In my next few posts, I’ll reflect on twenty-five movies that were released between 2012 and 2021, when I lived in Brookings, South Dakota. These movies provided a cinematic backdrop to my years in that cold, sparsely populated place. This was a period of my life that wasn’t particularly happy but that ultimately means a lot to me. The films are organized in alphabetical order. Here are the first five:
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)
I cannot overstate how much I love Russian novels and how awful most adaptations of Russian novels are. Classic Russian literature simply does not conform to a typical movie’s running time. That’s true whether the running time is 95 minutes (Clarence Brown’s Anna Karenina, 1935, starring Greta Garbo), 139 minutes (Julien Duvivier’s Anna Karenina, 1948, starring Vivien Leigh), 193 minutes (David Lean’s beloved and overrated Doctor Zhivago, 1965, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie), or 208 minutes (King Vidor’s War and Peace, 1956, starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda).
Even Sergei Bondarchuk’s sprawling 431-minute War and Peace (1967) manages to fall short, despite borrowing props from forty Russian museums, employing thousands upon thousands of extras (plus nine hundred horses), and amassing insane production costs, especially when compared with the typically frugal budgets of the impoverished Soviet film industry. The film cost roughly $65 million in today’s money.
Even when filmmakers attempt to adapt a Russian novel into a lengthy television miniseries, as the BBC did with War and Peace in 2016, the results are pretty bad. The series felt rushed and stilted. The actors seemed confused and self-conscious. Lily James may make a convincing Pamela Anderson, but she’s no Natasha Rostova.
Joe Wright (director) and Tom Stoppard (screenwriter) seemed to have solved this problem of adaptation with their trim, 130-minute Anna Karenina. Wright, who had previously directed middlebrow fare like 2005’s Pride and Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement, is a competent filmmaker (especially when working with longtime collaborators like production designer Sarah Greenwood, costume designer Jacqueline Durran, and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey). But what set Anna Karenina apart from Wright’s earlier movies was Greenwood’s production design. The film was shot almost entirely on a single soundstage. Both interiors and exteriors take place in what appears to be a theater, so that almost every shot is framed by curtains and pulleys. Whole scenes occur in front of a valance and atop a wooden stage, lit with stage lights beneath a darkened theater ceiling. Each setting, whether a vast Russian landscape or a magnificent Russian palace, appears flat and artificial, but all the more vivid and memorable for it. The artificiality reminds me of the films of Guy Maddin, if Maddin decided to cater to the Downton Abbey crowd.
This central, theatrical device was almost certainly the product of Wright’s collaboration with Stoppard, the legendary playwright, whose script is lean and efficient. The action occurs swiftly, and the viewer imagined that the actors are quickly changing costumes backstage between scenes. The result is a novel and visually inspired piece of filmmaking.
I cannot praise the supporting cast of Anna Karenina enough. Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are serviceable but hardly memorable as Anna and Vronsky. Everyone else embodies their roles perfectly. Olivia Williams captures Vronsky’s sad, overbearing mother, the Countess Vronskaya; Matthew Macfadyen is self-absorbed and comical as Anna’s hapless brother, Stiva; Kelly Macdonald is lovely but pathetic as Stiva’s longsuffering wife, Dolly; Alicia Vikander is naïve and gorgeous as Dolly’s sister, Kitty; Emily Watson is intimidating as the Countess Lidia Ivanovna; and Domhnall Gleeson nails the story’s co-protagonist, Levin. You even recognize most of the tertiary characters from their many roles in BBC dramas.
But the most inspired casting decision was to give the role of Anna’s cuckhold husband, Alexei Karenin, to Jude Law. Arguably the most beautiful man alive, Law plays Karenin as a dreary sadsack who nevertheless manages to capture the audience’s sympathy (a feat Tolstoy also accomplished in the novel). His arc in this film is the best of any character. The final shot is perfect, with Karenin sitting in a quintessentially Russian field, watching over his wife’s son with affection. We leave the film with Karenin as the centerpiece, the last character standing against the strange, tragic lives of everyone else in the story.
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)
Here is what I remember: a pale blue eye. Purple-gray fog. Polluted rain. A darkened industrial cavern—with pipes and chasms like something from H.R. Giger—doubling as an orphanage. A terrifying sweatshop filled with children. A girl in a bubble conjuring dreams for machines. A blind man murdering his newborn replicant, slicing her adult-infant’s throat as she struggles to comprehend her first and last moments. The hybrid physical-digital archives, and the cultural memory of a worldwide data wipe that erased a million baby photos. A beautiful hologram, the object of an android’s unconditional love, soullessly obliterated like so much dust. A sandstorm over Las Vegas. The social and existential crisis of a caste system about to be overturned.
I’m a fan of the original Blade Runner, but Denis Villeneuve is a better director than Ridley Scott and Roger Deakins is the greatest living American cinematographer. Blade Runner 2049’s stark, climate change-ravaged Los Angeles is completely alien but horribly plausible. The world it portrays is obviously science fiction but realistic enough to induce despair for our future. We probably won’t have replicants or flying cars, but the year 2049 is going to suck, isn’t it?
I admit, I wasn’t completely sober when I first saw this movie in the Brookings theater, which made the experience a little overwhelming and a little boring. The runtime is a demanding 163 minutes. I went to pee during a critical scene and quickly lost the plot. The acting is pretty stale. Ryan Gosling is a cipher, Harrison Ford is phoning it in, Jared Leto is overdoing it as usual, Ana de Armas is little more than eye candy, and Robin Wright just seems tired. But ultimately, who cares? The acting in 2049 is still superior to the acting in the original Blade Runner. Sure, Rutger Hauer was cool but also a little too hammy, and Edward James Olmos (who makes a lazy cameo in 2049) was creepier as a costume than as an actor. 2049’s characters are a bit more interesting. Gosling’s replicant lives a real life in a sad apartment. Carla Juri is unforgettable as the fragile “memory maker.” And Dave Bautista’s haunting, too-short performance as a replicant-turned-protein farmer is career-making and totally awesome.
Upon my second and third viewings, I fell in love with Blade Runner 2049. It’s as compelling as a Stanley Kubrick movie and as lush as anything by Terrence Malick. It is more exciting than Scott’s Blade Runner, and the stakes feel much higher. Scott apparently complained that the film was too long, too slow. “I would have taken out half an hour.” Absurd. I would have taken out the entirety of Alien: Covenant but not a minute of Blade Runner 2049.
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)
Computer Chess transcends mumblecore. Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky shot the film on analog video cameras; the saturated black-and-white images recreate an eerie VHS experience. Weird, compelling, and just a little scary, Computer Chess captures the unease we should all feel when interacting with technology. And by technology, I don’t mean computers (not just computers, anyway). I remember taking classes with Professor-Rabbi Jay Holstein at the University of Iowa. Where would we be without technology?, he asked. He took off his glasses in front of us: “You’re gone,” he said. “You’re not there, you’re all a blur.” He put them back on. “There you are.”
Technology is iPhones and electric cars and airplanes, sure. But it’s also wheels, clothes, cigarettes, walking canes, bows and arrows, spears, and sticks that pull termites out of a termite mound. We have evolved to rely completely on technology. Is it possible that technology evolves through us, that we exist simply so it may exist?
Computer Chess explores this possibility, that our relationship with machines is like the relationship between prey and predator. There’s a lot about this movie I don’t understand. For instance, a human potential movement hosts a conference in the same hotel as the computer chess programmers, perhaps to suggest the comic feebleness of any human attempt to outpace our creations. The final scene is totally bizarre; I won’t spoil it, except to say that I’m not sure if I felt comforted or terrified. I don’t think it matters.
Our reliance on things—keyboards, keys, wine glasses, headphones, coffee mugs, forks, spoons, lightbulbs, toys, underwear, ottomans, books, highways, rosaries, wooden beams—must seem so strange to our fellow animals, the creatures whose planet we share. Where do we begin and the things end? I regularly drive eighty miles per hour between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. My car’s engine consumes the vapors of prehistoric carbon. I eat soup with a metal spoon, from a ceramic bowl. I write in a daily planner with pens and pencils. I taunt my cats with lasers. I play computer chess. My phone thinks for me, thinks back at me, thinks into me. “Teach me to pray,” says my prayer book. “Do Thou Thyself pray within me.” The book plays me like a fiddle. It causes me to turn in on myself, and it looks back at me knowingly. My computer, when I forget to turn it off, flashes in the night, keeping me awake.
The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)
In the Kremlin, no one can hear you scheme. Can’t beat that as a tagline, can you?
I always complain that American period dramas that portray (often badly) the courts of France, Austria, or Russia rely too much on British actors with British accents. This is not the case with Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, whose multinational cast produces the various accents that would have echoed throughout the Kremlin. Lenin delivered speeches in the voice of the upper middle class. Stalin was sensitive about his Georgian accent. Trotsky spoke Surzhyk, a dialect of the Ukrainian language. Malenkov grew up near the Kazakhstan border. Khrushchev grew up in the Donbas region and spoke like a country rube. Given these facts, The Death of Stalin is smartly cast. Jeffrey Tambor is Malenkov. Steve Buscemi is Khrushchev. Simon Russell Beale is Beria. Michael Palin is Molotov. Jason Isaacs is (magisterially) Marshal Zhukov. Who can object to any of this?
The interior sets are dark and rich in that Russian sort of way. The editing and action are fast-paced. The script, written by Iannucci with two other credits, is very funny. Andrea Riseborough, a fine British actor who has established a nice career for herself over the last decade, is perfectly neurotic as Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana. Rupert Friend is quite funny in the role of Stalin’s boorish son, Vasily. My one casting complaint: Adrian McLoughlin, who plays Josef Stalin, doesn’t quite convey the frightening combination of dull ordinariness and murderous paranoia that characterized the Soviet dictator. He gets the ordinariness just right—Stalin’s orderliness, his conventionality—but not the paranoia, the inner psychopathy. Stalin enjoyed telling jokes and playing pranks on his friends. He loved movies, especially Hollywood Westerns, but winced at any sexual innuendo in those films. He was modest and kind to strangers. He also executed at least three million people.
History repeats itself, wrote Marx, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. He continued:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.
Throughout his career, Iannucci has captured this aspect of Marx’s analysis. He writes historical farce that bites, farce that stings more acutely than tragedy. He understands how men make their own history not on their own terms. The Thick of It is one of the most frightening television series of the past two decades. It reveals the comedy of those political stalemates that inhibit progress, that limit our imaginations, that undercut our aspirations and turn the better angels of our nature into demons.
And The Thick of It is Iannucci’s portrayal of a democracy. Stalin’s U.S.S.R. was an autocracy, a brutal dictatorship wherein the wrong gesture at the wrong moment could result in a bullet in your head. Capital trials were frequently carried out in minutes by citizen courts. The Soviet famine of 1932/33 killed roughly seven million Ukrainians and one-fourth of all Kazakhstanis, but the word “famine” appears only once in Stalin’s journals. This is farcical. Power is funny, and absolute power is funnier.
Iannucci works in the tradition of Nazi movies like The Great Dictator, Mephisto, and even sillier stuff like The Producers and Hogan’s Heroes. The Death of Stalin’s script echoes Dr. Strangelove. But unlike Kubrick’s characters, whose relationships to the bomb evolve over the course of the film, Iannucci’s characters never stop worrying. Historian Stephen Kotkin has suggested that even in death, Stalin was still the most powerful man in the Soviet Union. What could be more absurd than a regime that fears a dead man’s edicts? Early in the film, a military guard, perhaps a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, is suddenly executed because he innocently witnessed Stalin’s corpse dragged by stooges from inside the dacha to a second location. How many Nazis had that guard successfully sent to their deaths in the snow? Did the guard’s father starve eating dogs, even human flesh, in Leningrad? All to be snuffed out in an accident of bad timing? Hilarious!
Simon Russell Beale and Steve Buscemi stand out as hopeless schemers. Beria was a child molester, so of course he deserved to be shot in the courtyard like an animal. Does it matter if he actually wasn’t shot for molesting children, even if that was the ostensible charge? Was Khrushchev both earnest and disingenuous in his accusations against Beria? It doesn’t matter. Everyone is guilty, so everyone is innocent, so everyone is guilty. The Soviet people, after all, had insisted on state stability, so the people are to blame when everything goes awry. The people don’t need new leaders, as Brecht said: the leaders need new people.
Putin has a sense of humor, too. Did you see the Oliver Stone documentary? He’s a cutup! Foreign Minister Lavrov made Hillary Clinton laugh during the silly “Russian reset.” Zelenskyy was the Jon Stewart of Ukraine before he was its corrupt, now heroic president. Barack Obama chose The Death of Stalin as one of his favorite films of 2017. He knew whereof he spoke.
First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2017)
“Will God forgive us?” That’s the central question of First Reformed, Paul Schrader’s magnum opus, featuring Ethan Hawke’s finest performance by a wide margin. Hawke plays Ernst, a former military chaplain and now pastor of a small, historic church called First Reformed in upstate New York. Once the center of the community’s religious life, the church is today little more than a monument to the region’s Dutch Reformed heritage. It attracts a few congregants and occasionally some tourists. The church survives on the patronage of a nearby megachurch, Abundant Life (a little too on-the-nose: there was a church called Abundant Life in Brookings, whose name I used to make fun of). Abundant Life has all the amenities you’d expect: a modern choir, rock music worship, a coffee bar, a food court, and a rollicking pastor named Joel Jeffers (played to perfection by Cedric the Entertainer). Jeffers’s sermons are more self-help book than Bible. Ernst’s church, by comparison, is the very model of the dwindling Protestant tradition. The film’s plot centers on First Reform’s 250th anniversary, a celebration funded by Abundant Life and attended by local politicians and other community leaders. Ernst struggles to understand his place within this celebration, and within the community in general.
Drawing from Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman’s Winter Light, First Reformed is a film about a man in spiritual crisis. Ernst is racked with guilt: he grew up in a military family and his only son, whom he encouraged to join the service, was killed in Iraq. His son’s death destroyed his marriage and sent him into a monastic existence within the walls of First Reformed. He keeps a journal, which he calls “a form of prayer.” Despite his Reformed education, he delves into the writings of Catholic mystics. He is an alcoholic.
One day, Ernst is approached by a young woman named Mary. She and her husband, Michael, require counseling. Mary is pregnant; Michael wants her to have an abortion; Mary is unsure. Michael refuses to seek counsel at Abundant Life—it’s more a corporation than a church, he says. Michael hates corporations. Ernst agrees to visit Michael at his home. Michael, he discovers, is a radical but pessimist environmentalist.
“How old will you be in 2050?,” Michael asks Ernst. He continues: his unborn daughter would be 33 in that year. He launches into a barrage of statistics detailing the effects of climate change between now and 2050. Once these effects reach a certain level—once fresh water becomes a scarce luxury controlled by the elite—society begins to untether. At that point, Michael observes with a portentous voice, “everything moves very quickly.” The end of the world is nigh.
Hawke’s acting in this scene is masterful. He speaks exactly as a smart, caring pastor would, keeping pace with Michael’s rant, offering objections to Michael’s worldview, but sympathizing with his despair. We get the impression that Ernst may be reaching through to him. Later, however, Mary discovers a suicide bomb in their garage. She returns to Ernst, fearful that her husband is making the leap from environmentalist to ecoterrorist. Things unravel from there.
What people fail to notice about First Reformed, a very bleak film on the surface,is how funny it can be at times, and how Schrader writes his characters with a very light touch. Ernst’s name is meant to resemble the word earnest, and his earnestness is the source of a lot of humor. He is repeatedly told the joke about a constipated Martin Luther writing a labored hymn in the outhouse, and he responds each time with quiet embarrassment. Schrader is also empathetic toward characters who wouldn’t normally elicit empathy. Cedric the Entertainer is both comical and serious as the celebrity pastor Jeffers. He is absurd in all the ways that such pastors are absurd, but his heart is in the right place. He offers genuinely useful counsel to Ernst, counsel that Ernst ignores to his own detriment. All the while, Jeffers is still a megachurch minister to the bone. He preaches the power of positive thinking, telling his flock that Jesus never suffered a day of depression in his life. Is that true? It might be. Probably.
Schrader is America’s great Protestant filmmaker, an equal to Ingmar Bergman and Carl Th. Dreyer. America’s great Catholic filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, defended The Last Temptation of Christ against accusations that it was blasphemous. Schrader was that film’s screenwriter, and he admitted that yes, it was probably blasphemous. We treated Jesus as a metaphor for humanity, said Schrader, and that constituted a misuse of Christ. This willingness to embrace the inevitability of error, of total depravity, clearly stems from a Calvinist upbring. Whatever his personal faith today, Schrader offers one of the few authentically Christian perspectives in American cinema.
I saw First Reformed in 2019, when my own religious identity was settling down and cementing into Orthodoxy. I no longer felt the agonies and driftlessness that Ernst experiences, but I very much related to them. I know what it means to be at the end of your spiritual rope. Many have objected to the film’s despairing tone, going so far as to accuse it of nihilism. I don’t see that. First Reformed isn’t pretentious enough to be truly nihilistic. Ernst is a troubled, lonely man. Crises of faith are often quite miserable. Despair is something everyone feels at some point. The future of our planet, of human civilization, doesn’t look so great. Schrader understands this. He earns the film’s bleakness. In the final analysis, First Reformed is simply a character study, a portrayal of one man’s spiritual crisis. But it gently frames his crisis within the social and planetary crises we face today. Its themes are never too grand, but always just grand enough.