I watch movies for those moments that connect me to something – that wake up a dormant part of me, that shatter an assumption, that give me a glimpse of how other people experience being alive. This year, for reasons I’m sure you can imagine, I’ve been drawn to films about unfairness, inequality and imbalances of power. Here, in no particular order, are 10 moments that are still playing on the movie screen behind my eyes.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood: Stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is dropping a hitchhiker, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), at the Spahn Movie Ranch, where he used to work. He wants to say hi to the ranch’s owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), but something here is … off. Hippie girls (played by Lena Dunham, Dakota Fanning and a host of daughters of Hollywood, including Uma Thurman’s daughter Maya Hawke and Kevin Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn Smith) spill out of the dilapidated buildings and stare at him with dead eyes. Spahn’s house reeks of half-eaten canned food, Velveeta and TV dinners. A rat squeaks in a glue trap.
The takeaway: For those too easily led, the Hollywood dream is dangerous.
Booksmart: Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) wants to leave a party; her best friend Molly (Beanie Feldstein) wants to stay. “You always do this,” Molly complains. Amy counters, the anger escalates, and suddenly two young women who love each other are yelling things they don’t like about each other. The dialogue drops out, replaced by sad piano music; the camera moves as if torn between them. But the expression in their eyes isn’t anger, it’s fear.
The takeaway: Ignore what a century of screen cat fights has ingrained in you. The women who made this movie know that an argument between best friends is a lonely, scary, sick-making event.
Bombshell: Kayla (Margot Robbie) wants to be on air at Fox, and her meeting with honcho Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) is going well. Until he asks her to lift up her skirt. Gingerly, she tugs up the hem. “Don’t play around,” he rasps, his breathing becoming sexual. “Higher. Higher.” He never moves from his chair, but he’s violating her. Her face is a study in misery and shame.
The takeaway: For those who think sexual harassment is murky and that #MeToo is a drag, this scene will clarify things. To quote Thelma and Louise, “When a woman is crying like that, she isn’t having any fun.”
Ford v Ferrari: Car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), fed up with cajoling his boss, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), decides to show him what a race-car driver does. He stuffs Ford into his prototype and roars off at throat-constricting speed, swerving, cornering, squealing. Ford, pinned back in his seat, howls in fear. Shelby slams the brakes. A beat of stillness, then: Ford bursts into tears. Helpless, wah-wah, shoulder-shaking tears.
The takeaway: If someone knows better than you, listen to them, even if they have less money or power than you.
Atlantics: These young men worked for months without pay, building a skyscraper for the wealthy on the African coast. Then they fled to Spain in a too-small boat. Now they – what’s left of them – describe that journey to women who love them. “We saw a mountain in the distance,” one says. But it turned out to be an immense wave, “and we were cast into the depths.”
The takeaway: How long can this go on, that towers continue to rise, while exploited workers drown?
Parasite: The rich homeowners have gone camping, and the economically disadvantaged family who cook for, drive and teach them have moved in. The son reads a book on the lawn (“I’m gazing at the sky from home. It’s so great.”) The daughter takes a bath. As evening falls, the father pours booze into crystal glasses. “This is pretty classy,” he says, looking out the wall of windows. “Rain falling on the lawn, as we sip our whiskies.”
The takeaway: The poor don’t want to destroy the rich. They just want to share. You are correct if you imagine that does not work out.
Queen & Slim: After their encounter with a racist cop turned deadly, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) became reluctant folk heroes. But here in this juke joint, they think they’re incognito. For the length of one song, they’re just a woman and a man, dancing. Gradually, they realize everyone in the place knows who they are – and everyone wants to protect them.
The takeaway: There are few safe places for people of colour in today’s United States. If only that were treated like the crime it is.
Pain and Glory: There’s a twist at the end, involving film director Salvador (Antonio Banderas, representing the film’s real writer/director, Pedro Almodovar) and his mother (Penelope Cruz). I won’t tell you what it is. But I will say that it throws the whole movie into beautiful relief and makes it even more rueful and sweet.
The takeaway: If half of life is thoughtlessly hurting others, and the other half is regretting that we can’t undo that, at least we can be kinder now. And that’s something.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Journalist Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) interviews children’s TV icon Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) over lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Rogers asks Lloyd to sit silently with him for one minute, while they think about “the people who loved us into being.” Lloyd protests. “They will come to you,” Rogers assures him. For a full minute, the two men, everyone in the restaurant and, inevitably, we in the audience, fall silent.
The takeaway: We leave wondering how we ever let it come to this, that kindness is so hard to believe in.
Marriage Story: Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole’s (Scarlett Johannson) marriage is over. Now, Charlie is back in New York, drowning his sorrows with theatre friends. The piano player breaks into Steven Sondheim’s Being Alive, about the impossible necessity of love. Charlie stands and sings, at first playfully. But with every line – “Somebody, hold me too close. Somebody, hurt me too deep” – the camera pushes slowly in, until the man is the song. If your heart doesn’t crack on his last note, I can’t help you.
The takeaway: Alone is alone, not alive. Happy holidays, everyone.
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