20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

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The Narrator Returns
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20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

#1 Post by The Narrator Returns » Fri Mar 24, 2017 3:29 am

On the eve of its Blu-Ray release, I want to put in a good word for 20th Century Women, hands down the best film I saw from last year and also my pick for the best film of the last five years. I loved Mike Mills' last film, Beginners (let us not speak of Thumbsucker), but this takes that film's autobiography and essay-film structure to such casually devastating ends that Beginners almost ends up looking like a dress rehearsal. I can't really explain why it's stuck with me so much (in the two months since I've last seen it, there's barely been a day when I haven't thought about it), but I can at least say that it has terrific performances from everyone in the cast (obviously the central trio of women but also Billy Crudup, who turns an earnest synopsis of the ending of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest into the very funniest moment of the movie), its editing (from Malick and P.T. Anderson collaborator Leslie Jones) is stunning, and it has an absolutely wonderful soundtrack, from the late-70s needledrops to Roger Neill's Eno-influenced score. I don't know if anybody will respond to it as strongly as I did, but I hope anybody here who watches it at least likes it.

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Foam
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Re: The Films of 2016

#2 Post by Foam » Fri Mar 24, 2017 5:53 am

I'll second all of that, particularly the praise of Roger Neill's score and the editing. The latter I think is at the heart of what makes the film so quietly idiosyncratic; no surprise that Jones has also worked with Malick and Anderson. Beyond that, I have to admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for all of the pop music featured in the film, which helped it go a long way for me.

And for what it's worth, I thought Beginners was fairly run-of-the-mill (I actually didn't even finish it) so don't write this one off if you didn't like his earlier films!

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Re: 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

#3 Post by domino harvey » Fri Mar 31, 2017 2:12 am

A wonderful film. Mills does so much right here, but two aspects I found exceptional:

One, the film’s focus on makeshift created families. This is so commonplace an idea that it has zero novelty as a concept, but the film depicts such a strong familial, communal vibe that it is among the best representations of the concept I have ever seen (honestly, the best I can think of now). Here family is a transactional construct: everyone exchanges advice and tasks and observations and help (and anger and frustration) for the same in return. This is at essence my own definition of “love," and it’s impossible to pretend that the film doesn’t at some level function on a deeper, personal level for me in its characterizations and function of those characters. These are complicated, wholly human figures who I could never have created or conjured up in my mind-- but someone did, and in two short hours they revealed enough to make me miss them when they were gone. And this itself gets at the fleeting structure of a formed family unit, in that unlike blood ties, they are temporally fleeting. There are no grand lessons at work here other than one of the most important: we are all ultimately unknowable to each other, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have things to share with one another as we leave our mark on each others’ lives.

And this brings me to Two, which is the film’s emphasis on the value of culture and the importance of the exchange of and exposure to cultural products. The film doesn’t fetishize this exchange just to function as an I Love the 70s wank-off. Rather, it shows how our personal cultural artifacts and interests embody who we are and what we are about, and are often easier to share with others than the deeper emotional truths they represent for us. Again, we’ve seen this kinda thing before and think we already get this, but the film is after more than “People with good taste are good” cheapness. It isn’t the quality of the culture, it’s the act of it being shared as an offering of oneself. As a board of movie-lovers, we all no doubt learned long ago how to shut that part of ourselves off that gets hurt or offended when someone we care about doesn’t respond to a movie that changed or moved us. And that’s probably a good thing, otherwise we’d never even bother to share! But 20th Century Women taps into the emotional transaction of our tastes and doesn’t provide easy catharsis in how others digest and respond, or let them wash their hands of the exchange like most of us do. Its characters are intricate and only briefly encountered, but they are fundamentally true to their interests and themselves (even if, in Bening’s case, that means being permanently distant, not by choice to hide who she is but because that is who she is). The film is seemingly unaware that alternately a lack of or too much irony about the things it depicts in other films has already turned everything it does so well into so many cheap indie flick attributes on paper. But 20th Century Women, like its characters, is singular.

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domino harvey
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Re: 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

#4 Post by domino harvey » Fri Mar 31, 2017 9:55 am

In case anyone wanted to pick up Sisterhood is Powerful, the cheapest copy on Amazon/eBay right now is $153, so maybe we all need to wait to borrow Greta Gerwig's copy

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Re: 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

#5 Post by DarkImbecile » Fri Mar 31, 2017 12:17 pm

domino harvey wrote:And this brings me to Two, which is the film’s emphasis on the value of culture and the importance of the exchange of and exposure to cultural products. The film doesn’t fetishize this exchange just to function as an I Love the 70s wank-off. Rather, it shows how our personal cultural artifacts and interests embody who we are and what we are about, and are often easier to share with others than the deeper emotional truths they represent for us. Again, we’ve seen this kinda thing before and think we already get this, but the film is after more than “People with good taste are good” cheapness. It isn’t the quality of the culture, it’s the act of it being shared as an offering of oneself. As a board of movie-lovers, we all no doubt learned long ago how to shut that part of ourselves off that gets hurt or offended when someone we care about doesn’t respond to a movie that changed or moved us. And that’s probably a good thing, otherwise we’d never even bother to share!
I was really enamored with this as well, and to build on your well-articulated second point, I thought it was fascinating how the film emphasizes the importance not just of what cultural touchpoints are being exchanged but who is doing the exchanging. For example, the scene where Bening's son reads to her an essay from the feminist text, it seems that she pushes back not because of the content of the writing but because it's being delivered by her son ("So you think you know me better because you read that?") in a way she might not have had it been coming from someone else.

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Re: 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

#6 Post by domino harvey » Sun Apr 02, 2017 12:21 am

The Narrator Returns wrote:I loved Mike Mills' last film, Beginners (let us not speak of Thumbsucker)
I finally got around to watching Thumbsucker and how in the world did that come from the same writer/director as Beginners and 20th Century Women?! Thumbsucker contains no stylistic or thematic concerns in common with his latter works, and is an artless, pretentious mess of mismatched indie flick archetypes, undercooked dramatics, and laughable insights. Dear lord, to anyone reading this who has avoided Mike Mills due to his first feature: CRISIS AVERTED, he does not make movies like that anymore!

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Re: 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

#7 Post by The Narrator Returns » Sun Apr 02, 2017 1:51 am

Having gone on a deep dive into Mills' other work in the wake of loving 20th Century Women so much, I will say that Thumbsucker makes much more sense as a continuation of his short-form work than as a prelude to Beginners or Women (although I do find it amusing that Thumbsucker's happy ending in New York is shown to be false through Greta Gerwig's backstory in Women). The very pan-heavy style of Thumbsucker is something he used a lot back before he went into features (you can particularly see it in this Adidas ad, some of things he did for Air, and his short documentary Paperboys), and the same pat, obvious observations on suburban and family life (as well as Thumbsucker's final shot) can be seen in his short film The Architecture of Reassurance. I'd be worried Mills would regress to that style in the absence of autobiographical material, but from interviews he sounds at least a little embarrassed by Thumbsucker, so hopefully his lessons from it will guide him into making a much better "for-them" project in the future.

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Re: 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

#8 Post by Shrew » Sun Apr 02, 2017 4:47 pm

I get Thumbsucker confused with Rocket Science in my memory. Both generic indie films about kids on a debate team. Rocket Science is probably the better, if less ambitious, film. However, there are still some elements in Thumbsucker that point to Mills's future. The sequence that sticks out most in my head is when the main character has a series of blindfolded encounters with his crush. There's an interest in the awkwardness of childhood love/friendship that runs through the later films (especially 20th Century Women), but also the challenging of the main character's subjective view of the events. I think that latter element shows up a lot in the later two films, and in 20th Century Women even goes so far as to break up the singular subjective narration with that of other characters.

I don't really want to go back and revisit Thumbsucker to develop this, but in reflecting, 20th Century Women seems like a mea culpa remake of the same adolescent and family themes.

On 20th Century itself, I enjoyed it, but not as much as Beginners. It may be a case of elevated expectations though, especially as I was pretty much blindsided by Beginners (fortunately, I did not know it was made by the Thumbsuckers guy, or I might have skipped it). I'll second everything said here though, particularly DarkImbecile's mention of how the relationship between giver and receiver can shape how cultural sharing is understood. The scene where the mother reacts to the son's reading is a perfect scene, and one that really struck home for me.


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Re: 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

#10 Post by colinr0380 » Sun Aug 25, 2019 6:03 am

"It smelled like gas and overheated all the time. It was just old"

I caught this on television last night and absolutely loved it. It felt a bit like a modern version of The World According To Garp, except without some of the more blackly comic, brutally bleak and cynical aspects, even if it still left me in tears a couple of times. I particularly like the way that we have no one fixed character through whose eyes we follow the events but instead a group of five, all given their moments to comment on each other. Its such a complex but effortless feeling structure (reminiscent a little of Cloud Atlas) of a forward narrative constantly being punctuated by novelistic digressions into both a character's specific history and the wider world around them that I think that I will need a few more re-watches to fully appreciate it. For example on a next viewing I really want to focus more on who exactly is narrating their thoughts about which other character and what particular moment of time has brought about that introspection. And, outside of the coda, I felt that it was extremely moving that only one character gets a flashforward to their future and eventual fate, which kind of colours everything about them which follows from that point. Performing tasks that may never be finished in the next couple of decades, just to fill their life? Starting relationships when death will inevitably end them? (I found particularly moving that with this particular character their most significant partners - the father of their child, the man who will be with them until their death - only appear briefly in bookending moments outside of the scope of this film and instead for her it focuses on that extended singleton limbo period of the end of a previous life and eventually finding someone on a more long term basis) Is it all pointless because their story came to an end and they never saw in the 21st century? Or does it stand as a tribute to them and their moment of time when everything was in transition around them?

And with that character I especially liked that after the most abstract moment of that narration where it comes from an essay rather than a particular character's direct ponderings, and which initially felt a bit blunt and trite in the way the reading is spoken over a montage of the scenes featuring her, that she immediately gets a looking direct to camera rebuttal of "So you think that's me? That's why you came to read me that?" which acts as a nice bringing up short both of the character doing the reading and the filmmaker themselves in some ways, for their presumption in the editing of the scene that has just come before!

I also particularly like that Dorothea, the mother of the teen boy, asks the two younger female lodgers to teach him about the contemporary world and what being a man means in this strange new world of the late 70s. This was actually the aspect that made me shy away from the film for a while, as that description suggests a film that could be handled extremely worthily. But instead it gets dealt with in a very amusing way as the two younger women are themselves struggling with their place in the world and do not have any particularly lofty 'life goals' to impart, except for the most important ones about respect, inquisitiveness and following your creative nature and being unapologetic about your choices, because they make you who you are. They amusingly almost immediately 'corrupt' the son with talk of punk, pregnancy and passive smoking (I love that the film digresses for a moment into a scene seemingly entirely there for the purpose of illustrating how proto-clunky 1970s pregnancy tests worked! Or the moment of the fertility pill having side effects for the child showing a different side to 70s casual experimentation with drugs having problematic consequences down the line, only this time on an institutional level rather than the cultural one of how cool cigarette smoking seems! Or to show the excitement of sharing books, that might lead to other discussions. Or the joys of finding your musical muse, whether Black Flag or "Art Fag"!) There were some very funny moments too, particularly the scene of Abbie drunkenly breaking into Jamie and Julie's shared bed to give a slurred pep talk! And I love the contrast between Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning and Annette Benning. Each of their characters reveals new dimensions, as the mother becomes the student, the forward punk rocker chick the more in need of some stability, and the demure girl the secret smoker and lover of casual sex, at least for the half of the time that she does not regret it!

There are so many themes packed into this film that it feels overwhelming at times: the portrait of a period, of the lack of father figures, of pop culture and music (seriously, this gives Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous a run for its money in its nostalgic, loving use of music), creativity, politics, And that motherhood is a huge but rather underplayed aspect of the film (because Dorothea is trying to pull back a little from that), which is less about raising the son but more about the developing rights that women have over their bodies and the choice to have children, or not. Is it selfish to bring a child into the world when it might pass on a disease to them, or when the world itself might be going to pot?

And I loved that eventually Dorothea is the one who feels more like she does not know what the world is anymore (as in her having the sole impressed reaction to the Jimmy Carter speech!), with an understandable but still upsetting all the same turn towards a bit more of a conservative approach to situations in the face of that feeling of being adrift, as she tries to overprotect her son again after her request for others to help in that task of raising him has gone a bit too far into specific gynaecological details! (Which all comes to a head in the menstruation scene, which is perhaps a little too much, as Abbie forcefully leads an uncomfortable chanting of the word at the dinner table, like a new cult leader. Which cultish behaviour Julie almost immediately defuses by her personal, albeit just as uncomfortable, reminiscence that seems to put intellectualised feminist activism in danger of becoming too aggressively abstract into a specific individual context, with consequences) But I also like that its only a hint of that shift rather than a full blown turn against the 'younger generation'. No matter how scared Dorothea feels about the unknown future, she appears to face it with hope and a somewhat bemused amusement at all the new freedoms the era has for her.

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