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?

Film Journal: May 2018

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

RBG
Extraordinary subject, average execution but at least in this case average doesn’t mean boring or even fawning, exactly. The only real misstep is that opening voice-over litany of dissent against Justice Bader-Ginsburg, rattled off as if to get it out of the way. Once you get past the expected stuff about her being a meme and pop culture icon, there’s considerable substance about what she actually accomplished and the lengthy, painstaking process she went through to get there. And let’s face it, political sympathies aside, a film called SCALIA! would never have been as much fun as this. Grade: B

God’s Own Country
An impressive feature debut for writer/director Francis Lee, who has a real feel for depicting physical intimacy, both sexually and in terms of relation to one’s own environment. The shame-free gay love story he constructs almost feels revolutionary in a film that’s otherwise about the ins and outs of carrying on a traditional way of life that’s increasingly challenging in the modern world. A-

Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown*
One of Almodovar’s best, and easily his most realized screwball comedy. There’s nothing gazpacho can’t fix (if you mix it right.) A

The Meyerwitz Stories (New and Selected)
A great ensemble cast (yes, even Adam Sandler) with the lesser-known Elizabeth Marvel the MVP, however sparingly she’s used. As Noah Baumbach films go, not quite up there with FRANCES HA (which was just as much Greta Gerwig’s, particularly in light of LADY BIRD), but I’d much rather sit through it again than anything else he’s put out since. B+

Let The Sunshine In
Leave it to Claire Denis to open her latest by saddling Juliette Binoche with one heck of a blowhard beau and close it on an extended conversation between Binoche and Gerard Depardieu, decidedly *not* her beau (his actual role’s too good to disclose here.) In between, Denis’ seemingly ageless lead, playing a divorced, middle-aged artist continually pivots from one man to another in search of The One, only for it to slowly dawn on her maybe, (to paraphrase Rachel Bloom) the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that? Simultaneously confusing and enthralling like any good Denis, but also not quite like any of her other films (also typical for Denis.) B+

Strike A Pose
A profile of the male backup dancers on Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, notable not only for the where-are-they-now contrasts but also for the exposure afforded them via the infamous tour doc TRUTH OR DARE, which proved a double-edged sword. There’s an excess of great footage here, but it lacks focus scene-to-scene (all the disparate modern-day stuff doesn’t help) which is crucial in order for the overarching chronology to work. Still, the participants’ reunion near the end is lovelier than most of that trope. B-

The Misfits
The objectification of Monroe here hasn’t aged well (especially when you consider her husband wrote it!); otherwise, fascinating for what it represents about a dimming Hollywood, as it was the last film for two of its stars, and two of the other three principals would also be dead within a decade. If you have any qualms about Monroe’s acting, just watch her transformation from coquettish, adoring girlfriend to a raw maelstrom of devastation in the horse-wrangling sequence. B

First Reformed
I believe any work of art has the potential to be both ridiculous and sublime, however rarely one achieves such a tricky balance. To its credit, FIRST REFORMED is often firmly the latter—the austere opening credits sequence with its extended zoom-in; the simple, profound economy of the editing; tonally, how the dread keeps building, almost becoming constrictive but not altogether suffocating; and of course, Ethan Hawke, perennially underrated as he ages but arguably never better in a role he nearly disappears into.

The ridiculous stuff comes at the hysterical finale, but it’s to be taken seriously because it’s not silly and not played for camp or irony (just as the last fifteen minutes of TAXI DRIVER were outrageous and totally plausible.) The score gets to be a little much in the last third, but the straight-faced hymn accompanying those final minutes is perfect. Themes of climate control and corporate influence place the film firmly in the here and now, but otherwise, it feels as timeless as the work of director Paul Schrader’s old hero Carl Dreyer. A-

Flirting With Disaster*
Maybe not the best screwball comedy of its era as I once thought, but pretty damn close.
“We love you very much. If you were Jeffrey Dahmer, we would still love you.” A-

Back To The Future*
What I wrote upon my previous viewing on October 21, 2015: Influence of childhood nostalgia aside, it’s still the best blockbuster of its era, and now looks like one of the more audacious ones, too—would the oedipal stuff between Marty and his mother even be thinkable in a studio film today? A

Liquid Sky
Loved the striking visuals, time-capsule fashions and Anne Carlisle (more so as Jimmy than Margaret); didn’t much care for the rampant misogyny and numbingly awful score. Not nearly as essential a cult film of its time as REPO MAN or EATING RAOUL, but I’d happily watch Paula E. Sheppard spitting out “Me and My Rhythm Box” on a ninety-minute loop. B