Thursday, March 07, 2024

Best of 2023, #1: Barbie and #2: Poor Things

It will always go down in Oscar history as two of the great slights: Margot Robbie not getting an Actress nom, and Greta not getting an Director nom. Who did it? Who pulled off the heist of the century? Look no farther than Poor Things. Barbie made the mistake of coming out too far away from award season. That left time for interlopers to come along and steal its fire. Barbie (co-written and directed by a woman) is a profound meditation on the subject of corporatized utopian feminism and its discontents. And it did it all while being a four quadrant movie: My family (M48, F45, F12, M9) all laughed, loved, and cried when faced with the shockingly deep pit of ennui churning beneath the plastic sand.

…but wait, here comes another brilliant film, released several months later, exploring a similar story of a manufactured woman taking on a life for herself. This new one, however, has no women creators, and that’s clear in every frame. Male gaze feminism is here to help, provided the nudity is copious and everything is kept decidedly sex-positive.

Now let me make it clear: I love Poor Things. In its own more-muted way, it matches Barbie’s deranged surrealism, set in a world that seems to combine the 19th and 22nd centuries. Emma Stone gives a very powerful performance, as do Willem Defoe (robbed of a nom) and Mark Ruffalo. I was rivetted to the screen the entire time, wondering where on earth this bizarre story was going. It’s a gruesome movie, a misanthropic movie in many ways, and ultimately a problematic movie (I think it’s not saying entirely what it thinks it’s saying) but it’s ultimately very watchable and compelling.

In the end, however, I preferred Barbie, which is my favorite movie of the year. This is a movie that has no right to be any good. It’s offensive that anyone would even want to make a movie out of this shoddy plastic material. But the result is astounding and devastating. I grappled with the thoughts and feelings this movie stirred in me for weeks. And it’s got the Indigo Girls! Three times!

It was an excellent year for movies. Marvel stalled out and better movies dominated the box office, which was a delightful change of pace. It’s been a long time since the most popular movie of the year was my favorite movie of the year, and it’s great to see great taste prevailing. In other years, it’s possible that Poor Things would have been the best movie available, but this year I’m glad we got something even better.

More thoughts:
  • So why was Barbie the highest grossing movie of the year? Not just because it was the best, that’s for sure. It undoubtedly helped that this was one of the only major Hollywood releases this year to be under two hours. I think Hollywood is underestimating the number of people who are checking the runtimes on Mission: Impossible and Indiana Jones movies and noping out because they’re over two and a half hours.
  • I’m currently writing a semi-autobiographical novel about a high-school socialist and wondering to what degree audiences will find that off-putting. Based off Poor Things and Oppenheimer, I think modern audiences still like (or like more than ever) heroes who embrace or dabble with socialism, and it’s not a big likability hurdle for me to overcome.


Ivell said...

I preferred Poor Things even though I wanted to love Barbie.
With Barbie, the spoon-feeding of 101 feminism got under my skin. I really can't stand it if a story tries to educate me or spell out its message. However, it does seem to be in the Zeitgeist. Barbie is far from the only piece of media to do that. Recently I read the novel "Babel". The author also used her characters as mouthpieces for her opinions and 101 anti-colonial theory. It was very painful.

That said, I think Babries true crime was that it didn't make me laugh. If a movie is funny I can forgive it anything!

I enjoyed Poor Things a lot more. Despite all the nudity.

If I had to describe poor things I would call it a Freudian journey (compared to the hero's journey). A character explores first her ID then her ego and then her super-ego. It is a journey to full personhood.
As soon as Bella started getting horny I knew what her character arc would be. I could feel the Freud!

Brian said...

Couldn't get through Poor Things. Too male gazey and felt edgy and weird for the sake of it.

Barbie was fun. You wondered why someone would think it would make a good film, but anything that is a under-examined cultural phenomenon is ripe for it. For me, the question is, how would the owner of the IP let such interrogation and discussion happen. It's like a Hail Mary, to make it relevant again, like Adult Swim letting them make Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Sea Lab 2020. Very rarely happens, but wonderful when it does.