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2021: An Escape Odyssey

Take these exits. In search of this year’s best, brightest and most immersive movies.

Dorothy Woodend 17 Dec

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

If there was ever a need for a little escapism, it is now. With that idea in mind, The Tyee has assembled our annual year-end wrap up of all things cinematic, with an emphasis on the please-put-me-out-of-my ever-living-misery, God of Movies. Or at least provide a little light distraction.

Ask and ye shall receive.

And lo, there were movies. Actually, a lot of them. Most well over two hours in length, many stretching closer to three (looking at you, House of Gucci).

I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I set foot in an actual theatre this year, but the few things I did see in a cinema weren’t always the most scintillating. The Green Knight, despite being art directed to the tits, was something of a headscratcher. As in: who is this for, exactly?

Watching it in the theatre with an audience reminded me that even before Monty Python ruined Arthurian legends for evermore, films about knights and the chivalric code were always a bit of a niche item. Witness the abject failure of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel. We can’t blame the poor old millennials this time — the film was terrible. And I’m not even talking about the ridiculous mullets and Ben Affleck playing himself.

To make medieval times palatable, you need better camp. John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur had shiny costumes, Wagnerian thunder and the truly extraordinary breasts of Helen Mirren going for it. Without that a bit of fun, medieval England just looks like a cold muddy slog. In short, it’s a drag man. The only slightly giddy moment of The Green Knight came when its eponymous knight finally got around to fulfilling his promise to cut off folks’ heads. Finally, some action!

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A still from The Green Knight, a movie that refused to acknowledge Monty Python’s death blow to Arthurian legend adaptations.

Feel free to skip away from The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, the opening-night film of the Vancouver International Film Festival, which brings English twee eccentricity to agonizing levels. In twitchy manic overdrive, Benedict Cumberbatch recreates the life and terrible times of English artist and cat fancier Louis Wain. If you’ve never heard of the man, you’re not alone — as a friend noted, they must be running out of people to make biopics about. Wain was an inventor of sorts who married the family nanny and painted pictures of pussy cats to make ends meet. Eventually, he went mad. The end.

Even James Bond proved something of a dud in the final iteration of Daniel Craig’s run as the British super spy. One had the sense that Craig was happy — to borrow a classic Canadian phrase — to get blown up real good by the end of the movie. Bring on Idris Elba please and thank you.

Better escapism was actually happening on the continent, whether in the cuckoo-for-cocoa puffs Annette or the faux-French whimsy of Wes Anderson and crew in The French Dispatch. On paper, Anderson making a homage to the glory days of a New Yorker-style magazine with a cavalcade of super dupery stars like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Timothée Chalamet ought to have been big sweet bonbon, but the director overstuffed the pudding. It’s a just a little tout much. Too arch, too actorly. After a while, drunk on art production, I collapsed in a heap muttering “Léa Seydoux nudie” under my breath.

Some of the most endearing and indelible escapist moments came from a return to more recent eras, like 2016 for example. Or even better the mid-’80s. Yum.

The Souvenir Part II and Red Rocket make an odd pairing, but both films are fuelled, for better or worse, by a force of personality at their centre. In the case of Sean Baker’s film Red Rocket, this force is a faded porn star whose machinations/predations provide an unstoppable engine that is equal parts funny and tragic.

Baker’s previous films Tangerine and The Florida Project took the underbelly of American society as their starting points. The folks in these stories might be poor, desperate and often completely out of their minds, but there is a curious species of warmth, compassion and even honour in their worlds. Although perhaps honour is the very last thing you might think of when it comes to the central character in Red Rocket, one Mikey Saber.

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A still from Red Rocket, starring Simon Rex as Mikey.

Slinking back to his hometown of Texas City, battered and bruised, Mikey (played by Simon Rex) is a force of nature, a motor-mouthed hustler whose non-stop patter releases a flood of lies, braggadocio and fabulist fantasies. But behind the bluster, there is a reptilian calculation in his eyes. Antediluvian lizard stuff that seeps out when the good old boy bonhomie falls away. It is the arithmetic of someone who carefully estimates the level of use and abuse of everyone in his nearby vicinity. Which in this case is his sad ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), her aging mother Lil (Brenda Deiss) and a spunky teenager named Strawberry (Suzanna Son) who works at the local doughnut shop.

Prior to Rocket, Rex was mostly known for his early onanistic work, as well as turn in the Scary Movie franchise. Mikey Saber would be the role of a lifetime for most actors and Rex bites into it hard, shall we say. It is a remarkable performance, one largely undertaken either half or fully naked. Rex gets some help from his own best supporting player, a jaunty fellow who makes regular appearances throughout the film, flopping and flipping like a born-again thespian. (Give that penis an Oscar!)

But enough about showy wieners, back to the actual plot. As Mikey insinuates himself into the lives of the people around him, the scope of his plans slowly emerges. The man wants to be on top again, in the world of adult entertainment, and Strawberry is his path back to horny glory. So, begins a predatory grooming, but Strawberry isn’t quite the easy mark that she first appears.

This might sound a bit icky, but Baker’s films, in spite of their underlying sadness and scramble for basic survival, are vivified with moments of extraordinary beauty.

In Tangerine, the acid-bright colours of neon-soaked L.A. ravished the eye and in The Florida Project it was the juxtaposition of faded purple kitsch next to tropical greenery that indicated the unstoppable thrust of life. The emotional weight carried by colour is a little less overt in Red Rocket, but it still plays a role. Against the backdrop of oil pumps and industrial wasteland, the lushness of the gulf coast endures, a spectral presence that unfurls green and lovely in the margins of this denigrated place.

The other thing that unites Baker’s films is the solidarity of the impoverished. When the shit truly comes down, poor people are there for each other. In The Florida Project it’s the fierce courage and loyalty of children, and in Red Rocket it’s elderly women looking out for each other. In the end, a form of quasi-justice is served and the dick gets his comeuppance. Take that as you will.

At the other end of the film world as well as the class spectrum is the figure of Julie, a young woman trying to make her way in The Souvenir Part II. Joanna Hogg’s earlier film, The Souvenir, told the semi-autobiographical story of a doomed relationship between a young woman of means and her drug-taking boyfriend. At the end of the first film, Anthony (Tom Burke) had died from an overdose. In the continuation of the story, Julie is trying to pick up the pieces of her life and get on with things, which means heading back to film school to complete her graduation project.

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A still from The Souvenir Part II, which features Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie, remaking a tragic love affair as a Roman à clef in film form.

Honor Swinton Byrne, with her floppy hair and English teeth, gives Julie equal amounts of bravado and terrible insecurity. As an artist and a young woman, she is very much in the process of trying to find herself. In the long dark shadow of her dead lover, this proves no easy feat.

Julie turns to art, remaking her love affair as a Roman à clef in film form. In so doing, she is able to exercise a kind of control that she didn’t have in real life. In addition to being a character study, The Souvenir Part II is a glorious primer on the perils of student film production. As Julie fights with her cinematographer, comforts insecure actors and battles her professors, who have no faith that her experimental personal project will actually work, she gradually comes into her own as a strong, capable, independent artist.

Many of the original film’s characters return, including Tilda Swinton as Julie’s mother, and Richard Ayoade as Patrick, who steals the entire film as the bitchiest director to ever stalk the planet. In her prim Chanel suits and wellies, Swinton is the very embodiment of the grand tradition of posh mumsies. There is genuine pathos in this relationship (no doubt helped along by the fact that the two actors are mother and daughter in real life). The conceit of a film within a film within a film might seem precious, but Hogg balances the life/art intermingling with a firm hand, melding the cathartic and the prosaic into a luminous whole.

It is a triumph on all counts.

There’s plenty more cinematic escapism left to dive into, including some of the most fascinating non-fiction options from this year, as well as a little light controversy — because what’s a year in film without people getting into slugging matches over the merits of a movie.

So stay tuned wieners!  [Tyee]

Read more: Film

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