Like someone madly stripping a Christmas tree of ornaments just when he ought to be stringing them up, I have dumped half a dozen brightly colored year-end movies into the staved-in box of this column. Retrieve what you like, during these darkest weeks of a very dark year. Despair at our national condition, or disgust at cinema’s marketers and puff-writers, might tempt you to think of these films as mere baubles; but pick through the heap anyway, for the sake of whatever reflected light they offer. The glow might remind you that however much we need resilience and the will to resist, we have an even greater need, always, to choose what to love.
Which is why, despite everything he’s fudged, I could kiss Damien Chazelle for the first pretty thing in this box, La La Land. Chazelle doesn’t feel it’s enough to cast Emma Stone as an aspiring actress who works at the coffee bar on the Warner Bros. lot, and Ryan Gosling as a piano player and aspiring nightclub owner who works where he can: two beautiful people who meet cute on a jammed freeway—an impatient honk, a raised middle finger—and then, after the requisite friction, fall for each other. No, Chazelle isn’t content until his characters elevate their squabbling and flirting into song and dance, performed along a scenic overlook of Los Angeles at twilight. He isn’t happy until Gosling, outraged at Stone’s ignorance of jazz, drags her to a bar for her immediate edification, and presumably the audience’s as well.
Chazelle’s wonderful idea in La La Land is to make a couple’s infatuation with each other overflow into his own love for movie musicals and mid-20th-century jazz. I love them, too. But as La La Land suggests, with its story of dreams achieved and bliss abandoned, love can’t last unless it’s stronger than ambition. My heart goes out to Chazelle because of his desires; it sinks at how he’s compromised them.
If you’re going to have Ryan Gosling rhapsodize about the excitement of jazz, you ought to play the audience the real stuff. I find evidence in La La Land that Chazelle has heard some of it. (There was also evidence in his previous film, Whiplash, despite its premise that jazz education is a matter of learning to play old Maynard Ferguson charts as fast as possible.) But even though Chazelle presumably knows better, he hedges commercially in La La Land, filling the sound track with jazz-by-the-yard from composer Justin Hurwitz. When I got home, I found that I couldn’t blast away the blandness with anything too restrained, like Art Farmer and Benny Golson. I had to resort to Mingus.
As for Chazelle’s choice of stars: I adore Stone and Gosling separately and also when they’re cast together, even in crap like Gangster Squad. But the great RKO and MGM movies triumphed not because Fred Astaire was adorable, but because he was musical in himself. Stone and Gosling are not. They’re physically poised. They’re pleasant in musical performance. But they get a little boring with their reedy voices and rudimentary shuffle-heel-step. La La Land has charming moments—many of them—and makes especially charming use of Los Angeles as a location. But even though I kept pulling for it to get off the ground, I felt it rose into the sky only once—and that was with the aid of CGI.
So my biggest loves of the season began with a different LA story, which the vagaries of the box office have made into a film maudit: Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty’s comic fantasy about two young people in love with one another and in thrall to the aging Howard Hughes. God knows why ticket-buyers have stayed away. Maybe the core audience no longer remembers Hughes; perhaps they’ve even forgotten Beatty, whose previous picture, Bulworth, was released 18 years ago. But think how the two men’s lives have touched: The films that Hughes produced came out from 1926 to 1957, when Beatty began his acting career. If you love American cinema, you realize that Rules Don’t Apply doesn’t just use Hollywood as a setting but embodies 90 years of its history.
It’s a very cranky, funny, and sardonic embodiment at that, which seemed timely to me after the election, since it concerns an old, petulant, erratic anticommunist billionaire much given to financial shenanigans and pussy-grabbing. There are distinctions to be made, of course: Unlike Trump, the film’s Hughes has some real swagger and can also be touching in his vain, vacillating self-absorption. (Beatty plays him with many of the same screw-loose mannerisms he used as the crazy senator in Bulworth.) The catch is that the big man makes all the other characters self-absorbed, too, as they compete for his wavering attention.
As Marla, one of Hughes’s many starlets under contract, Lily Collins wants a role from him. As Frank, one of the staff chauffeurs hired to drive starlets around, Alden Ehrenreich wants financing for a real-estate deal. Hughes wants a great many things and blabs about them all, without necessarily recognizing that the figures summoned to listen and deliver are autonomous human beings. As a result, everyone in this movie talks goofily at cross-purposes, except when Marla and Frank snatch a little time together at the house she’s been given near the Hollywood Bowl, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic apparently plays Mahler’s Fifth on a nightly basis. Such melodious longing, in an era when nice Baptists and Methodists strived to restrain themselves from going all the way; such sweet melancholy, since Hughes expressly forbids any social contact between Marla and Frank.
Rules Don’t Apply might be called a musical, too, and a better one than La La Land, not only because of the Mahler, but also because the entire film hinges on a song: a good one, written by Lorraine Feather and Eddie Arkin, which the delightfully game Collins sings twice—once to Frank and once to Hughes, with wildly different affects. It’s movie heaven to watch her swing from shy to brazen, while parts of two different sets successively crash and break around her. For the moment, amid the debris, she believes she’s one of the world’s exceptional people. What she eventually learns, with love, is that you needn’t be a movie star or a swashbuckling industrialist to live outside the rules. You just have to become one of the few who don’t want anything from Howard Hughes.
* * *
Jim Jarmusch’s deceptively simple Paterson begins with the sense of contentment that Rules Don’t Apply achieves only after much busyness and farce, and then it magically sustains this mood through nearly two hours of droll, quotidian soulfulness. Nothing world-shaking happens in the film, but every second of its characters’ routines feels rich with meaning, from the moment each day when Paterson (Adam Driver) wakes up in bed with Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), checks his wristwatch, and walks down to the depot to drive a New Jersey Transit bus.
“Poetry does not tamper with the world but moves it,” William Carlos Williams wrote in Spring and All. The thoughtful young bus driver named Paterson, long of body and face, moves an assortment of people through Paterson, New Jersey—the city of Williams—while mentally composing the next lines of whatever poem he’s working on. Reflections of the city’s plain-faced downtown move across the surface of the windshield, thanks to one of the film’s many miracles of cinematography by Frederick Elmes. The words of each poem move across the screen as Paterson thinks of them. (Jarmusch commissioned the poems from Ron Padgett, who has addressed their humble subjects—a box of matches, for example—with just the right level of skill for a character who is well-read and talented but has no ambition to publish.) When Paterson gets back to his tiny house, where Laura has spent her day painting things in black-and-white patterns and dreaming up dinner recipes, some of them edible, she asks if his new piece is a love poem. It’s for you, he tells her, so yes.
Theme and variations, Monday through Friday, with the weekend off to go to the farmers’ market and the movies. What is there to love in all this down-at-the-heels normality? Crisp sunlight on red brick, the swerve of a big chassis driving around tight corners, the mysterious tilt of a mailbox skewed on its pole, the casual talk of people who almost never have more than a hundred in cash, and a beautiful recitation by Driver of Williams’s plum poem, “This Is Just to Say.” This is the world in Jarmusch’s Paterson. It moves you.
The Pittsburgh of Denzel Washington’s new acting and directing vehicle, Fences, is as rough-textured and modest as Jarmusch’s cityscape but never shines from within. Its main conveyances are garbage trucks, not buses, and smoke is always rising in the background when the camera looks up the street, because the period is the late 1950s and America’s Northeast is not yet post-industrial. The city’s literary pedigree is just as distinguished as Paterson’s, though. August Wilson himself wrote the screenplay for Fences, based on the third of the 10 plays in his mammoth “Century Cycle,” and Tony Kushner gave an uncredited assist after the author’s death. This time, you can prepare for an outpouring worthy of Mingus.
Reprising the roles they played on Broadway, Viola Davis chuckles, scolds, and fumes her way through the film as Rose, a much-put-upon wife and mother consigned to a life in the kitchen, and Washington rages as Troy, once a famous slugger in the Negro Leagues, who had the bad luck to have been born 10 years too soon to have a shot at the majors, or to wear his innate nobility and grandeur comfortably. They’re burdens now, which chafe at him and deform his relationship with his son Cory (Jovan Adepo), whom Troy relentlessly bullies—either from love, to ready him for a harsh and racist world, or to beat down any competition. As the film’s director, Washington does full justice to the shifting emotional balances among the characters (though his eye for screen compositions sometimes leaves the performers rattling around in the frame, when he hasn’t nailed them down in close-ups). As the lead actor, he takes on a giant’s role and is almost too big for it. Here is a new definition of “frighteningly good.”
Pablo Larraín’s Jackie is also built for a big central performance and gets one from Natalie Portman, who is (according to published sources) four inches shorter than the late Jacqueline Kennedy but rises to a stature that I confess I had not previously thought to measure. The Jackie you see in the movie is newly widowed, recently turned out of the White House, and temporarily sheltered at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, where she is keenly aware of being a guest. For a wealthy and famous woman, she is remarkably vulnerable—but you wouldn’t know it from the way she treats the journalist (Billy Crudup, as a composite of William Manchester and Theodore H. White) she’s summoned so she can dictate how history will recall Jack Kennedy’s presidency and death.
As acrid as the cigarettes she continually smokes, as controlling as the cut of her clothes, Jackie doesn’t so much give an interview as issue a set of orders. As she does so, the film opens into associative, achronological flashbacks, which take her through a series of public and private personas: from the stiffly grinning hostess of her celebrated TV walk-through of the White House, through the fierce partisan for her husband battling to give him a funeral equal to Lincoln’s, to the national figurehead fulfilling the role she’s written for herself as the dignified widow and mother. Love and ambition struggle again, this time to world-shaping effect without and (in the devastating last scenes) despair within.
* * *
The question, finally, is what do you cling to—what can’t you possibly give up—and at what cost do you hold on to it? For the Jesuit missionaries in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, the answer is the love of Jesus. The ambition is a universal church; the cost, beyond their own lives, is the survival of the people who follow them. Forget about career, romance, poetry, self-worth, and even the judgment of history. These characters, agree with them or not, are playing for the highest stakes of all.
Written by Jay Cocks and Scorsese based on a novel by Shusaku Endo, Silence is a drama about the bloody repression of Christianity in 17th-century Japan, as witnessed by two Portuguese priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who risk sneaking into the country in search of their last known predecessor (Liam Neeson). It’s an elemental film full of fog, fire, and water (the astonishing cinematography is by Rodrigo Prieto), half of which comprises scenic panoramas of torture, with the other half devoted to intensely felt theological disputes. You’d think Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest had formed a union, holy or otherwise, with Spartacus.
From the elevated subject matter to the director’s august reputation, everything about Silence shouts the importance of the film. Some of the better critics will no doubt complain that Scorsese, in his late period, has yielded to the temptation to make white-elephant art. Maybe so; but I hope moviegoers will remember that elephants are highly intelligent, great-hearted creatures, and the albinos among them are marvels. As much as I struggled with Silence, it held me rapt throughout. Considering that Christianity has left its mark on our society’s year-end customs, I think this film, too, qualifies as an ornament to the season.