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?

Advertisements

Film Journal: October 2018

Movies seen in October, including three from Japan and two of the year’s best–both of the latter seen at IFFBoston’s Fall Focus mini-festival and slated for release before year’s end. Starred titles are re-watches.

Shoplifters
Naming a favorite film by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is like doing the same for his closest progenitor, Yasujiro Ozu–nearly impossible, given their tendencies to revisit and refine themes of domesticity and humanism while maintaining a higher-than-average consistency. SHOPLIFTERS may have finally won Kore-eda the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, but I could name at least three earlier titles of his equally deserving of the prize.

This film hues most closely to one of those three, NOBODY KNOWS in its focus on an impoverished family; only here, it includes adults and children and stretches the notion of what a “family” is. With that in mind, SHOPLIFTERS explores the concept of give and take and how illegal activities such as the titular past time are weighed against both their moral implications and whether or not they serve the greater good. You sense Kore-eda sincerely pushing for the latter but also keeping in mind the former’s importance, which is what makes the film so heartbreaking once its increasingly precarious house of cards begins to topple.

A graceful overview of the human condition via fully recognizable, relatable characters and situations is one of the film’s most admirable qualities. The cast is typically solid for a Kore-eda picture; the standout, as usual, is Kirin Kiki as the family matriarch–her character arc here is especially poignant, given the actress’s recent passing. But there’s so much to love about SHOPLIFTERS, not least of which its kindhearted but fair depiction of how ordinary is, flawed people attempt to survive. On occasion, they may even seek solace in each other; often, the real tragedy occurs whenever one is unable or unwilling to reciprocate. Grade: A

Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary
A total lovefest, but few TV shows deserve one more. B

Heaven Knows What
I no longer feel bad I took so long to see this, as it now plays like a mere warm-up to GOOD TIME, albeit an interesting one. Admittedly, Arielle Holmes annoyed the hell out of me at first, but I grew to appreciate and eventually love her performance–thank the Safdies? B

The Happiness of the Katakuris*
“Like a cross between a slasher film and an all-singing, all-dancing episode of THE LOVE BOAT” is how I described this back in the day; it’s much weirder than that. A tad longer and misshapen than I remember. Perhaps HOUSE (which hadn’t yet been rediscovered in 2002; see below) has supplanted it somewhat in terms of batshit crazy Japanese horror comedies, but it’s still a hoot if you just go with its demented glee. The karaoke homage remains my favorite of the musical numbers; the typhoon climax’s still as giggle-inducing as the best of slapstick Keaton or Allen. A-

A Star Is Born (2018)
As modern Hollywood musicals go, *slightly* better than LA LA LAND, and much better than any umpteenth remake of this hoary old tale has a right to be. If Cooper finally wins his acting Oscar for this, I won’t be disappointed. Questionable camp value aside, I can imagine choosing to watch this again long before BURLESQUE or MAMMA MIA! B

Shaun Of The Dead*
A romp in every sense of the word. Bonus points for sneaking “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” in there. B+

Beautiful Boy
Another great performance from Timothée Chalamet (CALL BE BY YOUR NAME was definitely no fluke) and a good one from Steve Carell (despite him generally being better suited to comedic roles such as BATTLE OF THE SEXES). Along with the perpetually underrated Maura Tierney, they elevate the material in a way Glenn Close’s impressive work couldn’t quite save THE WIFE. In this case, the problem’s less the material than some heavy-handed direction from Felix van Groeningen (THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN). As any movie-of-the-week will show you, melodrama’s not an ideal fit for depicting drug addiction (nor is an overwrought musical score.) While this will undoubtedly comfort those with a loved one going through it, for the rest of us, it’s just an endurance test in watching other people’s misery. B-

Cold War
Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to IDA is cut from the same fine-polished glass: set in post-war Poland and shot in 1:33 black-and-white by cinematographer Łukasz Żal, it spans a fifteen-year period (leading up to roughly the time of the previous film) over which jazz musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and younger singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) have an on-again, off-again love affair. They first meet in a sanctioned troupe meant to spotlight traditional Polish song and dance. Wiktor, disillusioned as the Communist government transforms it into a propaganda vehicle, finds himself wanting to defect from his homeland, while the strong-willed, gregarious Zula has other designs.

Using his own parents as inspiration for the leads, Pawlikowski recreates a culture in the throes of a severe political takeover, drawing implications from the minute to fully societal as he limns his focus onto two very different people who nonetheless are drawn to each other. Each frame is a lovingly crafted tableau, strikingly rendered in high-contrast black-and-white and deep focus photography. The mostly diegetic soundtrack, ranging from hard bop jazz to hymn-like folk songs is a character in itself. I’m not sure if this is ultimately as deep or clever as IDA was, but in the end, it resonated with me a little more. A-

The Silence of The Lambs
Last tried watching this in a dorm room 20+ years ago at 3:00 AM, falling asleep ten minutes in (duh), so it’s great to finally see this on a big screen ALL THE WAY THROUGH (turns out I remember the last twenty minutes, but little before it.) Foster and Hopkins are both career-best, but credit Demme for rendering this more profound than your average horror procedural; even better, it still totally works as an entertaining and smart horror procedural. A-

Mid90s
I’ll go to bat for Jonah Hill as an actor, but Rick Linklater he’s not. He’s assembled a pretty good cast and the skateboarding montages are nice but the clumsy pacing reveals someone with more enthusiasm than talent for this sort of thing. C+

House*
Nothing compares to this glorious, insane mashup of THE HAUNTING, POLTERGEIST and Hello, Kitty! sensibilities. Also, I had to laugh when one of the girls says, “This is like a horror film!” and another (probably “Prof”) dismissively responds, “That’s out of date.” A