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Monday
Dec312018

2018 Film Top 10s

2018 was the year Karolyn and I ate lamb chops with red Bourdeaux at Moishe's: Leonard Cohen's favorite meal, at his favorite restaurant, on what was the second of our pilgrimages in Leonard's footsteps to Montreal. It was the year we explored Prague and Budapest, an experience that, like all our trips to Europe, had its spiritual, aesthetic, and epicurean revelations. We took in the thermal baths in Budapest. Exploring the Jewish Quarter museums in Prague, at a time when the right is on the rise around the world, was inspiring and troubling. We quaffed brews at medieval pubs, and absinthe in the cozy, dark confines of the Hemingway Club. I still recall a wonderful little plate of fried cheese with cranberry sauce on a cold day outside Prague Castle.
 
On our annual Southern road trip, we stayed at a plantation in Greenville, Mississippi, the "Athens of the Delta"—lots of great writers from Greenville. I read Absalom, Absalom! while sitting on the back porch—seemed like the right place for it. I could imagine the ghosts of the Civil War and slavery howling down the Delta. We climbed atop the Mississippi River Levee, thinking of the Great Flood of '27. In Holly Ridge, we made a pilgrimage to Charley Patton's grave. We drove out to Stovall Plantation outside of Clarksdale, where Muddy Waters—my original favorite bluesman—grew up, drove a tractor, and first heard Son House. In Memphis, we ate a lot of barbecue and had a thrilling encounter with the haunted jukebox at Ernestine & Hazel's (therein lies a tale for another day). 
 
In New Orleans, we danced in the streets in a second line parade. We tucked in along with locals at the community crawfish boil at "R" Bar, and, on the other side of the coin, somehow found ourselves ensconced in the Ernest Hemingway Suite at the Hotel Monteleone, a deluxe suite in the sky with French doors opening onto the rooftop pool. There was a famly reunion in Lake Placid, as well.
 
In between all that, I squeezed in time for some movies. I still love them, and I guess I always will.
 
Last year, I said the defining event of the Trump presidency was the Nazi rally in Charlottesville; Spike Lee's funny, incendiary Black KkKlansman, while it didn't quite make my Top 10, was the 2018 film that pitched us headlong into that waking nightmare. 
  
This year, the Trump presidency was defined by locking refugee children in cagesteargassing migrant women and children, and a border policy that lets children die under its auspices. We'll need filmmakers in 2019 to make art causing empathy for those Trump dehumanizes, and keeping these injustices fresh.
 
Despite it all, I remain hopelessly optimistic. I console myself this way. If we really were so repulsively right-wing, then why wasn't Trump allowed to do whatever he wished with immigrant children, unimpeded? No. Decent Americans stood up and said "no." I believe the American people can still recognize injustice when they see it.
  
2019 will bring fresh obscenities and a torrent of new injustices. We can meet them, and stop them.
 
I'm also an optimist because 2018 remained a really good year for film art. Just like every other year. That doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon.
 
Truth to tell, if it had enjoyed any theatrical exhibition, Netflix's Springsteen on Broadway would be my favorite film of the year by a wide, wide margin. At one point, Bruce talks about the people in his hometown, and how they were "doing the best they could to hold off the demons, outside and inside, that sought to destroy them." 
  
Now, I re-watched dozens of Ingmar Bergman films this year, getting reacquainted with my original favorite director on the occasion of his centennial year. When Bruce said that, it hit me: that's the very thing Bergman's work was about, as well. Maybe that's what the best art is always about. 
  
Here are a few that held off the demons this year.
  
10 Features I Especially Admired This Year
 
10. At Eternity's Gate by Julian Schnabel
Beautiful and passionate take on the Van Gogh story.
 
9. The Great Buddha + by Huang Hsin-yao
Pickle (Cres Chuang I-tseng) and Belly Button (Bamboo Chen Chu-sheng) were my favorite buddies of the year. To read my writeup, head here and scroll down.
 
8. Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley
30 years ago, one of my film teachers summed up what he's always looking for when he goes into a movie thusly: "something I've never seen before." Every year, a few films remind me of his maxim. In 2018, this was one of them. 
 
7. Ash is Purest White by Jia Zhangke
Zhao Tao gave one of my favorite performances of the year in the latest from a master. I wrote just a little something about it here—scroll down.
 
6. Private Life by Tamara Jenkins
Every note rings true in this moving comedy with Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a couple holding on to faith and hope while being too old for illusions. It's the second movie of the year where a main characterhere Giamatti's Richardis explicitly 47, same age as me. (The other being Ethan Hawke's Reverend Toller in First Reformed.) 
  
5. Roma by Alfonso Cuarón 
A quite beautiful Mexican/American co-production, with some shots reminding me of a popularized Lav Diaz. There's a lot of Fellini, and a sprinkle of The Rules of the Game. It took for its heroine a nanny, played with dignity by Yalitza Aparicio, and had her personal story intersect with the violent right-wing clampdown on restive students of 1971. 
 
4. First Reformed by Paul Schrader
I saw this picture about a reverend doubting his faith hot off of revisiting Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, so its homage was thrown into particularly enjoyable relief for me. It's a virtual remake, at least for a while. In Winter Light, it was the specter of communism that inspired the angst of human extinction; in First Reformed, it's environmental catastrophe. As played by Ethan Hawke, Reverend Toller's decisive action is distinctly Schrader-esque: he allows himself to ponder the abyss of violent nihilism. I dipped back into my notes from Schrader's Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, a book I'd studied. "To the transcending mind," writes Schrader, "man and nature may be perpetually locked in conflict, but they are paradoxically one and the same...In effect, he accepts a construct such as this: there exists a deep ground of compassion and awareness which man and nature can touch intermittently. This, of course, is the Transcendent." 
  
3. Burning by Lee Chang-dong
This sparked the best post-film discussion of the year between Karolyn and me. She was sure of guilt; I was sure of innocence. Finally, I had to realize I wasn't sure of anythingsurely the effect Lee Chang-dong hoped to achieve. What's truth and what's fabrication, or even dream? Much of 2018 had that strange feel to it. It was Karolyn, my English teacher sweetheart, who pointed out to me there's a William Faulkner story called "Barn Burning." So that's why all the Faulkner references.   
  
2. In the Last Days of the City by Tamer El Said
Often stunningly beautiful river of film about a filmmaker struggling to finish his film and his friends in Mubarak's Cairo on the verge of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. It could put you in mind of Gutiérrez Alea's Memories of Underdevlopment in terms of its portrait of an unalligned intellectual, drifting through a third-world city and staying out of the fray of zealots of whatever stripe. Or of Wexler's Medium Cool for the way its actors interact with real-life tumult, and for its ponderings of the ethics of an artist's detached observation. It's full of the sadness and joy of Cairo life. "Poetry is everywhere, waiting to be written." 

1. Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Hits my sweet spotthe ideal mix of cinematic elan and heart. Sakura Andô gave a droll and heartbreaking performances as a sly, unsentimental, loving surrogate mom. In fact, hers was probably my favorite performance of the year.
 
10 Documentaries I Especially Admired This Year
 
10. Free Solo by Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
9. Shirkers by Sandi Tan
8. United Skates by Tina Brown & Dyana Winkler. To see my writeup on this film about the African-American subculture of roller skate dancing, scroll down to  the "54th Chicago International Film Festival" section.
7. Searching for Ingmar Bergman by Margarethe Von Trotta. A very personal, honest tribute to my favorite director,the alpha and the omega as far as I'm concernedby the celebrated auteur of Marianne & Juliane (aka The German Sisters).
6. Three Identical Strangers by Tim Wardle
5. Minding the Gap by Bing Liu
Three friends growing up in dead-end Rockford, Illinois, where cycles of abuse, like cages, get handed down the line. The protagonists don't have to day it, because the skateboarding footage says it for them: when I'm skating, I feel free. One young man, Bing Liu, the director of this film, gets out, precisely because he's able to transmute the pain into works of art. Like this one. Bonus points for using the Mountain Goats' This Year. That one's gotten me through a few times.
4. Miss Kiet's Children by Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch 
A primary school teacher in the south of Holland, and the Syrian refugee children she attempts to welcome into her classroom. To see my writeup, please scroll down to  the "European Union Film Festival" section.   

3. Won't You Be My Neighbor? by Morgan Neville

To read what I said about Mr. Rogers and this documentary, please go to Cine-File and scroll way, way down to "Also Recommended."

2. That Summer by Göran Hugo Olsson
A last dance with Little Edie and Big Edie Bouvier Beale. To see my writeup, please go here and scroll down under "Also Recommended."
1. The King by Eugene Jarecki 
An Elvis Presley film, but also the year's best essay on the degradation of the American dream in the Trump era. Presley was "a new kind of man," as Bruce Springsteen put it in Springsteen on Broadway, sending a message of "a freer existence exploding into unsuspecting homes across America," daring you to "risk being your true self." Sprawling, contradictory, like the country. To read my writeup, head here and scroll down.

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