Quartzy: the forlorn film edition

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Happy Friday!

This is Adam Epstein, Quartz’s entertainment reporter. It’s mid-October, which means we’re just now entering the start of “Oscar season”—the time of the year when a lot of great movies come out. If you want a comprehensive list of all the films to watch out for over the next few months, I wrote up a lengthy guide for you to peruse. But for this week’s newsletter, let’s take a look at one powerful theme that’s forming around many of these films.

Some Oscar seasons are better than others (2010 was seriously amazing; 2011 not so much) and not every year has an obvious theme, which only makes 2018 more special. So many of the fall films I’ve already seen this year—and several that have yet to be released—deal with grief and emotional isolation in fascinating (and totally different) ways.

Sure, some might describe these movies as downers. But if you love a good tearjerker and appreciate films that really make you feel feelings, then you’re in for a treat. I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it refreshing to cry over something that isn’t the news.

The saddest man in spaceFirst Man, which comes out in theaters today, is a terrific, poignant piece of filmmaking that’s probably not what you’re expecting. It stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, who is consumed by grief following the death of his 2-year-old daughter, Karen.

Many people don’t know that Armstrong had a daughter who died just a few years before the Apollo program kicked off, but in First Man, director Damien Chazelle has reframed the entire mission as one man’s journey to confront the death of a child. The movie isn’t about the giant leap for mankind—it’s about Armstrong’s one small step.

first man gosling
Image: Universal Pictures

First Man‘s moon landing sequence hit me like a ton of bricks. Gosling plays Armstrong to stoic, steely, impenetrable perfection. As he gazes out onto the empty lunar surface, he seems to half-expect to see his daughter waiting for him there. No one was more literally isolated than Armstrong in that very moment—but the better, lesser known story was how his emotional isolation led him there in the first place.

Playing favorites. You wouldn’t know it from its goofy, whimsical trailer, but Yorgos Lanthimos’ dramedy about Queen Anne, The Favourite (Nov. 23), is really the story of one an extremely powerful person who has everything—except friends and family.

Queen Anne, played by Olivia Colman (who will soon play another British monarch in The Crown), ruled Great Britain in the early 1700s. Though the film is hilarious in parts, the underlying reason for Anne’s erratic nature is not: She had 17 pregnancies, and none of her children survived more than two years. Many were stillborn. Even by the standards of the era, such horrible fortune was unfathomable.

To make matters worse, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz play two women vying to become Anne’s “favourite” for their own selfish reasons. Colman depicts Anne as a skittish Trumpian ruler, but ultimately The Favourite is a film, like First Man, that shows someone struggling to move on after enduring heartache.

the favourite queen anne
Image: Fox Searchlight

Two boys: one beautiful, one erased. Two more new movies that fit our lonely theme are about boys and their difficult relationships with their parents. Beautiful Boy (Oct. 12) stars Timothée Chalamet as a teenager in the throes of a meth addiction, and Steve Carell as the father who is forced to watch his son self-destruct.

beautiful boy
Image: Amazon

The film is in many ways about the attempt to reach out and connect with someone and how tenuous that connection can be.

The second of our two “boy” films is Boy Erased (Nov. 2), in which Lucas Hedges play a gay 19-year-old forced into conversion therapy by his parents, one of whom is a Baptist pastor. Being gay can carry its own kind of crushing loneliness, as Hedges’ character experiences both while he’s in the closet and after he’s outed against his will—so much so that he feels as though his identity has been erased.

Both films are worth seeing for their great performances, which are sure to garner Oscars attention.

boy erased
Image: Focus Features

But wait, there’s more. Let’s quickly run through some of the other autumn films that dabble in what it feels like to be alone:

  • Wildlife (Oct. 19): Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal play two halves of a marriage falling apart in 1960s Montana. It’s actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut, and he knocks it out of the park. Ed Oxenbould is a great find as the couple’s teenage son who has to watch from afar as his family implodes.
  • Widows (Nov. 16): Viola Davis leads a team of grieving widows to pull off a heist their husbands died attempting. I can’t wait to see this one. The cast and director (Steve McQueen) are phenomenal.
  • At Eternity’s Gate (Nov. 16): Willem Dafoe plays Vincent Van Gogh, the ultimate “tortured artist” who committed suicide at age 37 after years of mental illness, in his final days. Early reviews say Dafoe is brilliant as the one-eared painter.
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Image: 20th Century Fox

I realize that watching sad films about lonely people might seem like a counterintuitive way to escape the world’s harsh realities. But sometimes there’s nothing more cathartic than just pouring it all out into a good movie. If nothing else, these films remind us that even (and especially!) when we’re lonely, we’re never truly alone.

Have a great weekend!

adam signature quartzy
Image: Fox Searchlight
a star is born
Image: Warner Bros.

I almost got through this entire thing without once mentioning the dazzling A Star Is Born, and this is where that ends. I cannot stop listening to “Shallow,” one of the songs that Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper sing in the latter’s directorial debut. The bluesy ballad is an annoyingly great song that gives Gaga ample opportunity to show off her booming voice. And Cooper is a surprisingly good singer in his own right as a sort of Eddie Vedder-esque washed-up rocker. Gaga and Cooper collaborated with Lukas Nelson, son of Willie Nelson, on many of the film’s tracks. The soundtrack may end up outselling the movie (okay, not really, but this soundtrack is going to be a thing for many months to come). We’re far from the shallow now.