CINEMA RETROSPECTIVE-2018 EDITION
2018, 2018 MID YEAR, 2017, 2016, 2015
The "Big Tuna" Vito Carli weighs in with Summation of the Year in Film

A Comprehensive Look at 2018 in Film

(012019) If there was a theme that dominated global film this year it was the corruption of police and/or police brutality often involving minorities. In Blindspotting, a policeman unjustly guns down an unarmed black man. In Beauty and the Dogs, a Tunisian woman is raped but no one believes her because the assailant is a police officer. In If Beale Street Could Talk, the police are depicted as almost demonic and they are looking for any reason to put an African American man in jail. In the Fade depicts the police as ineffectual as the justice system and a fascist who kills a minority man suffers no legal penalty. Some of this seem to be influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement but there seems to be a worldwide sense of skepticism regarding the police and the legal justice system.

The year had its share of comic/graphic novel films which tended to be big block busters (Aquaman, Antman and the Wasp, Deadpool 2, Avengers: Infinity War and Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse ) but only two of them, Blade of the Immortal and Black Panther rose to the level of excellence or came close to the quality of high art. I am sorry I did not have room for them in my top 10 (it was a very good but not great year), but they are in my top 25. Although many comic films have been good it is sad to see big event films crowd superior Indy films out of the theatres.

Luckily Netflix and other streaming services are picking up some of the slack. There were many top notch Netflix films including Roma, As Happy as Lazaro, Ballad of Buster Scruggs (which was brilliant in parts but like many anthology films, very inconsistent), and Mohawk. A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Roxanne Roxanne and 6 Balloons. My favorite of the bunch was On Body and Soul was the most original of the bunch.

It was a superb year for nonfiction film. Some of the year’s top docs include (in order of quality) Three Identical Neighbors, Parallel Places, Faces Places, Won’t You be my Neighbor? McQueen, RPG, and Francis: A Man of His Word, directed by the German new wave master, Wim Wenders.

There was an unusual amount of significant features made by minority (especially African American) filmmakers including Blindspotting, If Beale Street could Talk, Sorry to Bother You, Widows, Black Panther and Blackkklansman. Two of them, Blindspotting and if Beale Street Could Talk actually made my Top 10, but some of the rest could have made my Top 10 in a lesser year. The days when Spike Lee was the only game in town are long gone. I was almost tempted to include the controversial music video for the Childish Gambino song, This is America (which was directed by an Asian film maker on my list). It was as though provoking, brilliant and creative as any full length film on my list.

The film had its share of outstanding performances. Some of the ones that stood out included Ethan Hawke (First Reformed), Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Toni Collete (Hereditary), Mariam Al Ferjani (Beauty and the Dogs), The Glenn Close and Joe Castleman (The Wife), Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Charlize Theron and McKenzie Davis (Tully), Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate), Keira Knightlly (Collette), Sandrine Bonnaire (Catch the Wind), and the whole casts of If Beale Street Could Talk, Widows, and The Favourite. I also thought Justin Bateman and Rachel McAdams were a great comic duo/couple in Game Night.

Joaquin Phoenix gave two Oscar level performances You Are Not Really Here and He Could Not Get Far on Foot. He is also scheduled to play The Joker in a feature film. Now that could be interesting.

Although I thought the film itself was a bit overrated by the press, I was surprised how good Lady GaGa was in A Star is Born, playing an unglamorous singer who is very different from her real life image (Madonna eat your heart out.)

Many of my favorite directors were out of action all year including Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky. But we did get worthwhile new films from Clint Eastwood (The Mule), Paul Schrader (First Reformed), Spike Lee (Blackkklansman, Hirokuzo Kor-eda (Shoplifters), Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), Julian Schnabel (At Eternity’s Gate), Takashi Miike (Blade of the Immortal) the Coen Brothers (Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Lynn Ramsey (You Were Never Really Here), Bruno Dumont (Jeannette or the Childhood of Joan of Arc) Gus Van Sandt (Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot), and Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 11-9).

Incredibly there was a new film from the person many consider the best filmmaker of all time, Orson Welles who died decades ago. A previously unreleased Welles film was scooped up by Netflix. For me The Other Side of the Wind (which was cut and assembled from over 50 hours of footage) did not measure up to his earlier films but how could it? Almost nothing this year could compare to Welles in his prime. I probably need to see it again before I can fully digest this 8 1/2 like film but it was good to see some long gone actors (like Susan Strasberg and Edmond O’Brien) onscreen again.

I only included movies on my best films list that opened in Chicago (or Netflix) in 2018, but Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Lars Von Trier’s The House that Jack Built, Pawel Pawilkowski’s Cold War, Jean Luc Godard’s Image Book, Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s Wild Pear Tree, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Terry Gillliam’s long awaited The Man who Killed Don Quixote, Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows, Jordan Peele’s Us, M. Night Shymalan’s Glass, and Roberto Rodriquez’s Alita: Battle Angel (some of them opened in other states earlier) might end up on next year’s list. Those are the upcoming films I am most excited about. I am also dying to see Clair Denis’s upcoming sci-fi epic, High Life which stars believe it or not Robert Pattinson (of Twilight) and Andre 3000 (of the hip-hop/funk duo, Outkast).

Now here are my choices for the TOP 25 best films of 2018.
 

1) Jeannette the Childhood of Joan of Arc
Director-Bruno Dumont (France/Italy)
Bruno Dumont’s irreverent, subversive, and unusually surprising historical biopic/musical focuses on a young Joan before she went to battle (played by two capable actresses). It was based on “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc,” a dramatic text by a socialist mystical poet, Charles Péguy, and the background music is a jarring mixture of rock, rap, metal, synth pop and hip-hop. The film does an excellent job of combining the everyday with the divine, and has scenes of people praying or singing to God while doing banal things such as plucking chickens. It makes fine use of nonprofessional actors with ordinary voices who get by with their charisma and apparent sincerity (it’s the opposite approach used in the slick, professional Glee show.) Bruno Dumont, who also did the hard to categorize, Li’l Quinquin clearly is on a hot streak. He has developed into a weirdly wonderful, avant-garde film genius. Lars Von Trier and David Lynch may need to watch their backs. This was also John Waters’ favorite film of the year (the man has good taste.) In French with English subtitles.

2) First Reformed
Director-Paul Schrader
Shocking and emotionally volatile drama about a dedicated minister who goes through a crisis of faith after he counsels a traumatized ex-army person who just may be an eco-terrorist. The lead performances by Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried are magnificent and moving (perhaps too good and true for the Oscar voters) and the devastating ending is hard to shake off. Director/screenplay writer Paul Schrader reworks some thematic motifs from Taxi Driver and Robert Bresson’s films and comes up with his best film in decades. Like Bresson’’s films (Schrader devoted part of his best book, “Transcendental Style in Film” on him), the film masterfully explores the theme of gaining enlightenment through suffering. This also has one of the most erotic nonexpicit sex scenes in the history of cinema.

3) Blindspotting
Director-Carlos Lopez Estrada
An intense and challenging urban buddy comedy that shifts into a disturbing drama in the second half. It courageously deals with many serious social issues such as classism, police violence, and racism. The film’s talented stars, Rafael Casal (known for his performance poetry) and Daveed Diggs (known for his rapping) wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay over a period of nine years. Daveed and Rafael grew up in the same vicinity in the San Francisco Bay Area, and they wrote the film as a corrective because they felt most cinematic portrayals of Oakland did not get it right.

4) At Eternity’s Gate
Director-
Julian Schnabel
The usually underrated Willem Dafoe shines in this melancholy biopic about the mentally unbalanced art genius Vincent Van Gogh. The film has marvelous direction by Julian Schnabel, a very successful and well-known painter (ironically, he has made infinitely more money for his neoexpressionist plate paintings than Van Gogh ever did). At Eternity’s Gate benefits greatly from the artist’s sensibility that Julian Schnabel (who is a painter in real life) brings to the film, and many individual shots look like paintings. The cinematographer, Benoît Delhomme often uses handheld cameras, and the roving tracking shots plus occasionally weird camera angles always kept my interest. Often Delhomme lets Van Gogh’s paintings speak for themselves.

5) On Body and Soul/A Teströl és Lélekröl
Director-
Idiko Enyedi
A terrific, involving and decidedly odd film about a man and woman that dream they are romantically involved deer every night even though they never met. It turns out they have the same analysist, and he thinks it is all an elaborate joke. If you liked The Lobster (which was on my top 10 list a few years ago), you should love this quirky, surreal love story. In Hungarian with English subtitles (on Netflix)

6) Godard Mon Amour/Le Redoutable
Director-Michel Hazanavicius
Hilarious and intellectual period piece about a subversive film maker who encourages his young disciples to rebel against everything until he is shocked when they turn against him ( a similar thing happened to the situationist professors in France when the students started destroying furniture during protests). This film which is based on the life of the cinematic Enfant Terrible. Jean-Luc Godard, also manages to expertly mimic and send up his unique directing style complete with his trademark jump cuts. I had such a good time watching this!! In French with English subtitles

7) Hereditary
Director-Ari Aster

Well written and shocking horror film about a couple with a troubled family history who find out that they are part of a sinister supernatural conspiracy. This sharp, shocking, and suspenseful film had me on the edge of my seat until the final surprise twist. This terrifying Polanski influenced film is sort of a modern twist on Rosemary’s Baby with elements of The Seventh Victim thrown in. The intensity builds to a crescendo and the stuff the film suggests is much more horrific than anything they can show us on screen. Toni Collette is uncommonly good in the lead, and this may actually be superior to her earlier, Sixth Sense. The more I think about this film the higher it goes on my list. One of the best horror films of the decade.

8) You Were Never Really Here
Director-
Lynne Ramsay
Joaquin Phoenix stars in this Taxi Driver influenced non-linear, experimental film about a troubled, emotionally scarred war veteran who goes on a mission to rescue captive underage prostitutes. The film scenes are sometimes out of order, and since it is narrated from the point of view of a PTSD narrator, we don’t always know if every scene is actually happening the way we see it, so this is sort of like the film equivalent of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury novel.

9) The Favourite
Director-Yorgos Lanthimos
A quirky, intellectual and often bawdy comedy about a female rivalry for power in the court of Queen Anne. This delightful romp does a superb job at exploring the connection between sexual politics and power as it wickedly mocks royal excess and eccentricity. The film has generated near unanimous critical acclaim and multiple Golden Globe nominations including Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz). Olivia Coleman’s performance in the film got the Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy.

10) If Beale Street Could Talk
Director-Barry Jenkins
This film based on a James Baldwin novel (I taught his novel Giovanni’s Room but I never read this one) is about a couple in Harlem who seem slated to have a happy future until the man is accused of a crime by the police who just seem to be looking for a convenient minority man to pin it on. The director, Barry Jenkins (who also did Moonlight) convincingly uses great period detail to establish that we are we are watching a particular time and place. It effectively captures people fighting nobly against racial and class barriers and poverty. Uncommonly well written and acted. Regina King could get an Oscar for this, but the whole cast is perfect.

Also for your consideration....
11.) Three Identical Strangers
Director: Tim Wardle
The year’s most potent doc is about three identical men that discover they were secretly part of a government experiment. The films teaches us that the government often sees its citizens as less than human. This film is set to premiere on CNN in January but it had a limited run in the theatres.

12.) Blade of the Immortal.
Director-Takashi Miikie
Takashi Miike’s ultra-violent action film about a warrior with eternal life who reluctantly agrees to avenge a murder has some of the most wonderfully staged ballet-like battle scenes in recent memory (since Kill Bill). Based on the great comic series by Hiroaki Smura (I believe the American reprints came out on Dark Horse.). Sorry Marvel fans, but this slightly edged out Black Panther for best comic based film of the year. Some of Miike’s previous films, including 13 Assassins and Audition are also genre masterpieces. In Japanese with English subtitles

13.) Tully
Director-Ivan Reitman
A nanny is hired to help a troubled woman who previously suffered from postpartum depression after she has a baby. The husband hires a mysterious house keeper who has an uncanny understanding of the mom. This is kind of like a feminist version of Fight Club. The relationship between the two main female characters is complex and multilayered; the script by Diablo Cody (one of the best of the year) is thought provoking; and the underrated Charlize Theron gives another deep, winning performance.

14) Lover for a Day
Director- Philippe Garrel
A philosophy professor lives in hedonistic bliss with his much younger student/lover until his distraught daughter complicates things by moving in with them after a bad breakup. The two women’s adversarial relationship eventually becomes a friendship. This relationship based film has endlessly witty dialogue and it is almost as impressive as peak era Woody Allen or Eric Rohmer film from the 70’s. This was one of the highlights of the Philippe Garrel retrospective series at the Gene Siskel Center (I also greatly admired his Andy Warhol influenced Crystal Cradle with Nico). In French with English subtitles.

15.) The Phantom Thread
Director-Paul Thomas Anderson
Coldly captivating film about a mentally off/perfectionist fashion designer who makes his much younger wife suffer countless indignities with his self-centered callousness. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a performance for the ages, but his co-star’s (Vicky Krieps from Gutland) fine supporting contributions should not be underestimated. The film’s look and style are far more important than the plot, and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous shot compositions show once again that he has the eye of a master painter. The terrific, evocative soundtrack is by one of Radiohead’s resident rock guitar gods, Jonny Greenwood. This film did not immediately hit me quite as hard as some of Anderson’s other films (I loved Magnolia), but his movies always get better with multiple viewings (the same is also true of Kubrick’s works). This screened in LA. Last year, but I am pretty sure it opened in Chicago in 2018, so I am including it here.
 

16.) Happy as Lazzaro
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Haunting and atmospheric Netflix drama combines elements of Italian neo realism and magical realism. The films depicts tobacco farm hands tolling in slave like conditions for the selfish landowner (played by Roberto Benigni’s wife, Nicholette Braschi in one of her few unsympathetic roles.) Featuring wonderful naturalistic acting and a good use of scenery plus local color. In Italian with English sub-tiles

17.) The Other Side of Hope
Director: Aki Kaurismaki
Aki Kaurismaki’s bittersweet and topical film is about a restaurant owner who befriends and helps a Syrian refugee. A great antidote for the anti-immigrant hysteria that is gripping the globe. In Finnish with English subtitles

18.) Sorry to Bother You
Director: Boots Riley
Wonderfully inventive socially conscious comedy about an African American man who gives up his ethnic identity in order to make it in a white dominated evil corporation. If it were not for the disappointing ending this would be in my top 10. The director (who also raps) Boots Riley is a promising talent to watch.

19.) Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot
Director: Gus Van Sandt
 Engaging biopic about a paralyzed artist who channels his sarcastic and biting wit into his cartoons. The characterization of curmudgeon like lead character make this reminiscent of American Splendor, the top notch Harvey Pekar biopic. You won’t know whether to laugh or cry.

20.) Parallel Planes
Director: Nicole Weber
 A fascinating, exciting, and informative documentary that played at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. This film which can also be seen as a visual mixtape takes us across the country and depicts participants in various American indie music milieus (many of the musicians were influenced by Noise music or no wave (not new wave). The struggling artists in the film come off like noble, tragic heroes because they preserve and they are stubbornly committed to their art even though they have little chance of commercial success. . Much more significant and memorable than the year’s big music films (such as A Star is Born, Mamma Mia 2 and Bohemian Rhapsody.
 

21.) Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Director: Morgan Neville
Inspirational and revelatory documentary about Mr. Rogers a popular PBS Children’s show whose influence went beyond his sphere. The film shows that the man was much more complex and influential than anyone thought.

22.) Black Panther
Director: Ryan Coogler
Exciting afro futurist superhero film about the trials of T’challa, an African monarch who faces off against a very multi-dimensional and sympathetic villain. Believe it or not this actually improves on Lee’s and Kirby’s wondrous creation. The soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar (who wrote songs from the points of view of the characters) adds immeasurably to the film. Not just an action film but an exquisite celebration of African culture.

23.) Eighth Grade
Director: Bo Burham
An introverted and socially dysfunctional grade student does a podcast (get this) which gives listeners advice on how to interact better. This film does a better job of getting into a postmillennial person’s mindset than any other film in recent memory. A big theme in the film is how new technology often gets in the way of personal interaction. It is exasperating to see her dad try and fail repeatedly in actually communicating with her, and when she tries to make friends at school the other girls can’t even bother to put down their cell phones and give her their undivided attention.

24.) Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Director: Marielle Heller
Well acted biopic about a woman forging letters attributed to famous people and her criminal, drug dealing buddy. Melissa McCarthy who has never impressed me that much has never given any indication she could be so brilliant, and Richard E. Grant (Hugh’s brother) is almost as good.

25.) Mary and the Witch's Flower
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Terrific and colorful Asian animated film based on folklore is about a quest for a magical plant. Not as good as a Miyazacki film but it comes close. Available In Japanese with English subtitles or dubbed in English.
 

Vittorio Carli, who teaches at area community colleges, a former film reviewer for The Star, www.reelmoviecrtic.com and The Examiner, is an avid science-fiction film fan.

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org

and www.chicagopoetry.org. Look for his poetry book, Tapeworm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor (perhaps Alternate Reality will carry it.) He is also featured in an upcoming documentary titled The Last Hippie Freak-By the Beard of Lee Groban which was directed by Nancy Bechtol. Go to: nbechtol@ameritech.net for updates

 

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