Random Movies: Best to Worst

I, Tonya

The two things I remember most about the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal, which happened when I was about ten years old, are watching a TV movie about how awful Harding’s marriage was, and the way adults around me laughed at her, especially when her skate lace broke and she started crying. Harding denies having any advance knowledge of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, and I have no idea whether or not that’s true, but I do know that, even when I was ten, it seemed mean to me to ridicule somebody who was clearly in a lot of pain already.

So, when I heard that I, Tonya was a surreal comedy, I was kind of uncomfortable about it.

What I think is interesting, and pleasantly surprising about this movie is that it doesn’t try to tell us, definitively, for sure, who was guilty of what. It’s mostly based around re-enacting interviews that Harding, her ex-husband, and others have given as well as televised events, and, when the information in those interviews and events is contradictory, I, Tonya usually just lets the contradiction stand. At the same time, it’s not neutral – it’s offering a really particular perspective on what happened that’s more compassionate and well-rounded than I expected, pretty much saying, “Here’s an incredible athlete who was frustrated in her search for recognition – there are a lot of ideas about why.”

It’s a perspective that invites us to think about things like social class and gender performance and meritocracy without really giving a sermon about them. More importantly, it invites us to think that maybe the totality of someone’s life can’t be summed up by the very worst thing they (allegedly) did.

So, in that way, it’s very clever, and much, much more emotionally intelligent than I thought it was going to be. Considering the inherent difficulty in making a movie about a real criminal case that’s still disputed, where everyone involved is still alive, I think I, Tonya achieves something really extraordinary, and I’m glad I finally watched it.

A Quiet Place

Everybody already knows what A Quiet Place is because the internet went nuts about it, but, for posterity: A Quiet Place is an understated horror/thriller/monster movie directed by John Krasinski that does the work of not only being a very competent film but also demonstrating how talented John Krasinski is to those of us who didn’t know anything about him beyond The Office (I did not know anything about him beyond The Office).

The story is set in a future where no one ever has to talk or wear shoes, but also monsters come and grab you if you accidentally make a noise. Most of it’s completely or almost completely silent. The characters communicate with each other using sign language they’ve learned because one of the children in their family is deaf. She is played by a deaf actor, and there are really wonderful interviews online where Krasinski talks about the process of making the film and how important it was to be authentic and collaborative about portraying that experience on screen.

People have (warmly, and affectionately) picked apart some of the logical inconsistencies in the film, but mostly it works really well as a story about parents struggling to protect their children in a dangerous world – trying to teach them to be appropriately cautious but also not completely terrorized. Trying to raise them with love and warmth while also struggling with some pretty intense stressors on a day-to-day basis.

In that vein, there is a sense in which this is another example of white people imagining dystopian futures where we have to deal with the bullshit people of colour face now, and there’s a possibility that the film could have been more effective as a piece of social commentary if it wasn’t about a white family. That said, I did enjoy it as-is, and it’s a very well-made movie.

Brimstone

Long story short, I was supposed to see Brimstone at TIFF a few years ago and bailed because the reviews coming out of Venice made it sound like something I didn’t want to subject myself to. I’m glad I didn’t watch it in a theatre, but it was less upsetting than I thought it was going to be.

If I were going to describe it in strictly literal terms, I’d say it’s a non-linear, slow-paced narrative about how a daughter of Dutch immigrants suffers at the hands of various men as she grows up in the old-timey American west. The violence is really extreme, 99% of it is directed at women and girls, a lot of it is sexual, and the ending is a total fucking downer.

If I were going to describe it in mythopoetic terms, I’d say it’s a narrative about the devil’s daughter trying and failing to escape her pre-ordained destiny to suffer in a version of hell built by misogynist institutions. The violence is really extreme, 99% of it is directed at women and girls, a lot of it is sexual, and the ending is a total fucking downer, but also the dominating theme is that it’s bullshit that this world punishes women just for existing. That’s a theme I can get behind.

Brimstone is messier than a lot of the other movies on this list, and it’s deeply unpleasant, and I can’t swear that every single moment of unpleasantness is necessary to advancing the film’s thesis, but it understands some things about misogyny and it doesn’t try to make them look any nicer than they are.

Some people have taken issue with the historical accuracy of what’s depicted, but I think that’s missing the point. This is not about what literally happened at some specific time and place in history – it’s about using symbols to visualize the abstract concept of a dark, twisted, churning hatred for women. If we could see misogyny the same way we can see horses and churches, the symbolism in Brimstone begins to approximate what it would look like – and, frankly, probably still isn’t ugly enough to do it justice.

I appreciate the attempt, though, and I think this movie’s doing some important work that’s getting overlooked.

Thor Ragnarok

I keep saying I’m going to quit the Marvel movies, and then the internet keeps telling me that such-and-such a movie is actually really good. I was promised Thor Ragnarok was going to be funny and have Tessa Thompson in it, and both of those things were true. I do not remember the plot.

Even though super hero movies are not my thing, I acknowledge that this is an example of a well-executed, better-than-average super hero movie, and I have a vague memory of being entertained by it.

Ocean’s 8

The most heartbreaking thing about Ocean’s 8 is that Cate Blanchett’s three-piece suits were custom made for the film and aren’t something you can buy online. My kingdom for women’s waistcoats that aren’t part of a hotel uniform supply chain.

I like this movie. It’s fun. It’s not really any better or worse than a typical heist movie, but it has a stellar cast and I appreciate the magnitude of saying, “Why not make one with all women instead of all dudes?”

Terminal

Terminal has really nice cinematography, and really nice Margot Robbie straddling the line between winningly eccentric and creepily unbalanced. I don’t remember most of the plot, except that a bunch of people come to a subway station or something, and she kills them.

Image: I, Tonya; Neon | July 20, 2018