Filmed in inky black and white, Yen Tan’s micro-indie 1985 details the wavering emotions of young Adrian (a sterling Cory Michael Smith) returning home to his Texas family from New York during the holidays. If the movies have taught us anything, Christmas reunions rarely yield better results than familial discord and terrorists taking over Nakatomi Plaza. In this version of a personal holiday apocalypse, Smith portrays a homosexual man, gravely struggling with coming out to his Bible-thumping father (Michael Chiklis) and subservient mother (Virginia Madsen) about his lifestyle.
Couple that decision with the medical epidemic and uncertain furor brewing in America over the AIDS crisis and 1985 becomes a film about a specific place and time that widens into a crushing exploration of identity, acceptance and shifting relationships. It’s a film both immensely sad and heroically delicate, especially when Adrian reconnects with an old girlfriend (Jamie Chung). Tan handles the nuanced emotions masterfully, combining carefully staged long takes with earnest dialogue that never disrespects its characters. And the fact it ends on an especially happy moment in Adrian’s life only compounds the sadness that’s spilled out before.
14. Support the Girls
Andrew Bujalski’s comedy about women working in a Texas sports bar/restaurant sounds inanely tacky. In fact, it’s one of the most humane comedy in years, akin to the light touch of Jean Renoir focused on a milieu of certain people dealing with the trivialities of their everyday.
Starring Regina Hall, Hayley Lu Richardson and newcomer Shayna MacHale, Support the Girls features nary a bit of the mawkish ‘mumblecore’ attributes usually radiated by a Bujalski film. In fact, he saddles none of his characters with anything less than sharp characterizations, sharp humility and a sharp sense of humor … no matter how bad their singular day gets.
13. Madeline’s Madeline
The opening shot of Josephine’s Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a weird one. A young girl (Helena Howard) is pretending (?) to be a cat, spouting lines that obviously could only exist within the mind of an overachieving theater playwright. It serves as a shaky, disorienting introduction to a film (and a young female character) that only goes deeper and stranger from there as the lines of reality, play-acting and dominance shuttle back and forth between an experimental teacher, a young girl and her domineering mother.
One of the last films I saw on a particularly long day of movie-watching, I went into it lethargic and emerged frazzled and invigorated for the way Decker re-appropriated everything from narrative form to character development into one free floating experimentation. It’s a trying, manic and overstuffed film that consistently confronts and challenges the viewer on what it is and where it’s headed. We need more like this. Now.
12. The King
Documentarian Eugene Jareki is someone who questions and studies the underbelly of our society through global politics (The Trials of Henry Kissinger, 2002, and Why We Fight, 2005) to the state of our country eroded by our best intentions (The House I Live In, 2012). With his latest effort, The King, he smashes both of those ideals together with a grandiose swing. Taking a variety of famous authors, musicians and just regular folk cross country in Elvis Presley’s coveted 1963 Rolls Royce, following in the master’s footsteps from Mississippi to Las Vegas, the film becomes a progressive rolling roadshow of the halls/faces of America.
Jareki has much more on his mind than ‘celebrity-icon-mythmaking’ enshrinement, however. Hearing Ethan Hawke tell stories about Colonel Tom Parker’s iron fist control of Elvis or seeing John Hiatt become emotional in the backseat because he can feel how “trapped” Elvis must have felt are powerful moments, but Jarecki makes sure to overshadow these louder tales by focusing on the anonymous and common faces of the people he picks up hitchhiking or those who simply wonder aloud why our country has left them so far behind. It’s an amazing feat that cements Jareki’s status as one of the best of the outlaw documentarians, like Bill Morrison, Travis Wilkerson and Adam Curtis.
Directed by Steve McQueen from a script by mystery novelist Gillian Flynn, Widows is a precise crime film that understands the pulsing heart beneath its genre sheen. With a narrative that sounds like something out of a 1970’s ‘poliziotteschi’ twister, the idea of a group of women taking over their husband’s next heist not only reeks of those Italian exploitation efforts, but plants itself firmly within the current movement of gender reassessment.
And even both of those analogies feels weak. McQueen has immersed his crime drama with so much overlap: Political corruption. Community gamesmanship. Role reversals. It all blends together beautifully, creating a film that hits on all cylinders with its exact aesthetics, especially one shot that at first feel extraneous, then reveals itself to be a sly commentary on the razor thin divide between the ‘haves’ and the have nots,’ and an uncanny knack for editing.
10. First Man
What was Hollywood golden boy Damien Chazelle to do after scoring massive critical and popular hits with Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016)? Make an astronaut movie that defies both of those previous efforts in mood, tone and look, of course. Restrained and prone to almost a mechanical presentation of NASA’s Apollo moon mission, that doesn’t make First Man bad. In fact, I found Ryan Gosling’s interior portrayal of Neil Armstrong as some of the best work of his career.
It’s a film that eschews outward emotion because it dutifully represents the subdued personalities of a group of people struggling to make sense of the scientific advancements they’re risking their life for. And when the film does get personal- especially with Armstrong’s walk on the moon and one brilliantly composed scene of enormous tragedy — First Man — hit me like a ton of bricks.
9. Les enfants du 209, rue Saint-Maur, Paris Xe
Cinema lost an extreme talent in 2018 when filmmaker Claude Lanzmann passed away in July. I would hope he got the chance to see Ruth Zylberman’s documentary, Les enfants du 209, as it feels like a companion piece to Lanzmann’s exhaustive excavations of people, faces and events of the Holocaust. As a piece of anthropological essay, Zylberman’s documentary, which traces the history of a few families at this address during the Holocuast, is immensely moving, breathtakingly humane and tirelessly essential.
While other filmmakers have tackled the same subject at various lengths, Zylberman’s 100-minute documentary captures the power of memory and shared experience of a very dark time in history quite unlike any other. Its faces will linger in your mind long afterwards. The stories they tell will harden into your soul. And although their history is full of despair, Zylberman chooses to end on a family reunion of sorts, and the image of ten and eleven year children walking at the edges of the survivors only strengthens the idea that no matter how determined we are as a race to wipe each other out, the future is unstoppable.
8. Assassination Nation
Like a lurid pop-dream, Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation is a visually bold and simmering assault on everything from gender equality to the sometimes toxic nature of social media. Appropriating ages-old literature from the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and our nation’s own descent into supernatural madness with the Salem witch trials (a town which the film aptly mimics), writer and director Levinson has crafted a jaw-dropping tale that takes place in the very current “now” when four teenage girls (played to perfection by Odessa Turner, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef and Abra) become targets, and subsequently are forced to become justice swinging vigilantes, after a computer hacker exposes the town’s deep, dark personal secrets.
Aided by some of the year’s finest cinematography, courtesy of Hungarian Marcell Rev, and a thumping score by Ian Hutlquist, Assassination Nation ascends to wondrous heights in commentary and visual pastiche, masterfully stealing the whimpers that similarly themed films like the egregious Purge series aspire towards. Hopefully, this film will catch onto some sort of zeitgeist on home video, as it came and went in theaters faster than most. I loved every second of it.
Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev is a director. Even when it appears there’s not much going on within his films, rest assured, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. The way his camera lingers over a large plate glass window overlooking a snowy field in between condo housing or the frontal shot of a woman’s distant stare as she runs in place on a treadmill lend his films an authority of presence that’s continually striking. They ask of the viewer much more than passive interest.
Following up 2015’s trenchant Leviathan — a film that angrily dissected the bureaucracy of simply fighting for one’s property — Zvyagintsev drops Loveless. Essentially about the loss of a child and the incrementally studious search for him, it’s also a film about the real casualties of a, well, loveless marriage. And in the hands of Zvyagintsev, Loveless becomes just as trenchant an observation about both of these events as any we’ve seen before.
Any true film lover remembers their angst-ridden, teenage experimentation with making their own film. I almost want to forget my very black and white John Cassavetes-like attempt, featuring two friends and an unbroken 20 minute dialogue scene as they played pool … and didn’t sink a single ball. It had its charming moments, too, I suppose. Sandi Tan’s Shirkers is just as painfully awkward a documentation of this experimentation as any, but her story is tinged with the miraculous as well. She and her teenage friends did make a film. Then lost it due to mania and naivete. And then she found it again, albeit in an altered format.
Also titled Shirkers, Tan builds her current documentary around this episode in her young life when she and her friends wrote, directed and financed a film that many regard as something that could have shifted Malaysian independent film for its freewheeling attitude and punk rock aesthetic. Tan uses excerpts from her ‘lost’ film to study the dynamics of her life (especially with older man and mentor Georges Cardona) and her relationship with film history. Part self essay and part investigative journalism, Shirkers is a completely enveloping experience. It’s a shame we won’t ever see her fully embodied film, but perhaps she’s assembled the next greatest thing, which is something couched between reality and the rose-tainted memories of those involved like a faded fairy tale, complete with cinematic heroes and villains.
5. Happy As Lazzaro
Recently, filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher revealed her ten favorite films of all time. It’s no surprise she loves Ermanno Olmi and Luis Bunuel. Her latest film, Happy As Lazzaro, conjures the best of them both, including the breathless mid-century antiquity of Olmi and the slightly absurd parable building of Bunuel. Not content to simply imitate those masters however, Happy As Lazzaro only echoes their influence while establishing her own magisterial voice.
Essentially a film of two halves, it follows a pensive young sharecropper named Lazzaro (a wonderfully cast Adriano Tardilio) and the relationship he forms with the local landowners. Something tragic happens, shifting the second half of the film into an utterly beguiling examination of how time is both uninterrupted and erosive. It’s a film of subtle beauty, whose images and tone continually took my breath away. I dare anyone not to be transfixed by the moment when organ music ethereally follows young Lazzaro into the street and becomes a chorus from the heavens.
4. You Were Never Really Here
Constructed from hard edits of cacophonous city noise, long stretches of tortured silence and a nerve jangling score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is essentially a straight-to-video revenge flick shattered into a million little avant garde pieces and then reassembled with the intention of leaving most of the important stuff out. I know that doesn’t sound like high praise, but it’s a bold and confrontational film that deftly applies Joaquin Phoenix’s sinewy personality into a character study of a man trying to locate a missing child, and in the process repair some damaged parts of his psyche as well.
Watching the film can be stomach-churning at times, not because of the harsh violence that seems to explode from the corners of the screen, but because it’s such an odd beast of images and sounds that makes the viewer feel just as uncomfortable in their skin as Phoenix’s determined vigilante.
Considered sacrilege when director Luca Guadagnino announced plans to remake Dario Argento’s goth-horror classic Suspiria, the results were miraculously undisastrous, managing to foster the original film’s eerie 70s ambiance while creating something wholly different in the process. While the narrative beats — a young American dancer (Dakota Johnson) arrives in Europe to learn in a highly regarded studio that’s also the home to witches — follow the same throughline as Argento’s original, Guadagnino stuffs his version with so much to digest that the horror elements are subdued in favor of a provocative essay about the meaning of identity and repressed guilt.
From its expertly sculptured mise-en-scene to the ruminations about the past and how both worlds (human and sorceress) reconcile their grief and guilt, this latest version is a visual and thematic knockout.
2. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda
Known to Western audiences mostly for his Oscar winning soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor(1987) and Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), Stephen Schible’s documentary on Japanese musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto is an exhilarating showcase of creativity, resilience and poignant confrontation of the unknown. However, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda isn’t content just to be a biography of the musician.
In fact, outside of a few snippets of his early career in which he was at the forefront of Japanese pop, electronic and experimental fusions in the late 70’s and early 80’s, there’s virtually no history lesson of the man. Instead, the film remains firmly planted in the here and now, choosing to observe and record how the 66-year-old veteran molds his creative impulses today. It’s a break from traditional documentaries, but one that yields startling results.
I’m just as surprised as anyone that a modest, low-fi neon noir, barely released and receiving even less buzz, stayed with me as long as it did. But that’s exactly what Aaron Katz’z Gemini has done.
Appropriating the genre into a completely fresh imagining, the film gets lost in a haze of somnambulist Los Angeles glow and carefully orchestrated paranoia as people go missing and others are forced to become junior private eyes, wading through traditional methods of investigation as well as the murky, dangerous wastelands of social media.
Starring a wide-eyed and pitch perfect Lola Kirke, Gemini is a firecracker of a film, confident and memorizing in the way it updates film noir and latches onto something altogether frightening about our modern culture and the need to disappear from its carnivorous nature.
The almost made its. Count these as #16-onward: Custody, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, How To Talk to Girls At Parties, The Favourite, Mandy, The Death of Stalin, Wildlife, Disobedience.