|Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Nothing released in 2018 was as good as “mother!” So I'm not sure we can really say it's been a great! year in cinema. But I still saw some good movies.
MY TOP FILMS OF 2018
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Ross)
First Reformed (Schrader)
24 Frames (Kiarostami)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coen)
The Other Side of the Wind (Welles)
You Were Never Really Here (Ramsey)
Black Panther (Coogler)/Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Jenkins)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening: Director/producer/writer/cinematographer/sound designer/editor RaMell Ross chronicles the lives of two young African-American men and their families in rural Alabama over the course of several years. That description doesn't even begin to do justice to Ross's remarkable debut feature. Combining impressionistic imagery with on-screen text and a dense, evocative soundtrack, Ross crafts a unique audiovisual language that allows viewers to adapt to its rhythms. Ross juxtaposes the personal with the celestial, sometimes playfully like when he cuts from a Chick-Fil-A waffle fry to the ghostly image of a partially eclipsed sun. In a stream-lined 78 minutes, the film expresses both unbridled joy and inconceivable tragedy. Ross has made a cinematic poem of radical empathy, and the most beautiful documentary I've seen in years. Move heaven and earth to find a way to watch this movie.
Shirkers: I guess we can't quite call Shirkers Sandi Tan's debut feature. Tan's documentary is actually about her own first film (also called Shirkers) which she made as a teenager with friends in her home country of Singapore. If you've never heard of it, well, there's a reason for that. The stranger-than-fiction story of how Tan's film was lost (stolen) is a jaw-dropping mystery in its own right, but I was even more moved by her ability to evoke the excitement of budding cinephilia. Tan and her friends built their own punk aesthetic around the films they loved and often struggled to find in Singapore (Jim Jarmusch and other American indie darlings among them) which eventually led to the DIY making of the lost (stolen) Shirkers and then to this documentary. Tan's writing and narration also strike a series of perfect chords. I love everything about this documentary, which is currently available on Netflix.
First Reformed: I'm delighted that Paul Schrader finally got to make his Diary of a Country Priest movie. It feels like he's been talking about it for nearly half a century. Schrader's film isn't quite on the level of Bresson's masterpiece (by which I mean one of the 100 greatest films ever made, though probably not a top five Bresson) but Ethan Hawke delivers the performance of the year as a priest tortured by the specter – no, make that the verifiable reality – of global environmental catastrophe, and the stupid, immoral species that could stop it but won't. His solution to the problem is... unique. But his ethical and spiritual struggle is a universal one, at least for that dwindling portion of the populace still tethered to reality. Everyone, please stop trying to interpret the ending, and just revel in the mystery.
The Other Side Of The Wind and 24 Frames : Two of the year's best new films are by deceased filmmakers which isn't really that surprising; dead people have numbers on their side. One of the most baffling recurring criticisms I've ever read about a movie regards Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark (2002). Said criticism goes: “If it wasn't shot in a single take, it wouldn't be so great.” Which is true, but, now stick with me here, it was, in fact, shot in a single take. So shut up. Likewise, some critics of The Other Side Of The Wind (shot in the 1970s, only recently completed and now released on Netflix) have suggested it wouldn't be received so rapturously if it wasn't a once-lost film by Orson Welles. But it is. And much of the film's pleasure derives from watching Welles (via on-screen-proxy John Huston as an embattled film director working on his final project) dunk on “these damn kids” of the '70s and their precious Antonioni-oni-o movies. The film is the finest and most inspired of messes, both hilarious and heartfelt, and every bit as radical as anything by the younger celebrated art-house darlings of the era. Plus Peter Bogdanovich (“What did I do wrong, daddy?”) and Norman Foster deliver great supporting performances. And Oja Kodar...
The late Abbas Kiarostami's 24 Frames is also great, and I already reviewed it here. I also previously wrote about the not-at-all-dead Coen brothers The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
Zama: I admit that I was lost during the first half hour of Lucrecia Martel's newest film. After reading a brief plot summary online, I was able to stop worrying about what was happening, and let the rich images and sounds just wash over me. The title character is a sadsack Spanish officer stationed in an 18th century South American country ostensibly to administer the colony. Instead, Zama waits and waits and waits some more, eventually realizing he is in charge of precisely nothing, not even his own fate. Martel's indictment of colonial hubris is as wryly funny as it is formally accomplished.
You Were Never Really Here: A burned-out Joaquin Phoenix strives to rescue a girl from a powerful sexual predator. It might sound weird to say that such heavy subject matter winds up just barely mattering to the film, but director Lynne Ramsey appears to be more interested in color, sound, and texture than in narrative. Fine by me! She's continuing her formal experiments from We Need To Talk About Kevin with, to my taste, far greater success this time. Ramsey has created a sometimes overwhelming audiovisual experience, at once immersive and jarring and difficult to process on a single viewing.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever! DC Never!
Avengers: Infinity War: Grossly overstuffed, planet-hopping at breakneck speed, explaining the story in needless detail but still not making much sense, shortchanging all but a few characters, replete with gods and robots, and trying to wring sympathy from deaths that no sentient viewer believes will last through the next installment, Infinity War is a near-flawless page-to-screen adaptation of the maxi-series crossover events that have driven the comic book industry (sometimes into the ground) for the past thirty years. I loved every overwrought second, and I hope the next “Avengers” runs at least four hours. Starlord's still a tool, though.
If Beale Street Could Talk: James Baldwin infused with a touch of Jacques Demy romanticism. Tish and Fonny are the great movie love story of the year (2nd place: Orson Welles and Oja Kodar's ass). KiKi Layne is also the breakout star of the year. I'm baffled as to why James Laxton isn't getting more attention for the most lustrous cinematography in any American film this year. Is director Barry Jenkins really not even forty yet? That's just ridiculous.
A few quick honorable mentions:
Alice Rohrwacher's Happy as Lazzaro is an Italian neo-realist fable until it becomes totally something else and I wouldn't dare spoil it for you, but it's great. On Netflix. Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate isn't a great film, but Willem Dafoe is a fantastic Vincent Van Gogh, despite or because of being 25 years older than Van Gogh ever lived to be. In the, like, totally psychedelic Mandy (dir. Panos Cosmatos), Nicolas Cage wields a series of oversized mystical blades in order to chop up demon bikers and Satanic cultists, and I don't want really want to know the kind of person who wouldn't want to watch that.
2018 was such an awful year (not talking movies here), I won't add to the misery by discussing any of the critically acclaimed films I thought were rotten. God, there so damn many... but no.