Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Top 30 Favorite Films 2018

It seems that there is a light at the end of this god forsaken land after two years of pure chaos and unparalleled stupidity in Washington and the world over? Let's hope so. Thankfully, there has been some great cinematic outputs in 2018 for me to take solace in. Unfortunately, my viewing scope is getting smaller and narrower each year and I wasn't as active enough to seek out more adventurous cinema. But reliable veteran voices were out in force this year - Jia, Denis, Kiarostami(RIP), Ramsay, Ceylan, Petzold, both Lees, Godard, Schrader, etc. Some of the new voices also fared well with their recent offerings. All in all, it's been a memorable year for cinema. Here is hoping that the next year I would be more of an active participant!

Click on the titles for full reviews:

1. Long Day's Journey into Night - Bi
Bi Gan's sophomore effort, Long Day's Journey into Night, after his phenomenal debut Kaili Blues (2015), doesn't disappoint in terms of ambition, technical prowess and sheer ecstatic beauty. I've never experienced anything quite like it as far as an immersive movie going experience goes. If the uncut 40 minute shot in Kaili Blues took your breath away, just wait until you see a continuous hour long 3D scene in the later half of the film. Its pure cinematic power let you believe that cinema is still alive and well. Bi Gan is no joke folks. He is that rare combination of a filmmaker who really knows how incorporate technology into an artistic medium and runs amok with it.

2. Ash is the Purest White - Jia
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Ash is the Purest White is a full-on (un)sentimental melodrama in epic scale. It's perhaps Jia's most down to earth, character study work. The long stretch in the middle gains more poignancy as the film goes along and afterwords. Some people reinvent themselves along with the changing times and some people don't. Some things in them though, remain the same. Jia expertly juxtaposes these conundrums, reflecting the soul of a changing nation. Ash is the Purest White is a deep and poignant masterpiece from a seasoned filmmaker.

3. 24 Frames - Kiarostami
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The whole film closes with the powerful and one of the most striking images in cinema. Image can't move people is a lie. Accompanied by Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Love Never Dies", the last 'frame' will go down in cinema history as perhaps one of the most iconic and most beautiful imagery in history. It's even more sublime than the last scene of his film Taste of Cherry which ends with Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary". His son Ahmad did an admirable job choosing these 24 out of 30 'frames' or so Kiarostami considered using in the film. Sad fact is that there is no finality to the film. It's as if it can go on forever, completely consistent with what he had been doing all his artistic life. Nothing is and ever will be comparable to his artistry.

4. High Life - Denis
Denis pushed the limit of what is considered good taste with The Bastards. With High Life, she pushes even further - Taboo isn't taboo anymore. It has sharp edges like her other films. And It's those ecstatic moments, like in many of her other films - frozen bodies floating in space, meteor showers, baby eating dirt in the vegetable garden, dead dog in the stream, sudden burst of violence and emotions that puts High Life very much in the top tier of all Claire Denis-ean film.

5. The Wild Pear Tree - Ceylan
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The Wild Pear Tree is that rare film that captures the trial and tribulations of a young person who is intelligent enough to be both self aware and pessimistic. His disdain for his father hides his own disenchantment about the dim future prospects. The film's title, also the title of Sinan's book which is supposed to be an honest observation of humanity, filled with colorful characters, not a travel brochure. And unironically, that's what you see in the film. Ceylan remains to be the most literary filmmaker working today. And thank goodness for that.

6. Burning - Lee
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Even though Burning is based on Haruki Murakami's short story Barn Burning, it's a very Korean film in every way. Yes, Murakami's typical - disaffected, nihilistic, don't-ever-have-to-worry-about-money hero is there, superbly embodied by Korean-American actor Steven Yeun- his slight otherness is perfect for the role. But Lee Chang-dong's emphasis is on the society's deep chasm between haves and have-nots, city vs countryside, living under the shadow of capitalism and the always imminent threat of war are all very Korean.

Burning is a slow-burn thriller that is utterly captivating from beginning to end. It's economic emasculation that brings inevitable violence at the end. Once again, it's Lee's script that shines: layered with hefty metaphors and symbolism, yet the film is surprisingly subtle and never loses its magnetism.

7. Les garçons sauvages/Wild Boys - Mandico
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A gaudy, sensual, daring and inventive take on both Goto: Island of Love by Polish master Animator/filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk and Lord of the Flies, The Wild Boys is a lot of fun. It plays out like a prettier, sexier Guy Maddin film. And its pan-sexual theme is not without a dash of humor. The beach fight/orgy scene complete with flying feathers and sand alone is worth the price of admission.

8. The Favourite - Lanthimos
hink of The Favourite as humorous Barry Lyndon. The stately glacial façade of Kubrick's film was always a stone's throw away from parodying comedy anyway. Costumes,opulent interiors and harpsichord music tells you that you are watching a period piece, but its sardonic wit and amped up performances are quite the contrary. Lanthimos remains to be the only filmmaker who can get away with using wide angle lens shots because his comedy calls for it. Robbie Ryan's energetic candlelit interior shots are a thing of a beauty.

The favourite is a wickedly funny film that hits all the right marks. It touches upon all the hallmarks of Lanthimos other films - patriarchy/monarchy, desire and perversion and loneliness. Coleman, Weisz and Stone deserve all the accolades.

9. Transit - Petzold
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Transit's got a lot to do with guilty conscience: Guilt of leaving someone behind. Guilt of forgetting. Guilt of being indifferent. With this, Transit is a great companion piece to Phoenix, the director's last film, taking place in post-WWII setting. It also is in line with Petzold's usual themes - people in transit, state of uncertainty caused by outside force, by something bigger than an individual, while not losing sight of its characters' humanity. Also because of this setting and themes, even though contemporary, it reminds me strongly of Nouveau Roman writers' works.

10. Roma - Cuaron
The underlying theme of Roma is giving love and respect to people who we take for granted – those unsung heroes, the backbone of our society. We make movies of spectacles and amplified emotions. Cuarón focuses on miniature crises in one year in the life of Cleo. Roma is a guileless, subtle, deeply felt human story that is definitely Cuarón’s best and most mature work.

11. Jeannette, l'enfance de Jean D'Arc/Jeannette, Childhood of Joan of Arc - Dumont
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Jeannette is a real gamble of a film. In theory, with everything Dumont is striving for, spiritually and artistically, it should satisfy fans of his work. But intellectually understanding what he is up to and enjoying the actual piece are two different things. As a big fan of Dumont, and was taken aback by his ‘comedies’ and repulsed by Slack Bay (I have to say that I’m not a big fan of seasoned actors playing over-the-top characters or acting like retards), I had a lot of reservations going in. But considering Dumont’s intensions with the project, Jeannette gets a lot better in second viewing. You just have to work a little harder to dig through its genre trappings to see its austere beauty: the beauty in a young girl’s unwavering, sacred devotion to god in free form.

12. First Reformed - Schrader
I believe Schrader mentioned Bergman's Winter Light as a source of inspiration. And yes, there is more than the narrative thread with the suicide and everything in the beginning, that the film has its affinity with. But also that sinewy human entanglement that many Bergman's characters see as a prison is there too - definitely Bergman-esque. But whether you consider Schrader's filmography spotty at best, he is responsible for penning Taxi Driver. First Reformed is definitely not a rehash of the masters' older films he is inspired by. Dealing with the contemporary issue that we all face (it was the threat of atom bomb in Bergman's film), Schrader squarely puts the ball on our court to toil with.

13. Happy as Lazzaro - Rohrwacher
Heureux comme Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice)
One can regard Lazzaro as Chance character in Being There. Almost saint like, Lazzaro is a metaphysical being that is too good to be true. Rohrbacher makes a point about the current immigration situations that it's just as exploitative as the middle ages. Lazzaro is someone who is desperately needed in this cynical, cruel world. Rohrbacher's writing shines in bringing out humor and humanity in an whimsical yet pointy allegory full of wonders.

14. Mandy - Costamos
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Mandy's death propels the movie descending rapidly into total mayhem and provides perhaps Nic Cage's Nic Cagest performance in years. That long take rage scene in his underwear in the bathroom is a sight to behold. There are Hellraiser type demons, a tiger, axe smelting, a King Crimson song, a chainsaw fight, multiple title and animation sequences thrown in. Normally a concoction this wild and unwieldy wouldn't work at all, but Costamos manages to make Mandy, through dark brooding visuals and Jóhan Jóhansson's soundtrack, a visual tone poem akin to Valhalla Rising, with Cage as our avenging angel, slogging through hell and back (or not). It's an amazing visual feast and a cult classic in the making.

15. Les fantômes d'Ismaël/Ismael's Ghosts - Desplechin
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Desplechin deals with a lot of complicated thoughts and emotions on screen, acted out by three very good actors on the top of their game. And as usual, his writing is excellent. His preoccupation with an international spy in the name of Dedalus is still there, this time Ivan, not his alter ego, Paul. Deliciously self-reflexive and touching, Ismael's Ghosts is another great testament of Desplechin's unique talent as a film enthusiast and a great writer.

16. Shirkers - Tan
I know that filmmaking is hard. Finishing it takes a lot of effort and determination. Shirkers spoke to me in a lot of different ways and invoked a lot of different emotions in me that I hid it from myself over the years. Independent filmmaking is truly a medium of self expression but because it's a communal medium as well, being an asshole is an absolute necessity- I don't care what others say, it's a very narcissistic endeavor.

Shirkers is a very entertaining, touching concoction film about filmmaking. It works because it's so personal.

17. Le livre d'image/Image Book - Godard
Godard's latest offerings are hard nut to crack, even more so than usual. Image Book is also the ones that needs to be mulled over after viewing. I didn't know about Cossery's book. I had to look it up. Even as an avid fan of his filmography, most of the stuff he talks about go over my head. But with Image Book, there seems to be a concerted effort for Godard to point us in the direction where he sees a corner of the world that is underexposed, underseen and misrepresented by the western world. He references his 1987 film King Lear a lot in Image Book, especially a shot of Cordelia (Molly Ringwald)'s dead body lying on the rock - as if telling us that Cordelia, the righteous, virtuos one, is dead and there is no good one left in the world. He also leaves in his coughing fit during the middle of voice over. Godard knows his time is almost up. There is a sense of urgency in his gravelly voice. Say what you will about cranky attitude, his stubbornness all these years not to conform, his perceived snobbiness. Yes, the representation and how you tell the story matters. But I'd rather get dictation from Godard and have him point me to the right direction than from anybody else. I sincerely hope Image Book is not his farewell message to the world.

18. Barbara - Amalric
Mathieu Amalric's continues to show his impressive directing chops with Barbara, starring his ex, the immensely talented singer and actress, Jeanne Balibar. As the case with his award winning On Tour, Amalric's kaleidoscopic reverie on show business is a Fellini-esque controlled madness. Still, his deep love for performers is always palpable. And it's Balibar front and center here. She plays Brigitte, an actress interpreting the details from the legendary french singer's life, being directed by aimless, but passionate film director Yves (Amalric). As the film moves along, it becomes hard to distinguish Brigitte from Barbara and vice versa.

Amalric is an astute student of cinema. He is keenly aware of the medium and knows how to benefit from its possibilities but not in a showy way. His aimlessness is also his best asset. The film is rhythmic, fluid and free.

19. Cold War - Pawlikowski
Pawlikowski deftly directs, like his previous film, Ida this 90 minute film in a breeze. But whereas this quick, no moment to spare, no time to contemplate pace worked for a young woman coming of age story, for something like Cold War and the subject like tragic love, I wish the director spent a little more time with Wiktor and especially more with Zula, since Kulig, resembling Slavic Léa Seydoux, is very lovely to look at and listen to. Constant fade to black after pivotal moments in their lives doesn't feel like just times passing or mere transition but more like we've missed out on a lot of details. I understand Pawlikowski's driving idea of 'love has no ideology or borders', but the absence of the couple's political allegiance/aversion as 'artists' bothered me (same way as Ida wearing religion on her sleeve in Ida), especially no background for either of them were ever fully explored. The ending is beautiful but I feel like the rest of the film didn't quite earn it.

20. Bisbee '17 - Greene
Robert Greene's engrossing historical reenactment, Bisbee '17 serves as not only a forgotten history lesson but also perhaps the largest scale role playing art therapy session. Bisbee, Arizona, a dusty small town near Mexican border, once was a richest town in the state, is also dubbed as Copper Queen for its mineral resources during WWI military effort. A large open pit mine with the blood red contaminated water in the middle, now closed, serves as a reminder of its history in its not so subtle metaphor. And yes, there is nothing like a large scale war to trigger its citizens of their sense of patriotism and unfettered exploitation by the government and industry.

Greene, always interested in the nature of playing a role in fiction and in real life, once again blurs the line here with Bisbee '17. As the centennial celebration and its enactment approaches, things get tense and emotional. And it reflects perfectly the current nightmare we are living in where immigrant children are in cages and their parents deported. History repeats itself. But the film ends on a hopeful note. Greene is not only a good filmmaker but a great teacher. Serrano belongs to the generation which will inherit this country very soon, is awoke. The film deeply affected me deeply on an emotional level.

21. You were Never Really Here - Ramsay
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The film is a technical marvel on all levels - from the memorable opening title sequence to minimalist action sequences taking place in dark alleys and corridors, to weird Ramsay moments - as an assassin lay dying in Joe's kitchen, they sing along a sentimental old tunes together. Prevailing sunny 50s tunes against heart thumping ultra modern soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood clash and show Ramsay's point about dated white male heroism and the melancholy it represents. Naturalistic setting (Queens) and Phoenix's understated performance balances out her poetic, dreamy visual flourishes later on in the film. Completely unsentimental and rapturously understated and subtle, Ramsay operates in her top level with this film.

22. Laissez bronzer les cadavres/Let the Corpses Tan - Cattet, Forzani
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As usual, Belgian visual stylists duo, Hélèn Cattet and Bruno Forzani, creates unapologetic visual feast. Good to see Elina Löwensohn becoming a European arthouse queen in recent years as she plays an aging matron of a group of criminals hiding in some sunny Island here. It seems she has been wielding some cult like sexual power over these men and a writer (Marc Barbé), as she struts around with very little clothing. Things get a little crazy after the gang's gold heist and unexpected visit from the writer's wife, kid and a pretty nanny.

But really, story has little importance here. It's all to do with ultra stylized assault on the senses. Sex and violence mingles. Rapid editing, colors, shadows, sound design... Cattet and Forzani know what they are doing. Their craft pushes its giallo trappings on to another level, elevating it to an art form.

23. Like Me - Mockler
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Unlike other didactic take on loneliness and isolation in the age of social network, Like Me lets its loose narrative be and compensates it with candy color palette and dizzing edits. Fassenden has become as reliable of a presence in the indie world as Gary Oldman is to the mainstream films now. With all the excess style, I liked Like Me much more than I thought I would. Its textural, rough around the edges aesthetics really works for its there/not there theme.

24. Bloodlight and Bami - Fiennes
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How do you demystify someone without sacrificing all the enigma and mystery around the subject? Sophie Fiennes, documentarian extraordinaire behind two highly entertaining Zizek docs and one on artist Alselm Kiefer just does that with one of the most iconic figure in fashion and music, Grace Jones. Instead of doing typical chronological biography highlighting her hits and movie appearances over the years with bunch of boring sit-down interviews, Fiennes just follows Jones around on stage, behind-stage and hotel rooms as she treads in her stilettos. Bloodlight and Bami shows the cultural icon dealing with musicians and others on the phone herself to make the record. Her phone manners in her booming bariton are sometimes aggressive, sometimes cloying, other times aggressively cloying.

Then we follow her to Jamaica, where her family is. She goes to church where her brother is a pastor and her mother sings, eats jerk chicken, slurp oysters and takes care of her grown up son. At age 69, Jones is still electrifying on stage and still stunning as a bronze statuette. Fiennes just let her be her magnificent self.

25. The Crescent - Smith
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There are a lot of modern horror films about death and grief and such. But The Crescent is a special film. Seth A. Smith, a visual artist and a filmmaker from Nova Scotia, is a real talent in creating certain quietude and sensitivity that is lacking in today's loud and obnoxious horror. Combined with his artistic skills, Smith evokes something that is deeply felt and memorable. Never a horror movie I watched recently that stayed on for days in my head- the visuals, details, the over all impact, and the sadness it carries.

26. La Douleur - Finkiel
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French director Emmanuel Finkiel takes on semi-autobiographical book, La douleur by writer & film director Marguerite Duras. It's an ambitious project to tackle, since Duras is a key figure in Nouveau Roman, one of the most significant French literary movements in the 20th century. She scripted Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour and saw several of her books adapted for the screen. She also directed many films including Natalie Granger, India Song and Drive, She Said.

Mélanie Thierry is a revelation as Marguerite, a learned, intellectual woman who slowly gets broken emotionally. She proves that she is much more than just a pretty face. The film signals the arrival of another major French star actress. Memoir of War is a great film.

27. BlackKklansman - Lee
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Spike Lee has a reason to be smiling. BlackKkansman is his best film since Malcolm X. It's both entertaining and pointy about the Trump's racist administration. Well timed for anniversary of white nationalist march in Charlottesville where activist Heather Heyer was killed, Lee doesn't shy away from linking the past and the present this unsubtly and directly, like no other major American filmmaker.

Adam Driver, playing Flip Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jewish detective in Colorado, proves himself that he's a solid actor here. Lee even pushes the idea of solidarity, a smack in the back of the head that we are all in this together, by making Zimmerman/Jews think about how extremely racist the view of the white nationalists against anyone other than Anglo Americans really is.

28. El mar la mar - Bonnetta, Sniadecki
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As Trump's cruel zero tolerance immigration policy and its inhumane consequences play out before our eyes, El mar la mar, Joshua Bonneta and JP Sniadecki's audio visual essay on the south of the border arrives. It's abstract, artful approach to the subject might infuriate some of the viewers who are inclined to witness emotional catharsis through human suffering for sure. But its deliberate omission of identifiers (other than some of the silent inhabitants on the north of the border) is perhaps the point - the film can emote without seeing the human faces.

29.Taste of Cement - Kalthoum
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With close ups and silent moments, Kalthoum's visuals have lyricism and sensuality of Claire Denis' work. But once it gets to the matching POV footage of construction cranes slowly panning over the Beirut skyline and tank gunner pointing at its next target, and the real footage of rescue effort to dig out the civilians trapped in collapsed concrete buildings, you realize that Taste of Cement is much more than, say, Terry Malrick's pretty, contemplative picture show.

Concrete smell is the smell of travel and also the smell of death. It's also the smell of rebuilding and smell of destruction. Kalthoum achieves something miraculous here. Something tangible and important. Something that is arty enough for the public already jaded and numbed by the sheer stupidity of the world and don't care anymore, to care.

30. Non-Fiction - Assayas
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Where it lacks Assayas' languid visual language, Non-fiction makes up with his sharp, witty dialog and humor. Macaigne, a comedian with his unkempt hair and portly disposition, appearing in many of quirky French comedies of late, is becoming a major figure in French cinema. He has worked his way up to having a full nude love scene with Juliette Binoche here.

In this fictional light comedy with its English Title Non-Fiction, along with its French Title Double vie, Assayas once again rightly reflects our society in real time. To top the movie's meta-ness, Alain tells that he is in negotiation with Juliette Binoche to do an audio book of Full Stop. This got the biggest laugh from the audiences at the film's press screening.

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