A prequel to 2015’s Mojin: The Lost Legend, in which a band of intrepid treasure hunters brave mysterious wilds and scary animals in search of a MacGuffin that will cure a curse they picked up during an earlier treasure hunting expedition. Where the first Mojin film had an exceptional cast, led by Shu Qi, Angelababy and Huang Bo, and an intricate plot weaving present-day scenes in New York’s Chinatown, a love triangle amid the Cultural Revolution, and effects-driven action scenes together in an uneasy and ultimately unsuccessful blend of the personal, the political and the ridiculous, Worm Valley is linear all the way through. After a quick setup, including a minimal amount of backstory related in a speech and a visit to a crazy, blind, and sexist old man, the party of six adventurers head into the jungles of Yunnan to discover whatever the thing is they’re looking for.
Also missing from the first film is the cast, which has been entirely replaced by young actors who kind of but don’t quite resemble their forbears, an uncanny valley effect to match that of the film’s CGI monsters and environments. Also gone is director Wu Ershan, and in his place is Fei Xing, making his first film since the 2013 Aaron Kwok/Sun Honglei film Silent Witness. Fei, somewhat surprisingly given Wu’s history with the effects genre, proves much more interesting a director of spectacle, though that may simply reflect a welcome change in the genre’s conventional style. Like last year’s Monkey King 3 and the previous year’s Once Upon a Time, Worm Valley is full of bright environments, lush with greens and pinks and blues: tall grasses and crystalline flowers, flying bugs that burst into flame when touched. Only its initial action sequences are set in the darkness, but even those are well-lit, allowing the digital creations to shine rather than hide in the murkiness of bad effects. As such the film has a cartoonish quality, at best approaching something like the charm of a lesser Ray Harryhausen movie (more Mysterious Island than Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans).
The Mojin films are based on a highly popular book series called Ghost Blows Out the Light (or alternately, Candle in the Tomb) by Zhang Muye, which has been adapted several times into film and television. There was another film the same year as The Lost Legend, (Chronicles of the GhostlyTribe) though it didn’t, to my knowledge, get a US release. There have also been three TV/web series adaptations of different books in the series, and another film version is to be expected in 2019, Candle in the Tomb (or Mojin X), starring Zhang Hanyu and Celina Jade and directed by Li Yifan. I imagine that knowing the source material or some of the other adaptations is helpful in filling in some of the backstory and fleshing out the characters, but Worm Valley is at its best when it isn’t concerned about any of that, when it just gives into the straight-ahead thrills of an old school adventure serial, with one literally cliff-hanging sequence after another. The only times the movie slows down over its final hour and a half are for brief moments of rest, some joyous nightswimming and a pre-climax motivational crisis, neither of which have the kind of emotional resonance a serious movie would require. It’s not camp, overblowing genre clichés with Aquaman-ian gusto. But it is almost two hours of pretty people wearing leather and canvas shooting giant alligators with arrows and slicing at razor-toothed fish with machetes.
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) Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes (Graham L. Carter) Creed II (Steven Caple Jr.) Transit (Christian Petzold) The Night is Short, Walk On Girl / 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.)
If Beale Street Could Talk at the Uptown and the Meridian
It figures of course that the finest American film of the year would only be released on a handful of screens in the final days of 2018. Barry Jenkins more than follows through on the promise of Moonlight with this dreamy, yet scathing, look at life and romance under structural racism in the USA. Though based on the mid-century novel by James Baldwin, there’s nothing antiquated about its story of young love struggling to endure against all odds, while Jenkins’s style marks the most successful yet attempt to adapt Hou Hsiao-hsien to the Hollywood mainstream.
Seattle’s best and longest-running cinematic Christmas tradition is the Grand Illusion’s annual three-week run of Frank Capra’s super-depressing holiday classic. While other theatres try to start new traditions (SIFF’s Fiddler on the Roof sing-along, various attempts to make Elf happen, or Die Hard), suicidal Jimmy Stewart succumbing to the life-crushing logic of capitalism and the nuclear family, only to be rescued by the divine revelation that while the world is indeed terrible, hey, at least it could be worse, is the only cure we need for our candy cane hangover.
At Eternity’s Gate(Julian Schnabel) Fri-Mon Shoplifters(Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Thurs Fiddler on the Roof(Norman Jewison, 1971) Tues Only Sing-along If Beale Street Could Talk(Barry Jenkins) Starts Tues
Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan at the Northwest Film Forum
Yeah, I know, it’s awards season and the theatres are packed with the respectable products of Hollywood and the international festival circuit. You got your Lanthimoses and Cuarón’s and Kore-eda’s, your respectable actors doing biopics and whatever it is Natalie Portman is up to in Vox Lux. Well, you can have all that if you want, for me, the undisputed highlight on Seattle Screens this week is a 45 year old rape-revenge film by Chor Yuen, the Shaw Brothers answer to Josef von Sternberg. Intimate Confessions kicks off what is to be a series of Hong Kong films over the next month, splitting between the Film Forum (who will be playing Come Drink with Me, Golden Swallow, and The One-Armed Swordsman in coming weeks) and the Grand Illusion (who have a pair of Sammo Hung movies: Pedicab Driver and Blade of Fury). I will do my best not to name them the Featured Film every week. But no promises.
Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) Fri-Thurs The Favourite(Yorgos Lanthimos) Fri-Thurs At Eternity’s Gate(Julian Schnabel) Fri-Thurs A Christmas Story(Bob Clark, 1983) Sat Only Free Screening Rare Exports (Jalmari Helander, 2010) Sat Only Heavy Trip (Juuso Laatio & Jukka Vidgren) Sat Only Life and Nothing More (Antonio Mendez Esparza) Tues Only Bell, Book and Candle (Richard Quine, 1958) Weds Only
This film played earlier this year at SIFF,where bopth Evan and Sean reviewed it. But, because of SIFF’s embargo policy, they were only able to use 75 words apiece to do so. I’ve combined those two capsules into this, single review for ease of reference.
Life in the People’s panopticon; that’s the idea anyways. Money sloshes around via exploding CGI coins—the digital puss of wealth accretion under authoritarian capitalism—yet the film fails to locate China’s live-stream stars in meaningful social context. Trapped in the machine, but never interrogating 21st century cinema’s central question: how do we watch people watching screens? Talking head aesthetics won’t cut it. It takes a poet to penetrate the human surge beneath the simulacra.
Evan is right that there’s nothing in the aesthetic (PBS plus CGI) to match the radical transformations of a life spent online, but I think that’s kind of the point. That despite the newness of the technology and of this form of celebrity, of an economy built solely on loneliness and “prestige”, all the same old principles of exploitation and alienation apply. The virus of capitalism replicating itself anew. Pair it with All About Lily Chou-chou and The Human Surge and then go into the woods and read some Thoreau.
There are a lot of films of interest out this week, including award-hopefuls The Favorite and At Eternity’s Gate, both of which aren’t bad at all, and Peter Bogdanovich’s fine Buster Keaton doc The Great Buster, which continues into a second week at the Grand Illusion. And Roma, of course, Alfonso Cuarón’s Netflix movie has a decent shot at being the first true foreign language film to win the Best Picture Oscar, and it’s playing at the Cinerama and, of all places, the Crest. I haven’t seen Roma yet (it’s planned for later tonight), so if I had to pick one essential movie to see on Seattle Screens this week (and I do, that’s what this space is for), it’d be Lee Changdong’s Burning, playing exclusively at the Northwest Film Forum.
I’m not even sure if Burning is a very good movie. It’s made with exceptional craft though, a slow-ahem-burning psychological thriller about a disaffected young man who comes to believe that a rich guy (Steven Yeun, in a performance sure to get plenty of deserved award recognition in coming weeks) is both an arsonist and has done something to the woman the young man loves. Based on a Haruki Murakami short story, with lots of added Murakami in-jokes and shades of William Faulkner, it’s the most diabolically engrossing film of the year.
Burning (Lee Changdong) Fri-Thurs In the Soup (Alexandre Rockwell, 1992) Fri & Next Sat Only The Apology (Tiffany Hsiung) Sat Only Free Event I am Evidence (Trish Adlesic & Geeta Gandbhir) Sun Only Free Event From the West (Juliane Henrich) Tues Only Filmmaker in Attendance Wobble Palace (Eugene Kotlyarenko) Weds Only
Goon (Michael Dowse, 2011) Fri Only The Cutting Edge (Paul Michael Glaser, 1992) Sat Only Youngblood (Peter Markle, 1986) Sat Only I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie) Sun Only Mystery, Alaska (Jay Roach, 1999) Sun Only
Bathtubs Over Broadway(Dava Whisenant) Fri-Thurs Maria by Callas(Tom Volf) Fri-Thurs Moomins and The Winter Wonderland(Ira Carpelan & Jakub Wronski) Tues Only White Christmas(Michael Curtiz, 1954) Weds Only
A small 4-year-old boy named Kun plays with his trains in the living room. His exasperated grandmother tries to clean up the house. Soon the boy’s parents come home from the hospital with Kun’s newborn sister in tow. She does not have a name. Later, Kun is amazed by her and the reality of being an older brother – it feels like a small revolution. The rest of Mirai is an extension of this first feeling, witnessing the thousand private awakenings which constitute a childhood, the growing awareness of the self and others.
The bird’s eye view. In Mirai, it works two ways: in the beginning it directs our attention toward the family home, one among many, situating the film among the essentially domestic; later, we drop from the sky, not toward the domestic, toward realism, but rather toward the fantastic, the characters going from the past to the future. Mamoru Hosoda’s strategy is to combine these approaches – to illuminate the realistic through the fantastic. In Hosoda’s best films, Wolf Children and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the balance between these is almost right–neither is overwhelmed. In Mirai, the results are mixed.
Going back to the family living room. Kun whines for attention while his parents busy themselves looking after the baby; soon enough he loses patience and begins to cry as he’s ignored. Instinctively he understands that his little sister is monopolizing his parents’ attention so he strikes out, hitting her with a toy train. Kun’s mother loses her tempers and yells at him. All of this happens fairly quickly, each action escalating inevitably until we’re left is crying children, frustrated parents, and a quiet domestic chaos. Variations on this scene happen early in the film–Kun is ignored, lashes out, rinse and repeat. After establishing the family dynamic (the mom wants to go back to work, the dad is going freelance to watch the children), Hosoda introduces his fantasy.
Initially, the switch toward fantasy seems entirely unmotivated and it risks being a minor disaster. Kun walks down a few steps, the scenery shifts around him and all of a sudden the family dog is turned into a character called The Prince, who remembers when Kun was born, and his parents stopped paying attention to him. The film then resets and the pattern is established: each domestic mishap is followed by a flight toward fantasy. Kun meets his sister when she’s in middle school. He meets his mother when she’s a little girl and they make a huge mess. He meets his great grandfather who takes him on a bike ride. But soon enough these encounters grow in depth, and when at film’s end we revisit these characters on last time, Hosoda has made perfectly clear the million tiny tremors across his family tree which paved the way for Kun.
But this idea that it’s all quite arbitrary does not quite go away. Kun’s leaps through time eventually lead to him losing his way, ending up in a giant train terminal with no one there to recognize him. Although the design of this train terminal is quite impressive and the details behind the challenges placed in front of Kun ring true to his experience (he’s four so he doesn’t actually know the names of his parents, they’re just mom and dad), it does not feel natural. The logic which has developed the scenario seems tossed out the window for an impressive design; something similar occurs at the end of The Boy and The Beast, where the emotional narrative conclusion is suddenly resolved by defeating a weird giant spirit whale. The emotion which leads Kun to recognize Mirai as his sister feels true, but it is surrounded by an abstraction which seems at odds with the feeling which is animating it. The finale of Wolf Children is instructive in this respect. Hosoda achieves a perfect harmony between the realistic and the fantastic – the final emotional leaps of his narrative are set against roaring winds and heavy rains, the transformative power of nature understood as necessary, just as much as the inner revolts that forever change our characters. Mirai does not reach the same heights; perhaps there’s something more powerful and immediate about breaking away from family, asserting your own individuality, rather than accepting that you are a part of a continuum of people and choices, understanding your place in the whole big thing. Perhaps it is just harder to get to a place like that when dealing with the growing consciousness of a four-year-old like Kun. Instead of leaving feeling like Kun is forever changed, Hosoda leaves us with the idea that this is just the beginning – the first of many small revolutions which mark a child’s life. No doubt we will return to the bird’s eye view, and one day see a small memory of Kun being passed along to someone else. Another growing consciousness.
Mirai was previously reviewed by Sean when it played at VIFF (here’s the link)
It’s getting into awards season and you know what that means: Seattle Screen Scene recommends you go out and watch anime. Last week it was Liz and the Blue Bird, which criminally only played for a handful of shows around town. This week, it’s Mamoru Hosada’s Mirai, which is playing sporadically at various multiplexes in the area, mostly Regal but also at the Cinemark in Bellevue. Much like the other truly great anime from this year, Night is Short Walk on Girl, it’s playing as part of some kind of specialty release program (targeted at, I don’t know, Cruchyroll subscribers?) rather than getting proper theatrical distribution. I don’t know why but it’s too bad, because in a just world Mirai and these other films would be getting the kind of art house rollout even the most mediocre (or outright bad) Oscar hopeful gets this time of year. Anyway, Mirai is very good. Like Hosada’s best film, Wolf Children, it’s a deceptively wise look at growing up, this time from the perspective of a child who comes to see themself as a part of a wider continuity through time and space. With a light touch and moments of striking beauty, it’s one of the very best films from what has been an exceptional year for (non-American) animation.