Friday, October 4, 2019

Top 20 Films of 2018

These are my favorite films from 2018. I'm trying to get caught up to the present day (late 2019) as this year has felt pretty dry, but I'm excited for the rush of good films that come out in the final months.

As always, counting down to #1. Perhaps I'll do descriptions at a future date.

20. On Body and Soul (Hungary, Ildiko Enyedi)
19. First Reformed (USA, Paul Schrader)
18. A Simple Favor (USA, Paul Feig)
17. Happy as Lazzaro (Italy, Alice Rohrwacher)
16. Widows (UK, Steve McQueen)
15. Beats Per Minute (France, Robin Campillo)
14. Sorry to Bother You (USA, Boots Riley)
13. Annihilation (USA, Alex Garland)
12. Burning (South Korea, Lee Chang-dong)
11. BlackKklansman (USA, Spike Lee)
10. First Man (USA, Damien Chazelle)
9. Sweet Country (Australia, Warwick Thornton)
8. A Quiet Place (USA, John Krasinski)
7. Leave No Trace (USA, Debra Granik)
6. The Favorite (UK, Yorgos Lanthimos)
5. November (Estonia, Rainer Sarnet)
4. Roma (Mexico, Alfonso Cuaron)
3. Hereditary (USA, Ari Aster)
2. A Star Is Born (USA, Bradley Cooper)
1. The Tale (USA, Jennifer Fox)

Runners-Up: Mission Impossible - Fallout, Searching, Mandy, You Were Never Really Here, A Fantastic Woman, The Shoplifters, Blindspotting, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Loveless, Foxtrot, Upgrade, The Hate U Give, Vice, The Death of Stalin, Revenge, Support the Girls, Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse, Capernaum

Overall: I might be in the minority, but I think 2018 was a great year for films! It was hard to cut off the runners-up list there were so many more I could have included. Two surprise actors-turned-directors made my top 20. Women had a solid showing. Almost every genre had something worth seeing. Some of this got overshadowed by easily the worst nominee winning the best picture Oscar. And while a politically dark time, Obama's impressively eclectic best-of-the-year list reminded me of better days.

I liked Estonia's gorgeous and original folktale-fantasy-horror November so much and it was so under-recognized that I've used only screenshots from it for this post. But other than that, I think I missed a lot of the more obscure and foreign films from 2018. Any recommendations?

Top 20 Films of 2017

Catching up the backlog of my top 20s! As always, counting up to #1. Sorry for the lack of descriptions at this time.

20. Soul Mate (China, Derek Tsang)
19. Baby Driver (USA, Edgar Wright)
18. Phantom Thread (USA, P.T. Anderson)
17. Personal Shopper (France, Olivier Assayas)
16. Mother! (USA, Darren Aronofsky)
15. Raw (France, Julia Ducournau)
14. The Square (Sweden, Ruben Ostlund)
13. Thoroughbreds (USA, Cory Finley)
12. The Meyerowitz Stories (USA, Noah Baumbach)
11. Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Spain, Alberto Vazquez & Pedro Rivero)
10. The Nile Hotel Incident (Egypt, Tarik Saleh)
9. A Ghost Story (USA, David Lowery)
8. Dunkirk (UK, Christopher Nolan)
7. Call Me By Your Name (Italy, Luca Guadagnino)
6. Your Name (Japan, Makoto Shinkai)
5. Get Out (USA, Jordan Peele)
4. The Florida Project (USA, Sean Baker)
3. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri (USA, Martin McDonagh)
2. Lady Bird (USA, Greta Gerwig)
1. Blade Runner 2049 (USA, Denis Villeneuve)

The Nile Hotel Incident
Runners-up: The Teacher, The Big Sick, It Comes at Night, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, The Insult, The Lure, Wind River, My Friend Dahmer, The Beguiled, Coco, Summer 1993, Graduation, Creepy, Icarus

Overall: Perhaps not a stand out year for cinema, but a year that saw some rejuvenation from relatively fresh blood in the US and a few established names that continue to push themselves hard. Also maybe my favorite grieving scene: Rooney Mara eating an entire pie.

A Ghost Story

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Top 20 Films of 2016

I've put off posting my favorite films of 2016 too long. The laziness must end before 2018!

Last year saw Hollywood studios determined to push ever onward down the same well-rutted road despite record-setting financial failures. The curtain of generic superhero uniformity still smothered the multiplexes, but it was pierced here and there by little stabs of originality through which hints of a more complicated moral universe flickered. A serious renewal in terms of substance, style, and structure has yet to emerge, but maybe there's hope.

More exciting is the huge number of debuts and breakthroughs in 2016, with major new voices both inside the US and abroad. I call out a few below. My picks are all over the place, and I struggled to spot a pattern. Maybe the only thing they have in common is an ability to sustain deep and opinionated conversations. In a time where the culture wars of the 1960s and 70s have escalated to all-new heights, perhaps that's the best gift cinema can give us.

So without further ado, my top 20 of 2016 (counting down, of course):'

20) Chevalier

Six Greek men on a yacht obsess over who is best, competing in a bizarre tournament with dubious criteria ranging from how you look when you sleep to building IKEA furniture. A snapshot of contemporary masculinity in self-defeating crisis. Bonus trivia: Chevalier joins K-19: The Widowmaker, The Descent, and The Women (1939) among films featuring exclusively a single gender, but directed by the opposite gender.

19) The Wailing

South Korea's underrated Na Hong-jin serves up a long, dark, and enigmatic horror-mystery about a an ineffective cop investigating a local outbreak: a feverish rash that culminates in violent insanity. He tracks down a Japanese hermit who's either perpetrator or protector. Demons plague the hills. Doubt plagues his heart.

18) Elle

Isabelle Huppert plays Michele Leblanc, a no-nonsense video game designer who has a complicated response to being raped during a traumatic home invasion. Huppert's icy intensity sells a role that should be completely ridiculous; she's the daughter of a serial killer as just one barely-relevant aside. Veteran director Verhoeven learned French in order to direct her.

17) 20th Century Women

Annette Benning, Elle Fanning, and Greta Gerwig are the 20th century (1979, to be specific) women of the title. Collectively they turn in one of the most likable ensemble performances of the year. They shape the life of well-meaning Jamie, based on director Mike Mills as a teenager, who's unfortunately the official "center" of a film that barely needs him. Fortunately the sensitive and funny script rescues this from becoming just another good-guy-coming-of-age nostalgia-fest.

16) Eye in the Sky

The ethics of drone warfare play out via a joint UK-Kenyan anti-terrorist operation. A tense, well-cast, and extremely topical thriller that lives a second life in the debates you'll have afterwards.

15) O.J.: Made in America

A hugely-compelling 467-minute documentary, complete with historical context and in-depth cultural analysis, on orange juice production and distribution in America.

14) Moonlight

A coming-of-age triptych following one man's early life and first love, with sexual identity, race, and poverty not giving him any easy breaks. Moonlight is a cultural milestone, an underdog award-winning masterpiece, and a beautiful heartfelt story. Best of all, every indication is that director Barry Jenkins is just getting started.

13) The Fits

Toni is an 11-year-old boxer who decides to go in for dance. She watches the older girls: their physical confidence, their tough talk, their feminine sexuality. When an epidemic of unexplained fits creeps across her school, she watches that too. Inspirational sports/music movies take place on the surface, where we literally see and hear everything. The Fits is something else. It operates underneath.

12) The Handmaiden

Sarah Water's Dickensian novel about British con artists, lesbian lovers, and rare books is transposed to 1930s South Korea. This is the sexy, twisty, period piece thriller you didn't know you needed!

11) La La Land

You saw it. You have a strong opinion. It made me smile all over the place, and I hate smiling, so save your "overrated" and "they can't sing/dance" stuff for someone else.

10) Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols, the master of rural noir, my favorite micro-genre, mixes in some sci-fi and road movie to deliver Midnight Special. Two men transport a messianic telekinetic child to a mysterious rendezvous point in the Southern swamplands, while pursued by the NSA and a cult. Dusky cinematography and an accent-infested cast also help.

9) Hell or High Water

Speaking of rural noir! Wikipedia also calls this a "neo-Western" which will do equally well. See this for Jeff Bridges doing full-on Jeff Bridges. Or in case you were ever thinking of robbing a bank in West Texas (TLDR: everyone has a gun). Music by Nick Cave.

8) The Salesman

Every film by Asghar Farhadi is gold. His territory is the precise elevation where the moral high-ground shifts beneath you, and the rockslide starts to gain momentum. In The Salesman, a couple move into a new apartment. Off-screen, Rana is surprised by an unexpected intruder. Her husband, Emad, struggles to understand what happened, why, and who to blame. Like Farhadi at his best, there are no clear, easy answers.

7) The Witch

A stubborn Puritan exile homesteads his family in a godforsaken New England meadow circa 1600s. When their newborn disappears, the patriarch suspects a supernatural threat, and consumed by mounting paranoia, turns on his own daughter. Who'd have guessed that the year's most harrowing horror film would be delivered in difficult-to-decipher but utterly rich vernacular dialog?

6) Jackie

Jacqueline Kennedy (portrayed by Natalie Portman) recounts her days in the immediate aftermath of her husband's assassination. Putting Pablo Larrain, a politically-minded Chilean, at the helm of a Kennedy profile is bold (US - Latin America relations being what they were), and partially accounts for the depth and ambiguity rarely seen in patriotic biopics. The formal rigor of the compositions, editing, and sound design are highlights. Discordant music breaks the hermetic seal.

5) Toni Erdmann

So very good, and yet hard to classify or explain. A futile and useless summary: unhappy businesswoman is visited by prankster father. Only slightly better: a character-driven cringe comedy woven from criss-crossing contradictory emotions. Perhaps I had better pitch it based on its unforgettable dinner party scene or as a modernist family drama sustained with wry humor for almost 3 hours primarily on the painfully honest non-chemistry of two non-heroes. Director Maren Ade is another talent to watch.

4) Arrival

Towering black extraterrestrial ellipsoids position themselves around the globe. Governments scramble to understand the technology, the intentions, and, most critically, the language of these cryptic visitors. The US military tasks a linguist (Amy Adams) to make meaningful contact. This is the type of ambitious, cerebral, and yet supremely entertaining genre film I miss. A master class in the possibilities of visual storytelling. Denis Villeneuve may be my favorite director at work today; but can he pull off a Blade Runner sequel?

3) The Lobster

Imagine a European hotel where you can stay for 45 days. You must either fall in love with another guest or be turned into an animal of your choice. You can hunt loners, vagrant forest-dwelling locals, to extend your time. David (Colin Farrell) is shy, lonely, has poor eyesight. If cupid does not intervene, his chosen animal is the lobster. You need a taste for dark, imaginative, deadpan comedy to enjoy this, but if that's your thing, you're in for a very rare treat.

2) Manchester by the Sea

Lee (Casey Affleck) inherits custody of his brother's son, teenager Patrick (much-lauded newcomer Kyle Chandler), much to their mutual chagrin. As they bond, they slowly open up. We see the still-raw nerves of Lee's broken past and Patrick's inarticulate hunger for guidance. An uncompromising depiction of grief and getting by, one day at a time. Writer-director Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret) is 3 for 3 in my books.

1) The Forbidden Room

What is this? Your grandpa's old instructional bathing tapes? A recovered crooner-era music video about brain surgery and pygophilia? Why is squid theft the greatest crime? How can a saplingjack (an apprentice lumberjack) just "shows up" aboard a submarine deep below the ocean surface? Are those lithesome skeleton women secretly perpetrating insurance fraud? Can perusing even "The Book of Climaxes" tie this mess together?

Canadian experimental pioneer Guy Maddin segues with unpredictable dream logic between dozens of sparkling interlinked stories, depicted in an encyclopedic array of silent and early sound era techniques complete with artful deterioration and distortion. What is it? "Dreams! Visions! Madness!" Not for all tastes.

Some honorable mentions: Victoria, 13th, Don't Breathe, Nocturnal Animals, Zootopia, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Dheepan, Don't Breathe

Friday, February 19, 2016

Zulawski Dies

Yesterday, Andrzej Zulawski, the director of my favorite film, died.

He wasn't the greatest director or even a very consistent one. I doubt he'll appear on the Oscar death montage. He was never much interested in entertaining or educating. Instead, he strived always to transcend: to get behind and beyond the limits of story, character, intellect, morality, sexuality and even the very medium itself. More than anything he brought intensity to cinema, to a degree that often drove his films into incoherence and himself into bout of madness.

His films include the monumental unfinished sci-fi epic On the Silver Globe, which got his expelled from communist Poland, bizarre but compelling adaptations of authors as diverse as Dostoevsky and Madame de La Fayette and a quartet of unrated/NC-17 films starring his wife Sophie Marceau (probably best known as the bond villain from The World Is Not Enough).

I've been a longtime fan, once checking out an English language libretto translation of the Russian opera Boris Godounov so I could follow along with a bootleg of his adaptation.

Possession (1981), the art-horror cult film most often atop my fluctuating top ten favorites, is his masterpiece. Back when the film was a rare collector's item, I found it at an old library on VHS and gathered together a group of like-minded friends for our first viewing. It left me dazed and overwhelmed. It was the moment I realized cinema would be a lifelong passion.

Almost a decade ago, I wrote a long and loving review.

Zulawski's obituary in the NYT.

His final film, Cosmos, an adaption of Witold Gombrowicz's novel, was finished just last year. I look forward to it.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Film Atlas (Estonia): The Dead Mountaineer's Hotel

Country: Estonia
Title: The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel / ‘Hukkunud Alpinisti’ Hotell (1979)
An avalanche traps a police detective, an innkeeper, a physicist, a terrorist and the mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Moses in a remote alpine ski resort. The same night, a semi-delirious stranger shows up and a Scandanavian fop is found dead, his neck twisted by some impossibly powerful force. It’s up to the policeman, Inspector Glebsky, to solve the case. Although the setup is consciously designed like an Agatha Christie mystery, it was actually penned by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Russia’s most famous sci-fi writers, and they have something much weirder in mind. The innkeeper speculates about zombies. Glebsky suspects hypnosis. The physicist raves about aliens. This is a case that logic cannot solve.

Although the fashion on display is admittedly dated, Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel was impressively ahead of its time in terms of style, structure and theme. The night-shrouded neo-noir cinematography and Sven Grunberg’s ominously dreamy synth score anticipate cinema’s dominate mood through the 1980s. The self-conscious deconstruction of mystery conventions (isolated locale, locked room murder, dogged cop, femme fatale, flowery narration) and the unlikely fusion of genres feels strikingly modern.

The initially sympathetic Glebsky ultimately winds up as an anti-hero who, blinded by an outmoded obedience to logic, duty, and authority, fails to adjust to a dramatically changing world. It’s a theme that registered as a powerful anti-Soviet sentiment during the Cold War (In a final monologue Glebsky justifies murder by saying, “Either they were human, and thus criminals who got what they deserved, or they were inhuman and thus can’t be murdered.”) and continued to be relevant now, when scientific progress has far outpaced the layperson’s ability to understand the reality we live in.

Some other random notes:
  • The film was released in August 1979, within months of the vastly more famous Strugatsky adaptation Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
  • At one point a character ponders, “Maybe I’m an android? How would I even know?” anticipating Android (1982) and Blade Runner (1982) to name a few.
  • The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn novel was only recently translated into English (March 2015), but it has previously been adapted as a notoriously awful videogame. The player spends 5 hours doing chores in a hotel before having the entire plot narrated during the last 20 minutes, apparently due to funding being abruptly cut.
  • Those of you who’ve read this blog since its giallo days know that I enjoy sourcing paintings that appear in the background of films. The large mural that the innkeeper claims is the dead mountaineer of the title, is actually Chuck Close’s mezzotint of artist Keith Hollington. A version hangs in my home city of St. Louis, but the one used here appears to match the version in the Pace Gallery of New York City.
Chuck Close's large-scale portrait "Keith."
My Favorites:
The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel
Spring / Kevade
Franky & Wendy

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Film Atlas (Latvia): In the Shadow of Death

Country: Latvia
Title: In the Shadow of Death / Naves Ena (1971)
A group of Latvian fisherman are stranded at sea when the peninsula of ice they are on breaks free from the mainland. One man leaps into the water and attempts to swim back, but dies immediately in the churning cold. An old man says a brief funeral oration over him: “There was a man and then there was not.” This grim unadorned stoicism characterizes the film as the remainder are left to confront death, and each other, as their supply of fish dwindles and their iceberg shrinks.

Our viewpoint character is Birkenbaums, an affianced slightly angsty young man. Through flashbacks he reflects on his previously charmed existence, his faith that he would always remain unscathed by misfortune, and his lover back home, who once playfully wrestled with him while dressed as a grim reaper (ominously foreshadowing the real thing). He witnesses various reactions to their predicament in the men around him: a rich old patriarch hoards fish (one of the few explicit concessions to the Soviet propaganda agenda), another turns to prayer, a third succumbs to madness. 

Birkenbaums’s closest friend, a fair-haired teen, begins to fade first. When the others vote against killing their only horse to provide him nourishment, Birkenbaums feeds him with his own blood. As time and space melts away, a chance of rescue presents itself, but their hardest moment is yet to come, for there is not enough room to save them all.

Leveraging the best elements of two survival genres, mountaineering disaster films and lifeboat/shipwreck dramas, In the Shadow of Death is a cold, harsh thriller about impending death and its psychological effects, bringing out nobility and sacrifice here and selfishness and despair there. 

The film is short and rather terse. I expected the flashbacks to flesh out more of the characters, but the camera so rarely leaves their diminishing iceberg that its few brief leaps ashore have to be savored by the audience; a subtle decision by director Gunare Piesis. Although this is a film about facing hard truths and hard choices, it is also a film about hope and practical survival. You can see as much in words as in actions, like taking turns holding a makeshift flagpole because digging a hole to plant it in risks splitting their frozen island. It brings home the delicacy of civilization and of life.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review of Empty Night / Noite Vazia

Sexy philtrums,
Fulsome tantrums,
Unfulfilling sex

The Brazilian film Noite Vazia (1964) is variously but blandly retitled as ‘Eros’ or ‘Men and Women’ in English. Far more evocative, and more fitting, is the direct translation: Empty Night.

Luisinho and Nelson, two jaded playboys, prowl Sao Paolo searching for “something new” and end up spending the night with high-end prostitutes Regina and Mara. Sounds sexist and a snooze, but… there’s something there.

Luis and Regina, the older pair, have a painfully tense anti-chemistry, like two veterans from opposite sides of a war. They hate how much they recognize in each other: bitter tongues, calloused hearts, boredom dulling their wits, age seeping into their bodies. Luis says she’s #367. He counts. He would. Regina says he’s #1800. But I doubt she counts.

Nelson and Mara are less interesting, but at least for them there might still be hope. Nelson’s inarticulate anger masks a sensitive soul, or maybe he’s just another misogynist-in-the-making. Maybe I’m falling into the same trap as his prey: mistaking him for deep and mysterious. Mara, meanwhile, is hopelessly unfit for her line of work: she still feels pity for men, still cares whether they seek her out a second time. But then again, her naïve longing (is the word ‘love’ ever spoken in this film?) might be a lifeline of sorts.

There are tons of little ups and down. Moments of emotion and humanity that, like weeds coming up through pavement, still struggle to express themselves despite a lack of sustenance. Rudolf Icsey’s velvety, inky cinematography provides little sunlight. Rogerio Duprat’s skittish, jaggy bossa nova is hostile soil.

Mirrors and male gaze. 
Two scenes are almost perfect.

A teenage bellboy tries to break in, looking for a place to make out with his timid girlfriend and assuming the suite to be unoccupied for the night. Luis, initially outraged, awkwardly invites the couple to join them. The girl bolts. The boy follows, less certain of what he’s escaping. From their balcony, the four leads watch them reunite in the street, upset with each other, out of hearing. A lot is running through their heads, across their faces: nostalgia, mockery, envy.

Noite Vazia reminds me how much I miss filmmakers who know how to do deep compositions. Almost nobody, appropriately enough, is on the same plane. The girl hides from the moment. The plant fits perfectly.
Late in the night the two couples wake up to a storm. Without words they strips off their clothes and walk out into the rain. It is arguably the film’s most erotically charged scene. It is the only time they experience the sensual pleasure they only pantomime in the bedroom. They can only drifts indolently downhill from there.

The film ends with minor acrimony and a return to lonely routine. Any one of them could have learned something, but they’ve chosen not to. And that’s perhaps the film’s most telling observation. 

Odete Lara, if you can't bring in some Google image search hits, nobody can.
Walrus Rating: 8.5