I sailed into this movie on some almost cinnamon-y champagne brought around by one of my coworkers. Champagne always comes over you rather faster than you expect with all those bubbles, leaving you a little spun and already wondering just what you’ve gotten yourself into. Sometimes I think champagne tastes brighter and more beguiling for how you know at the first sip that you’ll likely regret this, but hell, it’ll be sweet as you go down.

So, Call Me By Your Name. Hand of god deliver me.

It’s a yearning romance gorgeous enough to make your heart momentarily forget what it’s doing, then rush back in sending dizzy numbing warmth all through your arms and legs. Maybe that’s called sumptuous. Maybe that’s called ravishing. Maybe it’s the most vibrantly drawn love story I’ve seen in ages, maybe that.

Even though— well, even though. Even though at one point when they’re rueing how long it took them to get together, Oliver protests that he’d given Elio a sign that he liked him back at the beginning of the summer, when he’d tried to massage a knot out of his bare shoulder (a Classic Move™, hilarious that everyone around seems to think this guy has some sort of new level game), “—and you acted like I’d molested you!” and it just, it lances, because oh my god Oliver, he’s too young! He’s too young you shouldn’t, he’s 17, oh god he’s only 17. And, hell though, 18 is just a line in the sand, it’s a line in the damn sand, and…maybe when you’re a man who loves men in 1983, maybe…maybe you take this rare precious thing within your reach, reaching for you. Because he is precious, Elio, he’s exquisite. And when Oliver starts showing his giddy nervous heart, then it feels equal, because they’re equally lost to each other.

It aches to watch them together. They’re so devastatingly beautiful, clumsy and perfect and weird with want. God bless Timothée Chalamet by the way for just helplessly climbing Armie Hammer like a tree, in the most literally rendered take on that phrase I’ve ever seen on film. Honestly though where did they find this kid, fluent in French, fluent in movement, this sweet graceful awkwardness. Chalamet is incandescent, the glowing heart of this movie. And Armie Hammer is marvelous as a smart, loose-limbed grad student who turns out to be so young as well. The music is flawless, the elegant ramshackle Italian villa crushingly aesthetic, the pacing a dream, the shorts: sublime. And somehow at the end, when you think you’ve passed the most breathless heights, Michael Stuhlbarg delivers a gentle father’s monologue that takes the whole house down, and then a long, unbroken shot of Timothée Chalamet’s face holds you there, too tender to move.

I think part of the warm magic of this movie is in the reverence it has for the details, the tactile memory of this one heart-turning summer—and then in turn, the magic that magic works is in cracking us open and letting our own bright sorrow come spilling out. I mean, I have not ever spent a languid summer in a constant state of dishabille and longing in northern Italy, but when I, a dummy, started listening to the soundtrack while driving to my parents’ house the next morning, I started sobbing two lines into ‘Visions of Gideon’ for reasons that were decidedly personal and had apparently never been fully released, until this movie came along.

I guess maybe what I’m saying is that Call Me By Your Name can be a sort of champagne-soaked catharsis, if that’s something you’re open to in your cinematic experiences.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

There are two things I think are really interesting about Star Wars as a phenomenon. One is the extent to which people seem to forget that even the vaunted original trilogy was never actually that good, in a traditional sense. The editing is clunky more often than not, there are so many nonsensical or flat-out weird interludes, the characters aren’t organic, the plot is contrived and patchy at best—and none of this turns out to matter at all, because these movies are pure magic. Where there are plot holes, there are headcanons. We fall in love with these characters dropped in from nowhere, and make them into icons. The absurd throwaway moments become our favorites. The hokeyness feels like home. It’s STAR WARS, and it lights up our imaginations and our hearts.

Which brings me to the other thing I find really interesting: that these movies have this effect on such a wide variety of viewers. It seems possible for people with nearly any interests or philosophical viewpoints to find a reflection of what they love in these movies. Sometimes it’s clearly a case of different sorts of people focusing on different aspects, but other, more fascinating times, it seems people can look at the same thing and see something different. Is Han Solo the smooth, roguish epitome of cool, or the galaxy’s most haphazard dork? Is Star Wars a leftist, progressive allegory reacting critically to the Vietnam War, or an inherently retrograde, conservative work dreaming of returning to a better past through a religious system that clearly defines good and evil? Who knows! Actually a whole lot of people think they do, and Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi seems to have set them afire unlike any Star Wars movie that’s come before.

For that alone I would love TLJ, because anything that so highlights Star Wars’ Pop Culture Mirror of Erised quality is going to fascinate me just as an object. But it also so happens that Johnson must have seen in this franchise a lot of the things I like when I look into the mirror of space movies, so I end up part of the group that had an absolute ball with this one. (An Absolute Ball: Starring BB-8, coming soon if I made short films.)

What might be the easiest way to start explaining why I loved TLJ, is that I think it’s the best Star Trek movie Star Wars has ever produced. Yeah, I know, and I’m only going to get worse, get ready. Star Trek connects with me more than Star Wars. I didn’t watch either of them until I was in my 20s, so it’s not any sort of nostalgic fondness winning out, just what grown me happens to like. Grown me likes both of them, don’t get me wrong — space things can make me cry like none other, because to me the most beautiful part about all the fantastical alien worlds and sweeping journeys and dazzling technology, is that we, humans on our one little planet, dreamt up all of them. That’s so wondrous I can hardly handle it. So for my money the very best space things are infused with the sense of possibility that I feel in the artistic creation of these universes. And therefore: Star Trek, the show that believed things would get better, that imagined a brighter future, that acknowledged the flaws and pitfalls of our past actions and promised that if we always try to improve from that, not even the sky is the limit.

This is the grandest thing I love about Star Trek, and the grandest thing I love about The Last Jedi, which definitely feels like the first Star Wars movie to look forward in this way. I can’t speak much more specifically without giving things away, but actually the very fact that the moments I would mention were major ones tells you how central this ideology is to this movie. Some have found this movement away from the past to be disrespectful to canon. I feel like you only spend so much time and care trying to grow something if you love it.

And underneath all the big-picture stuff, there were the detailsa whole slew of silly or sublime things that I terribly enjoyed. Daring dashing pilots, dramatic space hermits, #jokes, #bits, Kelly Marie Tran (we would all die for Kelly Marie Tran), puffin hamsters, Laura Dern with purple hair, a brain-rocking infinity mirror of Reys, scathing portrayals of negging emo fuckboys and apoplectic British imperialists, costume changes, crystalline foxes, a salt planet blood-red under its crust of white, [redacted], [redacted], [super redacted].

Hell I even enjoyed the odd mistimed editing, because every sudden scene change just took me to something else I enjoyed watching. And, as mentioned, Star Wars never was all that well-made. That’s never been why we love it, no matter what it actually is in it that matters to us.

The Florida Project

The Florida Project is one of those movies that I quickly forget is something with a script and actors and production design and direction, because it just feels so very, very real. Unvarnished. Piercingly credible. There are scenes that made me anxious in a manner so different than the usual movie tension, because I know these sorts of arguments, I know how this goes, because this is real in a gut-wrenching way, in an inevitable, undertow kind of way, in a pure and funny and awful way.

The central characters, a 6-year-old girl and her 24-year-old mom, are played by two people who had never acted in a movie before. This is completely insane and also probably the only way it could ever have been filmed. I can’t imagine any actress, no matter how trained, being able to access the role Bria Vinaite inhabits in this movie, just knows how to inhabit, with every right instinct for how Halley would be, who Halley is. And only a girl as little as Brooklynn Prince has the kind of innocent fearlessness to throw herself wholly into these scenes, just living as Moonee. Moonee treats the world as her playground, and Brooklynn Prince treats her film set the same way.

The only experienced actor in this movie, playing, with a bit of metafilmic beauty, the Only Adult In the Room, is the wonderful Willem Dafoe. He is the perfect complement to the rest of the cast: a pillar of tested strength, a foil, a masterclass of method. Worth the price of admission: the moment where Willem Dafoe has three sandhill cranes for scene partners, and of course nails it.

I think ultimately what is most astonishing and good and special about The Florida Project is all that it shows. It shows lives we rarely see on screen, and in the process shows what movies can be: honest, empathetic, and utterly, impossibly real.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird begins with an epigraph, a Joan Didion quote about Sacramento, which proved perfectly suited as this movie hit me as hard and in the same way as Slouching Toward Bethlehem. It has that same deft portraiture of a particular place and time (the same place, the time 40 years on), that same extraordinary insight into people and what they do, that humor, that confession, that skillfulness in how it is told. Greta Gerwig has discovered how to film the way Joan Didion writes, and we are going to be so much wiser for it. It’s so strong, it’s so funny, it’s so perfectly crafted, it’s so GOOD.

I’m not sure when in the runtime I started crying at something in every scene, but I remember accepting that it was just going to be my life right now, vaguely hoping that my chair wasn’t shaking too obviously. Mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, best friends, first boyfriends, second boyfriends, trying to be your own friend — it’s a slice of life, and those can cut so deep.

Lady Bird is about the place you grew up, and needing to leave it, and how that’s okay. And how even though you may not want it be, that place is a part of you, and that’s okay too. It’s about love. It’s about, gently and surprisingly, faith. It’s about making mistakes over and over again. It’s about making who you are. It will also probably make Saoirse Ronan, who has been on the make since she was a child, and here shows just how much she can be. She’s brilliant and perfect, in the midst of a hilarious, wildly skillful cast that leaps up to meet her, every single person costumed impeccably. I am preemptively miffed about whoever designed Phantom Thread winning out over April Napier at the Oscars.

But right now this movie’s out there gathering up accolades and plaudits like armfuls of wildflowers, and I’m pumped about it, I’m so glad, I feel emboldened. We can give names too, like One of the Year’s Best.

The Shape of Water

When I went out to see this movie, the independent cinema that was showing it had dedicated space on their packed marquee to bill it as “GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S THE SHAPE OF WATER.” Guillermo del Toro’s. No the other movie had its creator highlighted. People had lined up outside half an hour early to see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, the latest movie Guillermo del Toro wanted to make for us.

Historically, I have not given one hoot about what most mainstream critics might think about Guillermo del Toro movies. I care about what the people who love Guillermo del Toro’s movies think. The outsiders, the weirdos, the women, the people of color, the Others. Guillermo del Toro’s people. The people like himself, who love genre, who have found themselves in fantasy when no other story seemed to represent them. The community for whom he made The Shape of Water, a movie where the heroes are a mute woman, a black woman, an older gay man, a [redacted for spoilers but they are also Other], and a fish-man. Here it is, the outsider movie of the year, from our Guillermo.

And god, it’s beautiful. It’s green, everything, everything is green, a deep grotto emerald. It’s 1961, and it’s underwater, and I am living. The Shape of Water is a floating midcentury jewelry box, a fairytale for the people who always fall in love with the monster. This is the movie for anyone who has looked at what is being called monstrous and seen the extraordinary, seen something startling and misunderstood and lonely, something beautiful. Something attractive. Attractive. I love a work where the very fact of the characters’ eroticism is a daring act. It’s like Robert Rauschenberg putting his bed on an art gallery wall.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is gliding and bell-like and wonderful. The production design we have swooned over already, but just to re-emphasize: swoon. Octavia Spencer is as warm a presence as ever. Sally Hawkins is luminous as light on water. Richard Jenkins sounds exactly like a 1960s radio narrator, and if the man ever wants a change of pace he should absolutely record me some audio books. The three of them are just lovely with each other. At one point I almost thought it may be too cute, but no, no why would we ever set a quota on sweetness and charm. In this world? In our own or here, where Michael Shannon’s character is ever too ready to be gruesome and cruel.

The politics of Guillermo del Toro’s movie, and of Guillermo del Toro, are boldly drawn. On empathy and humanity and not being an abusive dick, and also I feel like—forgive—an undercurrent of environmentalism. In how the amphibious man was taken from the water, and the mission is to return him to it. Also all the green. All that deep, beautiful green.

The water has never looked so inviting.