Writer: Elegance Bratton
by Robert Jones Jr.
It is so rare that we get to see Black queer experiences represented with grace and accuracy on screen. In this regard, the most striking thing about Elegance Bratton’s “The Inspection” is its dimensions. Each of the characters contain multitudes, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, such that they refract, like gems, the flaws and the triumphs of being alive.
The cast only magnifies the script’s layered approach. Jeremy Pope is transcendent as Ellis French. The most glorious scene involves Ellis employing a revolutionary use of camouflage face paint. There is also a scene where Gabrielle Union invests the character of Inez French with gestures that indicate a deep complexity beneath the harsh exterior. The other members of the cast—various Marine servicemen—could have been cardboard cutouts, and yet each of them brings their own calm and turmoil to the roles such that they, too, are memorable.
I would love to see director/screenwriter Elegance Bratton’s notes to cinematographer Lachlan Milne to determine what inspired him to capture such lush and fragile beauty—whether the woodlands that seem to sigh or a sun on the verge of bleeding. Speaking of color: I’m not sure how this film was shot, but the rich and vibrant tones envelopes viewers. More than just conveying mood, the colors draw us disquietingly closer to the subject matter, forcing us to confront not just what we see on the screen but also what we see inside of ourselves.
This story goes to very harrowing places. And just when you think you might not be able to bear another weight, it lifts you up with its well-timed levity. In many ways, The Inspection deals in human contradictions, and neither resolves nor finds discomfort in them. It does not shy away from truth either; and the truth is this: cruelty is fiery demon, but it is no match for love—especially when that love is turned inward as well as outward.
Robert Jones, Jr., is the author of The New York Times bestselling novel, “The Prophets, ” which won the 2022 Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and the 2022 NAIBA Book of the Year Award for Fiction.
Writer: James Gray
By David Grann
James Gray, the director and screenwriter, has always used the art of film to explore, probing for clues about everything that shapes the human condition: families, loyalty, power, class, colonialism, love, greed, ambition. In two of his previous films, Gray searched in distant realms: for “The Lost City of Z,” which was adapted from my book, he journeyed to the Amazonian jungle, and for “Ad Astra,” he ventured as far as outer space. In his newest film, “Armageddon Time,” he has returned to the place in which he grew up, in Queens, New York, excavating his own family history. The result is one of the most incisive and pro- found films about privilege and complicity in America.
Gray builds the film around his alter ego, Paul Graff — a sixth-grade white student from a striving middle-class Jewish family. Graff is dreamy-eyed, artistic and rebellious, growing up in a borough dominated by the likes of Fred Trump. And as Graff tries to navigate the world around him, including his friendship with a Black schoolmate, he confronts the inequities of class and race. Gray, never interested in reductionism, grapples with the complexities and contradictions true to life. Graff ’s parents and grandfather, whose relatives perished in a pogrom in Ukraine, are both victims of oppression, yet they can also be racist and exploit the benefits the system grants them because of their white skin color, including favors from cops and elite private schools. They rationalize their moral compromises, and that is ultimately how the system perpetuates itself. Even Graff, abandoning his friend, becomes silently complicit.
With this searing film, James Gray has completed a stunning journey home — one that prompted the actor Jeremy Strong, who plays Graff’s father, to quote, in an interview with a reporter, T.S. Eliot:
“And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
It turns out that the place is also our place — our Armageddon time.”
David Grann is an award-winning staff writer at the New Yorker magazine and an acclaimed author, whose books include “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon” and “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.”
Writers: Matt Reeves & Peter Craig
By Jeph Loeb
I’m probably the worst person to take to see a Batman film. It’s not because I don’t like Batman, quite the contrary, I love the character. I’ve written about him and his city to some success.
But if we’re going to watch a Batman film, I’m the Joker in the audience ready to throw popcorn.
When I heard that Matt Reeves, who had reignited another beloved franchise (“Planet of the Apes”), was telling his version of the Caped Crusader, I was curious and excited. Matt smartly approaches the cinematic world from the inside out — character first, plot second.
That’s why “The Batman” is such a joy. Matt understands that Bruce Wayne is not a facade, but a complex, broken man trying to find a reconnection to his world. What an imaginative world it is! A noir feel to Gotham City, twisted damaged characters, and even a new Batmobile that looks like Bruce himself built it.
It’s a film dripping with shadows and people clawing desperately to climb out of their own tragedies into the light.
Matt’s vision of Batman delves into the key to it all — abandonment. Bruce is, of course, an orphan, but we don’t need to see his origin, his torment reveals itself. Even when we peel back the layers of Catwoman and, in particular, the Riddler, they too have been cast out on their own, searching for their true identities.
And so, in the middle of a murder mystery, wrapped around an action film, a love story breaks out.
Not only between Batman and Catwoman, but with each character reaching for unreachable acceptance. Because after all, isn’t that why we all go to the movies? To fall in love? I did. Thanks, Matt.
Jeph Loeb is a Peabody Award-winning and Emmy-nominated writer-producer. His television credits include “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage” and “Legion.” His graphic novels include “Batman: The Long Halloween” and “Superman for All Seasons.”
‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’
Writers: Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole
By Jeremy O. Harris
When has a writer or a director dedicated so much of their practice to honoring those who have shaped their lives? Ryan Coogler is the rare auteur for whom this selfless practice of memorializing, celebrating and championing the people who have touched him is at the core of his practice.
Sitting in the audience for an early screening of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” I was bowled over the minute we were thrust into a daring rite of mourning for both a character and an actor that meant so much to the Black community and the community of artists who make the Black Panther films. In an era when there is much discourse around what film stories are “real films” and which are not, Ryan and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole dared to make a piece of art that was simply real. Real in its mourning of a life, real in its celebration of a life, and real in its import to a community that has disproportionately endured a reality of burying their young before their time.
This is not the normal provenance of a screenplay. It’s the provenance of poetry and music. But Ryan is a decid-edly abnormal filmmaker creating elegies since his very first film. With “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” he stands next to Phyllis Wheatley, June Jordan, Langston Hughes and Robert Hayden as one of the greats of the elegy.
Playwright and screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris’ works include the acclaimed “Slave Play,” “Daddy” and his screen credits include “Zola,” “Euphoria” and “Irma Vep.”
‘Bones and All’
Writer: David Kajganich
By David Lowery
I went into “Bones and All” with the vague understanding that David Kajganich had only loosely adapted Camilla DeAngelis’ young adult novel of the same name. I imagined that he and director Luca Guadagnino had taken her concept of teenage cannibals in love and ran with it, just as they had with their wonderful remake of “Suspiria,” which absconded with the beating heart of its source material and charged off cackling, screaming, dancing into the night. There’s dancing in “Bones and All,” too, and blood and guts, and a particular sensitivity that I attributed to the filmmakers — until I read DeAngelis’ novel and experienced its adaptation in reverse. I had been mistaken. Here was the same story, the same characters, the same scenes, evoking the same emotions; here was the same fairy tale, now existing in two different media, bound together by the beautiful intermediary that is David’s adaptation.
For adapting a novel to the screen is an at-times mechanical process that can give way to something strange, alchemical and unexpectedly personal. It is akin to building a doorway through which the spirit of a story might pass into a new form — but other things slip through, too.
Initially, a writer looks at a page in a book and seizes upon whatever elements might best survive this journey. Sometimes a scene can be carried over nearly wholesale, such as, in this case, young Maren’s introduction to the mysterious Sully, who shows her the ropes of being a cannibal. In others, a sense of spirit can be extracted but must be wrapped in invention — I think now of the drifters played by Michael Stuhlbarg and David Gordon Green in the film, who technically do not exist in the novel but are present all the same.
And then, most crucially, there are the many small substitutions, subtractions and additions; an accretion of new details, around the edges of which a new perspective begins to seep, illuminating the story at hand with a new shade of light. One author’s voice may cede its position to another, but in the best cases — like this! — they remain in harmony. Indeed, the best adaptations reveal two things: How impervious a good story is to the details that adorn it, and how closely bound we, as storytellers and human beings, are by the things that matter most to all of us.
Writer-director David Lowery’s work includes “Peter Pan & Wendy,” now in post, and “The Green Knight.”
‘Decision to Leave’
Writers: Cheung Seokyung & Park Chan-wook
By Gillian Flynn
My dark little heart twisted with glee while watching “Decision to Leave,” and being a dark little heart, it feels glee only on special occasions. Writer-director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”) and co-writer Cheung Seokyung have created an ingenious, eerie, poignant and grownup mystery. By grownup I mean: sit still, stop fidgeting, pay some goddam attention … and you will be thoroughly rewarded. What we have here is a cunning bit of ever-spinning clockwork, so keep your eyes on the screen and your mind present. A clear and present mind is advised: You can struggle to race ahead and figure this thriller out, but you’ll end up feeling foolish, because the writers have created something so completely unique and nimble, the best you can do is just try to keep up.
Set in South Korea, this film noir begins with an enigmatic woman (as all good film noirs do); in this case, an enigmatic woman whose husband has fallen off a cliff to his death. The detective (Park Hae-il) assigned to the case is charmed by the young widow (Tang Wei), and suspicious. Obsession, insomnia, betrayal, bad-ass knife fights and inspired flashbacks follow. (Not to mention a surprisingly tender scene involving imaginary jellyfish.)
At its core, however, “Decision to Leave” is a cat-and-mouse love story, with predator and prey locked in a dreamy death grip. It’s a mystery begging the answers to universal questions: Do you really love me? Can I trust you? Do you truly know me?
“Decision to Leave” is deep and thrilling, beautiful and nasty, classic but utterly its own. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” but actually, they’ve never made them like “Decision to Leave.” My dark heart is… what is this strange emotion? Grateful.
Bestselling author Gillian Flynn’s works include “Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects” and “Dark Places.”
Writer: Baz Luhrmann
By Greil Marcus
I learned some years ago, wrestling with the legacies of long-gone avant-garde groups with a fierce cult followings, that when taking on beloved material, you have to be prepared to do damage to it if you want to find a point of view worth offering to other people; Baz Luhrmann has always known that. Especially, for his 2013 film of “The Great Gatsby,” he was not afraid of the mythos surrounding F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, or, for his 2022 film “Elvis,” of the flat-out myth that had long-since enveloped the life of a man who had actually lived and died.
In “Elvis,” it is the invention of scenes that never took place — for one, a young, conflicted Elvis finding his conscience in the person of B.B. King as they and Little Richard sit in a Beale Street bar watching Sister Rosetta Tharpe sing and play “Strange Things Happening Every Day” — that makes an actor’s Elvis believable, sometimes to the point that you forget he isn’t Elvis Presley, 1935-77, but one Austin Butler, 1991-. In “The Great Gatsby,” it is, among a hundred other displacements, letting Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” float across the film, that gives Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby and Tobey Maguire’s Nick the majesty they crave, and dignity to the tragedy we see them living out in the summer of 1922, 63 years before Del Rey was born.
Luhrmann did not, in the seemingly inescapable cant phrase of our time, make either Fitzgerald’s or Elvis’ story his own. He added something to them that they didn’t have before, and, to the degree that he succeeded, they now perhaps always will.
Greil Marcus is the author of many books, including “Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of The Great Gatsby” and “Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs.”
‘Empire of Light'
Writer: Sam Mendes
By Jon Robin Baitz
“Empire of Light” is many things, but to simply relegate it to the moldy sentimental “Love Letter to Cinema” aisle would be a mistake.
First and foremost, it’s Mr. Mendes grappling with the mental illnesses of his own mother, which he has talked about in interviews and arguably has [influenced] his work from “Cabaret” on stage to “American Beauty” and even Bond (who always seemed given to what Churchill called “black dogs,” aka, depression).
Written from angles both internal and external, it is a study of Hillary, a lonely, perhaps bipolar, woman working in a Margate (south coast of England) cinema in the early 1980s, as lost as Eleanor Rigby. In her highs she is exhilarated, monomaniacal, filled with the possible, and in her lows, locked-in and monosyllabic. Obviously, Olivia Colman is incandescent in the part, and what good is writing something if you don’t cast it?
One of the external POVs comes from Mendes’s focus on a young Black ticket-taker, Stephen, (a wonderful Micheal Ward), who falls into an achingly impossible and brief affair with Hillary. Here Mendes’ gaze regards Hillary from the perspective of a young man struggling with the alienation of being Black in Skinhead Thatcherite England. Mendes allows the tenderness she displays toward him to seem obsessive and still, no less real.
As granularly written as a Margaret Drabble or Barbara Pym heroine, Hillary’s suffering has no real answer. But Mendes has created friends and community for her, and finally, a love for film eventually, the great escape we in this absurd business turn to as the only true balm of our time. In a sense, Mendes paints himself into the picture in the form of Toby Jones, a projectionist still mesmerized of the magic of light and what happens to still images at 24 frames per second.
Jon Robin Baitz’s is a playwright and screenwriter whose works include “A Fair Country,” “Other Desert Cities” and “The Substance of Fire.”
‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’
Writers: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
By Chen Chen
Yes, the multiverse, the everything bagel, the fight sequences involving sex toys, the fashion statements ranging from auntie to unhinged auntie, the talking existential rocks — all of that is undeniably, absurdly alive. So, I understand how some have described this film as a sci-fi extravaganza. But to me, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is ultimately a love poem. Of course I would say that as a poet, but hear me out. This film is a love poem to queer kids, to Chinese immigrants, to broken hearts aching for a larger space in which to heal.
Honestly, this film seems written for me, or for someone like me, a person who inhabits all the above identities, histories, experiences and dreams. I experience this dream-stuffed film as a love poem to my queer Chinese immigrant heart, where every part of that phrase, every bit of me — queer and Chinese and immigrant and heart — is loved. The maximalism of this film is not mere style: it is an embrace. This is an embrace I didn’t know I’d been waiting for, all these years of (it turns out) being only half-held, barely seen.
This film shows me a multitude of ways through the seemingly impossible mazes of racism, homophobia, and intergenerational trauma. I see now, through this film, how my mother could love me, her queer child. And I see how I could love my mother better. I see how we could love ourselves more.
When I first saw this film, I laughed a delirious amount. I didn’t cry, though I wanted to. I didn’t because I knew that if I started, I would just cry the whole time, and I wanted to take in every layer of this work. I didn’t let myself cry after I left the theater, either. I don’t know, maybe I was trying to be strong. When the film shows so clearly how no one is truly strong without expressing a true spectrum of emotion.
It was during the second viewing, months later and alone in my room, that at last I cried. The feeling was not far from joy, but this time, it was something that went beyond entertainment. Yes, I can begin to articulate it: I felt a strange, ticklish hunger that somehow held hands with a cavernous grief. I saw in my queer Chinese immigrant heart the two of them holding hands — hunger and grief — as they walked toward a new kind of love, a stronger kind.
Chen Chen is a poet whose work includes “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities.”
Writer: Steven Spielberg & Tony Kushner
By Tracy Letts
I’ve grown to reject the Tolstoy maxim, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” not only because I know too many families that disprove both sides of that idea (my own family was pretty happy and I’ve never known anyone remotely like us) but because I’ve learned happiness isn’t easily defined or quantified. How would you know a person is “happy” anyway? A jolly predisposition? A hopeful view of the future? Self-knowledge? Gratitude? Sense of humor? Even if one displayed all those qualities … a true internal happiness always objectively readable?
There’s a moment in “The Fabelmans” when Michelle Williams, playing a role based on Mr. Spielberg’s mother, suggests that the character, though energetic and ebullient and loving, may also be emotionally disturbed, perhaps even suffering mental illness. The moment is actually quite early, earlier than you may notice on first viewing, and it’s subtle, but it warns us: There is reason to worry for this family. Oh, not worry so much about the fate of our protagonist. This is Mr. Spielberg’s autobiography and so we know things will turn out all right for him. No, we worry about what this family, individually and collectively, will eventually become.
Mr. Spielberg seems like he’s selling us a simple origin story, but it’s too facile, as deceptively easy as the undisguised metaphor of the title. Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner have bigger fish to fry. The Fabelmans are the fable makers we all are, putting on happy faces, playing roles, telling the stories about themselves all of us tell, for our vanity, for our self-worth, for our survival. The screenwriters scrape at the veneer of those fables. The young Spielberg’s younger truth-telling sister bluntly calls him out for being just like his trickster mother. For all of its warmth and humor, this movie isn’t a love letter to lost parents. In fact, it’s pretty clear-eyed about just how unknowable Mr. Spielberg’s parents were. It’s an investigation of the origins of Mr. Spielberg’s complicated character and his fervent need to control the narrative, to control ALL narratives. (The issue of “control” is explored at length in “The Fabelmans.”) Happy families, unhappy families … what difference does it make? Childhood haunts us all.
Actor-playwright-screenwriter Tracy Letts won a Tony and Pulitzer for “August: Osage County” and his works include “Killer Joe,” and “Superior Donuts.”
‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’
Writer: Rian Johnson
By Taika Waititi
For years I tried to figure out Rian Johnson’s secret to writing. I’ll often revisit his films because they’ve got it all. Great dialogue. Dynamic characters. Smart structures. I mean, he’s managed to make a time-travel film (“Looper) that actually makes sense.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the experience of watching a good murder mystery, having the clues and answers unfold before your eyes while you try to keep up. “Glass Onion” is one of those films — intelligent and meticulous in its planning, smart and funny in its delivery. It’s a hugely enjoyable ride that never loses its edge.
Rian also has such an unbridled confidence about him. His structures and arcs are so well thought out that it’s impossible to find fault them. It’s honestly infuriating because it exposes just how lazy the rest of us writers are. I also love what he does with the flashback structure in “Glass Onion.” When the film screeches to a halt halfway through — no spoilers — I was stunned at how ballsy that was. I was equally struck by the complexity of Rian’s characters, how each one is culpable in his or her own right.
Which brings me to the character, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Rian has managed to give his featured sleuth unexpected depth. A lot of these movies tend to maintain a status quo with this kind of character. You never see them go through anything. But here, Benoit is searching for something else. He’s bored and he yearns for another challenge.
Maybe that’s what drives Rian as well, the prospect of finding a new “case” to solve every time he sits down at the keyboard. He’s certainly managed to do it this time around. I’ve still not figured out Rian’s secret to writing. I’ve decided to give up and just enjoy his films instead. Maybe there is no secret, he’s just fucking good at it.
Taika Waititi is an Oscar-winning writer, director and actor whose work includes “Thor: Love and Thunder,” “Jo Jo Rabbit” and “What We Do in the Shadows.”
‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover'
Writer: David Magee
By Kristen Roupenian
When it comes to literary adaptations, there is a truism that the greatest films leave the books that inspired them behind, abandoning the original in order to create a genuinely new thing. But while there are many examples of writers and directors who use books simply as a jumping-off point to achieve their own personal vision, there is another, subtler art of adaptation, of which David Magee may be our most advanced practitioner. In his Academy-Award nominated screenplays for “Finding Neverland” and “The Life of Pi,” and now in his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Magee approaches his source material with curiosity and care, so that his adaptations expand upon the books that inspired them, rather than supplanting them. It’s an approach that requires delicacy, thoughtfulness and a not-insignificant amount of humility, which may be why it is so rare.
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” has been adapted for the screen many times before, most likely because, as a famously obscene yet inarguably literary novel, it has offered filmmakers an excuse to depict explicit sex while maintaining a (sometimes very sheer) veil of respectability. But it may only be now, when sex onscreen has become so widely acceptable that we no longer need an excuse to show it, that it has become actually possible to create a genuinely faithful adaptation of the novel, one that is as invested in the interiority of its characters as it is their outward forms.
The sex in this version of “Lady Chatterley” is surprisingly wholesome — much of it takes place during the day, often outside, on the grass or in the rain. The real nastiness, the glimmers of true obscenity, happen when people are fully clothed: the furtive gleam in Lord Chatterley’s eye when he informs his wife that it would be totally fine with him if she fucked another man — but only the right kind of man, in the right kind of circumstances; the pleasure he and his other rich friends take in playing with the lives of the people working on their estate as if they were dolls. This is a film that trusts its audience to see sex for what it is — as an act that is neither sacred nor obscene in and of itself, but that draws its whole meaning and value from the context of the lives of the people engaging in it. In writing it, David Magee has once again stayed true to his source material, while at the same time, offering us a new way to see.
Kristen Roupenian’s work includes “You Know You Want This” and “Bodies Bodies Bodies.”
Writer: Kazuo Ishiguro
By David Hare
I first met Kazuo Ishiguro in the 1970s, in David Rose’s drama department at BBC Birmingham, where all the most interesting writers hung out. Having read Ishiguro’s first novel, I told him he was a natural playwright, with an enviable ability to create subtext out of apparently bland dialogue. Ish said he had no interest in the theater. His first and only love was the cinema. He particularly adored Cary Grant, and of all Grant’s films, he liked “Holiday” best.
So at last, 50 years later, Ishiguro has finally delivered on his long-nurtured love for the medium and written a bespoke screenplay for Bill Nighy. “Living” is derived from “Ikuru,” which was written by Shinobo Hashimoto, who, for my money, is the greatest screenwriter who ever lived. Who else has a CV with “Throne of Blood,” “Seven Samurai” and “The Bad Sleep Well” on it? Bill is such a profound and fascinating actor that no one writer can contain him, but Ishiguro’s version is characteristic: under a formal surface, the dying man is paradoxically filled with vitality and with a delicious, sexy kind of humor.
This is tremendous screenwriting. But it’s also Ishiguro coming home to his first love: Cary Grant. Grant himself was always proudest of those roles in which he appeared to do least, but in which most emotion was contained underneath. Think “Notorious.” Ish says he thought only of Bill — his voice, his manner, his clothes — while he was writing. It shows. Because Bill Nighy’s our Cary Grant.
David Hare has written such works as “The Hours,” “The Reader,” “Skylight,” “Pravda,” “Amy’s View,” “Plenty” “and “Straight Line Crazy.”
Seth Reiss & Will Tracy
By Emily V. Gordon
I grew up in a small town in North Carolina, where the best cuisine was from the local gas station. (It still is.) Recently, I’ve started going to restaurants like the one depicted in “The Menu.” Restaurants where the concepts, presentation, chef and backstory are as important, if not more, than the taste of a dish. I’ve licked a plate, as requested, while a tape recorder plays a song for just my table. I’ve had a clay pot shattered in front of me so I could eat the one (1) beet inside of it. And the entire time, the small-town girl inside of me wonders, “Are they just messing with us?” I’m convinced that 70% of the other diners at these restaurants are asking themselves the same question, but we’ve all decided that the best way to enjoy a meal like this is to go along with the experience without question. To let ourselves feel a little unmoored in a disciplined setting.
This is an ingenious setting for a thriller, and one that writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy dole out tautly, tantalizingly and with excellent pacing. The best thrillers build in believable stakes to the characters’ questioning what’s happening, even as things get increasingly bizarre. “The Menu” creates and sustains that tension deliciously. As I was watching it, I kept wondering “How will chef finish the meal?,” which speaks to a struggle for both screenwriters and chefs, I suppose. Reiss and Tracy rise to the challenge admirably, crafting this screenplay into a satisfying, economical and bittersweet tale. Every character serves a purpose, both to the antagonist and to the story. They all start the evening with something else they must get from this meal — credit, a career boost, status, approval — all of them forgetting that they were just supposed to come hungry.
Screenwriter Emily V. Gordon was nominated for an Oscar for “The Big Sick.” She co-created Apple TV+ series “Little America.”
Writers: Alice Diop, Amrita David, Marie Ndiaye
By Emerald Fennell
“Ms. Coly, do you know why you killed your daughter?” “I don’t know. I hope this trial will give me the answer.”
Alice Diop’s profoundly destabilizing film “Saint Omer” will stay with me for a long time. It’s a courtroom drama which coldly stares down the genre, a true-crime thriller drained of the usual lurid voyeurism and faux-concern, a bloodless horror film. And in its austerity and restraint it becomes more gripping, more horrifying, more moving, than these genres put together.
Diop has made a movie about infanticide that is also one of the most insightful and disconcerting portraits of motherhood I’ve seen in film. It lays completely bare the unsparing, infuriating, bewildering, isolating delirium of motherhood. As compassionate as it is chilling, and all the more devastating for its compassion.
Why did you kill your daughter?
I don’t know.
What dreadful horror lives inside that “I don’t know.”
Writer-director-actor Emerald Fennell won an Oscar for “Promising Young Woman.” She is in post on her next feature, “Saltburn.”
Writers: Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller
By Ken Duckworth
It’s the rare family that is prepared for a teenager to have a serious mental health condition. I know this well, as an adolescent psychiatrist, from meeting with hundreds of families in my career.
This is what “The Son” knows as well. It knows from its deft and poignant screenplay (co-written by Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton and adapted from the play by Zeller) that in the core of every family there may come a time when love alone does not suffice. This Zeller and Hampton understand in the story that unfolds.
For families, the first awareness of trouble can be overwhelming: “Maybe I don’t need to take it on directly yet. Maybe their strengths and our love will be enough to win the day.”
Knowing that your child with a mental health condition needs to take center stage in the life of a family is a critical learning challenge. “The Son” reminds us that there is no set timeline for teens and families to meet this challenge. That uncertainty adds tension to life — and to this film.
“The Son” is the story of a family with many advantages, but clinging to the idea of an idyllic, younger Nicholas (Zen McGrath) they recall lovingly. The scene where young Nicholas learns to swim in a tranquil Mediterranean cove when his parents (Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman) were still married is the recurrent, beautiful image of the child they once fully understood.
That Nicholas, who appeared so happy and full of life, has fallen into a major depression as a teen is a jolt to all of them, as they struggle to ask: Can we all swim to safety?
The viewing experience isn’t easy or comfortable, but neither are the experiences of those who face such real-world struggles every day.
Ken Duckworth is the chief medical officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the author of “You Are Not Alone: The NAMI Guide to Navigating Mental health with Expert Advice and Wisdom from Real People and Families” (Zando Publisher).
Writer: Todd Field
By Jonathan Franzen
The first lesson Todd Field taught me about screen- writing was to dispense with traditional scene headers — all those lifeless INTs and EXTs. Todd’s headers are as economical as can be: short lines, in capital letters, that serve strictly to advance the narrative and lend it a rhythm. Whether they describe a movement (TÁR STRIDES UP THE AISLE), a key visual (RED VELVET), a new location (LE BERNARDIN) or a sound (SOMEONE POUNDING ON THE DOOR), they invariably convey movement. Todd’s grammar of screenwriting is closer to a novel’s than to a play’s. I’m not reading a blueprint for a movie, I’m seeing and hearing a movie in my mind.
Implicit in Todd’s lesson was a second lesson. A script’s overriding purpose, as a piece of writing, is persuasion. A script needs to say Trust me, there’s a fully realized vision here, I’ve totally got this. Anything that disrupts the fictive dream, impedes its flow, is dead words.
Todd’s scripts are devoid of dead words, and yet they’re the opposite of spare. The first page of “Tár” is a propulsive, disorienting riot of details. We don’t learn where we are, or what time of day it is, because it’s not important that we know yet. Instead, we’re peppered with descriptions of a restless audience: “twice-cracked knuckles,” “the rude rustle of a plastic shopping bag,” “double-upwardy teenagery question marks.” These are a novelistic details, not production details. They’re there to build trust in the writer’s authority, to entertain us and to place us, implicitly, in the pissed-off point of view of Lydia Tár.
Todd’s writing is always maximally precise. When he specifies that the wine on the table at Le Bernardin is Corton-Charlemagne, it’s not to insist that the props team find exactly that bottle. It’s to signal that nothing gets by this writer, and thereby to insist on the highest standards for production. This is another lesson I learned from Todd’s scripts. If your scene descriptions are merely approximate, you’re implying permission to shoot generic scenes.
What makes “Tár” a great work of art, besides amazing performances and brilliant design and photography and editing, is that there’s not a single generic moment to be found in it. Todd’s script for “Tár” envisioned, with uncanny clarity, a film for grown-ups that would respect their intelligence.
Jonathan Franzen’s novels include “The Corrections,” “Freedom” and “Crossroads.”
Writer: Samuel D. Hunter
By Douglas Stuart
I fell in love with Charlie right from the start. There is a scene near the beginning of “The Whale” when Charlie, who is struggling with severe obesity and dying of congestive heart failure, has frustrated his friend Liz because he will not go to the hospital and seek the medical care he needs. Yet in the midst of Liz’s anger she does the most wonderfully human thing: she leans in and tickles him. For a few seconds their heartache evaporates and they both erupt in infectious giggles. It is moments like this that make Samuel D. Hunter’s screenplay feel so vitally alive. It is a work that has the ability to destroy us in one moment and then offer us hope in the very next, to mire us in the ugly mess of life and yet make sure we never lose sight of the fundamental goodness of humanity.
For most of the movie we worry about Charlie’s heart, both the emotional scars it carries and the physical strain that it is under. His demise is painful to watch. But it is testament to the screenplay that in these moments of pain, there is always tenderness, always compassion. And in the end even though it is Charlie’s heart that is failing, it is his heart that is the most beautifully alive thing in the room.
“The Whale” explores how we care for one another and how we care for others even when they might be too broken to care for themselves. Empathy flows from these characters. Charlie says it best when — after facing so much hurt and heartache — he manages to declare: “Do you ever get the feeling. That people. Are incapable. Of not caring. People are amazing.” It is a tale of reckoning, of people aton- ing for hurt they have caused, for the ways in which they have failed one another. But it is also a story of redemption, of how in the attempt to save someone else we might actually save little bits of ourselves.
Douglas Stuart’s novels include “Shuggie Bain” and “Young Mungo.”
Writer: Noah Baumbach
By Mark Ronson
It’s no secret Hollywood has been attempting to adapt Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” for nearly 40 years; the fact that most of the book takes place in protagonist Jack Gladney’s brain, his thoughts and actions brought to life in DeLillo’s peerless prose, earned it the status of being “unadaptable.” That is until Noah Baumbach got inspired while re-reading it at the start of the pandemic whilst our own world was experiencing something eerily akin to the “airborne toxic event” at the heart of the book.
Baumbach’s innate reverence for the book is there throughout but there are still plenty of moments when he diverges. My favorite example of this occurs near the end of the film when Jack (Adam Driver) and his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), end up in an emergency room, tended to by a no-nonsense German nun. Babette points to a tacky framed tableau of JFK holding hands with Pope John XXIII in heaven and innocently asks, “What does the church say about heaven today? Is it still the old heaven, like that, in the sky?” The nun stuns them with her brusque reply, “Do you think we are stupid? … We are here to take care of sick and injured. You would talk about heaven, you must find another place.”
In the book, Babette is not in the scene. It is Jack who asks this question. Jack is our hero but he’s also a blowhard academic college department head who loves the sound of his voice, thereby the passage feels more like an academic debate (albeit one laden in satire). At one point he even challenges the nun, re: the concept of angelology. The heart of Jack’s point is that he doesn’t believe in angels either, he just selfishly needs to believe that the nuns believe, to preserve his believed order of things. By placing Babette at the heart of the scene in the film version, it’s less an academic debate and more soulful, at times brilliantly comic. The nun becomes the voice of reason. And Jack and Babette, normally secular, become childlike in their desperate need to cling to something spiritual, even if it’s just the fact that a random nun believes in heaven. Because after giant traumatic events, us humans crave something, anything to place our faith in.
Noah has always made very smart films that have a lot of heart. Maybe he infused this sequence with an extra helping of heart and hope because we need it now more than ever.
Grammy-winning Mark Ronson is a songwriter and producer. He won an Oscar for co-writing “Shallow.”
‘The Woman King’
Writer: Dana Stevens
By Luvvie Ajayi Jones
“The Woman King” is a film that has stayed on my mind since I saw it, and I went to see it a second time so I can take it in even more. The screenplay by Dana Stevens painted a nuanced world, depicting a layered story about love, war and resilience. Its centering of the power of Black women, while also honoring the strength in our softness, stirred me to tears.
This screenplay and this film is a reflection, conviction, resilience poetry in motion, a love letter to Black women, an apology. It is a living example that stories that center Black women are profitable and worth telling. To see women who look like me centered, to see them affirmed, to see them being seen and lit beautifully, is a feeling that filled my heart with so much joy that I purchased a theater screening for my audience to see the story unfold.
As a West African woman myself, I’m tuned into the depictions of Africa often being singular. This story’s focus on the reverence of the Agojie women warriors in the Dahomey Kingdom was a balm. The Agojie fought alongside men, and were feared, respected and esteemed.
The legacy of slavery is deeply painful and traumatic. It is full of loss. There is no upside. But this screenplay commits to saying “we are sorry we played a part in it” on behalf of Dahomey and that in itself feels like a salve.
Dana Stevens’ screenplay, Gina Prince Bythewood’s direction and the acting of Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, John Boyega and the whole cast come together in this beautiful symphony of a film that leaves a mark on your spirit.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones has written three New York Times bestselling books, including “Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual.” Her first children’s book, “Little Troublemaker Makes a Mess” is available for preorder now.
Writers: Sarah Polley and Miriam Toews
By Thom Yorke
Sarah Polley’s script achieves something so unusual. As the women talk, debating whether to leave or stay, whether to forgive or submit to justified anger, we witness a struggle to find a new language within the spaces of a terror that remains wordless, within the black holes created by abuse.
This, for those who have seen the film, stays with you long after you have left the cinema like a word- less glow. It defies gravity by refusing to get heavy. It breaks as you or I might.
It allows the audience to breathe and laugh out loud along with them, sharing in the ridiculousness of it all by breaking holes in the words they struggle to find and mostly cannot.
Its beauty and elegance lies in allowing the actors to drop and sigh, be so very human on the big screen with us, in momentary releases from a dreadful stasis and panic. At the exact point where there so easily could be suffocation in tragedy there is brutal honesty and fragility, and so emancipation.
Sarah’s script is a profoundly subtle search for gaps in a wall of male language and mode of thought, her characters in a life-or-death search for a way to resist and break an endless cycle.
It is a masculinity that is all too aware of its power and dominance, its control of their language, its ability to crush their spirits at will. It remains a presence looming in the darkness around the barn in which they meet, but forced back … waiting, stupefied, impotent as they talk.
The modern pick-up truck arriving so absurdly blaring out “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees, their choice of silence and to walk away, these choices defy the logic of cause and effect.
Instead there is humor, freedom, love and defiance. This is the true nature of resistance.
Songwriter Thom Yorke leads Grammy-nominated band Radiohead. His new band is the Smile.
Writers on Writers: Scribes Praise 2022’s Top Films Including ‘Tár’ and ’The Woman King’