The idea is that we keep doing this until the next poll comes out in 2022, by which time we’ll each have a Top 100 list. Well, I will. Mike will have only 98 because he repeated two from his 2012 list on the 2013 one.
Here are Mike’s Top Ten Films of All-Time for 2020:
1. To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)
2. Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu, 1953)
3. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (Roy Rowland, 1953)
4. Shree 420 (Raj Kapoor, 1955)
5. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, 1975)
7. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
8. Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan, 2007)
9. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)
10. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
And here are Sean’s Top Ten Films of All-Time for 2020:
1. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
2. Mughal-e-azam (K. Asif, 1960)
3. Yearning (Naruse Mikio, 1964)
4. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (Bill Melendez, 1966)
As I did last year, I asked the team here at Seattle Screen Scene to send in their favorites of the past year. They could be anything: movies, books, music, non-entertainment related thing, whatever. They could be from 2019, or from the past decade. No rules. This is what they said:
Top 10 of 2019 (by world premiere):
1. To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
2. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)
3. A Voluntary Year (Ulrich Köhler & Henner Winckler)
4. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick)
5. I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)
6. The Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
7. The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)
8. Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)
9. Belonging (Burak Çevik)
10. Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)
1. Kyoto Animation
I was of course quite taken with Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird last year, and had begun watching KyoAni’s unclassifiable series Nichijou, but after the devastating fire that rocked Kyoto Animation’s studio this year, I spent some serious time catching up with their work, and nothing I watched in 2019 made me happier. Sound Euphonium!, the series from which Liz and the Blue Bird spun off, is as gorgeous as anything Makoto Shinkai has done, but with a depth of feeling and character that belies its teen drama trappings. The earlier series K-On! is more fun, more cartoonish, but ultimately just as rewarding., and even more dedicated to the purity of being a show about nothing. These series, along with Liz and Yamada’s 2016 film A Silent Voice, had me seeing echoes of the slice-of-life anime genre everywhere: from more obvious antecedents like Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda Linda Linda to two of my favorites from this year’s VIFF: Mikhaël Hers’s Amanda and Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen, even in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. In the 2003 documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore, the genius writer and wizard predicted that thanks to exponentially increasing information, right around 2015 our culture would reach its boiling point and turn to steam. I think he’s undeniably been proven correct, and these films and shows, grounded in the minutiae of interpersonal experience, are the only antidote I’ve found to the speed and weightlessness of the present.
2. Chinese Movies
A perennial entry on my list of course, at least for the past six years. Most of my movie-watching this year was project-related: an obituary for Ringo Lam, a big piece on Jia Zhangke, a complete run through the work of Fruit Chan and partial dives into the filmographies of Ann Hui and Herman Yau. Seems like I spent the first quarter of the year on Jia, as the initial essay led to a lecture and a comprehensive look at his use of pop music, and then multiple podcasts where I talked at length about Ash is Purest White. But on the whole, this year’s Chinese films have been disappointing, whether because 2018 was such a good year, or as a result of the censorship and political concerns that have split Chinese-language film into multiple, mutually-hostile camps. Increasingly dispirited, I realized a couple of weeks ago that I hadn’t watched a Johnnie To film all year. None since April of 2018 in fact. But with a rewatch of Romancing in Thin Air (his best film of the decade) and an initial viewing of his surprise 2019 film Chasing Dream (dropped mere weeks after rumors of his retirement traversed the twitterverse), I’m feeling a bit better.
3. Star Wars
Well, until I think about Rise of Skywalker that is. I’d like to think that its failure can be agreed to be the nadir of the Disneyfied blockbuster era. That in the future we’ll be getting more idiosyncratic works out of the properties the corporate behemoth mined from my childhood faves. The Mandalorian is cool, and some of the Star Wars comics are pretty great (Doctor Aphra!). Rewatches of Clone Wars, Rebels, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi have confirmed that is possible to produce good, distinctive work under the Disney umbrella. But I also watched all of the MCU movies this year, and while I’ve now developed a grudging liking for most of them, they have yet to produce anything as good. And if the MCU is the Star Wars model moving forward. . . whelp. I’ll just be retreating a couple of decades into the EU books in the new year, I guess.
4. Reading Books
Speaking of books, I finally finished Robert Caro’s The Power Broker and it is magnificent. I loved it so much that I immediately started reading his LBJ series, knowing that it’ll probably take me most of the 2020s to finish it. I don’t care, it’s great. My chronological read-though of Agatha Christie continued, with some of the best and some of the worst books I read this year. I also read a bunch of Eliot Weinberger (the best) and continued to hack away at Against the Day and Middlemarch (both great) and even started another couple massive, but delightful, book projects (Ducks, Newburyport and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy). I finally caught up with some standout comics from the past: the first two volumes of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. My chronological read through of Marvel Comics continues apace as well: most of it is bad, but the Fantastic Four, DoctorStrange, and The Amazing Spider-Man are generally really good, and Jim Steranko’s run on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD is the first thing to really break with the Lee/Kirby model and take the superhero comic somewhere new and weird.
5. The Beacon Cinema
The most exciting thing to happen to the Seattle screen scene in 2019 was the opening of the Beacon. I only made it there opening weekend, but checking the listings every week always sparks the kind of joy that’s been missing around here for a long time. And those shows I did see were the best non-VIFF theatrical experiences I had all year: the opening night show of Gold Diggers of 1933 (sweltering hot because they hadn’t figured out the AC yet, but no one cared) and the following day’s quadruple feature of City Lights, To Be or Not To Be, Speed Racer, and Buddha’s Palm. Nothing in 2019 made me like movies more.
6. Free Time
Maybe it’s just that Award Season has me down. It’s the time of year when I feel obligated to watch a bunch of movies I’m not really interested in, just so I can have a say in what people are calling the best of the year. It’s very dumb. But looking back at the movies I watched this year, almost all of them were related to some kind of writing project. A lot of those were very good, of course, but right now I’m really treasuring the movies I watched for no reason at all. Desperately Seeking Susan, for example. Or the Kyoto Animation stuff. The slasher movies I caught up with at Halloween: the Slumber Party Massacres and the first two Halloween sequels. Watching Shaolin vs. Lama dubbed just because RZA mentioned it in a video. Even capping off my MCU binge with Howard the Duck was an absolute blast. I’m increasingly ambivalent about the whole writing about movies thing, about turning what used to be my hobby into (almost completely) unpaid work. Watching things without a deadline, for no reason other than that it’s there and it looks interesting, should be the goal, right?
Not a very strong year of movies for me. Didn’t see much, and didn’t love much of what I saw. The list includes new films, and also the best old films I saw this year.
A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick)
Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood)
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
Ad Astra (James Gray)
Little (Tina Gordon Chism)
A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir)
Set It Off (F. Gary Gray)
Bamboozled (Spike Lee)
Lo Zebu e la Stella (Franco Piavoli)
Hope 2020 is better!
Sue’s Top Ten Films of the Decade
1. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2016): The most beautiful and moving film of the decade, Moonlight also featured some high-risk experimental moves that paid off handsomely. It turned mistakes into integral structural elements, cast three actors who look nothing alike as the same character, and expertly fused indelible moments of reality (like Mahershala Ali’s actually teaching Alex R. Hibbert how to swim) into the fictional world. A masterpiece.
2. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, 2018): Utterly brilliant, vibrantly imaginative, totally hilarious. John Mulaney should have won an Oscar for his sassy turn as Peter Porker/Spider-Ham.
3. Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik, 2018): This intensely suspenseful and profoundly affecting drama is a close-up depiction of a young woman’s mastery of survival skills and her simultaneous painful individuation from her father. Not one false step for the length of the film.
4. What We Do in the Shadows (dir. Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, 2014): This vampire-mockumentary is the funniest film ever made.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015): The guitar is also a flame-thrower.
6. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, 2017): Jordan Peele’s “elevated horror” film is both a completely terrifying thriller and an incisive, illuminating comment on the emotional experience of being marginalized and never truly safe. Absolutely original.
7. Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2019): Not as bonkers as Snowpiercer, less brittle than Okja, Bong Joon-ho’s latest exposes the deep cruelties of class inequity with real feeling but no sentimentalism. The film is tragic, hilarious, stylish, and resolutely unflinching in its look at human ugliness and human frailty.
8. Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay, 2014): This film had one of the most thrilling climaxes of the decade in the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s soaring speech at the courthouse. The film is even more remarkable given that DuVernay had to write all the speeches herself because Steven Spielberg refused to give up the film rights to King’s real speeches. Somehow, she caught the tone, the rhythms, and the distinctive verbal finesse of the real King’s writing perfectly. For his part, Oyelowo caught all the cadences of the real man’s voice exactly without ever descending into impressionism. A triumph.
9. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013): The expertly managed suspense of this film was secondary to its delicate depiction of a woman’s fear, bravery, loneliness, strength, and resourcefulness. Cuarón created a work of great psychological realism that rises to the level of myth by its last, profoundly resonant frames.
10. Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig, 2019): Simply lovely.
10 for 2019
After putting together multiple Best of the Decade ballots and enduring countless year-end roll calls, I cannot abide another rank ordered catalog of movies, so I’m taking Sean’s open-ended invitation to heart this year and offering a few non-cinematic favorites, chaotically organized. Admittedly, because I am a captive who loves his captor, there are still some films and filmmakers included in this personal sampler platter (please, let’s not call it a list) though it does seem that, with each passing year, literature and music conquer more and more of the mental space that I once greedily stored away for the seventh art. If there was simply less room in my head this year for cinema, well, that was probably for the best. We could all stand to watch a few fewer movies. Then again, I’ve been offered the key that unlocks this dark little room once or twice before, and each time, without fail, I stay put, right where I am.
The Fiction of David Stacton
My regular rendezvous with novelist, historian, poet, and all-time great gay David Derek Stacton were, without doubt, the most rewarding that I had this year. His fiction encompasses an incredible range of topics, periods, and experiences (a small sample: the doomed life of Giovanna d’Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi; Akhetaton’s failed attempts to remake Egyptian state religion; a sexual roundelay at an international film festival circa 1962) but they are united by Stacton’s unusual voice, which is wisecracking and aphoristic, and by the melancholy emotions that they inspire, which Stacton conjures up despite his work’s obvious literary “flaws.” Stacton’s characters are described with cutting wit, but they are stubbornly theoretical; his narratives lurch forward without much development; everything is subordinate to a good turn of phrase. And yet, somehow, each Stacton novel gives birth to a universe—and then, brutally, one epigram at a time, snatches it away. “Not that there will not be a new world, but this is the end of ours. And being selfish, we are concerned with that.” There is also, for a particular kind of reader, the unexpected inkling of recognition: I would challenge anyone of the other persuasion to read a Stacton novel (preferably one that lacks obviously queer content, of which there are many) and not to experience some shock of the familiar. Stacton’s people may often be kings and sovereigns, men who rule over vast swaths of land and who command the most prized levers of power, but they are closeted fantasists all. They thirst after precisely that which society says they cannot have, and, being subject always to the laws of sociological circumstance (for who is the ultimate subject of a society if not its ruler?), they remain forever behind a mask. Their only true dominion is a borderless empire of solitude.
Jean-François Stévenin, in front of the camera, yes, but—more importantly—behind it.
No other work of art from 2019 offered me so much comfort amid the general doom. Music for drowning people.
Crying with Mikhaël Hers
I included Amanda on Seattle Screen Scene’s 2018 round-up, so, even if I had some minor reservations, the film clearly clicked for me on a first viewing. It took a revisit this year, however, for me to understand just how deeply it had penetrated my heart. (I wept thrice.) Encountering Hers’s earlier work was crucial: in classic auteurist fashion, I can now list a dozen ideas and images that recur throughout his oeuvre, most of which reach their zenith in Amanda. But I won’t, because if I’m being honest, what really matters to me is that I got to savor the sweet taste of validation. A pet theory is—by my lights, anyways—confirmed: namely, that despite a certain straightness of approach, Hers’s films belong, indisputably, to the Diagonale lineage. Like Paul Vecchiali, Jean-Claude Guiguet, and Marie-Claude Treilhou (whose first film, Simone Barbes or Virtue, gets a cameo in Montparnasse), Hers believes—with a conviction unparalleled in contemporary cinema—that tears are a gift.
Eating with Joseph Wechsberg
Life (and history and culture) is meals.
Black Wings Has My Angel
I do not believe in “Lynchian” as an adjective to describe works made by anyone other than The Man from Another Place, but for once I’m tempted to use it. A complete cosmology of American desire.
Who is it who said, “A king without diversion is a man full of wretchedness?”
Japan’s “Lost Decade”
The 1980s get a bad rap among Japanese film critics. Numerous theses abound, some more compelling than others, but I sense that the implicit idea is, essentially, a version of that old saw about economic prosperity and aesthetic ambition: good times produce bad art. An obvious if undefeatable fallacy, so I won’t bother with a full-throated rebuttal. I’ll just assume, with utmost generosity, that the scholars have simply been watching the wrong movies: this so called “Lost Decade” bears fruit as bountifully as any of the more cherished periods of Japanese film history. Personal favorite Nobuhiko Obayashi had his greatest run from ‘82-’86; Seijun Suzuki returned from television exile with the Taisho Trilogy; Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his debut with a superior screwball porno. And those are the big names. I keep running across little curios that suggest rich veins yet to be mined. There’s Yokohama BJ Blues, for example, a jazzy noir about a singer who moonlights as a P.I. and who—between torchlit performances of ditties that describe too much drinking and too much Hemingway—investigates Yokohama’s gay crime syndicate; or The Lonely Hearts Club Band in September, a biker movie in which a middle-aged, middle-class salaryman exacts violent revenge on a gang of young cruisers. Their crime? Choosing to ride their own road while society barrels forward in a different direction. If, strapped in with the culture at large, we fail to glimpse them as we zoom on by, if we continue to survey cinema from its empty, homogenized center, rather than from its shabbier margins, that’s on us, not the movies.
Top 10 2019 Double Features
2019 was an unusually great year for film, both in terms of US releases and in my viewing of new-to-me films. In commemoration of this, I’ve decided to steal Mubi’s annual “Fantasy Double Features” idea (which three fellow Seattle Screen Scene writers have contributed to) and list my 2019 top ten along with ten of my favorite first watches. Most of these are fairly obvious picks, but they’re all eminently great films.
1. La Flor (Mariano Llinás)/Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974, Jacques Rivette)
Two sprawling films co-conceived by their directors and four actresses, openly engaging with the limitless potential of storytelling, viewership, and cinema, exploding barriers one indelible moment and flight of fancy at a time.
2. Asako I & II (Ryüsuke Hamaguchi)/Syndromes and a Century (2006, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Sure, there’s the bipartite construction of each film, but registering even more strongly is the subtle interplay between the city and the countryside in each, and how they inform and shape the sense of romance on display. Their senses of rapture resonate together, even if one’s height is at the beginning and the other’s at the close.
3. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)/India Song (1975, Marguerite Duras)
Two of the most intoxicating atmospheres put to film, using a surfeit of formal daring and judiciously deployed star presence to encapsulate worlds and histories of longing and loss.
4. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)/Stray Dogs (2013, Tsai Ming-liang)
Decay of the body, the landscape, and the nation, captured in a way only digital technology and the talents of some of the most masterful directors and actors alive can do.
5. Transit (Christian Petzold)/The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933, Fritz Lang)
Two Germanic masters operating at the height of their powers, daringly depicting the fascist forces thriving under strife and unrest and the romantic agents desperately trying to resist and survive.
6. Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)/A City of Sadness (1989, Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Two of the greatest modern directors cast a glance back at the weight of national change, locating unrest in the quotidian and in the absences that accumulate as the years go by.
7. Grass (Hong Sang-soo)/Certified Copy (2010, Abbas Kiarostami)
Some of the most elusive films by enormously elusive filmmakers, utilizing familiar forms and actors in entirely unfamiliar and emotionally/relationally revelatory ways.
8. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)/Mahjong (1996, Edward Yang)
In a certain sense Bong’s airtight constructions and Yang’s freewheeling approach are at odds, but both capture the hustle and disappointments of capitalism, the transactional nature of interpersonal interactions.
9. High Life (Claire Denis)/The End of Evangelion (1997, Hideaki Anno)
This really should include the entirety of Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of the most significant experiences I had with any media object this year; these are works moving between coldness and viscera, anguish and remove, operating with frightening range and abandon.
10. Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry)/The Mother and the Whore (1973, Jean Eustache)
Though one of Perry’s earlier films would be an even better fit; there’s no redemption for Eustache’s characters, just a sense of total exhaustion. But there’s plenty of that in Perry’s latest, as maximalist and overtly sensorial as Eustache’s approach is minimalist and documentarian.
In the midst of 2019 year-end (and decade-end) lists, I find myself reflecting more on viewing experiences, often viewing experiences I’ve shared with others, more than specific 2019 films I loved. It’s the moments of film-related insight, or inspiration, or emotion, and, especially, personal connection, I think, that will keep me going this new year, in a world that feels increasingly lost and chaotic, in need of beauty and of reminders of humanity.
In no particular order, just a few of these moments:
–Re-watching Pather Panchali and seeing and feeling, as I hadn’t before, the heartbreaking beauty contained in waterbugs and wind-whipped lily pads, a world contained in a series of images and feeling again that thing, that knowledge you can’t know but you have to feel, the thing that is cinema
–The rapturous reception of Godard’s Breathless by one particular film history student — though an avid and voracious consumer of film, she’d never seen anything like Breathless and her joy in it, whatever my jaded reflections on the New Wave, particularly with regard to women, reminded me what is so invigorating about the New Wave, perhaps particularly to youthful film lovers
–Watching The Florida Project with a group of students who’d never seen it nor heard of it but, as a group, were more moved by it than by any film I’ve ever shown to a class, and who managed to sweep away any reservations I had about the film myself; their wide-ranging discussion afterwards about social justice and the need for marginalized perspectives, reminded me just how provocative a medium film is and how grateful I am for it
–Discussing If Beale Street Could Talk with a student who was doing an independent study and landing in our discussion on the point in the film where the camera seems to hold its breath, where it stops time, contains an overwhelming emotion that cannot be done with words — in remembering the scene together, all we could do was look at each other and say nothing for a long moment
–After a screening of Stories We Tell, one student walking up to me in tears, so moved was she by the film, and then we both just cried together
–Watching Wadjda with my 10-year old, who loved the way Wadjda colored her shoes with a black marker, a moment of two girls and a simple, shared humanity
–The stillness of the rapt silence when my film history students watched Killer of Sheep and the way they struggled to articulate themselves about what they’d seen and been so moved by afterwards
–Watching Eighth Grade with my teen daughters and seeing the way film can reach across distances and bring validation and healing in ways that perhaps no other medium can do
–My daughters all falling in love with Agnès Varda while watching Faces Places
–Experiencing, yet again, the truth that film moves others in ways it does not always move me, in this case, after years of earnestly trying to get my daughters to love the Star Wars universe as I do, it was, ironically, the deeply flawed Rise of Skywalker (and, let’s face it, the hot blood of the Kylo Ren and Rey dynamic) that finally got them to see the light, and, at their bidding, we’ve re-watched the original Star Wars films as a family, and now they are pretending they’ve always loved the series
The idea is that we keep doing this until the next poll comes out in 2022, by which time we’ll each have a Top 100 list. Well, I will. Mike will have only 98 because he repeated two from his 2012 list on the 2013 one.
Here are Mike’s Top Ten Films of All-Time for 2019:
1. One Week (Buster Keaton & Edward Cline, 1920)
2. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)
3. Pit Stop (Jack Hill, 1969)
4. A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971)
5. The Truth About De-evolution (Chuck Statler, 1976)
6. Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985)
7. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
8. Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)
9. Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
10. Mad Max Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
And here are Sean’s Top Ten Films of All-Time for 2019:
1. Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu, 1948)
2. The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952)
3. Kiss Me Kate (George Sidney, 1953)
4. Airplane! (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams & Jerry Zucker, 1980)
Heading down the home stretch of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, here are some titles to watch out for.
The Legend of the Stardust Brothers– An experiment from mid-80s Japanese cinema about a fictional New Wave band. Directed by Macoto Tezuka, the 22 year old son of legendary comic book creator Osamu Tezuka.
Distinction – Jevons Au was one of the five directors who contributed to the controversial Hong Kong omnibus film Ten Years, and one of three directors who made Trivisa, one of the better HK films of recent years, under the Milkway Image umbrella (where he also co-wrote Romancing in Thin Air). This is his solo directorial debut, a social problem drama about a school musical program for kids with disabilities.
Enamorada– Archival presentation of the 1946 Mexican melodrama starring María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz.
Lynch: A History – David Shields’s film about sports, the media, and American racism, compiled entirely from hundreds of archival clips of Seahawks legend Marshawn Lynch, is the essential film of this year’s festival.
I am Cuba – Mikhail Kalatozov’s ground-breaking 1964 Soviet-Cuban propaganda film is quite simply one of the greatest movies ever made. The cinematography (by Sergei Urusevsky) is wildly innovative, but the story itself, an episodic accounting of the social conditions which paved the way for the Cuban Revolution, is just as breath-taking.
One, Two, Three – One of Billy Wilder’s greatest comedies, featuring one of James Cagney’d finest performances. He plays a Coca-Cola executive in Cold War West Berlin trying cope with his boss’ daughter’s romance with a Beatnik Commie Red while opening the Soviet market to the wonders of profitably fizzy sugar. Possibly the fastest movie ever made.
Go Back to China – Director Emily Ting follows up her amiable light rom-com It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong with this film about a Chinese-American woman who has to go back to China to work at her father’s toy factory. The father is played by Hong Kong comedy icon Richard Ng.
Barbara Rubin & The Exploding NY Underground – Chuck Smith’s documentary about the avant-garde filmmaker and the crazy art world she frequented (Allen Ginsburg, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, etc etc).
I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians – The latest from Romanian director Radu Jude is about a theatre director attempting to stage a show about the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews in Odessa after its capture by Romanian troops in 1941.
House of Hummingbird – SIFF calls it “Eighth Grade in South Korea.” But it’s probably better than that sounds.
The Dead Don’t Die – Jim Jarmusch’s zombie movie opens June 13. SIFF has it slightly earlier.
MEMORY – The Origins of Alien – Documentaries about Alien are always welcome. This one “features a treasure trove of never-before-seen material from the O’Bannon and Giger archives, including original story notes, rejected designs and storyboards, and exclusive behind-the-scenes footage.”
Here are some of the movies we’re looking forward too during this second week of the Seattle International Film Festival:
Mrs. Purple– Justin Chon’s debut film Gook was well-received when it played here a couple of years ago, and for his follow-up he continues to explore Korean-American family dynamics, this time with what SIFF suggests is a strong Wong Kar-wai/Christopher Doyle influence.
No. 1 Chung Ying Street– One of my favorite under-the-radar films from last year is this protest drama from Derek Chiu. The first half is set during pro-Cultural Revolution/Anti-British riots in Hong Kong in 1967, the second in the aftermath of the Umbrella protests of 2014. Rather than simply having the two mirror each other, rhyming past and present, Chiu instead configures the present as an extension of the past, where the personal and family dramas of 50 years ago remain unresolved. It’s a clever approach to a familiar subject.
TheBigamist and The Hitch-Hiker – Two Ida Lupino features in SIFF’s archival program, the first is a domestic melodrama starring Lupino, Joan Fontaine and Edmund O’Brien, while the second is a classic film noir, one of the cheap, nasty ones that is tremendously fun.
Cities of Last Things– I don’t know anything about this Taiwanese film, but SIFF says “Three actors portray one tortured Taiwanese police detective in this sci-fi-tinged noir, told in reverse-chronological order, about the significant events that led him down a path of retribution.” Sounds good to me.
In Fabric– Another retro film from Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy, Berberian Sound Studio), this one a “fetishistically stylized hommage to giallo that satirizes consumerism as hypnotically as it seduces your senses”
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool – A PBS doc about the great musician and composer that is about as good as these things get. If nothing else, it’s almost two hours of non-stop Miles Davis music.
Non-Fiction– Both Evan and I really dug Olivier Assayas’s comedy about rich people, infidelity, and book publishing when we saw it at VIFF last fall. It’s got Juliette Binoche as an actress in a TV cop show and a bunch of delightfully insufferable French people talking about e-books. It’s the best Woody Allen movie of the past 30 years or so.
Here are some of the movies we’re looking forward to this first week of the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival:
The Third Wife – The debut feature from Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair has been making the festival rounds to some acclaim. This period drama, about a young girl who gets married off to a wealthy landlord looks to have some Raise the Red Lantern vibes. Could be the second good Vietnamese movie to hit Seattle Screens this year, after Furie.
The Phantom of the Opera– SIFF’s archival program is one of the highlights of this year’s festival, and it kicks off with this silent version of Phantom starring Lon Chaney. I last saw this more than 20 years ago, on Halloween, in a gothic-style Catholic church in Spokane, where it was accompanied by the church organ. It was pretty cool. It plays here at the Egyptian, with a live score by indie band The Invincible Czars.
A Family Tour– Ying Liang’s mostly autobiographical film about a director who is exiled from China after she directed a movie that looks exactly like Ying’s 2012 film When Night Falls, which got him exiled from China. The director hasn’t seen her mother in years, but they arrange a meet-up during a film festival in Taiwan. A quiet, deeply sad movie about the personal consequences of abstract repression.
3 Faces – The latest from Jafar Panahi promises to be a clever bit of meta filmmaking from the Iranian director mostly famous here in the US for continuing to make movies despite being officially banned from doing so.
The Nightingale – Babadook director Jennifer Kent’s new film is a Western set in 19th Century Tasmania. Her SIFF bio says “she was inspired to become a director after seeing Lars Von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer In The Dark and was able to assist the Danish director on his 2002 film Dogville.”
Storm in My Heart – The latest cinephile doc from Mark Cousins, whose very fine The Eyes of Orson Welles just finished its run at the Film Forum a couple of weeks ago. This one compares and contrasts Lena Horne and Susan Hayward via two of their musicals, Stormy Weather and With a Song in My Heart, respectively.
Ten Years Thailand – An omnibus of short films that imagine the future from four Thai directors, including Tears of the Black Tiger‘s Wisit Sasanatieng, Aditya Assarat (Wonderful Town) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Knife + Heart – A giallo-inspired film, the second feature from Yann Gonzalez. The Grand Illusion is going to play this on 35mm in June, along with Gonzalez’s first film, You and the Night. I haven’t seen either of these, but Evan tells me they’re good and I’m inclined to believe him.
Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) – The SIFF description says that someone named “Norbert Pfaffenbichler pieced together clips from 160 James Mason films to examine the eternally urbane star’s career.” You sold me at “Norbert Pfaffenbichler”.
Between the Lines – A new restoration of Joan Micklin Silver’s 1977 film about an underground newspaper fighting to survive in Boston. Starring Jeff Goldblum and John Heard.
Spione – A revival of Fritz Lang’s 1928 silent film. The only time I saw this was very very late at night while taking care of a newborn, so I don’t really remember much about it. But Fritz Lang enthusiast Evan says it’s one of his very best.
A Faithful Man – Louis Garrel following in the footsteps of his father and every other French director in making a film about infidelity. Garrel also stars, along with his wife, Laetitia Casta, and Lily-Rose Depp, the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis (who is in Knife + Heart).
When David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin made The Social Network in 2010, a lot of discourse was generated with a lot of genuine surprise that a film about people being in front of their computers would be so compelling to watch. There was reason for that reaction: there had been and have been many films that fail to really engage in modern communications whether on computers, social media, or texting. Many filmmakers and shows outright avoid ‘the smart phone issue’, setting films in periods that predated that technology or build a world where characters simply do not engage with those ways of communication and online interaction in the narrative. But as this decade has grown from The Social Network, there has gradually developed a syntax for how films use and integrate people on computers and smart phones, how people use social media and the ways people on those platforms use technology, such as cataloguing and uploading videos. Two works, a feature film and a television program, Cam (Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei) and season 2 of American Vandal (Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda) show the multifaceted complexities and personal stakes tied to each of their digital landscapes that go to show that you cannot just ‘get off your computer’ to remedy things when something bad happens to you online.
Cam and American Vandal, both available to stream on Netflix, both make perfect sense as entertainment to watch on your computer or electronic device. The films are not merely about their characters being entangled on the Internet–both use real-life platforms, apps, websites, and even in some cases create their own fictional but cannily similar to real-life websites and platforms which nail the dialogue our characters have with the great unknowns on the other side of their communications.
In American Vandal‘s second season, the two teenage documentary filmmakers from Season One, Sam (Griffin Guck) and Peter (Tyler Alvarez), are enlisted by the Catholic high school St. Bernadine in Washington state to solve a new incident: who spiked the cafeteria lemonade with laxatives to cause a massive ‘brown-out’ (read: diarrhea outbreak) and goes under the pseudonym “The Turd Burglar”? The Turd Burglar (online handle @theturdburglar) communicates their plans via social media with teases and oblique but ominous messages. At points even The Turd Burglar communicates with Peter and Sam as well. Part of this is lifted from common true crime tropes, such as criminals communicating with authorities, but in its high school setting and through contemporary technology, this becomes the bread and butter of American Vandal itself–a show that is a mockumentary and spoof of true crime docs in which series creator Tony Yacenda gets how to use online and smart phone communication as well as anyone. Season One (that dealt with vandalism in the teacher’s parking lot) was all about connecting clues from various witness accounts by using their phones and social media accounts which ultimate exonerated the accused. Season Two takes it a step further, namely unlike in Season One we definitively find out who committed the crime. The accused, teenager Kevin McClain, turns out to be an accessory and not the only accessory of The Turd Burglar. Peter and Sam quickly notice this is more than just a one-man job and find other students at the high school who are tied to The Turd Burglar. Like Kevin, they were all manipulated into committing these acts by blackmail because they were all catfished by an expelled student of St. Bernadine’s named Grayson Wentz, who was able to fool them all by copying and stealing from the social media account of a young woman from out of town.
The way American Vandal dives into this knotted plot is engrossing and unsettling all at once, one unshakeable scene being when Peter and Sam meet the girl who they were led to believe was the catfish of the St. Bernadine student only for her to turn out to be another victim and discovering her identity from her Instagram account got stolen on-camera. Then ‘The Dump’ (surely inspired from the iCloud leak photos of celebrities in 2014) occurs, where St. Bernadine’s students and a staff member have all of their compromising information and photos of themselves revealed to their student body and the local media. The vulnerabilities of teenagers being manipulated and used and the vulnerabilities of their technology being up for grabs to be stolen and used maliciously against them become intertwined. The season’s coda succinctly states in Peter’s narration, “We’re not the worst generation, we’re just the most exposed.”
Cam (a Blumhouse Production) is also about personal information getting compromised and stolen identity, in this case the stolen identity of a ‘cam girl’ an online sex worker on adult web sites. The film intelligently shows the blurred lines of online persona, sex work, reality, identity, and artifice, from the very start showing that not everything is as it seems. The film begins with Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer), who goes under the screen name of Lola_Lola, broadcasting in her shag-carpeted, candy-colored room in her home as she interacts with fans who come to see her strip, perform sex acts, and other kinks that they jive with, which includes her pretending to kill herself. What makes this fake-out so effective is the building tension of Lola interacting with a troll in her comments section. It turns out that she and a friend are manipulating the situation, setting up a false troll to help Alice/Lola get attention and shoot up the rankings of the ultra-competitive cam girl website “FREEGIRLS.LIVE” (a fictional web site but a very credible imitation of that type of adult web site as far as layout and the quick, free-flowing messaging and interaction of user and performer). Over the course of the film, Alice finds out that what at first appears to be someone imitating her, or someone directly lifting videos from her shows and passing them off as their own. But it gets so much weirder than that. Cam was inspired by screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam girl which included having her own videos stolen, promoted as belonging to a different person on an adult web site. The film understands how these websites work and how the threat of stolen identity and how their anonymity can be breached and heightened. Losing your online identity becomes a kind of Steven Soderbergh meets Brian DePalma hyper-text. Alice has to confront her doppelgänger, who has become intertwined with her web persona because this is not just a hobby for her. It is lucrative work that pays her bills. So when Lola finds herself locked out of her online account, a financial resource is being cut off. This menacing omnipresence in her life is revealed to have happened because of her friend Tinker, the friend who had previously helped her rankings by posing as a troll, who created the account to feed directly into his fantasies that he felt Alice denied him.
Cam and AmericanVandal‘s disturbing depictions of being online can lead to cynical or alarmist readings of how bad being online can be. But that would be overlooking the many times each of them show the failure by those in power to protect these characters, whether they are still in high school or online sex workers. School administrators, officials, as well as law enforcement in American Vandal look ridiculous in their quick rush to find a guilty party, as more ‘brown outs’ occur while Kevin McClain is under house arrest, and that they are unable to tell what is real versus manipulated, compromised ‘fake news’ shows how hapless the adults are in dealing with online-based crimes. In Cam, Alice’s run-ins with the adult web site’s customer service phone line goes nowhere and her attempt to get help from the police leads to nothing but their moral disapproval of her sex work and completely ignorant unsolicited advice like, ‘Just stay off the internet’. Both works know how unrealistic this advice is, as the Internet is in each of their DNA formally and in how they both communicate in narrative to the viewer. One of my favorite sight gags in any film this year are the endless, ongoing messages that keep scrolling by the background in Cam whenever Alice is in the foreground. It is that level of detail becoming banal white noise that is exactly how to portray the 21st Century on-screen.
Both Cam and American Vandal know that they do not exist to solve the internet or show how to protect users with a safe and secure online experience, like a PSA or after-school special, but they do show how normal and abnormal online experiences have their own ebbs and flows. Those ebbs and flows can be significantly consequential to the depiction of the Internet as a Wild West that is boundless, as equal in promise as potential hazard. With that in mind, who could ever say a film about being in front of your computer or phone is boring?
I asked everyone who contributed to Seattle Screen Scene this year to send in a list of their favorites of 2018. There was no limit on what could be included: TV, books, music, old movies or new movies, as long as it was something they loved this year. These were the responses:
10 for 2018
No ordering principle here, just 10 movies that I encountered (or in one case, re-encountered) this year, and which subsequently took up permanent residence in my mind.
Raphaël ou le débauché (Michel Deville, 1971)
Michel Deville rode no new waves, belongs to no school that I recognize, and nothing that I watched this year defeated my powers of categorization quite like Raphaël ou le débauché. Superficially a costume drama in the cinema du papa tradition, but possessed of a truly wild spirit, it shares a certain strain of luxuriant morbidity with Diagonale, though it’s arguably less cinephilic—allowing for a few echoes of Otto Preminger’s similarly lamplit Linda Darnell vehicle, Forever Amber—and therefore less reflexive about the Thanatos/Eros complex at its center. No arch Vecchialian movie logic helps explain why virtuous Francois Fabian abruptly demands debasement. That the object of her affections is a boozed-up Maurice Ronet, hangdog when on his best behavior but more comfortable cavorting around in the manner of a particularly hungry circus bear, confirms that our chaste widow has a simple case of animal lust. Ok, so perhaps not unclassifiable after all, just not my usual kind of thing: a bodice-ripper in the most literal sense, quite shameless, really, but genuinely touched by an unshakable need for sexual oblivion.
Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (Rainier Werner Fassbinder, 1972)
Wasn’t sure that it would ever happen, but I finally found *my* Fassbinder.
The Boy and the Wind (Carlos Hugo Christensen, 1967) / Tea and Sympathy (Vincente Minnelli, 1956)
Two communions under a tree: a cyclonic blast of air brings male bodies together on a hilltop, and John Kerr, perpetually gone to earth, is pulled from the ground into a liberating embrace. Straight society’s opprobrium can’t touch the natural world, it seems, even if the melodramatics require that the closet door finally shuts again. Still, closets don’t come more beautifully appointed, and the wind, though it doesn’t blow the hinges off entirely, at least rattles the rafters. God bless the gay boys who stumbled into these movies on release.
Uma Pedra no Bolso (Joaquim Pinto, 1988)
“The exercise was beneficial, sir.” Son of Moonfleet.
Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai, 1990)
Not a revisit. A revisitation. Wong’s hazy images are largely as I remember them, but 15 years of life let shadows creep in, opened the door to a few ghosts: the two phantom Cheungs, yes, a Hong Kong (cinema) now disappeared, certainly, but mostly a parade of former selves. Turns out Days of Being Wild was a formative work in ways that I’m only now beginning to comprehend (and some of which I’m not sure that I care to admit). “Let us explore a genesis for my pretensions.”
As shambolic and meandering as one might expect from Sylvia Chang, and more moving for it. Mark Lee Ping-bing lends Hou’s turn of the century blues; embryonic CGI suggests a world in the process of remaking itself. A key (and mostly forgotten) text of the early millennium: the past dances with the future, a bit awkwardly perhaps, though no less beautifully than it does in the acknowledged epochal masterpieces. And none of those films have Anthony Wong as historical, emotional, and political instructor leading the waltz of time.
Amanda (Mikhaël Hers, 2018) / Twenty Years Later (Eduardo Coutinho, 1984)
A girl and a woman, but the same question in the aftermath of profound trauma and political violence: “Will you go back to the world?”
The City Below (Christoph Hochhäusler, 2010)
Berlin School does Mabuse. Apart from Blackhat, the only film of the century to bottle up our era’s borderless, miasmic psychosis in the same way that Fritz Lang did for his. Hochhäusler, like many of his contemporaries, is fascinated by the glass and steel mise-en-scene that finance capital uses to project its power, though he alone ventures to anthropomorphize the anonymous business towers that dominate the globe’s alpha cities. An image like the good Doktor’s head superimposed over a Weimar stock floor is no longer necessary: the modern world’s hyaline face induces its own kind of hypnosis. Throw a brick to break the spell.
Le Théâtre des matières (Jean-Claude Biette, 1977)
Cinema is sleepwalking and the theater is yielding to dust (the collapse concludes quite definitively in The Carpathian Mushroom). Biette understands better than anyone what low-rent, community theater productions feel like: the petty tyrant directors, the boredom, and the empty seats, of course. No one attends the plays in Biette, and the actors are hardly more present: the central image is somnolent Sonia Saviange nodding off at the most inopportune moments. Her Dorothèe is put-upon and weighed down by waking life, though she carries the secret badge of a French Resistance hero, suggesting that she once possessed a fighter’s will. Now she’s tired. Who can blame her for seeking rest and refuge in a black box? And who, reading this cinephile website, doesn’t also prefer the comfort of their little dominion of dust?
Best Films Seen in 2018
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler) Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird) Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee) A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper) Roma (Alfonso Cuaron) Creed II (Steven Caple Jr.) Transit (Christian Petzold) Lu Over the Wall (Masaki Yuasa) Mirai (Mamoru Hosoda) Overboard (Rob Greenberg) Paddington 2 (Paul King)
And, of course, Been Busy (Jhon Hernandez)
Sadly, I could not watch Welcome to Marwen or The Mule or La Flor. One day.
10 Best Films I saw for the first time in 2018 and where I saw them:
1. Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman) [MUBI] 2. The Leopard Man (1943, Jacques Tourneur) [Digital File] 3. The Mother and the Whore (1973, Jean Eustache) [35mm, presented by Leaud, Mar del Plata Film Festival] 4. Chimes at Midnight (1965, Orson Welles) [MUBI] 5. The Phantom of Liberty (1974, Luis Buñuel) [MUBI] 6. Prince of Darkness (1987, John Carpenter) [MUBI] 7. Sunset Boulevard (1950, Billy Wilder) [Digital File] 8. The Milky Way (1969, Luis Buñuel) [MUBI] 9. Stolen Kisses (1968, François Truffaut) [DCP, presented by Leaud, Mar del Plata Film Festival] 10. Zwischengleis (1978, Wolfgang Staudte) [35mm, Mar del Plata Film Festival]
2018 Premieres (alphabetical):
1. Asako I & II (Ryusuke Hamaguchi) 2. Belmonte (Federico Veiroj) 3. Burning (Lee Chang-dong) 4. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo) 5. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack) 6. Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry) 7. Hotel by the River (Hong Sang-soo) 8. The House That Jack Built (Lars von Trier) 9. In My Room (Ulrich Köhler) 10. Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) 11. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (Julien Faraut) 12. A Land Imagined (Yeo Siew Hua) 13. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan) 14. Notes on an Appearance (Ricky D’Ambrose) 15. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles) 16. Our Time (Carlos Reygadas) 17. Petra (Jaime Rosales) 18. Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski) 19. Transit (Christian Petzold) 20. Unfriended: Dark Web (Stephen Susco)
Special Mention for Best Theatrical Viewings: La Flor (Mariano Llinás, 2018); Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)
Caden Mark Gardner:
TOP TEN FILMS OF 2018
FIRST REFORMED (Paul Schrader) – Hudson River School enters the Tarkovsky Ring.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (Orson Welles) – Somehow a poison pen and a love letter all at once. A monumental feat in reconstruction.
THE DAY AFTER (Hong Sang-Soo) – Perhaps the last of a certain kind of Hong Sang-Soo film and it just so happens to be one of his very best.
LEAVE NO TRACE (Debra Granik) – Granik moves out of the more genre film trappings of her last narrative film (Winter’s Bone) into more documentary-like observation, making an empathetic film about a lost generation of veterans that have slipped through the cracks of society and bureaucracy. Thomasin McKenzie’s Tom, however, with her round face and blue eyes, offers a glimmer of optimism as the offspring of Ben Foster’s traumatized vet.
SUPPORT THE GIRLS (Andrew Bujalski) – Almost play-like in the contained, chamber comedy and drama of being entrapped in late capitalism. A career highpoint for Regina Hall and I will watch Haley Lu Richardson in anything.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (Joel and Ethan Coen) – The many flavors of the Coens in the Old West are on full display in this anthology film, including one of their most scorching pieces of political commentary with the section “Meal Ticket”.
LET THE SUNSHINE IN (Claire Denis) – Denis in a different key, but that does not mean lesser Denis. Binoche’s performance alone immediately contradicts that incorrect opinion.
ZAMA (Lucrecia Martel) – Would make a fine double-bill with the late Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly as a meditation of colonialism. A truly ambient experience that is also one the most wryly funny films that Martel has made yet.
READY PLAYER ONE (Steven Spielberg) – Sorry haters, The Shining recreation is a masterpiece and achievement in CGI production design. Only Spielberg could direct this movie.
PERMANENT GREEN LIGHT (Dennis Cooper and Zac Farley) – An only in New York premiere. Queer outlaw writer Cooper and his young collaborator in their second feature film create a late Bressonian film for Generation Z. Imagine if Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturamawere gayer, more aimless and slack, and the actions of this group of les enfant terribles were even more senseless because it was ripped from the headlines (inspired by an Australian teenager who joined ISIS).
TOP TEN TELEVISION SHOWS OF 2018
JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU ([adult swim]) – A public access TV hybrid of Bob Newhart and Mr. Rogers in a thirtysomething grandpacore package who wants to take you on explorations across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Buffalo native Joe Pera’s shorts on [adult swim] are almost perverse in earnestness and believability. You likely know a few Joe Peras in your life. You know, that guy who loves breakfast, that guy who loves talking about rocks and minerals, or that guy who has just discovered The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ for the first time and cannot stop talking about it. Joe Pera Talks With You is one of the great 2018 antidotes to both the equally cynical strained seriousness dramas and manufactured ‘nicecore’ television content because it riffs on both familiarity and esoteric while maintaining a heart of gold.
POSE (FX) – “The category is….” This show upon announcement made me antsy as a trans person. Mega Producer and TV svengali Ryan Murphy’s track record in trans characters was mixed at best, but Murphy’s strength this year was displaying deference in having other people around him to offer experience and knowledge far beyond his own which in this case was telling the stories of queer and trans women of color in 1980s New York during the height of the drag ball scene, most famously captured in Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning. Pose had me by its use of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ in the first episode.
HIGH MAINTENANCE (HBO) – Au Hasard Weed Dealer. A lot has been made about what type of ‘art in the age of Trump’ should be made. High Maintenance-once just a web series about a local Brooklyn weed dealer’s interactions with his clientele day-to-day- managed to deliver one of the first great examples of how to pull that off. The episode ‘Globo’ is a ‘day after’ episode that alludes to November 9th, 2016, striking a sincere, funny, and somber chord of the aftermath and confusion of that day.
AMERICAN VANDAL (NETFLIX) – In this (possibly last) season of the student web sleuths solving another school-set crime, we figure out who committed ‘The Brown Out’, a massive outbreak of diarrhea at a Catholic school. The labyrinthine journey to solving that mystery might be one of the most disturbing cases of ‘being online’ in all of television.
LODGE 49 (AMC) – It would almost feel like a disservice to just describe this show (created by author Jim Gavin) as Pynchonesque despite sharing such similar to proclivities of the famous reclusive author of hippies, secret societies, and hazy, shaggy dog stories. That comparison does the show no favors but Lodge 49 has the charm of feeling like a cult show made just for me. It stars Wyatt Russell (Everybody Wants Some!!), which gives it a slacker vibe that is more wholesome than off-putting. While this show embraces strangeness and question marks than exclamation points and plotting, there was no show better this year at showing the futility of working (and keeping) a desk job in the 21st century.
RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS (HBO) – Somehow on HBO. Terence Nance’s experimental late night show hit on the beautiful, absurd, surreal, and outright inspired, showing what the director has been up to since An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. Next project: Space Jam 2(??????) with LeBron James.
BETTER CALL SAUL (AMC) – The level of dread I felt in the turn of phrase, ‘It’s all good, man,’ being uttered was something I have not felt from watching an episode of television since its sister show, Breaking Bad. How appropriate.
(tie) A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL (AMAZON PRIME) and AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE (FX) – Look backs on gay life post-The Celluloid Closet by examining the culture and societies that surrounded these two true stories of Gianni Versace being killed by serial killer Andrew Cunanan in the 1990s and British Member of Parliament Jeremy Thorpe’s political career getting destroyed after being publicly outed by his ex-lover in the 1970s. Versace in Versace is more of a Trojan Horse of the show than a main character but what becomes the show’s focus are a rich tapestry of the various other men, that you could all describe as being in the closet to some degree, who were manipulated and killed by Cunanan. English Scandal is more focused on telling a specific type of gay male character of a certain time period and one where you are not as sympathetic for Thorpe’s downfall. But Hugh Grant as Thorpe is a delicious turn from him, nonetheless. Consider it the unauthorized sequel to Maurice.
DETROITERS (Comedy Central) – A ‘Made in Detroit’ show that leans in on silliness and wonder of the local color and area actors. ButDetroiters also is skillful in skewering the popular outside perceptions and portrayals of the Motor City, with its main characters working as ad men who desperately keep trying to get the auto industry to be their clients.
FINAL DEPLOYMENT 4: QUEEN BATTLE WALKTHROUGH ([adult swim]) –From the disturbed mind of Casper Kelly, responsible for Too Man Cooks, comes the lampooning of the popular video game walkthrough that self-cannibalizes itself in a way that made me think more than once of Harun Farocki and when Daffy Duck kept getting erased in Duck Amuck.
HONORABLE MENTIONS:Atlanta, of course. The second season were more vignette episodes with varying degrees of impressive, but Brian Tyree Henry and LaKeith Stanfield continued to give the best performances on television. Other top television performers on par with Stanfield and Henry were Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer in the unpredictable, defies genre and classification Killing Eve. The iconic and consistently great animation miracle of Adventure Time ended gracefully. The Terror brought a chilly, suspenseful, and history nerdiness in a handsome, old-fashioned package. Twenty-two year-old Florence Pugh gives a star-making turn in Park Chan-Wook’s adaptation of John LeCarre’s The Little Drummer Girl. And yes, I would be remised not to mention the true last vestiges of The Golden Age of Television: The Real Housewives of New York and Vanderpump Rules.
NEW TO ME FILMS FOR 2018:
VARIETY (BETTE GORDON) – A New York film (past or present) has never made me felt as alive on first viewing like this Bette Gordon-Kathy Acker joint mostly set in a porn theater since I watched Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets for the first time.
LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN & CAUGHT & THE RECKLESS MOMENT (All by Max Ophüls) – French auteur Max Ophüls in his brief time in Hollywood produced some of the richest narratives of melodrama, gender relations, class, and blistering commentaries on American life in the sparest runtimes.
BLUE (Derek Jarman) & ORLANDO (Sally Potter) – Tilda Swinton in both these queer cinema masterworks as the voice and avatar on sexuality, gender, mortality, immortality, visionary, revisionism, transcendence, and testament.
TAXI ZUM KLO (Frank Ripploh) – A pre-AIDS era West German gay sex comedy that is frank and still shocking in its casualness that forces the viewer to confront and clock their own biases and perceptions of its unabashedly gay and unashamed main character (played by Ripploh himself).
AMERICAN MADNESS (Frank Capra) – Predating his classic It’s A Wonderful Life, Capra somehow created an even more ruthless drama about American banking with this Pre-Code.
CROSSING DELANCEY (Joan Micklin Silver) – One of the best examples of how to adapt a stage play to the screen in crafting an entirely fresh and natural identity while staying true to the text of the play. A perfect film, really.
COMRADES: ALMOST A LOVE STORY (Peter Chan) – A romantic comedy that turns into an epic of national identity and globalization with Maggie Cheung giving the best Audrey Hepburn performance that Audrey Hepburn never gave.
PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (Albert Lewin) – Ava Gardner was already one of the most beautiful movie stars of all-time and yet, in being filmed by cinematography giant Jack Cardiff in this, her beauty achieves a beatific, otherworldly zenith that at many points made me gasp.
CLUNY BROWN (Ernst Lubitsch) – A recently reappraised Ernst Lubitsch film that uses Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer’s winning turns as rubbing sticks to make fire. The result is your heart melting.
WORKING GIRLS (Lizzie Borden) – This and Variety (throw in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute for good measure) might be the only great American films about sex workers. Treats the oldest profession like any other profession, which makes it both radical and the truest hangout film of the 1980s.
MY TEN QUEER/LGBTQ FILM DISCOVERIES
BLUE (Derek Jarman)
ORLANDO (Sally Potter)
TAXI ZUM KLO (Frank Ripploh)
PINK NARCISSUS (James Bidgood) – A sumptuous fantasia of naked male bodies surrounded by incredible production design and candy color lighting. Bidgood, a photographer, only years after the film got released received proper credit for this classic.
LOOKING FOR LANGSTON (Isaac Julien) – Queer historical revisionism on the poet Langston Hughes that is also a beautiful piece of anachronistic wish fulfillment of gay life for men of color.
SILVERLAKE LIFE: THE VIEW FROM HERE (Tom Joslin & Peter Friedman) – A gay couple documents one’s deterioration from AIDS. The most heartbreaking and beautiful love story that I have ever seen on film.
THE QUEEN (Frank Simon) – A Pre-Stonewall documentary on drag queens and trans women competing in a highly public beauty pageant in 1968 New York. It features Crystal LaBeija, the godmother of Ballroom Culture that took the city underground by storm years later.
BY HOOK OR BY CROOK (Silas Howard and Harry Dodge) – If there were any justice or taste in this world, this film and not the deeply unpleasant Boys Don’t Cry would be the film about trans man that would come up in every discussion about trans representation in film.
CHRISTMAS ON EARTH (Barbara Rubin) – Barbara Rubin was only 18 years old when she made this underground film sensation in 1963. Explicit gay and straight sexual acts filmed and spliced together simultaneously with a rock soundtrack played over, it faced massive censorship and suppression at screenings. On occasion Rubin would go to Andy Warhol’s parties dressed as a nun and project Christmas on Earth over rock group The Velvet Underground as they played.
MIKE’S MURDER (James Bridges) – Writer-director James Bridges had worked with everybody from Jane Fonda to Clint Eastwood to John Travolta, but what is undoubtedly the most provocative films for the gay filmmaker is a film that’s been shamefully forgotten. Debra Winger plays a woman who finds out a past one-night stand was murdered. She finds out about the troubled man’s past, that he was a drug dealer and that he had gay relationships, including with a male record producer (played sensitively and soulfully by Paul Winfield, himself a gay man in one of the few roles where he played gay).
Ten Things from My 2018:
10. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams
I’d never heard this before giving it a spin on the 4th of July, inspired by a tweet or something. I proceeded to play it near-continuously for the next several weeks, and it remains the one album I discovered this year that I keep coming back to again and again. My only musical obsession of 2018.
9. Hong Sangsoo Movies Old & New
I spent basically the entire month of January watching Hong’s entire filmography in chronological order and writing about every single one of them. Then when Grass premiered I watched it twice in two days. And when List became available I watched it and wrote about it right away too. In the fall I saw Hotel by the River too. But I haven’t written anything at all about it.
8. Agatha Christie
Because I love giving myself impossible tasks almost as much as I enjoy buying used books, I decided to read all of Agatha Christie’s works in chronological order. Which of course necessitated buying several dozen aged paperbacks. I read seven of the books this year, and about half the first short story collection. We also spent the summer watching the David Suchet Poirot series. As yet I have solved no mysteries.
7. Unfinished Books
Speaking of not finishing things, 2018 was a year of unrealistic reading goals for me, as I decided at year’s onset that I would reread all the Patrick O’Brien Aubrey-Maturin books (I’m halfway through the eighth of twenty), would read Middlemarch (I’m halfway through), and would finish The Power Broker (which I began in the summer of 2016 and am now three-fourths of the way through). That not being enough, during the summer I started reading a big biography of Karl Marx (A World to Win) and my first Thomas Pynchon novel (Against the Day, his longest, naturally). Maybe in 2019 I’ll finish all this stuff. Probably not.
6. Comic Books and Movies
Piling on the impossible tasks, this summer I also got myself a Marvel Unlimited subscription and decided to read through that whole universe in chronological order too (following along with this podcast, I’m about ten weeks in). I also borrowed some comics from the library through Kanopy and caught up with some classics (The Killing Joke, the first couple issues of Sandman). More successfully I watched a bunch of the comic book movies I’d been skipping for the last few years, and surprisingly enough I actually liked a lot of them, from both Marvel and DC. It’s very possible that this, along with a return to video games (including buying my first platform (a Switch) in 15 years), is a symptom of a mid-life crisis-inspired desire to return to my early teen years.
5. Muriel Spark
I did actually finish some books in 2018. For Whom the Bell Tolls was OK but disappointing, Joan Didion’s Fixed Ideas was short, Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café and Nicholas Oster’s Empires of the Word were fun, Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is essential, and Alice Munro’s Moons of Jupiter and Eliot Weinberger’s Works on Paper and Outside Stories were predictably great. But my single favorite read of the year was Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent, a light and funny breeze of a novel that, after I thought about it for a bit, amazed me with the nonchalant brilliance of its construction. I liked it so much I immediately started reading her The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (I am, you guessed it, halfway though) and will probably follow it up with Memento Mori at least in the new year.
4. Chinese Movie Retrospectives
A ridiculous number of fantastic Chinese film series played in the US this year, mostly in New York. I covered several of them, which gave me a chance to revisit favorites and make new discoveries. I watched a bunch of Jackie Chan movies for the Police Story restoration, the new, longer cut of Kung Hu’s Legend of the Mountain, a whole lot of Shaw Brothers horror movies I’d never seen before, just about everything Sylvia Chang directed (alongside early films by Stanley Kwan, Edward Yang and Tony Au), a lot of Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-leung (rewatches mostly, but always welcome), and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness.
3. Japanese Movies
But as much fun as those were, the most satisfying “discoveries” I made in 2018 were from Japan: a half dozen Shunji Iwai films, all of which I adored, three animated films by Masaaki Yuasa, Liz and the Blue Bird, and a couple of films from Masatoshi Harada (including the very great Kamikaze Taxi) and Nobuhiko Obayashi (Hanagatami and Bound for the Fields, the Mountains and the Seacoast, both astounding). The Yuasa films even got me to dip my toes back into anime, subscribing to Crunchyroll and watching Sakura Quest and Nichijou (neither of which are on Crunchyroll anymore) and digging out my dusty Cowboy Bebop soundtracks. More of this in 2019.
2. 2018 African-American Movies
For whatever reason, something in the Trumpian zeitgeist, the payoff of years of hard work and OscarSoWhite campaigning, the democratization of filmmaking equipment, or mere coincidence, almost all of my favorite American films of the year were made by African-American filmmakers. And even the ones that weren’t were about being a person of color and/or being poor in America. If Beale Street Could Talk, Blackkklansman, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, and Sorry to Bother You encompass a vast array of responses to structural racism by black directors, while Support the Girls, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Bisbee ’17,Minding the Gap and, less explicitly, Monrovia, Indiana are films by non-black directors exploring the effects of exploitation both racial and economic on American communities and families. I’d say this is progress, a sign that more interesting and important stories are being told by a wider variety of voices, but then Green Book and Roma are probably gonna win all the movie awards this year. There’s a long way to go.
1. VIFF Movies
After a somewhat lackluster showing in 2017, a result of a down year for movies internationally and some unfortunate circumstances, the Vancouver Film Festival came back this year with one of the finest programs they’ve had in the decade I’ve been attending. International art house hits headlined, of course: Ash is Purest White, Asako I & II, Grass, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Cold War, Burning, Transit, Non-Fiction, Diamantino, Mirai, The Image Book, Shoplifters, Shadow and Happy as Lazzaro. But there was much of interest in the margins too: The Grand Bizarre, No. 1 Chung Ying Street, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, A Land Imagined, Spice It Up, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, Girls Always Happy, One Cut of the Dead, The Running Actress, Microhabitat, A Family Tour, The Darling, Lush Reeds, Manta Ray and short films by Sofia Bohdanowicz, Sophy Romvari and Nathan Douglas. If I had watched nothing but VIFF movies in 2018, it still would have been a great year.
Top Ten American Movies of 2018 in which Women or Girls Do Things
In 1975, Laura Mulvey famously observed that women in movies served primarily as the passive objects of male scopophilia. There’s no doubt that times are changing, but they are changing in Hollywood with excruciating slowness. The advocacy organization Women and Hollywood reports that in 2017, only 24% of the top-grossing American films had female protagonists. Lest we lose the last of the hope that a brutal 2018 has left us, here are ten outstanding films from this year (in no particular order) that gave women or girls things to do:
1 Leave No Trace(dir. Debra Granik): The director of Down to the Bone (2004) and Winter’s Bone (2010) again forcefully and precisely depicts the lives of people on the margins, here focusing on one flinty, resourceful girl who must decide between her own vision for her life and her bond with her troubled father. Observant and intensely absorbing.
2. A Simple Favor(dir. Paul Feig): Feig gives us a witty, stylish, tightly constructed daytime-noir about a supermom with a dark streak (a perfect Anna Kendrick) who charges full-speed into a world of bloody mayhem. A pulpy, hilarious blast, start to finish. Do not miss.
3. Eighth Grade(dir. Bo Burnham): Heartbreaking and exhilarating. Burnham’s vision of the inner life of a teen girl is exact and vivid. His Kayla is the most indelible character of 2018.
4. Annihilation(dir. Alex Garland): In a simultaneously terrifying and eerily beautiful film, an all-woman team investigates a mysterious terrestrial phenomenon. Garland’s science-fiction world blends dream and nightmare in a philosophical inquiry into the primacy of human life on the planet.
5. Skate Kitchen(dir. Crystal Moselle): The shaggy, loose style of this fiction film belies its careful attention to craft. Telling a story based on the real-life all-female skate crew of the title, this film invests the familiar sports-movie and coming-of-age-drama tropes with a raw energy, honesty, frank physicality, and genuine feeling that elevate it from a mere genre film into something precise and visceral.
6. Night Comes On (dir. Jordana Spiro): One of the saddest films of the year, Spiro’s drama (co-written with Angelica Nwandu) looks unflinchingly at the hard lives of two sisters, each of whom is determined to wrest control of her future away from relentless institutional forces. Male violence against women and girls casts a long shadow in this film, as does class-based exploitation, but its heroines face down all obstacles with grit and inventiveness. Recalling both Dee Rees’ Pariah and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, this film gives us a young, star-crossed queer protagonist to remember.
7. Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler): Though Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is the nominal protagonist of this movie, it’s Lupita N’yongo’s Nakia who gives the film its beating heart and moral center. As Wear Your Voice guest writer “Clarkisha Kent” observes, Nakia saves a group of women from kidnappers; she saves Queen Ramonda and Shuri from Erik Killmonger; and together with Ramonda, Shuri, and Okoye, she saves both T’Challa and Wakanda. Ryan Coogler: feminist.
8. Thoroughbreds (dir. Cory Finley): This film has no protagonist. Everyone here is terrible. Two girls hatching a plan hasn’t been so frightening since Heavenly Creatures, but I have to admire their commitment.
9. Game Night (dir. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein): Rachel McAdams steals this movie.
10. Widows (dir. Steve McQueen) Only nominally a heist movie, this film is really about grief, pain, betrayal, and survival. It also tells the truth about the real ugliness of violence. And while the movie isn’t in any way “fun” to watch, it is nevertheless a genuine pleasure to see women banding together to get a job done in a stereotype-free zone. McQueen gets women’s lives and hearts right.
Top 10 Earworm First Watches of 2018
Especially for someone as relatively early in his timeline of film watching as me, the dominance of masterpieces in my finalized yearly first watches lists is guaranteed. And while those films are unimpeachable and utterly masterful, what fascinates me just as much is the idea of an “earworm” film, one that burrows in and refuses to leave the viewers’ head (this concept doesn’t originate with me; I believe I first heard of it on Bilge Ebiri’s Cinephiliacs episode). Although many of these may deservedly be considered part of the canon, they nevertheless carried that enchanting, confounding quality, one that will continue to draw me in for quite some time.
1. The Hole (1998, Tsai Ming-liang)
One of those true lightning-in-a-bottle films; knowing that it’s a musical directed by Tsai Ming-liang alone doesn’t begin to capture the breadth of imagination and genuine fear evoked in this tale of love in the time of apocalypse. Reams of writing could be written on the musical numbers alone, but what makes them soar is the bedrock of Tsai’s style, at once refined and yet ever so slightly mutable. Perhaps not the very greatest of Tsai’s films, but certainly among his most daring.
2. Les Vampires (1915, Louis Feuillade)
A totally comprehensible film; even the straightforward score on the Kino Lorber disc continues to bounce around in my head. And yet that straightforwardness is endemic to the greatness of this serial, as the possibilities become limitless: ordinary people can scale chimneys like superheroes, newspaper reporters can have the deductive skills of a detective, some of the most pleasurable action sequences I’ve ever seen can be executed in static long shot.
Not necessarily the film that made Weerasethakul “click” for me, but its sense of mystery has an overpowering effect, so deeply rooted in its bifurcated structure in a way that refuses simple connections. And the way it links queerness to a primal carnality feels so suited, so hauntingly beautiful.
4. My Night at Maud’s (1969, Eric Rohmer)
Very much a film that feels completely made for me: composed almost solely of long conversations centering on issues of Christianity and philosophy, while teasing out the nuances in relationships between men and women. Of course, this is the most Hongian Rohmer film I know of, which helps, but there’s an entirely different method to the choreography at play in here that continues to tantalize.
5. Zorns Lemma (1970, Hollis Frampton)
The only film on this list I’ve seen twice, and the second time only reinforced that quality. Even more than most of the great films, it simultaneously actively invites and rejects any efforts to totally decipher it in the moment; at a certain point, all but the most hardened viewer has to more-or-less give up and let the images wash over them; of course, both approaches have their considerable associated pleasures.
6. Fallen Angels (1995, Wong Kar-wai)
On here largely for the first twenty or so minutes alone, which still to me feels like some kind of peak for Wong’s aggressively formal filmmaking, almost totally untethered from any semblance of a clear scenario. The rest is merely great and totally wonderful.
7. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966, Roberto Rossellini)
Utterly matter-of-fact in its manner of disseminating information, narrative, character, etc., which makes the eponymous rise all the more compelling. Above all, this is a process film whose end goal is known in rough outline, but whose means of getting there are continually surprising, before, during, and after the fact. (This also stands in for the films I saw this year by Straub-Huillet, which had a similar sort of quality, almost literally so in the case of Othon.)
8. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013, Hong Sang-soo)
I had to include a Hong film, of course, and this seemed like the best candidate, though his oeuvre is seemingly founded upon this quality. The Jane Birkin dream cameo sets the off-beat tone early, and what may be Hong’s first truly loving and compassionate familial relationship is quickly thrown into relief by the usual plays with structure and relationships; the effect is even more dissolute, even more wonderful than the norm.
9. The World (2004, Jia Zhangke)
In a career filled with oblique (maybe not-so-oblique) commentaries on the state of modern China, this might be Jia’s most forthright statement, if only for the use of such a clear-cut setting. The clear disconnect between the quotidian struggles and the looming ersatz structures is rather obvious, which makes the film’s deftness in laying this out onto its sprawling canvas all the more laudable.
10. Simon of the Desert (1965, Luis Buñuel)
A fleet film, to be sure, but whose merits resonate in the mind. The ending sequence — which feels akin to 2001’s Jupiter sequence, in terms of its seismic impact on both experiential and intellectual readings of the film — is but the final kicker in a film of such roiling undercurrents of tension, colliding earthliness and faith with wild abandon.
For good measure, here’s my actual 2018 top ten list (US release year):
Still lots of catching up to do on 2018 films, but these six+ have stuck—and will stick—with me:
You Were Never Really Here
Sorry to Bother You
The Other Side of the Wind
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse
HM: Black Panther, First Reformed
Top 10 new-to-me old movies:
A Better Tomorrow (Woo, 1986) Heat (Mann, 1995) Keaton shorts: The Cameraman/Cops/The High Sign/The Goat Suspense (Weber, 1913) Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920) Underworld (von Sternberg, 1927) Hitchcock: Topaz/Stage Fright/The Paradine Case Winchester ‘73 (Mann, 1950) The Petrified Forest (Mayo, 1936) Los Olvidados (Bunuel, 1950)
Best theater experiences:
A Better Tomorrow and Chaplin’s The Kid with my film history students, who, in both cases, were beside themselves with delight—lots of laughter as well as tears.
BlacKKKlansmen with my teenage daughter, who had never seen a Lee film before and was utterly blown away. I’ve never seen her so giddy after a film. (She got an electric guitar for Christmas, and the film’s theme is the very first one she learned.)
Top TV show of 2018:
The Americans, of course.
(With a dash of Queer Eye and the Great British Baking Show for comfort.)