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2019 was obsessed with pop culture’s past — and so were three of its best movies

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It was another year of reboots and revivals, but three of the year’s best handled nostalgia in a more sophisticated way

Quentin Tarantino stands behind the camera, shooting Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt at a restaurant table for Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Photo: Columbia Pictures

Toward the end of Doctor Sleep, the 2019 film that attempts to sequelize both Stephen King’s original novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s famous 1980 screen adaptation, protagonist Danny Torrance ends up back at the Overlook, the haunted hotel where he nearly died as a child. The movie faithfully recreates the Overlook as seen in Kubrick’s film, and Danny (played as an adult by Ewan McGregor) wanders through its still-spooky halls, encountering familiar carpet patterns and ghouls, including a ghostly vision of his ill-fated father, Jack. It’s a fascinating sequence, even though it’s part of a climax to a movie that doesn’t fully work. At its best, Doctor Sleep conjures a tricky, unnerving world between dreamlike memories and strange reality. At its weakest, it rambles around a graveyard of familiar imagery, hoping to generate a buzz of recognition.

The same could be said for a lot of 2019’s movies. Even by the sequel-heavy, remake-saturated standards of recent years, it was a big year for revivals: Everything from The Shining to The Lion King, from Terminator to Dora the Explorer, was revived in hopes of re-creating what people loved about the original incarnations.

Most of these projects were mixed bags at best, whether in terms of ambition, financial success, fan reactions, or reviews. It’s all the more striking, then, that 2019’s three best American films directly engage with nostalgia — whether it belongs to their characters, their intended audience, or both. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, and David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake are all enhanced by pop-cultural references, creating an accidental conversation about how nostalgia shapes American culture.

Leonardo DiCaprio vaults off a pickup truck, rifle in hand, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
The history of Westerns to the rescue!
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Tarantino’s film is most open to charges of nostalgic indulgence — of romanticizing a long-ago era that may have been wonderful for some straight, white men, but may not be recalled so fondly by many others who lived through it. It’s certainly the warmest of the three. Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson shot their recreation of 1969 Los Angeles with the requisite sun-dappled glow, and made the simple act of tooling around Los Angeles and listening to the radio look like the most peaceful form of meditation imaginable. (It helps to be Brad Pitt, of course.) But Once Upon a Time is too savvy and self-aware to work as a pure nostalgia trip.

But Tarantino hasn’t just made Doctor Sleep for more obscure tastes. (Though he reportedly cited it as one of his favorite films of 2019.) Once Upon a Time grapples with a time period that Tarantino isn’t old enough to remember in much detail. He toys with Hollywood history to figure out what’s ephemeral, and what seems more permanent.

One of the film’s most transporting scenes involves Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) taken in by the simple yet decidedly alien pleasure of watching herself in a movie, with an audience, on a big screen. Tarantino adds to the uncanny feeling by using real footage of Tate in her 1969 movie The Wrecking Crew, instead of a recreation. He makes it easy to see that this artifact may not be a forgotten classic, but he still wrings emotion from the sight of the actual murdered actress, watched by Robbie’s affectionately drawn, but slightly opaque version of her. This complicated layering is much more affecting than the kind of nostalgia-bait gags that congratulate the audience for remembering past movie dialogue.

Andrew Garfield as Sam in Under The Silver Lake holds up a Spider-Man comic, in a room lined with posters for classic Hollywood films.
Sam basks in the films and comics of the past.
Photo: A24

Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake uses a movie screen for some Los Angeles-based self-reflection, too. At one point, Sam (Andrew Garfield), a creepy layabout searching for his possibly missing neighbor and lust object, stumbles into an outdoor movie screening of Mitchell’s little-seen first film, The Myth of the American Sleepover. Sam realizes he’s standing near two of the film’s stars, and he chats with them briefly. Later, he hires one of them (Claire Sloma, playing a debauched version of herself) from an escort service. What starts out as a cinematic in-joke becomes one more mirror in a Hollywood hall of them: a fleeting glimpse at an earnest indie movie starring an actress who, years later, has a gig pretending to be various It Girls in role-playing sexual transactions. Her work lives on, somehow (screened, for maximum irony, in a graveyard), as she fades back into obscurity with the likes of Sam.

Sam is never specifically identified as an aspiring actor or screenwriter. (He’s barely even identified as “Sam.” Few of the characters in this movie have real names.) But he’s clearly been putting something off, whether it’s following some Los Angeles dream, or just getting a job to pay his long-overdue rent. Sam isn’t as loquaciously hyper-referential as the real Quentin Tarantino, but he’s a Los Angeles obsessive, finding signs in old cereal boxes and back issues of Nintendo Power to fuel his conspiracy theories. Early in the film, he and an also-unnamed sex buddy (Riki Lindhome) talk about the first things they ever masturbated to: an old issue of Playboy for him, Charles in Charge reruns for her. There’s sweet intimacy in their mutual confession. There’s also the clear implication that their cultural nostalgia is, well, masturbatory.

This might make Under the Silver Lake sound like an angry screed, condemning millennials of a certain age for filtering junk culture through their solipsism. But just as Tarantino recognizes the bittersweet complications involved with fetishizing 1969 Hollywood, Mitchell recognizes the pleasures of nostalgia. When Sam drops a party conversation about codes and patterns long enough to dance to R.E.M’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” he briefly loses himself in the music. It’s a release from the stresses of his life, and from a potentially difficult conversation about his dangerous obsessions.

Sam is defined in large part by the energy he expends on code-breaking and rabbit-hole navigation, and his apparent resentment and disdain toward “real” work. That notion of work is far more central to The Irishman than notions of popular culture. Much of the detailed, violent tour through mid-20th-century American history is framed as a dutiful obligation, specifically addressing the workaday concerns of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a union man who becomes a go-to mob enforcer and a right-hand man to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

As such, The Irishman has a lot more historical references than pop-culture nods. Even Scorsese’s penchant for soundtracking scenes with rock-’n’-roll tunes feels muted: “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins is a recurring motif, and Robbie Robertson’s theme music has a drawn-out classic-rock quality. But there’s nothing like Silver Lake’s use of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (a song Scorsese also used in Bringing Out the Dead), or Tarantino’s use of “Good Thing” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, among many other familiar songs.

in The Irishman, Robert De Niro, Jesse Plemons, and a crowd of customers stand at a deli counter together, taking in the news that President Kennedy has been shot.
One of many striking historical moments in The Irishman.
Image: Netflix

The Irishman’s real pop-culture references come from its connections to its director and cast’s past work. Though the all-star line-up of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci take on roles that are different in important ways from their past characters, it’s still a crime movie with an iconic cast, capable of sparking expectations or memories for large chunks of the audience. Sometimes those expectations form even when the audience has no real experience with the previous films. Part of the fanboy outcry against Scorsese’s much-ballyhooed dismissal of superhero movies involved the fallacy that Scorsese just re-makes the same De Niro/Pesci mob movie over and over.

The Irishman leans into that confusion through extensive use of digital de-aging, which makes the now-elderly stars believable as younger men. It’s the same digital technology present in so many Marvel movies and some legacy sequels, and the reason superhero movies came up in a conversation with Scorsese in the first place.

But this isn’t Scorsese using advanced effects to turn De Niro and Pacino back into wiry, gun-wielding dynamos. Whether intended from the outset or not, having an older performer play his younger self (without the full Gemini Man-style replacement of motion capture, anyway) has unavoidable physical differences. The “young” De Niro of The Irishman doesn’t look much like Robert De Niro did in his 30s or 40s. He’s huskier and less agile. He’s still imposing, but with less immediate authority. It’s a different performance than De Niro would have given as a younger or even middle-aged man, and it lends The Irishman greater poignancy than some greatest-hits tour. As funny as the movie can be, it doesn’t make being De Niro, Pacino, or Pesci seem like a whole lot of fun.

That isn’t to say that Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Casino actively glorify a life of crime. Scorsese’s films have a clear moral center, and the momentary thrills or dark humor of his crime pictures almost always give way to ignominious ends. But with the fullness of time, movies featuring moments as thrilling or indelible as the best parts of Goodfellas aren’t necessarily remembered for their complexity. Moral failings become dorm-room posters for guys like Under the Silver Lake’s Sam. So it’s notable that The Irishman follows some of its major characters into the indignity of aging and death, while dismissing others with pithy on-screen text, a technique that’s both cinematic in its freeze-framed annotations, and literary in its stark telling, rather than showing.

Some efficient telling was probably in order. All three of these movies sprawl, though to different effect. Hollywood luxuriates in its warm atmosphere and evocations of menace. Silver Lake uses a long-ish running time to head further down a rabbit hole. And The Irishman pointedly turns into a death march. In a way, their deep-dive running times mirror the way that less ambitious revivals always seem to come back bigger, like The Lion King remake somehow expanding the original’s run time by half an hour without adding much story, or Men in Black International setting a franchise record for length. Tarantino, Mitchell, and Scorsese understand the looming, inevitable effects pop culture can have on us — the ways it can outrun and outlive us, in good ways and bad. Lots of big-ticket revivals are supposed to make viewers feel like kids again. But well-constructed memory machines like these three movies often feel like the children in the equation, hanging out in a younger, simpler world than the present one.