Favorite Films of 2018

I briefly thought about presenting an unranked list of ten or twelve favorites this year, but that wouldn’t be as much fun.

1. SHOPLIFTERS
As with his great forebear Yasujiro Ozu, it’s hard to say which Hirokazu Kore-eda film is the best, since he returns to familiar, familial themes across his discography with a rare consistency. So, place this well-deserved Cannes Palme D’or winner up there with NOBODY KNOWS and STILL WALKING and admire his ever-present humanism and kindhearted but fair depiction of what ordinary, flawed people do in order to survive while also seeking solace in each other (whether they’re able or even willing to reciprocate.) Also, take note of this year’s best ensemble cast, from the wonderful Kirin Kiki (in her final role) to Sakura Ando, whom in one devastating scene brings to light all of the narrative’s complexities.

2. ROMA
Concerning a middle class family in early ’70s Mexico City as filtered through the perspective of its maid, Cleo, this is in direct contrast to the ever-expanding world that was a focal point of Alfonso Cuaron’s last Mexican film, the seminal Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN: based on the director’s own life and heavy with memories and essences of a long-ago past, it’s far more interior. And yet, ROMA often feels as generous as its predecessor. Although individual scenes register as slice-of-life vignettes, their order and procession is key, for they build towards something both heartbreaking and life-affirming. When Cleo says to a co-worker and friend, “I have so much to tell you,” it could be Cuaron’s own epitaph.

3. MINDING THE GAP
A documentary rife with all the euphoria and turmoil (and every emotion in between) of day-to-day life via three young male skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois, one of whom, Bing Liu is the director. I’ve seen this kind of movie before, but never has it felt so honest or carried as much weight this effortlessly. Liu’s editing and cinematography are both exceptional for a film of this scale and budget, and it builds to a powerful finale without calculation. This little, handmade film could serve as a definitive portrait of its time and place in the decades ahead.

4. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
The real-life story of Lee Israel, a struggling, middle-aged, alcoholic writer whom in the early ‘90s fell into a brief stint as a literary forger, should be something that works better on page than screen, but director Marielle Heller translates Israel’s own memoir as if it were a living, breathing, sincere re-creation of a now forgotten Manhattan. Aided by top-notch work from Melissa McCarthy (who really should do more indies) and Richard E. Grant, Heller has crafted something so sharp and rich with nuance, I’m not surprised it isn’t dominating the awards season.

5. FIRST REFORMED
The ridiculous and the sublime remain inseparable (as they should) in Paul Schrader’s late-career miracle about a priest (Ethan Hawke, perennially underrated as he ages but arguably never better in a role he nearly disappears into) troubled by climate change, alcoholism, religion-as-business—all the big stuff (and more!) From its austere, slow-track, zoom-in opening credits sequence to an absolutely nutty ending, Schrader conducts a wild ride through the dark night of the soul; for once, he achieves the transcendence so favored by his longtime heroes Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson.

6. THE DEATH OF STALIN
Excessively funny and appropriately dark, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Armando Iannucci’s peculiar satire until a second viewing confirmed this was nearly as bold (and arguably more formally successful) as its great predecessor DR. STRANGELOVE. The elaborate “musical emergency” opening, the slapstick moving-of-the-body, a deliriously profane argument playing out in front of a small child—all great stuff, though nothing made me laugh so hard or proved so cathartic as Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, unexpectedly perfect for the Iannucci-verse) bluntly sneering, “You fat fuck!” at the corpse of a slain politician.

7. EIGHTH GRADE
Nine months after seeing this, I still can’t understate how terrific Elsie Fisher is as Kayla, an awkward, average fourteen-year-old who’s quirky enough to stand apart from any other similarly-aged protagonist you’ve seen before and also recognizable to an almost painfully universal degree. I’ve also come to further appreciate what writer/director Bo Burnham has pulled off with his debut feature, his affection for the minutiae of this ultra-specific world (one most of us who’ve lived it would rather forget) apparent without distraction from nostalgia’s rose-colored lenses.

8. BURNING
Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, Chang-dong Lee’s first feature since 2010’s POETRY focuses on a peculiar male-female-male triangle; to get further into the story would lessen much of its mystique; only know that director sets up any number of expectations only to masterfully defy most of them without leaving the viewer feeling cheated. “Haunting” is word used far too often in film criticism, but that’s the exact tone BURNING leaves one with; the ending also secures its place in the canon of slippery, unknowable cinema.

9. MADELINE’S MADELINE
An occasionally frustrating but fascinating puzzle box of a film. On the surface, it appears to be about a teenager (Helena Howard—remember her name), her antagonistic relationship with her mom and her participation in an experimental theater troupe, but there’s so much more going on here—A meditation on the creative process? The danger of making art out of one’s own personal experiences? Or is it all just the unfiltered, interior state of a troubled, possibly mentally ill teenaged girl? Whatever it is, I was fully on board for all its inspired madness.

10. COLD WAR
Spanning a fifteen year period post-World War II, Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to IDA recreates a culture in the throes of a severe political takeover, drawing implications from the minute to fully societal. He limns his focus onto two very different people (inspired by his own parents): a jazz musician and a younger singer who nonetheless are drawn to each other. Each frame is a lovingly crafted tableau, strikingly rendered in high-contrast black-and-white, deep focus photography. The mostly diegetic soundtrack, ranging from hard bop jazz to hymn-like folk songs is a character in itself.

TIED FOR 11th PLACE:

Border
If Beale Street Could Talk
The Rider
Scotty and The Secret History of Hollywood
Support The Girls

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
BlacKkKlansman
BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
Lean On Pete
Leave No Trace
Loveless
Shirkers
Sorry To Bother You
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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Film Journal: November 2018

Films seen in November, with at least one candidate for my 2018 top ten. Rewatched titles are starred.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
It’s not so much that Melissa McCarthy is a revelation here as that she finally has a role that allows her to be more than just silly or weird (although she’s occasionally those things too.) The real-life story of Lee Israel, a struggling, middle-aged, alcoholic writer who fell into a brief stint as a literary forger, should be something that works better on page than screen, but director Marielle Heller (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL) translates Israel’s own memoir as if it were a living, breathing, sincere re-creation of Manhattan in the early ’90s (credit the astute adaptation, co-written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty). Israel and her cohort-in-crime, aging hustler Jack Hock (a perfectly cast Richard E. Grant) are despicable, unapologetic misanthropists, yet they feel so well-drawn that you’re almost compelled to root for them anyway. Grade: A-

Atomic Blonde
Visuals aside, this is just ok, but Charlize Theron is an exquisite badass. C+

Boy Erased
I liked and admired this film, but I didn’t quite love it. It seems to check off all the right boxes: terrific lead performance from Lucas Hedges (and good work from Nicole Kidman), firm handling of sensitive, timely subject matter, a rewarding, effective narrative arc… but it comes across as a little numb at times–much like THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, which I rated higher because it had a stronger, more deeply felt point of view. I don’t want to begrudge straight actor Joel Edgerton for his decision to adapt this particular real-life story, but it feels like the stakes aren’t as crucial as they should be. Everything plays out exactly as you’d expect and almost hope for it to, so it’s a crowd pleaser but alas, nothing revelatory. B-

Meet The Parents*
Still love Greg’s takedown of the flight attendant, which would’ve been unimaginable post 9/11; would probably like the rest of the movie more if not for the shitty sequels. B

Simon of the Desert
Making an effort to become more familiar with Bunuel, as I’ve only seen a handful of his films (and none in the last 15+ years.) This one is rich enough to suggest perhaps more directors should try making 45-minute-long features. The ending’s completely absurd, but it’s kind of the best part, too. B+

The Royal Tenenbaums*
I want to live in this film’s sad, absurd, elegiac world more than any other one. A+

From Here To Eternity
Probably one of the more… interesting casts of its era and holy shit, Sinatra could act. I’m not too big on war films, but until the last ten minutes, this is more a conflicted-about-the-military film with gobs of sex (or the limit of what they could get away with at the time) thrown in. B+

The Battle of Algiers*
Impressive as a large-scale recreation of actual events; even more affecting for its laser-sharp focus on faces and close-ups, as if Pontecorvo was trying to make a Carl Dreyer action film. A-

At Eternity’s Gate
In theory, Willem Dafoe seems a misguided choice to play Van Gogh, given the age difference, lack of resemblance, etc. Happily, he makes a stunning transformation without resorting to extravagant physical enhancements like Gary Oldman as Churchill–he becomes the man, mind and soul more than body; it’s as sharp a left turn as Dafoe could take from last year’s THE FLORIDA PROJECT. At times, Julian Schnabel’s film is a tad more pretentious than provocative, but his imagery is inspired, visually recalling the artist’s renown landscapes and portraits without coming off as mere copies–an impressionist take on a post-impressionist. B

Green Book
Cheesy for sure, but I admit I teared up at the end. What can I say, Viggo is both way too much and yet perfect. B-

The Edge of the World
Starting a deep dive into Michael Powell’s filmography as I make my way through his terrific memoir, A LIFE IN MOVIES. Made a few years before he teamed up with Emeric Pressburger and often cited as his breakthrough work (Powell himself agrees), it’s pretty sophisticated for its era. Filmed on the remote isle of Foula, north of Scotland, the cinematography is predictably stunning, veering between abstract landscapes and more intimate shots. It’s elegiac and soulful for a vanishing way of life, but it also avoids easy sentimentality. You can see why Scorsese is such a fan. B+

Border
From the writer of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, a contemporary fable about Tina (Eva Melander), a somewhat dumpy middle-aged guard for the Swedish border patrol who is excellent in her job, mostly due to her intense, visceral, almost superhuman sense of smell. One day, Vore (Eero Milonoff), a man whose unusual physical features closely resemble her own, walks through her checkpoint, and she immediately smells a rat…or at least, something that’s a tad off. From there, BORDER just gets stranger and more otherworldly, all the way to its utterly creepy but still kinda sweet final scene. While the film as a whole doesn’t quite scale the heights of its vampire predecessor, its blend of docu-realism and dark fantasy keeps it afloat. Melander is also a real find, giving one of the best, most original performances I’ve seen in recent memory. B+

Wonder Boys*
Apart from the instrumental score, this has aged beautifully; I suspect its cult will continue to grow.
“Sometimes, people just need to be rescued.” A

The Favourite
The three leads are all great and it has delectably bitchy dialogue (only THE DEATH OF STALIN bests it in that category this year), but on the whole, it feels a bit… empty, I guess. As with THE LOBSTER, I need a second viewing to be sure. B