Top Ten Movies of 2018 — Number Seven

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Shirkers is a movie that never was. Or maybe was, then wasn’t, then was again. And then, well after its journey seemed fully, decisively over, a dusty path ending at a sheer cliff face, Shirkers became an entirely different type of movie. Directed by Sandi Tan, Shirkers is about her youthful attempt to make a feature film in her native Singapore, in the early nineteen-nineties. Working alongside classmates and an American-born teacher with elusive motivations, Tan creates what appears to be a lyrical, gently surreal, and visually striking fiction film. Never properly completed, the work is stolen away from her, and much of this documentary is concerned with the sense of personal and creative dislocation that resulted from the vanishing. Tan directs the documentary as part mystery, part memoir, and — seemingly to her own surprise — part confession. Precocious as a teen, Tan’s reflections gradually make it clear that sterling confidence and damaging arrogance are two side of the same page, and that page is printed on the thinnest of vellum. Shirkers gradually makes the argument that the most important part of art can be the creation of it rather than the finished piece, especially if that creation is done in collaboration with peers worth valuing. With accidental candor, Tan tries to share something she once made and instead winds up laying herself bare.

Top Ten Movies of 2018 — Number Eight

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Satire is punishingly hard to master on the big screen. It’s a tricky puzzle in any medium, but there’s an added degree of difficulty when the tapestry is so large and dynamic. Many skilled filmmakers have taken large gashes in the hulls of their careers by trying to make fierce political and social points using broad, absurdist comedy. I’m not if that necessarily makes the creative accomplishment of Boots Riley’s feature directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, more impressive, but it undoubtedly places the film in an elite pantheon. Without diminishing Riley’s artistry, his neophyte status empowers him to the miraculous feat, like Wile E. Coyote briefly standing safely on thin air, simply because he hasn’t thought to tilt his gaze downward. Beginning with the indignity of working within the soul-deadening and identity-robbing field of telemarketing and pinballing in a dozen unpredictable courses from there, Sorry to Bother You presents a bleakly funny assessment of the current moment. It’s a manifesto of informed anger scrawled in acidic ink. Riley brings a bold visual sense and keen storytelling skills to the film. He’s also blessed with fortunate timing in assembling a cast of uncommonly fearless performers to help realize this vision. Someday, Lakeith Stanfield will return to his home dimension, and films such as Sorry to Bother You will be that much more improbable. Cherish the convergence. Its resulting vortex of insightful tomfoolery might not be seen again.

Playing Catch-Up — Tully; Can You Ever Forgive Me; The Smart Studios Story

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Tully (Jason Reitman, 2018). Working with a script by Diablo Cody, the writer behind two of his best outings, and a compelling, vanity-free performance by Charlize Theron, director Jason Reitman creates a film that is almost jarring in its bleak comic honesty. Theron plays Marlo, a harried mother who’s just added a third child into an already kinetic household. Marlo’s wealthier brother (Mark Duplass) gifts her a night nanny to help with the new nanny, which leads to the appearance of Tully (Mackenzie Davis) at her front door. Davis is terrific as a suspicious mix of extreme competence and blithe free-spirit, but it’s Theron’s sharp emotional insights that give the film weight. Even before the plot starts flashing its sleeve-snugged cards, Theron slyly conveys the way responsibility can erode all sense of self. The film teeters from time to time, but that can happen when reaching as high as Tully does.

 

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, 2018). Broke, desperate writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) gets an influx of cash when she stumbles upon some vintage correspondence of famous figures of the past. With a small battalion of old typewriters and her own gift for literary mimicry, Lee briefly made a living peddling fake nostalgic artifacts that were probably more satisfying to collectors than their non-fiction counterparts. Based on Israel’s memoir of the malfeasance, Can You Ever Forgive? is charming in its sense of survival amidst sordidness. Without resorting to a lot of showy signifiers, director Marielle Heller convincingly finds the flavor of New York City in the early nineteen-nineties, hardscrabble but also buffed into a more acceptable shape. The same can be said for the lead character, played by McCarthy with a bruising wit, thuggish indifference to others, and just a few well-placed flickers of vulnerability. Richard E. Grant is marvelous as Lee’s roguish accomplice, and there’s a brisk sternness to Jane Curtin’s turn as Lee’s beleaguered agent.

 

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The Smart Studios Story (Wendy Schneider, 2016). This highly specialized music documentary is a perfect product of the Kickstarter era of nonfiction filmmaking, when every last person, place, and thing with enough fans to fill a medium-sized hotel conference room is going to get its turn on the screen. In this case, it’s the humble little recording studio that cropped up in Madison, Wisconsin and improbably became ground zero for several influential albums of the nineteen-nineties, most notably Nirvana’s Nevermind. As with many music documentaries, The Smart Studios Story is calibrated to sate the previously fascinated rather than to spur discovery for the blithe newcomer. As someone who resided seven blocks away from Smart Studios during its heyday, I fall squarely in the former camp. Rough around the edges in a way that suits the subject, Wendy Schneider’s film is engaging and amusing in equal measure, drawing upon interviews with several colorful character who passes through the studios’ doors and making an open-and-shut case in favor of the place’s magic simply through generous sampling of Smart musical output. Truth is, it is impossible for me to resist a documentary that includes a debate — no matter how brief — on the behavior of Kenosha punks.

Top Ten Movies of 2018 — Number Nine

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The instigating action of the plot is so small and unassuming that it almost seems like a cheerful memory rather than a cinematic plot point. A little bear named Paddington (voiced marvelously by Ben Whishaw) longs to purchase a vintage pop-up picture book so he can give it as a gift. From there, director Paul King lofts Paddington 2 into giddy spins of colorful invention. The humor is gentle and the emotions are warmly insightful. And in Hugh Grant’s turn as egotistical thespian Phoenix Buchanan, the film boasts a springy example of the joy to be found in freeing a gifted performer to ham it up. What’s most impressive, though, is King’s relentless skill for crafting images that convey epics in a moment or two. In the meticulous visuals, King demonstrates an artistic kinship with the likes of Wes Anderson, Edgar Wright, and Paul Thomas Anderson. With Paddington 2, King outpaces all of them in his capacity for conjuring pure wonderment.

From the Archive — Brokeback Mountain

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A few days after the annual Oscar nominations announcement is still a time of bliss, when justice is possible. No matter how many personal favorites have been overlooked, there inevitably remain contenders imbued with uncommon cinematic beauty. Maybe those creative triumphs can win and decades of the Academy too often defaulting to the tired, superficially noble option will no longer be a reliable forecaster. Anyway, I wrote this review upon the original release of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. It appeared at my former online home.

In the rare instance that you see the name of screenwriter used prominently in the promotion of a film, you know the studio is going for something specific. In the case of Brokeback Mountain touting the contributions of Larry McMurtry is likely meant to connect the film to his various acclaimed westerns. But this is not the McMurtry of Lonesome Dove, this is the McMurtry of The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment. He has an uncanny ability to fill out characters and draw us close to them by showing us the scattered pieces of their lives. He doesn’t tie everything together, but gives us the means to do it ourselves. The film doesn’t stop to tell us about these characters with momentum clogging exposition, and yet, by the end, we know them.

The other author connected to this film is Annie Proulx, who wrote the short story on which it is based, has made it clear that the shorthand description of this film as “the gay cowboy movie” is wholly inaccurate. These characters are not cowboys, she has said, but are instead “two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids.” It’s an important distinction and one that cuts to the reason the film is so effective. The film is not about cowboys, but rather about two young men who have bought into the cowboy myth, and are trying to forge their personal identities on the basis of that rugged persona.

Jake Gyllenhaal initially seems a little off as Jack Twist, one of a pair of men earning their summer wages by looking after a flock of sheep on the the titular geographic landmark. He is too soft, too eager. He doesn’t match our perception of a man finding his future on the frontier as effectively as his cohort Ennis Del Mar, played with a rugged mumble by Heath Ledger. That mild disconnect between actor and role is actually perfect, as the character he portrays is role-playing himself. These two men are fighting to find themselves, define themselves. In the process they find one another, romantically, sexually and deeply. It is that connection that truly sets them on the path to self-discovery.

For all the hand-wringing over the supposed sensational elements of the film, Brokeback is not a treatise or a manifesto, a modern version of a Hollywood message movie. It is a small, sad story beautifully told. It may not be a booming box office success when it starts to book theaters outside of the major cities, but I think that will be due as much to the slow, considered pace of the film as anything else. Director Ang Lee presents his story matter-of-factly, resolutely refusing to punctuate or underline individual moments. He has supreme confidence in his material and his actors to create the emotional resonance of the piece. Lee captures it and emerges with a film that is breathtaking in its honestly stated heartache.

Top Ten Movies of 2018 — Number Ten

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Ari Aster brings a scalding intensity to his feature directorial debut, Hereditary. Unmistakably a horror film — in its nightmarish imagery, in its tone, in its unapologetic embrace of the gruesome — Hereditary is presented with a psychological acuity that is far more affecting than jump scares and freely flung gore (though it must be noted that the movie does fine by those elements, too). Terror wells up in stillness, in the agonizing moments in which a character feels the blanketing burden of fate’s cruelest turns or in late night hours of rumination enveloped in the shadows of long, anguished history. With cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, Aster crafts images of bleak beauty that entice like poisonous flora. Toni Collette is ferociously committed as a mother sent asunder by unexpected mourning, and Alex Wolff is tremendous as her fraying son, especially in one particularly painful close up. Aster gifts them and their castmates with intricate roles, and gives them the latitude to develop moments of pummeling power. Hereditary redefines the ways in which a film can be haunting.

Top Ten Movies of 2018 — An Introduction

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The Oscar nominations arrived yesterday, and with them comes my own timed-release survey of the best the recently closed cinematic year had to offer. I begin with my customary caveat: Much as I’d like to be comprehensive and timely in my viewings of releases that officially log time on domestic screens, I am humbled by gaps that pain me, or at least chip away at any authority I might have in my proclamations. No matter how definitive my positioning might be in the plain phrasing “Top Ten,” what follows will be a highly personal list. There were many, many films I saw that qualify as 2018 releases that spoke to me in some deep way. With gratitude and admiration, there are ten in particular that I’ll extol in detail in the days between now and the Academy Awards ceremony.

If there’s any through line to my selections, it’s perhaps the pleasing notion that great moviemaking can come from just about anywhere. There are debuts aplenty on my list, as well as distinctive leaps forward in prominence for previously obscure creators. There’s a reasonable spread in both geography and genre, as well as a diversity to the theoretical target audiences these films might reach first.

And I think it’s notable that these titles reached me — or, I suppose, I found them — through an array of means that I would have found startling just a few years ago. Back in when I co-hosted a weekly movie review program on a college radio station, in the early nineteen-nineties, and we struggled to scrape together show lineups because the molasses-like turnover of features at our local theaters, the arrival of smaller, artier features through a streaming services at roughly the same time they opened in New York City would have been a godsend. Frankly, it still is. Churlish purists can wail about the loss of the communal, big-screen experience, but I’m simply glad I get to see these movies that would otherwise be highly elusive in my current Midwestern environs.

Anyway, the process begins tomorrow, with number ten, of course. Fair warning: It’s going to be a little gruesome at the beginning.