Gerwig. Greta Gerwig is a great comic actress—I often lament actors (especially great ones like her) going behind the camera because they’re usually not great as directors—and because it is a double blow as that usually means we don’t get to see them act for a year or two. I wasn’t fully convinced I was wrong with Gerwig even with Lady Bird in 2017—clearly a strong debut for any director. However, with 2019’s Little Women, I have to admit there very few directors whose next film I look forward to more than Greta Gerwig’s (yes, the director!). She has one top 100 of its respective decade film (Little Women lands firmly), there is much in common thematically between the two works which bodes well for any auteur with a clear voice. The leaps she made both visually and formally in her sophomore effort bode well for the future.
Best film: Little Women
- there are 3 previous archiveable versions of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women– but Gerwig’s version is utterly distinct and cinematically spectacular—the only one close (and they’re all in the archives) is Cukor’ s 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn and I’d have to give the edge to Gerwig after one viewing
- From the opening shot (a wonderful setting of the frame as Saoirse Ronan’s Jo is about to walk into the publishing office) this is an improved Gerwig behind the camera from her debut in 2017. This isn’t just about rich characterizations, top-shelf acting and screenwriting like Lady Bird—there are audacious aesthetic and formal moves coming from Gerwig here.
- A brilliant formal/visual choice is non-linear narrative structure editing from Gerwig. It’s not just the rearranging of the order of the story (which is powerful in of itself with contrasting scenes due to the editing choices) but she, along with DP Yorick Le Saux (from Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash and I Am Love) light and color the two narrative time strands distinctly. The flashbacks are warmly lit, natural lighting from the sun (pouring in every scene even in winter), the characters are in rich colors- reds, maroons, yellows… the present day (when the sisters are split up) are juxtaposed. It is gray, overcast— lots of whites, blues and blacks—colder. There is a bit of this in Ari Aster’s Midsommar earlier this year of course with winter and summer, dark and light— I saw this in Career Girls from Mike Leigh in 1997 (he reversed it and lit the present day warmer and the flashbacks colder). In Gerwig’s work it makes for a stark contrast as we jump back and forth between the two strands of time. You can see the drastic change at each cut—and when we’re in the same location as well (most notable being the two scenes on the beach below).
- The actual in-scene editing is a triumph as well. I’m not putting the editing here on the level of Whiplash, Dunkirk but editor Nick Houy should be commended. Gerwig’s conversations are delivered rapidly (often with Altman-like overlapping dialogue) and then Houy and Gerwig cut sharply as the dialogue is delivered. There is a lot packed here into the 135 minutes—each character/actor given showcase scenes
- The opening shot with Ronan outside the door (and framed by it) of the publishing house is far from the only wall-art in a museum setting-of-the-frame by Gerwig. There is a breathtaking shot of Florence Pugh getting proposed to by Fred Vaughn in a long shot. The landscape—the symmetry— it looks like a shot from Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola or Barry Lyndon from Kubrick . A closely similar shot is when Timothée Chalamet’s (who is sublime here) kisses Pugh for the first time.
- Another other standalone praise-worthy mise-en-scene shots are the four girls in profile at the window
- Perhaps the greatest musical score of the year- and one of the great Alexandre Desplat scores ever (and he’s certainly right there with Zimmer, Greenwood and a few others for this generation) —playful, vibrant—full of life and color- a perfect match for the material
- The family home (and the school at the end— almost like a really great commune) and connection/kinship created is palpable– Gerwig’s choices and execution, the actors, the production design—its intoxicating—these are complex characters with complex relationships
- I haven’t fully baked the idea but there’s a thesis running through Gerwig’s two films now—an autobiographical treatment (Jo here is writing her own story (or Alcott’s)) and there is much in common with the two characters Ronan portrays). Gerwig isn’t a realist like the Dardenne’s per se— the point is it is her voice. The change she makes to the source material here and her manipulation of the “happy” or expected ending is brilliant (and crazy-bold giving the reverence both she and people have for the source material)
- I rarely talk about the Academy Awards- but I was impressed that not only should this film be nominated for writing, costume and some acting awards—but editing, cinematography, and yes- perhaps director and picture- Gerwig is deserving (not to say there aren’t others in this loaded year)
- Ronan comes off with the greatest acting accomplishment here. Through two films she appears to be Gerwig’s muse (or surrogate) and this may be Ronan’s singles greatest performance (which is saying something as she not only has Lady Bird on her resume but Atonement as well). She is the best screen Jo March – or at least on par with Hepburn’s 1933 performance. She slays Winona Ryder’s 1994 (fine but not transcendent) performance. Pugh and Chalamet are next (though the entire ensemble is so good). Chalamet is perfect. Pugh blew me away too but if I have a nit to pick with this film, it’s the scenes where Pugh plays the like 12 year old Amy March. The pigtails help, but it is just too much to ask and they should have followed the 1949 version (where Liz Taylor plays Meg) and made Meg older. Pugh’s baby voice doesn’t fully come off. Laura Dern (what a 2019 she is having with this and Marriage Story) is strong, and veteran talent Chris Cooper breaks your heart in several scenes. The great Meryl Streep doesn’t have many scenes but she adds something to the character that has never been there before. And I felt privileged to watch her and Ronan spar briefly
total archiveable films: 2
top 100 films: 0
top 500 films: 0
top 100 films of the decade: 1 (Little Women)
most overrated: Lady Bird– a stunning debut? For sure—rich with great acting and writing. But it is not the 4th best film of 2017 as TSPDT’s consensus 21st century list would have you believe – not in a year with Dunkirk, Call Me Be Your Name, Blade Runner 2049, Good Time, Phantom Thread– and- quick plug for another (and yes superior) debut- Columbus from Kogonada.
most underrated : Little Women on the other hand falls just outside of the top 10 of 2019 on the TSPDT consensus list and it falls on my top 10—even in this stunning year. I think in most years it would be top 5. And when you compare it to Lady Bird—well— they’re not close.
gem I want to spotlight : Lady Bird
- It isn’t the devastating formal work Paterson is– and the visuals and cinematic style don’t rise to a level of Blade Runner: 2049 or Dunkirk but I keep thinking that this film is just about as good as a film can be without checking those boxes (telling that Mr. Rex Reed gives it a glowing 4 stars)
- Gerwig has yet to develop (or perhaps more correctly been given a change yet with only 1 film) her voice or rhythms as a director in a way that Baumbach and Linklater have been able to do (largely because of the existence of a body of work) but those are two names and comparisons that come to mind
- Elite-level writing and acting- these characters are authentic and lived-in
- The narrative structure here and the perfectness of it washes over you at the end of the film. We have a character who went from hating home and longing for NYC to missing home (the montage of Sacramento, family, and her visit to the church)
- Incredible detail in each written line and visual detail (length of Ronan’s skirt changes when she changes friends)
- In a genre (coming of age drama) where there is a quality entry in the archives literally every year (2016 alone had everybody wants some! and indignation… 2015 had mistress America, me and ear and the dying girl and the diary of a teenage girl) this never felt cliché or unimportant. I was welling up with tears in nearly every scene either from laughter or from some poignant moment
- I was frankly skeptical of the 94 on metacritic prior to seeing the film but after seeing it is simply an impossible film not to give a 100 to. It’s perfect and will only be bettered by films with a bolder artistic stroke— honestly I really didn’t want Gerwig directing films- she’s such a good performer but again this isn’t some George Clooney-directed flop and waste of talent—it’s truly special and is closer to Baumbach’s work or Linklater who are obviously true auteurs. Mike Mills is another one that comes to mind and I love beginners and 20th century women
- I was blown away by the amount of great moments and scenes were packed into 93 minutes—highlights include the shot of Laurie Metcalf as she drops off Lady Bird at the airport. I think the scene of Lucas Hedges character breaking down crying on Ronan’s shoulder is very well done as well
- The football coach directing a play scene was great as well
- Ronan and Metcalf would both be deserving of an Oscar in most years. I love that Ronan is 23 yet and many critics correctly point out that she could “finally” get her Oscar. She could easily have one already for both Atonement in supporting in 2007 and 2015 with Brooklyn
- a complex story of two women– the relationships with the Hedges character, Ronan’s best friend, and others are great but this relationship is the center of the film- a story of two women– it’s a tennis match between the two.
- the dialogue and situational drama/comedy is so true but there’s also a storybook quality to the film– it’s fiction and that’s clearly set up in the farcical beginning car gag
- lovingly shot montages of Sacramento sets up the phone message finale
- Tracy Letts as the father is great- he carries real weight (depression, love) with him
- 2002/2003 soundtrack attempts to capture time/place is great
- Ronan’s “lady bird” is a real character- flawed, selfish, prone to mistakes
- In the second viewing I noticed character touches with the mom- Metcalf’s character- she’s nice to a co-worker at hospital/clinic (gets gift for baby) and she’s clearly a fixture and friends with woman at the thrift store. And she helps the great priest who has depression issues– Ronan also sticks up for her mother when others make comments about her– it’s real depth
- It’s a very rich ensemble for 99 minutes
- Coming of age dramas starring Saoirse Ronan
- Rapid-fire superb dialogue and verbal sparring—this is writing that belongs next to Woody, Linklater and Baumbach
- Little Women is much stronger visually and has a formal reach that is quite ambitious– the flashbacks are warmly lit, natural lighting from the sun (pouring in every scene even in winter), the characters are in rich colors- reds, maroons, yellows… the present day (when the sisters are split up) are juxtaposed. It is gray, overcast— lots of whites, blues and blacks—colder
- there’s a thesis running through Gerwig’s two films now—an autobiographical treatment (Jo here is writing her own story (or Alcott’s)) and there is much in common with the two characters Ronan portrays) in the two films. These are two young artists
- Little Women
- Lady Bird
By year and grades
|2017- Lady Bird||R/HR|
|2019- Little Women||MS|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives