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The 14 Best Movies at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival

We live in interesting times. Sadly. Many of the titles at this year’s Cannes Film Festival seemed understandably preoccupied with the role of the artist in a changing world — be it through stories of writers and filmmakers wrestling with the political and economic realities around them, or through allegorical tales that asked whether goodness and beauty could be found amid madness and horror. It was an unusually introspective Cannes, and maybe that’s one reason there were so few “buzz” titles — not a lot of big deals or chatter-inducing breakout hits or even bait for Oscar prognosticators.

What there was instead: a number of excellent films, many of which will probably make their way to theatrical release and struggle to find viewers in a marketplace obsessed with the big and shiny. Promise me you’ll take a long, hard look at these pictures when they finally hit screens near you. I didn’t see everything — I couldn’t, even if I had wanted to — but here’s the best of what I saw.

Jia Zhangke’s “Ash Is Purest White”

Ash Is Purest White (Jiang Hu Er Nv)

Jia Zhangke’s expansive, exhausting love story is set in China during the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Qiao (the riveting Zhao Tao) is the tough but loyal companion to small-time gangster Bin (Liao Fan), who runs a small mah-jongg parlor in the dying coal mining town of Datong. When Bin is attacked, Qiao fires off a gun and winds up in prison for five years. After she gets out, she embarks on a long, picaresque journey to reunite with him. But Bin himself has been stripped of the power he once had and is now a sad, embittered shell of his former self. It’s a relationship whose true nature remains elusive: Bin never quite seems worthy of Qiao’s loyalty and affection, and the latter often seems too headstrong, too independent-minded, to remain so obsessed with him. Both of them are adrift in a China that’s supposedly changing dramatically, with towns being laid to waste by a rapidly shifting economy. What we’re seeing, however, is not an actual transformation, but a kind of escalating repetitive cycle. The technology and the landscape may be changing; the people, not so much. There’s a timeless quality to Qiao and Bin’s relationship, to its elemental cycles of loyalty, power, and humiliation.

The Image Book (Le Livre d’Image)

Despite being at times impenetrably dense, Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book also makes for one of his more engaging, maybe even “entertaining” recent works. The film carries you along in part because it consists largely of other film images — you can lose yourself in the dexterity and texture of Godard’s editing, in the way he matches compositions, gestures, subject matter. Along the way, he cuts in surveillance footage of ISIS attacks, sometimes directly brutal, sometimes merely ominous, alongside images from American and Russian and European movies (including some of his own). It feels as if, true to the title, Godard is creating a compendium of images, an encyclopedia of visual references for the Western mind; the marvelous final section ends up in the Middle East, where Godard includes footage from a variety of surprisingly obscure films from the region. Is he perhaps asking us to take a step back and see many of the images he’s presenting not as memorable moments from beloved movies but as part of a cultural discourse that, for all its artistic bounties, is still used to marginalize, to terrify, to manipulate?

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Three Faces (Se Rokh) 

Jafar Panahi was one of Iran’s leading cinematic lights when the government banned him from filmmaking a few years ago. Since then, he has become perhaps the country’s most important director, creating powerfully personal, intimate tales of artistic stasis and what it means to create. This is the fourth film he’s made since his ban, and it might be his most ambitious. Here, Panahi again plays himself, as he and acclaimed actress Behnaz Jafari (also playing herself) travel to a remote Turkic village to investigate a mysterious video they’ve received in which a teenage girl with dreams of showbiz appears to commit suicide. As fascinating as it may be, the mystery is something of a red herring: Panahi is interested more in exploring the subtle dynamic between himself and Jafari, and looking at his own role as a filmmaker and manipulator in a remorselessly patriarchal society. In some ways, he’s more critical and introspective of his own work and persona than the Iranian government could ever be.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku) 

The winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle drama about a made-up “family” of thieves living on the margins of society is shot through with the director’s trademark generosity and attention to behavior. The setup feels like a fable, but it’s based on a real news item, and Kore-eda leans into the paradoxes of the story. These people steal and cheat, but some also have jobs. They are not actually related, but they often share the intimacy and loyalty of a real family. The director has always been good at showing love manifest itself in surprising ways, and his ability to tell this story with a minimum of sensationalism and judgment feels like a small miracle.

Benedikt Erlingsson’s “Woman at War”

Woman at War (Kona Fer I Strid) 

Mild-mannered, fortysomething Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) has single-handedly declared war against the massive new power plant being built near her town, creatively disrupting it any way she can. At the same time, an application she made years ago to adopt a Ukrainian child is finally coming to fruition. Does she continue on her course as a resolute eco-warrior, or does she cool things down and prepare to become a mother? Should one cancel the other out? Benedikt Erlingsson’s droll comedy-drama looks at first like it’s charting a fairly basic conflict (something something can she have it all something), but the director plays a sly little game here, effectively interrogating both the protagonist and the audience about our reasons for seeking a better world.  Beneath the playful surfaces — musical interludes, quirky neighbors, happy smiley eco-terrorists, Rube Goldbergian sabotage attempts — lie some uncomfortable truths about citizenship, family, and privilege.

Capharnaüm

To some, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s gritty tale about a young Syrian runaway’s journey through Lebanon’s slums and refugee communities was just another manipulative wallow in miserabilism, milking easy tears out of the spectacle of a tyke put in extreme circumstances. But I was struck by how unsentimental Labaki’s film is. Twelve-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), who runs away from home after his impoverished parents decide to marry off his beloved eleven-year-old sister for a few chickens, is a rough, angry kid with a chip on his shoulder, and the director makes very few appeals to our pity. The story is carried by Zain’s practical-minded efforts to survive; his resourcefulness, not to mention his twisted sense of right and wrong, can be quite gripping. Labaki has done her homework, and the film carries a tough-minded authenticity. And in presenting us with a protagonist who, despite his age, is unusually hardened and at times even ruthless, the director does something surprising: She allows us to enter into the boy’s mind. We watch this movie not as concerned adults but as complicit secret-sharers, and that makes all the difference. Despite an awkwardly didactic climax, the results are grueling and powerful.

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Terry Gilliam has been trying to make this film for three decades, and frankly, it was worth the wait. Adam Driver plays a cynical commercial director who discovers someone selling a bootleg DVD of his student thesis film, and seeks to reconnect with the idealism and passion of his youth. Meanwhile, the aging Spanish shoemaker (Jonathan Pryce) he once got to play Don Quixote in his film still thinks he’s Cervantes’s legendary faux-knight errant. Their absurdist misadventures combine a medieval quest with contemporary topicality. The movie’s a madhouse, by design: Gilliam loves the sweet delirium of a story that runs on images, impulses, and manic energy instead of on characters and logic. If you feel a little lost, that’s because he wants you to. And it all ties into the great theme of the director’s career: that the world needs dreamers, however wrong or deluded or doomed to failure those dreamers may be.

Burning

The notion of imagination powering the world and how that fits into the creative life runs through Burning, Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s demented love triangle about class, jealousy, and creation. A shy, hardworking small town boy reconnects with a girl he once knew, but their burgeoning relationship is interrupted by her hooking up with a rich, smooth-talking playboy whose calm, rational manner seems to hide something darker. The filmmaker’s dexterity with the telling minutiae of human interactions makes this emotionally gripping — even if the finale feels more convenient than convincing. Even so, this is a compelling look at how we imagine ourselves in the world, and all the ways that class, family, and desire can come to complicate that.

Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s neutron bomb of a movie is also a tonal roller coaster, and therein lies much of its unique power. It’s alternatingly comic, heroic, tragic, horrifying, ridiculous, dead serious, clear-eyed, and confused; it shifts into moments of documentary and even essay film, but it’s also one of Lee’s more entertaining and vibrantly constructed works. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie exploit its tonal mismatches so voraciously and purposefully. Based on a crazy true story (or, as an opening title puts it, “some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”), BlacKkKlansman follows the efforts of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African American detective in the Colorado Springs police force who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the mid 1970s, passing as white over the phone, with fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) posing as Stallworth’s white avatar at actual Klan meetings. Lee seizes every opportunity in that startling setup to play with the notions of identity and belonging that have always fueled his work. He also adopts contrasting styles for each of the tribes that Ron moves through in the movie — the police, black activists, and the Klan, with the latter usually shown as a bunch of bozos, a dangerous but also often hilariously incompetent collection of ignorant brutes and slack-jawed yokels. In some ways, it’s a brilliant trap: Laugh all you want, Lee seems to say; you laughed at Trump, too, and look where that got us.

Cold War (Zimna Wojna)

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War begins in 1949, as Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an urbane, educated musician, travels the Polish countryside with colleagues, putting together a folk ensemble. During auditions, he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a provincial girl with a striking voice and a no-bullshit attitude. Soon, they’re entangled with each other, but there’s a sublimated quality to their passion: She is preternaturally calm in his presence, while his intent, seductive glances rarely edge into outward emotion. This is, after all, Communist Poland, and sincere feelings, one suspects, are best kept under the surface. As the years pass, and their relationship becomes ever more complicated, music becomes Wiktor and Zula’s bond — an emotional space they’ve created in which they’re able, to some extent, to be themselves. In effect, the music does the feeling for them — and the music, like their relationship, changes. We have folk chorals that speak of lost loves, sweetly wounded jazz twinkling in French cafés, and the furious, overpowering charge of rock ’n’ roll. Meanwhile, the “cold war” of the title may refer to more than the geopolitical struggles of the twentieth century. Wiktor and Zula’s relationship is a war of sorts as well — one in which they battle each other and the world. This may be something more than mere love: It’s a compulsion, a codependence, a mutual assured self-destruction. The more we see this relationship, the more its mystery grows.

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Summer (Leto)

“This never happened,” is a recurring refrain in Kirill Serebrennikov’s explosive pop musical about the legendary Soviet musician Viktor Tsoi and the Leningrad underground rock scene of the 1980s. It’s a line usually uttered after yet another exuberant musical sequence in which the streets and halls of Soviet Russia are transformed into utopian visions of creativity, rebellion, and wild choirs of ordinary citizens singing international post-punk hits. This never happened: It’s both a confrontation and a lament. This film was initially billed as something of a biopic, but with its languid, freewheeling narrative, its constant blurring of fantasy and reality, its mixing of Soviet garage rock with better-known pieces from around the world, Summer proves a lot more than that: an ode to a world without boundaries. Serebrennikov, not unlike Iran’s Jafar Panahi, is currently under house arrest in Russia, having run afoul of Vladimir Putin’s goons. But ironically, more than any other film I saw at Cannes, this felt the most like the work of a free man.

The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci)

In the first half of The Wild Pear Tree, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan delivers what might be his funniest, most politically poignant work yet, with a series of extended, tense, and often hilarious conversations about literature, popularity, love, modernity — issues central to the role of an artist today, especially in a place like Turkey. But gradually, this absorbing tale of a young, aspiring writer shuttling between city and town, between ambition and family, becomes a dreamy meditation on belonging — filled with imagery that combines apocalyptic portent and languid poetry. In some ways, it’s Ceylan’s most personal work yet. And despite being the longest movie he’s ever made, it’s mesmerizing and impossible to let go.

Alice Rohrwacher’s “Lazzaro Felice”

Lazzaro Felice (Happy as Lazzaro)

Building on the work of Italian forebears such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Taviani brothers, Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro Felice is an escalating parable, a film that starts in a somewhat realist vein and then gradually becomes more unreal, gathering symbolic force along the way. It begins on an Italian farm that’s being worked by sharecropping peasants, with generations living on top of one another, bonded to the land — slaves, kept in perpetual penury by the ruthlessly creative bookkeeping of the landowner. Amid the peasants, Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is a special case. A kind of innocent whose understanding of the world is simple and generous, he is used by the others for his strength and perseverance. You might say he’s being exploited by the peasants in a way not dissimilar to the way they’re being exploited by the landowner. But Lazzaro’s symbolic value and his human-ness are not at odds, and his goodness is recognizable because it feels rooted in character. The fabulist turns of the story eventually build into a portrait of a society founded at every level on exploitation — of workers, immigrants, consumers, the poor, the gullible, the unfortunate. Rohrwacher’s most impressive feat here might be her ability to find just the right narrative and emotional distance for each section of the story, as it moves from rustic drama to picaresque journey to more pointed social allegory. But for all the metaphoric power of her film, Rohrwacher always complicates what she shows us: This is a society where people’s understanding of right and wrong is forever changing, where being a truly good human is an impossibility not because the world is evil but because each person’s world is different.

Gaspar Noe’s “Climax”

Climax

Probably my favorite film at Cannes this year, Gaspar Noé’s mind-melting musical is essentially a series of increasingly disturbing dance sequences depicting the initial glory and eventual destruction of an inclusive, exuberant community that may or may not represent the dream of a vibrant, multicultural France. The story, loosely based on real events, unfolds over one night. In front of a giant French flag, an ethnically, sexually diverse group of voguers, krumpers, waackers, contortionists, and others puts the finishing touches on an absolutely blistering dance. Their performance is a barrage of styles, of posing and strutting and encouragement, moving between controlled chaos and perfect unison — democracy and power expressed as a rhythmic, sensuous experience. But soon, the dancers all start to feel a little sick, and things go haywire. Someone’s spiked the sangria with an unknown drug, and recriminations and retaliations ensue, as buried secrets and desires and resentments rise to the surface. Noé wisely doesn’t aim for anything resembling realism, opting instead to lean into a surreal physicality. This is a cast made up of dancers, so he lets them dance their psychic disintegration: Now, what was once a constellation of individuated movements working together fractures into wayward particles of gyrations and gestures. Each person, it seems, malfunctions in his or her own way.

 

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Keep Tilting, Terry: With the Magical “Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” Gilliam Embraces the Madness

First, let’s just be glad that it finally exists. Terry Gilliam has had so much trouble getting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote made that the film has inspired two documentaries over the course of its nearly three-decade-long journey to the screen. In this, Gilliam joins fellow cursed genius Orson Welles, who worked on his own adaptation of Quixote for thirty years, which was left unfinished at the time of the director’s death. (Competing edits later emerged, none entirely satisfactory or complete.)

It is of course perfect that these romantically deluded projects would center on the most romantically deluded fictional protagonist of all literature, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de La Mancha, the wannabe-knight errant who gave his name to idealistic quests doomed to failure. Gilliam appreciates this: He has himself become something of a Quixote figure over the course of his struggle to get the film made, a trickster visionary fighting a losing battle against his times, tilting against the windmills of commerce and cynicism. As a character says in this film, “We become what we hold onto.”

The very real possibility — maybe even the probability — of catastrophic failure clearly excites Gilliam; he makes almost no concessions to what is expected of him, or what might please contemporary audiences. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote bears the hallmarks of this director at his broadest, nuttiest, and most extreme, with unhinged performances, overt symbolism, and a cacophonous story that has the logic of a thousand dreams happening simultaneously. It is an uncompromising work that will make many viewers frustrated and even furious.

I adored pretty much every single glorious, gorgeous goddamn minute of it.

The story follows Toby (Adam Driver, once again proving his talent for comedy), a bored but highly paid director of slick TV commercials, in Spain to do a vodka campaign that utilizes the figure of Quixote. One night, he finds someone selling a bootleg DVD of his thesis film from ten years ago, itself a Quixote adaptation he shot with some friends and nonprofessional actors at a nearby local village. Hoping to reconnect with the idealism and passion of his youth, he travels to the town (called Sueños, which means “dreams”) and finds that his production there back in the day changed lives irrevocably. Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), the young daughter of a local innkeeper, got delusions of grandeur and headed for the big city, where she reportedly fell in with the wrong crowd. (“A village girl can’t go back to a small town after being in a movie.”) And the aging shoemaker Toby got to play Quixote (Jonathan Pryce) still thinks he’s Cervantes’s legendary faux-knight errant, charging a few euros a pop for passing tourists to see “The Living Quixote.”

Driver and Gilliam

Through elaborate, unlikely circumstances, Toby and Quixote wind up on a series of misadventures that combine a medieval quest with contemporary topicality. Toby finds himself in the Sancho Panza role, the naysaying realist (and, in this version, also deeply selfish) squire who attempts to be the voice of reason and gets dragged into the vortex of Quixote’s medieval dream. Indeed, the whole story has a charmingly absurdist pull — characters wind up in situations and on journeys without clear motivations. But that’s Gilliam at his purest: He loves the sweet delirium of a story that runs on images, impulses, and manic energy instead of on characters and logic. If you feel a little lost, that’s because he wants you to be.

Few directors can pull that off. Gilliam can, because the energy of his scenes, once you get on their wavelength, is infectious. The plot isn’t so much episodic or circular as it is spiraling, with everything — story, symbols, characters — accelerating toward a climax set in a castle where the present and the past, royalty and oligarchy, art and commerce, religion and parody, all collide. Gilliam’s understanding of his images is elemental, even basic: Madonna-whore complexes, noble idealists fighting snake-like moneymen, temptations and counter-temptations and great satanic bonfires. The ideas here aren’t new — they may even be clichés — but the giddy exuberance with which the director throws the elements against one another, redefining and revitalizing them, gives them life.

And Gilliam is aware that these are not new ideas. Over and over again, Toby and Quixote find themselves in magical situations that are revealed to be ruses and masquerades. But as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote continues, the occasional real-life explanations seem to matter less and less; we slip further into the folly. It’s as if Gilliam is pulling us into his madness, into a world where things are both better and more dangerous. This has been the great theme of his career: that the world needs dreamers, however wrong or deluded or doomed to failure those dreamers may be. That also happens to be one of the great themes of Cervantes.

The setup of the film suggests that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, like many other films at Cannes this year, is ultimately another meditation on the artist’s role in the world today, with perhaps even a suggestion from Gilliam that he himself, despite the uncompromising nature of his career, has departed somewhat from the ideals of his past. (“An artist must be cruel,” Angelica tells Toby. “Are you cruel?”)

The plot also recalls in its broad strokes the director’s earlier masterpiece The Fisher King, with its tale of a cynical, successful celeb who reconnects with his true self after befriending a troubled dreamer in whose mental breakdown he played a part. But The Fisher King’s lines were clean, its narrative straightforward; it delineated, for the most part, a clear border between fantasy visions and lived-in reality. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is the opposite of that: a cinematic kaleidoscope where the narrative turns on itself, characters keep transforming, and symbols crash against one another. It’s a tale told from the perspective perhaps not of the fallen hero but of his mad redeemer.

“It is accomplished.”

 

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The Existential Beauty (and Terror) of the Giant Foot-Stomp: Monty Python on Film

George Harrison himself reportedly said that as the Beatles ended, the group’s spirit was caught by Monty Python. In their own way, the Pythons, too, transformed pop culture forever, taking a beloved form and exploding it in such ways that all who came afterward had to reckon with their legacy. The six-man comedy troupe accomplished this not just through its TV show (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which ran from 1969 to 1974) but also through its film work. That spirit lives on in “The Ministry of Silly Films: Monty Python and Beyond,” the Quad Cinema’s twelve-title retrospective, which features movies the Pythons made both together and separately.

Monty Python are often credited for bringing surrealist comedy into the mainstream, but it’s hard to overstate the sheer multidimensional mind-fuckery of their particular achievement. Their first film, And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), a cinematic restaging of some of their most popular sketches from the series, gives just a hint. On one level, you have the skits themselves, which often turn on their own brand of absurdism: A man enters a pet store to return a dead parrot, while the clerk argues that the creature’s alive; another man enters a tobacconist, awkwardly looks through a phrase book, and starts to make curious sexual demands. The situations are goosed along by the performers’ bizarre accents and affectations, loads of truly weird physical humor, and occasional bits of elaborate cross-dressing.

This is all well and good, and funny, but then, on another level, you have Terry Gilliam’s bizarrely unsettling animations, often used to transition between sketches: A man walks up to a traffic light at the top of an empty hill. He turns left; the traffic light follows him. Once they leave, a series of giant hands emerge from the ground, looking like trees. They sprout little leaves. More hands, looking like birds, fly among the trees. A cowboy slowly gallops into view, riding a hand-horse. He lassos and pulls into view a giant screen. On that screen, we see a man putting shaving cream on his face. He covers his whole face in cream and — this is actually a recurring dream I have personally had — then proceeds to slice his own head off. At which point we see a “Vacancy” sign light up in a dingy motel. This would be the stuff of nightmares, were it not so ridiculous.

But then there’s the context — an oft underdiscussed aspect of the Pythons’ work. People tend to forget that the infamous “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” sketch (“My hovercraft is full of eels!”) kicks off with this solemn announcement: “In 1970, the British Empire lay in ruins. Foreign nationals frequented the streets — many of them Hungarians (not the streets — the foreign nationals). Anyway, many of these Hungarians went into tobacconists shops to buy cigarettes.” It begins, in other words, as a parody of xenophobia and alarmism.

The Pythons were largely apolitical. Their target was seriousness itself, and they never met an ideological stance or social more that they couldn’t mock. But there’s a political valence to that idea as well. Indeed, the word that they themselves most commonly used to describe what’s happening in their sketches — silly — comes to be weaponized in their films. All throughout And Now for Something Completely Different, Graham Chapman shows up as a military official who is attempting to shut the whole movie down for its “silliness,” exhorting the performers to behave. After all, if an Englishman can’t be serious, can he even be an Englishman?

They even refuse to be serious in their ultimate intent. Surrealism often works on dissonance, its ability to shock you out of the stupor of narrative and jar you into a renewed engagement with the world. But the Pythons do something, well, completely different — plunging us into a wild, free-flowing, and unsettling dream where we lose our bearings entirely. (That’s also why their regular gag of running the end credits at weird points is so effective — it actually reflects our utter temporal dislocation.) You’re never jarred awake by the Pythons; you’re simply tossed further into their madness.

When the group actually had to focus on a subject — as, for example, in its Arthurian parody, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974), or its Biblical satire, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) — it sublimated the dislocation in other ways. Now, it wasn’t so much that the films followed the bizarre, stream-of-consciousness twists and turns of the sketches (though they still did, sometimes). Instead, comic elements that punctured the stories’ period mystique were built into the plot: the replacement of horses by coconuts, for example, or the constant, anachronistic references to contemporary politics. The symbols of anti-silly authority also popped up again, most notably in the form of the small army of cops who show up to arrest the cast at the end of Holy Grail.

None of that was particularly radical, though it certainly was hilarious. (Even the most fervent leftist can laugh at Holy Grail’s supremely woke peasant Dennis, who intones, while covered in filth, “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony,” before yelling, “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”) What was radical about these films was the effect they had on the culture: It became virtually impossible for anyone to make a movie about medieval knights or biblical times without having to deal at some point with the Monty Python Effect — without worrying about whether that badass warrior looked a bit too much like John Cleese’s delusional Black Knight, or if that dust-covered desert dweller might actually be Eric Idle in a wig. Even two of my all-time favorite films, John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) and Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (1988) have inadvertently Pythonesque moments. Nobody is safe. The troupe took two of the most cherished texts of Western civilization and turned them into orgies of ridicule.

Graham Chapman in “And Now for Something Completely Different”

The Quad series also features some members’ notable later solo efforts, including Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky (1977), Time Bandits (1981), and Brazil (1985), as well as Terry Jones’s underrated directorial efforts Personal Services (1987), Erik the Viking (1989), and The Wind in the Willows (1996). (Also included: 1988’s hilarious, delirious A Fish Called Wanda, written by Cleese and co-starring himself and Michael Palin.) Separated from their mates, you can see the individual Pythons’ distinctive styles coming to the fore. Jones’s films are surprisingly sweet and humane, and enlivened by (huge surprise) a penchant for dress-up. Personal Services, a loosely based-on-fact account of a suburban London woman who ran a brothel for mildly kinky middle-aged folk, is defined not by sensationalism or scandal but by its warmth and the matter-of-fact treatment of its oddball cast of characters. His rarely seen adaptation of The Wind in the Willows takes Kenneth Grahame’s anthropomorphic allegory and invests it with an uncommon communal spirit.

But even in his good-natured way, Jones presents us with rebels who — subtly, politely, quietly — confront conformity and tradition. On this point, he shares some DNA with Gilliam, his co-director on the earlier Python features. The latter’s fascination with authority and out-of-control systems, as well as his mazelike narratives, get a full airing in the savage Orwellian dystopia of Brazil and the fantasy adventure Time Bandits, about a group of time-traveling little people on the run through time itself from their boss, who happens to be God. Gilliam’s films are often built around the sudden, capricious nature of power and fate. Look at Brazil’s portrait of how a simple typewriter error can lead to a man being disappeared by an authoritarian future-state, and the murderous bureaucratic clusterfuck that ensues. (And who’s at the end of it all? Michael Palin, in a creepy baby mask.)

For all the skits’ winding, twisting tales, and their insane transitions, there was one surefire way that Gilliam and his mates could always end something: with a giant animated foot that came out of nowhere and stomped everything to bits. The foot (which Gilliam had borrowed from a painting of Cupid by the Florentine artist Agnolo Bronzino) was funny, and absolute. It came down, usually in the show’s opening credits, you heard a fart noise, and that was it. In those early days, the foot spoke to randomness, and the sheer juvenile anarchy of the Pythons’ devil-may-care approach to comedy. But, watching Gilliam’s solo films, I always wonder if maybe there wasn’t something terrifying about that foot as well. In so many ways, the members of Monty Python, both together and on their own, spent their careers exploring — and ridiculing — the very nature of that big existential foot. Or, let me put it this way: STOMP.

‘The Ministry of Silly Films: Monty Python and Beyond’
Quad Cinema
October 20–26

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Terry Gilliam’s Latest Sci-Fi Adventure The Zero Theorem Serves Up Wild and Wonderful Images


Terry Gilliam is a gifted, ambitious filmmaker who, sadly, may now be more famous for being misunderstood and underfunded than he is for actually making movies. The Zero Theorem isn’t likely to reverse that equation. In this half-squirrely, half-torpid sci-fi adventure, Christoph Waltz, with a shaved head and a face devoid of eyebrows, plays Qohen Leth, a lonely, put-upon programmer who toils away for a megacorporation known as Mancom. Qohen is unraveling emotionally. He’s been waiting for years for a phone call, one that he’s sure will magically change his life. He’s so obsessed that he puts in a request to work from home, so he won’t miss it when it comes. After a number of humiliating medical evaluations and an encounter with Mancom’s big cheese (Matt Damon), his wish is granted — though his immediate boss, scrawny, weedy manager-type Joby (David Thewlis), essentially punishes him with a programming assignment that’s 1,000 percent impossible.

There’s lots more, if you can stand it, including a whiz-kid computer brat who also happens to be the big boss’s son (Lucas Hedges) and a Kewpie-doll vixen who’s been paid off to distract Qohen sexually (Mélanie Thierry). Tilda Swinton shows up, as Dr. Shrink-Rom (pretty much the same pinched, shrill character she did in Snowpiercer), the efficient psychiatrist in charge of assessing, though not improving, Qohen’s mental state. The story goes off in a dozen directions, with very little in the way of satisfying, or even unsatisfying, resolution. And it riffs on the same old
Gilliam-esque themes — we’re all just helpless drones in a mad, inhospitable world — without adding much that’s new. (Gilliam has said that The Zero Theorem is the final installment in a trilogy of dystopian satires, following Brazil and Twelve Monkeys.)

It’s possible, though, that at this point nobody goes to a Terry Gilliam movie for the story, and that’s probably wise. His visual inventiveness is the thing we’re all interested in, and The Zero Theorem does serve up some wild and wonderful images. Qohen’s home — he explains, at one point, that he bought it at fire-sale prices — is a former monastery that looks like a desiccated Italianate mansion, with checkerboard marble floors and grand religious paintings dotting its vast walls. And in our first glimpse of hotshot boss Damon (his character goes by the simple and highly descriptive name “Management”), he’s wearing a zebra-print suit while reclining in a zebra-print chair, an amusing example of trompe l’oeil magic. That’s the sort of bonkers visual drama at which Gilliam excels. Too bad the story tucked around all that production design is such a futuristic drag.

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The Future’s Stranger Than He Thought: An Interview with Zero Theorem Director Terry Gilliam

“I’ll always be anti-authoritarian, as long as I live,” says Terry Gilliam, the comic provocateur who’s been taking aim at the establishment for over four decades. The only thing that changes: his targets. In Life of Brian, it was religion. In Brazil, the government. And in his latest film, The Zero Theorem, it’s the biggest oppressor of all: big business. Says Gilliam, “Governments are second rate compared to corporations when it comes to power and influence on our lives.”

The Zero Theorem stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a reclusive computer drone whose life is at the mercy of his employer, MANCORP. His boss, a godlike figure named Management (Matt Damon), and his underlings dictate everything from Qohen’s therapist (Tilda Swinton) to his sexual fantasies, thanks to a virtual-reality geisha (Mélanie Thierry) they’ve hired to keep him complacent. Like Sam in Brazil, Qohen is a ticking time bomb of frustration. The difference is that Gilliam’s realized that the future he envisioned 30 years ago was wildly off base. Instead of a monochromatic dystopia that drowns people in paper, he now predicts a sensory overload of colors and pixels and bleeps. “We’re going to drown in nice clothes and workplaces that are like playrooms,” he says with a giggle. “It’s fun!

“We are creating a giant brain that is all of humanity,” says Gilliam. He admits, “That you can access the information that you need is just fantastic, it’s extraordinary.” But it’s also loud, oppressive, and isolating. On the sidewalks of Zero Theorem, ads and information tickers stalk citizens down the street. At parties, people crowd together but socialize alone, isolated by their headphones and iPads. Only Qohen, with his bald pate and black robes, stands out like a burned-out bulb. He can’t take the chaos, hastily scurrying back to the old stone church where he lives, his literal sanctuary.

See also: Terry Gilliam’s Latest Sci-Fi Adventure The Zero Theorem Serves Up Wild and Wonderful Images

Gilliam is no digital monk. Now 73, he tweets. On Facebook, he has 383,424 friends. “But I don’t actually want to talk to those people,” he admits. Still, the lo-fi creative who once invented a new cartoon language from scissors and cut-out illustrations has succumbed to internet addiction. He spends whole days before his 32-inch computer monitor. “I sit there and I’m checking the news as if I’m going to find something interesting suddenly,” says Gilliam. “I have to physically pull myself away from it, go into another room and grab a bite — anything to escape the power of my computer.”

With film budgets shrinking by the year, he’s had to use social media to self-advertise. “Despite Sony’s best efforts at non-publicity, Zero Theorem is now available in the U.K. on DVD and BluRay!!” he dashed off in a recent self-deprecating post. “My advice is to watch the film sitting as closely as possible to your home screen to experience what you might have experienced had you seen it in the cinema.”

For years, he at least forbade himself from owning a smartphone. But last year, he gave in and took one home from The Zero Theorem set. Recently, the phone broke for a few days, and he panicked. “It’s black and it looks like the monolith from 2001 and I’m the ape there worshipping it.” (Not that he’s into worship. The former Minnesota seminary student managed to ditch religion and the U.S. government by reinventing himself as a British atheist: “America’s winning the war of bureaucracy,” he sighs).

Zero Theorem was supposed to be made for $20 million, but was slashed down post-handshake to $8.5 million. “It doesn’t look like an $8.5 million movie,” says Gilliam, “and I don’t seem to get any credit for that.” His reputation as a spendthrift has yet to recover from the financial disaster of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. (Maybe it will next year, when the ill-fated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote finally — hopefully — starts shooting in the Canary Islands.)

He’s aware that he’s become one of the plugged-in promoters his own film rails against, though he tries to keep it in check. “It’s the me-ness that drives me crazy,” says Gilliam. “It’s almost like people aren’t individuals, they’re just saying I am here, and then once that message goes out to the world, they can relax for a few seconds before they have to say I am here again. If Descartes was alive now, it would be, ‘Je tweet, donc je suis‘ — I tweet, therefore I am.”

No wonder, then, that his out-of-step Qohen Leth insists on referring to himself with the plural “we.” And Qohen is terrified of the youth of the future, in particular a scarily efficient post-post-post-millennial who insists on calling everyone “Bob” because he refuses to waste mental space by memorizing names.

Yet Gilliam, who has raised three kids in the internet age, celebrates rudeness. At least, it’s better than the inverse — that interconnectedness and insta-gossip will pressure people to guard their online reputations by being cautious and polite. “That’s the beginning of a really nice form of fascism,” warns the unflagging firebrand. “The right to offend is important.”

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Robin Williams Could Always Find the Raw Seriousness in His Comedy

Even those of us who loved Robin Williams as a performer would have to say that sometimes he was too much — too wired, too pleading, too on. There were times when I’d see him nattering away on a late-night talk show, or suffer through a performance like the one he gave as a wacky, healin’-em-with-laughs doctor in Patch Adams, and want to beg off completely. It’s hard to love someone so desperate to be loved.

But greatness is a complex quality — it’s not the sort of thing you can easily wrap your arms around. And none of us could quite wrap our arms around Robin Williams. The roles that made him hugely popular, and that made him a rich man, weren’t his best ones: The rubbery makeup he wore in Mrs. Doubtfire was the stuff of nightmares.

His role in Good Will Hunting — for which he won an Oscar — was essentially a crustier reworking of the ultra-admirable role-model professor he played in Dead Poets Society. Once Williams became a juggernaut star of blockbuster comedies, it was easy to forget how wonderful he’d been in small, often throwaway comedies, like 1986’s The Best of Times, in which he played a small-town banker who just can’t forget the time he botched a pass during a crucial high school game, or as a Queens car salesman with a passel of troubles in 1990’s Cadillac Man.

But the real key to Williams’ genius as a performer — and he was a genius, albeit a sometimes exhausting one — was that he was both a quicksilver comic and an actor capable of finding the raw seriousness buried deep in the heart of comedy. His two finest performances aren’t his most widely lauded, but they’re essential, roles in which he was able not just to set aside shtick but to transcend it. In Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson, Williams plays Vladimir, a Russian circus saxophonist who decides to defect right in the middle of Bloomingdales. He’s overwhelmed by America; he faints in the aisle of a supermarket, overwhelmed by the million and one different coffee brands fanned out around him. His confusion and vulnerability, his bewilderment at finding himself in the role of stranger in a new land, are mostly telegraphed through the way his eyes soften, or by the bemused glint that flickers there now and then.

The performance is a physical marvel: Williams used his somewhat stubby build in a surprisingly sensual way — as Vladimir, he pours a great deal of sexual swagger into wooing the woman he’s got his eye on (played by Maria Conchita Alonso). His finest moment, though, is the one in which he watches the bus carrying his colleagues and his compatriots — as well as his tenor sax — away forever, as he begins his new life in a sometimes not-so-welcoming country. He knows he’ll never see his friends — or his horn — again. Reporters gather around him to ask him the stupidest question in the world, the one reporters always ask: How is he feeling? With a dazed grin on his face, and his eyes closed tight, as if he were trying to both hide and protect the sorrowful complexity of his feelings, he says in his rough English, “I’m saying good-bye to my saxophone. I’m very happy to be here.”

Bumpy, imperfect movies sometimes, somehow, bring out the best in actors, and Williams gave a near-perfect performance in Terry Gilliam’s flawed masterpiece The Fisher King. He plays Parry, a former professor who comes undone after witnessing his wife’s murder; he ends up homeless and mentally unstable.

As Parry, Williams does some very funny Robin Williams-type things, like leading a group of mental-ward patients in an enthusiastic reading of “How About You?” When he frolics naked in Central Park, his compact, hairy torso is a thing to behold, especially in the moonlight — he’s like a fairy-tale beast who’s about to turn into a prince — or, for the right girl, perhaps he’s a prince already. That girl turns out to be a shy, gawky Amanda Plummer, whom he’s admired from afar. When Parry finally speaks to her, you see how much he’s putting on the line: He radiates a quiet tenderness that’s bound tight with his fragility.

In his less understated moments, Williams could be harder to love. But he could also be shockingly honest about the bald terror and resentment that comes with being a comedian. There may be no harder job in show business than being a person whose existence depends on making other people laugh. Williams once said, “I’m no great shakes. It’s the ‘love me’ syndrome coupled with the ‘fuck you’ syndrome. Like the great joke about the woman who comes up to the comic after the show and says, ‘God, I really love what you do. I want to fuck your brains out!’ And the comic says, ‘Did you see the first show or the second show?'”

Williams, for years, has tormented some of us: We’ve wanted to enjoy him, to laugh at him, to be on his side, and sometimes he made that impossible. But it couldn’t have been easy being Robin Williams. He did all the heavy lifting. All we had to do was laugh.

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After the Crash, Grim Snowpiercer and Its Trains Keep Grinding Along

It’s kind of happy-sad, like watching a kid you knew as a toddler graduate from high school: Chris Evans, seemingly destined to be a boy forever, is now officially a grown-up. In Bong Joon-ho’s futuristic snowbummer Snowpiercer, the Korean director’s first English-language film, Evans plays the leader of a group of have-nots who rebel against a bunch of haves, all stuck together on a high-speed train that perpetually circles the Earth, which a new Ice Age has rendered uninhabitable. Looking gaunt and bony beneath his drab, baggy threads, a knit cap pulled low on his brow, Edge-style, Evans is more like a cheerless hobo than an overgrown bro. Is that really a good thing?

Evans, a charming and rambunctious actor, should be allowed to grow up; no one can play Captain America or Johnny Storm forever. But Snowpiercer needlessly weighs Evans down, dragging us along with him. Even as dystopian dramas go, the picture is arid and lusterless in its more serious moments and unpleasantly kitschy when it tries to soar over the top. Not even Tilda Swinton, as a ruthless Margaret Thatcher stand-in with a prosthetic overbite, can keep it on the rails. She’s rendered in tight, wrinkle-intensifying close-ups that flash-fry any wit or foxiness she might have brought to the role.

Swinton’s outsized character, Mason, is a sort of prison warden in sensible woolen suits and enormous eyeglasses. She shows up early, a promise of more overkill to come. It’s been 17 years since a massive freeze-out, caused by an attempt to reverse global warning, has wiped out most of life on Earth. The few human survivors have been herded onto a climate-controlled train that protects them from the sub-zero temperatures outside, though there’s so much cruelty inside that some passengers must surely wonder if it’s worth it. The front of the train harbors society’s crème de la crème, people with plenty of food as well as access to beauty parlors, schooling for their piggy children, and a host of decadent nightclubby diversions that require them to writhe around in New Wavey outfits. In the back of the train languish the undesirables, a bedraggled bunch played by the likes of Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell, who are forced to gnaw on shiny black “protein bars” that, we learn, are made out of something you really wouldn’t want to eat. Quite a few of these underclass citizens, among them John Hurt’s wise and wizened Gilliam, are missing arms and legs, for reasons that will eventually become clear. Evans’s Curtis has had enough of this rich-vs.-poor divide: After enlisting the help of a drugged-out security specialist (played by Bong regular Song Kang-ho), he hopes to forge his way to the front and raise holy hell.

Snowpiercer is based on a 1982 graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, and even if you don’t know the source material, you can see how it plays right into Bong’s meticulousness as a director: He worked from detailed story boards, and it shows — the narrative moves from scene to scene with an almost defiant clarity, a welcome relief from the jumbled overload of so many mainstream movies based on comic books. His vision is a distinctly 1980s brand of futurism, carrying whiffs of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (Gilliam, presumably, inspired the name of Hurt’s character) and Michael Radford’s mostly forgotten George Orwell adaptation 1984 (in which, incidentally, Hurt starred). And the Snowpiercer itself, bullet-sleek but also marvelously articulated, like a jointed snake toy, is a nifty futuristic marvel: Bong comes up with some beautifully vertiginous point-of-view shots as the train, looking precariously lissome, zips along a track perched high above chilly, snow-covered valleys.

But the picture’s aggressive bleakness, not to mention its sociocultural theme with a capital T, becomes tiresome long before Ed Harris, as the mastermind behind this whole socially striated train thing, shows up in a silk bathrobe (though admittedly, he does look pretty rad in it). Like Bong’s previous movies, among them Mother and The Host, there’s a streak of nastiness running through Snowpiercer. The violence is humorless and blunt. The idea, maybe, is that watching the setup for a particularly brutal amputation is somehow supposed to be meaningful because it’s an accurate reflection of the depravity of humankind. But sometimes a limb whacking is just a limb whacking. Don’t try to tell us it’s good for us, like one of those protein bars made of — never mind.

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Ralph Steadman Doc For No Good Reason Keeps With the Spirit of Hunter S. Thompson

Finding form in chaos, Ralph Steadman became famous illustrating the writing of Hunter S. Thompson and made a subsequent career out of speaking truth to power via activist-minded art.

For No Good Reason details the famed wild-man cartoonist’s career with a stylistic daring that doesn’t quite match its subject’s, but is nonetheless in keeping with his unconventional spirit.

Using as its foundation interviews between Steadman and Johnny Depp — who played Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and who here stops by to chat at Steadman’s home office — and splicing together a wealth of photos, film footage, and shots of him at work, director Charlie Paul creates a kinetic sense of the man’s lifelong desire to “change the world” through antagonistic and “angry” compositions.

A sequence in which the documentarian flip-flops between three different, equally crazy anecdotes about Steadman’s adventures with Thompson most fully captures the duo’s gonzo spirit, though his raft of split-screens, animated segments, and momentous pans around Steadman’s workspace don’t greatly alter the general straightforwardness of the material.

Still, in images of Steadman fashioning wrist-flicked paint splotches into something coherent and commanding, it’s a film that paints a potent portrait of an artist of righteous, controlled fury.

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SURREAL BRUNCH

Co-directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s follow-up to their 1991 Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children at times plays like a version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea directed by Terry Gilliam. The cast of characters is unpredictable and bizarre: a carnival strongman (Ron Perlman, speaking French phonetically in one of his breakthrough roles), a half-dozen clones (Dominique Pinon), a frightening dream-stealer (Daniel Emilfork), a resourceful little girl (Judith Vittet), and a talking brain (a voice turn from the great Jean-Louis Trintignant). The film is screening as part of Nitehawk’s series on the composer Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks, Lost Highway), and it’s saying something about Badalamenti’s enchanting talent that his score has no problem measuring up to the demented, distorted, effects-heavy images of cinematographer Darius Khondji.

Sat., March 8, 11:55 a.m.; Sun., March 9, 11:55 a.m., 2014

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MAD GENIUS

If you’ve laughed anytime in the past 50 years, you owe Harvey Kurtzman some thanks. Triple-threat Kurtzman (writer, editor, cartoonist) and publisher William Gaines created Mad magazine in 1952, and Kurtzman’s bloody-knuckle satire inspired everyone from R. Crumb to Terry Gilliam to Jon Stewart. Combine that with his evocative and deglamorized depictions of war in Two-Fisted Tales, his mentoring underground cartoonists in HELP! magazine, and the creation of Little Annie Fanny for Playboy, and it’s easy to see why the Society of Illustrators is toasting Kurtzman 
tonight, kicking off a retrospective that runs into May.

Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.; Saturdays, noon. Starts: March 8. Continues through May 11, 2013