Holy Motors (2012)
Holy Motors opens with motion. A man runs back and forth, as if he’s in a zoetrope, in a few crackling frames briefly looped between the opening credits. Another throws a brick at the ground, over and over. The title card fades in over an auditorium of shrouded heads, facing us as they face as the screen. A foghorn sounds.
The credits form a kind of mission statement for French filmmaker Leos Carax’s fifth and most ambitious feature. Fittingly, we spend the next two hours observing a man who is constantly in transition. Denis Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, a Chaplinesque performer inhabiting various real-world roles over the course of a single day. Cruising through Paris with his faithful driver, he stops to play a homeless beggar, a disgruntled father, and a motion capture performer in an alien sex scene. Lavant also reprises his role from Carax’s contribution to the film Tokyo!, as a street leprechaun of sorts named “Merde.” He licks armpits, defiles graves, kills, and dies. The Agency employing M. Oscar keeps a tight schedule, and appears to have panoptic access to the city and its inhabitants. The line between performance and “real life” is often blurred; when Kylie Minogue shows up for an impromptu musical number, the line is erased entirely.
All speed and gesture, Holy Motors is as stubbornly committed to its elusive project as M. Oscar is to his, posing far-reaching questions about art, technology, and modern love without answering them. Moments of intense violence, sexuality, and grief pass by on screen before we’re able to fully digest them, making us feel constantly disoriented. Asked at one point why he does whatever it is he does, M. Oscar puts it simply: pour la beauté du geste, or, the beauty of the act. “Performance” is the bottom line for Carax and his characters, animate and inanimate, all of whom are being watched by the Agency, by passive onlookers, or just by the moviegoers themselves. —WILL GOTTSEGEN
The Queen of Versailles (2012)
Thanks to accidental good timing, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary Queen of Versailles was able to distill the state of the modern American economy in the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the Great Recession into a haunting microcosm. It begins in the mid-2000s, trailing the Siegel family—led by the the computer-engineer-turned-model Jackie and her timeshare magnate husband David—as they attempt to build one of the largest and most expensive homes in the United States. The plans for the sprawling, 90,000-square foot Florida estate include gigantic custom-made stained glass windows, each costing six figures, and separate wings for the family’s children. After the recession hits, Siegel’s timeshare business, which relied almost entirely on the sort of reckless easy loans that triggered the crisis, is crippled, and construction on the family’s gargantuan dream house halts. Starting out as a reality-TV-like portrait of an obscenely wealthy family, The Queen of Versailles suddenly becomes a horrifying downward-spiral story that parallels the implosion of the global economy in the late 2000s.
Eventually, the Siegels, who had not been particularly well-prepared for the crisis but were rich enough to be insulated from actual suffering, decide to lay off most of their largely foreign-born staff, many of whom were supporting families in their home countries that they hadn’t seen in years or even decades. Interviews with their domestic workers provide a devastating glimpse into the international ripple effects of the meltdown. Another one of the Siegels’ employees—the family’s limo driver—reveals that the millions he’d accumulated in local real estate are now worthless.
These moving testimonials are interspersed with plenty of moments of incidental visual poetry: the family’s half-built, indefinitely delayed mansion is reclaimed in part by nature, with grass and other plants taking over the driveway and other open areas, as is the massive house the Siegels already reside in. With fewer cleaners and nannies (they, of course, still employ several), dog shit and other filth accumulates indoors. One of the children’s pet iguana dies in its cage after being left without food or water. Ultimately, Jackie and her kids have to ditch the private jet and fly commercial to upstate New York for a visit with her family members, who still live in the same humble circumstances Jackie was raised in.
The film also includes clips of middle and working class families touring David Siegel’s luxurious timeshare condominiums, which they are assured are theirs in perpetuity as long as they make the necessary payments on time. These clips take on an increasingly unsettling quality as the film goes on: viewers can only imagine how their lives have been destroyed, and how much they could use their down payments back now. The timeshare company’s once-bustling call centers are shown empty, with most of the regular employees having been laid off, and a postscript to the film reveals that David was eventually forced to sell a majority share of his prized Las Vegas tower. (Earlier in the film, David brags that Donald Trump once complained to him about the brightness of the Vegas tower’s sign; later, he mentions that a potential bailout loan from Trump—surprise, surprise—never came through.)
The access granted to Greenfield at the beginning of filming, presumably under an assumption from the Siegels that she would present them in a complimentary light, helps invest The Queen of Versailles with an unusual power. We also don’t see talking heads retroactively discussing the cause of the financial crisis, or interviews with people who have lost it all after they have lost it all. Greenfield shows it all happening almost in real time, with admirably frank commentary along the way from the Siegels and their extended family and employees. We see the peak of their self-delusion, the disregard for common sense, and of course the decadence turning into squalor.
The film ends with the Siegels’ life, and the world economy, still in chaos, but a quick Google search confirms that their time share business has since rebounded. (Wealth estimates should be taken with a grain of salt, but for what it’s worth, David’s is currently listed at $900 million.) Construction at Versailles has also resumed, and Jackie promises it will be finished by this fall. The renewed boom times haven’t protected the Siegels from the next major plague to strike America, though. In 2015, their daughter Victoria died of a drug overdose, a fact which Jackie has blamed in part on publicity from the film. Now, she herself is making a film about it: The Princess of Versailles. —TAYLOR BERMAN
Spring Breakers (2012)
In 2012, the prolific hip-hop producer Alchemist released a 12-minute single titled “Yacht Rock,” which juxtaposes smooth jazz and soft pop samples with raps about absurd violence and tasteless wealth. New York goons Action Bronson—in character as a spoiled banker’s son—and Roc Marciano show up to choke sharks, crash boats, and facilitate sex trafficking. The song is punctuated by clips of salesmen pitching gaudy new yacht features, seemingly ripped from an aspirational lifestyle program on some unknown cable channel. Near the middle, Big Twinz enters with a shrapnel growl that could shred the finest sails, rapping bluntly: “We on a yacht, celebratin’ non-stop.”
Harmony Korine’s 2012 postmodern comedic thriller Spring Breakers might reasonably recall many different rap songs; after all, hip-hop culture is an integral part of its exploitative pop-art aesthetic. But for me, the movie feels like a cinematic version of Alchemist’s mini-epic, if it was being told from the perspective of the women on the yacht, and if they were secretly plotting to get revenge on the hustlers who brought them there. In Korine’s movie, his wife Rachel and three family-friendly child stars—Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson—play college students desperate to “get the fuck out” of their stale on-campus bubble. They decide to take a journey that has become archetypal for a certain subset of American adolescents: the spring break trip. Almost always clad in bikinis, Hudgens and Benson play the group’s devious rascals, Rachel Korine the down-for-whatever accomplice, and Gomez the church girl tempted to bite the apple.
The movie opens with its most iconic image: a slow-motion pan through a crowd of revelers hitting beer bongs to Skrillex on the beach. With scenes like this, Korine initially seems to be laying the framework for a warped comedy about teens coming of age through partying. But the armed robbery that yields the money for the girls’ trip suddenly pushes the film into unfamiliar and more unsettling territory. James Franco shows up as a mob boss who looks like Riff Raff loves Scarface and Britney Spears; after bailing the girls out of jail, he enlists them as his posse of gun-slinging accomplices. The four girls’ vacation turns into a voyeuristic tour of the criminal underworld in a South Florida community—one that is mindlessly exploited by frat stars for part of every year—and suddenly, Spring Breakers becomes a surreal gangster film.The film culminates in another shocking and illogical spree of violence that gives our protagonists the last laugh.
The eerie menace that lurks in the background of Spring Breakers, and in so much of Korine’s work, stems from the fact that his characters’ motivations are often opaque; anything can happen at any time. In Spring Breakers, the writer and director creates an atmosphere that is both sensual and hostile. His camera explores the glistening surfaces surfaces of pools, assault rifles, and grillz. We might understand the movie as taking the glorification of violence and excess wealth in popular culture to some kind of nihilistic extreme. After all, our protagonists seem to ultimately fulfill their mythic vision of themselves—at least, the final two left standing are convinced they’re heroes. One thing is clear, though: the blacked-out Skrillex fans on the beach will never stop dancing. —TOSTEN BURKS
Frances Ha (2013)
Frances Ha is a film about living life with big dreams, and what happens when those aspirations come to an uncomfortable head with reality. Its titular protagonist is a struggling modern dancer (Greta Gerwig) who gets dumped by her boyfriend about five minutes into the movie, and is essentially homeless by the 15-minute mark. For moral support, she relies heavily on her best friend from her days at Vassar: the shrewdly ambitious Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who now works in book publishing, and has her shit a little more together than Frances. The quiet intimacy they share in the film’s early scenes amounts to something like a mother-daughter relationship, with Sophie even letting Frances sleep in her bed.
“Tell me the story of us,” asks Frances, snuggling up to Sophie like a wide-eyed child expecting her favorite bedtime story. Sophie plays along: “Again?” The story they tell together—because Frances can’t help but jump in—is one of professional, creative, and romantic success. In this imagined world, they have Parisian apartments, unnamable lovers, and endless “honorary degrees.” And though it already feels like a pipe dream, it only slips further away as the narrative progresses.
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s script captures the precarious experience of being young and middle class in New York, negotiating the viewer through a sea of rich art kids and burnt-out English majors, irresistible faux-socialites and indelicate name-droppers. Frances’ lingering questions are distinctly generational: Have I made it yet? Why are all these people having an easier time than I am? When do I graduate from the profoundly unglamorous present, and waltz into the future I’m really meant for—that New York City of our collective imagination?
Like Antoine Doinel of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, who seems to have been a point of inspiration for Baumbach and Gerwig, Frances wants more, both practically and spiritually. But unlike Doinel, Frances ultimately finds a hard-won resolution, reconciling her greatest ambitions with the inauspicious truth of her personal and professional life. She makes some modest but crucial changes, settling into a gig teaching dance to children, repairing her increasingly strained relationship with Sophie, and finally landing her own apartment. There’s a sense, too, that she might even find love.
The film’s big reveal—that “Frances Ha” is really “Frances Halladay”—feels like a testament to the triumph of the individual spirit in a gargantuan, sometimes oppressive city. Like Lena Dunham’s influential series Girls, which premiered a few months before Frances’ festival debut in 2012, the movie distilled white urban millennial ennui into a genuinely transcendent artistic statement that should stand as a tentpole of coming-of-age comedies in the 2010s. Cautiously optimistic, Baumbach and Gerwig’s film suggests there’s always a reason to keep dreaming and smiling through the bullshit. —WILL GOTTSEGEN
When Her premiered at the 2013 New York Film Festival, Siri was two years old. Instagram was still an app for grainy, faux-Polaroid photos, not an era-defining social network courting a dazzling visual aesthetic. Snapchat had just released its first iPhone app, Tinder was only available in a handful of major cities, and ASMR was still an obscure acronym relegated to the backwaters of kooky medical forums. Yet somehow, Spike Jonze’s fourth directorial effort anticipated the cultural dimensions of 2010s techno-capitalism with an uncanny accuracy—one that few sci-fi projects have achieved in the years since its release.
The effectiveness of Her doesn’t just stem from its appealing bright colors and Gore-tex-chic costume design. The movie also acknowledges how rapidly the role of digital communications is shifting and expanding in our everyday lives, and offers some astute theories about upcoming developments. In the film, Jonze foregrounds even the most banal, bleary-eyed interactions with smart devices. From the earliest shots of our protagonist—the wistful and somewhat anonymous Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix—viewers wade into an isolated world lubricated by headphones, video games, and ghostwritten personal letters.
Lonely, single, and struggling to finalize his divorce, Twombly finds the perfect outlet for his raw, overflowing emotions in Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an “operating system” designed to be as much of a friend and companion as she is an efficient personal assistant. While the sensual scenes may be clunky and the dialog a little contrived, the film’s eagerness to explore the furthest limits of human-computer relations makes up for its kitsch factor. Samantha becomes a compelling remedy for Theodore’s alienation, allowing him to live a richer inner life without adjusting his daily routine—something his ex-wife brusquely criticizes when she says that he’s “madly in love with his laptop.” Ultimately, her indictment extends to nearly all of the film’s characters, who each find their own ways of escaping into vices that are both computational and social.
At its best, Jonze’s visually dazzling film moves beyond hackneyed man-vs.-machine hand-wringing, laying important groundwork for a more thoughtful approach to speculative fiction that’s as interested in exploring the nature of personal connection in the modern world as much as offering technological critique. Jonze also managed to import all of these ideas into the plot that resembles a romantic comedy, making Her an even stranger and perhaps more impressive achievement. —ROB ARCAND
In 2014, the third installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical series My Struggle was released in English; the subtitle, translated from the Swedish, was Boyhood Island. It was the year that the books, which begin with a forensic account of the author’s coming of age, came to their greatest cultural prominence in the West. Around it, other notable works of quotidian autofiction or pseudo-autofiction popped up: this was also the year that Sun Kil Moon released Benji, that Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series became a phenomenon in the U.S., and that Ben Lerner published 10:04. It was an appropriate moment for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a sprawling bildungsroman of a movie about the coming of age of a Texas boy. Filmed over the course of 12 years, the film traced Mason (Ellar Coltrane) across seven different phases of his life, beginning in early elementary school and ending with the beginning of his freshman year at college at the University of Texas. Coltrane’s real-life experiences often dictated the direction of Linklater’s story, and most of the actors devised the details of their characters from their own life experience.
Despite its audacious scope, Boyhood feels modest. (Its budget certainly was, much of it seemingly reserved to fund the eminently recognizable, of-the-moment music cues.) We watch Mason-Coltrane learn to adjust to the world, trying to solidify and maintain a sense of self among rapidly changing circumstances. The film’s scenarios are usually small, specific, and simple—only occasionally explosive and never overwrought. When Patricia Arquette’s overworked single mother and Ethan Hawke’s semi-absentee charming slacker of a father proffer “wisdom” to Mason, it is a direct and believable outgrowth of their own experience as we have seen it transpire onscreen. We watch them earn their grey hairs, noticing things Mason might not have been able to understand at the time. Everyone is going through their own crises while Mason is learning to find his way; the movie is about him, but he is not the center of its universe.
In the 2010s, several landmark films got inside the heads of children. The first visionary epic of the decade was Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, featuring virtuosic child acting that was much more powerful than its CGI dinosaurs. From there, films like Moonlight, The Florida Project, Eighth Grade, Call Me By Your Name, and We the Beasts offered subjective windows into the pre-teenage and teenage mind. But Boyhood’s project remains unique within these ranks. It is neither a traditional story nor a shapeless indulgence; Mason’s trajectory across so many years seems instinctual, and is pleasantly resistant to tidy analysis. At the same time, the film offers us a documentary-like experience: an opportunity to watch the characteristics of a real person alter subtly (or extremely, around the time puberty kicks in) across their most active period of physical and mental change. And it all happens in just three hours. —WINSTON COOK-WILSON