At first glance, these movies have nothing in common. I will confess that I juggled around half a dozen of the films on the new bracket to try and make some sort of comparative sense out of them, and these were the last two I couldn't quite reconcile. As it turns out, they had way more similarities than I ever could've predicted: saturated technicolor, gas-station couture (my FAVORITE KIND of couture!), and a bold new way to approach the depiction of violence in film.
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)
Directed by: Cathy Yan
Written by: Christina Hodson, based on the character created by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm
Starring: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco
IMDB Synopsis: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.
"I really wanted to show these women as imperfect human beings, and that they can still be aspirational. They can still be these superheroes, but it doesn’t mean that they have to be perfect. I think that we’re burdened as women with perfection all the time."
Birds of Prey is an aesthetically delicious visual masterpiece with a kinky punch in the stomach to boot. It's like a cupcake with a razor blade in it, equal parts glitter and blood. Ultimately Han deserves all the credit for picking her sidekicks, but much like the movie itself, this was a team effort.
So what do you get when you combine the Production Designer who gave us this....
...With the Costume Designer who gave us this? (That's right, Benach is the woman responsible for Ryan Gosling's ICONIC silver scorpion jacket from Drive).
You get something truly fantabulous, that's what:
Han was highly praised for her depiction of violence in the film, and rightly so - no, not the 10,000 (or more) bone-crunching, leg-breaking, knee-knockers (seriously, SO many legs and balls were broken in this movie that I legit lost count) - but her deft hand when it came to dealing with violence against women. It's a razor sharp line between sensationalizing brutality against women and allowing room for equal-opportunity violence, especially when you're a woman (and WOC at that) making a super hero movie.
On the one hand, these women are badass and we WANT to see them get bruised and dirty and sweaty, otherwise it's not a fair fight and there's no point watching. On the other hand, I do not relish the thought of being forced to see a woman get the shit beaten out of her by a group of the super villain's henchman, especially if they're going to try and make it look sexy. The solution? A DANCE NUMBER, OBVIOUSLY.
The first time I saw a move like this was in 2011's Sucker Punch - right before the first hit, cut to your heroine dancing in a larger-than-life, dazzling musical masterpiece. We'll know the beating is done with the music ends, and not only is this a psychologically accurate depiction of the disassociation that often accompanies moments of violent trauma, it lets the audience know what's happening without forcing us to desensitize ourselves while watching it.
What a brilliant, creative, and powerful way to tell a necessary part of the story. Because there's nothing sexy about a woman getting beaten up... But there is something very sexy about a woman who's gotten beaten up having her revenge.
And what a BALLSY move to have Robbie sing "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend!" Not only did it make totally Quinn-esque tongue-in-cheek sense, it both paid homage to and reinvented Nicole Kidman's similar number in Moulin Rouge! Not an easy feat to pull off, but it would appear that walking the line is Cathy Han's super power.
Queen & Slim (2020)
Directed by: Melina Matsoukas
Written by: Lena Waithe & James Frey
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya & Jodie Turner-Smith
IMDB Synopsis: A couple's first date takes an unexpected turn when a police officer pulls them over.
"I didn’t really feel like I grew up seeing two dark-skinned people fall in love on screen. I had never really seen that connection between two people who looked like our Queen and Slim, like Jodie and Daniel. I really wanted to be part of redefining what black beauty – well, beauty – means. I also think about when I went to film school and they said: “Hey, casting a black woman as your lead won’t be profitable.”
Never heard of Matsoukas before? Chances are, you've seen her work: this was her first feature, but she's been directing music videos for years. Matsoukas was the visionary genius behind Rihanna's We Found Love and Beyoncé's Formation (for which she won a Grammy), amongst others. And while I'm singing the praises of under-appreciated womxn genius, a moment of highly deserved acknowledgement is due to the other creative goddesses on this project: (LENA WAITHE I AM SO FUCKING IN LOVE WITH YOU OH MY GOD)
Starting this bracket has made me extremely analytical (and self-conscious) about paying attention to what I really like in a movie. Each time I've watched a film like this, I instinctively yell out at least half a dozen times: "See! I do like slow movies! I am not a Michael-Bay-watching-ADD-rube!" I don't mind a slow pace, as long as what I'm looking at is visually beautiful, and as long as I know that we are going somewhere. By all means, take your time getting there: but don't fucking take me on a road trip to nowhere (MEEK'S GODDAMN CUTTOFF). That being said... I've never watched a movie quite like this.
The way the characters were revealed through small but meaningful details, the way they were racing to a destination while taking their time, the way tension was built slowly and brutally towards an inevitable and tragic end... It all just worked for me. The music, the lighting, the color, the texture, they all richly wove this quiet masterpiece together. You can definitely see the influences of Matsoukas' music video background, but to quote de Wilde: "Why shouldn't a sad movie also be beautiful?"
Apparently Matsoukas received some criticism for her handling of violence in this, but I completely disagree. When you're discussing police brutality, it would be a disservice to the audience and the story if it were anything less than brutal. That being said, there is a world of difference between the gratuitous depiction of brown and black bodies being victimized (something Katheryn Bigelow's Detroit was condemned for; you'll notice she is nowhere near my fucking bracket) and meticulously crafting a story that includes violence as a narrative thread but does not condone, glorify, redeem, or sensationalize it. Matsoukas does not negotiate with violence, nor does she deny where it comes from.
It was smart (and ballsy) for Waithe to write a story in which a black man uses violence as self-defense against a white cop, and then also include: a black cop who helps them out, a white veteran who tries to help despite his wife's resistance, a black cop who gets shot, and a black man who sells them out. Make no mistake, this was not a socially defensive tactic - there is not one fucking echo of "Not All Cops" or "All Lives Matter" here (nor should there fucking be). Waithe is an emotionally intelligent and intensely passionate writer who fully bears the burden of how multi-layered an issue this is.
But at the same time, the "issue" isn't that complicated at all: if a white couple had been pulled over by that cop, there wouldn't be a movie at all. That truth remains constant, and burns long after the movie is done.
And the winner is...
These just keep getting harder and weirder. How do I compare a ring pop with a pack of cigarettes? A hyena with a turquoise Catalina? Two broken legs with a shot in the heart? Roger Ebert can't help me here, because I already know full well that both of these films accomplished EXACTLY what each of them set out to do. In that respects, they are equals.
...But in every other category that matters, Queen & Slim was an unparalleled masterpiece. This one will stick with me for a long, long time.
Holy shit, only 8 more movies left!!!!!!!!!!!!