I recently had the privilege of attending the Austin Film Festival where working and aspiring writers from all over meet every year for the Writers Conference. While the Conference was full of amazing highlights, (Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, legendary writer Lawrence Kasdan, and The Post, Mindhunter writer/producer Liz Hannah among them) I’m here to talk about the films I saw. And saw them I did. I managed to catch some of the major films of the Fall and a few awards contenders in the heart of Texas.
When I wasn’t eating $30 barbecue or delicious tacos in the invigorating city of Austin, I was in Austria rooting for a farmer disobeying Hitler during the Nazi regime, tackling art and love in 18th Century France, observing a divorce spanning New York and Los Angeles, and exploring love, family, and empathy in Miami. With cinema, you can travel to one place but end up seeing the whole world. Here are the big ones I saw in Austin:
Thanks to Bong Joon-ho, I also contemplated class division in South Korea. Parasite is the film of the year. The Korean auteur echoes Spielberg in many other ways besides genre, and the impeccable handling of suspense in this film is another clear example. There’s more to it than that however; there’s a clear handling of tone that Bong Joon-ho has always been so good at. It’s a thriller with the undercurrent of a quirky family comedy. In other words, it’s a suspenseful ride but it’s also really funny. Once you think you have a grip on this film, you’ll lose it completely. It’s an absolute blast and a sharp denouncement of the oh-so-wide gap between the poor and wealthy happening in both Korea and America. Bong Joon-ho always has something to say (The Host is one terrifying political satire) and after the playful, but wonderful Okja and the fun, but intense Snowpiercer, Parasite is probably his most mature statement yet while also being wholefully entertaining. It’s one of the best films of the decade. From Palme d’Or to Best Picture nominee? Let’s hope so. No one deserves it more than Bong Joon-ho, one the the most masterful filmmakers in the world. It’s a shoe-in for Best International Feature nonetheless. Currently in theaters.
We finally get a Harriet Tubman biopic and it feels like it wasn’t given the effort or time except by Cynthia Erivo who gives a fierce performance as Tubman. But with a borderline cartoonish slave owner who dresses more like he just landed on the shore of the New World rather than the 19th century American south, horrendous sound design, an overbearing score begging you to be inspired, and the same continuous quick flashback over and over again all you can think about is how Tubman deserves better. Way better. Perfect for classroom entertainment but only to enforce what the students have already learned in the textbook, not expand on it. Real shame. Currently in theaters.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
It’s all in the glances. Quiet and burning with desire, like the eventual painting the two lovers create together. Portrait is a stunning film, glowing bright in its indelible brushstrokes of beauty and perfection. A modern, poetic story told in period form that keeps you fully entranced in its brilliance and mystery until the trance you are in becomes more clear: when art and romance intertwine so elegantly, something beautiful and everlasting can be created. Only an achievement such as this can you make you feel so deeply. In theaters December 13th.
A Hidden Life
You are an Austrian farmer living in laborious paradise high above the clouds in St. Radegund. You have a spouse and children whom you love dearly. The year is 1939, Hitler and his Nazi leaders arrive promising prosperity and well-being with the inclusion of Austria in the Third Reich. It’s good news, Hitler is the leader we need, you pledge loyalty and brush off his atrocities as “doing what he had to do.” As much as we fear to admit it, most of us likely would’ve been that person so easily persuaded, staying on the safety of the Nazi bridge they built for us instead of swimming to stay afloat through the confining rocky rapids of uncertainty. We would be every other person walking through that village raising an arm and saying “Heil Hitler!” to every passerby. Then there’s the hidden life. He’s the one man that would rebuke Hitler’s salute in angry German. He’s the one that sees Hitler for what he is, and while no one can ever truly know God, this man knows Him enough to see that this isn’t one of His many blessings. Therefore, he must refuse. This man is Franz Jagerstatter.
Terrance Malick returns to form after some past mediocre offerings. Where his 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life explored life and the universe in the abstract, A Hidden Life, based on true events, is a more simple, linear story of God and a man’s relentless faith in Him in crisis. Also, Malick is back to World War II since the incredible study of war-torn soldiers in The Thin Red Line, but in a much different sense here. It’s much easier to follow than The Tree of Life, even with Malick’s signature camera glides and voiceover throughout the film, occasionally accentuated by still shots of the beautiful scenery in the mountains of Austria. There’s still a lot of stillness and meditation amidst the war beyond. Especially in the protagonist, Franz, who is stoic, pensive, and the utmost faithful in the village and in his family. His mother gives in to Hitler, his wife joins him but only because she understands and loves him, and his children want to play just like the ones in The Tree of Life. Even after being met with disgust by the other villagers, denied by priests, and sent to the camps, he doesn’t relent. It’s an inspiring, if not also grueling, story of faith. While Malick can be a little indulgent for his own good, the 3-hour runtime goes pretty smoothly, especially when the beautiful score goes along with the beautiful imagery that continuously graces the screen. It’s a wonder if Malick actually shoots full scenes of dialogue and then cuts them up because that’s exactly how they play. It’s like all he wants to do is get to the point, one character says a line, then cut to the camera resting on their looks and reactions and the point is clear. Next scene. It works so well maybe because only Malick can pull it off. Also, because his voiceover says a lot too but that’s just Malick.
There’s a man in the film who paints murals in churches that says in a conversation with Franz, “How can I know what I haven’t lived?” in reference to Christ dying on the cross and his reluctance to paint it; he only paints depictions of Christ happy and smiling with his disciples. “Someday I’ll have the courage to venture,” he says. “Someday I’ll show them a true Christ.” God bless the ones who cried alongside Mary when Christ was nailed to that cross. The Nazis plead with Franz, telling him that no one will remember him, that this is merely an unhistoric act that won’t change anything. But they were wrong. Because of Franz and so many other unknown hidden lives, there is a difference. A very diminutive one, but it’s there. God bless the few who would stand and defend Christ. God bless the few who would jump into the running river. God bless the hidden life. In theaters December 13th.
Texan filmmaker Trey Edward Shults said in the Q&A about his new film Waves, “It’s about empathy and understanding ultimately. And I think that’s something our culture doesn’t really understand right now… we just wanted to make it honest, all through and through.” It’s definitely an honest film and also a film about love. While it’s sort of a mess and a lot to tackle, it’s quite stunning. Every performance is amazing and the camerawork is top-notch. The soundtrack is incredible from Radiohead, Kanye, Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi, Chance and of course Frank Ocean. Miami has never looked more vibrant and colorful. Very few films hit as hard as this one does. While it goes a long way to say something so simple yet true, it works just fine in this case. Shults continues to be a talented filmmaker with his third feature and I’m excited to see what he cooks up next. In theaters November 15th.
This French film from Japanese director Hirokazu Kor-eda is his follow up to his astounding Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters. Where in that one he portrayed a poor Japanese family taking in a lost child, The Truth is a much more upscale story focused on a mother and daughter’s relationship. While The Truth isn’t as high stakes as Shoplifters nor does it pack the emotional gut-punch it strives for in the end, it’s still a wonderful story about memory and the roles our family plays in them. IFC has not yet set a release date for this film.
A solid, delightful documentary on the life of Cowboys and how they still thrive in the modern world. With beautiful cinematography from outfits spanning Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas as well as black-and-white photography from ranches in Montana, Cowboys makes you want to drop everything, ride and work your ass off with these guys. The solitude and the open country calls these men and women to their lifestyle, you have to be a certain kind of person to cowboy. My favorite part was one of the men calling out the posers: “You can spot a cowboy walking through New York City with his clothes off. You can tell the real ones and from the frauds,” he says smiling. “But it’s kind of nice that people want to dress like us.” Cowboys world premiered at Austin and does not yet have a distributor, hopefully that changes very soon.
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a gripping, painful film. But it’s also hilarious. Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson have never been better. You’ll laugh and cry while watching this film. It’s tragic and heartbreaking and real. I wouldn’t wish divorce on anybody. There’s also ostensibly an underlying theme here about New York City vs. Los Angeles but that’s a whole other discussion. Catch this on Netflix December 6th.