Henry Baime: This month we’ll finally be getting some of the films it feels like everyone has been talking about all year with some highly respected directors releasing films that premiered at various festivals to resounding praise. One such film is Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers‘ return to filmmaking following 2017’s Good Time. The film has received widespread acclaim but one aspect receiving lucrative praise that may come as a surprise to some is Adam Sandler‘s performance. Though best known for his roles in goofy comedy films, when Sandler has taken the rare serious role, as in Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), he has delivered something truly unforgettable, and the promise of getting more of that in Uncut Gems is certainly enticing.
Ben McDonald: Uncut Gems is probably one of the films I’m looking forward to most in December, having loved the anxiety-ridden Good Time and the remarkably bleak Heaven Knows What. I’m not terribly surprised at the praise being thrown towards Sandler. He’s a very good actor when he decides to be, as in the two films you mentioned. I feel like for better or worse people forget about his dramatic performances and are consequently surprised when he turns in a performance of significant quality (as the buzz around Uncut Gems seems to indicate). What do you generally make of the Safdie brothers’ work, Henry?
Henry: The only one of their films I’ve seen so far is Good Time but I thought it was great! Robert Pattinson was spectacular and everything was immaculately crafted. It was an absolutely exhilarating experience that left me exhausted when I finished it. If Uncut Gems is anything like that, I’ll be very happy.
Ben: The next film we’d like to discuss is one we’ve both seen and liked a great deal. The film is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma, which won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes and has been dazzling audiences at various film festivals since. Starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, the film takes place in the late eighteenth century and follows the romantic relationship between a painter (played by Merlant) and her subject of interest (Haenel). It has received rapturous praise at practically every film festival it has premiered to, and many are calling it one of the best films of the decade. Now I liked the film quite a bit, and it’s stayed in my mind since I saw it, but I believe you have a particularly fond opinion of it?
Henry: I first saw it at Cannes and it was one of the most profound cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. Further viewings of it at TIFF and NYFF only solidified it as an all-time favorite for me and it’s my personal film of the decade. It’s a simple story but played to excellent and devastating effect by its two leads. Everything about the film is as beautifully rendered as the paintings that propel the plot. Though Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a period piece, it’s much more engaging than many are likely to expect from the genre and I hope everyone is willing to give it a chance.
Another film we both saw at Cannes that’s getting a December release is Terrence Malick‘s A Hidden Life. The story of an Austrian conscientious objector during WWII, it marks something of a return to Malick’s pre-Tree of Life mode of filmmaking and is full of his signature religious allegories, beautiful shots of nature, and philosophizing quotations. I’m a big Malick fan and thought this one was quite good, if not on the level of his very best work, but if I recall, you and I differed on this one?
Ben: Correct. I found the film largely tedious, repetitive, and somewhat shallow, although I’m willing and looking forward to giving it another shot, especially since I’ve liked pretty much every other Malick film I’ve seen (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life). At Cannes, I saw it at 8:30 in the morning, on an upset stomach, and after very little sleep, so my viewing conditions may very well have contributed to my negative perception of the film.
Henry: One film this month that I initially didn’t have high hopes for but recent reactions have gotten me excited about is, yet another period piece, Greta Gerwig‘s Little Women. I’ve been pretty hit or miss with Gerwig and most of the cast in the past, though I did like Lady Bird quite a lot, and other versions of the Louisa May Alcott story never really did much for me, but so far Little Women has gotten some of the best reviews of anything this year. The consensus seems to be that, though it’s a story that’s been told many times, Gerwig’s adaptation brings something fresh to the material that makes for a truly compelling film.
Ben: I didn’t have terribly high expectations for Little Women either, as I’m generally not a fan of film adaptations of classic novels. I’m glad to see the film is picking up some praise, as I too liked Lady Bird and think the cast looks terrific. I’ll admit I haven’t read the novel or seen any of the previous adaptations before, so maybe this version will be the one to convince me of what I’ve been missing out on.
The final film we’d like to discuss this month is one that hasn’t received much critical praise, but one we’re both excited for nevertheless. It’s Xavier Dolan‘s The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, which premiered last year at TIFF but is only now making its way to US theaters. The film follows a penpal relationship between an American film star (played by Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones) and a young actor (played by Jacob Tremblay and Ben Schnetzer), and is purported to cover themes of fame and media coverage, along with usual Dolan motifs of mother-son relationships and homosexuality. I had the chance to see and review Dolan’s most recent film, Matthias & Maxime, at Cannes this year, and I liked it a fair amount. Have you also seen Matthias & Maxime, and what do you generally think of Dolan’s filmography?
Henry: I got a chance to catch Matthias & Maxime at Cannes as well and I thought it was quite good though not his best. Dolan has been a bit all over the place for me but he’s made a few films that I adore so a new one is definitely exciting. Despite a number of people who have seen The Death & Life of John F. Donovan having had some less than generous comments about the film, I’ve seen a few lauding it as one of Dolan’s best and regardless of the quality of the film itself, finding out what the source is of that sort of polarization of opinions is always interesting.