Wednesday, January 09, 2019
8:05 PM |
The Films of 2018, List 3: The Top 50
A General Introduction
Sometime early in 2018, I resolved to watch as many films as I could and duly rank them according to how I liked them, and briefly note how each one impressed me. It proved to be a herculean task, so much so that sometimes the ranking sufficed but the brief annotation did not; often it was because of some difficulty having to set my thoughts on each film right after viewing it: opinion, I quickly found out, was a flighty, restless bird, and a film I thought I liked after an evening's screening would somehow evolve to some lesser evaluation the next morning. The otherwise also proved true: I would have visceral hatred for a film, but once I started putting down my thoughts in words, I would surprise myself by actually possessing some admiration, often begrudging, over it. And the whole exercise proved to be taxing. How does one exactly find the time to watch at least three movies a night, just to keep up with the sheer volume of film being produced worldwide? I watched a total of 204 films last year
; I barely cracked half the titles in my list.
But 2018, on the whole, has certainly been a fantastic year for film, and while Hollywood films consumed most of my attention this year -- it is simply because they are easier to access -- I have noticed that the rest of world cinema has been muscling Hollywood out in producing films that are not only excellent in terms of technical execution, it has managed to produce most of the dazzling and memorable films of the year. Take note of Alfonso Cuarón's Roma
and Chang-dong Lee's Burning
, which remained with me weeks after I watched them. On that note, I must make mention the fact that I have not seen many Filipino films this year. Philippine Cinema, without doubt, is one of the most vital national cinemas in the world, but it is one that has become the sole province of the Manila-based cineast, that privileged creature who has access to festivals and cinematheques. I have decided not to be bothered by this fact.
Please note that as of January 9, these are the major films I have yet to see, and are thus unranked: At Eternity's Gate
(Julian Schnabel, United States), Ben is Back
(Peter Hedges, United States), Boy Erased
(Joel Edgerton, United States), Can You Ever Forgive Me?
(Marielle Heller, United States), Destroyer
(Karyn Kusama, United States), If Beale Street Could Talk
(Barry Jenkins, United States), On the Basis of Sex
(Mimi Leder, United States), and Suspiria
(Luca Guadagnino, United States and Italy), as well as Ash is Purest White
(Zhangke Jia, China), Ayka
(Sergey Dvortsevoy, Russia and Kazakhstan), Birds of Passage
(Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, Colombia), Border
(Ali Abbasi, Sweden), Capernaum
(Nadine Labaki, Lebanon), Dear Ex
(Chih-Yen Hsu and Mag Hsu, Taiwan), Girl
(Lukas Dhont, Belgium), Never Look Away
(Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany), Shoplifters
(Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan), and Tale of the Lost Boys
(Joselito Altarejos, Philippines and Taiwan). On to the lists...
THE BEST 50:
(Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico
Alfonso Cuarón's ode to memory and nostalgia, filmed in stark black and white, is very much like opera: you are either indifferent to it, or you are moved passionately by it. I love Roma enough to have seen it so many times and yet remain convinced subsequent viewings will still give me more morsels of beauty to discover, and I believe that most people who are firmly in the camp of indifference know that they have missed out on something vital their callous hearts just cannot see. Everything about this story about a middle-class Mexico City family in the 1970s and their relationship with their household help is rich anthropology.
(Chang-dong Lee, South Korea
This is the film of 2018 that has stayed most with me -- it is forever haunting me with its themes and ambiguities, and I am still remembering the performances that have only deepened with time: Yoo Ah‑in's lost uncertainty, Jeon Jong‑seo's sad longing, Steven Yeun's charming boredom. Also the telling moments: that conversation over marijuana, that dance before the setting sun, that yawn. That is also a chilling study of human psychosis pushes this into thriller territory.
3. The Favourite
(Yorgos Lanthimos, United States
What a hoot this was. A perfectly anachronistic historical dramedy -- about a sapphic rivalry in Queen Anne's court in 16th century England -- that has no intentions of being faithful to historical fact, only to its quirks and atmosphere -- which makes this a signature Yorgos Lanthimos film that also dares to be accessible. My favourite Lanthimos will always remain Dogtooth
with its comic and unsettling strangeness, but The Favourite is in a class all its own because of its sharp screenplay and the way the actors deploy its lines with barbed line-readings that had me laughing all throughout, until of course that dark, dark, ambiguous ending.
4. An Elephant Sitting Still
(Hu Bo, China
The late Hu Bo's four-hour epic of despair is deliberate in its mapping out a landscape of depression. That this was assembled after the director's suicide in 2017 also gives it a patina of death -- but also a kind of urgency. It follows four different individuals in a forlorn-looking Chinese city, connected in one way or another to each other, as they deal with various indignities in their lives, and feeling bereft. Life has no meaning for them, and when they hear of the titular elephant which becomes emblematic for how they bear with life, the film becomes a kind of a quest for meaning.
5. A Star is Born
(Bradley Cooper, United States
To say that this film was anticipated is to understate things. I prepared for this film by watching the 1937 version with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the 1977 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, each one with diminishing returns, although all undeniably hypnotic with how they've managed to create a blueprint for love and loss, success and failure in tinseltown. It explains why the story still resonates, and explains why we have a 2018 version with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper -- and to my astonishment, manages to return to the quiet magic of the 1937, the iconography of the 1954 version, and the template [and thank God, only the template] of the disastrous 1977 version. It improves on all of them, and makes the story the version for our times. It has been said that the first half is so much better than the second half, and it's true: but it doesn't matter. By then you've been ensnared into the charm of the movie.
(Betsy West and Julie Cohen, United States
There is something extraordinary in Betsy West and Julie Cohen's biographical documentary of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, even when the unfurling of it seems quite ordinarily paced, and ordinarily told. And perhaps that technique of presenting her magnificent life was the right way to go about it, because it has only enhanced everything about the Notorious RBG and perhaps best reflected her true nature: unassuming, shy -- but steely brilliant and calculating in her foundational build-up of a legal legacy. This is such an inspiring film, and is one of the best films of the year.
7. Cold War
(Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland
I am always tempted to dislike the films of Pawel Pawlikowski because of the sheer formality of his cinema. [I liked Ida very much, but not without some resistance.] His films are too composed, too beautiful, too distant -- but it's exactly those qualities that also draw me in eventually. In Cold War
, he retells the disjointed love story of his parents -- the father's a musician and collector of folk music and the mother's a singer -- whose connection to each other is as real as the geography and politics that also separate them. The performances are first-rate, and the cinematography is so deliberate in its beauty it almost breaks the heart.
8. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse
(Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, and Robert Persichetti Jr., United States
It is the sheer inventiveness of this film -- both in its storytelling and in its technical execution -- that makes this perhaps the best superhero film of the year, and perhaps also the best Spider-Man
film ever. Maybe it is also the freshness with which it tells its story: it was about time Miles Morales got his cinematic treatment. Much has been said about the film's treatment of multiverses and superspider-powered characters and comic book aesthetics, so we will not venture into that. It is simply a singular experience, and I wish everyone had that with the largest screen possible.
9. Sorry Angel
(Christophe Honoré, France
A young man, a student, has an affair with an older man, a jaded writer with HIV. It is not an easy relationship, and it is often tumultuous -- but it is also marked with genuine love and generosity. In gently, and starkly, chronicling this relationship, Christophe Honoré comes into his own, fulfilling much of the promise of his early films. Vincent Lacoste and Pierre Deladonchamps -- also fulfilling the rugged promise he exuded in Stranger By the Lake
-- are so lovely to look at.
10. Never Not Love You
(Antoinette Jadaone, Philippines
The nod to the ending of Mike Nichols' The Graduate
in Antoinette Jadaone’s Never Not Love You
-- which remains for me to be the perfect movie metaphor for the imperfections and uncertainties of romantic love -- is enough commendation for the new film, which I enjoyed very much. It's unapologetically commercial, but that's not a bad thing, especially if it works and the craft behind it is impeccable. I have never seen a James Reid and Nadine Lustre tandem before, but I can understand now the electric chemistry between them, which I think is buoyed by and large by the subtleties with which they seem to understand their roles, that of two young people in love who must deal with work/life balance. They're very good. The story's certainly not new -- but what story is? -- but I appreciate the filmmakers' grace in the handling of its material. It doesn't go hysterical, and it doesn't go cute. But Jadaone has already proven she's more than a capable filmmaker; when she's given the right set of actors to work with, like in this movie, she astounds.
11. A Quiet Place
(John Krasinski, United States
The hype is true about John Krasinski's A Quiet Place
: this very quiet film -- the sound of popcorn being eaten in the theatre is louder -- is taut and tense from first frame to last, making this the best horror film of the year so far, and simply superb cinema, period. Its horrors start in media res
: there are no explanations for why monsters have taken over the world; we learn that they may be blind but they can detect the slightest sound and they attack with such ferocity, within seconds. Into that premise we are introduced to a family who survive by living by their wits (and sign language). We observe them make specific adjustments required by life lived on the edge, which is the film's greatest strength. Add to that the details of a silo, and a nail, and your nerves will become frayed. To say more is to do disservice to this feat of filmmaking by director and actor Krasinski. This needs to be seen on the big screen, however. To see this film in a smaller screen [a laptop, for example], with a minimal hold of its immersive sound design, is to diminish its power. See it, and don't breathe.
12. Eighth Grade
(Bo Burnham, United States
This is awkward and scintillating, all at the same time, an astonishing naturalistic look at the anxieties and dreams of teenagers. I liked its conceit, which is grounded very much on the way things are now: Elsie Fisher's Kayla runs a YouTube vlog where she puts on a wise persona, if a meandering one, giving advise about the travails of popularity and confidence for young people like her -- which is really a kind of defence mechanism for how she is in real life: painfully shy and eternally convoluted about what she wants. The ending feels unearned, but as observational cinema, this is top-notch.
(Paul Dano, United States
Actor Paul Dano taking on the director's chair for this project promised that the resulting film would be performance-centered -- and in that respect, we are not disappointed. Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan as husband and wife battling out a precarious, poverty-stricken marriage in a small American town in the early 1960s indeed give the performances of their career, particularly Mulligan in the mode of self-destructing housewife teetering between boredom and anger. But Dano also gives us a beautiful-looking film that is so sure of its composition it becomes immersive.
14. The Guilty
(Gustav Möller, Denmark
There's nothing claustrophobic about this thriller set exclusively within the four walls of a Danish emergency dispatch. It does that through sheer mastery of technicality, as well as sureness in storytelling, giving us a great thrilling arc with dizzying twists and chills, centred in the grounded performance of Jakob Cedergren as Officer Asger Holm who, while taking calls one night, has to battle both personal demons and the emergency of a kidnapped woman in the van of a man who might kill her. We don't see any of this, but we feel every nuance of the drama reflected on Cedergren's voice and face.
15. Happy as Lazzaro
(Alice Rohrwacher, Italy
This film shouldn't work, but it does. Everything about its premise and its conceit shouldn't make it work, but it does. I still cannot define what actually makes the film work, but by the end of it, I simply surrendered to its charm, and to its uncanny magic realism which stirs in the middle of its very Italian neorealism. Perhaps it is Adriano Tardiolo as Lazzaro? He has such a handsome and open face, perfectly made for cinema -- and on that happy and untroubled face, we see the turbulence of the story meeting its match.
16. 22 July
(Paul Greengrass, United States
Paul Greengrass' 22 July
, about the terrorism attack that exploded in Norway in 2011 has a different agenda than most movies of its kind -- is terrorism a genre? -- most of which, like Gus Van Sant's Elephant
(2003) and even Greengrass' own United 93
(2006), are thorough and unsettling dramatisations of what happens before a very public tragedy, its crux the unfolding of the horror, be it a school shooting or a hijacking or whatever contemporary terrors we have come to accept as "normal" in this increasingly fraught world. Greengrass turns over that expectations from the very beginning, where he chooses to start off with the horror and then proceeds to give us a film that showcases the various pathways the aftermath can take [a trial, a hospital recovery, a nation confronting its nationalist pockmark], when things slow down to the new normal and the survivors have to make do and take account of the horror that has upended their lives. For that formalistic difference, I applaud the film.
17. Paddington 2
(Paul King, United Kingdom
Paul King's Paddington 2
is a thief of hearts. How could a sequel to a forgettable 2014 adaptation of a beloved children's literary classic achieve such unexpected heights of cinematic delights? If you have seen the first film, you would not have expected the studio to press the green light that attended this 2018 effort, which towers over the first one with such gusto. The titular bear, still living in London with his human family, unfortunately lands himself in prison and must clear his name with the help of family and newfound prison friends. The film has a touch of Wes Anderson whimsy to it, but the film is its own sweet thing, and I am in love with it.
18. The Death of Stalin
(Armando Iannucci, United Kingdom
I am not fond of the earnest political shade that has made the career of Armando Iannucci, having puzzled over the critical acclaim for his film In the Loop
(2009) or his television series Veep
. But The Death of Stalin
I get very much, and I appreciate the precarious balance it achieves in its examination of the murderous macabre and its deployment of the the mischievous madcapness. Could one create a comedy out of the bloodthirst of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, and the chaos and betrayals that followed his death in 1953? It shouldn't be possible, but Iannucci goes on a limb, jumps from it, and lands and achieves comic impossibility. It had me cringing and laughing at the same time.
19. First Man
(Damien Chazelle, United States
The greatest strength of Damien Chazelle's First Man
, the film of Neil Armstrong's quest for the moon, is also its weakness: its profound interiority. Armstrong as a public figure had always cut a no-nonsense, restrained personality, eager for the work and subsuming everything else -- including overt emotionality -- into a terseness that would never be yielding. It's difficult to build epic films -- and NASA's quest for the moon can never be not epic -- around terse characters, but that's the challenge Chazelle set himself to do. And in many ways, it correlates very much with the claustrophobia of the whole astronaut experience of journeying into space. We usually think of space movies as all horizon and floating and infinity, but Chazelle pins the entire story in the point of view of astronauts trapped in dark tin cans hurtling through the void, unable to see much else except the limited view of their porthole windows. So as we explore Armstrong's character in all his unemotionally, grounded by Chazelle in tight extreme closeups, we also explore space in the confines of that claustrophobia. It works magnificently, but I can understand why this can be so underwhelming to many people who are used to space movies done in congratulatory beats and celebratory scenes. There are none of that here, and if you accept the film through its insistence of telling its story via that tone, you will find this one extraordinary.
(Nandita Das, India
Nandita Das provides us a suitable blueprint to effectively tell the story of an acclaimed real-life writer, in this case India's [and later, Pakistan's] Saadat Hasan Manto, well-known for his scintillating and sometimes scandal-ridden short stories. Most films of its kind have found some footing in cliches -- in scenes with typewriters and sheer adherence to biographical detail -- without dramatising successfully what made their writings powerful and memorable. This film does that ably, jumping straight into one slice of Manto's storied life -- the turning point of his career during the days of the partition of India upon its independence from British rule -- and seamlessly incorporating into it, without any comment, scenes from his most powerful stories. It is an engaging historical dramatisation devoid of the mothball smell of historiography.
21. Lean on Pete
(Andrew Haigh, United States
A lonely boy and his race horse. That essentially is the story of Andrew Haigh's latest foray into quiet, intense, and sad lives of seemingly ordinary people, his followup to the wonderful 45 Years. In this searing tale, fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson [played with winsome lowkeyness and great candor by Charlie Plummer] tries to navigate life in the Pacific Northwest with a loser for a single father, and finds himself having a summer job tending to a fading race horse named Pete who he learns later on is bound for the slaughterhouse. And then he starts to lose people around him, first his father, and then a succession of others, and he finds himself going cross-country with Pete, whom he has rescued, on a search for his father's ex-girlfriend who had once offered him a home. The loneliness, the search for home is stark, and Haigh respects its slow burning intensity.
22. Leave No Trace
(Debra Granik, United States
Debra Granik has made a name for herself as a chronicler for people whose stories are never told in movies. Particularly those of the rural kind: hardy folks with their deep dramas trying to get through life despite extraordinary circumstances. She did it in Winter's Bone
, and she does it again in Leave No Trace
, where we follow a very young girl who lives with her war veteran/PTSD-anguished father off the grid somewhere in the forests of Oregon, where isolation from the rest of the world is the only balm for the father's uneasy mind. Of course, that idyll proves ultimately unrealistic, and both are soon taken by authorities to live "normal lives" elsewhere. But it is about the girl's growth, and the girl's coming of age, and Thomasine Mackenzie proves equal to the difficult task of her role's tricky depiction.
23. We the Animals
(Jeremiah Zagar, United States
Justin Torres's 2011 YA novel was famously unfilmmable because of the rambling nature of its storytelling which is from the point of view of a gay Puerto Rican boy in the cusp of losing his childhood innocence. But Jeremiah Zagar solves it by bending to it, and what results is a transfixing drama that is both stillness and whirlwind, a riot of performances centered in indelible sense of place and time, and mood.
24. Mission: Impossible—Fallout
(Christopher McQuarrie, United States
The sixth outing of this franchise that never seems to tire out is even better than the last. We follow Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as usual, and the plot is labyrinthine as usual -- with twists upon twists, and betrayal upon betrayal than fly with such gleeful abandon, even if its set pieces, all marvellous, are meticulous plotted out. Everything nears perfection in this movie: the emotional payoff, the give-and-take between the characters -- Cruise can be so generous -- who are all so richly etched, and the constant winks of references that feel like a full chuckle but never overstays their welcome. (Did you get that A Few Good Men
reference?) And that music. It felt so organic and tightly woven into the narrative, it made me stand up and pay attention when I needed to.
25. Crazy Rich Asians
(Jon M. Chu, United States
This delirious fantasy of Asian opulence does its job well in many levels: it improves on the source material, it is ambitious in its Hollywood-sized act of representation, it is a first-rate example of its genre, and it genuinely gives us very human characters to root for. This fish-out-of-water story is endearingly made that by the end of the film, you will find yourself clapping for its happily ever after. Unless of course you're a wart for whom nothing can ever be pleasing.
26. First Reformed
(Paul Schrader, United States
Paul Schrader's First Reformed
is a painful film to watch. It is austere in its sweep, and deeply philosophical, and easily reminds you of the films of Robert Bresson. Ethan Hawke plumbs the depths of a haunted minister who believes in divine order even in a chaotic world but secretly nurses doubts and pains, which are brought to fore once more when he encounters a couple who presents him with a dilemma. The husband is in despair over this question: what good is living in a world which we are slowly destroying? That despair soon infects, and the film takes us into the minutiae of that infection, and makes us question whatever hope we hold out.
27. Where is Kyra?
(Andrew Dosunmu, United States
Everything is bleak by design in this small film by Andrew Dosunmu, which also functions as a vehicle for the tour-de-force performance by Michelle Pfeiffer who plays a jobless middle-aged woman struggling to make ends meet on her elderly mother's social security checks -- and finds herself in the deep end, unable to find reprieve, when her mother dies. It is a film stark with the desperation of destitution, without once losing its human thread. The story is bleak [you may call it stylishly dark], and the cinematography [a masterpiece of dread by Bradford Young] is even bleaker, with everything lit in the darkest possible way. It can be a hard film to enjoy, but once you accept the film's design, you focus more on the story, and you begin to feel more for the plight of Pfeiffer's sad woman. And then it becomes unbelievably tense in the end.
(Sebastián Lelio, United States
Sebastián Lelio's Disobedience
is a worthy follow-up to his A Fantastic Woman
, but here he takes a slow-burning pace to distill a story about a woman who goes back to her Jewish Orthodox community in London after her rabbi father's death, to be rightfully confronted for why she left in the first place: to seek independence, to seek connection. What we later also learn is that she left after a shattering romance with another woman in her community, someone she eventually meets again, this time as someone married to another good friend, the late rabbi's fervent disciple. It's a fraught character study, and we follow three quiet lives thrust into a whirlwind of choices -- and the pleasure we get from this drama derives from witnessing that. What a showcase of acting this is, what precise filmmaking as well.
(Sandi Tan, United States and Singapore
Sandi Tan's documentary -- about the loss and recovery of the similarly titled feature film she made in her teens in Singapore in the early 1990s -- is all of these: an ode to cinema, a riveting detective story, a heartbreaking confession, a reunion with estranged friends, and a psychological profile of a charming loser determined to squash other people's grand ambitions. Every inch of this movie -- especially the footages of the lost film -- is immersive and wholly satisfying.
30. Love, Simon
(Greg Berlanti, United States
I expected to like Greg Berlanti's Love, Simon
, his heart-fluttering adaptation of the YA hit Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
, written by Becky Albertalli. I did not expect myself, however, to tear up near the end, to see a gay version of the pivotal moment in Never Been Kissed
. Representation counts, and in the movies much more so. But this one had a bit more gravity that it purports to be about an ordinary boy perfectly accepting of the fact that he's gay. No self-hating angst here, no terrors of the closet; the landslide that he has to navigate through is not even about the usual self-pitying refrains about having to hide; it's about the repercussions of having to lose love. During one dramatic highlight in the film, Nick Robinson as the titular hero, upon being outed online to the rest of the school, tells his sister matter-of-factly: "Why should I deny [being gay]? It's not something I'm ashamed of." And that statement felt very revolutionary, indeed, to be uttered in a mainstream teen romantic comedy. Most older gay people I know who have seen this movie has said variations of the same sentence: they wished this movie came out when they were teenagers. I completely understand that sentiment. I wished I saw this when I was younger.
31. Love, Cecil
(Lisa Immordino Vreeland, United Kingdom
Lisa Immordino Vreeland's wonderfully constructed documentary follows the life and works of the Oscar-winning British costume designer Cecil Beaton, whose eccentricities and aesthetics seem to be truly made for a cinematic telling. It is a gorgeous film, and it follows a very gorgeous subject who knew it, and flaunted it -- to popular culture's overall delights.
32. Juliet, Naked
(Jesse Peretz, United States
Ethan Hawke is on the record in saying his Tucker Crowe in Juliet, Naked
-- a legendary and reclusive musician -- is the older version of his romantic douchebag Troy from Reality Bites
. I get the comparison; his Tucker is still a man needing to grow up -- but nonetheless Hawke infuses into his character the same sense of identifiability that made Troy indelible (and romantic, if nihilistic) in 1994. But the film is not really about him. It's about a woman named Annie (played with so much fidgety charm by Rose Byrne) who deals with her long-time boyfriend's obsession over the legend of Tucker Crowe by anonymously disparaging the reclusive singer online -- and gets the surprise of her life. How and when do we grow up? Is it possible to love a man bent on self-destruction? These are the fun questions this comedy asks -- and refuses to answer. And it makes all the goodly difference.
33. Let the Sunshine In
(Claire Denis, France
The key to Claire Denis' Let the Sunshine In
is complete immersion in its dialogue, and how else to approach a film that's loosely based on Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse
? Denis does this by having us follow Juliet Binoche, who gives a splendid and very naturalistic performance as an artist who feels untethered in life as she searches for meaningful connection with one man after another. Each encounter becomes emblematic of particular kinds of relationships, and the haphazard ways we have of distilling love from our pursuits -- and of course all these is marked by conversation that ranges from the silly to the sublime, but mostly sublime. It is a thinking person's romantic comedy.
34. The House That Jack Built
(Lars von Trier, Denmark
I am so conflicted about Lars Von Trier's The House That Jack Built
, his controversial film about the confessions of a serial killer. On one hand, it's a film that does not shy away from the chilling gore required of its story. On the other hand, it's a very thought-provoking thesis on art and aesthetics. Like, WTF. And the literal "house" in the end, like WTH. The film is so sick -- but at the same time, it's so well done.
35. The Endless
(Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, United States
I love the enigma of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's The Endless
, and the less said about that enigma before you start watching the film, the better. Let's just put in the initial story: two brothers have escaped a UFO death cult and ten years later have found themselves living less than satisfactory lives in the outside world. An invitation from the cult camp comes in the form of a videotape, and the younger one -- who has better memories of life inside it -- wants to go back for a visit. The older brother accompanies him, wary about what might happen. Then things turn stranger. And let's just it has something with unseen monsters and time and loops and immortality... It's a head trip, and a genuinely scary story, and I love it.
(Jason Reitman, United States
Charlize Theron gives a tour-de-force performance as a stay-at-home wife with a newborn driven to the edge by the harsh demands of keeping house, only to reluctantly find relief in the form of the titular night nanny, who gives her more than peace of mid, Tully
also gives her a renewed sense of self. But of course everything is not what they seem to be, eventually -- which makes for an ending that's truthful and also heartbreaking. It's a return to form for Jason Reitman and screenwriter Cody Diablo.
37. Ralph Breaks the Internet
(Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, United States
I found 2012's Wreck It Ralph
a chore to watch, never quite taken in by its nostalgia for old computer games. [Then again, I was never really into computer games, even in my youth and childhood, mindful even then that my addictive personality might easily be swayed.] So it was quite a surprise for me to find myself loving Ralph Breaks the Internet
. Perhaps it is finally speaking my language, and thoroughly examining my own present addiction to the Internet? It is a fun romp, with occasional emotional moments -- "A Place Called Slaughter Race" was certainly both a hoot and a dig at the heart.
38. A Simple Favor
(Paul Feig, United States
A vlog-sharing single mother befriends a acerbic, fashionable woman from her son's school -- and finds herself drawn to mysterious disappearances, murder, mistaken identities, and money. There is no explaining the twists and turns of this stylish, noirish comedy. There is only experiencing it, and surrendering to its silliness.
39. The Kindergarten Teacher
(Sara Colangelo, United States
How does Maggie Gyllanhaal do this? She constantly gives us characters that are ciphers in their sexuality or flawed in their moral compass, but she manages to imbue them all with a humanity that's resonant and understandable, that we turn to root for them somehow, even though they sometimes do the most questionable things. She plays the titular teacher, bored with her domestic life and yearning to find some original creativity in her to add some spark to it. She joins a poetry class where she remains unnoticed, encumbered by unoriginal verse -- until one day, she stumbles upon one of her young students spouting poetry like a genius, and she proceeds to make herself mentor to the boy, over whom she feels overprotective, convinced that the world will conspire to stifle his creativity, just as it had done with her. Soon she's also passing off the boy's poems as her own in her poetry class. And lest you think you know where the story is going, it proceeds to unravel in unexpected ways -- still leaving you devastated and disturbed by the questions the film raises.
40. Bohemian Rhapsody
(Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher, United Kingdom and United States
There's a scene in Bohemian Rhapsody
where the titular song finally gets a protracted radio play and release. EMI had refused to release it because they thought the 6-minute running time was too much for radio, and that the "gibberish" lyrics would likely confound people. ["What does Bismillah even mean?"] True enough, after that release in 1975, the critics pounced harshly on the song. In the film, as we get an earworm of the finished product, we see snippets of the reviews that came out that year. Time Magazine
opined: "Unfortunately, Queen’s lyrics are not the stuff of sonnets." The New York Times
called it "pretentious and irrelevant." Rolling Stone
described it as “brazen hodgepodge.” But the song proved to be a popular hit, and has since become a rock anthem and an all-around favorite. The film about Queen and the life of Freddie Mercury just recently came out, and the critics are echoing the sharp barbs of 1975. The reviews have been harsh, but I have a feeling this film will have legs. It will be a blockbuster. The people I know who have seen it actually love the film -- and I did too, even given its obvious flaws. (It had a very troubled production.) The film sold what it needed to sell, and its final moments, where it basically restages the famous Live Aid concert of 1985, is an electric blend of film and concert music, with Rami Malek embodying Mercury's panache and sexuality with fantastic approximation. I came away from the film forgiving its flaws, because the music simply got the best of me. There was an old man by his lonesome sitting near us in the theater; by the time "We Are the Champions" blared from the screen, I could see him wiping away tears. If that's not a demonstration of the film's power to entertain, and to occasionally move, I don't know what will.
41. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
(Joel and Ethan Coen, United States
The Coen Brothers conceptualized this project for Netflix as a mini-series, but on the way to its making, it became a feature-length film instead, albeit of the anthology variety -- and we have a fine, if disturbing, film peopled with eccentrics in the American Wild West trying to live out their unquiet lives and dark intentions in a string of stories that vary in length and effectiveness, but on the whole is nonetheless a feat of imaginative storytelling. My favourite remains the sad tale of a limbless young man who travels with an ageing impresario from town to town in a wagon that converts into a small stage where he recites Shelley's "Ozymandias," Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, among others. What happens to him is emblematic of the overall dark vision of the Coens.
(Ari Aster, United States
From the filmmaker who gave us The Strange Thing About the Johnsons
, short films of visceral and disturbing power which taught us never to trust family, Hereditary seems to be the perfect showcase for all the neurotic horror Ari Aster is capable of. It is partly a possession film, partly a film about mitigating grief, and partly a film about mental illness in the family -- and for all its worth, it deserves all the kudos its getting for its originality, its pace, its dread. To say anymore is to rob it of its power to surprise, and it twists and turns a lot, and drags you into its infernal world.
43. The Rider
(Chloé Zhao, United States
How far will you go to go back to the thing that once thoroughly defined you, if doing so endangers your life? That in a nutshell is the drama, and the pulsing motivation, in Chloé Zhao's The Rider
, which follows a very talented rodeo cowboy [played with effortless groundedness by Brady Jandreau, a real cowboy] who now has to content with life out of the rodeo circuit after suffering a major injury while in competition. The rodeo of course continues to have a pull on him, and the film tracks his emotional journey, which is about his own redefinition. It's a Western for our age, and I loved it.
44. One Cut of the Dead
(Shinichiro Ueda, Japan
Fiiiine. Shinichiro Ueda's One Cut of the Dead
proves a movie is not defined by its first 30 minutes, but its last 30. I almost gave up on what had seemed to be a badly-made film about a zombie apocalypse descending on a film crew making a zombie movie -- and then it suddenly turned more meta than its initial meta conceit. Is this the first footnote movie? Reminds me so much of Nabokov's Pale Fire
, which gives you the idea of how much the movie rises above itself.
45. Private Life
(Tamara Jenkins, United States
How does one dramatise the small domestic turbulences of trying to conceive, using all methods and approximating all the madness in the relentless cycle of full-hearted efforts? With curve balls of humour, with knowing details in scene-setting, with performances that are down-to-earth as they are truthful. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti are the couple we follow, both of them writers, and we follow them relentless as they go about their days looking for ways to find a child, from in vitro fertilisation to surrogacy to adoption. Into their efforts are embraced various members of their family, especially their niece -- and the film by Tamara Jenkins becomes that: a constellation of humanity trying to do the best they can in the pursuit of their desires, even when they sometimes get lost in that pursuit the end goal almost becomes secondary to the earthquakes of domesticity they find themselves in. A beautiful film.
(Erik Matti, Philippines
Erik Matti's BuyBust
is a relentless film that has as its spiritual predecessor movies like The Raid
from Indonesia, where the action involves a group of law enforcement officers winding through the maze of a rat trap [in this case, a fenced off estero in Tondo that goes by the lovely, ironic name of Gracia ni Maria] after an encounter with criminal elements turns awfully awry. They are soon surrounded on all sides and in all tight corners by murderous elements -- men, women, children, parlor gays -- whose randomness and anonymity is the driving horror of the spectacle, whose plot has one goal in mind: finding the exit. The show of violence -- all those guns, all those knives, all those bats, all those bloody fisticuffs -- is choreographed in a furious way that lays bare the thirst for blood of an enraged mob, and there were times during the extended sequences of repetitive bloody action that I was tempted to give up on the film altogether, because too much. But what made me stay was the realisation that this film perhaps best reflects the Philippines as it has been for a while now: an expression of the Filipino id that has resorted to violence to settle scores and "solve" assorted problems [in this case, a drug war] only to reveal that the corruption is intrinsic, and there are no heroes, and we are just mincemeat country in thrall of goons in power. This is an exhausting film, to be honest -- but it's very well made, and it speaks about the way we live now in brutal honesty, and it is important.
47. Three Identical Strangers
(Tim Wardle, United States
The reason why I love documentaries is how they demonstrate again and again how nonfiction trumps fiction in the weird department. Sometimes it's for laughs and amazement, and sometimes it's for tears and bewilderment. Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers
begins like the former, and ends like the latter. Three teenage boys, following a strange set of circumstances, find out they are triplets and have been separated by the adoption agency to three different sets of families. But the real story is deeper than the "reunion" angle we are first offered with, and is actually more devastating. It ultimately asks the question: which is more powerful in the shaping of our destiny, nature or nurture? The film tries to settle for an answer, but there is no settling here. Everything is unsettled, and sad.
48. Isle of Dogs
(Wes Anderson, United States
I have not been stoked by a Wes Anderson movie since The Royal Tenenbaums
in 2001, for me the pinnacle of his filmmaking marking the height of his evolving style since his debut in Bottle Rocket
in 1996. Everything since 2001 -- yes, even Moonrise Kingdom
(2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel
(2014) -- feels just like a tightening of his aesthetic quirks, too stylised to be genuinely witty and involving. Except Fantastic Mr. Fox
in 2009, which was a triumph of form and storytelling, and which first gave us the idea that animation as a device is very much part of the Wes Anderson arsenal. Much of that is demonstrated once more in Isle of Dogs
, Anderson's subtle but also gloriously frenetic take of a dystopian Japanese society bent on exiling their dogs to an island of trash. It is a brilliantly conceived film whose twists and turns could only be done in animation, and only in a Wes Anderson mise en scene
49. They'll Love Me When I'm Dead
(Morgan Neville, United States
There are countless of documentaries about Orson Welles, but there is never enough. This one, covering the making [and the unmaking] of his last film, The Other Side of the Wind
, documents the protracted shoot and editing which lasted years, and the eventual legal obstacles that kept it from achieving wholeness for decades, until Netflix came to the rescue in 2018. And it is an able film that illustrates very well the Wellesian theme of filmmaking as an endeavour of supervising over "divine accidents." As a glimpse into chaotic genius, into intrepid filmmaking, into a very specific period of cinema [the 1960s and 1970s, when European atmosphere was all the rage], this film fulfils every cineast's desires of knowing more about the man.
(Alex Garland, United States
, novelist Alex Garland [The Beach
and The Tesseract
] proves to us that his first directorial effort Ex Machina
, which received rapturous reviews when it was released in 2014, was not a fluke. His sophomore cinematic effort has the tautness of craft you could expect only from veterans, and his sense of wonder -- demonstrated in his visual extrapolation of the strange topsy-turvy world [a topographical cancer of wonder] from Jeff VanderMeer's novel -- remains unmatched. This is a brooding, intelligent sci-fi that does not necessarily translate to be everyone's cup of tea, but it a rewarding watch.
Previously: The Rest Outside of the Top 50 and The 25 Most Disappointing
Labels: film, review
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