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Top Ten: Loving those "20th Century Women"

by Nathaniel R

Mike Mill's terrific new film 20th Century Women, inspired by his own mother with Annette Bening further fictionalizing her, doesn't open until Christmas (disappointing as RIGHT NOW or August might've been the perfect time for it). But since it played the NYFF and we said so little, it's time to attempt to share the joy it offers. In lieu of a standard review...

Ten Amazing Things About 20th Century Women
first impressions of a film that will surely make our 2016 top ten list

10 The Sunlight
As someone allergic to summers and the Californian promise of sunshine year round, rarely has a film that's so saturated with California gold felt so inviting. The warmth can't only be credited to the actors and direction but also the cinematographer Sean Porter. He's a fairly new DP, best known for Green Room and Kumiko the Treasure Hunter neither of which could look any more different than this gorgeous dramedy so he's one to watch.

09 Teen Girls Therapy Group
One of the best recurring beats, though very economically deployed, is a therapy group run by Julie's (Elle Fanning) mother. It's never less than satisfying when it shows up for comic punctuation.

08 "Our Bodies, Ourselves"
At one point in the film the protagonist Jamie (wonderful find Lucas Jade Zumann, whose only previous film credit is Sinister 2) reads two books on female sexuality. Two short conversations follow, one sharply comic with a fellow teenage boy and the other defensive and heartbreaking with his mother, show the great range and versatility of the film's emotional registers as well as Mills' great screenplay.

07 Julie's Sexuality
Elle Fanning appeared earlier this year in The Neon Demon and something about her presence and performance incongruously refused to be sexualized despite content that wanted her to be. Here's a 180 as Fanning brilliantly details Julie's contradictory feelings about her own promiscuity. She and Zumann deliver one of the most honest depictions of hormonally charged but essentially platonic adolescent friendship we've ever seen onscreen.

06 Billy Crudup as William
He won't get any credit for this performance (acclaim for male actors generally avoids roles that are so intertwined with the feminine in interesting ways) but it's his best work since the undervalued Jesus's Son

05 The Jimmy Carter Speech
The trailer uses this this speech as a kind of framing device. It doesn't serve the same function in the movie but it's still perfectly realized and evocative of the time, place and political leanings of Dorothea's world.

04 Greta Gerwig as "Abbie"
It's not really a spoiler to tell you that Abbie has cancer in the movie as her storyline begins there. A weaker movie would focus solely on that rich dramatic territory but the characters in 20th Century Women are so roundly drawn that it's only a small part of who we eventually know her to be. This is the best supporting role Gerwig has ever had and she nails the diffuse arc and the idiosyncracies - a worthy Oscar contender

03 The Music: Black Flag vs The Talking Heads
Mike Mills and his music team really steep the film in late 70s culture clashes and the most amusing is a sidebar on "art fags" versus "punks." My personal favorite scene is between Dorothea (Annette Bening) and William (Billy Crudup) as they dance together to music they don't "get" while trying to understand it's appeal to the kids. 

02 The Narration
One of the most unusual tactics in the film is multi-character narration as the film's principal characters share feelings about their current and future selves or provide biography for each other. This omniscient voiceover reveals the film's scalpel-sharp understanding of generation gaps but it also adds a spiritual layer that can't be easily shaken when the film ends.

01 The Bening as "Dorothea"
Writing about this movie, as I've just found, is nearly as blissful as watching it but the pleasure isn't wholly in relating to or understanding it. As first impressions go 20th Century Women gives off the vibe of a fascinating stranger that you'd like to be friends with. Their complexities are readily apparent but that doesn't mean you "get" them. Annette Bening's rich, layered, enormously funny but dramatically inscrutable performance is a huge part of why this is. Every time you think you have a bead on Dorothea's bohemian ideals, politics, sexuality, and even parenting, she'll surprise you. It might just be her single greatest performance in a career full of grand ones.

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Reader Comments (26)

What a fantastic review/article,Nat maybe you should do this as your own type of review as your own unique take on reviewing films,just for the fans and there are an abundance of us,10 points no more no less,each succinct and thoughtful,it was a far more interesting read and your thoughts were condensed so I am now way more interested in seeing it,I think Gerwig is in for supporting actress this year for this or Jackie.

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

I love relaxed Bening (The Kids Are Alright, Open Range) and I hate artificial Bening (American Beauty, Being Julia).

I think this is going to be my favorite Bening.

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

The 70s are so under-explored in modern film... Can't wait for this!

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

@ cal roth

As I've said elsewhere, this is my favorite Bening work since Being Julia. It's very idiosyncratic and un-cuddly.

I like all the facets of the Bening (The Grifters, Valmont, Being Julia, The American President, this one), although I really couldn't take her (and almost everything else) in American Beauty.

She's very Wes Anderson in this new one.

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

markgordon -- thank you. It was much easier to write too. Perhaps I'll do more of them.

Tyler -- i hope you love it as much as i did.

Cal -- i hear you but please know that it's possible to deeply love both Benings (*me*... i prove it's possible)

October 19, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Please do I am looking for someone who does more succinct reviews,not reviewing whole plot points and character beats,i get the feeling but the whole film is not spelled out,Bravo.

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

Is she really in with a shot for the Oscar or is Portman winning her 2nd.

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

so fun to read! thrilled to hear that the movie is a worthy follow-up to beginners!

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEric

can't wait for this. markgordon, i can't see Portman winning a second so soon, unless Jackie becomes an enormous commercial and artistic touchstone. Bening will not be passed over unless it's by a simply phenomenal acting showcase from an actress who is Oscarless.

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

People said that about Hilary.

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMARKGORDON

True, but Jackie is not going to win Best Picture and Director. That helped Hilary enormously.

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Portman will probably take the lions share of critics awards, with some diverting to Bening and Huppert. When it comes to the guilds, I suspect Portman will win a globe and Stone will win the other, but neither will be a slam dunk for Oscar so long as there's Annette Bening and Viola Davis around with the most overdue narratives this side of Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer.

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDuncan Dykes

"A simply phenomenal acting showcase from an actress who is Oscar-less," you say? Well, by all appearances, that would be Emma Stone in La La Land. I'd love to see the Bening and the Oscar, sitting in a tree, but I think the biggest hurdles are (1) the ingénue E.S., (2) category placement, and (3) Viola Davis, who could block the Bening in either category, it seems. Fingers crossed!

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Great article, I'm so happy to read such great things about this film! And can't wait to see Annette's "single greatest performance", after watching this I could love her even more...

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterStefano

Yay, so excited for this! But yes, why *do* most of us have to wait till December (or even later) for the best stuff?

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

@ Mareko

In my opinion the greatest hurdle will be the performance itself, exciting as it is. Remember, this is a Mike Mills film and not Erin Brockovich or The Iron Lady. It's not the stuff Best Actress wins are usually made of...although Bening could triumph in Supporting and it wouldn't be a clear-cut case of category fraud, either.

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

BA or bust for Bening. Had she beaten horse teeth in '99 we wouldn't have to be in such a dyer place of will they or won't they. But if Julianne can Blue Sky her way to a BA victory Bening should never settle for the lesser recognition of BSA.

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Let's talk again after you (& others) see the movie and the performance.

October 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Sorry, I think Julianne was best of the bunch the year that she won. I don't agree with the "Blue Sky" narrative.

October 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

/3rtful, Julienne Moore won the Oscar simply because she gave an outstanding performance. She deserved the award and she would have won in other years too.

October 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel B.

Man, I love Greta Gerwig.

I really don't understand Benings overdue narrative (i.e. she is not); with that said, here is hoping she is great. The more competition the better :)

October 20, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

This is beautiful, Nathaniel. Finally saw the trailer this week, too. SO excited!

October 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

I truly hope that the performances this award season are won for the quality/stellar acting of the individual and not to meet quotas/account for past 'discrimination'/make the Academy foundation look noble...

October 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

I truly hope that the performances this award season are won for the quality/stellar acting of the individual and not to meet quotas/account for past 'discrimination'/make the Academy foundation look noble...

Because nonwhites are never worthy. And when they're allowed to participate in the ceremonies as nominees all of their victories are acts of charity on the Academy's behalf.

October 20, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

The winners are:
Bening in lead
Davis in supporting
Sheer heaven.

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Gawd bless you Nate.

How do we get both her and Huppert nominated this year?

December 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCinesnatch

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