Sunday, December 30, 2018

My top 10 non-2018 movies of 2018

As always, one of my most satisfying projects of the year is this recap of my favorite movies from previous years that I saw for the first time this year.

1. Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone, 2017) If I'd seen this movie just a few months earlier, it would almost certainly have been at the top of my 2017 best-of list. Instead it was a low-priority catch-up that I got around to almost as an afterthought, only to find myself with tears running down my face as I watched this beautiful, sweet, endlessly empathetic coming-of-age story about women of two different generations both finding themselves as they find each other. When spunky, athletic teenager Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) moves in for the summer with her author/professor aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), it could be the recipe for a cliched story about relatives with nothing in common learning to relate to each other. And it sort of is that, but in the most natural, touching way, as niece and aunt build a lovely rapport despite occasional conflicts. Cyd explores her attraction to a local female barista, while Miranda luxuriates in her middle-aged singlehood. There isn't much plot, but there are so many rich, complex emotions that any more plot would have been too much. Pinnick and Spence are both fantastic, and should land a ton more roles if anyone ever sees them in this. I hope more people do.

2. The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979) I watched this movie as part of the prep for my David Magazine feature on movies with eco-friendly messages, and I didn't expect much more than a competent social-issue drama. So I was pretty blown away by the level of suspense and character development that goes along with the nuanced political and social commentary. Yes, this is a movie about the dangers of nuclear power plants, but it's also a movie about the decline of journalistic standards, about the unfair ways that women and older people are treated in the workplace, and about Jane Fonda being delightfully sassy. Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas are all excellent, and the movie lays out its case clearly without sensationalism and without ever forgetting to tell an engaging story with fully realized characters.

3. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017) This is another 2017 movie that I got to just a little too late to make it onto my 2017 top 10 list, and I procrastinated on seeing it in part so that I could watch it in a theater and in part because I'm often left cold by Anderson's films. But "cold" is exactly the right word to describe the tone of this story, which is calculating and methodical in its depiction of what turns out to be a lovingly kinky relationship between demanding fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and headstrong waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). It's a slow burn that is often dryly funny, with sharp performances from the leads (including Lesley Manville as Reynolds' protective sister) and, of course, gorgeous (if often ridiculous) costume design.

4. Show People (King Vidor, 1928) There are always lots of fascinating discoveries at the TCM Classic Film Festival, but what struck me most about this movie is how fully formed its Hollywood satire already was, 90 years ago. This silent comedy starring Marion Davies as a small-town girl who makes it big in the movies and loses touch with her roots is clever and lively and quite funny, with some fun slapstick and some entertaining performances, and it also features the movie business poking fun at itself via celebrity cameos and movies-within-the-movie, in much the same way a movie like this would do in 2018. The more things change, etc.

5. Season of the Witch (George Romero, 1972) When Romero passed away in 2017, not many obituaries mentioned this little-seen psychodrama about a bored suburban housewife who takes up witchcraft (but mostly in a non-horrific, buying-supplies-at-an-occult-store kind of way). It's not really a horror movie, although it eventually does involve murder (maybe), and it has a constant unsettling, off-kilter tone. Instead it's a knowing exploration of the frustrations of married women in the early 1970s, still expected to fulfill traditional roles even as the world is changing around them. The frequent fantasies and dream sequences give the movie a sense of disquieting unreality, and star Jan White brings a sly, sensual quality to her lead performance.

6. The Student Nurses (Stephanie Rothman, 1970) The Nevada Women's Film Festival presented a rare screening of this Roger Corman production in a tribute to unsung exploitation filmmaker Rothman, and the movie makes a strong case for her as an undervalued talent who brought a progressive, proto-feminist sensibility to her work. I was impressed with this movie's frank and even complex takes on radical activism, sexual liberation, drug use and abortion (that last one in a more honest way than most movies today, really), via its cheesy framework of a group of sexy (and occasionally topless) young nursing students living together. It's rough around the edges, of course, and the plot about one of the main nurses falling for a terminally ill teen is way too maudlin, but overall this is a hidden gem worthy of rediscovery.

7. Finishing School (George Nichols Jr. and Wanda Tuchock, 1934) Speaking of exploitation, this is essentially the 1930s version of a teen sex comedy, starring Frances Dee as a sheltered good girl who learns all about smoking, drinking and premarital sex (this is a pre-Code movie, thankfully) from her naughty roommate at an upscale girls' boarding school. Ginger Rogers is very entertaining as the exuberantly sinful roommate Pony, and the movie has a refreshing lack of moralizing. There's still a central love story ending in marriage, but characters are allowed to explore their vices without judgment or comeuppance, and the story is driven by the choices of the female characters, in a rare co-directorial effort for that era (or any other, really) from a woman.

8. People Places Things (Jim Strouse, 2015) The generic title and the mediocre reviews didn't give me high hopes for this indie dramedy, but it turned out to be a sweet and affecting romantic comedy that doesn't give in to cliches, and features warm, multilayered performances from Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall and Jessica Williams (around whom Strouse later built an entire romantic comedy, the equally lovely The Incredible Jessica James). The relationships are low-key and natural, and even though there's some silly comedy about the newly single Will (Clement) dealing with his cheating ex, the characters are all grounded and believably flawed. Strouse even makes some insightful observations about comic books as an art form via Will's job as a creator and professor of graphic novels.

9. Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) The term "gaslighting" has grown way beyond this movie and seems more prevalent than ever in 2018, but going back to its best-known inspiration is still an enlightening and entertaining experience. This movie is pure melodrama, with Charles Boyer hamming it up as the obviously sinister playboy Gregory, who's tricking his fragile wife Paula (Ingrid Bergman) into believing she's losing her mind. The suspense isn't in wondering whether Paula is crazy (she's clearly not), but in seeing how she will figure it out, and what revenge she'll take once she does. Boyer and Bergman play off each other masterfully, especially in their final confrontation, and the 19th-century London setting is just as seedy as any modern urban wasteland in any other film noir.

10. Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933) I previously expressed my fondness for pre-Code comedies about shameless gold diggers when I wrote about the Jean Harlow vehicle Red-Headed Woman last year, and Baby Face is the much more famous version of a similar story about a resourceful, clever young woman who deploys her sexuality to get ahead in the world. Barbara Stanwyck is just as wonderfully devious in the role as Harlow in Red-Headed Woman, although her Lily is a bit colder and more premeditated in what she does, with a more tragic back story. That makes this movie a little sobering at times, but it's still always on Lily's side against the hapless men she manipulates to get ahead, just using whatever advantages she can find in a system that is rigged against her.

Honorable mentions: Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg, 2015); Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994); Girls About Town (George Cukor, 1931); A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954)

Previous lists:

Friday, December 28, 2018

The best movies of 2018

I wrote a lot of things about a lot of movies in a lot of places this year, but I don't have an official outlet for my top 10 list, so it's ended up here. These are the movies I enjoyed most in 2018, along with some honorable mentions, some favorite performances, and (why not?) a few picks for the worst of the year, too.

1. Thoroughbreds The biting wit, both verbal and visual, on display in writer-director Cory Finley's debut feature is pretty astonishing, aided by fantastic lead performances from Anya Taylor-Joy (quickly becoming one of my favorite actors) and Olivia Cooke as two dysfunctional teenage girls plotting a murder. (Credit also to the late Anton Yelchin for some vital supporting work in one of his last onscreen roles.) This is a movie that builds slowly and inexorably, with a final line that clarifies and illuminates everything that came before it. I first saw it very early in the year (in March), but it stuck with me the entire time, and a recent second viewing just solidified its position at the top of the list. More thoughts in my year-end appreciation for Crooked Marquee and in the Piecing It Together podcast episode I co-hosted.

2. Disobedience The English-language debut from Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio (Gloria, A Fantastic Woman) is another sensitive portrait of marginalized women, in this case two queer women in London's Orthodox Jewish community. Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams are both excellent as the old lovers who deal with forbidden emotions when they unexpectedly reunite, and Alessandro Nivola turns what could have been a one-dimensional agent of oppression into a nuanced character torn between his community's values and his commitment to seeing his wife happy. The movie is sensual and passionate but never salacious, treating its characters' desires with tenderness and understanding.

3. The Kindergarten Teacher Maggie Gyllenhaal gives possibly the best performance of her career in Sara Colangelo's remake of the 2014 Israeli film about a kindergarten teacher who becomes dangerously obsessed with one of her students. Gyllenhaal and Colangelo take what could have been an off-putting, unpleasant character and make her sympathetic and tragic, even when her decisions are so obviously misguided and self-destructive (and tough to watch). It's an extremely delicate balance, especially when the character's actions potentially put a child at risk, but the movie pulls it off by focusing on raw emotions and never sensationalizing its central relationship. More thoughts in my review for Film Racket.

4. Cold War Pawel Pawlikowski's romantic drama set against the backdrop of 1950s-era European Communism is as gorgeous as his last film, 2013's Ida, with the same museum-quality black-and-white, Academy-ratio cinematography, in service of a story that's a bit more visceral and immediate. Thomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are wonderful as the star-crossed Polish lovers (Kulig especially), and Pawlikowski beautifully captures every triumph and heartbreak of their stormy, melancholy relationship. More thoughts in my review for Film Racket.

5. Annihilation I was fascinated by Jeff VanderMeer's novel, and even though Alex Garland's film adaptation changes a lot, it still captures the sense of dread and unease in the expedition of five scientists to a mysterious contaminated area on the American coast, possibly inhabited by aliens or elder gods or something. Garland makes some aspects of the story more explicit and others more opaque, but in all cases he finds beauty in the grotesque and horrible, and the cast led by Natalie Portman brings a delicate humanity to the increasingly inhuman encounters.

6. Leave No Trace The father-daughter relationship at the center of Debra Granik's adaptation of Peter Rock's novel is both dysfunctional and heartwarming, with Ben Foster and impressive newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie embodying the fragile dynamic between a mentally ill parent and a teenager forced to take on too much responsibility. The movie is also lovely and meditative, full of quiet moments as the characters commune with their delicate natural surroundings. More thoughts in my review for The Inlander.

7. First Reformed Ethan Hawke's captivating performance drives Paul Schrader's disquieting and transporting examination of a pastor on the edge, who's contemplating the destructiveness of human behavior in contrast to the immense beauty of the universe (and of a fierce, pure-hearted wife and mother played by a radiant Amanda Seyfried).

8. Eighth Grade Elsie Fisher is so authentic as gawky teenager Kayla that it can be physically painful to watch as she navigates the endless pitfalls of junior high, but Bo Burnham's debut feature is so warm and genuine that it finds hope and humor even in the most unpleasant and cruel teenage interactions.

9. Never Goin' Back I feel like it's been my mission this year to promote Augustine Frizzell's hilarious and affecting stoner comedy about two teenage-girl best friends in grubby south Texas, and I'll say again that the lead performances from Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone should have made them stars, and this movie should have been a mainstream hit on the level of Superbad or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. More thoughts in my year-end appreciation for Crooked Marquee and in the Piecing It Together podcast episode I co-hosted.

10. Damsel The movies of brothers David and Nathan Zellner can be pretty polarizing, and I've been irritated and exasperated by their work as often as I've been entertained. But I really connected with the bone-dry humor and oddball performances (by Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson and David Zellner himself) in this deliberately confounding Western. More thoughts in my Las Vegas Film Festival recap.

Honorable mentions: Bisbee '17, Gemini, Minding the Gap, The Old Man & the Gun, Revenge, Searching, A Simple Favor, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Suspiria

Top five lead performances: Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Kindergarten Teacher; Ethan Hawke, First Reformed; Anya Taylor-Joy, Thoroughbreds; Joanna Kulig, Cold War; John Cho, Searching

Top five supporting performances: Amanda Seyfried, First Reformed; Mia Wasikowska, Damsel; Blake Lively, A Simple Favor; Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Steve Buscemi, Nancy

Worst movies of 2018 (theatrical releases only): The 15:17 to Paris, Show Dogs, Truth or Dare, Demon House, Destroyer, Hunter Killer

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Flight 313: The Conspiracy' (2015)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I wouldn't have expected a serious drama about airline safety regulations to join the ranks of movies that get retitled for home video release with the number 13 in order to make them sound more ominous, but that's exactly what happened to the British social-issue drama A Dark Reflection, released on VOD in the U.S. as Flight 313: The Conspiracy. Really, both of the movie's titles promise more intrigue than is actually on display in what is essentially a dramatized position paper about the phenomenon known as "aerotoxic syndrome."

That's the idea, still mostly unsubstantiated, that the air in commercial airliner cabins is contaminated by chemicals from jet engines, causing illness in both passengers and crew members. Flight 313 director, co-writer, producer and editor Tristan Loraine is a former British Airways pilot, and the movie was financed entirely by airline crew unions and other advocacy groups. So it's mostly concerned with sending a message, which makes the narrative and character development secondary to the political and social cause. That's fine for a documentary, but it means that Flight 313 is clumsy, ineffective drama that frequently pauses to deliver dry statistics and explanations of the mechanics of jet engines.

Loraine clearly wants to emulate crusading-journalist dramas like The Insider, The China Syndrome and All the President's Men (even explicitly referencing Woodward and Bernstein at one point), but there's very little suspense in the story of newspaper reporter Helen Eastman (Georgina Sutcliffe) and her efforts to expose a cover-up of toxic cabin air at fictional airline JaspAir. Helen and her colleague Natasha Stevens (Rita Ramnani) very slowly connect the dots from the "near-miss" landing of the titular flight to JaspAir's policy of ignoring and hiding evidence of contamination in its cabins.

The drama here is mostly inert, though, and the characters are one-dimensional ciphers representing various points of view on the issue, even as Loraine attempts to flesh out a bit of Helen's back story (via an opening sequence set in the Middle East, where she witnesses a co-worker get killed). None of the flimsy character beats are relevant to the story, and the dialogue is always clunky and awkward, whether it's expressing outrage over toxic air or attempting to convey personal feelings. Plus, half the time it's muddled and difficult to make out. From a technical standpoint, Flight 313 comes across as a movie made by someone with more passion than skill, and while it's hard to fault Loraine for wanting to call attention to what he believes is an important issue, framing that issue as a dull movie-of-the-week-style drama isn't going to win him very many supporters.