Cuarón, Jenkins, and Chazelle

I don’t like to review movies in terms of their Oscars potential. It’s less interesting than talking about the movie itself. But 2018 did bring us three directors who, after recently winning an Academy Award, returned to the screen with a passion project:

Alfonso Cuaron with Roma, after his Best Director win for Gravity.
Damien Chazelle with First Man, after his Best Director win for La La Land.
Barry Jenkins with If Beale Street Could Talk, after his shared Best Adapted Screenplay win for Moonlight (which also won Best Picture).

Oscars luck this year didn’t hold out for everyone. Cuarón dominates and Jenkins got another screenplay nom, but Chazelle’s biopic of Neil Armstrong ran out of fuel. Awards excitement makes it easy to overlook interesting work, especially when we elevate a movie’s chances of winning over conversations against its originality. These are not your typical Oscar bait movies; each is a beautiful, highly personal movie worth watching. We see the history of each man’s filmmaking in these newest movies: Roma tells a story of everyday humanity with a strong political consciousness–Y tu mamá también from the parents’ point of view. If Beale Street Could Talk echoes Moonlight’s lush visual poetry. First Man combines the anxious pulse of Chazelle’s Whiplash with the scale of La La Land.

Cuarón’s Roma is the best of the three, filmed like a memory filtered through the lenses of childhood, with the benefit of hindsight to fill in the margins. The opening shot of water rippling across a bare floor grounds us in the world of the mundane. But the movie, shot in luminous black and white, takes us in unexpected directions, moving away from the earthbound at times. Take the dreamlike scene of party revelers putting out forest fires while cheering in the New Year. As a director, cinematographer, and screenwriter, Cuarón is a student of Classic Hollywood with heavy European influences. The first half of Roma is lovely because it doesn’t push too hard to tell a narrative, just lets us into the lives of Cleo and the middle-class Mexican family she works for. As we see more of this family’s lives, the movie focuses more on the complicated, interdependent relationship between Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and her employer Sofía (a wonderful Marina de Tavira).

The movie takes a turn toward the dramatic in the second half that feels less organic. Specifically, the riots in the street where Cleo is shopping feel like an overly forceful intrusion of political commentary. And there’s a late confession from Cleo that felt more scripted than authentic to me. But it comes at the end of a stunning long shot of the beach and the ocean waves–a beautifully tense, thrilling scene where we brace for the inevitable to happen. What really lingers is the camera’s love for a recreated 1970s Mexico: the energy of the city streets, the cafes and cinemas; the openness of the mountains. The feeling that this could be any family, living its ordinary life against an extraordinary backdrop.

If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk is also a memory piece that brings us back to a partly vanished New York City, before Harlem became so gentrified. The streets are shot with an idyllic burst of sunlight, shining down on the corner bodegas, walk-up apartments, and sidewalk stoops. We’re seeing Eden before the Fall. Jenkins’s script may be too reverent to James Baldwin; it even opens on a quote extracted from Baldwin’s novel. What his adaptation adds is the specificity of time and place, set against the swell of a lusty trumpet and spiralling strings (in a warm, evocative Nicholas Britell score). His actors look directly into the camera, daring us not to emphasize with them. As heartbreaking as the injustice at the center of Beale Street is, the sheer beauty of the movie is what remains in the mind. Jenkins photographs his cast and his environment–those enchanting New York city streets–with a love that feels intoxicating.

Our leads Tish (KiKi Layne, sweet) and Fonny (a strong Stephan James) are Baldwin’s version of Romeo and Juliet. They aren’t fully defined characters (at least in the movie), but neither were Tony and Maria; they’re two innocents in star-crossed love, unprepared for the brutal racism of the world. Their family and friends are much more experienced in the ugliness that awaits them. Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s friend Daniel steals the movie with a chilling remembrance of his time in prison–how dehumanizing that experience was. Regina King, as Tish’s mother Sharon, does whatever she can to support her daughter and rescue Fonny. Her final scene is wrenching.

When Fonny is sent to prison for rape, the movie assures us he isn’t guilty of the crime he’s accused of. There isn’t room to consider his accuser’s point of view; the focus is on the injustice wrought against a young black man with the system against him, with little interest in the woman who believes he was her assaulter.

First Man
After missing it in theaters, we finally rented First Man. Damien Chazelle doesn’t play by the regular rules of an astronaut movie. Even the best of the genre–Apollo 11, Hidden Figures–are founded on the patriotism and bravery of men charting a new frontier in space. Chazelle’s movie, with a script by Josh Singer, is more interested in why Neil Armstrong went into space, and the toll it takes on his psyche and his family. Claire Foy (with a wig and Midwestern accent that’s not quite right) isn’t just the dutiful wife; she’s angry when he can’t explain to their children that he might not come home. And Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong is enigmatic and evasive: a man who reluctantly becomes an American hero.

The outer-space sequences are nerve-wracking. Chazelle approaches the anxiety levels of Cuarón’s Gravity when Gosling and crew are stuck in a perpetual spin, just outside the earth’s atmosphere. Shaky camerawork simulates how unstable everything felt for the astronauts in space; the controls look rickety, the spacecraft minuscule against its celestial surroundings.

When the men land on the surface of the moon, the effect is as unsettling as it is cool. They look through their helmets at the vast gray expanse of the lunar surface. It’s a soaring achievement undercut by the loneliness and fear of being so remote, so far away. When Armstrong returns, and we see him in quarantine, you wonder if he feels any more at home here on earth.

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