My ongoing quest to write as many words about the films of 2020 as possible continues. If you’re interested, check out parts one, two, and three.
I live in the country, where there’s a lot of space between houses. I also have five dogs who all need to be walked, so you’ll see me out there on the side of the road a lot. I see a plenty of litter: empty cans of White Claw, cigarette butts, sometimes bags of garbage. You know what I see the most? Gatorade bottles filled with urine. This year, especially since the pandemic hit, there are more than ever. I could never figure out why someone would pee in a plastic bottle and just throw it out the window, instead of stopping somewhere to use the proper facilities. Sorry We Missed You explained it to me.
British director Ken Loach has been making films about the struggles of the working class for decades, but with Sorry We Missed You, his subject has risen to meet him. It’s a film about the gig economy, which reduces workers to pissing in bottles. It’s the story of Ricky, a husband and father of two, who takes a job as a delivery driver. There are warning signs all over the place, but he’s so desperate for steady work that he ignores them. He is lured in by the opportunity to be technically self-employed and own a “franchise,” but all this really means is he has to buy his own van, put himself into immediate, long-term debt, and still be beholden to the bullying tactics of his bosses. He has to work even when he’s too tired or sick to think straight. He also has to stick to the ludicrously tight delivery schedules set out by his bosses or risk losing the good routes. This is why a colleague gives him an empty Gatorade bottle at the beginning of his first shift.
Loach chronicles the toll it takes on Ricky’s mind and soul with his trademark no-frills approach and a deep focus on the human cost of capitalism. The performances are heartbreaking, and the world he depicts harsh and familiar. Sorry We Missed You is designed to make you furious, and it succeeds marvelously. It’s not “the film we need right now,” as my fellow critics love to say. It’s a film we’ve always needed and always will.
In the best film made yet about sexual harassment in the era of #MeToo, director Kitty Green goes against expectations. This isn’t a film about a primary victim of sexual abuse. It’s about collateral damage. Julia Garner stars as Jane, an executive assistant to a powerful indie movie producer. He’s probably not Harvey Weinstein because we never learn his name or see his face. Then again, he might be Harvey Weinstein because we never learn his name or see his face. Jane spends her days cleaning the stains off his couch, returning jewelry to the actress who left it there the night before, liaising with Park City waitresses the producer flew to town to fuck them in a hotel room, and generally trying to convince herself this is all normal so she can continue pursuing her dream of making movies.
Over the course of a single day in Jane’s life, Green masterfully elucidates both the banality and the evil. It’s in the way the Jane is somehow considered less than her male counterparts (the monster has three assistants), how it’s she who is asked to lie to the producer’s wife about his whereabouts, and, most especially, how her male co-workers get a subtle but unmistakable pleasure in watching her be humiliated like this. Although it takes place on one day, The Assistant is not a film about a single incident of sexual violence. It’s about a culture of misogyny. It’s about how the trauma of sexual abuse ripples outward, creating crises of complicity and ruining lives.
On that Saturday morning when the presidential race was called for Joe Biden, and we were pretty sure Trump would have to leave office, all I wanted to do was go to a bar in Manhattan, get absolutely trashed with a bunch of strangers, give out copious hugs and high-fives, and randomly break out in a “Fuck Trump” chant. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in a decade, but I’d smoke one with you: Step outside and bum one just to chat you up and watch the revelry in the streets. Then I’d go back inside and drink some more until all my joy was drained. Then I’d probably insult the bartender and get thrown out.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets captures this particular magic. It was made using controversial methods. It passes itself off as a documentary chronicling the last night of business of a dive bar in Las Vegas, where regulars get shit-faced as they say goodbye to their home away from home. In reality, the filmmakers “auditioned” barflies from around the country, brought them to a bar in their hometown of New Orleans, gave them a broad set-up, and filmed them interacting. They aren’t playing characters; they’re being themselves. But the evening was filmed twice and then edited down into one film.
Some critics had a problem with a film like this passing itself off as a documentary. Truthfully, the best way to describe it is as an improvised film with non-actors. But I don’t care. I’ve been in this world, and I’ve known these people, and this film is the truth. The film has all the rhythms of a celebratory night out at a dive bar. The fun, low-stakes afternoon hours during the day, where you watch daytime TV together and chat like office mates; the thrilling first few hours of the evening when everyone is in love with each other; and those desperate final minutes, when the people who didn’t go home with someone try to start shit because if they can’t fuck, they’re sure as shit gonna fight.
The humans of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets would be bit players in any other film. They’d be comic relief. But the filmmakers here give them a spotlight and let us look at them more deeply than we’ve ever done on film and certainly in real life. We see veterans who have been left down by their country; women who’ve lost their children; and artists who didn’t make it. They’re outcasts, every one of them. And aren’t those the best kind of people?
I have a beautiful home, two jobs, five dogs, a wonderful wife, and good friends who care about me. But man, I miss those days spent in bars. Because the most honest thing you’ll ever hear is what two failures tell each other when they they’re drunk enough to think no one is listening.
2. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
If Escher made a horror film from a script by Woody Allen, it might look something like I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I watched it twice in two days. The first time, I understood very little of what actually “happened” in it, but I loved its imagery, its mood, and its ideas. I approached it the way you might reckon with David Lynch; as a nightmare. The second time, I connected a few dots and “figured it out,” and I loved it just as much. It’s not a film with a twist ending, but it has a twist embedded in its core, and if you discover it, you’ll have a clear understanding of its underlying plot. If you don’t, you’ll just feel it. I can’t recall another film that succeeds both ways.
It’s about a young woman going to meet her boyfriend’s family, even though she’s already decided to break up with him. From the beginning, strange things are happening. We hear her thoughts in voice-over, but he responds as if he can hear them. When they get to the house, his parents start to change in age as they move from room to room. There’s a dog who shakes himself off after coming in from the snow, and simply never stops shaking. She doesn’t understand what’s happening, but she goes with it because she has no choice. Life is terrifying and confusing, but you can’t really say that to anyone, and after all, you still need a ride home.
It’s the rare film that is both completely visual and fundamentally verbal. You could watch it without the sound and be riveted. There are two long scenes in the car, and director Charlie Kaufman and director of photography Lukasz Sal keep the camera moving, refusing the external stasis and mirroring the shifting turmoil underneath. You could likewise close your eyes, and simply listen to the whole movie. The classical score by Jay Wadley pulls from several Debussy and Ravel pieces, but never stays on a theme long enough for us to feel settled.
This movie is alive in a way that very few films are. It’s a reflection of our mutable world, and how meaning exists always outside our grasp, close enough to touch but never to hold.
Sorry to do this, but to be continued one more time…