Critics are not supposed to look to art for escape from the disappointments and terrors of life. That seems to be the implicit understanding between critic and reader, at least, and probably why people resent critics.
Even as a critic myself, I get it. Some of the most prestigious film critics working routinely offer observations about cinema that seem to have no earthly connection with how most people watch movies. A particular pet peeve for me is the refusal among the elite to acknowledge genre films, unless they come outfitted with a fashionable political subtext. On the other side of the spectrum, you have critics who’re so terrified of accusations of elitism they seem to like everything, which is equally useless.
What most reviews don’t grapple with, what the formula of a typical review doesn’t really allow for, is the acknowledgement that movie-watching is like any other experience in life: informed deeply by context, from the wonderful or awful day at work to money problems to windfalls to loud children to cute children to frustrations or triumphs with your partner. I, for instance, have been having health problems, as I discovered in January that my legs were riddled with blood clots. This calamitous surprise cut off income from my day job, initially incapacitated me, intensified tensions with my partner, and starkly reminded me that, at 42, middle-age has truly sailed into port. (As I type this, I am on the verge of resuming much of my normal life, and am quite grateful for it.)
On my couch with my legs propped up, with a heating pad under my back, especially after returning from a couple of hospital stays, I searched my Blu-rays and various streaming channels looking for a visceral, well, escape, especially early on when my legs were swollen to nearly twice their size and unfathomable for me to look at. Many of these movies I’ve been wanting to see or revisit for a while, many of them happened to simply strike me at the right time, and others were clicked out of boredom while searching for something to watch. If we wish to psychoanalyze a bit, it seems I was preoccupied with American movies of the ‘90s, a time when my interest in cinema crystallized during my teenage years. Perhaps I wanted to “go home again,” or perhaps the Criterion Channel simply happened to have a really good series outlining American Sundance offerings.
None of these movies were watched with an article in mind, even if one seems to have grown out of the experience, and no sense of structure, breadth, or completism was consciously pursued. In fact, I was resisting those critic-y concerns and just being a sick dude. So now I offer you an abridged version of my viewing list.
“A Perfect World” (1993)/ “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995)
Two underrated Clint Eastwood movies, made in that transitory period between the peak of “Unforgiven” from 1992, and the slew of acclaimed movies he’d eventually release as a certified American master in the aughts. “A Perfect World” turns the crook-on-the-run template upside down, featuring a career-best Kevin Costner and offering long, emotionally unmooring scenes that exemplify Eastwood’s gift for allowing moments to breathe. That gift is on more pronounced display in “The Bridges of Madison County,” in which an unreadable ’90s-era beach book is transformed into a rhapsody of connection unexpectedly found among the detritus of middle-aged disappointment and quickly lost. Eastwood’s famous methods – shooting few takes for the sake of keeping a scene’s mojo real and alive — bring out something sensual, playful, and feverish in Meryl Streep that no other filmmaker has captured. Eastwood is nearly her match onscreen, revealing his manly image to mask profound need. “A Perfect World” was rented on Amazon, while “The Bridges of Madison County” is available on HBO Max.
“The Waterdance” (1992)
I watched this because it involves dudes in hospitals, and I had just gotten out of one. And I’m glad I did, as the film handles a man’s grappling with paralysis with a sensitivity and a toughness that is highly unusual in American cinema. Written by Neal Jimenez based on his own experiences, and co-directed with Michael Steinberg, “The Waterdance” follows a trio of men who seem to each embody an emotional aspect of adopting to trauma. Newly paraplegic Joel (Eric Stoltz) is aloof and cool, burying his reactions, while Bloss (William Forsythe) is a volcano of uncertainty and rage who’s routinely egged on by Raymond (Wesley Snipes), a lonely, broken man who fashions himself a mac daddy. Jimenez doesn’t impose a plot on these characters. He watches them, follows them, as they attempt to work their way toward their own form of grace. This one really is due for rediscovery. Available on The Criterion Channel.
Stephen King served up straight with no chaser, “Cujo” remains one of the most underrated American horror movies of the 1980s. I revisited the film because its sense of the chaos of normal life, as eventually apotheosized by a rabid dog, obviously resonated right now. Dee Wallace Stone is wrenching as an imperiled mother, and the animal work is sensationally, relentlessly convincing. Come for the horror, stay for the subtle class parable as poor, deteriorating Cujo upsets the apple cart of not one but two crumbling marriages existing on literal opposite sides of the tracks. Available on Hulu.
“Mr. Jealousy” (1997)
Eric Stoltz again, this time re-teaming with writer-director Noah Baumbach after the caustic and moving college comedy “Kicking and Screaming.” What happened to Stoltz? Survey the American indie scene from the ‘90s and you’ll find he was in everything and never not superb. Here, Stoltz plays a reliable, all-too-real-in-life type: the artistic sort who’s intelligent and vaguely talented but who never seems able to corral his abilities in the service of achieving something tangible. Such frustrations lead to defensive pretension, and to a raging jealousy issue with his girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra), who once dated a real writer (former Whit Stillman MVP Chris Eigeman). A farcical plot, involving recently deceased actor-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich as a therapist, never comes into focus, but Stoltz gives Baumbach’s absurdist witticisms pathos and bite. Available on the Criterion Channel.
“Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959)
Director Robert Wise is generally known for square and mammoth productions such as “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music,” but “Odds Against Tomorrow” reveals that he had a flair for the sort of pseudo-realist noir that we generally associate with the French New Wave. Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, and Ed Begley play down-and-outers planning a bank robbery —so far, so familiar— except that the film spends over an hour of its trim 96 minutes weaving in and out of these men’s personal lives. It’s less a genre film than a gritty, evocative character study, with Belafonte and Ryan providing much of the juice, as Ryan’s character is a racist who distrusts his African-American con-conspirator. As in the even nastier sociological noir “Crossfire,” Ryan doesn’t pull his punches, doesn’t give a damn whether you like him or not, and Belafonte invests his character with simmering, tightly coiled reserves of accommodation and resentment. The ending is inevitable and galvanic. Available on the Criterion Channel.
“Sorry to Bother You” (2018)
I never saw this film when it was all the rage a few summers ago and that’s a shame, as the hype is justified. In his directorial debut, artist Boots Riley tells the story of a broke African-American telemarketer, Cassius (LaKeith Stanfeld), who ascends the ranks of a loathsome company by adopting a “white voice” that coerces clients into buying whatever from him. The white voice is among Riley’s better conceits, as it’s disembodied from Cassius and his co-workers and, at times, suggests a sentient entity that could overtake their consciousness. Riley’s obsession with various permutations of white original sin recalls Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled,” and at its best “Sorry to Bother You” works up a similar head of outrage that bridges the personal with the political with the corporate strata of modern life. Such associations are complemented by the film’s setting and look, as this pseudo-futurist Oakland blends extreme poverty with wealth, suggesting the porous line between each, especially in marketing. (Think “Repo Man” as reset in a bombed-out art gallery, and you’re close to approximating this intensely artisanal film’s stylistic vibe.) Riley’s ambitions nearly get the better of him near the film’s end though, as he swerves into the realm of allegorical horror and risks rendering his dazzling satire obvious. His willingness to take such risks, however, is exhilarating. Available on Netflix.