Three Current Movies for Our Current World

Movie Still from “Moonlight”

Frankly, I’m depressed. The whole idea of a “President Trump” has left me adrift, has dimmed my hope. My reaction has been denial, excessive devotion to my to-do list, and turning to film. Luckily, the gray that comes with the end of the year—and in the weeks since the eighth of November, it’s been unbearably dark and cold—can be reliably tempered by the harvest of the “serious” film season. I’ve seen some extraordinary movies in the past month, two of which feel like they mark the end of an era, and a third that will almost certainly come to be regarded as timeless.

Before election day, I went to see Barry Jenkins’s exquisite, tender “Moonlight,” a coming-of-age tale about a gay, African American boy growing up in poverty in Miami. Jenkins’s last feature was 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy,” a mumblecore-esque melodrama that I found charming yet overly careful. So I wasn’t prepared for how confident and unhesitating his work in “Moonlight” is; it’s powerful and engrossing without compromising the authenticity of its subject matter in the least. It also now seems, in the aftermath of the election, like a closing chapter in the Obama era, a time when LGBT progress seemed destined to make greater and greater strides for years.

Movie Still from “Arrival”

I also saw, on opening weekend, Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival,” the story of a linguist wrestling with the personal and geopolitical implications of trying to communicate with aliens who have landed on Earth. Villeneuve directed the nearly perfect “Sicario,” one of my favorite movies of last year, and in “Arrival” you can still see the same pitch perfect directorial instincts: a keen feeling for naturalism and the ability to challenge the audience without sliding into the inscrutable. Maybe the most notable thing about “Arrival” though is a kind of movie magic that often goes unappreciated: insanely fortuitous release timing. Sometimes, the erratic, lurching path of filmmaking somehow produces a piece of work that is perfectly suited for the very day it debuts. This story of a desperate, international scramble to deeply understand and communicate with one another bowed in theaters just days after a dramatic shift away from empathy, from internationalism, like a commentary on what could have been. It might actually make your mourning even more difficult, actually.

Promotional Image from “The Handmaiden”

To me, these two movies are a coda for the past eight years; products of an era of open-mindedness and intellect. The third movie I saw is perhaps better suited for the next four years in that it’s an intoxicatingly effective piece of escapist entertainment: Park Chan-Wook’s surprisingly romantic “The Handmaiden.” From the very first scene, in which a poor Korean girl leaves a makeshift family to go work in the grand home of a rich and twisted master, this movie upends expectations and roles repeatedly. The initial half hour or so, which dives into the societal distortions of Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, is a fairly standard historical drama, but even in its conventionality it’s enthrallingly made. Before long, though, the movie transforms itself and repeatedly—in turns, it becomes a long con, a romantic comedy, a pornographic exploitation, a revenge thriller, and, briefly towards the end, a horror film. All of it is redeemed with the director’s wit and craft; it’s the purest kind of cinema in that it is the kind of fully immersive tale that can only be made on the big screen. In short, it transports you to another world, and lets you forget, for a time, about this world here, where Donald Trump was elected president.