Staff Picks: Scenes, Screens, and Snubs


This Week’s Reading

Still from Mark Jenkin’s Bait.

This Sunday the Oscars, like seasonal depression or unwashed salad, returns with a grim inevitability. It also provides a good juncture to rave with righteousness about films that were overlooked. I wrote about Atlantics two weeks prior and would be happy to rattle on about its snubbing, but I have other reasons to shake my fists. Also ignored was my other favorite film that ends with a freeing glance into the camera, the wry and ruthless The Souvenir, with a scalpel-sharp script in my mother tongue, passive-aggressive British condescension. The marvelous oddity Bait charts the battle between a Cornish fisherman and the gentrifiers of his town. They buy him out of his house and drag it up with nautical kitsch and knotted ropes—“like a sex dungeon,” he fumes. Bait has the “fuck the rich” fury of Parasite but is filmed as a throwback, in grainy black-and-white film stock, with dubbed sound. The abrasive aesthetic unsettles: it drains the familiar romance of Cornwall’s coast and shows the present as if it were a prophetic nightmare from the past. Another bewildering experiment is the gorgeous Long Day’s Journey into Night, which should have got a nod for every technical award. It is a lonely man’s reverie, as expected, full of the flickers and fragments of lost love. There is weeping and gnashing of apples. There are curlicues of cigarette smoke and telling smudges of lipstick. Lovers speak vaguely in flooded rooms, as if this were a perfume ad directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Then it all converges in a single take: an hour-long dreamscape that gathers and riddles all that came before. The camera loops and plummets; fate is tempted as a horse bucks fruit into its path, and a man bets he can sink the eight ball in the pool hall. It’s no spoiler to say the spell does not break—this melancholy is intoxicating, immaculate. If only real sadness felt so good. —Chris Littlewood 

I understand the Academy doesn’t love a horror flick (in ninety-two years, all of six have been nominated for Best Picture), but that doesn’t mean I can’t be miffed that Jordan Peele’s excellent Us didn’t get any nominations. It’s probably too late in the week to start a write-in campaign for Lupita Nyong’o to win the Best Actress statuette, but she deserves it, playing the twinned characters of Adelaide and Red with precision, ferocity, and intelligence. Sure, there are some scenes that recall The Parent Trap, but in Peele’s commanding hands even this old trope is fresh, and Nyong’o has both sides of the face-off on lockdown. “Old made fresh” could be applied to almost every angle of how Peele approaches making a horror flick in 2019—the suspense and the slash, the sinister and the silly. —Emily Nemens


Still from Murray Lerner’s Festival!


I lived in Newport, Rhode Island, for four years and never attended the Newport Folk Festival, which has happened every summer since 1959. It always felt distant, with its crowds of tourists and bands that are popular on the radio. Not until a screening this past December of Murray Lerner’s documentary Festival! did I understand how the event was once distinguished by a shared feeling of intimacy. From 1963 to 1966, Lerner recorded American bohemianism as enacted by young people of all class backgrounds (the cross-sectional fashion sense of this set is the reason for the movie’s inclusion in a series of films curated by the fashion designer Anna Sui at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York). Much of Festival! is spent on the performances of now-iconic musicians (Peter, Paul and Mary; Johnny Cash; Bob Dylan; Donovan) and the moments afterward. Joan Baez talks over her shoulder to Lerner and his camera, riding in the back seat of a car, about celebrity, how antithetical to folk music it feels to be idolized. Lerner’s lens is an equalizer; the reverent eye trained on Baez is the same one that lingers on attendees sleeping under their sweaters in the early-morning dew. Whether it’s the cultural moment itself or Lerner’s perspective that defines the scenes in Festival!, neither would have been possible for me to experience during my own coastal tenure, making the documentary both art and artifact. —Lauren Kane

The Farewell was staff picked by my predecessor Noor Qasim after its 2019 release. But upon the Academy’s decision not to nominate Lulu Wang for Best Director, the praise bears repeating. Wang tells the true-to-life story of Billi’s (Awkwafina) return to Beijing to say farewell to the family matriarch, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. But here’s the kicker: everyone except Nai Nai knows the gravity of her condition. And to keep it hidden, Billi’s trip is planned around a sham wedding banquet for her cousin Hao Hao and his girlfriend of three months. Perhaps the most striking element of the film is its soundtrack, a spare classical score that places Wang in the tradition of Robert Bresson. Wang’s wide shots are as precise and intentional as the music; she is unafraid of stillness and tableau, allowing the viewer uninterrupted immersion in her painterly world. Wang’s genius aside, Awkwafina is an intelligent and beautiful actor, as is Shuzhen, and each surely deserves award consideration. It is an injustice that The Farewell has been overlooked, and a clear indicator that the Academy often fails to recognize moviemaking at its highest level. —Elinor Hitt

Time moves fitfully in the films of Angela Schanelec. Locations change abruptly, and characters’ relationships with one another remain unexplained, understood only through minimal context clues. Her plots don’t exactly follow dream logic, but they’re made to be absorbed rather than articulated. Fittingly, I cannot explain exactly what it is that I love about her films, because after one watches them, they have a habit of evaporating; their events elude memory, becoming felt instead of known. It is this feeling of being imprinted upon that keeps me watching her work, and it’s what makes me so excited for the Schanelec retrospective that Film at Lincoln Center is showing beginning today, February 7. The program honors the release of her latest film, I Was Home But … , which won the Silver Bear at last year’s Berlinale. But I can’t imagine Schanelec winning any accolades stateside—her films are the antithesis of Oscar bait. I am reminded of the abrupt, unexplained location change from Marseilles to Berlin halfway through Marseilles (2004) or the theater scene, shot from the perspective of the stage, that opens Afternoon (2007), itself based on Chekhov’s The Seagull. In one of Schanelec’s earlier movies (and a personal favorite), Passing Summer (2001), the main character spends her summer at home in Berlin after her friends depart on vacation (the film also features a charming dance sequence). And there will be more shown at this retrospective that I haven’t seen, including a series of shorts and Schanelec’s debut feature, My Sister’s Good Fortune (1995). “It doesn’t make sense to explain anything,” Schanelec told an interviewer in 2019. For me, it’s this sense of the unexplained, this refusal to make things easy, that is one of her films’ most alluring qualities. —Rhian Sasseen


Maren Eggert in I Was at Home, But … Courtesy of Cinema Guild.