#017 — Just Because Something Looks Ugly Doesn’t Mean That It’s Morally Wrong

Hi, hello, how are you? This is Tendrils, your weekly note from me — Adam Wood — sent this week from Kent once again, where a three year old’s birthday cake hath been consumed. A slightly weird one this week, and if you’re not a film fan you may want to skip most of it — I’ll understand — or scroll down to the bullets, where perhaps something non-filmic may catch your eye. First though, I’ve a book to tell you about.

Jessica Au — Cold Enough for Snow (2021)

This week I read Jessica Au’s second novel, as published in the UK this year, by the fine folks at Fitzcarraldo Editions. I found it to be a masterful showcase of empathy and interiority. Au tells the simplest of stories (a mother and daughter visit Tokyo) with a keen eye for the most piquant, or otherwise emotionally concentrated images. Her simple, easy-flowing prose belies a deep sense of empathy, and an interest in how familial relationships are enriched and complicated by moments that pass uncommented upon, but which linger in the mind.

I said that in many of the old paintings, one could discover what was called a pentimento, an earlier layer of something that the artist had chosen to paint over. Sometimes, these were as small as an object, or a colour that had been changed, but other times, they could be as significant as a whole figure, an animal, or a piece of furniture. I said that in this way too, writing was just like painting. It was only in this way that one could go back and change the past, to make things not as they were, but as we wished they had been, or rather as we saw it. I said, for this reason, it was better for her not to trust anything she read. (p132)

Since my teenage years of growing film fandom, I’ve enjoyed playing that little game of ‘name the production company’ as the various logos come up in front of a movie. There are a handful such logos that I’ve come to consider more-or-less guarantees of a good time. One of them belongs to production company A24, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this week: a decade of great, heartfelt, sometimes wilfully strange movies. To mark the occasion, I sat down and ranked all (?) of the A24 movies I’ve seen, and I thought I’d share the briefest of notes on each of my top 20 (pictured above):

  1. The Humans dir. Stephen Karam (2021)

I went into this thinking it was going to be a quirky, family comedy-drama. What I found was surprising enough that I don’t want to spoil it, but it certainly wasn’t the Todd Solondz-adjacent awkwardness-fest that I had anticipated. (Beanie Feldstein is great.)

  1. First Reformed dir. Paul Schrader (2018)

Is this Ethan Hawke’s finest performance? Maybe. Is this Paul Schrader’s best movie as director? Yep, probably. Heavy stuff for sure, but worth the ride. (Pro tip: if you have doubts about the ending, pay attention to the name of the company listed in the credits as copyright holder.)

  1. Under the Silver Lake dir. David Robert Mitchell (2019)

I loved pretty much everything about the taut genre work of D.R. Mitchell’s 2014 debut It Follows, and was always going to jump on his next project. This, however, is something completely different: something David Lynch (and perhaps Shane Caruth?) influenced. Andrew Garfield has only grown in my estimation since this movie, and I need to go back and experience this whole thing again. Roughly: Donnie Darko is to Southland Tales as It Follows is to Under the Silver Lake.

  1. Hereditary dir. Ari Aster (2018)

My sense is that this has now been unfairly overshadowed by Aster’s follow-up, Midsommar (2019). For my money, however, this is the better film: simpler, tighter (though still 127mins!), and much scarier.

  1. Lamb dir. Valdimar Jóhannsson (2021)

My favourite review of this movie on Letterboxd reads simply: ‘This happened to my buddy Ingvár’. That’s only funny if you watch the movie, which I recommend, because it’s weird and delightful. Also, Noomi Rapace’s best work for a decade.

  1. mid90s dir. Jonah Hill (2018)

Remember last week, when I told you that for five minutes at the turn of the century I was the worst skater you’ve ever seen? Well, this movie hits that same nostalgia sweet spot, but it’s also just a fun coming-of-age tale featuring some empathy-inducing turns from young actors.

  1. The Witch dir. Robert Eggers (2016)

Confession time: I’ve still not seen Eggers’s celebrated The Lighthouse (2019). Actually, having been thoroughly disappointed by his (equally-celebrated) The Northman (2022), I may have struck it from my ‘to watch’ list altogether, if it wasn’t for The Witch — a truly exceptional exercise in menace and dread, which builds to a haunting, cathartic final reel.

  1. The Souvenir Part II dir. Joanna Hogg (2022)

Delightfully meta and bravely introspective sequel to number 7 (see below).

  1. Minari dir. Lee Isaac Chung (2021)

My goodness, this one’s something special. A heartstring-tugger, for sure, but one which skilfully avoids the traps of over-earnestness. Wonderful, memorable characters; a brilliantly tuned script; warm cinematography; and a superb score.

  1. Ex Machina dir. Alex Garland (2015)

When Garland made the switch from writing novels to writing screenplays, I felt aggrieved because I enjoyed his books. I was quickly won over when the results (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) proved themselves. I had similar reservations when Garland made the leap to directing, but this instantly proved he had a specific eye for how to present his own stories. (PS. Garland’s best work since this, may be the criminally under-seen, single season TV show Devs (2020) — available these day on Disney+, and highly recommended!)

  1. The Tragedy of Macbeth dir. Joel Coen (2021)

It’s Macbeth, but with (some flavours of) the Coen’s wit, and their particular ear & eye for pacing. Both leads (Denzel Washington! Frances McDormand!!) are at the very top of their considerable powers, outshone in places only by Kathryn Hunter’s captivating, arresting witches, and Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography.

  1. Uncut Gems dir. Safdie brothers (2019)

I saw this in the cinema on my birthday, and I was the only person in the screening. I want to revisit it, but I’m not sure it’ll match that first experience of squirming in my seat as the tension gets steadily ratcheted up, and up, and up. Adam Sandler hasn’t been this good since Punchdrunk Love (2002).

  1. Saint Maud dir. Rose Glass (2020)

One of the most incredible film debuts I’ve encountered in recent years. As thoughtful and precise as it is unsettling and nerve-wracking. Faith, madness, obsession, illness… submit to the world of this film, be unsettled by it, and consider its questions.

  1. The Souvenir dir. Joanna Hogg (2019)

This utterly floored me on first watch, and broke my heart the second time through. Obviously I’d recommend watching it along with its second half (see above at 13), but this also stands alone as a pin-sharp portrait of longing and loss.

  1. First Cow dir. Kelly Reichardt (2020)

Reichardt can do no wrong, and even following Certain Women (2016) — a film I adored — this was a delightful surprise. Part tender love story, part critique of capitalism, also just a beautifully told story with some of the qualities of a fairytale, and some of a dream.

  1. Lady Bird dir. Greta Gerwig (2017)

Was it ever in doubt that the co-writer and directorial contributor to Frances Ha (2012) could make a sweet, quirky coming-of-age story that also feels sad and profound without reaching? You can have a great time with Lady Bird or you can let it leave you a little bruised. Or both.

  1. 20th Century Women dir. Mike Mills (2016)

More Greta Gerwig, in amongst amazing company here (Elle Fanning! Billy Crudup!! Annette Bening!!!). I’ve pretty much fallen head-over-heels for Mike Mills’s work since Beginners (2010), and this is a beautiful ensemble piece chock full of his blend of style, charm and pathos.

  1. The Green Knight dir. David Lowery (2021)

Spellbinding filmmaking in every respect. I had my concerns that this was going to be like a Guillermo del Toro-ification of the chivalric poem, but Lowery’s direction is specific throughout, and spectacular when it needs to be. I could watch this every Christmas for the rest of my days, and I just might.

  1. C’mon C’mon dir. Mike Mills (2021)

Look: more Mike Mills! I wrote about this one back in Tendrils #005, so here it’ll suffice to say: wonderful!

  1. Everything Everywhere All At Once dir. Daniels (2022)

I need to see this again, and again, and again. After having felt bathed and soaked in the hype for a good while before finally getting around to watching EEAAO — marinated in it, really — I was sure that there was absolutely no chance it could live up to the reputation that preceded it. Wrong. If this doesn’t end up being my favourite movie this year, maybe one of you will politely suggest that I see a doctor.

• • •

Enough, enough, enough. Do you have time for bullets?

• W David Marx announced his new book, Status and Culture, in which he “links individuals’ fundamental desire for social status to the formation of taste, identities, class-based aesthetics, subcultures, artistic movements, fashion trends, and historical continuity, and the ephemerality of Internet culture”;

This trailer for the upcoming movie Funny Pages looks like a lot of fun;

• This explanation of how Warner / HBO (and others, for sure) are using and abusing intellectual property law is equal parts educative and infuriating;

• Music pick for this week is an incredible performance of Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Piano No.1 by Александра Довгань / Alexandra Dovgan, who I think is around 12 years old here. The whole thing is exceptional, but there are sections from around 14 minutes into the video where I was truly taken aback by what human beings are capable of — divine and borderline unbelievable;

• Bonus music pick: here’s a version of MIA’s ‘Paper Planes’ sung by clips from 210 movies

And we’re done. A little one-note this week, I know. I’m not apologising per se; but I want you to know that I know. I’m still exploring newsletter as medium a little with these dispatches, and I thank you for sticking with me whilst I work through it. Perhaps one day we’ll have something polished and predictable, but maybe that also sounds a little stale. Nothing more boring than newsletters about writing newsletters though, so I’ll stop here. See you next time! (Let me know your favourite A24 movie.)


— Adam