Finally. I’m not gonna waste your time with an intro, let’s just get to the ten movies I loved most in a movie year I loved most and finally close this motherfucker out so I can either start on 2019 or just disappear forever from writing about film. Either or.
- 24 Frames (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran) – Watched at Coral Gables Art Cinema (Full Review Here)
We are close enough in proximity to remember what a fatal year 2016 was in more ways than one, most notably in how everyone’s favorite figures were dying. Muhammad Ali, a longtime childhood hero of mine, was the one that most wounded my heart but Abbas Kiarostami was not too far behind for the curious reason that I was just getting to expose myself to his unique sort of film language and it felt like the amount of cinematic surprises I was in for now had a limit.
Bless up for his very last word on his most prominent artistic medium other than poetry that left us to actually create the conversation out of just 24 meditative, sharp, and gorgeous images of forest and sea and domesticity, engaging the viewer to think about how we connect visuals and sounds (and for a movie named after a photographical concept, its command of sound design in order to bring us further into the landscapes it portrays – and sell either humor or tension in certain scenes – is just as deserving of our admiration as its imagery) into narrative and theme without pushing us in any real direction. It wants to stimulate our interest in the how and the why about the communicative power of the image, the very building block of the cinematic medium.
I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to finally watch 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami earlier this year as a final tribute on the late man as a human being, but I honestly think watching 24 Frames was enough of a lens to endear me further towards a personality in film who left us this hole: very humorous (even in a juvenile sense at one point with a scene involving lions), searching for the poetry in nature, patient and at home in the quiet.
- ★ (dir. Johann Lurf, Austria) – Watched at Anthology Film Archives
I’ve had an interest in the celestial since I was a child and I think while I’ve been strangling that (like sadly most things I like) in my adult age, there still remain remnants of me that are fascinated by the cosmos thanks largely to a community that pleads for the general public’s imperative interest of what’s out there. ★ is not necessarily about that but it already gets on my good side by appealing to that part of me as a movie that is basically nothing but archive footage of starry skies and nothing else.
More than that, it also appeals to me in what kind of pleasure there is looking to the night sky and how its been transformed in its representation in cinema since the nascency of the artform in itself. Part of it is a chronological history lesson in the growing polish of film, part of it is a game of “recognize this constellation? How about this one?”, and an even bigger part of it is a game of “recognize this movie clip? How about this one?”
It’s certainly not a movie you put on because you’re feeling like putting it on (it’s not a movie you put on at all… I’m assuming that Lurf has no intention of letting the movie screen anywhere without his knowledge and possible attendance), but it’s also a really undemanding and relaxed watch. I could easily see it as someone’s cool-down after a long rush of film festival screenings. And knowing that it’s going to continue as an ongoing project collecting every possible time we as a movie audience looked up to the stars to ponder or to dream or to explore… it makes me giddy with the possibility of one day running into the film again.
- Night Is Short, Walk on Girl (dir. Yuasa Masaaki, Japan) – Watched at The Metrograph (Full Review Here)
The first non-avant garde movie I can talk about here and it’s still kind of arthouse in the sense of being a foreign-language film. Except it’s also anime by possibly the greatest working anime director around, Yuasa Masaaki (on his SECOND release of 2018, after the almost as incredible children’s film Lu Over the Wall) and it radically demolishes limits – physical and aesthetic – that a cartoon can possibly go for. Brilliant bright colors (sometimes without even outlines for the shapes within like in the flashback sequences) and wobbly outrageous Avery-style line physics in the name of giving a visual anchor for anxieties and nervousness that only somebody right at the cusp of the rest of their life could feel.
It is, for this, a song of youth and romance and how messy it is when the two collide, but what a brilliant mess it is in a night – despite the very title of the movie – that appears to be neverending and sprawling with happenings in the perimeter of Kyodan. Drinking matches on giant boats, dances across town in totally uninhibited prostrations, spicy food endurance contests, book fairs silently derailed by imps, various celebrations or sober observances for different occasions, with essentially two central climaxes in the form of explosive guerilla musicals pursued by cops and an all-consuming wellness-related twister (mirroring an internal storm of advocates and cowboys). All of this whiplashed through by Science Saru’s flexible animation and Makoto Ueda and Morimi Tomohiko’s piling incident and centered on two unnamed characters that couldn’t be more different and yet I wholly found a piece of myself in: the senior character’s aimless frustratingly incident-prone and anxiety driven chase in a mix of terrified romanticism for the junior character and the junior character’s interminable adventure-ready openness that leaves absolutely nobody able to actually keep up with her. If that makes any sense for me to relate to both of these stock ciphers.
In either case, it’s a movie that reminded me I’m not nearly as old as I feel (a ridiculous statement for a 26 year old but I also lived a life that was certain to end before 25). It was easily the most refreshing and revitalizing movie experience I had this year and it came about exactly at a moment where I was lacking direction and especially lacking momentum and I still felt energized wholly. It’s exactly the sort of movie where one walks out of the theater feeling the world is their oyster. I walked out of those theater doors and looked at the stars and couldn’t tell them any differently from the streetlights of Manhattan’s Chinatown.
- Mission: Impossible – Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie, USA) – Watched at AMC Sunset Place 24, Regal Kendall Village 16, Landmark Theatres at Merrick Park, and AMC Lincoln Square IMAX 13 (with some brief glances on the airplane screen on American Airlines Flight 1368).
I am a simple man. I just really am excited by the idea that Tom Cruise might one day die just to entertain me.
Nah, but contrary to what y’all would think, I’m not going to popcorn movies to be stimulated intellectually and sometimes not even emotionally. I’m just there for the spectacle and I particularly enjoy it most when the entirety of the movie is only devoted to facilitating that spectacle. And it is of the highest order when a spectacle action film leaves me feeling like I was physically propelled and I need to take a good breath because of how overwhelming the impressive feats were.
If Mission: Impossible – Fallout is not the best action movie of the decade – and I think Mad Max: Fury Road takes that title as a much more ambitious and thrilling experience (although we must give it up to a very good decade of action: the John Wick movies, the Raid movies, Atomic Blonde, the previous two Mission: Impossibles, Incredibles 2, Snowpiercer, Edge of Tomorrow, and the Planet of the Apes prequels) – it certainly has the best action setpieces of the decade, devoted to utilizing the sparsest spy thriller screenplay to facilitate heartstopping stuntwork like a vertigo-inducing HALO dive, and complex multi-tiered chases and fight sequences that create symphonies of impact and urgency like a motorcycle racing from the police that occurs at the same time as an underwater prisoner extraction later transforming into a car evading the targets of an assassin, as though all in the same breath. I’m telling you, there’s not a single action scene here that doesn’t at least compete as the best of whatever category it falls under.
But the concept of watching this be willed by returning-to-make-a-fucking-statement director Christopher McQuarrie and his crew is not precisely what brings this to masterpiece level, but the dedication Tom Cruise has to actually perpetuating these eyepopping stunts that beg the hesitance of any sane man and how McQuarrie’s team meet Cruise at his batshit level. As opposed to something like The Revenant where the verisimilitude is mostly just to posture, Mission: Impossible – Fallout actually forces the audience in a one-of-a-kind form of experiential action cinema – the camera places you right there with Cruise falling over the skies of Paris with alarming velocity so that the camera operator can barely keep focus racked, speeding around the Arc du Triumph with blurs of cars zipping between you and Cruise, and just letting you wince as a bystander while a fistfight demolishes a pristine white bathroom into rubble. It’s ambition is beyond the scale of its action but the placement of the viewer in that scale.
Top that off with the tongue-in-cheek disregard of any “dark” gravitas which that premise continually teases (including its hilarious rug pull of a twist opening), something I grievously underrated on my first watch of the film, that ties extremely with the brisk spy thriller stringing it all along and the unexpected theme of putting oneself in the front to mitigate any sacrifice… and frankly that leaves a film that lands all these goliath production values with such a winking smile that I am stunned that the already generous praise hasn’t already canonized Mission: Impossible – Fallout as a new height for summer popcorn movies.
- PROTOTYPE (dir. Blake Williams, Canada) – Watched at the Museum of the Moving Image and Cornell Cinema.
I have no real knowledge of Texas itself, having only visited the state twice brief times in my life. And I’m obviously aware that while Blake Williams is very open to any readings a person might receive out of his 3-D avant-garde feature debut PROTOTYPE, he also insists on it being a film “without context”. But I’ve got to say it feels like a distinctly Texan sort of picture, which is wonderful to me. A movie that it’s easy to claim owes part of itself to (maybe) David Lynch and (definitely) Godard’s Goodbye to Language ideally needs something to distinguish it from such iconic company and its alt-space-age approach to the history of a city that no longer exists in hopes of a parallel future lost to a force of nature seems about right, in its embrace of cowboy imagery and Western-era photography.
Except I think it still didn’t even need that to distinguish itself, just as a thought process for the actual goods this movie delivers on. Williams has been open about the influence Goodbye to Language has on PROTOTYPE, but he’s also been working on 3D long before that movie’s premiere and his experience with the medium shows from frame one where he gives us a complete forest image but with subtle differences that connect into one image on each eye to alert us to how he’s going to play with our brain’s attempt to adjust receiving two slightly different signals and the sort of physical challenge that brings to registering what we’re seeing. Sometimes it’s through that method, sometimes it’s through the usage of alternating white and black on one surface so that we’re subconsciously assaulted by two very different visual tones fighting for dominance. Sometimes, it’s just by warping what we’re exploring so that it can practically engulf us, like the waterfall early in the feature.
In addition to that, this is the first time in a long while where the 3-dimensional nature of the film makes the image so textured as though I feel like I’m touching it without lifting my hand at all. The very grains of the photographs we’re examining (an area where Williams plays with our perception again by having the grains in individual lens), the depth of shadows in empty rooms, the glassy smoothness of tube televisions amplified by the light emitting from them so there’s a bent glow and the static feels like it’s breaking out. All of this giving a physicality to what I’m watching that is impossible to ignore, pressing the boundaries of the frame and of the medium of 3D and if I still happen to prefer Goodbye to Language (for playing with the sound more, for having quite the twisty premise and destructive tendencies to 3D, and because I am very much a fan of fart jokes, y’all), Williams still makes Godard look like a lazy old fart (pun unintended) by exploring sides of this medium Godard probably never even thought to check.
And again, this is without Williams even trying, y’all.
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, & Rodney Rothman, USA) – Watched at Regal Kendall Village 16, AMC Classic Savannah 11, AMC Sunset Place 24, and Harkins Theatres Arizona Mills 25.
Notorious amongst my friends as the movie of 2018 that I have seen the most times in theaters – a whopping six, which I’m pretty sure is also the most I’ve seen a movie on its initial run ever in my life – but can you possibly blame me? I wish I had the opportunity to just watch this once with the eyes of a child, because I know it will inspire so many the way that the Raimi film inspired me when I was 9. And in all honesty, I think the kids who see this got the better movie.
It takes an inspirational character that I have loved since childhood like so many others had and presents a thesis on the malleability of both Spider-Man and the familiarity of the superhero template, an unsubtle but exciting one nevertheless: YOU can be Spider-Man. You can be a hero. No matter who you are, any race, any gender, anybody. And it delivers this message to your child’s heart in the most powerful way a movie can, in its visuals from repeated images going from failure to payoff and an energetic indulgence in variety.
The potential whiplash of its animation styles is something threatened towards us from the very opening logos, which refuse to sit still for more than a second and transform into different shapes and colors, and it’s a threat made good on by the versatility with which we see an at-first already impressive if straight-forward CG adaptation of cel principles that eagerly engage with the visual storytelling tools of a comic book – speech bubbles, multiple frames in one shot, speed lines, etc. – into a variety of shadow play, line thickness, frame rates, color palettes, and fluorescence based on which character is on-screen.
All of this to inform the story of young Miles Morales, finding himself imbued with this sense of responsibility and given a surprising amount of patience and nuance in his arc towards becoming the new friendly neighborhood webslinger, with an endearing mix between humor and heart animating his journey and propelled by constant repetitions in shot scales and character stances to double down on the growth of his heroic abilities and the realization of his true potential. At the end of it all, it wants you to understand the things Miles understands: that is no one way to do those things, that there is strength in your individuality, that it does not isolate you as a person and you’re not alone, that it takes time to be the best version of you and there’s no rush, and most of all, that you better put on that cape and fly.
I never even got to credit the chemistry between directors Bob Persichetti (the “Poet” according to producer Phil Lord), Peter Ramsey (the “action” guy), and Rodney Rothman (the “comedy” guy) because goddamn do they make it look way too easy. The strands between its workings as dynamic animation miracle and funny and endearing character study are practically invisible.
Back in high school, I was best friends with the only person I’ve known to be more obsessed with Spider-Man than yours truly (and even that was nothing compared to his obsession with Superman). He left this world before Miles, Spider-Gwen, and Noir were even in the comics but I like to imagine him being no less dazzled and slingshot into the air by the buoyancy of this motion picture, taking advantage of the limitless ness of animation and the rigors of comic books to supply perfect weightless popcorn movie alchemy. And if Night Is Short, Walk on Girl made me feel like the world was open and ready before me to explore, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse made me feel like the world was spinning beneath me as I float in the air and six viewings still haven’t been enough to bring me the fuck down.
- Zama (dir. Lucrecia Martel, Argentina) – Watched at Miami Beach Cinematheque.
Probably the movie here I am the least emotionally tied to, but also one of the ones I am most impressed by.
Martel was obviously not biding her time for 9 years since The Headless Woman but struggling to get a project to stick (God, she almost made a Marvel Cinematic Universe film… what bloodsuckers!). But when she finally came back to the conversation, she made sure it was with a bang. One of the most handily literate films I’ve seen coming from one of the most literate filmmakers I can think of working today, it’s hard to pick out what’s most appealing about Zama.
It might be the way that Daniel Gimenez Cacho gives a very sorry and sad presence to the otherwise completely buffonish as the titular bureaucrat trapped in a Kafka nightmare by his own odiousness, with a bored straight face to his ordeals rivaling that of Buster Keaton. It might be how Martel marshalls all the forces of cinematic sound to turn the colonized environment – with its stuffings of so many out of places animals, eventually forcing their way into the very offices of power – into a loud makeshift laugh track for the character’s sufferings. It might be the brilliant surprise of the third act’s narrative collapse mirroring the psychological and social collapse of its putupon center, giving us the only post-Aguirre film to actually expound upon that earlier masterpiece’s observations on colonialism’s lack of any center, physical or abstract.
In any case, it is a movie that appeals gleefully to my absurdist side with a modern sense of humor most costume dramas can’t entirely get a grasp on (I’d argue that the same year’s The Favourite might have a better utilization of that modernity but Zama is just so much more focused and put together) and weaponizes it against a history of imperialism with a radical savagery that informs its very ragged and unpolished set and costume design, its narrative thrust, and its obnoxiously unbalanced audio ambience in a manner that could turn any man mad and yet all our Zama has to respond to it with is a tired look at his own doom.
- The Green Fog (dir. Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, & Galen Johnson, USA) – Watched through wholly illicit means due to its status as a barely released film that probably will not see home media in USA anytime soon.
Ah, yes, the “illegally” made movie that’s pretty much one long editing in-joke. In a year of shockingly funny movies, I think this might have been the one that had me bellowing like an idiot in my own bedroom.
It also taught me a lot about the power of the cut through the very same ways it tickled my funny bone.
Guy Maddin is always finding some new way to approach movies as an ephemeral spirit that can be bent into entirely different personalities. Ways that always make me leave the movie thinking “it never crossed my mind that movies could bend that way”. The concept “Vertigo as reconstructed by clips from San Francisco-set movies and tv shows” is probably novel enough to have been thought of several other people in the world, but Maddin just uses that premise as the launching pad of examining and inviting the audience to examine how we expect dialogue to fill in frustrating moments, what imposed silence brings to certain scenarios, how our brains will connect images with our own projected context, and so many more surprises.
And I know I already stated that Lurf’s film was a fun game of “catch that movie”, but The Green Fog is almost just as fun because sometimes just wondering “wait, what’s [insert name here] doing here?” and realizing that Maddin is using the project to completely utilize certain actors and performers in a manner much stronger than any of them had ever been used before just gets me right back to finding this the most fun you could make out a movie that functions as its own bit of film analysis.
And of course, as per its original intentions as a commission of the San Francisco Film Festival, it is a wonderful capsule of the age and change of the city itself, inadvertently capturing its different states by the unpresuming selection of the clips Maddin and company use. It brings out a lot of character and history in an incidental manner. It did a ridiculous job of making me really admire a city I had – at the time – never been to (I finally got a chance to visit the Bay Area for the first time in February).
- Mandy (dir. Panos Cosmatos, Canada/USA) – Watched at United Artists Kaufman Astoria 14, IFC Center, and Syndicated Bar Theatre. (Full Review Here)
I have wholly exhausted all possible words spared for this movie. I am out of the ways that I can describe how overwhelming it is as a sensory experience, how relentlessly aggressive it feels, how absolutely fucking cool its stylized look is, how hilariously ridiculous and badass it feels at the same time.
I guess the only thing I can feel like I would say without repeating myself is that Panos Cosmatos – a filmmaker I’ve never met and highly doubt I will ever meet and who has only made two movies at this point in his life – fucking gets me.
He just gets me. He gets the exact aesthetic that I always wanted to bring out of movies or come out of movies experiencing… binaries of soft progression in music and bleeding vibrations shuddering its way between low tuned guitars, strong colors that engulf the entire sequence and nearly erase any sense of line or dimension, the action-packed setpieces of loud metallic melee against monstrous beings, meditative sequences of nature. The sort of philosophies I live by – a desire for solitude as if it’s the only place I can find peace, somewhere to forget, seeking the extremes of experiential aesthetic until it becomes a physical thing, rejection of religion in a pointed manner.
Most of all, he gets how I process grief, something that nobody approaches the same way (and look at the same year’s Hereditary for something different). He gets how easy anger is as an emotional kneejerk than anything else, especially if the only other possibility is devastating sadness. And how when somebody you hold dear is no longer in the world, the world (or at least how you see it) is going to transform in a harsh and aggressive manner. And he gets how you’re sometimes going to be seeing that person wherever you go and it’s going to drive you in places you don’t want to go.
It just speaks to me. In 25 years, I can easily this becoming my new favorite movie. For now, I’m restrained in my adoration but not too restrained to consider the best movie made in 2018.
Released in 2018 is another story…
- The Other Side of the Wind (dir. Orson Welles, USA/Iran/France) – Watched at Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Lincoln Center (for the New York Film Festival), at home via Netflix, and at the B.C. Cinema (name retracted deliberately).
Movies are fucking hard. They’re hard to make, they’re hard to write, they’re hard to write about, they’re hard for the maker to figure out, they’re hard for the audience to figure out. Honestly, if my burnt out writing schedule (and I’m not going to threaten the end of Motorbreath here but… don’t be surprised if I don’t come back) and tone is indicating anything, they’re getting harder and harder for me to watch (I have to automatically try to intellectualize everything and it is getting exhausting on my part).
Orson Welles does not need to be notified of this, having failed to complete many a hopeful production in his lifetime, including this one. That Netflix happened to foot the bill for the completion of The Other Side of the Wind does not change how frustrated it is with itself and a refusal to actually feel complete. Which is frankly fortunate because they happened to pick the exact movie where the movie’s lack of completion is kind of embedded in its own text. Insisted as not an autobiographical film, but still ostensibly including many of Welles’ condemnations of every possible facet of the filmmaking and filmwatching processes, with Bob Murawski continuing his unfinished post-production to maintain a sort of fracture presentation of a disastrously overmasculine birthday party for a sloppily overmasculine bully of a filmmaker (played by the perfectly cast John Huston), interspersing different shadows on the same old weary faces of Old Cinema while occasionally interrupting the party to showcase a movie-in-a-movie that is so deliberately oblique and pretentious it’s tough to imagine even Welles and his partner Oja Kodar knew entirely what he was aiming for it (besides “fuck Antonioni”).
But the fact that it aligns so well with my current mental state as a filmgoer is hardly the reason I consider it my favorite film of the best year for cinema I’ve lived through. No, I credit it to two things: first, its sense of humor is still full of wit (as one should expect from one of cinema’s greatest raconteurs) and amicable overall to me that it’s still fun to watch while maintaining its teeth and mean spirit.
And the other one is that this is literally a monument in its existence to how far cinema and cinema preservation has evolved. This is the equivalent of raising the Titanic where a movie that was all but certain to never exist (from my all-time favorite filmmaker) finally got willed into being by the collective efforts of certain men (Filip Jan Ryczma and Frank Marshall particularly should be noted for this most, Marshall having been producer since the movie actually was in production) despite what it must have taken from them.
Love the movie (which I obviously do) or hate it, I can’t see how you don’t consider that the crown achievement of cinema in 2018, if not the decade. And I hope the medium can somehow surpass this height in the years to come.