A high point in the journeywoman career of writer-director Joan Micklin Silver, 1979’s Chilly Scenes of Winter has finally received the lavish Criterion Blu-ray it deserves ($27.99). A comedy with acidic undertones — or a bitterly funny drama, depending on how you look at it — it stars a never-better John Heard as Charles Richardson, a civil servant pushing paper in Salt Lake City’s anonymous Department of Development. We’re a year removed from Charles’s brief affair with a married former coworker, Laura (Mary Beth Hurt), but thoughts of their relationship and its dissolution consume him.
In his attempts to follow Laura’s comings and goings in hopes of a reconnection, Charles’ actions cross the line into the stalkerish. He regularly parks his car outside the A-frame house Laura shares with her husband Jim (Mark Metcalf), a genial salesman of log homes. At his own house, which he inherited from his grandmother and which he shares with his unemployed best friend Sam (Peter Riegert), Charles cooks Laura’s recipes, as if combining her ingredients will somehow bring her back. And he’s been hard at work on a Popsicle-stick model of her home with miniature figures inside it — a micro-world in which the two of them are still together. Charles is also not averse to using people to gather information about Laura, namely his typist, Betty (Nora Heflin), who harbors an unrequited crush on him.
Charles is far from a romantic comedy’s model protagonist: He is controlling and cripplingly jealous, and clearly needs therapy. But it’s a credit to Heard’s sly and seductive performance and Micklin’s deft handling of the movie’s tragicomic gray areas that we kind of root for him, perhaps because we recognize something of ourselves in his obsessive behavior and desire for affection.
In voice-overs, Charles relates the affair like a neurotic Sam Spade, triggering flashbacks to their happier moments in a structural duality not unlike that of Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, some 30 years later. And he occasionally breaks the fourth wall, roping us into his mindset as his confidantes, allowing us to see the world through his contorted vision of life and love: It’s no coincidence that Charles’ broken eyeglass frames — and Laura’s occasional prodding for him to fix them — is a recurring motif.
Chilly Scenes of Winter is a product of its time. Not that it’s dated; only the soundtrack of smooth jazz pabulum truly shows its age. But it caps a decade, with the blockbuster still in its infancy, where serious films about adult relationships were released by major studios, and directors such as Paul Mazurksy, Bob Rafelson, Mike Nichols and Alan Rudolph would have unprecedented freedom to tell complicated stories. Micklin, of course, is the only woman in this bunch, and a pioneer among this coterie of directors of movies for grown-ups.
Micklin directed Chilly Scenes of Winter free of studio interference as well, but as Criterion’s excellent bonus features explore, the film’s distributor, United Artists, didn’t know how to market it. Today, Criterion accurately refers to it as an “anti-romantic comedy,” but UA sold it as a zany farce with the bland title Head Over Heels. Three years later, UA’s classics division presented a re-edited cut with its proper title (adapted from Ann Beattie’s novel of the same name), and Chilly Scenes of Winter has since accrued cult status.
It’s easy to see why. It’s a movie bold enough to let down its audience by showing life in all of its messiness — and showing people at their most unhealthy. It’s the kind of mirror none of us would prefer to look at it, which is why we can’t look away.
One of the best movies of this still young year, Israeli filmmaker Hadas Ben Aroya’s All Eyes Off Me (Film Movement, $27.34), from 2021, is a 21st-century snapshot of youth in flux, capturing changing attitudes toward sexuality and gender in our era of technological overstimulation. A triptych of sorts, the movie opens on Danny (Hadar Katz), newly pregnant and sporting glittery eyeliner as she wanders among a thumping, neon-drenched party in search of Max (Leib Levin). Her determination to find Max is so insistent that we can infer that he’s the father. But she finds Max with a new girl, Avishag (Elisheva Weil), an Instagram hookup turning into something more, and Danny never reveals her news.
Surprisingly enough, we never see Danny again. Aroya’s point of view switches to Max and then to Avishag, as they navigate the swirling intoxication of a budding relationship, each of them sharing personal stories and passions with honesty and vulnerability. Max confides to Avishag that he is also attracted to femme men, while Avishag reveals to Max that she’s turned on by rough intercourse, even choking, a revelation that leads to one of the most brave and uncomfortable sex scenes in recent memory.
Favoring long takes and avoiding manipulation at every turn, Aroya never judges her characters, nor does she exploit them for moral sermonizing, and All Eyes Off Me is all the stronger for it. The director’s tight frames are chock full of revealing, minor-key pleasures, as when Avishag picks a piece of food out of Max’s teeth and, later, when she sheds a tear while watching, on her banged-up iPhone, a contestant sing Cristina Aguilera’s “Hurt” on The X-Factor. It’s just one of the ways she mediates her emotions through the comforting crutch of her smartphone — which is why a moment of sustained eye contact she shares with an older man (Yoav Hayt), in all of its unspoken analog rawness, feels so emotionally rich. It spawns an ending of pure sublimity.