Paul Valéry wrote that taste is made of a thousand distastes. Generally, it feels better to share the former than the latter, and toward the end of each year, when distributors display the wares they’re proudest of for awards season, there’s no shortage of good movies to enthuse about, so I’m more inclined to pick and choose among the lesser ones. Many of them will vanish without leaving much of an artistic trace, or even a cultural one—defining “cultural” here as everything in the arts that gets talked about other than aesthetics. But then come the Oscar nominations, which give movies instant prominence, thus creating journalistic necessities of their own. I’ve already reviewed seven of the ten Best Picture nominees: “Anatomy of a Fall,” “Barbie,” “The Holdovers,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Maestro,” “Oppenheimer,” and “The Zone of Interest.” The remaining three, all of which I first saw months ago, are far from inconsequential, but others stoked stronger responses at the time. Now, however, the fact that they are in the running for a major prize stokes responses, too, and prompts me to clarify why I wouldn’t have put any of the three in my own list of the year’s best movies.
Near the end of this adaptation of Percival Everett’s dazzlingly polyphonic 2001 novel “Erasure,” the writer and director Cord Jefferson introduces a deft metafictional twist of his own. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal it, except to say that it explicitly emphasizes the difference between a movie and a novel—or, rather, what’s needed to make a filmed adaptation a success. It’s an inspired change, but there’s also something self-justifying about it, as if the filmmaker is giving himself carte blanche for all the other changes he makes to the source material. And, unfortunately, Jefferson’s other changes mostly strip out what makes the book a fascinating and complex portrait of a writer in crisis—namely, voice.
The movie, like the book, tells the story of a Black writer and college professor named Thelonious Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), nicknamed Monk, who is having trouble getting his latest novel published, because it’s based on Aeschylus’ “The Persians” and not on what editors consider the Black American experience. When Monk learns that an Oberlin-educated Black woman with a publishing background has written a best-seller that, to his mind, merely perpetuates noxious stereotypes, he adopts a “ghetto” literary persona and writes a parody in the same vein. Lo and behold, it’s bought for hundreds of thousands of dollars, sold to Hollywood for millions, and nominated for a major literary award. Meanwhile, Monk, the son of educated, upper-middle-class professionals, is involved in family issues and romantic troubles that represent exactly the kind of Black lives that, the movie suggests, publishers (and filmmakers) ignore.
The Monk of Everett’s novel is a complicated person. An intellectual obsessed with Continental philosophy and literary theory, he makes cerebral asides in French and Latin, and prizes literary gamesmanship. (He’s working on a novel about subjecting Roland Barthes to his own post-structuralist methods.) The Monk of Jefferson’s film is a tweedy humanist, a relatively traditional reader whose daily vocabulary isn’t chockablock with theory and arcana, whose outward difference from non-literary nonintellectuals isn’t quite so awkward and conspicuous. Everett’s Monk writes a parody that is overt and outrageous; it features poor Black children bearing such names as Aspireene and Tylenola, and it also involves an obvious, extended antic adaptation of Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” The parody in the film combines standard-issue macho violence and intentionally cheap sentiment. The Monk of “Erasure”—the very title is derived from a story about Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg that Monk recalls—is intensely and floridly performative, a master of many voices. Everett writes him, and, for that matter, the entire novel with a precise, arch, yet extravagant and brilliant sense of style. Jefferson’s movie is notably style-challenged, filmed with a script-bound literalness—pictures of actors acting and dispensing dialogue. (Fascinatingly, it’s in the few scenes that break the naturalistic narrative framework and leap into imagination and metafiction that Jefferson creates boldly inspired images as well.)
In general, “American Fiction” is provocative—calculatedly so—but watered down. The novel’s powerful literary identity is reduced to talking points, and even those are often defanged. For example, Monk’s sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a doctor at a clinic that provides abortions; in the movie, she dies of a heart attack; in the book, she’s murdered by an anti-abortion activist. When I saw the movie for the first time, I hadn’t read the book, but it was impossible not to feel that something was missing—some sense of style and of abandon.
One of the prime differences, year in, year out, between my best-of lists and the Oscars’ Best Picture nominees is the Academy’s habitual rejection of low-budget films—with a few exceptions. Low-budget filmmaking is where the Oscars go in search of a lost idealism, rarely in the realm of art, more often in the realm of social virtue, or even just of something somewhat genteel. Yet most of the best independent films are as tough-minded and as unflinching as movies by hard-nosed, conflict-tested veteran auteurs, and several such movies would indeed have been among my Best Picture list of ten. Once again, this year, the Best Picture nominees include one relatively low-budget film—“Past Lives,” the first feature by Celine Song—and it’s in line with its mild-mannered predecessors.
“Past Lives” is a story structure in search of a movie, a screenplay framework that’s still waiting for its characters to be written. It’s set in three separate time frames, each twelve years apart. At the age of twelve, Na Young (Seung-ah Moon) immigrates to Canada with her family, leaving behind Hae Sung (Seung-min Yim), the boy with whom she shares a puppy romance. They have no contact for a dozen years; then Na Young—now called Nora (and played as an adult by Greta Lee) and living in New York—learns that Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) has been looking for her online. She gets in touch, and they resume their relationship via Skype or the like, but both are in school (Nora, to become a writer; Hae Sung, for engineering); neither is willing to travel to see the other, and Nora, feeling that she has too much investment in this tele-relationship with no apparent future, breaks off their contact. Twelve years pass, and Hae Sung goes to New York and sees Nora in person for the first time in twenty-four years. By now she has had plays produced and has married another writer, Arthur Zaturansky (John Magaro). The question is whether the characters’ love in early life and the one that re-blossomed at a distance in their twenties will become a reality now that they are thirty-six.
The movie plays like a screenwriting assignment, its three acts divided with a ruler. The structure of “Past Lives” is mussed just enough, by a few interstitial scenes (as when Nora schleps out to a residency and meets Arthur there), to efface any sense of formalism or unnatural rigidity. Normally, when watching a movie and wishing that certain things had been included, certain scenes filmed, it’s a challenge to imagine what could have been cut to make room for them. In “Past Lives,” there are scenes that stand out, conspicuously, as mere illustrations to establish facts as if by cinematic affidavit.
Arthur and Nora, he suggests, have read the same books and watched the same movies, and he has words of wise counsel to offer about her plays. Which books and movies? What are her plays? He has written a novel called “Boner”; is it as provocative as its title? For that matter, is Arthur? The genteel and stifled little world depicted in “Past Lives” would be punctured by a stray idea, a casual opinion, a direct reference, a loose remark. But “Past Lives” is a movie of A students, by A students, for A students so accustomed to analyzing works for their structure and their unities that they connect around a movie that, apart from the actors’ own presences, offers nothing else. It makes being a writer or playwright in New York look like the most joyless, airless, intellectually barren, experientially deprived activity one can imagine—yet avoids any actual sense of the milieu, the people, the activities in question.
After seeing “Past Lives” for the first time, I read that Song herself has shared some of the experiences in question. Her father, like Nora’s, is a filmmaker; the family immigrated to Canada; Song went to New York; she married a Jewish writer; and she reconnected with a childhood sweetheart from Korea. She realized she had a story in that reunion—and it is a good one. I am certain that Song and the people in her life are knowledgeable, curious, passionately engaged with the arts and the world, unlike the characters in the film. But she filters herself and them out of her movie; it’s a movie waiting to be realized.
Something fisheye this way comes. The magnificently artificial dialogue, broken and reassembled, that issues from the voice of Emma Stone—as the protagonist, Bella Baxter, who has an infant’s brain implanted in her adult head and remasters English, heuristically, at a furious pace—is the remarkable work of the screenwriter Tony McNamara, and it’s a notable literary creation. Stone gives the awkward yet expressive constructions an energetic, ingenuous lilt, and whenever she speaks the movie comes to life. But the movie’s director, Yorgos Lanthimos, is not content with a linguistic bildungsroman. The movie, an adaptation of a novel by the Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, set in a steampunk version of the Victorian era, is a “Frankenstein” tweak: Bella is a woman whose corpse is bought by Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a famed surgeon who performs the brain transplant, thereby giving her the physical capacities and desires of an adult but the intellectual abilities and social skills of a baby—and also the prodigiously steep learning curve.