As 2019 crawls to a close, a reflection on some of the more noteworthy cinematic achievements offers a glance at a handful of films that appear to be very dissimilar. At least, that seems to be the case initially.
Think of the sicko, demented plunges of Joker, a perfect comic book film, compared to the low-key intimacy of an indie sleeper like Gloria Belle. Consider the sweeping Swedish landscapes of the panoramic, daylit nightmare of Midsommar alongside the sunbaked Florida fever dream depicted in The Beach Bum, probably the year’s most underrated, fuck-the-man effort, alongside Tarantino’s sun-bleached vision of Los Angeles in 1969?
There is a membrane that stretches through all of these movies that places them under a unique and recognizable aesthetic umbrella. They all share a distinct and fascinating common denominator: a kind of personal, deeply idiosyncratic sense of rhythm and pacing.
The best features of the year establish an offbeat, slow-burn pacing that elevates them beyond the average movie-going experience. In that exact sense, they demand to be viewed on their own terms. They are films that essentially teach you how to watch them, constantly subverting your preconceived notions. This is most noticeably true for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which boasts an ending so flagrant and flummoxing that I had to see it twice. Some have admitted to seeing it four times in the cinema. I’m aware of at least two people who saw it seven times.
And this is not surprising when you think more deeply about the trance-like state that films like Hollywood or Midsommar or Joker induce. There’s a dedication to nuance on display. The camera’s eye in these films aren’t aimed merely at the Kantian thing-in-itself (the acting, the cinematography, the locale, the dialogue), but the feelings spawned by the thing-in-itself. And, mind you, not the audience’s feeling, but the writer-director’s — read: auteur’s — feeling for the composition.
What sets these movies apart from the fleet of mediocrities — those bloated, cacophonous, computer-generated swamps that are designed and destined to make a billion — is their insistence on being experienced on their own terms. They present The Word, not “The Word” ironically or knowingly or glibly.
As absolutely original as Hollywood is, subtly persuasive indie entries like Gloria Belle might take this notion even further than the rest. There’s not a single scene that adheres to conventional cinematic storytelling. The conversations are bumpy and persistently awkward. Not every scene moves the story forward like some executive-sanctioned, well-oiled storytelling machine. And yet, the sheer rawness and peculiarity of all the scenes accumulate and stack up into a crescendo of a finale that combines both climax and denouement into one breathtaking single take. I recall Julianne Moore portraying a minimum of twelve specific, visceral emotions without saying one word and it’s absolutely arresting.
Gloria Belle, Hollywood, Midsommar, Joker and the other aforementioned astonishments have this singular quality that makes the viewer come to the screen. They draw you in and dare to tell a story you didn’t expect to hear in a way you didn’t expect to hear it. Their strange rhythms beckon and beguile and bewilder. God bless them — audiences need movies like this; movies that knock you out of your static state of consciousness for an hour or two or three.
In that regard, they offer the direct opposite of tentpole, big budget, CGI dumpster fires, those anti-movies (cf. Scorsese, Coppola, Cronenberg, Iñárritu, Ridley Scott, Bong Joon-Ho, et. al.) that aren’t too far off from the addictive film in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that paralyzes audiences until they die, donning the same pallid death masks they wear as they imbibe these video-games-come-to-brain-damaging-life.
Joker proves that these overcooked, corporatized Marvel/Disney picture shows (that’s what they are, in the purest sense) are doing it wrong. In fact, Joker flips the bird to these stuff-suited notions of what a comic book movie is in as little as two scenes.
Consider the genuinely disarming moment that begins with out-of-context, inexplicable laughter. Then the laughter continues. And it goes on. And then it goes on some more. And then it still doesn’t stop. The editing is what really ups the ante on that genuinely artistic and sly storytelling technique at work here. Or recall the operatic, off-the-wall psycho-ballet in the bathroom. You think the story will go one way, but it reverses and, in doing so, presents pathos and insight into the human condition.
Scenes like these, which juxtapose silence and sound as effectively as the black and white monster movies from Universal’s heyday, work for audiences because they induce a diametrically opposite state of mind. And anyone who buys a movie ticket — especially these days — is, at some level, looking for that exact thing.
If there is a more effective way to encounter the elation of pure, id-fueled, joyful anarchy than Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum, I don’t know what it is. Matthew McConaughey in this movie pretty much made my year, as a moviegoer. It’s possible that I’m the only one who feels that way because I’m one of the only people who saw it. (It pulled in a whopping $4.3 million on a $5 budget.)
Again, the unhinged rhythm of an endlessly creative writer-director dictates the experience of the film, which is anchored by McConaughey’s ecstatic performance, the white yang to Joaquin Phoenix’s fragile-turned-furious black yin. What’s especially remarkable about both films, especially when you entertain the idea that the protagonists are flipsides of each other, is how effectively they hurtle you, vein deep, into a precise point-of-view, a headspace you equally want to flirt with living in and running away from.
Movies like this introduce you to a frame of mind that is intriguingly connected to what Aristotle meant when he used the word catharsis in his definition of poetry, i.e. drama. You cannot experience a catharsis, or cleansing, without an immersive encounter with a different perspective. Isn’t that the mind game that Joker plays with you? You might leave feeling purified because you survived an animalistic encounter with full-on psychosis. But you couldn’t experience that catharsis without being totally creeped out and sickened by the malevolence of existence — the essence, some might say, of drama.
It’s no mistake that the first element that separates drama from other arts, according to Aristotle, is the distinct and utilitarian use of “rhythm, harmony, meter, melody.” When you watch the best movies of 2019 in light of the earliest extant work of dramatic theory, you might think you’re reading prophecy. Let the critics, audiences, and award ceremonies determine what’s great acting, writing, directing and design. It’s already clear to me what made the most striking films of the year stand out: they elevated their art by idiosyncratically innovating the use of rhythm, harmony, meter and melody.
Chris Karr is a contributing writer for The Epoch Times. His reviews, interviews and cultural criticism has appeared in Highbrow Magazine, Time Served, Radio Facts and Film Vault. He is co-creator of the TV series Server Life as well as the producer and co-director on Vials, an original pilot available through Amazon Prime. Mr. Karr lives in Los Angeles.