Sanctuaries of Trust and Caring

What McDonagh believes in is storytelling. Storytelling, like Catholicism, can be plunked down anywhere, and through sheer force it will conquer. So it doesn’t matter to McDonagh if he finds himself in Belgium, Joshua Tree National Park, or Missouri: he will tell his story with forceful dialogue and dramatic violence and he will get his point across: Repent, sinners!

Oscars 2018

Still from Phantom Thread, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017.

Darkest Hour

This masterpiece of cinema bombast introduces Winston Churchill like he’s in a Murnau film. Waking up in bed, he strikes a match to light his first cigar of the day, his face revealed by the flame.

Gary Oldman’s performance comes from the Emil Jannings school of German Expressionist acting, heavy on the makeup, with a fat suit to get this thin, stylish actor up to Churchill’s disheveled bulk. Oldman’s grumbling and mumbling, which explodes in heavy speeches (“the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime,” and so on), could come from Fritz Lang’s M. Kristin Scott Thomas, as Churchill’s wife, is made up to resemble Marlene Dietrich, the Dietrich of the 1950s who retained and refined her Weimar-Hollywood look until the end.

It’s unclear whether Joe Wright, the film’s director, is trying to fight fire with fire in Darkest Hour by using a filmic style associated with the rise of Hitler to tell the story of an outmatched England preparing to fight the Nazis. As a product of Brexit Britain, the film must be seen as anti-Europe in the contemporary sense even as it declares itself anti-fascist. When Oldman’s Churchill lumbers into a tube station to speak with the common man, we descend with him into the realm of Capra-esque populism, where the will of the people is mined so it can be turned into speeches and wars.


Dunkirk arrived on movie screens five months before Darkest Hour. We see Churchill deliver his speech in the second film, after having watched Britons hear it in Dunkirk, a reverse echo as we move backwards in time.

Christopher Nolan’s event-movie drowns out Churchill’s speech, replacing it with action, total destruction, a sea on fire. If Darkest Hour was bombastic it still rambled with Churchill in his drunkenness, lurching from crisis to crisis, cutting through a mob of upper-class twits and senile fraidy-cats not unlike the right-wing weirdos who run Britain today. Dunkirk wants to be post-politics, its common men out of the tube and flooding across the Channel in boats.

The action, however, was not memorable to me. It was too seamless. I lost interest in the perfection of the film’s technical achievement, which I never doubted for a minute would be anything but complete and astonishing. I longed for just one moment where something wasn’t perfect, to remind me that humans had made this study of improvised naval success. Mostly I remember the image of Spitfire pilot Tom Hardy’s face in a CPAP mask left over from whichever of Nolan’s Batman movies he was in. When soldier Harry Styles survived it all, it was as though “the enemy” had been vanquished so that the real Styles could leave the set, fly to Los Angeles, hop in a car, and drive between palm trees singing the song from Titanic on “Carpool Karaoke.”


Dee Rees’s Mudbound completes this trilogy of 2017 World War II movies, focusing on the damaging effects of war’s aftermath when soldiers return home. Since home is the Mississippi of the Jim Crow South, it is not the generic Everytown, USA, that greets the servicemen in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Life in rural Marietta, Mississippi, we learn, is worse than the war in Europe, which was at least honorable, and only slightly gorier.

The web of family and class relations in rural Marietta are so racist and stifling that they can only break down into lynching, patricide, and cheap burials. Mudbound would make a good double-feature with 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge as a liberal version of the same story. It equals and undercuts Mel Gibson’s conservative vision in its portrayal of Southern religion, persecution, and masculinity. Significantly, Mudbound is the first American war movie directed by a black woman and only the third directed in the US by a woman not named Kathryn Bigelow.

Since Netflix produced Mudbound, many viewers will watch it on laptops, which is unfortunate because Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is so carefully burnished. Or maybe that’s not such a bad thing, since Mudbound really brings out what life without indoor plumbing was like. When the townspeople inevitably don their Ku Klux Klan hoods the film kicks into high melodrama, but so many terrible things had already happened by then that I, like a farm implement, was already worn down. Mudbound has the most forlorn semi-happy ending I can recall in any war movie. The protagonist (Jason Mitchell), a sharecropper’s son who fought as a tank commander in a segregated Army unit, survives a lynching, then returns to Germany, where a better home awaits him amid the rubble left behind by Allied air attacks.

The Post

When National Public Radio warns you about one of their upcoming pledge drives, they play a spot asking “if you believe democracy requires a free press.” Probably everyone listening believes that, but you never know. Steven Spielberg’s The Post is the perfect movie for those listeners, and for potential viewers who haven’t heard that newspapers, like NPR, need money to run.

The real story in this movie is how Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) got the Pentagon Papers to Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) so The Post could publish them along with The New York Times and help bring the Vietnam War to an end. Spielberg for some reason decided that part of the movie lacked drama, and made it a subplot. The Post concentrates instead on bosses. We are asked to worry about the conscience of Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and the finances of publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) as her newspaper launches an IPO while she fiddles with her glasses.

Around all that is good documentary-style footage of linotype machines in operation, terrible documentary-style footage of anti-war protests that the audience laughs at, and telephoto shots of Nixon on the phone with his back to the camera, seen through the windows of the White House, Those looked cheap on purpose I guess, and reminded me of something from The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977). Democracy dies in darkness, sure, but if Spielberg really wanted to make a movie about the fate of journalism in America, he should have made one about the founding of USA Today in 1982.

All the Money in the World

Mark Wahlberg speaks Arabic in this movie. Other than that, he does nothing but pussyfoot around in 1970s suits that look like they were tailored for an actor who doesn’t even lift. Though Wahlberg is supposed to be a billionaire’s fix-it man helping Michelle Williams get her kidnapped son back, Williams struggles by herself as Wahlberg looks on. In addition to being ignored by her son’s grandfather, J. Paul Getty, (Christopher Plummer), who’s too busy skeet shooting or clutching a painting like he’s about to utter “Rosebud,” and by her ex-husband, JPG Jr., (Andrew Buchan), a drug fiend who hangs out in Morocco with the Rolling Stones, she’s also abandoned by a director (Ridley Scott) who works too fast to care.

But, I think, not fast enough. It took Scott only nine days to reshoot the scenes in which Christopher Plummer replaced the tainted Kevin Spacey as the elder Getty, which makes me think Scott could have shot the whole film in a month. Since the film’s virtues are its shoddy, knock-off quality and its ‘70s phoniness, shooting faster might have brought that out even more. In the future, I urge Scott to work as fast as he can—to make speed the defining characteristic of his late style more than it already is.

Molly’s Game

Aaron Sorkin tries too hard. He’s the opposite of Ridley Scott. Buried within Molly’s Game is what may be the best Hollywood movie on poker, better than Rounders (1998), but Sorkin overstuffed it with back story. Molly Bloom’s (Jessica Chastain’s) pre-poker career as an Olympic skier, her overachieving family, the lengthy trial after her arrest, her problems with the IRS—none of that was interesting. Nor is Sorkin’s exhaustive look at a blade of grass on a ski slope, something he sees as the film’s key image. I came to this movie to play cards, not to learn how to ski. The poker games Bloom runs in Los Angeles and New York, however, those are interesting. Attended by a hellish gallery of wealthy dilettantes, gambling addicts, finance guys, and mobsters, the games are psychodramas Bloom presides over in tight, low-cut outfits. A cool observer of obsessive male behavior in this high-stakes, rules-bound microcosm, Chastain looks on with louche disdain while she indulges the players’ addictions and confusions and takes large amounts of cash off them. Away from the poker table, Kevin Costner, as Molly’s father, sinks the film by park-bench psychologizing Molly’s daddy issues, a scene Sorkin should have kept to himself.

I, Tonya

The ice skating in I, Tonya left me wanting more winter sports, not less. The CGI-enhanced explanations of the historic triple axel Tonya Harding executed in 1991 confused me, maybe because I was preoccupied with the way they got Margot Robbie’s head on the body of the skater performing it. Whatever digital photo chamber they had to put Robbie in to get that effect, it worked. People used to watch movies and think that could be my face up there on the screen. Now it really could be.

This anti-triumph sports movie puts a morally-compromised athlete through the ringer, like Scorsese did in Raging Bull, going so far as to take advantage of Harding’s brief post-skating career as a pro boxer to pound her some more. The film is trashy in a way movies are not usually allowed to be these days, the excuse being that its trashiness is a side effect of the story itself. The main cast is either too boring to pay attention to (the husband) or too beautiful for the part (Robbie really has to Lon Chaney it like Oldman did in Darkest Hour). The fat bodyguard is tiresome in his grotesquerie, but Allison Janney goes beyond simple ludicrousness. Her performance, equipped with shoulder parrot and emphysema hose, exhales malice in an anti-Lady Bird evocation of working-class motherhood.

The Disaster Artist

One can no longer argue about the success of Tommy Wiseau’s ridiculous movie, The Room. Unlike, for instance, all of Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s movies, to which it has been compared, The Room was a rich man’s vanity project. Wiseau made it to get famous, and he has succeeded only slightly below the level of his wildest dreams. So it is fitting that now the Crown Prince of Vanity Projects, James Franco, has made a making-of movie about Wiseau and his anti-masterpiece.

Like everything James Franco directs, The Disaster Artist is a work of appropriation art. The post-credits sequence, in which scenes from The Room are displayed side-by-side with scenes from this movie, admits as much. By now, Franco has done his Richard Prince act on Kenneth Anger, William Faulkner, the movie Cruising, John Steinbeck, River Phoenix, and Cormac McCarthy. Franco does show range in his tastes within the circumscribed genre of the classic masculine outré, but his films are where appropriation art has gone to die.

Call Me by Your Name

Early scenes in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) show the adult children of the rich at play in a high-rise nature park referred to as “the Eternal Gardens.” The gardens sit next to a pre-Riefenstahlian Olympic Stadium called “the Club of the Sons,” a monumental fitness center. In the gardens, scions and scionesses scamper about in futuristic deco haute couture inspired by pre-Revolutionary French fashion, while pursuing hook-ups and vague artistic endeavors. Social reality does not generally intrude on them. If such people were around today and got together to make a film, it would be Call Me by Your Name, and the garden where it takes place would be called “the Ageless Ambiguities.”

Call Me by Your Name’s strength is that it really does seem like the character played by Timothée Chalamet made the film himself. Who else but an actual actor-director would end his film by staring tearfully into a fireplace in winter because he’s realized he will always be separate from other human beings, even though he spent last summer having sex in Lombardy with two kind and very attractive people (Armie Hammer and Esther Garrel)? The first Sufjan Stevens song that interrupts the movie so we can concentrate on nature for a few minutes also indicates the hand of Chalamet’s Elio at work, as he remembers how beautiful it was and how nothing hurt, before he found out on that last trip that Hammer’s Oliver was going to start dancing in public to “Love My Way” again.

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is populated by actors who, like Gerwig herself, can do no wrong. That enhances the film’s goody-goody quality, which falls over the movie like a warm blanket. This goodness and warmth emanate from Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) herself, who we know from the beginning is going to be OK even after she throws herself from a moving car during an argument with her mother (Laurie Metcalf). After that great scene, the movie settles into itself and becomes pleasant and forgiving, allowing Lady Bird to get away with a series of dick moves that are necessary to help her achieve her goal of getting out of Sacramento, California, and into a college in New York, Connecticut, or New Hampshire. Her short bursts of insensitivity also help her grow as person, realize who her real friends are, and love her mom.

She and the film are nice to the nuns and priests who are her teachers but who are people too, with real lives and problems of their own. One of them (Lois Smith), sees right through Lady Bird. “You clearly love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah tells her, in a line I had trouble imagining a real person saying. I didn’t mind the amount of self-identification the film courted in its audience, even though it was probably higher than in the audience who couldn’t wait to see Liam Neeson in The Commuter. But having to hear Dave Matthews twice, as clever as that was in context, made me long for, I don’t know, Napalm Death.


A little girl (Dafne Keen) shoplifts Four Loko and Pringles from a gas station convenience store in Logan, which takes place in the year 2029. Movies have told us our future was dystopian, but it never occurred to me things would get so bad that Four Loko would still be around a decade from now. Wolverine, by 2029, has deteriorated, too. His claws don’t retract as quickly. Working as a limo driver in a black suit and tie, he’s slower to recover from his wounds. Hugh Jackman, who also has to play a younger re-cloned Wolverine double, plays the original Logan as a Humphrey Bogart character, world weary and disinclined to get involved.

James Mangold directs this superhero action movie as part western, part noir. An eerie scene of horses loose on the highway foreshadows the film’s dream-like turn to cynical, gratuitous, and crazed bloodshed. When the little girl jumps on villains’ backs and stabs them repeatedly in the head with her Wolverine claws, her frenzy reflects the Logan-like trauma of her past and predicts her violent future. The paradox of Wolverine is that he heals physically but not psychologically. He has always been the best counter to the trauma other action heroes brush off, even human ones.

In High Sierra (1941), Bogart’s aging gangster, Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, pays for an operation to fix a young woman’s club foot before he goes up a mountain for his showdown with death. Here, Wolverine has to care for Laura, the girl, and save a busload of other children, future mutant heroes, before he confronts the same fate as Bogart. The movie is tough and unyielding before overexposure to these kids sets it. The warning in Logan’s trailer should have mentioned that it’s not mayhem you have to worry about. Saccharin will get you in the end.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Stuck in the 1970s, in a jacket and trousers tailored by Laurel and Hardy, Roman Israel (Denzel Washington), a lawyer newly out of work, doesn’t fit in anywhere. It doesn’t matter if the firms he goes to are sharky or woke. Young black lawyers scoff at his afro and dated phraseology (one scoffer is Esperanza Spalding), and middle-aged white lawyers (primarily Colin Farrell) abuse and pity him even after they’ve realized they can exploit his knowledge and experience. At night, he walks home (in LA!) carrying his heavy briefcase to an apartment building situated among new condo construction, like Jacques Tati’s apartment in Mon Oncle. There, surrounded by framed photos of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin, he makes his lonely dinner (peanut butter sandwiches) while listening to Gil Scott-Heron and Pharaoh Sanders LPs on his hi-fi.

The Los Angeles of this film is murky, even the ocean water looks muddy, but writer-director Dan Gilroy makes it crystal clear that Roman is a man out of time. Hitting that characterization hard is the film’s main strategy. Washington, with his usual excellence, succeeds in making Roman intriguing and admirable rather than pathetic. He plays him as a scholar or monk with a variety of subtle sub-Žižekian tics. When Roman gives up his quest for social justice and sells out, he buys new clothes, goes on a date, and spends a weekend in Santa Monica, a series of normal indulgences he is immediately punished for. The film, at that point, goes from potential comedy to gangster movie, and Roman suffers the same fate as Logan and Bogart. It’s an unhappy ending, the wrong unhappy ending for this film. Earlier the scene of Goodfellas-esque paranoia scored to the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today,” a song that is longer than I remembered, signaled that things were not working out in this movie.

The Boss Baby

I’m not interested in animated feature films even though I fully understand that Miyazaki is a great artist and I have been told more than once that it is in things like WALL-E and Toy Story 3 that we will locate the zeitgeist. As a child of the terrifying Watership Down era, I am surprised anew each time a Lego Batman Movie or a Coco captures the imagination of anyone I know over 12. Once, a while ago, I was walking to a two-screen movie theater down the street from me to see a French movie called Strayed. As I got closer I noticed an unexpectedly long line of adult couples waiting to buy tickets. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “there sure are a lot of André Téchiné fans in this neighborhood.” When I got to the theater I saw that Finding Nemo was playing on the other screen.

Last summer I was on an airplane to California that only had two movies showing. I watched the first one, Paris Can Wait, which starred Diane Lane as an American held captive in a car by a Frenchman, who drives her around against her will to show her architecture and make her eat snails. Lulled by the Provençal scenery, I decided to watch the second movie, which was The Boss Baby. Alec Baldwin played Lane’s mostly absent husband in the first film, and now here he was again as the voice of the title cartoon baby. The animation in this movie was kind of 1960s-style, which seemed low-budget and delightful compared to the oppressive anthropomorphism of the animation I have witnessed in trailers for things like Zootopia. The principals here were human beings rather than talking yaks and sloths. So I watched it.

The plot began with the surprising revelation that babies are produced in factories and are, at heart, tiny fascistic CEOs concerned only with maximizing profit, which is the love they receive. They work to control every moment of everybody’s lives by commandeering their attention so they ignore everything else. Everyone in the family works for the executive baby as his employee. That seemed right to me. And it’s exactly the same way animated movies work in our culture today.

Combined with the film’s witty conflation of labor as both giving birth and working for a corporation, The Boss Baby began with a lot of promise, like most babies. As usual, though, time passed and the baby got annoying. Baldwin’s obnoxious CEO voicings, a gloss on his Glengarry Glen Ross and 30 Rock performances, got tiresome as the movie became more frenetic. Chase scenes involved Elvis impersonators, which have not only been done to death but also depend on a real person doing them. The joke is the talent gap between the impersonator’s ability to play Elvis and the glory that was Elvis himself, and I wasn’t interested in contemplating a cartoon of a cartoon of a cartoon. I made it all the way through The Boss Baby, however, newly strong in my conviction that I don’t need to see another animated feature for a long, long time. It was like getting a measles vaccination.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

If people are comparing your hit movie to Crash (not the Cronenberg one), you have a problem. If half the people who see your movie find it racist, you might want to address that in print somewhere, maybe in a publication with a little more heft than Entertainment Weekly or Deadline: Hollywood. If giving interviews to places like that also serves as awards-season self-promotion, you’re starting to make the situation worse. Martin McDonagh is an eminent playwright as well as a screenwriter and film director. He probably could have found a place to write about his movie if he had wanted to.

For now, we only have what’s on the screen. McDonagh’s subjects are violence, sin, and redemption. The overlooked priest scene in Three Billboards is a key to the film. When Mildred (Frances McDormand) is insulting the priest (Nick Searcy) for being a useless part of a corrupt organization, she is expressing the film’s theme: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

What McDonagh believes in is storytelling. Storytelling, like Catholicism, can be plunked down anywhere, and through sheer force it will conquer. So it doesn’t matter to McDonagh if he finds himself in Belgium, Joshua Tree National Park, or Missouri: he will tell his story with forceful dialogue and dramatic violence and he will get his point across: Repent, sinners!

At the end of Three Billboards, Mildred and Dixon (Sam Rockwell) find themselves in the coy limbo of possible redemption, the same place McDonagh has resided since he’s been called to account. If he had not let the sin of pride interfere and had, for instance, cut the pious, God-like speech Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) delivers to the racist Dixon in voiceover from beyond the grave, he would not have come off as so manipulative and clueless. As Saint Darryl F. Zanuck, who is depicted holding a red pencil, wrote in a memo, a little humility goes a long way.

The Shape of Water

One thing Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water has not been accused of is racism. This reimagining of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) as a cold war love story goes out of its way to be inclusive. In addition to the species-fluid fishman (Doug Jones), it features a mute lead character (Sally Hawkins) who can’t talk because she is the victim of abuse, a gay character who loves movie musicals (Richard Jenkins), a black cleaning lady (Octavia Spencer) sick of her husband, a dissident Soviet scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg), and the entire civil rights movement, which is asked to leave a lunch counter. The white men in the film represent The Man in no uncertain terms. Michael Shannon is an abusive torturer who has bad sex with his wife and loves his big Cadillac more than her. The assorted military men and spies around him, both Americans and Russians, concern themselves only with winning and killing.

Despite all the positive representation of marginalized people and the explicit condemnation of men who work for the government, the film takes a gleeful delight in torture and pain. Often morose, it livens up when Shannon is tasering the fishman or engaged in bloodletting and beatings. It is a kind of horror movie, it’s true, but those scenes overpower the film’s invocation of desperate forbidden love. When Shannon tortures Stuhlbarg, del Toro revels in the pain the film’s villain inflicts on a weak, dying man. In this world of pain, escape into fantasy is the only recourse. The film ends by illustrating the reason W. C. Fields gave for not drinking water: fish fuck in it.

The Big Sick

What differentiates this lightweight rom-com from others is that in this one the girlfriend is in a coma and it’s based on a true story. Screenwriter and star Kumail Nanjiani did sit with his real-life future spouse, Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the screenplay and is here played by Zoe Kazan, while she was unconscious in the hospital. I was surprised there were not more scenes of Nanjiani at Emily’s bedside delivering comedy monologues to her unconscious form, which would have been the ultimate in post-When Harry Met Sally romance. But it takes the daring of an Albert Brooks for that, it’s not something producer Judd Apatow would condone. In the same way, the Smiths song was kept as far away from The Big Sick as possible.

Phantom Thread

Back in the 1990s, I predicted—maybe it was after I saw Happiness—that sound design would soon get so extreme there would be a movie in which we heard not just the sound of salt leaving a salt shaker, but also the sound of it hitting the food. With Phantom Thread, that day has come. From the shaving scene at the beginning with its scrape across the cheekbones of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), it was clear this was going to be a film in which sound was prominent. We learn that Reynolds is alert to noises and easily distracted by them. The movie is full of typically memorable Paul Thomas Anderson dialogue that demonstrates how easily disturbed Woodcock is. Toast buttered too loudly at breakfast, for instance, is “like you rode a horse across the room.”

Since I have a touch of Roderick Usher in me, I am sympathetic to Woodcock’s bristling. As sound design has become more intrusive in movies, my relationship with it has deteriorated. While in real life I do not notice audible eating and drinking, in the movies every moment of intimate conversation over a drink has become a symphony of slurp I can’t ignore. People attracted to working in sound design no doubt have sensitive ears. But directors have got to dial this down. Either that or ban breakfast cereal from their movies. In Logan, the noise of Dafne Keen eating corn flakes sounded like a recording of John Goodman on a gravel road in work boots. I think she ate one of her teeth. The literalism of this kind of sound design, in which every action depicted on screen must have an accompanying sound, even if you would never notice that sound in real life, is as distracting as an unasked for pot of tea shuffled into the room when you are working.

In Phantom Thread, Anderson makes the film about that. Woodcock must get over his neurotic sensitivities so he can get on with life and enjoy being fed poison mushrooms by the woman he loves. Sounds become a joke played on this demanding soft-spoken man who is overly conscious of his talent. Romance in Phantom Thread swings between gothic horror and comedy. In the end it is hard to figure out what exactly has saved the House of Woodcock from the fate of the House of Usher. Whatever it is, Anderson’s sense of the macabre humor won’t allow Alma (Vicky Krieps) to kill Reynolds. It’s weirder to watch him squirm.

The Square

Lately the acting in TV commercials has gotten really good. The other night I saw an ad for some company that helps people get rid of timeshares they don’t want anymore and I thought, man, that was great, really affecting. That could have been an episode of Togetherness on HBO, if that was still on. Car commercials are particularly satisfying these days. Thirty-second-long one-acts with movie-level production design and cinematography, each one is a humanist masterpiece featuring quality acting that fits right in with streaming drama. In one, a wedding party gets caught in the rain and they can’t walk to the outdoor altar so they have to jump in their mini-SUV to get there. You really get a feel for the relationships between these four people in that thirty seconds. Car manufacturers know our little victories are hard won. Automakers just get us. In other ads, the family drama of auto insurance plays out just as insightfully.

Film criticism has become really humanist, too. The moral arguments against movies including Good Time and The Square from some of our most prominent movie reviewers really touched me last year. I didn’t agree with them at all, but I was moved by the way these critics shooed away potential viewers from such unpleasant fare. I could feel their internal debate as they worried over the existence of such ethically compromised, mean-spirited films. Our top critics, in recent years, have pioneered a new form of panning movies, a soft pan in which they gently wring their hands and conclude that it’s just too bad certain things exist in this world. Some of these critics mentioned how a film’s formal qualities, its careful framing, the coldness of its photography or its acting, revealed a lack of soul. Movies like that do not offer solutions to our present predicament. They just excoriate the bourgeoisie for no reason. After dismissing such films, these critics then turn back to the business of writing weekly round-ups of the 1001 Things Streaming on Netflix This Week You Have to See Before You Die.

Ruben Östlund’s The Square is harsh, sarcastic, unsparing, threatening, unfair, and messed up. While it is formally rather controlled, it is also a cauldron of bad feelings and bad faith. It illustrates, with great patience and wit, something I once read that the artist Kurt Schwitters wrote: “Banality is bourgeois style.” The quotation fits this movie that takes place in a museum of contemporary art. Östlund depicts audience reactions of various kinds, in a shock-series of unforgettable scenes that rankled some critics. These scenes replicate the conditions under which art is viewed in the West, and the way artists are interviewed and feted, and appear in the movie in contrast to the way successful administrators in this administered world curate the poverty and crime they experience outside their galleries.

The square in the film is an outdoor art installation that is described, repeatedly, as “a sanctuary of trust and caring.” At the end of the movie, a group of young Swedish cheerleaders performs their routine at a cheerleading competition in a white square against a black background. The squares in the movie double the movie screen. Östlund’s was the only movie I saw this year that gave the lie to all the safe spaces most movies design to lure audiences and get them to shout “Go team!” These spaces within fictional spaces, car interiors in car commercials, get safer and safer. Critics guide readers to the safe ones, steering them away from danger.

Author’s Note: I wrote about Get Out and The Florida Project here and here.

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