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: September 2018

Movies watched in September; starred titles are re-watches.

Battle of the Sexes
Not particularly innovative for a 2017 film—it plays like a good old fashioned crowd pleaser more than anything else. Granted, it likely would not have been made on such a scale twenty years ago (much less in the 70s). Stone’s not a natural choice for King, but she pulls it off (while King’s sexuality is explored with sufficient nuance); Carell, on the other hand, is perfection as Bobby Riggs—I’d rather see him in roles this well-suited to his comedic talents than stuff like FOXCATCHER. B

The Wife
Close is terrific, acting without quite ACTING! and if this is what finally gets her an Academy Award, so be it. As for the rest of the film, the scene where her younger self describes a manuscript as possessing wooden characters and unrealistic dialogue gives the game away (and that’s not even mentioning an eye-rolling deus ex machina the likes of which I haven’t seen since THE DEBT.) C+

Key Largo
Not really the florid love story a certain 1980s soft-rock standard would have you believe, but a claustrophobic nail-biter, 90% of which unfolds in a hotel lobby overrun with gangsters (from Milwaukee, hah!) led by the film’s true star, a magnetic Edward G. Robinson (who just won’t let poor moll/lush Claire Trevor have another drink, for Christ sakes!) Bogie and Bacall each do that thing no one else does so well together, but this is pretty minor compared to THE BIG SLEEP and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. B

Lean On Pete
Expanding his palette beyond the more contained worlds of 45 YEARS and WEEKEND, English director Andrew Haigh adapts a Willy Vlautin novel for his first American feature. The protagonist, transient 16-year-old Charlie (Charlie Plummer) unexpectedly finds solace when he stumbles into assisting a curmudgeonly horse racer, Del (Steve Buscemi, ideally cast) and in particular, caring for the young horse whose name is the film’s title.

Best to go into this one knowing little else, as the unsentimental journey Charlie takes is surprising, unsettling and increasingly bleak. At times difficult to watch and occasionally unshapely, there are three constants that sustain the film’s momentum: Haigh’s perceptive direction, Magnus Joenck’s gorgeous cinematography (esp. in the second half) and Plummer’s heartbreakingly naturalistic performance. It’s an effective (if tonally dissimilar) analogue to Andrea Arnold’s AMERICAN HONEY and it reiterates Haigh’s status as a filmmaker to watch. A-

Through A Glass Darkly
Here’s my issue with Bergman: PERSONA and everything after it intrigues me, but I’m left cold by the revered 1950s films. This is the first one I’ve seen from the period between those two eras and I’m confused. At times, I wanted to yell out, “Oh, just lighten up, you miserable Swedes!” However, as it went on, I found myself more and more pulled into Karin’s peculiar struggle and palpable pain, so much that by the end I was left speechless and near-shattered. Bergman proves a master of silence and what’s (very occasionally) left unsaid, so perhaps I should watch THE SILENCE next. B

Madeline’s Madeline
An admittedly frustrating but always fascinating puzzle box of a film. On the surface, it appears to be about teenager Madeline (Helena Howard), her antagonistic relationship with her single mother (Miranda July) and her after-school participation in an experimental theater troupe led by Evangeline (Molly Parker). But there’s so much more going on here—actually, I’m not entirely sure what’s all 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 madness. Whether you love or hate what director Josephine Decker has concocted here, it’s essential viewing for Howard’s blistering performance—she’s almost terrifyingly great. A

The Thomas Crown Affair
Sure, it’s a triumph of style over substance, but my god, what style… Boston never looked as cozy as it did in the Beacon Hill scenes here, or that chess match. Split screens, imaginative editing, Michel Legrand scores—all catnip to me. B+

Blow-Up*
Appreciated this a lot more now than on my last viewing about twenty years ago. Whereas the final iconic scene once left me utterly baffled, it’s now my favorite moment in the film, perhaps because of the weight of everything preceding it. Still not even the third or fourth best Antonioni, but, at the very least, an invaluable artifact of 1966 London as viewed through a singular lens. B+

Blaze
An unconventional biopic with a trio of notable performances, one expected (Alia Shawkat, more impressive with each role she appears in) and one unexpected (musician Charlie Sexton is pretty great as Townes Van Zandt.) Then, there’s first-time actor Ben Dickey as the title figure, a 1980s larger-than-life Texan “outlaw country” singer/songwriter who never found fame and was murdered before he turned 40. He’s genuine and engaging in a way that’s hard to fake: a better-known, more seasoned actor might’ve been technically better, but not as interesting to watch. I still prefer Ethan Hawke’s acting to his directing (this could’ve easily been a half-hour shorter), but his enthusiasm and sincerity proves a decent fit for this kind of shaggy, elegiac story. B

Ace In The Hole*
A damning, wholly effective precursor to NETWORK in many ways, only Billy Wilder’s much more fun than Paddy Chayefsky (and far less blunt.) I’d take a walk over to Kirk Douglas’s house just to hear him sneer at floozy Jan Sterling, “WHY DON’T YOU WASH THAT PLATINUM OUTTA YER HAIR?” A+

Colette
Colette was such a fascinating figure for her time it would take a concerted effort to make a boring film about her. Typically, Keira Knightley is neither miscast nor an exceptional lead; she does what’s required of her, and that’s fine. Fortunately, Dominic West practically bubbles with joie de vivre as her hubby Willy–you’d almost root for him if he wasn’t ultimately such a deplorable cad. This automatically loses points merely for being in English rather than French, but director Wash Westmoreland’s (in his first film without now-deceased husband Richard Glatzer) sympathetic in crafting more than just a pretty picture, even if this is a long way off from something like A QUIET PASSION as films about female literary pioneers go. B-

A Fantastic Woman
An Important Film regarding trans lead characters, which alone doesn’t make it compelling, especially given the realistic but constant brutality depicted towards her. But Daniela Vega is a compelling enough presence to make it work—in a perfect world, she would’ve received the film’s second Academy Award (after Best Foreign Language Film.) Bonus points for brilliant use of Alan Parson Project’s dramatic, soft-rock chestnut “Time”. B+