MoMA’s Contenders

Benicio Del Toro in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (2021)

Pablo Larraín and Kristen Stewart will be on hand this evening when Spencer opens The Contenders, the annual series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The name of the series is not meant to suggest that the films the programmers have selected are in the running for Oscar gold. Instead, these are “influential, innovative films made in the past twelve months that we believe will stand the test of time.” After tonight, the series will return next Thursday with screenings nearly every day through the end of the month before eventually wrapping on January 22.

Spencer is “an entertaining, if overwrought, overpraised, and slightly obtuse movie, an ironized fantasy opera,” finds the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. Stewart plays Princess Diana, who is “having a ‘crack-up’ over one stifling Windsor Christmas at Sandringham in 1991, with which screenwriter Steven Knight appears to have transcribed a dream he once had after eating his bodyweight in brie.” But in the Austin Chronicle, Josh Kupecki admires the way Spencer “strays off the path of hoary biopic conventions, taking certain liberties to arrive at a much more interesting and sinister place.” Stewart’s performance is “risky, but it is also the glue that holds this brilliantly odd and lavishly shot film together.” At the Ringer, Manuela Lazic contrasts and compares recent on-screen Dianas, and if you’ve got an hour, Larraín talks to Josh Olson, host of the Movies That Made Me podcast, about the work of Werner Herzog, Stanley Kubrick, Mike Leigh, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Nearly twenty films have been lined up as Contenders so far, including Titane, Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winner, and Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter and Rebecca Hall’s Passing, the two debut features leading the nominations for this year’s Gotham Awards, have been selected. Both are adaptations. Elena Ferrante encouraged Gyllenhaal to transform the 2006 novel into her own work, and Hall has taken on Nella Larsen’s classic 1929 novel about two Black women, one of whom passes as white. “The achievement of Hall’s film lies not in its portrayal of the horror that people may not be as they seem but in suffusing each scene with the vulnerabilities that come with being correctly identified as Black, as woman, as mother,” writes Elias Rodriques in the Nation.

On Tuesday, we took a second look at Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, and we’ll do the same for Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car when its opening day, November 24, nudges a little closer. Dash Shaw, who recently put together his Criterion top ten, will present his animated feature Cryptozoo exclusively to MoMA members, but nearly every other screening will be open to the general public—including The French Dispatch on November 26.

Wes Anderson “might be the most passionately literary of living filmmakers, the one whose movies are most like books,” writes A. O. Scott in the New York Times. “Anderson isn’t really a polarizing figure; there isn’t much to argue about. He’s a taste you either enjoy or don’t, like cilantro or Campari.” Or like licorice, suggests Slate’s Dana Stevens, and if so, then The French Dispatch “is one of those Scandinavian salted varieties that appeals to hardcore fans alone.” Vulture’s Alison Willmore has “come to accept that his movies cannot and should not be foisted on the resistant. This is more true than ever when it comes to the almost unbearably on-brand The French Dispatch.

The final issue of a magazine very much like the New Yorker, but put together by a staff of America expats in Ennui-sur-Blasé, springs to life in black and white and color and rapidly shifting aspect ratios, every frame, as many reviewers have pointed out, suggestive of one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. This is “perhaps Anderson’s best film to date,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “For all its meticulous preparation, the movie swings, spontaneous, unhinged, and it’s precisely this sensory and intellectual overload that gives rise to the misperception that it is static, fussy, tight . . . Anderson’s convergence of multiple narrative frames into a single scene of action, his leaping about in time and space to provide different perspectives, and his nested and frame-breaking modes of storytelling are all so daringly complex that, by comparison, they make Alain Resnais seem like Sidney Lumet.”

Anderson’s “ever-playful tone can make it hard to tell who the joke is on,” writes Paris Review senior editor Lidija Haas for the New Republic, “but the cumulative effect is a relentless nostalgia for the midcentury good life and the cultural products through which it advertised and celebrated itself—which from the present feels both seductive and a little too much . . . There is something alien in encountering an artistic vision so intensely felt and intricately realized, yet with what feels like relatively little inside it. Anderson’s preoccupation with appearance and aura is extreme—and of course he’s highly self-aware about that.”

“Beneath the tone of whimsy that prevails in The French Dispatch,” writes Ryan Meehan in the Notebook, “there is a band of affects, intensities, and quotations that can feel carelessly extracted from their context in the material world, a world which—as Anderson departs further into fantasy—he seems increasingly intent on repressing.” François Truffaut is “Anderson’s hero, and his belief in cinema as something apart from the world, whose emotional splendor intensifies as it departs further and further from life itself, is one that Anderson shares wholeheartedly. In the brightest moments of The French Dispatch, I share it wholeheartedly myself.”

Writing for the New Left Review, Leo Robson argues that The French Dispatch is “a veritable inventory of the postmodern strategies that have emerged since the start of the 1980s.” But Anderson is “unwilling to follow postmodernism to its nihilist, or at least shoulder-shrugging, endpoint. Scene by scene, everything in his recent work is fodder, a feed line, an opportunity for (largely symmetrical) spectacle, a storm in a snow globe. And yet there’s an abiding love of the arc—the origin, turning-point, and pay-off.”

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