Saturday, December 29, 2018

The 10 Best Movies I Saw in 2018

Once again, these aren't necessarily movies that came out in 2018; in fact, only three of these ten are. But they are all movies I saw for the first time this year, and loved. In alphabetical order, by title.

13th. It's unusual that this year I watched a fair number of documentaries, three of which have really stayed with me. This is the first. Ava DuVernay has produced a documentary on race, violence, and the prison-industrial complex that is terrifically powerful--maybe almost too powerful, at the expense of the effectiveness of its message. The film's basic thesis--which follows Michelle Alexander's once radical but now broadly accepted argument that criminal justice policies in the U.S. have essentially perpetuated the same forms of surveillance and coercion that were constructed to control free blacks after the Civil War--is built impressionistically, with great use of music and horrifying visuals, but the middle section does a deep dive into the 1990s, focusing on Clintonian triangulation, ALEC, private prisons, party re-alignments, and economic inequality, to my mind sublimating the whole racial argument of the first 40 minutes to class-based one. But in the final section the explicitly racial themes re-emerge, connecting a lot of loose ends, though not all of them. The result is a film that left me with lots of unanswered questions--which perhaps was intentional. Anyway, a great, necessary documentary.

Blade Runner 2049. This was fabulous film. It was perhaps a little on the long side; there was definitely two hours of movie there, but maybe not more than two and a half. Still, without the long journey to the orphanage, the wonderful twist about who or what is the next step in human/replicant evolution couldn't have been set up properly, and pretty much everything else was wonderful, so I don't know what I would have cut. (Maybe the some of the weirdness with Joi.) The final scene of K laying on the steps, snowflakes melting and making tears on his face, with something nearly identical to the Vangelis theme playing in the background, was a wonderful homage to probably the single greatest scene in sci-fi cinema. In terms of the overall plot, I admit I think 2049 actually works better in terms of the original, theatrical release of Blade Runner, when there was no question of Deckard's humanity; the idea that he's a replicant himself I think actually takes something away from what 2049 had to say. But then, honestly, movies like this are about so much more than plot.

The Day of the Jackal. This is one of those classic spy thrillers from the 1960s and 70s that I've somehow missed out on over the years; it was great to finally sit down and watch this through. Terrific, intelligent plotting and acting throughout. It did what only the best of these sort of hunt-the-killer films manage to do--get you rooting for both sides, as they try to outwit one another, get desperate, and make mistakes, but never allowing one side or the other to appear to have the edge. I confess being a little disappointed by the final couple of minutes--after all this clever cat-and-mouse stuff, it ends with the good guy spotting the assassin, racing up the stairs, and breaking in on him just seconds before he shoots his target? But then it occurred to me: back in 1973, that probably hadn't already been done a thousand times already, and therefore worked better then than it does today. Every movie trope has to be cinematically invented at some point, right? Well, The Day of the Jackal probably invented a bunch, and used them all wonderfully. 

Hacksaw Ridge. This was a fine war movie, though it can't compare to Dunkirk, or other solid war films I've seen in recent years. In fact, much of Hacksaw was actually pretty close to your typical well-made WWII movie from the 1950s or 1960s--a straightforward tale of heroism, succinctly told. But the uniqueness of this particular war movie's story, about a conscientious objector of truly superhuman courage, demanded some scenes that kind of broke that straightforward mold (pretty much everything that featured Private Ross's damaged, WWI-veteran father, for example). And say whatever you want about Mel Gibson; his staging and shooting of the original assault on the ridge was one of the most efficient and visceral bits of cinematic warfare I've ever seen, easily comparable to Spielberg's famed 20-minute D-Day landing scene in Saving Private Ryan. Every bullet hit somewhere, every explosion threw rocks and clods of dirt and flesh into the air, the chaos was total, yet I never lost track of the whole flow of the fight and where everyone was within it. Great, kinetic filmmaking there.

Ordinary People. This is a sad, powerful film, which interestingly exhibits in its form exactly one of the major sub-themes of the entire story: control. The first hour is just masterful in its refusal to give you any sense of where the story is going emotionally; Robert Redford, as a first-time director, made me feel as a viewer like everyone was holding their breath, just waiting, waiting for some moment of crisis and catharsis. When those things finally come with the revelations about Conrad's guilt and his own eventual healing, I found--perhaps not surprisingly, as a 50-year-old man with grown children and a 25-year-old marriage--that I was more drawn to the father, Calvin, than the son and his psychiatric drama. I wanted to understand Calvin's weakness, and his despair as he realizes he can no longer love his wife in her own weaknesses. But the movie wasn't about that story, and Ordinary People is a perfectly economical, perfectly organic film: it shows only what flowed naturally from the original premise, and there was nothing extra left at the end. A plain film, but absolutely deserving of its Oscars (though Sutherland was robbed).

Paris is Burning. This massively influential 1990 documentary on the African-American and Latino drag culture of New York City in the 1980s is one which I should have watched a quarter of a century ago. The first half is, perhaps, overly anthropological, almost clinical, in its look at the drag balls of Harlem, but then it takes a deeper turn, with every interview implicitly--or explicitly--haunted by the way this subculture was shaped by outside forces of racism, sexual violence, poverty, and the universal (yet always at least partially socially constructed) aspirations of the human heart. There's a deep sadness to the film, but even deeper than that is a feeling of joy, which you kind of can't help but experience, I think, when you see any community of human beings, in the midst of decisions both good and bad, coming together to--as Dorian Corey, a self-described "old queen" who'd been around the scene since the 1960s, and probably my favorite character in the movie, put it--"make their mark on the world." A great, important film.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Simply put, this is the greatest comic book movie I've ever seen. Note that I didn't say "super-hero movie"; while those two genres are obvious deeply entwined in each other, for all sorts of historical reasons, technological developments of the past couple of decades have really made it possible to take super-heroic (and super-villainous) characters and situations and make plausible, even persuasive, cinematic use of them in any number of science-fiction, fantasy, action-adventure, horror, and even other story-telling contexts. That's not to say lots of super-hero movies have successfully pulled that off; few have, I think. But the fact remains that we can accept super-heroes on the screen as characters who aren't necessary obliged to seen in terms of the colorful, melodramatic, outrageous, always-partly-winking mise-en-scène of a comic book. Which means that we're at the point that we need to recognize the "comic book movie" as a distinct thing, of which super-heroes can be a part, but aren't necessarily. Of course, that's not a new recognition: just think of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, or Ang Lee's Hulk; think of Sin City or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World--of them, to one degree or another tried to get the comic book sensibility on the screen. Well, Into the Spider-Verse was easily ten times better than all of them combined, and I say that not just because I am an old, old fan of these characters. Visually stunning and engaging, it had jokes (both straight-forward and profoundly meta), thrills, tears, and triumphs, every one of which was, to my eyes, utterly inextricable from the way the animation dazzlingly portrayed it in front of my eyes. In short, it was everything a well-made comic book story can be, and it was also a movie. More than any other film I saw this year, Into the Spider-Verse was, or at least should be, an absolute game-changer.

The Witch. This wasn't the best horror movie I've ever seen, but it came pretty dang close. Besides the gorgeously unnerving sets and scenery and dialogue and costumes, what I loved most of this tale of the supernatural in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s was that it really was a straight-up tale of eldritch evil, with all sorts of scenes and narrative beats to misdirect you, convince you that there was going to be some wild psychological reveal (it's group paranoia! it's familial self-delusion! it's predestination hysteria!) just around the corner, any minute now, explaining everything. Or at least, that's how I felt watching it: I kept anticipating a hint of ambiguity, and read what I saw accordingly. But no, actually, there was no ambiguity, no unreliable narrators, no nothing: it really was just a story of the Devil destroying an isolated Puritan family all along. I love it when a story manages to pull the legs out from under my own intellectual rationalizations, and this one definitely did.

Won't You be My Neighbor? The third documentary on my list this year, and certainly the best; probably, if I had to rank them, the finest film I saw all year. Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a tremendously affecting film telling a tremendously affecting story; a beautiful, inspiring, deeply sobering documentary about great, strange, beautiful man. Fred Rogers was, to my mind, a Christian saint, and his saintliness is underscored by just how obviously weird his determination to love and trust all children, and to be seen as lovable and trustworthy by all of them, sometimes was. I appreciated so much that the film, while by no means wallowing in that weirdness, never downplayed it; on the contrary, it regularly came out--implicitly, if not directly--in the comments of the many people interviewed for this pseudo-biopic, including his wife and children and television people who worked with Rogers for years, as he went from one crusade to the next, as he grew older and sadder, but always returning to that core of honesty and grace and optimism that enabled him to be the communicator he was. A film worthy of its subject.

Working Girl. I had this dvd laying around the house for months, and finally got around to watching it, not expecting much from this early 80s comedy. Man, was I wrong. Sure, it's a Wall Street Cinderella story, with plenty of surprisingly unsubtle--for a Mike Nichols's movie, anyway--class and ethnic touches: all the Staten Island secretaries working on Wall Street have huge hair and gaudy jewelry, and are all dating miserable cheating Irish guys. (I should note, though, that subsequent arguments on FB have convinced me that, while the hair may well have been employed by the filmmakers for stereotypical purposes, it was nonetheless definitely reflective of the reality of the era.) Anyway, the movie absolutely charms. By the final scenes, when Harrison Ford's sad-sack character declares his love, Sigourney Weaver's bitchy character gets her comeuppance, and Melanie Griffith's character gets her dream job, I was surprised by how delighted I was by various dialogue and staging choices (the quick elevator bit at the end had me completely sold). This is one discovery I could watch again and again.

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