As always, here is where I dump all the movies I’ve been catching up on in preparation for my “Best of the Year” list due somewhere around New Year’s. Although it’s still (relatively) early days, I think it’s safe to say some of the movies below might end up on the list.
EIGHTH GRADE dir. Bo Burnham
There is a moment early on in Eighth Grade where Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) finds herself at a birthday pool party of Kennedy, one of her classmates. She has shown up only because Kennedy’s mom, to Kennedy’s annoyance, gave Kayla an invite; it has become immediately apparent she is not necessarily welcome at the party and has locked herself in the bathroom so her boiling-over anxiety is not made public. As someone who left middle school two decades ago, this moment was visceral enough to make me break out in a cold sweat as if I had been transported back to that hellishly awkward time all over again. Unfortunately for my mental well-being this movie is filled with many more of these moments that painfully and accurately evoke the feelings of being a middle-schooler, enhanced by the fact that I have two children now who will one day be eighth graders themselves. Bo Burnham’s debut feature is astonishing because while many movies sensationalize the experience of being a middle-schooler, Eighth Grade is one that honestly depicts the experience in such a tender and heartfelt way so much so that it simultaneously evokes the middle school of our childhoods but also illuminates the hidden stressors and pressures unique to being a middle schooler today. It is easy to caricature the narcissism of the social media generation – and many have done so in a variety of media formats. Eighth Grade however wrestles with what it means to grow up in an age where the age of your greatest emotional vulnerability is met by technology that is meant by design to expose and exploit any weakness you may have, while cruelly promising a place where you can be your authentic self. Kayla’s dad (Josh Hamilton) is shown to be a well-meaning but clueless father; what keeps his character from being a lazy caricature is that Burnham goes to great lengths to show exactly why. The advent of social media is such unchartered waters even for adults that navigating the world of a middle schooler is impossible, but boy does he try. If the world of middle schoolers remains unnavigable, it is at least more understandable thanks to Elsie Fisher’s impeccable performance. It is refreshing to see a movie about middle schoolers where the actors actually are of the age of middle schoolers – it lends the movie a level of authenticity both in attitude and language that could not be achieved otherwise. She effortlessly portrays Kayla’s journey of trying to discover herself, in part because Fisher is undergoing that journey herself. Burnham’s debut is a labour of love and a call to empathize with what it feels like to be thirteen. It is absolutely absurd and an indication of the brokenness of the ratings system that this somehow ended up with an “R”-rating because this is precisely the kind of movie a thirteen year old should see because it might help them realize they are not alone. But in any case it still is requirement viewing for anybody else connected or soon-to-be connected with a middle schooler.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS dir. Jon M. Chu
Representation matters. This has (rightly) been the rallying cry of the cast of Crazy Rich Asians as they promoted the fact that they were the first all-Asian cast in a Hollywood movie since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. But of course, talking about representation and actually seeing it is a completely different matter – and this is undoubtedly Crazy Rich Asians’ greatest contribution. Before we dive into the movie let me just clarify one thing: I am a Malaysian now living in Canada, and though as a Malaysian I am sworn to despise all things Singapore (it is basically like Canada-US relations), it is undoubtedly thrilling to see this culture (which is tantalizingly close to my own) portrayed in a big budget Hollywood production. And it is a testament to the rallying cry of this movie that it took me a good fifteen minutes to get into this movie simply because of the cognitive dissonance I was feeling. My people don’t show up in Hollywood productions. My people aren’t usually fulfilling narrative arcs even when they do end up in Hollywood productions. And most importantly, my people aren’t romantic leads. There is something unspeakably empowering about seeing my people, my food, and my culture onscreen and not merely as sideshows to the main action. This is worth the price of admission alone. While I can quibble about the fact that Crazy Rich Asians hardly shows the breadth of the Southeast Asian experience and focuses on a hyper-rich and hyper-exclusive subculture that I barely had any interaction with in my 21 years in Malaysia, accuracy seems a weird charge to level at a romantic comedy. The movie is about as accurate to modern Southeast Asian life as a typical Hollywood rom-com is to American life. Additionally no one movie was ever going to make up for the years of exclusion for Asian actors in mainstream Hollywood pictures. Crazy Rich Asians is an important first step in correcting that imbalance.
Now with that out of the way, let’s talk about the actual movie itself. Once I got over the pleasant shock of the all-Asian cast, it became immediately clear that it has some very classic Hollywood bones to it. The premise is straight out of the screwball playbook: Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a New York-born economics professor who is invited by her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to go back to his hometown Singapore. Unbeknownst to her, Nick is in fact an heir to a real-estate empire that stretches all throughout Southeast Asia, which sets up a classic fish-out-of-water tale. Part The Philadelphia Story, part upstairs-downstairs British drama, this movie hardly breaks any new moulds story-wise. And to American audiences, the simplistic life-lesson of choosing love over money seems downright antiquated (although sadly, as a Malaysian myself this is closer to the truth than you’d realize). Apart from the specificity of the culture and location, this movie is simply a romantic comedy that we’ve seen many times before. Still, despite being somewhat formulaic, it executes most of the good stuff well. Wu and Golding’s chemistry is believable, while Michelle Yeoh is icily effective as the Young matriarch Eleanor. Meanwhile none of the drama that comes up feels contrived, and thankfully the central conflict does not depend on the characters misunderstanding one another. And while the movie is overcrowded (almost a dozen side-characters of note), it gives most of them a chance to shine. And (minor-spoiler) the resolution of the movie actually left me looking forward to the inevitable future installments in this apparent future franchise. There are not too many current franchises that I can say that about.
The optics of an all-Asian cast may be this movie’s ultimate legacy, but this is only possible because the movie does everything that is required of it competently. It shouldn’t feel revolutionary that we finally have a Asian story that is meant simply to unapologetically entertain us, but it is. It is safe to say that a romantic comedy has never felt more empowering to this Malaysian man.
HEARTS BEAT LOUD dir. Brett Haley
On the surface the premise of Hearts Beat Loud reads like the worst stereotype of the kind of inconsequential and twee indie comedies that gets fawned over in the safety of the film festival but is then savaged once it enters the real world. Frank (Nick Offerman) is a drifting bohemian who is faced with closing his Brooklyn record store due to the usual forces of gentrification while also preparing himself to say goodbye to Sam (Kiersey Clemons), his high-school senior daughter, before she leaves for college. His solution: start a band with his daughter, which will hopefully make it big and keep her from pursuing her West Coast medical career. Several things keep this movie from drowning in indie saccharine superficiality however. The central duo expertly walk the line between being hopelessly like-able while also being rooted; Frank is a man-child who finds the chance to pursue his life-long dream of being a musician irresistible, even as he knows deep down that it’s time to grow up; Sam meanwhile finds herself having to play the adult in the relationship while trying not to fall for the infectious joy Frank has for their little project. And for a movie that has musical expertise at its centre, it fortunately passes the bar by having some infectiously good music, making it easy to root for these two to succeed even as we all know the harsh realities of the music industry probably mean that conventional success is on the cards for them. But this is not a movie about “making it big” – it is a movie of two individuals who love each other coming to grips with the end of a chapter in their lives. Above all, this movie is nice, another addition to the increasingly growing recent canon of movies who believe that kindness and goodness are virtues worth celebrating, even if the narrative isn’t anything remotely compelling enough to leave an imprint after the credits have rolled.
MANDY dir. Panos Cosmatos
At this point in his career Nicolas Cage has played so many insanely overacted characters while giving a 110% to his performance that it has surpassed self-parody. In every movie he has played, no matter the quality of said movie, he is almost always the most over-the-top thing about the movie. In Mandy we are given the delightful treat of having Cage be directed by Panos Cosmatos, a man who seemingly is intent on out-crazying Cage, and the death-match between the two to come out on top has obviously produced the most insane movie I have seen, not just in this year but possibly ever. Cage plays Red, a rugged outsider who lives in the middle of the forest in the Pacific Northwest with his partner Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, who is absolutely phenomenal here). They live isolated and undisturbed lives until a hippie death cult stumbles upon them, breaks into their home, captures, and sadistically tortures them. This sets the stage for Cage to go full Cage on everybody, which thanks to Cosmatos’ stylistic direction becoming a hauntingly and disturbingly beautiful exercise of violence and gore far elevated above any previous Cage vehicle before. The movie from beginning to end is a psychotronic roller-coaster, and like any roller-coaster enjoying the experience requires you climbing onto the cuckoo-crazy ride and simply going with its flow (and seriously if you cannot find any joy in Nicolas Cage engage in a chainsaw-on-chainsaw duel, do you even like movies?). If you do go along for the ride it will be easy to understand why this is a movie that deservedly earns its reputation as an “instant cult-classic”, and I for one hope that this marriage between the two certifiably insane artists produces more work in the future.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU dir. Boots Riley
For most of the runtime of Sorry To Bother You the movie does what every great satire is supposed to do: manage to offend just about everybody in the room by pointing out the absurd truths we believe and live into. This is a movie in which the top watched program is a reality TV show called “I Got the Sh*t Kicked Out of Me”. It is a world in which almost everyone embraces a new business called WorryFree which promises convenience and happiness at the click of a button (never mind its questionable business ventures and practices). It is a world where people live in their uncle’s garages, work multiple jobs to not fall behind, and find their ambitions not matching up with any opportunities that can be ethically procured. Into this world steps Cassius “Cash” Green (LaKeith Stanfield) a black man in a dead-end telemarketer job who finds unexpected success when he is advised to adopt a “white voice” when selling his company’s worthless encyclopedia books. As Cash quickly moves up the ranks he is invited to get his hands dirtied in more and more ethically dubious ground, with each level providing a level of pitch-perfect satire that is meant to make all of us who find some comfort with our current society squirm a little. Boots Riley fills his movie with so much social commentary that multiple viewings are required to catch them all, and thankfully for us there is enough visual inventiveness and layers of meaning to keep you coming back. I do wonder if the final act is a jumping-the-shark moment as the movie careens (intentionally?) out of control in stark contrast to the pin-point accuracy of Riley’s jabs up to that finale, but there is no doubt that at the very least Riley fully commits to an insane ending where many directors would have played it safe and that is admirable. If anything the movie’s ending means that whatever Riley decides to do next is going to be appointment viewing.
TEEN TITANS GO! TO THE MOVIES! dirs. Aaron Horvath & Peter Rida Michail
I don’t know what to call the generation after Millennials, but if Teen Titans Go! To the Movies! is indicative of what it wants in a superhero movie then I might be welcoming the changing of the guard with open arms. A feature-length adaptation of the TV show, this iteration of the team boasts the kind of irreverent, continuity-be-damned infectious goofiness that would make fanboys my age burst a vein over, but is all the better for it. Eschewing the tiring dark and brooding tones that seem to be shoved down our throats in most superhero movies (thanks mostly to Teen Titans Go!’s parent company Warner Bros.), this movie wears its cheery and goofy charms squarely on its sleeves while anarchically biting the hand that feeds it. The plot is simple: Robin, the leader of the Teen Titans, gets sick and tired or his team being seen as the jokes of the superhero world and wants to get a blockbuster movie of his own to improve his superhero street-cred. Naturally this leads him, and his team, into several sticky situations that will require them to save the day eventually. But before that happens, there is a whole lot of potty humour, infectious theme song music, and blockbuster culture lampooning to get through, and makes the 90 minutes or so runtime breeze by. While one’s tolerance for a good fart joke may differ based on your age, Teen Titans Go! is much smarter than its target demographic might imply. Nowadays I usually end up walking out of a superhero movie in some state of exhaustion as increasingly larger stakes get tacked onto a gargantuan level of continuity; by contrast Teen Titans Go! left me feeling like I just had cotton candy injected into my veins. While I’m not sure I would like too many superhero movies like this one, it is the perfect antidote for the current state of the un-fun self-seriousness that seems to permeate the superhero movie industry and, more importantly, its fandoms.