Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler)


During the aftermath of a car chase in South Korea, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) cautions T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the newly-crowned warrior king of Wakanda and the eponymous superhero, warning him that “the whole world is watching.” It is a tempting and largely justifiable sentiment to apply to Black Panther, given both the lamentable societal state and the slightly more specific cultural moment. Though it is by no means the first film to have as its center a black superhero (as BAMcinématek’s excellent series demonstrated), it is the first of note since the rise of the juggernaut known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2009. As a member of this alternately prestigious and dubious enterprise, its very existence brings along a whole host of expectations and baggage in terms of overall quality and, perhaps most crucially, representation.

That Black Panther is almost certainly the finest and most distinctive entry in the MCU is one bonus, but that it genuinely grapples with these issues and its particular place in modern society is another aspect entirely. The two are certainly linked, even down to the basic motivations of narrative, and the film’s ability to sublimate this and notions of culture within the loose template of a Marvel film is, at times, genuinely invigorating.


Part of what distinguishes Black Panther is its deftness, its ability to locate character struggles within in a world that feels genuinely engaged with the present moment – in a way that does not simply kowtow to “The Way We Live” back-patting – even as it weaves its own fantasies. The main locus is Wakanda, a fictional African nation that conceals its status as the most technologically advanced country in the world, thanks to its virtually unlimited supply of a versatile metal known vibranium. As the film begins, T’Challa inherits the crown from his dead father, only to encounter the heretofore unknown Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). A Wakandan hardened by his upbringing in Oakland, California, an extensive stint in the military, and his desire for vengeance, he seeks to usurp the new ruler and use the technological advancements of the country to trigger black uprisings against white-dominated governments around the world.

Such a description is certainly more grounded than the average MCU entry, but what is most curious about Black Panther is how it upholds and subverts its comic book origins. The decision to (pre-Marvel company credit!) open with a fantastical animated retelling of the origin of Wakanda and the Black Panther, only to move immediately into a crucial scene set in 1992 Oakland – complete with a plastic crate standing in for a basketball hoop – is an early indication, as is the bold fusion of old traditions and ceremonial wear with hypermodern landscapes.

Much of the credit for this uncharacteristic level of cultural engagement must go to director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, who appears from this effort to have a knack for negotiating his own sense of artistry within franchise efforts after both this and 2015’s Creed (although his direction here on the whole feels less balletic than in that film). But the efforts of the cast, which in itself represents a remarkable collection of black talent (from Daniel Kaluuya to Forest Whitaker to Angela Bassett to Danai Gurira to even Isaach de Bankolé), lend an immense vitality to the proceedings. Boseman and especially Letitia Wright (as his technical genius of a sister) are marvelous, but Jordan, who has appeared in all of Coogler’s films to date, is utterly magnetic, infusing his ostensible villain with genuine pain and swagger that makes his already sympathetic aims (if not sympathetic methods) become even more attractive.

Black Panther‘s spirit thrums with this continual back-and-forth, this negotiation of lore (both comic-book and tribal) and reality, personal motivations and pragmatism. I don’t have the knowledge or confidence to fully go into the occasionally questionable politics of the film, but suffice it to say that the radicalism of Killmonger is never simply undercut by the film, which continually questions Wakanda’s and its own position as the most exalted form of modern black representation. What seems to matter most at this particular moment is the film’s very existence, its ability to present customs totally outside of the mainstream with nothing less than total acceptance. (What the culture does with them is another matter entirely.)


Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)


In a film culture dominated – visibly or not – by views inextricably tied to the concept of auteurism, there’s something irresistible about judging films by how they reflect the artistic evolution of their director. In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson, this arc is clear, moving from the wide-ranging ensembles of Boogie Nights and Magnolia to the intent historical studies of There Will Be Blood and The Master. In particular, the latter two films and his latest effort, Phantom Thread, represent a neat trilogy (interrupted by Inherent Vice) of stylistic and thematic development. But at the same time, this film represents something daring in Anderson’s career: something astonishingly shapeshifting, tracing the ebbs and flow of a relationship with an exceeding amount of care, all with a lushness and richness of form that belies an essential, wondrous perversity.

Anderson here works in a setting entirely new to him: the haute couture fashion scene of 1950s London, five thousand miles away from his preferred setting of Southern California. It centers upon Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), an intensely private and controlling acclaimed fashion designer with only his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) as a constant companion. Things quickly change when Reynolds happens upon Alma (Vicky Krieps), a shy, quiet waitress who becomes his muse. To reveal much more would give away some of the most genuine surprises of 2017, but suffice it to say that their relationship is forced into changes that eventually put Alma on an equal footing with the two seemingly indomitable siblings.


Anderson’s attention to detail and mood, especially in period settings, has always been uncannily attuned, and it feels even more heightened here. Much of the film is suffused by returning collaborator Jonny Greenwood’s score, which has a lilting, swooning quality, reminiscent of music far removed from the Hollywood of today, that matches perfectly with the gliding, elusiveness of the cinematography (headed by an uncredited Anderson).

What moves and transports about Phantom Thread is precisely that which cannot be adequately described without foreknowledge of the film’s summed development. Such intensity towards something so ostensibly normal and gentle is rare, especially when combined with a certain sharp wit and humor. Constantly evolving before the viewer’s eyes, it works in both stillness (the gazes of Day-Lewis, Krieps, and Manville) and dynamism (the world that swirls around them) to create something that simply embodies romance.

The Commuter (2018, Jaume Collet-Serra)


A far cry from the portentous, franchise-driven blockbusters of today, the oeuvre of Jaume Collet-Serra is one of effectiveness and impacts. In the vein of the classic form of the auteur theory – the manifestation of recurring visual and thematic motifs in a blatantly commercial setting – Collet-Serra has established himself as someone capable of churning out incredibly well-made, visceral mid-budget pictures. His career so far has followed two paths, the first of which is horror, represented by the very fun 2005 remake of House of Wax, the utterly masterful Orphan, and the elementally constructed The Shallows. But the aspect more germane to this review is his series of action films with the resurgent Liam Neeson, all of which are tense and subtly playful works that use restrictions – physical, temporal – for maximum effect.

With The Commuter, this standard has been maintained, albeit in a more crowd-pleasing and unabashedly conventional format. Our Neeson hero this time around is Michael, an ex-cop turned insurance salesman that has taken the Hudson Valley line to Grand Central Station every day for the past ten years. On the way back from being fired, he is approached on the train by a mysterious woman who calls herself Joanna (previous Collet-Serra collaborator Vera Farmiga). In an astoundingly dynamic, extended conversation, the self-described people observer slowly tempts Michael into accepting her offer of $100,000 to find a particular, unfamiliar passenger on the train. As motives are slowly revealed and identities are unmasked, Michael uses his particular set of skills in judicious fashion.


This scenario is closest to what is his perhaps Collet-Serra’s finest film yet, the airplane-set Non-Stop, but the stakes are delineated in sharply different ways. While Neeson was an air marshal in that film, he is clearly set as an everyman, concerned first and foremost with wrestling between his desire for the money – his son is about to go to a college that he can’t afford – and his burgeoning conscience. Collet-Serra takes care to set him against the massive melting pot that is the collected inhabitants of New York City. Especially in the first act of the film, the cars of the train are crammed, and even as more and more passengers exit the almost stage-like confines, there are more than enough riders (and potential targets).

It is worth noting the touches that, at first glance, are not typical of Collet-Serra. Though his films have never been anything approaching dour or self-serious, they have always been relatively sober affairs, especially his previous Neeson collaboration Run All Night. Not so with The Commuter: it boasts at least a few moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, including a delicious flipping of the bird to an arrogant broker, and the eventual derailment of the train is handled with, if not excess, then a flashiness that is atypical.

But in conjunction with this seeming kowtowing to the cultural taste for destruction comes an even greater manifestation of Collet-Serra’s ability to create impact with every single scene. Here, his mode is that of destabilization, of which the opening salvo of an utterly disorienting montage, cutting back and forward in time over a decade of early morning routines, is but the first of gambits. A noticeably shaky use of handheld, impossible CGI tracking shots through the entirety of the train, motivated uses of slow-motion, a bravura one-take fight scene, even an honest-to-God Vertigo zoom: all of these are in Collet-Serra’s toolkit, and he integrates them with his precise style perfectly. If The Commuter is an example of a director’s style triumphing over the standard content that he is given, it matters little: it is genuine and fun, done with a love of craft and film that is nothing short of intoxicating.

Princess Cyd (2017, Stephen Cone)


Chicago-based director Stephen Cone has quietly crafted, over the past decade, some of the loveliest films about queerness, faith, and queerness of faith in recent memory. His careful synthesis of exquisitely balanced ensemble casts and a straight-on, vaguely dreamy style makes for films that feel immensely attuned to both their main protagonists and the peripheral characters that fill out their existences. The two films that established his reputation on the American festival circuit, The Wise Kids and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, notably both took place in the distinct milieus of churches and never resorted to one-dimensional or dogmatic views of believers or nonbelievers.

In this regard, Princess Cyd represents something of a departure for Cone. It follows the stories of Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) and her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence) as the former, a vivacious teen about to enter her high school senior year, visits the latter, a professor and author of some renown, in Chicago for a few weeks. Their relationship is, from the start, playful and dynamic, as the two push and poke at the difference in years, views, and experiences between them. During her short stay, Cyd attends parties – her aunt’s “soirées,” a turn of phrase that does not go unnoticed – explores the city, and embarks upon a tentative relationship with an androgynous barista, Katie (Malic White).

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The Shape of Water (2017, Guillermo del Toro)


Evaluating a film based upon the awards it has won or is expected to win is, by its very nature, a dubious endeavor. The tastes of a particular organization or festival (especially one whose jury is reconfigured every year) are fickle and often unreliable in selecting the very best films in competition. But the case of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water presents a curious case. As the winner of the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival and an unabashedly romantic fantasy, it represents a sharp break with the winners of the past few years. The previous recipient of the prestigious award was a typically protracted, ascetic effort from Lav Diaz, and in general the tastes of the festival juries have tended towards the more extreme ends of the arthouse.

The Shape of Water, by contrast, lies as close to the mainstream as a film dedicated to an interspecies romance can. Set in early Cold War-era Baltimore, it follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman who works the cleaning night shift at a governmental research facility. Rendered mute as a child, her existence is simple but fulfilling, with companionship found in her fellow janitor Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (Richard Spencer), a closeted advertising artist. Into this cozy existence comes two distinctly separate, equally emblematic forces: an amphibian creature (Doug Jones) revered in the South American jungle as a god, with whom Elisa quickly develops a longing rapport and attraction born out of common loneliness, and Strickland (Michael Shannon), the authoritarian agent who discovered him.

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The unexpected programming highlight of the fall 2017 slate in Seattle for me has been the fourth edition of the Romanian Film Festival at Seattle, which took place this past weekend at SIFF Uptown. This perhaps isn’t the biggest surprise in the world, as the Romanian New Wave has been one of the most exciting, motivated filmmaking movements of this century, but as far as I can tell, last year’s selection was roughly on the same level as most other country-specific festivals in this city. But with this year, the festival managed to gather, among other movies, three immensely exciting and worthwhile films, all without stateside distribution and from three directors that span the gamut, from Romanian New Wave old guard to venerated festival regular to even semi-subversive newcomer.

The latter filmmaker is Paul Negoescu, who has a small but passionate following on the basis of his extraordinary, incredibly low-key debut A Month in Thailand from 2012. His follow-up is the opening gala selection Two Lottery Tickets, a straightforward and totally hilarious comedy. While the previous film side-stepped much of the conventions that have codified the Romanian New Wave – the crushing nature of bureaucracy and the police, a single-minded pursuit of a goal, the need for money – this one manages to take on many of these DNA strands without sacrificing the wry warmness that suffused his first film, even as it moves from a late Dardennes-esque door-to-door approach to the road movie. Concerning a group of three hapless friends who lose a lottery ticket worth six million euros and embark upon a farcical journey to take it back from two thugs they believe have stolen it, Negoescu’s film manages to interweave in genuine emotional subplots that augment rather than distract from the humor. And there is a great deal of comedy here, including a handful of totally sublime setpieces and even more deadpan one-liners, all pulled off in well-composed static shots.

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Last Flag Flying (2017, Richard Linklater)


Richard Linklater has cultivated a career based on two slightly clashing recurring interests: continual experimentation with the passing of time on film, and a love for the outsider and wanderer. As a result, Last Flag Flying is something of an anomaly because of its deceptively straightforward nature in the context of his oeuvre. A spiritual to Hal Ashby’s seminal The Last Detail co-written by the original novelist, the movie is at first glance a standard Iraq War drama. But this is first-and-foremost a Richard Linklater film, and through the lengthy, considered conversations that form its backbone the catharsis is generated naturally and truthfully.

I should note at this point that I haven’t seen the ostensible predecessor to Last Flag Flying, and while there are many seeming allusions to events that would logically have happened in The Last Detail, most of the references are apparently fashioned for the film or the novel it’s based on, and not the prior sources: the character names have been changed, their military branch has been altered from the Navy to the Marines, etc.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, Martin McDonagh)


Discussing a film’s “timeliness,” regardless of what cultural and political climate it was conceived and produced under, is typically a foolhardy errand, prone to improperly deconstructing its complexities into a simple, digestible message or moral. And while these issues with the approach are only slightly less problematic when applied to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s hard to ignore the litany of long-delayed outrages that have arisen in between the movie’s premiere and release, beginning with the well-judged withdrawal from Fantastic Fest and continuing with the (at least temporary) downfalls of Weinstein, Spacey, etc. With these events in mind, it’s tempting to take the movie as a straightforward condemnation of sexual assault and the indifference with which it was too long received. However, for better and for worse, the film is concerned with a more all-encompassing and thorny critique of American heartland culture, with equal parts finesse and head-thumping obviousness.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri‘s premise is relatively simple, concerning Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) attempts to find the man who raped and murdered her daughter seven months prior. At the moment the film begins, the efforts on the part of the town and the police department have come to a standstill. In a ploy to draw attention to the case, Mildred rents the eponymous billboards that point the finger, in bold black text surrounded by red, at Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the head sheriff in a losing battle with pancreatic cancer. This in turn sets off a torrent of outrage directed at Mildred, triggering a shocking spiral of seething hatred and scorn in the small town.

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Lady Bird (2017, Greta Gerwig)


Over the past decade, Greta Gerwig has become one of the most vital and vibrant stars of the independent film scene. In doing so, she has established an artistic identity apart from her acting: she co-directed Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg, and has cultivated a strong creative and personal partnership with Noah Baumbach, co-writing two of the most attuned comedies of the decade together. So it was only a matter of time before Gerwig made a film all her own, and with Lady Bird comes something expected yet totally delightful: a work of both nostalgia and anti-nostalgia, something both fleeting and grounded, all anchored in an utterly indelible character.

That character is Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), nicknamed (by herself) Lady Bird, a young woman in her senior year of high school literally living on “the wrong side of the tracks” in Sacramento circa 2002. An underachieving yet passionate student, she wishes nothing more than to go to a college on the East Coast in a city that, unlike her perception of her hometown, has culture and heritage. Sensibly, Lady Bird is effectively split into two stories: the more dominant portion, dramatically speaking, deals with Lady Bird’s tenuous relationship with her family, including her tough, loving mother (Laurie Metcalf) and her kindly but suffering father (Tracy Letts); and the second, more lighthearted but never lightweight one portrays her life at her Catholic private school, negotiating popularity, drama, poor math grades, and the college application process.

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A Conversation About Wonderstruck (2017, Todd Haynes)


Ryan Swen: Between 1927 and 1977, the two temporal settings of Todd Haynes’ newest film Wonderstruck, there lies an innumerable amount of histories of change. Fifty years is long by any measurement, but the rapid progress of the twentieth century, for good and ill, makes the two cultures and societies nigh unrecognizable to each other. This is as evident in the medium of film as any other area: in the former, the glory years of the silent cinema were coming to an end, in the latter, the heyday of New Hollywood was still going strong. 4:3 becomes 1.85:1, black-and-white is replaced by vivid color, organists are swapped for the hippest soundtracks: there’s even a moment, in a possible homage to the seminal New York film of 1977, Annie Hall, there are two shots of a theater marquee: the first is of a silent weepie in 1927, the second is of a porn film fifty years later. Wonderstruck is so deeply suffused and inspired by an abiding love of so many things, including museums, stories, outsiders, and the City That Never Sleeps, but the dream factory, in its capacity to bring both joy and despair, seems like as good a place to start as any.

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