Saturday, January 11, 2020

My Year in Film - 2019 Favorites


When the object of desire looks back and becomes a subject...
As I wrote before, this end of year post serves primarily to organize the glorious mess of cinematic impressions inside my head. The usual list of favorite films (those that impressed me the most) is followed by "general observations" which is basically a euphemism for cramming a whole year of cinematic cross reactions into one long monologue about songs, cinematography, nostalgia, horror and realism. Inevitably, certain films pop up in different contexts. [All images from films I studied in 2019. Click on them to fully see them].

Most Memorable Cinema Experience
My most memorable recent cinematic experience did neither take place inside a cinema nor did it include a screening in the narrower sense. It took place in Hawkins, Indiana in 1985… and since "friends" not only "don't lie" but also "don't tell", all I can say is: SecretCinema

Hardly less memorable was a screening of the 4K restoration of Spike Lee's masterpiece DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) in Locarno. This one did involve an actual screen (Europe's largest open-air screen). It also involved a deafening thunderstorm that forced me to read Italian subtitles and at one point it rained so hard that the light did not even reach the screen any more. That's what I call an immersive experience. And I love the film even more now. 

The best "regular" cinema experience was once again at the Annecy Festival where Jérémy Clapin's J'AI PERDU MON CORPS (2019) created a mass emotion - you could literally hear a thousand people breathe and gasp in unison.
 
For a lecture on THE FAVOURITE...
...I studied the films of Lanthimos.

Favorite New Releases
As usual, my list of favorite new releases (= released in Switzerland in 2019) is in alphabetical order. Italicized titles did not get a regular theatrical release around here. Two of the year's best films, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (Jenkins, 2018) and THE FAVOURITE (Lanthimos, 2018), are missing from this list because I have already written about them last year.
  • AMAZING GRACE (Elliott/Pollack, 2018): Filmed in a former cinema-turned-church, AMAZING GRACE must be experienced on the big screen. Regardless of the sterile lighting, the camera equipment in the frame and the grainy 16mm close-ups originally designed for TV, there is an unmatched immediacy to this rare concert film that shows the performers both as great artists and as sentient human beings in all their natural awkwardness. 
  • BURNING (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018): A melancholy literary adaptation that keeps all the main characters ambivalent for more than two hours and still allowed me to dive deeply into their emotional lives. I'm keeping things vague on purpose: the less you know about it, the better.
  • FIRST REFORMED (Schrader, 2017): Like a benevolent contemporary Taxi Driver, Ethan Hawkes' despairing priest moves through a rigidly framed small town setting the coldness of which is almost palpable. Personal, ascetical and haunting - Schrader at his best.
  • J'AI PERDU MON CORPS (I LOST MY BODY  Clapin, 2019): Using a mixture of computer generated and hand-drawn animation, Jérémy Clapin's debut feature is about a severed human in search of its body. Like pieces of a puzzle, effortlessly interspersed flashbacks provide unexpected emotional depth and gradually reveal the overall picture. The voice-acting is exceptional. I LOST MY BODY is the rare independent animated feature that I can recommend to film fans outside the animation bubble.
  • LAZZARO FELICE* (Rohrwacher, 2018): What starts out like a down-to-earth depiction of archaic life in the countryside (in grainy 16mm) turns out to be a playful meditation on time and period. Drawing from folk tales and biblical metaphors, Alice Rohrwacher delivers magical realism as well as biting social commentary.
  • MARRIAGE STORY (Baumbach, 2019): Had it stopped after the opening voice-over narration, I would have already loved it. But then, it precisely works out how a divorce procedure deepens a rift between two people who in fact still love each other. On top of that, Baumbach turns out to be a master of mood swings and observational comedy that often made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.
  • MONOS (Landes, 2019): A film like an erratic block. No explanations, hardly any psychological insight, only glimpses of humanity. The harsh landscape, atavistic behaviour, piercing music (Mica Levi), hypnotic pacing and sheer visual beauty pulled me into this self-contained universe that is on the verge of coming apart.
  • PARASITE (Bong, 2019): Two families, one above, one below, plus an unexpected third party. All of them parasites, and all of them likable and human in some way or another. Meticulously constructed, both terrifying and wickedly funny, Bong's genre-bending stunner has it all: set pieces, precise montages, a choral score, a ghost, fake blood, jokes about wifi and odors, and above all an uncanny sense of rhythm. It is also a masterclass in how to use architectural spaces.
  • PORTRAIT DE LA JEUNE FILLE EN FEU* (Sciamma, 2019): For her first period film Sciamma employs a simple flashback structure that conveys both the experience of falling in love and the memory of that love. In addition to her trademark non-verbal storytelling, here, Sciamma also relies on some of the sharpest dialogue this year discussing the history of female painters, reflecting on the Orpheus myth, as well as deconstructing the myth of the muse. All the while, the emotional tension is steadily growing. Don't miss this quiet, tightly composed and incredibly sensual masterpiece.
  • RAY & LIZ (Billingham, 2018): A time capsule if ever there was one. All texture, patterns and vignettes, this unflattering portrait of photographer Richard Billingham's parents could not be any further from the current nostalgic view of the 1980s. For a while, I even felt uncomfortable laughing at these peculiar characters. But Billingham opens the door just about enough for the audience to empathize with them.
  • ROLLING THUNDER REVUE (Scorsese, 2019): As a huge fan of Dylan's first Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975 I was delighted to see some of these filmed performances fully restored. But Scorsese's "conjuring" of this "Bob Dylan Story" turned out to be more of an essay film than a documentary. Playing along with (and visually commenting on) Dylan's re-invention as an American entertainer (and Poet Laureate) by way of conscious omissions, contradictions and fake interviews, Scorsese adds snippets of fictional, promotional and educational films into the mix. Overall, this "fever-dream" works better as a counterpart than an update to Dylan's own RENALDO & CLARA (1978).
  • SORRY WE MISSED YOU (Loach, 2019): Ken Loach's fierce indictment of the gig economy may lack the poetic quality of earlier films like KES (1969). Yet, the sustained emotional impact stems from a relentless suspense plot steeped in astute observations of social realities (including tender moments) and a cast of characters with ample potential for identification.
  • FOR SAMA* (Al-Kateab/Watts, 2019):Whatever I thought I knew about life in Aleppo during the decade's worst war did not prepare me for what Waad Al-Kateab's hand-held videos captured inside a Syrian hospital. Her documentary (put together with British filmmaker Edward Watts) is incredibly tense with close-ups of dead children. But with scenes of caring for a newborn baby or preparing family dinner, it is also a testament to resilience in the face of mass destruction.
  • SYSTEMSPRENGER* (Fingscheidt, 2019): Nora Fingscheidt's pink sledgehammer of a film allows us to identify with both a difficult but otherwise lovable child (whose point-of-view we mostly share) and her therapists/social workers who are increasingly at a loss with her. By the time Nina Simone's "I got life" kicked off the end credits, I was pretty sure that 9-year old Helena Zengel was in fact playing herself (because how can anyone that young fake such erratic behavior in an authentic way?), but it turned out she already had quite a few acting credits before.
First Impression
One film I definitely want to revisit once it is widely released in Switzerland is...
  • LITTLE WOMEN* (Gerwig, 2019): Ever dreamed of having your cake and eat it? Well, if that dream included Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper and a truckload of costumes, you are in for a treat. Greta Gerwig's adaptation of the often filmed Alcott novel restructures the timeline in a way that provides ample Norman Rockwell Americana but also some more realistic insight into the life of women in the 19th century. Pure festive joy.
Looking at my list of favorite films above, there are productions from the US, the UK, France, South Korea, Italy, Syria, Colombia/Argentina and Germany (many of them co-produced with other countries), among them one animated feature, two concert films and a documentary. 5 out of 15 films were directed by women (marked by *). For common themes, subjects and styles see "General Observations" below.


Gazing.
Films that almost made the list include Jordan Peele's masterfully directed horror satire US (2019), Ari Aster's folk horror MIDSOMMAR (2019) and the Swedish misfit story GRÄNS/BORDER (Abbasi, 2018) that also dabbles in folk horror and is a sure contender for best makeup effects of the year. No less violent but more down-to-earth was HVITUR, HVITUR DAGUR/A WHITE, WHITE DAY (Palmason, 2019), the Icelandic equivalent of an arthouse Clint Eastwood film.

Quite recently, I also saw A VIDA INVISIVEL/THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF EURIDICE GUSMAO (Aïnouz, 2019), a Brazilian melodrama that takes its cues from Sirk, Fassbinder and the colorful vegetation around Rio, dwells on the involuntary separation of two sisters and eludes the male gaze.

Since I was too tired during the first half hour of Lulu Wang's THE FAREWELL* (2019) - it was the third or fourth film that day - I wasn't able to connect with it later on. I was struck, however, by Awkwafina's performance and the central questions. Oddly, Almodóvar's highly anticipated DOLOR Y GLORIA (2019) left me rather cold despite being wide awake. Still, it was intriguing enough to make me want to see it again (and hopefully enjoy it more).

The same goes for THE IRISHMAN (Scorsese, 2019) which I found interesting. My inability to engage with it emotionally was likely due to false expectations (I wanted CASINO 2, not SILENCE without God) and a screening that was marred by the audience - Scorsese probably never imagined that people pay to see a Netflix film in a cinema and then use their smartphones at the same time, not in a silent way.

When you find out that 48HRS is probably more honest than GREEN BOOK.
Favorite TV Shows I Saw in 2019:
  • CHERNOBYL (Renck/Mazin, 2019): Apart from being a devastating suspense drama, CHERNOBYL drew attention to an important but often unnoticed convention of fictionalized "true stories": the amalgam character, a character combing aspects of several "real-life" persons into one screen/literary character. This gives the writers the necessary dramatic leeway and clarity of relationships. The fact that a whole group of scientists were represented by the fictional nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk gave us a character we could root for, an emotional center and at least one woman in the series with any real power. Acknowledging this in the way the creators did hopefully makes more people aware of such dramatic conventions necessary in any adaptation, be it of a novel or a real-life event.
  • FLEABAG 2* (Waller-Bridge/Bradbeer, 2019): Phoebe Waller-Bridge, need I say more?
  • MINDHUNTER 2 (Penhall/Fincher/Franklin/Dominik, 2019): I preferred the second season to the first one because it left the "monster-of-the-week" path for a more consistent arc concerning the Atlanta Child Murders embracing unsatisfying conclusions and loose ends.
  • ONDES DE CHOC* (Baier/Bron/Meier/Mermoud, 2018): An anthology of four one-hour films made by four film directors from the French part of Switzerland, each one inspired by a shocking real-life news item. Overall, they made for a compelling watch and a showcase of the quality that is theoretically possible in Swiss public television.
  • SHARP OBJECTS* (Noxon/Vallée, 2018): Like all of director Jean-Marc Vallée's works, this adaptation of a Gillian Flynn thriller is chock full of carefully chosen pop songs. Besides, how often do you see a mystery that delays the real denouement until the middle of the end credits? It also put Eliza Scanlen on the map (at least on mine).
  • STRANGER THINGS 3* (Duffers, 2019): Less Spielberg, more Cold War atmosphere, but also funnier than expected. It is also notable, that a series about nostalgia made the inevitability of change a central theme (handling it much better than most of the films it is based on). The standout here was Hopper's speech (with a telling reprise of "Heroes") accompanied by rare moments of temporally free-flowing editing within a season that otherwise often compromised its own suspense by too much cliffhanger-cross-cutting.
  • TATAMI GALAXY (Yuasa, 2010): Yuasa Masaaki is one of the most beloved "unknown" anime director, kind of a maverick who works fast, mixing different styles and crazy, exaggerated animation. Taking place within the same universe as his 2017 feature THE NIGHT IS SHORT, WALK ON GIRL, this series about a shy student on a quest to win the heart of a girl makes him and us relive the same scenes in every episode like a teen freak version of GROUNDHOG DAY (Ramis, 1993).
  • THE END OF THE F***ING WORLD 2* (Covell/Ekaragha/Forbes, 2019): I did not want a second season. However, I loved it. Naomi Ackie as Bonnie is truly stunning, so much going on in that face even when she's deliberately being opaque.
  • UNBELIEVABLE* (Cholodenko/Dinner/Grant, 2019): On the one hand, this non-lurid, slowburn thriller explores what makes a vulnerable person lie against their own interests. On the other hand, we get a suspenseful police procedural told from the perspective of two female detectives whose buddy relationship transcends mentor-apprentice stereotypes. Heartbreaking but hardly sentimental, UNBELIEVABLE is uniformly well-acted.
  • WHEN THEY SEE US* (DuVernay, 2019): Although I knew beforehand that it is impossible to watch this without getting overly emotional, there was one moment that shook me to the core. When Antron (Caleel Harris / Jovan Adepo) who was sent to prison as a boy comes out a fully grown man - we have all seen similar scenes in recent years - it suddenly dawned on me what it really means (as opposed to what it means dramatically) for someone to lose those crucial years to life in prison. Like Barry Jenkins or Sean Baker, Ava DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young tell a devastating story with as much beauty as possible.
* shows or episodes created or directed by women.

Patterns galore: Ruth E. Carter's costume design for DOLEMITE IS MY NAME.

General Observations
Priceless Acting Moments that still make me chuckle:
  • THE END OF THE F***ING WORLD 2 (Forsman/Covell): Jessica Barden not managing to distort her face into a smile at her own wedding.
  • US: The look on Adelaide's face (Lupita Nyong'o) after her "glitch" and Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) at the wheel.
  • MARRIAGE STORY: Adam Driver cutting himself in front of the awkward "visitor" and Alan Alda digressing into an endless joke.
  • A VIDA INVISÍVEL: The conservative father dismissing his daughter's apology by way of a moronic grimace. It also makes your blood curdle right after laughing about it.
  • STRANGER THINGS 3 (Duffer Brothers): two words: "Neverending Story".
Whether in the sauna, the hospital or the underground lab: doors with rectangle windows.
I got stripes: Amy Parris' costume design for STRANGER THINGS 3.

The Power of Song
In terms of pop songs carrying a whole scene, Spike Lee killed it with Stevie Wonder's "I never thought you'd leave in summer" in the delirious colorful post-breakup-Wonder-Wheel scene in SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT 2.2. Pop songs as source music were also crucial in two of my favorite scenes of Tarantino's ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD: 1) the montage of Cliff (Pitt) driving home through LA at twilight. Not only did the music on the car stereo change with the cuts, but here nostalgia and (perceived) authenticity are also perfectly balanced. 2) When Cliff watches Manson arrive at what the latter believes to be Terry Melcher's residence, new owner Sharon Tate plays a Paul Revere record - produced by said Melcher.

In Martin Scorsese's ROLLING THUNDER REVUE, there is a wtf moment when Dylan and Joan Baez half-jokingly accuse each other of running off and marrying someone else (which is an uncredited outtake of an autobiographically inspired performance from RENALDO & CLARA, 1978). My favorite bit of that film, however, happens when the camera accidentally captures a happy young girl near the stage suddenly bursting into tears. That was more or less how I felt when Aretha Franklin started singing the opening lines of "You've got a friend" in AMAZING GRACE.

If you compare this homecoming concert (Aretha returned to the gospel of her youth) to Beyoncé's HOMECOMING* (2019), it becomes clear how much Aretha - despite her star status and commanding presence - still lived in a man's world in 1972. Rev. James Cleveland is a hilarious MC and Aretha's father is touching in his unscripted speech, but opposite these men, Aretha (the lady who taught the world "Respect") looks like a shy young woman who only opens her mouth to sing. Beyoncé, on the other hand, is mastermind, director and MC with a clear message. Nevertheless, both the free-flowing service from 1972 and the precisely choreographed Coachella shows from 2018 translate the live performance into an immersive cinematic experience (in the case of Beyoncé cleverly splicing the pink and the yellow night into one performance).

Some years ago, I started paying attention to scenes in which main characters sing in movies that are not musicals. Since musicians' biopics and run-of-the-mill jukebox musicals have become popular again, the frequency of singing scenes in "normal" films and TV shows seems to have reached the heights of the 1930s and 40s. Whether it is lip-synching like in PLAY (Marciano, 2019), karaoke (THE FAREWELL), singing in a car (GRÄNS, UNBELIEVABLE) or performing a song like Joaquin Phoenix in JOKER (Phillips, 2019) or Adam Driver in MARRIAGE STORY, singing characters were everywhere in the past twelve months. The MARRIAGE STORY example also belongs to a new subcategory: the Stephen Sondheim scene. Saoirse Ronan had one in LADY BIRD (Gerwig, 2017), so has Daniel Craig - in a car - in Rian Johnson's KNIVES OUT (2019, "I'm losing my mind" from "Follies"). Even the JOKER's first victims sing Sondheim in the subway ("Send in the Clowns"). 

Voices and choirs also featured in quite a few memorable scores for films like PORTRAIT DE LA JEUNE FILLE EN FEU (sort of a metadiegetic singing scene "fugere non possum"), PARASITE (music by Jung Jaeil), US (music by Michael Abels) or THE FAREWELL (music by Alex Weston). Weston and Abel are also some of the composers to watch in the future. So are Dan Levy (J'AI PERDU MON CORPS), Benedikt Schiefer (A VIDA INVISIVEL), Scott Bomar (DOLEMITE IS MY NAME) as well as Daniel Pemberton (MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN) and Nathan Johnson (KNIVES OUT) who both turned out to be more versatile than I thought.

contrasting unobtrusive/old fashioned earth colors and patterns with fresh red, white and blue in BLINDED BY THE LIGHT (Chadha, 2019).
The incredible cinematography of PORTRAIT DE LA JEUNE FILLE EN FEU.

Cinematography
In 2019, digital large format photography has become more commonplace than 3D. French cinematographer Claire Mathon, for example, used it for PORTRAIT DE LA JEUNE FILLE EN FEU because it allowed her to achieve painterly skin tones, bring out the costume colors and still work with relatively soft artificial lighting (that often feels like natural light). Films like JOKER (DoP Lawrence Sher) and MIDSOMMAR (DoP Pawel Pogorzelski) capitalized on the
spatial dynamic (withoutwide-angle distortion) large format cinematography offers. The latter often choreographing action on foreground, middleground and background layers at the same time. It is also one of the most impressively shot films of the year (did I mention, there's also a choir?).


Director of photography Hélène Louvart, on the other hand, filmed the flamboyantly saturated colors of A VIDA INVISIVEL on a handy Alexa Mini while using grainy Super 16mm for the more muted, naturalistic style of LAZZARO FELICE. Also, RAY & LIZ and the more lightweight MID90S (Hill, 2018) which I accidentally saw on the same day, were both shot on 16mm and in the more square Academy format (1:1.37). As is often the case, this random double feature (dictated by location and showtimes) revealed unexpected parallels between two very different films. Both are essentially time capsules built from vignettes that leave enough to the imagination to make the characters feel authentic. In both films a child stays out a whole night, someone steals from a family member and a child ends up almost dead.

As for time capsules captured on film, it is impossible not to mention Tarantino's ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) that employed 8, 16 and 35mm and 1.33, 1.85 and 2.39:1 aspect ratios for various layers of reality (home movies, tv shows, "movie movie" and "realer than real" Tarantinoverses). In my opinion, it is Robert Richardson's masterpiece as far as atmosphere and period feel go. That said, I'm still conflicted about the movie itself: I admire the directing, rhythm and overall aesthetics, I just do not agree with what I believe it is saying. But since I managed to keep clear of writing yet another dreary think piece about OUATIH so far, I will just focus on two aspects. 

Nostalgia [mild spoilers]
Over the course of little more than a year, probably due to the sad anniversary of the Tate murders, the "Manson" character has become a staple of stylized American period entertainment. The first and most impressive of these recent characters (a failed musician played by Linus Roache) clearly modelled on cult leader Charles Manson popped up in Panos Cosmatos' paralyzingly psychedelic MANDY (2018). Later that same year, Drew Goddard's Tarantino-imitation BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE introduced a showy Chris Hemsworth in a similar role (also with a fictional name) accompanied by "Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon)".


That same Mamas & Papas song - that was reportedly playing when Tate's body was found - also announced the "young girls" and Tex (real names, this time) arriving at the Cielo Drive in ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD (surprisingly, both EL ROYALE and OUATIH also featured the Deep Purple cover of "Hush"). Damon Herriman as Manson only showed up shortly (see paragraph "Power of Song" above) but had the opportunity to fully explore the cult leader's weird charisma in a prison scene of MINDHUNTER 2.

First and foremost, OUATIH is a celebration of cinema and self-adulation - we often see people watching themselves on a screen; once, we even "enter" the ray of light of a projector that has the same god-like quality that Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) attributes to it in DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (Brewer, 2019). But more specifically, OUATIH is about a transitional period of American pop culture with August 1969 stylized into a watershed moment. 

Add to that a playful patchwork narrative with layers of references (e.g. "the wrecking crew" alluding to a film, a group of musicians and the protagonists) told from the perspective of two privileged middle-aged men on the downgrade resisting any notion of change and you have a historical allegory that loudly asks "what does 1969 have in common with 2019?". This basic concept of period pieces is even literally invoked by the Sam Wanamaker (who really did direct the pilot episode of LANCER, but in 1968).

But OUATIH is so drenched in nostalgia for a Hollywood system that clearly had to perish - major studios churning out overlong all-star action remakes like THE GREAT ESCAPE (Sturges, 1963), conservative professional westerns and TV series past their golden days - that it gets stuck in hippie bashing (with hippies likened to brain-washed murderers) and denouncing woke culture in a way that felt more like dog-whistling than satire (needless to say it did not embrace change in the way that other nostalgic summer escapist fantasy ST3 did). It all made sense from the point of view of Rick and Cliff. But their saving the day (also very much in character and hilariously funny) is the kind of wish fulfillment that goes against everything Tarantino conveyed in his revenge fantasies up to DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012).

It made sense to root for outlaws like Django, the Bride in KILL BILL (2004), the women in DEATH PROOF (2007), or the jews in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) because they all were self-empowered underdogs. Those films were all about ending oppression by established authorities, not stopping change from happening. But seeing middle-aged celebrity has-beens as underdogs is too much of a stretch. And where is the self-empowerment in that? Why weren't Bruce Lee and/or Tate herself saving the day? But hey, that is just, like, my opinion, Dude... and maybe it is not a bad thing that Tarantino finally managed to provoke me. 

Popular in 2019: fun fairs and ferris wheels (SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT 2).
"I never dreamed you'd leave in summer"
Horror
Usually, the deaths that occur in pre-credits scenes of horror movies are of no real emotional consequence to the audience (just yet). In MIDSOMMAR, however, Ari Aster uses a tense prologue to charge his folk horror vision with emotions triggered by an unbearable family tragedy, less disturbing than the one in the first half of HEREDITARY (2018) maybe, but with the same lingering impact. It was certainly the first time that I was able to immerse myself deeply into a folk horror experience. Once again, Aster plays with genre conventions occasionally inverting them for comic effect.


This is also true for PARASITE and US (2019) which echoed each other in quite a few aspects (characters "tethered" to each other, contrasting families, living below street level etc) and could both be categorized as prestige horror films with satirical elements taking on social injustice. Jordan Peele's American doppelgänger apocalypse also featured an escapist location that was wildly popular in 2019: IT CHAPTER TWO (prologue), SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT 2 (Coney Island), TOY STORY 4 (Hitchcock reference and farewell) and STRANGER THINGS 3 ("the trees are moving!" among other Shakespeare references) all had a fun fair with a creepy house of mirrors and/or a ferris wheel (in JOKER, the one from "The Killing Joke" is seen in the background) rendered in the most delicious digital candy colors.

While a creepy fair ground was a sure bet in IT 2 (Muschietti, 2019), I certainly did not expect Xavier Dolan to show up in it. Unlike in MIDSOMMAR, the impact of this violent opening scene did not last as long as it probably should have. What followed felt more like a series of standalone episodes (or levels of a computer game) before they all gathered for the tedious and ridiculous finale. However, with the second half of IT coming out only two months after ST3, it finally became clear how much the Duffer brothers - who originally created their Netflix phenomenon after not being able to direct the IT remake - reshuffled and paraphrased elements from Stephen King's tale and made it work much better on (the small) screen. Just think of the final voice over speech/letter. 

On a side note, thanks to ST3 taking a few turns I was initially reluctant to follow (evil Russians, fat Rambo), I caught up with some previously shunned 1980s movies, among them RED DAWN (Milius, 1984: seriously?), HEATHERS (Lehmann, 1988: quite fun and memorable), and EVIL DEAD II (Raimi, 1987: love it!).

WIP from an unfinished video essay about...

...the color yellow in PARIS, TEXAS (Wenders, 1984)


Realism and Subjective Perception
These days, I often think of Fassbinder's dictum "when I go to the cinema, I want an experience" (I'm paraphrasing). Judging from his own movies, I think what he had in mind was less 1917 (Mendes, 2019) than, say, JOY* (Mortezai, 2018), SHÉHÉRAZADE (Marlin, 2018) or DIVINES* (Benyamina, 2016) - all of which I liked because they each let me in on a young person's specific experience heretofore unknown to me. Besides, each one is told in a somewhat distinct style. To be clear, I'm not talking about masterpieces here. However, I still find it sad that all three movies went more or less directly to Netflix, even though there are 400-500 films p.a. released in cinemas around here.


As regards contemporary issues, two Swiss films provided insight into local islamic communities. While AL SHAFAQ* (Isik, 2019), a feature film about a teenager from Zürich who joined the war in Syria, was convincing in its unagitated, thoughtful attitude towards a difficult subject, overall it felt too uneven to me. Anyhow, Kida Khodr Ramadan as the teen's father left a deep impression with a very restraint performance. But if I wanted to challenge prevalent stereotypes, I would probably recommend NAÏMA* (Milosevic, 2019), a compelling hour-long documentary about a middle-aged Muslim woman who manages a project to combat religious extremism in a small Swiss town.

Sketching a different social environment, writer-director Hans Kaufmann and actor Joel Basman managed to make DER BÜEZER (THE WORKING MAN, 2019) outside of the usual funding channels of Swiss film productions. Deeply rooted in its Zürich milieu, this impressively photographed (DoP Pascal Walder) minimalist character study of a lone plumber is well-acted, atmospheric and so lean it leaves room for imagination (near the end, it felt rushed, although this was no issue with younger viewers). It is also easy to see DER BÜEZER as a paraphrase of Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976), especially since it raises similar questions about our society (although the protagonist is by no means a reactionary like Travis Bickle).


Thankfully, it came out before JOKER which was much more openly based on the sociocritical New York movies of the late 1970s, predominantly the Scorsese-De Niro collaborations. Although I enjoyed watching it twice, I found it not only confused about what it wanted to say but also too unsubtle to be taken seriously. Moreover, in comparison to many of the films it references, if often feels shallow. On the upside, TAXI DRIVER is now definitely one of my all-time favorite films.


However, JOKER is a great conversation starter on many a pressing issue of our times. Besides, I loved the production design, the references to fictional and real clowns and most of all the allusions to Frank Sinatra (a self-stylized sad clown on "Only the lonely") who played a cynical stand-up comedian in THE JOKER IS WILD (1957), reportedly wanted to play the Joker on TV and even painted sad clowns in oil. So it is only fitting that the song that connects Arthur Fleck with De Niro's TV host is Sinatra's defiant version of "That's Life".


THE IRISHMAN provided me with an excuse to revisit some more Scorsese-DeNiro movies. GOODFELLAS (1990) and CASINO (1995) made me realize two things: a) how Scorsese structures his films by turning excitement on and off like a car radio and every so often shocking us with complete silence; and b) how crucial the relationships involving Lorraine Bracco and Sharon Stone, respectively, are to the disturbing, explosive impact these films still have on me.

This is especially interesting in the light of the more restraint IRISHMAN where female characters do not really figure in Frank's subjective version of the story. Nevertheless, Scorsese shows us women that feel real enough to have an (off-screen) life of their own (Frank simply does not listen to them) and relationships that are gradually destroyed by the kind of toxic masculinity of "professionals" that Tarantino unabashedly celebrates with his fairytale happy ending of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. 

Epilogue
In 2020, I have already seen Melina Matsoukas' QUEEN & SLIM* (2019) and Ladj Ly's LES MISÉRABLES (2019), two memorable feature length debuts depicting police brutality in very different settings. Both also feature a strong-willed boy who has never knew anything else. And both films turn out to be much more complex than they seem in the beginning. Both have to be seen on a large screen (Tat Radcliffe's cinematography brings to mind that worn out phrase "every frame a painting") and each one slows down in the second half to give the characters - and the audience - some space to breathe and think before the final powerful blow. One ends in suspension, the other one with an elegiac epilogue, though.

[Note: sorry for the terrible layout. This design template is wearing me out... need to change that soon]

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

My Year in Film: 2019 Works

Since I have not posted anything all year, here is a collection of animated shorts and video essays I made in 2019:


All animation, no sound: this is my contribution to this year's animated advent calendar curated by Justine Klaiber and Owley Samter.

For a full blast of clips by Swiss animators, head on over to www.instagram.com/animadvent





HOLM & Cyrill Lim – Sitting And Waiting (HOLM Remix)
Composed, Lyrics by Cyrill Lim
Arranged, Remixed by Daniel Werder
Music Video Written, Directed and Animated by Oswald Iten
© Video: Oswald Iten
℗ Video: Oswald Iten & Cyrill Lim
℗ Audio: Daniel Werder & Cyrill Lim


For Filmbulletin, I have only written three articles in 2019. Those on A GHOST STORY (Lowery, 2017) and ROLLING THUNDER REVUE (Scorsese, 2019) are only available in the print edition, the one about Barry Jenkins' IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018) can be read here (in German).  




[Contains spoilers for WATER LILIES, TOMBOY and GIRLHOOD]
Céline Sciamma has made herself a name as an excellent screenwriter providing sensitive dialogue for Claude Barras' MA VIE DE COURGETTE (2016) or her own masterpiece PORTRAIT DE LA JEUNE FILLE EN FEU (2019). In her coming-of-age films, however, the most important means of expression is the human body.

Based on an extensive analysis of NAISSANCE DES PIEUVRES (2007), TOMBOY (2011) and BANDE DE FILLES (2014), I attempt to provide a subjective, non-theoretical overview of how Sciamma tells her stories in a corporeal, physical way. Of course, beyond my general observations, there is much more to these images (costume design, colors, ambiguity, precise decisions when to show nudity) which I hope will present themselves to you and drive you to (re-)watch the actual films. There are countless scenes worth analyzing more closely.

After an introduction to each film, there are five "movements" - MOVING, LOOKING, TOUCHING, PERFORMING, TRANSFORMING - and an EPILOGUE that hints at a shift towards more articulated characters in Sciamma's own feature films (not including her short film PAULINE (2010) which is all dialogue).

Note: Thanks to Katharina Lindner's essential book "Film Bodies: Queer Feminist Encounters with Gender and Sexuality in Cinema" (2017) for clarifying some of my linguistic issues as a German speaker.





Video Essay - for analytical and educational purposes only, no copyright infringement intended.

The striking colors in Wim Wenders' PARIS TEXAS (1984) are often analyzed according to the preconceived notion of "red, white and blue" vs "green neon light" and the alleged meaning those color schemes transport. However, I see a more intuitive and much more complex use of colors at work in this film. That's why I've started to put together two video essays the first of which is concerned with COLORED LIGHTING IN PARIS, TEXAS.

It is basically a supercut that showcases cinematographer Robby Müller's use of colored lighting that is found in roughly a quarter of the two and a half hour film. The selected shots are arranged in a non-chronological way that hopefully reveals recurring patterns of lighting by juxtaposing similar as well as contrasting setups. In addition, I have tried to follow the visual flow of gazes and movement to create unexpected relationships between unconnected shots.

Since I am more interested in the atmospheric and emotional effects of colored light which I want you to experience for yourself, I deliberately abstained from written or spoken explanations.

Instead, I invite you to discover the sensations, patterns and concepts on your own and encourage you to watch PARIS, TEXAS again with this in mind.



But for those without the patience to watch the essay more than once, here are some aspects to look for:
Light sources: traffic lights, especially red ones (00:00), neon signs and advertisements behind characters (00:22).

Green neon light which is most often just normal "white" neon light that Robby Müller decided not to color correct because he embraced the well-known effect that it would look green on film (0:29). This section also showcases the powerful green lights vs red objects scheme.

Characters in light (Anne) or silhouette (Travis) against green background lighting (00:37). Rim lights on characters: warm side lighting (left and right) against warm light in the middle (0:49), then overall beige vs blue with garish yellow light/objects against darkness and red rims (1:02). Round blue city lights vs rim lights on characters (01:10).

Primary Colors: red vs blue vs yellow (01:15) as well as blue vs green vs red (01:25). Green light again: this time towards red light (01:37). Green, red and blue: from neon to nature (01:49).

Light sources as visual patterns (02:00)
Similar color schemes with dominating green (02:09).

Primary colors: blue vs yellow vs red from different scenes showing the tension between these characters (02:15). The loneliness of flamboyant red and blue (02:25). Walking away (02:31)

I added mirror images in order to highlight frame edges and direct the viewer's attention away from single shots to overall patterns. In keeping with that concept, the swelling sounds that announce the visual cuts are in fact acoustic mirror images (played backwards) of the corresponding guitar notes on which I cut (Ry Cooder's opening music).

My other video essay on PARIS, TEXAS will be about yellow - a color that has been mostly neglected in previous analyses.



An acting analysis of the animated protagonist of Paul King's PADDINGTON (2014)

Released and published in Spring 2019 as part of Issue 14 of "The Cine-Files", a scholarly journal of cinema studies.

For study and educational purposes only.

Thanks to Tereza Fischer for publishing my video essays on filmbulletin.ch
Thanks to Catherine Grant for screening my PARIS TEXAS video in the Uppsala short film festival and inspiring me to make the PADDINGTON video essay (and publishing it with Tracy Cox-Stanton in The Cine-Files #14).
Thanks to Cyrill Lim for commissioning the music video.
And last but not least, thanks to Justine Klaiber and Owley Samter for asking me to contribute to Animadvent 2019.


Thursday, January 3, 2019

Looking in the Rearview Mirror - Favorite Films of 2018

HEREDITARY
There is one moment from the first half of HEREDITARY that ingrained itself deeply into my mind. Not wanting to believe what just happened (my own initial reaction was "have I really just seen that?"), the protagonist at the same time wants to look in the rearview mirror but is afraid of what he is going to see. 

During these few seconds I felt that the film looked back at me: this duality of wanting to see and being afraid of what I am going to see reflected not only my own position as viewer of a horror film but also the audience's inability to interfere with the action on the screen - an inability which in itself is the basis of suspense and, more generally, of one-way storytelling (in contrast to interactive storytelling like BANDERSNATCH, but that's another story).

With that out of the way, in this post I am looking in the rearview mirror that reflects 2018. More than anything else, I consider end of year lists an opportunity to organize the glorious mess of cinematic impressions floating through my mind. I start with the usual list of favorite films (those that impressed me the most) followed by a discussion of my year in film beyond that list.

Favorite New Releases
Film of the year goes ex aequo to Paul Thomas Anderson's PHANTOM THREAD and Alfonso Cuarón's ROMA, both of which were shot by the auteurs themselves (coached and assisted by long standing crew members) because their frequent cinematographers Robert Elswitt and Emmanuel Lubezki, respectively, weren't available.

PHANTOM THREAD (Lesley Manville) / REBECCA (J. Anderson) / ROMA (Yalitza Aparicio)
  • PHANTOM THREAD: Like most of PTA's films, this dreamlike time capsule of 1950s London (engulfed in one of the best piano-and-strings scores in years) is about toxic masculinity and a mentor relationship. In this revisionist reworking of classics like REBECCA (1940), however, the power struggle is between a man and two women magnificently portrayed by Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day Lewis and Lesley Manville.
  • ROMA: It's rare that a filmmaker's autobiographical magnum opus turns out to be their best film. But Cuarón pulls it off with his black and white memory snapshot of day-to-day life in Mexico City in 1970/71 mainly because we see everything from the perspective of an indigenous domestic help (in distant long shots, not close-ups). Slowly floating vistas, fragmented images and an immersive soundscape produce a flawless rhythm with an increasing emotional tension over two hours. 

Ten favorites of 2018 (in alphabetical order):
Note: My list includes several 2017 films that came out in Switzerland in 2018. I have seen all of them on the big screen.
  • CE MAGNIFIQUE GATEAU*: Although technically a short film (44 min), Marc James Roels and Emma de Swaef's stop motion anthology about Belgian colonialism was certainly the most memorable animated feature I have seen this year. Tactile felt puppets in five surreal, slow-paced, loosely interwoven segments add up to an strangely funny, melancholic and beautiful trip down the rabbit hole. 
  • CHRIS THE SWISS*: In this dense animated documentary, director Anja Kofmel investigates the death of her older cousin, a Swiss journalist who died in Croatia in 1992 wearing the uniform of a paramilitary group. Black and white animation expertly visualizes the missing and therefore imagined parts of a story that is personal and universal at the same time. 
COLD WAR
  • COLD WAR: Stylistically exploring the specific potential of the black and white Academy format, Pawlikowski's fictional retelling of his parents' love story is so concisely written that it manages to compress 15 years of an on-and-off relationship into 84 minutes of rigid musical vignettes that reflect the shifting political and cultural climate.
  • THE FLORIDA PROJECT: Sensitively filtered through the eyes and mindset of a little girl, Sean Baker's portrayal of long time motel residents (an ensemble of first-timers, people playing themselves and a few professionals) in Florida transforms harsh realism into a funny, touching, colorful cinemascope adventure that echoes key ingredients of the unattainable Disney parks nearby.
  • GIRL: Lukas Dhont's physical but delicate portrait of aspiring trans-gender ballerina Lara stood out among the many recent coming-of-age stories concerned with gender identity because of Victor Polster's incredible performance and Dhont's ability to infuse the (mostly benevolent) adult characters (even those in only one scene) with life. 
I, TONYA
  • I, TONYA: Expecting just another "inspired by a true story" yarn I was genuinely suprised by Craig Gillespie's playful approach to subjectivity and self-reflection, addressing the film's making fun of lower-class characters and then shaking it up once more during the credits. I love films that provoke laughter that gets caught in the throat. 
  • LADYBIRD*: High expectations often lead to disappointment, especially when glowing reviews precede a cinema release by half a year. Not in this case, however. In Greta Gerwig's crisp take on a mother-daughter-relationship, everything (including the Sondheim tunes) just falls into place organically without getting fancy. 
SHOPLIFTERS
  • SHOPLIFTERS: Unbiased, warm, sentimental, aching, beautiful, thought provoking -  Kore-eda's unassuming masterpieces provides no easy answers but speaks to the heart and the mind alike. Although the director's perspective in examing family relationships has lately shifted towards grown-up characters, SHOPLIFTERS nevertheless begins and ends on close-ups of children's faces. But in between there are countless group shots that visually reflect the dynamic relationship of six non-blood-related characters in the same frame.
    YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
  • THE RIDER*: Somewhere in the middle of Chloé Zhao's empathetic look at life in a South Dakota reservation, there is a series of long hand held telephoto shots depicting a young rodeo rider taming a horse. For me, this moment epitomized the magic of filmic authenticity - cinema vérité - and I didn't even know that the actor was basically playing himself.
  • YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE*: As I have written last year, I liked Lynne Ramsay's "action film without action" right away, but only when I saw it again during its regular cinema run, I realized what a thorougly great film it is. Expertly compressed storytelling, very musical and sometimes just pure cinema.

Two favorites that didn't get a cinema release in Switzerland (in alphabetical order):
  • A GHOST STORY:
    A GHOST STORY
    Between crafting one of the few decent Disney remakes and lovingly reconstructing the late 1970s for Robert Redford's acting swan song, David Lowery released this radical meditation from the perspective of a mute ghost which resonated strongly with me.
     
  • SHIRKERS*: This autobiographical documentary about the making of a literally stolen personal film project turns into a sensitive empowerment story overshadowed by an ominous man whose haunting presence also makes it one of the year's best horror movies.
First impressions
There are two films I definitely want to revisit when they are released in January/February 2019. Although on the surface, these films couldn't be any more different from each other, they are both very physical and told from the perspective of female characters but directed by men:
  • IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK: It's almost impossible for Barry Jenkins to live up to post-MOONLIGHT expectations, especially with an "important" (but never bloated) film that was conceived years ago and  hints at similar cinematic inspirations (KILLER OF SHEEP 1978, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE 2000). Ironically in the age of TV drama, voice-over narration and a non-chronological plot make BEALE STREET feel more conventional than MOONLIGHT with its radical division into three self-contained snapshots and the protagonist's inability to articulate. But Jenkins' faithful stream-of-consciousness adaptation has an irresistible musical flow to it and is full of wonderful performances. Most importantly, it made me discover and become a fan of James Baldwin's outstanding fictional writing. 
  • THE FAVOURITE: Allegedly turning towards "mainstream" (honestly, I doubt that), Yorgos Lanthimos finds his latest huis-clos scenario in the court of gout-ridden Queen Anne. Like a spiced-up version of LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (2016), THE FAVOURITE is incredibly entertaining without hiding the darker consequences of ivory-tower power play and mutual exploitation. I really hope that Olivia Colman will finally get the recognition she deserves thanks to this film.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (KiKi Layne) / THE FAVOURITE (Olivia Colman)


Looking at the titles above, in 2018 I seem to have gravitated towards autobiographical (fictionalized or documentary) and slice of life narratives. Interestingly, the two films about substitute families feature a memorable beach scene (happiness in SHOPLIFTERS, turmoil in ROMA). Furthermore, ROMA, GHOST STORY, GIRL, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE and to some degree THE FLORIDA PROJECT, THE RIDER and CE MAGNIFIQUE GATEAU are about protagonists that are not really articulate (as opposed to verbally dexterous characters like Tish in BEALE STREET) but have an audiovisual "voice" of their own because their films show the world from their perspective - which is something I value greatly in movies.

Furthermore, 9 of the 16 films above have female protagonists (if you count PHANTOM THREAD, it's an even 10) and 6 were directed by women (marked *). The same goes for two girl-centered stories that almost made the list: LEAVE NO TRACE* by Debra Granik and ESTIU 1993* by Carla Simon. Among the films that stayed on my mind for quite some time were Andrey Zvyagintsev's chilling LOVELESS (especially the mother's devastating breakdown near the end) as well as IN THE AISLES (IN DEN GÄNGEN, Thomas Stuber) and TRANSIT (Christian Petzold) both starring Franz Rogowski (a "German Joaquin Phoenix").

Based on breakout performances in movies I have seen in 2018 (TV shows not included), my list of actors to watch includes only two men:
clockwise: Andrea Berntzen / John David Washington / Alba August / Cynthia Erivo

  • Alba August (ASTRID)
  • Andrea Berntzen (UTOYA 22. JULI)
  • Jessie Buckley (BEAST)
  • Cynthia Erivo (BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE)
  • Halldóra Geirhardsdóttir (WOMAN AT WAR)
  • KiKi Layne (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK)
  • Victor Polster (GIRL)
  • Brooklynn Prince (THE FLORIDA PROJECT)
  • Bria Vinaite (THE FLORIDA PROJECT)
  • John David Washington (BLACKkKLANSMAN)

General Observations
Found Footage and Closure
Seeing Sandi Tan's SHIRKERS, Morgen Brett's JANE, Orson Welles' THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND and Morgan Neville's hagiographic THEY'LL LOVE ME WHEN I'M DEAD about the making of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND more or less back to back, sparked some interesting observations about how filmmakers present themselves and their subjects. All of these fascinating documentary and essay films are about the making of a film the fragments of which make up large parts of what we see on screen. And to some degree, all of them reflect on their own construction and filmmaking in general.

Both SHIRKERS and JANE rely heavily on recently rediscovered silent footage. But while Sandi Tan preserves the oneiric quality of her "lost" feature by keeping it mute, Morgen Brett shapes Hugo van Lawick's groundbreaking footage of chimpanzees into an immersive experience by way of contemporary editing techniques, oversaturated colors and a hyper-realistic soundtrack (at times, the rhythmic Chimp noises reminded me of Disney's True Life Adventures).

Brett also freely employs aspect ratios and black and white for structuring purposes rather than imitating historical conventions. In a similar way, THEY'LL LOVE ME adopts some of the techniques that Orson Welles himself used in his essay film F FOR FAKE (1973). As a companion piece to the carefully restored THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (a gloriously engaging train wreck) it works both as an introduction and an addendum, but unfortunately, it doesn't dig deep enough into Oja Kodar's role in the whole process.

At times, the sensory overload in all four of those films tended to overwhelm me rather than allowing for real immersion (while animated diaries and scribbles work well in JANE and SHIRKERS, the animation is hardly more than a gimmick when compared to the depth it provides in CHRIS THE SWISS). Avoiding oppressive editing and music, Yance Ford's STRONG ISLAND felt like a welcome antidote to the antsy activisim of so many TV documentaries.

Like CHRIS THE SWISS, SHIRKERS, OTHER SIDE/THEY'LL LOVE ME, Ford's poignant investigation is really about finding closure in the process of making a film. I was again reminded of STRONG ISLAND, when I saw the Danish thriller THE GUILTY (DEN SKYLDIGE, Gustav Möller) that consists almost entirely of phone conversations. Both films open with a phone conversation, both force us to reconstruct the central incident in our imagination and both confront us with how hastily we evaluate situations on the basis of deep-rooted prejudices.

True Stories and Long Takes
Among the "based on a true story" fiction films, MIDNIGHT RUNNER (DER LÄUFER, Hannes Baumgartner) stood out to me because it manages to tell a character study from the point of view of a contradictory perpetrator without simplifying psychological explanations. The same could be said of the Italian film ON MY SKIN (SULLA MIA PELLE, Alessio Cremonini), only here the protagonist is subjected to unfair treatment. By coincidence, I saw ON MY SKIN within the same 24 hours as Alan Parker's MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978), so that the two Kafkaesque prison films started to interfere with each other in my memory.

Another true-crime re-enactment that still haunts me is Erik Poppe's single take approach to the recent Norwegian tragedy in UTOYA 22. JULI. I am still not convinced that this is a morally justifiable way of "returning the narrative to the victims". But as a suspense thriller, it certainly worked like few other films. At times, it reminded me of the real-time desktop horror film UNFRIENDED (Levan Gabriadze, 2014) that turns into a real nail-biter - provided you allow yourself to accept its outrageously ridiculous premise.

By now, the long take is so ubiquitous - from ROMA to Mike Flanagan's TV adaptation of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE - that it no longer stands out as a gimmick. More and more filmmakers utilize it in the same unobtrusive way Spielberg has always used it (even in auto-pilot mode like in THE POST): not as a showy "plan séquence" / "oner", but within conventional continuity editing occasionally breaking it up with convenient cutaways and close-ups when necessary.

FIRST MAN
Probably thanks to digital projection and more adventurous TV producers, filmmakers across the board have adopted a much more relaxed attitude towards film and camera formats. Both the 1.37:1 Academy format and Storaro's (and Netflix's) preferred 2.0:1 aspect ratio are not uncommon any more and streaming shows increasingly use different aspect ratios to differentiate parallel timelines (like in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, 2014). Moreover, while James Laxton shot the intimate BEALE STREET on the Alexa65 that used to be reserved for epics like THE REVENANT (Iñárritu, 2015), Damien Chazelle and Linus Sandgren withhold the advertised IMAX photography until the climax of FIRST MAN, a film otherwise relying on grainy hand-held close-ups. 

Adult Themes and Talking Animals
Unfortunately, the variety of styles currently flourishing in the world of feature animation will hardly reach general audiences around here: Both FUNAN and THE BREADWINNER*, arguably the two most relevant animated features of 2018, are not distributed beyond the festival circuit in Switzerland. Denis Do's autobiographical family drama may be the more important film, but it somehow did not involve me emotionally the way Nora Twomey's colorful Afghan story did. 
FUNAN / THE BREADWINNER
Although I was expecting INCREDIBLES 2 to fall short of the high expectations, Brad Bird's (not entirely original) family-superhero-mashup sequel turned out to be the Pixar equivalent of Christopher Nolan's DARK KNIGHT trilogy: tell your ticking clock story from parallel perspectives of at least five characters (from toddler to single tech nerd), pick up every current political and social topic, add a villain whose philosophy you can agree with up to a certain point, throw in some vigilante justice ideas, deconstruct them, and in doing so present the audience with exactly that kind of spectacle that the movie itself pretends to criticize (only that hilarious BLACK MIRROR episode BANDERSNATCH took that last trick further this year).
THE INCREDIBLES VS INCREDIBLES 2 / BAO (in the middle)
However much I liked INCREDIBLES 2, the real winner was Domee Shi's BAO*: the best Pixar short in years. I was quite surprised by the hullabaloo about people being confused by such a simple but powerful metaphor. I've seen BAO twice with families and even the children seemed to get it.

ISLE OF DOGS
On the talking animals front, I loved Wes Anderson's ISLE OF DOGS (or I LOVE DOGS?) despite wondering why anyone would invent a blonde American exchange student hero and thereby changing the premise that we (as dogs) cannot understand human language to just robbing the Japanese of their voice. Something similar happened with a British hunter (literally telling the audience that Mowgli cannot understand his language) in Andy Serkis' failed MOWGLI (even though Disney had nothing to do with it, "Mow-" still rhymes with "glow" instead of "cow"). Although some gender shake-up would in theory be welcome, we now have two 21st century JUNGLE BOOK adaptations in which the snake of all animals is female - this time transforming into Galadriel the Green.

Memories of LOTR also popped up at the end of a WATERSHIP DOWN episode (Murro et al.) when the camera incongruously flew into some sort of Isengard tower. Anyway, this star-studded new adaptation worked best when I closed my eyes. Apparently, it has become acceptable to apply realistic textures to limited animation even outside the world of video games. While the motion capture performances in MOWGLI exude a certain uncanny valley creepiness, the rabbit animation in WATERSHIP DOWN at times felt more like a distancing art installation (with a very engaging script nonetheless). I am still thankful, though, that Netflix and the BBC believe in animation for adults beyond sitcoms and risqué jokes, at all.

INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
As far as eye candy goes, I adored the new endearing HILDA series created by Luke Pearson, Kurt Mueller and Stephanie Simpson. And thanks to the trippy color explosion that is INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (Persichetti/Ramsey/Rothman) I actually enjoyed a superhero blockbuster (needless to say that the moment I like one of these things, it totally bombs at the Swiss box office). Talking of CG pleasures: Spielberg's READY PLAYER ONE may not exactly be the film of the year, but entering the Overlook Hotel in 3D sure was one of the coolest pop culture moments this year. Last but not least, Genndy Tartakovsky's otherwise forgettable HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 3 revelled in some genuine cartoon animation poses.


Retrospectives
In 2018, I continued my Varda/Demy selectrospective culminating in a 35mm screening of Agnes Varda's JACQUOT DE NANTES (1991) about the youth of her husband Jacques Demy. Thanks to streaming services, I was also able to catch up on John Hughes comedies and hand drawn Dreamworks features in late night sessions. But most of all, I immersed myself into the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, Sean Baker (with a special interest in his editing), early David Lean (sound and music) and Coen Brothers up to THE BIG LEBOWSKI (dialogue, POV, editing patterns) for introductory lectures and video essays (some of which still have not materialized yet).

Of all the older films I have seen for the first time in 2018, these are my favorites (in chronological order):
  • SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (Sturges, 1941)
  • THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (Lean, 1949)
  • LA RAGAZZA CON LA VALIGIA (Zurlini, 1961)
  • CRIA CUERVOS (Saura, 1976)
  • BLUE COLLAR (Schrader, 1978)
  • THE WARRIORS (Hill, 1979)
  • FANNY OCH ALEXANDER (Bergman, 1982)
  • DOGTOOTH (Lanthimos, 2009)
  • THE MILL AND THE CROSS (Majewski, 2011)
Images on the right: UNE CHAMBRE EN VILLE (Demy, 1982) / THE MASTER (PTA, 2011) / RAISING ARIZONA (Coens, 1987) / THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (Lean, 1949).

Recurring motifs in Sean Baker's films.

The colors of Sean Baker.

Warm/cold lighting and echoes in PHANTOM THREAD.

Visual inspiration for THE POST.

Philip Marlowe as a direct predecessor for the Dude.

The rhythm and specificity of Coen dialogue.

The best TV shows I saw in 2018 (in chronological order):
  • DER TATORTREINIGER (Arne Feldhusen, 2011-16)
  • BROADCHURCH (Chris Chibnall, 3 seasons 2013-17) 
  • HAPPY VALLEY* (Sally Wainright, 2 seasons 2014-16) 
  • FLEABAG* (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, 2016) 
  • THE END OF THE F***ING WORLD* (Entwistle/Tcherniak/Covell, 2017) 
  • DEAR WHITE PEOPLE VOL.2 (Justin Simien, 2018) 
  • HILDA* (Pearson/Mueller/Simpson, 2018) 
  • HOMECOMING (Esmail/Bloomberg/Horowitz, 2018) 
  • MANIAC (Fukunaga/Somerville, 2018)
  • BLACK MIRROR: BANDERSNATCH (Slade/Brooker, 2018)
FLEABAG / DER TATORTREINIGER

* films/shows directed/created by women.