There are three things that a film has to do in order to qualify for eternal blue-ribbon, Mount Olympus status and the simultaneous allegiance of Joe and Jane Popcorn along with your elitist, dweeb-level, ivory-tower critics.
One, it has to deliver the plain, honest truth (or undercurrent of truth) about a given world or situation — along with a little entertainment value, okay, but without undue exaggeration, no shallow exploitation, not too much sugar or vinegar, and no blatant bullshit of any kind. (This requirement in itself leaves out at least 80% of commercial cinema.)
Two, it has to persuade audiences to emotionally invest in it — to trust what it’s doing and where it seems to be going.
And three, it has to put you into a kind of alternate-reality mescaline dream state that you want to stay in and never leave, or at least make you want to return to frequently — a realm that feels so inviting or stylistically transporting that you want to live in it, even if it seems a bit dangerous.
Yes, of course — all movies are dream states, in a way. The better ones always lead to a certain primal feeling of alteration or discovery (the film has taken you to an entirely new but seemingly straightforward place) or emotional comfort and reassurance. But the ones that hit the jackpot are the ones that tell you what this or that slice of life on planet earth (or life aboard an intergalactic space cruiser) is basically like …how it really is…the full, honest, non-delusional truth of things.
There is no bullshit and nothing but truth in The Bicycle Thief (notice that I didn’t call it The Bicycle Thieves), North by Northwest, East of Eden, Mean Streets, Repo Man, Election, The Hospital, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, David Fincher‘s Mindhunter series, Gunga Din, Some Like It Hot, Two Women, La Strada, Zero Dark Thirty, Vertigo, Fellini Satyricon, Manchester By The Sea, Paths of Glory, Vertigo, Nomadland, Only Angels Have Wings, Collateral and 12 Years A Slave.
Except I didn’t want to live in or even visit the Nomadland realm (bucket pooping, bald tires, borrowing money for van repairs, shooting the shit around campfires) so I guess it doesn’t qualify.
Let’s look at the 2021 Best Picture contenders and ask ourselves “which of these films did we actually want to live in, or at least frequently visit?” The general truth is nobody wanted to live in [most of] these films, and that’s one basic reason why nobody watched last month’s Oscar telecast.
I like Anthony Hopkins‘ spacious apartment in The Father, but I didn’t want to live there because it was flooded with delusion and decrepitude. I respected the Lumet-like mood and textures of Judas and the Black Messiah, but I sure as shit didn’t want to live in it, good heavens — too dour, too doomed, too grim and shadowy. I didn’t really want to live in Mank because as handsome and carefully calibrated as Eric Messerschmidt‘s Oscar-winning cinematography was, it didn’t feel like a place that I trusted or believed in. I wouldn’t want to visit the world of Minari for even a half-hour, much less visit frequently or (God forbid) live there. Promising Young Woman? No, thanks. Sound of Metal conveyed a transcendent truth about the richness of silence, but I didn’t want to live in it because I don’t want to be deaf.
The only Best Picture nominee that I was half-interested in living in was Aaron Sorkin‘s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Because I liked the intellectual company.
Sometimes mildly underwhelming films based on decent-but-unexceptional plays pass along serious, ground-level truths. I wrote last year about Middle of the Night (’59), and how it’s “about loneliness and guilt and fear of social judgment that you’re not behaving as you should (or as your family wants you to behave), and the opposing notion that you may as well lunge at whatever shot at temporary happiness that comes along because life basically sucks (unless you’re rich and even then it can feel bland and draining) and no one gets out alive.”
Did I want to live in the world of Middle of the Night? Fuck no.
I will forgive a film for not being an inviting place to hang in or visit if it’s being relentlessly honest about itself and the world it’s depicting. But the best kind of film tells the truth and offers an extra-cool hang in terms of environment, style, vibes.