Now that we have passed the peak of awards season, I will be reviewing a range of 2018 films that have received nominations, very high Metacritic ratings, or other accolades. Starting with my confident anointing of the best of the best, these are reviewed more or less in the order of my recommendation, which will be added to until I finalize my Top Ten (or however many).
I did not expect to dissent from the consensus that the best film of 2018 was Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (MC-96,
NFX), and I felt total agreement in watching it. I’ve loved his films in the past, and as a
proponent of the auteur approach to film appreciation, I always look for
the autobiographical element in any director’s work. So I was primed to love Roma, and
did. No one is more of an auteur than
Cuarón, since he wrote, shot, and edited, as well as directed, this story from
his own early life, in the
neighborhood of the title. One word that
characterizes the film for me is “density.”
It is solid, substantial, compact.
Each frame is filled with information, through which the viewer must
search for meaning. Everything is
encompassed from household dogshit to earthshaking cataclysms, from private
grief to societal uproar, all in the frame of a child’s memories of being
raised by an indigenous maid in a chaotic but well-off household. Shot in lustrous and memorious black &
white, it follows a year (1970/71 to be specific) in the life of the family,
during which it adapts to the abrupt departure of the father. Though you’ve never seen her before and may
never see her again, Yalitza Aparicio will linger in your mind for the absolute
authenticity of her character as the maid, and moreover primary caregiver for
the four children of the family. The
movie is dedicated to the woman who played that role in Cuarón’s life, and a
more beautiful thank-you note cannot be imagined. And despite the extremely personal nature of
the material, the film is unrelentingly sociological, and political in the best
way. It’s clearly a must-see, and after
you see it, I recommend this article on the backstory of the film’s
making. Mexico City
Summer 1993 (MC-81, AMZ) is another superb, though much less noticed, memory-piece redolent of personal authenticity. Carla Simón’s clearly autobiographical debut film is marked by natural performances across the board, but I have to single out the central character played by Laia Artigas. She’s remarkably poised and charming as a 6-year old orphan sent from
when her mother dies of AIDS, into the Catalan countryside to live with her
back-to-the-land uncle, his extremely sympathetic wife, and their darling
younger daughter. She observes, keeps
her own counsel, and acts out, while the whole farm family reaches out to
her. The interactions of the two girls
are both a joy and an anxiety to watch, so unforced yet telling, as is the
entire film. Rather than story beats and
narrative conventions, Ms. Simón offers the impressions of an at-risk girl in a
formative period, fragmented but cumulative to beauty, passion, and delight. All seen with a child’s eye, but a wise
adult’s understanding. Barcelona
[This spot is reserved for The Shoplifters (MC-93, Hulu), which will come to Hulu later this month. As an admirer of director Hirokazu Kore-eda, I fully expect his latest to count among my best films of the year.]
What a minefield Jennifer Fox stepped into with The Tale (MC-90, HBO), and what a miracle that she makes it through without mishap! The result is disturbing as horror film but infinitely more plausible, exhilaratingly complex and multifaceted. Ms. Fox is an accomplished documentarian making a fictionalized retelling of her own story, the one she wrote in a middle-school creative writing class, and the one she explores retrospectively when her house-clearing mother unearths the pubescent tale, a romanticized retelling of clearcut sexual abuse. Laura Dern plays Ms. Fox as 48-year-old and Isabelle Nélisse as 13-year-old, both stunningly good as the story switches between them, with some alternate memories repeated with variation, as clarified when the adult character discovers new information or delves into repressed memories. As clear a demonstration of child sexual predation as you could possibly want, this film is difficult to watch, but astringently honest. So layered, truthful, and well-made, see this film if you can manage it.
In Tully (MC-75, HBO), director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody team up again after Juno and Young Adult, and bring back the star of the latter. This time Charlize Theron, as usual playing against the curse of her beauty, is the very pregnant suburban mom of two children, exhausted and disenchanted as the third arrives. Ron Livingston is her sympathetic but useless husband. Mackenzie Davis is the title character, a “night nanny” who arrives like a genie from a lamp, to help Charlize through her postpartum depression and reconcile her to her stage of life. The film is not quite what it seems to be, a light but sharp comedy, and a final twist separates viewers into those who think it’s more and those who think it’s less. Count me among the more camp.
I consider myself pretty catholic in my tastes and interests when it comes to film, though finicky about the art of cinema and averse to some popular genres. When critics generally are raving about a given filmmaker, I will take a look and at least discern what the appeal is, even when it doesn’t particularly appeal to me. So I have previously educated myself to an appreciation of Lucrecia Martel, but I have to confess that I could get no handle on her latest,
AMZ). It’s quite possible that a second
viewing would open my eyes to what others have seen in it, but I’m not inclined
to put in the time and effort. Maybe
this film is a profound statement on Spanish colonialism in 18th-century
, working tangentially and obliquely on many levels,
but you couldn’t prove it by me. It does
have a certain hypnotic power, but I was not drawn into the story, if story is
actually the point. And all the
characters remained opaque to me, though maybe that is the point. Knowing the source novel would have
helped. Maybe an audience full of
knowing laughter would have jollied me through, but solo it was a slog. Argentina
I’m definitely entering a dissent on Hereditary (MC-87, AMZ), perhaps the most inexplicably high Metacritic rating I’ve ever encountered. I thought that the presence of Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne might overcome my generalized aversion to the horror genre, but nope, this still felt like trash to me, albeit a slightly higher class of trash. Really, nothing to see here, folks, just move along. Save yourself two hours of your life.
Likewise with the ninety minutes of You Were Never Really Here (MC-84, AMZ). I never really got into it, not being any fan of revenge thrillers (not even Taxi Driver, the obvious model for this one). Joaquin Phoenix’s performance has been widely praised, with some justification, as has Lynne Ramsay’s direction, with less. As a violent exercise in style, it may have some virtues to which I am immune, but in terms of story and characterization it is unpleasant and unredeemed.
Safe to say that you’ve never before seen anything like Madeline’s Madeline (MC-76, AMZ). Whether you’d like to see it is another question. Many critics bought into its self-importance, but I am of two minds. Yes, I remained engaged with the story and performances, and admired the boldness of the filmmaking, but was somewhat put off by the overwrought obscurity of it all. Helena Howard makes an impressive debut, as a talented teenager with a history of mental problems. Miranda July is her nervous, awkward, but caring mother. Molly Parker is the leader of an avant-garde dance troupe, who becomes a surrogate mother by both encouraging and exploiting the girl and her problems. But the choreographer’s pretensions are somewhat mirrored by the director Josephine Decker, with a result that is either powerfully disorienting or disorientingly powerful, as reflected by clusters of Metacritic ratings at 100 and at 40.
[The leaders in the clubhouse, which is to say the candidates for best of 2018 that I have already reviewed are (in alpha order): Black Panther, Eighth Grade, First Reformed, Leave No Trace, Paddington 2, The Rider, and Support the Girls.]