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: April 2018

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Movies seen in April; starred titles are re-watches.

Mean Girls
Damn right Lindsay Lohan could’ve had Emma Stone’s career, if not for, well, you know. Fitfully funny in a John-Hughes-for-millennials-way, but despite the great cast (Tim Meadows, where have you gone?), it should be noted that screenwriter Tina Fey is celebrated for reinventing the sitcom rather than the teen rom-com. B-

Big Night*
Twenty years ago, this felt like an ideal of American indie cinema, in a much higher echelon than all the Tarantino knockoffs and sub-Jarmusch navel-gazing. On my first viewing in well over a decade, it seems a little quaint—pokey, even, in spots (anything having to do with Minnie Driver’s undeveloped would-be love interest) and unnecessarily flashier in others (the chef-literally-on-fire is a good sight gag that holds no meaning.) And yet, much of this gets by on charm, and charm usually holds up. Tony Shaloub adds depth and shading to what could’ve been a stock eccentric and Ian Holm, Campbell Scott and a young-ish Alison Janney are all wonderful (Stanley Tucci, who co-directed with Scott is adequate as a lead—he’s more effective in supporting parts.) And yes, the final scene remains one of the simplest, most affecting and perfect of all time. A-

Love, Simon
Greg Berlanti’s aesthetic (or lack thereof) is perfect for his CW teen shows, so it follows this feels like a competently made, supersized TV episode (albeit a far less interesting one than NATHAN FOR YOU: FINDING FRANCES.) Still, as someone who would have appreciated/longed for this film when I was in high school, I’m happy it exists. B-

Tokyo Story*
This was my first Ozu, watched in a film studies class with through-the-roof expectations from its Sight-and-Sound-poll-placing reputation. I didn’t know what to make of its style, simultaneously old fashioned and radical; it got lost in the shuffle of all the other ten-to-fifteen films per week I had to absorb. I’d go on to see at least a dozen more of his films over the next two years (including an entire class on him), and I responded more strongly to many of them (in particular, OHAYO, LATE SPRING and EQUINOX FLOWER.)

Nearly two decades on and I haven’t viewed any Ozu since the early 2000s. Seeing this again was less a revisit than looking at it with new, older, (hopefully) wizened eyes. After adjusting to the still-undiminished ingenuity of his pacing and composition, the narrative slowly but surely drew me in, all the way to the last half hour which left me devastated but hopeful. Many would say nothing happens in an Ozu film, but they’re wrong—everything happens, or at least everything that’s truly important in view of life itself. His uncommon humaneness and honesty are both summed up in its famous, unwavering exchange near the end:

Kyoko: “Isn’t life disappointing?”

Noriko: “Yes, it is.” A

You Were Never Really Here
As a resolute devotee of Ramsey’s first two features, I’ll allow that her guidance renders this watchable (as does Phoenix, astonishing yet again) and her willingness to turn a crime thriller into a kaleidoscopic puzzle box is often fascinating (especially visually). That doesn’t mean I don’t feel a little churlish complaining that the difficult-to-parse story prevented me from unabashedly giving myself over to it. And though I appreciate a good campy sound cue or two, here, they come off as slight miscalculations, distracting from Greenwood’s tactile, enveloping score. B-

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Probably the weakest of the director’s last four features but still worth a look. I winced at the make-or-break opening shot but I also kind of admired it, especially once I fully understood its context. Surely a more ridiculous premise than even THE LOBSTER, but you can’t argue Lanthimos and his cast (Barry Keoghan, you have arrived) aren’t fully committed to it. What it lacks is an element of surprise, those inspired, my-god-what-did-I-just-see narrative leaps which elevated his previous films into more than academic misanthropic exercises. B

The Trial
Talk about batshit insane production design—at times, it outdoes even CITIZEN KANE. Maddening in (mostly) the best ways. B+

Isle of Dogs
First viewing: I already prefer it to FANTASTIC MR. FOX, but I’m a dog person, so there you go.

Second viewing: I’ve concluded this is second-tier Wes Anderson—technically more dazzling than his previous foray into animation, but not as emotionally resonant as his best (the growing bond between Chief and Atari comes closest.) But its not without complexity: for all the appropriation fracas, this is lovingly crafted (both in depictions of Japanese and canine culture) and thematically rich, with political implications more of the moment than you’d expect from this filmmaker. B+

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
Director Sophie Fiennes’ vacillating back and forth between concert and cinema verite footage is initially somewhat jarring, particularly for those who know little about Jones’ life offstage (i.e.-most viewers). Fortunately, the latter’s contrast with the former grows more compelling as they further complement each other via hotel rooms, recording studios and behind the scenes of a must-be-seen-to-be-believed television appearance. She has the kind of dynamic personality and uncommon force conveying she was absolutely made for a project like this and Fiennes is correct in letting Jones speak for herself. As one woman shouted out loud at the very end of the screening I attended, “We’re not worthy of her!” A-

Eighth Grade
I 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. Delectably cringe-funny, this would be as discomforting as WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE if not for writer/director Bo Burnham’s humanism—his affection for the minutiae of this ultra-specific world (like the boy-athlete crush who nonetheless loves to make fart noises with his arm) is omnipresent, thankfully without nostalgia’s rose-colored lenses. B+

The Rider
At a time when filmmaking is more accessible than ever, it’s heartening to still see real talent emerge. Chloe Zhao has such a firm handle on what she’s trying to depict and express in this film about Native American rodeo cowboys in South Dakota that I was immediately attuned to both its poetry and authenticity. Had I not already known that most of the cast were playing versions of themselves, I might not have ever guessed it—that’s how strong Zhao’s direction is. The story itself one can surmise wholly from the trailer, but that barely diminishes its power. A-

That Summer
The unearthed pre-GREY GARDENS footage of the Beales (shot by Joans Mekas and Andy Warhol for a shelved project) is worth seeing for anyone who finds the gals adoring instead of annoying (I’m in the former camp), complete with musical performances, tales behind beloved old furniture and more raccoons. The rest, narrated by Peter Beard with some voiceover from Lee Radziwill gives ample context, but in the end, this is still more a collection of B-sides than anything revelatory. B-

The Third Murder
A legal thriller from a director best known for his Ozu-worthy family dramas? It slots more neatly into his oeuvre than you’d expect, primarily because the mystery per se is steeped in familial relationships, only this time with heavier implications and consequences. Although Kore-eda has delved into darker material before (the abandoned family of NOBODY KNOWS), he’s a little too intellectual here—extended musings on judgement and guilt are examined to the point of exhaustion. But the world he depicts is as rich as ever, full of scene-stealing (but not in an obvious way) characters and lovely, uncomplicated but effective imagery (most memorably, an overhead shot of three figures making snow angels.) B