Thursday, January 3, 2019

Looking in the Rearview Mirror - Favorite Films of 2018

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: 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: 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: 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.
  • 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):
    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.

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)
  • 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.

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. 
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).
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.

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.

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.

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)
  • 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)

* films/shows directed/created by women.