Monthly Archives: January 2019

2018 Year in Review

The seventh straight Year in Review, and by now I’ve been very consistent in publishing this way too late (always end of January!) with way too few interesting revelations, yet somehow seeming way too self-indulgent nevertheless. But tradition is tradition, even when it’s pathetic, so let’s press on! Once again, note that I saw “only” 83 feature releases in 2018, so these are my favorites among those. Definitely several candidates I didn’t get a chance to see (COLD WAR, LEAVE NO TRACE, ZAMA, etc.) so take this post with that ever-so-clichéd grain of salt.

2018 Top Ten

  1. BLACKKKLANSMAN — Last summer’s fiery, passionate work of art from one of America’s greatest living filmmakers still resonates with me more than anything I saw all year. Spike Lee didn’t just make us laugh, make us think, make us uncomfortable, and challenge our ideas about institutionalized racism, mob mentality, and police brutality — he also crafted a love letter to movies themselves using the tools of the cinema to argue for their power. This is the most pro-aesthetic, confident work of Lee’s career, and one of his five best movies ever.
  2. LEAN ON PETE — A rueful, sparse, earnest work of humanism that mixes the ugly and sad with the beautiful and the sympathetic. No other film of 2018 shredded me like this.
  3. PRIVATE LIFE — The least enticing subject matter possible somehow turned into a showcase for Tamara Jenkins and her cast: this is all-star writing and directing both on a shot-by-shot basis and as a display of tone-control. I know you have Netflix, so what are you waiting for?
  4. BURNING — Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong also put on a directing clinic, but the atmosphere here is unlike anything else you could have seen last year. And part of its charm is that I still can’t quite grasp its ephemeral mysteries that will forever be out of reach.
  5. LET THE CORPSES TAN — The one entry on this list I didn’t publish a blog review for, but it’s the third feature from Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, two of the most stylistic titans of elemental art cinema — just don’t mistake it for style over substance. Their imagery is pregnant with significance, communicating both aesthetic ideas and narrative information. This is a Neo-Spaghetti Western where, as in all their films, texture is king, and few genres are better suited to a bouillabaisse of dirt, blood, bone, meat, fire, rock, leather, metal, and hair. 
  6. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE — Punishing and unforgettable. Joaquin Phoenix is once again electrifying, but it’s Lynne Ramsay’s perfect orchestration that elevates this genre film to dizzying heights.
  7. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK — Gorgeous (maybe too gorgeous), but it’s the romanticism that turns a universally angering experience with American racism into a personally affecting exposé of the devastating casualties of a rotten system.
  8. ANNIHILATION — A bold, go-for-broke sci-fi curiosity that not only has a lot to ponder with regards to the inexorable loss that death and separation cause, but also contains the single most horrifying sequence in recent memory. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t…
  9. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU — Funny, inventive, and clever, this is Boots Riley leaving no ingredient uncooked in a satirical soup that feels like the last meal he’s ever going to eat.
  10. WIDOWS — It took too long to get a new Steve McQueen film, but once we did, it was electrifying. It lives and breathes the city of Chicago, but gives actors room to be sensational and has a lot to say in barely over two hours of can’t-look-away screen time.

Didn’t Quite Make the Cut: Wasn’t able to make room for a surprisingly charming two-hander called DESTINATION WEDDING (giving Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder two of their best roles in years), the gut-wrenching French exploitation thriller REVENGE, Wes Anderson’s crispy-clean ISLE OF DOGS, the underrated A QUIET PLACE, or the Coen Brothers’ THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS.

And now, the requisite awards:

Best Director — Spike Lee, BLACKKKLANSMAN

Best Actor — Charlie Plummer, LEAN ON PETE

Best Actress — Viola Davis, WIDOWS

Best Supporting Actor — Bryan Cranston, ISLE OF DOGS

Best Supporting Actress – Sakura Ando, SHOPLIFTERS

Best Screenplay — BLACKKKLANSMAN (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee)

As usual, no Worst List, for all the reasons I’ve said over the years. It does feel like this year I was just shrugging at so many films that got huge acclaim — EIGHTH GRADE, SUPPORT THE GIRLS, BLACK PANTHER, A STAR IS BORN, etc. (I gave a 6/10 to all of those). And even MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT, which I think is the weakest of the six entries in my favorite franchise that exists… everyone finally started to click with it and it’s making other lists. I’m just way against the grain all around. And two films I actively hated (THE RIDER, CAM) are also being hailed. So in short, don’t listen to me. Feel free to comment below, and once again thanks for reading.

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If Beale Street Could Talk — 8/10

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018, Barry Jenkins)

Begins with a pregnancy announcement, then proceeds to let the entire movie swell like a kicking womb, life growing inside it until it can barely stand up. James Laxton’s vibrant colors and warm light make the entire thing glow with nearly unmatched romanticism (you could rip off worse people than Wong Kar-wai), and Nicholas Britell’s luscious score peppers falling autumn leaves of violin strings all over its characters. It’s hard to imagine a more human, adoring, soft, organic movie can be made about decades of oppressive, institutionalized racism tearing apart families, ruining lives, and damaging true love.

And sure enough, that social injustice is on Jenkins’s mind (though evidently not as much as Baldwin’s, who focused more heavily on it in his source novel) — his goal is to cultivate sympathy for a couple so likable, a relationship so pure, and a baby so desired, that the threat of losing it all becomes that much more painful. It’s the way Harlem in the ’70s breathes, the way Kiki Layne and Stephan James (two powerhouse performances that come out of nowhere from two unknowns) stare at each other, and the way Fonny’s false imprisonment doesn’t only separate the white authority from the oppressed blacks, but the way it fractures tenuous bonds between Fonny’s family and Tish’s, and between women like Sharon and Victoria. The collateral damage when people get arrested for being black is far-reaching and devastatingly permanent.

At times, Jenkins’s romantic touch pulls you out of the movie and turns the spotlight on the hardworking crew members: there’s the sculpting sequences filled with beautiful smoke; the way that all the costumes — even Fonny’s prison shirt — look like this is the first time they’ve ever been worn, so perfectly clean and new; and an ending that doesn’t grant catharsis — it merely exhales and fades out. But I’ll take a tone that leans in this direction over another “gritty” PSA-style lecture. It’s a joy to watch, even when it’s tough to confront.

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Short Takes — Jan 3, 2019

SHOPLIFTERS (2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Not among the most electrifying Palmes D’Or to come out of Cannes lately, but a sign that Kore-eda is getting away from the insecure, rigid formalism he hid behind in his 30s (though I adore MABOROSI). Now a middle-aged and experienced filmmaker, he’s loosened up and taken the character-first premise of STILL WALKING to a wiser extreme: this one is all observations and moments, quietly building to a forceful message about how you can choose your family, but said family can still contain the dysfunctions and complications of ones you’re born into. It’s a little confused and takes too many whip-saw turns in the last half hour, but the performances are so likable it’s not an easy film to dismiss.

BIRD BOX (2018, Susanne Bier)

Yes, it’s definitely THE HAPPENING meets A QUIET PLACE and fits somewhere between the two in quality. The strangers-locked-in-a-house-or-grocery-store scenario plays better in THE MIST and falls victim here to some thin characterizations and formulaic beats, but Bier’s heart is in Bullock’s Mallory, a reluctant mother with a lot of reservations about how to navigate the apocalypse burdened with too much responsibility. Extra credit for a biracial romance that not only ignores race, but also a marked age difference between them, where for a change it’s the woman who’s older. Unfortunately Bier’s direction falters when it comes to action and suspense, cheating on the visual rules too many times. (e.g. If we’re gonna be stuck in the car only having the parking sensors to tell us what’s near, then please don’t show anything on the outside until we get to the market — every time she cuts away to a body on the ground or a car in the road or a sidewalk or a parking lot, the effect is destroyed).

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