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)

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