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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Halfway Through 2018

At the year’s mid-point, here are my favorites seen and heard so far.

MOVIES:

The Death of Stalin
Eighth Grade
First Reformed
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
Isle of Dogs
Let The Sunshine In
Loveless
The Rider
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

ALBUMS:

Amen Dunes, Freedom
Amy Rigby, The Old Guys
Calexico, The Thread That Keeps Us
Field Music, Open Here
Gruff Rhys, Babelsberg
Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer
Natalie Prass, The Future and The Past
Neko Case, Hell-On
Tracey Thorn, Record
Twin Shadow, Caer

Film Journal: March 2018

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Movies seen in March, now with letter grades because I feel like it. Starred titles are re-watches.

The Unknown Girl
This would be Dardennes-by-numbers if not for the new wrinkle of embedding a murder mystery within their usual neorealism; the problem is they don’t have the knack for the former, as its continual presence threatens to drag down the rest of the film (reportedly seven minutes shorter than the 2016 Cannes cut; perhaps they could’ve cut it down further.) Thankfully, Adele Haenel (whom I didn’t recognize from either Water Lilies or Nocturama) gives the film something of a center—her youthful doctor, fixated on responsibility and guilt, contains enough layers and flaws to make her more than a narrative construct. Grade: B-

Patti Cake$
It has all the clichés you’d expect from the Rocky of overweight, working-class, female New Jersey rappers, but I liked it anyway. Credit Danielle Macdonald in what should have been a star-making turn (a cliché, I know, but it really applies here) but also Bridget Everett, who is immense and devastating as the alcoholic, failed rocker mother who refreshingly turns out not to be the film’s villain. Hardly anyone saw this Sundance hit, but if they had, Everett might’ve given Allison Janney some stiff competition at awards season. B+

Thoroughbreds
Starts off a little boring and leaden, with two rich girls (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, both very good) in a passive-aggressive pas de deux. It achieves some focus once the what-to-do-about-the-creepy-stepfather problem is established—a narrative we’ve seen too many times before. Despite all that, first-time director Cory Finley proves a talent to watch. The camerawork, the immaculate suburban, Old Money mansion setting and the almost avant-garde sound design all cohere to bring about an almost thrilling sense of dread which builds to an unforgettable, extended long shot that’s like nothing else I’ve seen. B

The Passion of Joan of Arc*
Utterly shocked and transfixed when I first saw this on a 19” TV screen circa 2001; viewing it again on a giant movie screen in 2018 was no less powerful, even as I knew exactly what to expect. Understandably radical when it was made, it still feels as such today—I can’t name another film (at least one I’ve recently seen) that utilizes faces and close-ups like this. Uncertain whether an alternate universe where the invention of sync sound was decades away would’ve been a good thing, but this late-silent film’s rare achievement makes me wonder. A+

Frantz
Genre magpie that he is, I don’t believe Francois Ozon has shown this much restraint in any of his previous work, from Swimming Pool to Potiche; I debate whether this is a positive, for the story, a loose remake of Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby cries out for some melodrama. Still, this is sweet but unsentimental, with gorgeous-not-glossy cinematography (including selective, interesting shifts between black-and-white and color) and period design, but also uncommon kindness and introspection over how people process the aftermath of something as traumatic and life-disruptive as war. B

Loveless
Not as sharp a political allegory as Leviathan, nor does it possess that film’s necessary gallows humor (which might’ve been out of place here, anyway.) However, Zvyagintsev remains a necessary critical voice for his country and the petty squabbles between the two never-should-have-married leads are relatable to an almost uncomfortable degree. It’s bleak, but not unrelentingly so—brief, lyrical touches, like Alexey’s swirling red-and-white ribbon or the unremitting duty of volunteering citizens point towards a humaneness lurking within the director’s rigorous worldview. B+

Aguirre, The Wrath of God*
Third viewing and I’m still a little more baffled than seduced (although this time the guitar portions of the score made me swoon.) Here’s the thing: it could use even *more* Aguirre—apart from that immense, justly celebrated opening shot, the film only comes alive whenever Kinski’s glowering mug is onscreen, as if to say, “Well, of course the cameras should be on me! Why would you *dare* look away?” B

The Death of Stalin
Excessively funny and appropriately dark, from the “musical emergency” opening to the slapstick moving-of-the-body to a deliriously profane argument playing out in front of a small child. I may need a second viewing to determine whether this is really of a piece with In The Loop and the best of Veep. Still, Steve Buscemi hasn’t fit so snugly into a role since Ghost World, and that I never even considered him for the Iannucci-verse is just one of many things that keeps this from feeling like a retread. A-

Viva
Notable for actually being shot in Old Havana (a peek into a one-of-a-kind setting) and for its RuPaul’s Drag Race-worthy cabaret performances, which alone are essential viewing. The estranged father/son relationship is fine but takes too long to develop into something involving. Apart from the setting/culture, it has nothing on any Almodovar melodrama. C+

Snow White and The Hunstman
Sillier than the Disney version while also taking itself way too seriously. Kristin Stewart looks so uncomfortable that I’m relieved she and Olivier Assayas found each other. D+

Uncle Howard
Howard Brookner was a promising filmmaker who completed three features before succumbing to AIDS in 1989 (days before he would’ve turned 35). Directed by his nephew, Aaron, (whom he strikingly resembles), this is about average for a dead relative documentary, but the breadth of Howard’s unearthed, archival footage is a treasure trove—not just the numerous outtakes from his William Burroughs doc but also his own artful, affecting video diaries. B-

Nathan For You: Finding Frances
Feels less like a supersized television episode (even though technically it is) and more like a made-for-TV movie due to its uncommon seriousness. Nathan Fielder has always attempted a tricky balancing act between sincerity and satire, and he’s never threaded that line so carefully—at least for the first hour, before you’re almost certain he’s picked the former over the latter. Almost. A-

Talk To Her*
First viewing in a decade with almost unreal expectations—always considered this my favorite Almodovar, his mature masterwork. It’s still one of his best, but more challenging than I remember: the first half feels so slow and subdued, even compared to All About My Mother. But its themes of longing and companionship solidify after the scene whose dialogue provides the title, and rarely since has the director constructed such a tender (if twisted) scenario between two men. Also, Geraldine Chaplin is a hoot here. A

Foxtrot
Despite the title-referencing dance step, where one always ends up in the same place where one started, this is continually unpredictable to a degree most other films are not. The extended mid-section swaps the bookending domestic melodrama for David Lynch/Jim Jarmusch light surrealism, but it’s jarring, as if it was dropped in from another movie. This irritated me as I watched, but I admit the imagery (in particular, the sinking cabin, the outsized spotlight and that darn camel) and unusual pacing has stuck with me. B