5. Won't You Be My Neighbor
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Every film in the top five this year were movies that moved me, made me think about the world differently, made me want to be a better person in some form. Art imitates life, which has lead to some fraught cinema in the past couple years but hopefully life can also imitate art in its beauty, its kindness, or in the ways that it opens our eyes to experiences alien to our own.
5. Won't You Be My Neighbor
Not so much an objective lens at Fred Rogers, but a reminder of what a gift this amalgamation of goodness this man was. In a time of segregated swimming pools and when people were throwing bleach into the water where African Americans were swimming, Mr. Rogers invited the neighborhood policeman, who happened to be African American, to dip his feet into a wading pool with him on television. When television was starting its era of bringing terror into living rooms across the nation, Mr. Rogers created a safe place that encouraged kindness and gently challenged firmly held preconceptions. The documentary features an early segment of the show where the puppet King Friday, the (benevolent) dictator, is erecting a wall to keep "undesirables" out of his kingdom. Obviously some things haven't changed, but again neither has the importance of Mr. Rogers' message of kindness and worth. Mr. Rogers' love for humanity instills a value in not only a person's self, but in their neighbor as well. Perhaps more than any other movie this past year, Won't You Be My Neighbor made me want to be a better person.
Blindspotting is a buddy movie that doesn't pull the punches when it comes to police violence, gentrification, and how we must both recognize and work to overcome the automatic prejudices we're unfortunately blind to. Its premise and propulsion has you cringing from the get-go, knowing that it can't end well, and yet the surprise comes in the humor and the humanity that is laid bare by the final frame. Miles (Rafael Casal) is a white man in a gentrifying Oakland who holds the swag of the lingo by its ruff, but still feels he has something to prove...something that at one point unfortunately results in a brawl where he attempts to prove his street cred by unleashing his fury onto someone who calls him a poser. However, in that moment, he becomes yet another white man that imposes violence on a black man without having to worry about the consequence. He could be seen as someone who's blind to race in that it wouldn't have mattered to him who he was beating up, except in the next scene his impotence instead reveals him as someone blind to his own privilege. Collin (Daveed Diggs) is a sort of Superman, keeping his rage in check throughout the whole film until his pain and anger at the injustice of his life comes to a heady head in a climax that flashes red in more ways than one.
I love this movie. This indie flick shot in the Hoh Rain Forest with costumes, set, and props handcrafted by the directors and yet completely evincing the feel of a space western set on a toxic, alien moon. Each character comes to us fully formed, opaque as they are authentic. Cee (Sophie Thatcher) has gotten as far as she has in life by being tough, but it's the glimpses we see of her vulnerable youth and the gradual growth of her character, somehow felt in our hearts more than our heads, that build to a surprisingly moving ending. It's a testament to the writing that you never know what is going to come next, and yet after it happens you realize it couldn't have happened any other way. Pedro Pascal as Ezra gristles through his lines with a delight as if he's a voiceover for a cowboy (or the narrator in Supergiant's Bastion), and really I couldn't give him a bigger compliment than that. You're awash with Prospect's colors, or you can physically feel the drag of each labored breath that the characters make. And you're inevitably bereft to come to the end of a story you have to let go of when emerging from the theater, surprised that you were able to exist elsewhere.
What can I say about this elusive movie that can properly convey how it affected me? It's based on a Murakami short story, so there's jazz, al dente pasta, and an alienated asian man. But Burning is so much more than that, existing primarily in the hazy blur between definite objects -- most of the key scenes are shot at beautiful dusk, Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) lives close enough to the demilitarized zone to hear the blares of North Korean propaganda, and answers are very rarely given straight, often only through elided metaphor. Burning has hands down my favorite scene of the year, one that involves a dance at dusk that starts as a beautiful desire for more and then disintegrates into an utter lack of meaning. For those few minutes, nothing else in the world exists. I think it's criminal that Burning hasn't gotten more recognition this year, with its stunning cast, sophisticated script, and a story that clings like the smell of smoke settling into the fibers of your soul. I don't know how Chang-dong Lee did it, making a movie that is even more Murakami-esque than the original source material, and yet something that's fiercely its own. It's very much a tale of South Korea: its disparate wealth, its disaffected youth, and its simmering uncertainties and unfulfillments
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
This is the first year that an animated movie has made it to my top ten (and also the first time Damien Chazelle has released a film that has not topped it -- sorry First Man, although you had the best soundtrack by far). It's surprising because I generally do love animations, and there's something both aesthetically and technically pleasing about a medium where you have to be aware of every single thing in each frame. But it's been a while since an animation has made me feel as much as this one, and longer since one has made me want to see the world differently. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a joyful feat, one that thrives on its originality and also in its familiarity. Without hitting you over the head or trying to ram a message down your throat, it both expounds how important it is to find what makes you you while also opening our eyes to how meaningful it is to be able to look at someone else and say "I see you" and "I understand you". It is a brilliant juggernaut of animation styles, of origin stories, and of sheer wonder. And it's funny. I don't know how it accomplishes all that. There are moments you're overcome with the impossibility of what's before your eyes, and yet it's not as a spectator but as someone that is part of the experience. It somehow makes a case for animations, for superhero movies, and for a Spider-Man movie in an overcluttered era of all three. Go see it. Move to the beat in your seat. And leave the theater changed for the better.
Someone once told me that a reviewer's job, be it for food or film or anything else, is to have moments where we can shed light on something that deserves to be experienced, something that should be rewarded and might go criminally unseen. The best example of such a review, of course, is Anton Ego's critique in one of my personal favorites, Ratatouille. I really only write about film because I love it so much, and the top ten list at the end/beginning of each year is one I enjoy quite a bit since it's one of the only times I feel free to voice a subjective opinion. I had a difficult time honing the top ten list for 2018, but what I ended up with was a list that had mostly movies that were seen widely, but also mostly had one moment or one scene that really captured my heart.
I don't expect everyone to feel the same as I do (god knows I've gnashed my teeth about Ladybird enough with people), but I'm thankful for the richness in film that allows us to feel differently. Every single year, I hear people bemoaning the dearth of good film, but every year there is something to appreciate -- some old director coming into his own, or some new director innovating, or my eyes being opened to a completely unfamiliar life, or Tom Cruise learning a new death-defying stunt...and every year, I think: What a year to be alive.
There's a scene in Hirokazu Koreeda's latest film where we watch the family watching fireworks go off. It's one of the most beautiful scenes in a film of wrenching and gorgeous scenes, and it's reminiscent of Florida Project's similar scene of the small ragtag family traveling to watch Disney World's fireworks from afar. In Shoplifters, we don't see the fireworks at all, but Koreeda reminds us what is important is not the spectacle itself but how it makes us feel, and how that spectacle can transform us. The wonder, love, and hope are reflected on all of the family members' faces. Shoplifters is a lot about what we see but don't hear, what we feel but aren't able to express verbally, the things we want to say but aren't able to convey. Koreeda has always been good at the driving/crippling force of loneliness, as well as the ties that bind and sever us. Are the families we choose stronger than the ones we're born into? How much do we owe to those we're tied to? There are never any easy answers, and Koreeda masterfully builds the story from these moments, uncertainties, and what we believe of what we see before stripping it away from us. It's a film that gives as many truths as fabrications.
9. Cold War
"It's a metaphor," a French artist tells Joanna Kulig's character, Zula. "Time doesn't matter when you're in love." But Zula has little use for the wishy-washy breathy aspirations of French music or its metaphors. For her and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), time is very much against them, and they are very much in love in this smoldering, devastating piece by Pawel Pawlikowski. Like his Ida, Cold War is shot in a close 1.37:1, but while most films use that aspect ratio to evince an intimacy and claustrophobia (Andrea Arnold's American Honey is close shot after close shot of Sasha Lane's numinous face), Pawlikowski finds so much breadth in each frame it's incredible. There's space in the noise of each shot, and every single second could be frozen as a piece of art. His framing is a gift, given freely without begging for attention, and yet catching the breath every time - when Zula floats down the river singing, when the wheat rustles as a farewell in the background, and in the tremulous to searing truth of their music and their love. Zula and Wiktor cannot exist apart, but they can't be together. Emotionally and politically fraught, they are only able to save each other by hurting each other and time is not a luxury they can spend -- whether it's the span of fifteen years or the agony of a one-sided rendez-vous ended with a surprised "oh". Cold War spans years, miles, and borders, and like each frame, the silences are as full as the movements.
8. If Beale Street Could Talk
Is there a bigger fanboy of Wong Kar-Wai than Barry Jenkins? Thank god for it though, because If Beale Street Could Talk is a masterclass in color and impressions, washing us in warmth, longing gazes, and the most attractive smoke swaths since In the Mood for Love. And as tragic as its story is, it's as unrelenting in its harsh reality as it is in its hopeful optimism, a balance we could all benefit to learn from. Beale Street characters bare their souls to us, looking full on into the camera lens. It's vulnerable and personal -- what we feel from that moment is very much our own experience meeting the gaze of Tish (KiKi Layne), of Fonny (Stephan James), and of Officer Bell (Ed Skrein). Whatever our past, there is something in us that meets the tactile revulsion of Tish when her hand is brought to the noses of proprietary white men at the perfume counter. And yet for me this movie works because of what it keeps to itself as much as what it gives us in those honest moments. Fonny circling a sculpture that he shapes as much as he shapes the swirls of smoke around him is wrapped in a reverie that both he and Jenkins decide not to explain because that moment is his. It doesn't belong to us as viewers, just like that last whisper in Lost in Translation isn't meant for us. Perhaps more than any other movie, Beale Street is a bathing of color, music, and lush warmth.
Formally and technically a flawless film, Alfonso Cuarón's deeply personal story is made all the more compelling because it's told from a viewpoint other than his own. I overheard someone say of it, "It was everything that I wanted it to be", which pretty much sums it up. A mastery of mise-en-scene and the kind of deep depth of field activity hitherto seen in the opening of The Revenant. There's so much going on in each scene that shows both how small we are in the context of the surrounding world, and yet emphasizes how little essentially separates us from each other. In one moment, we see a child in a full spacesuit playing at astronaut, and then in a different place in a far different circumstance, we see a child at the same play, costumed only with a bucket on his head. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is mostly a passive player in this story as she struggles against the both metaphorical and actual waves that try to pummel her into submission. But there's a deep strength and undercurrent of love she holds and that Cuarón feels for her. And those small moments that we are drawn close to her, like the full look of love she gives to her lover in a hotel room is all the more worshipful because of its rarity. The opening itself is a killer, and although Roma seems like mere beautiful shot after beautiful shot at first, Cuarón allows the emotion and pathos to blossom into its powerful climax.
Annihilation was one of the first films I saw of 2018, and I knew right away it would be somewhere in my top ten. Unsettling and not one for easy answers, it reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey (and similarly, I could almost hear the audible disengagement of some audience members in its last act). An extremely loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's book, Annihilation is a fever dream, a slow descent into hallucinatory madness, and an ascent into the destruction that is entwined with survival. It's not a perfect movie by any means, one of its flaws being the jarring mundanity of its narrative framing, but it should be celebrated because of how unrelentingly strange it allows itself to become. The different types of facades the four women hold before entering the Shimmer slowly disintegrate, but is it for a wondrous transfiguration or is it for the surrender to the terrifying unknown at the cost of self-annihilation? Annihilation asks us: can it be both?
Top five to follow next week.
Spider-Man has always been a favorite of mine. Peter Parker was a normal kid bitten by an extraordinary spider, and still dealing with all the travails as a kid from Queens, struggling with a bad internship, college classes, an ornery boss, and paying the rent. There was something way more approachable about him, in a way that aliens with God-like powers, millionaires with butlers and secret batcaves, and playboy philanthropists with high-gadget suits never were. His adjustment to his powers were more akin to a boy adjusting to puberty than a Captain American emerging out of a machine with bulging muscles. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse had a tall barrier to crash, with its deluge of live action Peter Parkers in the last decade and even more saturated superhero market. It's hard to make a case for wanting or needing more of either.
But Spider-Verse has created something both completely classic and completely new, blasting aside conventions and all our dread at "just another superhero" movie.
Is it the story? Yes and no. The titular Spider-Man this time is Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), half black and half Puerto-Rican. This time he's not a boy from Queens, but a boy from Brooklyn. He's won the lottery in getting selected for an uppercrust magnet school in the city and also in getting bitten by a radioactive spider. Not long after the latter, evil-doers have disrupted the space-time continuum, which results in, wait for it, having to save the world, but also other Spider-Man versions from parallel dimensions who get sucked from their universes and into Miles'.
It's all a little heady, and it sounds like it could be as messy as an Avengers movie, but directors Bob Persichetti, Rodney Rothman, and Peter Ramsay are helped rambunctiously by writer Phil Lord (The Lego Movie) and the result is a totally off-kilter, incredibly complicated film that has an amazingly singular vision and direction, achieving clarity with each mindboggling push of the visual envelope.
Each Spider-Man counterpart is chosen for their individuality, highlighting a difference in animation, in gender, in style, and ethnicity. Miles himself has his own rhythm, his own swagger, even as he's struggling to come into his own. Spider-Man: Homecoming chose to eschew the origin story completely in order to deliver its fresh take on the worn tale. Spider-Verse does the opposite and doubles down, but that's the beauty of it. The movie, and Miles himself, is a thrillingly original, alive being. You've never seen a Spider-Man like this. But while the movie is about finding its uniqueness, it is concurrently about identifying with others. At each point, Spider-Man is finally able to look at someone else and say "I know you. You are me." It is precisely that duality that Spider-Verse balances and thrives on.
Breathtakingly beautiful in animation, in music, in the undeniable pleasure and beat of the movie's rhythm. Spider-Verse finally takes us back to the keen joy of superhero movies. It flushes us in CMYK colors, squiggles come out of characters to indicate sensory emotions, and at some points the film dips into paneling and thought bubbles as it dips into the format that got us all into comic book heroes in the first place. The whole voice acting team is again a joy to behold, and all the lines have the familiarity of an extremely well-thought out rhythm, like banter put to music. It's the best animation of the year in every way possible -- visuals, acting, story, and animating innovations.
Moore's voice is the emotional core of the movie, one where the peril and sentiment aren't contrived. Its message resonates with the viewers, not just because of how potent it is or how imperative it is to revel in both our individuality and being able to recognize ourselves in others. There's a moral imperative Miles shares with us without having to hit us over the head with it. Miles is able to overcome and to grow not only because his great power gave him great responsibility, but through his acknowledgement of his power, which is inherent in any one of us. Spider-Verse's themes of identity are essential, but its most thrilling aspect might be that any one in the audience can, in some way, point at the screen and say "I know you. You are me."
Film auteur Lee Chang Dong has taken Haruki Murakami's sparse 10-pager Barn Burning and turned it into a 2.5 hour elegy of fierce loneliness and simmering rage in the film Burning -- a story that both expands its Murakminess while becoming something completely individual. Never has Murakami been adapted so well, or subverted so significantly.
The film opens on Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) making a delivery to a shop where he clearly catches the eye of one of the girls working at the front, scantily clad and dancing to promote the store's sales. Her name is Haemi (newcomer Jong-seo Jun), and it turns out that she's an old neighbor, whom he ends up not recognizing. It might be because of the plastic surgery she had, she offers blithely, or it might be because his memory of his childhood waxes insubstantial most of the time. He clearly doesn't remember the time that he crossed the street to tell her she was ugly when they were kids, but that also doesn't stop him from being completely taken by her now. She becomes the object of his desire, partially because of her attraction to him, and partially because of his...well, objectification.
Murakami is known for writing accomplished, lonely men who exist vaguely alienated. Jongsu is certainly lonely, but in him simmers an anger as well as an existential ennui. He's an aspiring writer who can't write because he doesn't understand the world around him; he's a college graduate who can't hold down a job, a former creative writing major who cleans cow droppings. Surprisingly, Murakami's cypher makes a sort of appearance in the form of Ben (Steven Yeun), the man who arrives to become the point of the love triangle involving Jongsu and Haemi. Mysterious and cosmopolitan, not quite belonging, and yet affecting an easy privilege as he cooks pasta while listening to jazz. His laconic posture and obvious wealth stun a round-shouldered Jongsu, who is only a few years younger and can't fathom this kind of achievement. At first, he can only sit idly by while Ben sweeps Haemi off her feet.
While Murakami's writing tends to leave loose threads at the end, Lee has created a story that permeates the ambiguity throughout. It's carefully orchestrated to heighten its nebulous qualities and it does so masterfully. Several of the key scenes are shot at dusk (including one incredible dance to jazz music which searches for greater meaning only to disintegrate into its lack -- it's quite possibly one of my favorite scenes of the year), that time where night is as strong as day. Lee explores those imprecise boundaries constantly: Jongsu's old farmhouse is an area of land that is slowly becoming encroached upon by the city and he lives close enough to the DMZ that he can hear North Korean propaganda being blasted from across the border. Ben is a character that doesn't entirely belong in South Korea, and even his highly sophisticated language is peppered with oft-Anglicized words and the accent is just off enough to make you feel its foreignness even if it's impeccable otherwise. But more than that are the borders between morality, which are played with constantly here. Even a brief side view of a newscast of Trump reminds us that not everyone operates on the same rules of truth.
Burning is stunning in every facet. The actors live their parts rather than act them out; there is a deep understanding that they have achieved of their characters that we as an audience will never fully know. Yeun is a revelation, making a new turn as a sinister, indeterminate figure. The story hinges on both the familiarity and stark unknowableness of his character, and Ben is at turns terrifying and suave. There's so much he claims to not feel and so much he gives the affectation of knowing, but neither stops him from thoroughly enjoying the spectacle before him. Yoo is a powerhouse of constrained emotion -- it's fitting that we never see the release of his masturbation and that one of his wrought confessions of love midway through the movie is just laughed away. Even as his helplessness and confusion mount however, the distortions are often only shown on his face in the aftermath of waking up from troubled dreams. Jun is also sensational here, literally fresh-faced, disarming in her childlike but not childish behavior. But it's the writing, the direction, and the colors that bring everything together. Burning is paced meticulously and it shouldn't surprise anyone that cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong's last film was The Wailing, which also has gorgeous fog-rimmed mountainous backdrops. Lee's beauteous long-shot takes subside into darkness, pushing the limits of what our eyes can make of expressions and feelings in the gloaming of its characters. His writing is clever and sophisticated, giving each character a different flavor, always revealing just enough to make us ask more.
I won't go into the details of the story, but it's clear that aspiring writer Jongsu isn't the only character who struggles to create a narrative, even going so far as to fabricate one when writing a petition partway through the film. Haemi is searching for what she calls "Great Hunger" and there's an effacement not only physically by changing what she looked like, but in the stories she weaves. There's a warring desire to be found, but also to disappear. Burning is about class disparity, an anger that has no outlet, and the destruction that comes from creating. Throughout the film, Lee gives us mysteries that will linger and mysterious characters. Who is Haemi? Who is Ben? The genius is that by the end, it burns out to ask us the actual question: Who is Jongsu?
Alfonso Cuarón's Roma is visually phenomenal and Proustian in this deeply personal cinematic story. Although available for streaming on Netflix, it is currently showing in various theaters worldwide for a limited run and should really be seen on the largest screen possible.
Roma is not just about its heroine, a maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), but the confusion of the life around her in Mexico City. Appropriately, Cuarón favors long takes where the camera moves slowly around the room, even from the start which shows Cleo moving around the large house that she takes care of. Often when it cuts to the next scene, the camera continues the same motion as before, making it feel as if we are in a consistent, continual motion. Roma emphasizes this impartiality to viewpoint by the constant panning, but also the marriage of action between the foreground and background. Like life, there's always something else going on outside of what feels to be your own story -- sometimes it aligns with yourself and at others it seems to be a cruel juxtaposition. At one point, the story's main family dejectedly eats ice cream cones after an announcement of a tragedy while a joyous wedding blares right behind them. Cuarón's Mexico City is a cacophony of class disparity, of protests, but also of very human problems of the heart.
Roma was shot in a wide 2.35:1, both physically and mentally enlarging the scope of Cuarón's vision. It's rare that he allows the frame to be centered on one person, but none of those moments should be taken for granted. It's there we can see who Cleo is -- we see her eyes shine as she looks on someone she loves, or we see the thoughts skitter across her face as she looks outside of a car window. Sometimes, the wide screen is meant to show us how small she is in the world, like when she's pummeled by wave after wave in the ocean, but others are meant to show us how she looms so much larger than the world itself.
Cuarón has done something phenomenal here in that he is retelling his childhood (he is apparently one of the children in the family that Cleo takes care of), but was able to tell a story that is outside of himself. Although Roma is constructed mostly from his memories of the time, the film is careful to detach itself from the viewpoint of the children. The sheen of Roma's 4K, black and white, and 2.35 format is a blessing and a curse. The deep depth of field (literally and figuratively) is razor-sharp. We're able to see everything happening on the screen, but there's a distance in how clean it is and how manufactured it comes off in the wide black and white. There are times you wish you could feel things in the movie more tangibly, get a little more grit; there's a 70mm version out there that I'd dearly love to see, but hasn't received a wide theatrical release. The sharpness gives it an arthouse quality, an almost omniscient viewpoint of life's profundities in the details.
Ultimately, that visual focus consistent in every facet and intent of the film. You get the feeling that everything is articulated, captured, and blocked just the way it was meant to be by the director, which is another reason why it can be considered so personal to Cuarón. Roma, for this reason, is a masterpiece. It emotes beautifully in its vision, both on screen and from the heart and mind of its creator. Few artists can say that they've conveyed their story just in the way they wanted to -- Roma is that moment for Cuarón.
Yorgos Lanthimos' follow-up to last year's The Killing of a Sacred Deer goes back to the 18th century for a scathing period piece on the love and power dynamics between three women: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her most trusted adviser Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone).
The Favourite, appropriately, is a battleground for the three actresses, each who put on blistering, darkly humorous performances that also manage to somehow evoke empathy at different parts in the film. Who are we rooting for? The answer is constantly changing, which we can attest to both the writing and the acting skill -- all three are deplorable women, and yet they're not monsters. They're not necessarily nice people (as Abigail says, "As it turns out, I am capable of much unpleasantness") but they're undeniably human.
Lanthimos steps away from the story and script this time, which actually improves the piquant dialogue dramatically. His previous movies, The Lobster and the aforementioned Sacred Deer, got most of its kicks out of its deadpan delivery and bizarreness. The Favourite owes much to the timing of the lines, but fires up its verbal anachronistic flirting to the best. The anachronism is there in the actions and words of the court, but also in the costumes which have a definite edge (as well as more contemporary techniques and materials such as denim) that is a reflection of the spoken barbs and the distortion of the world. Lanthimos frequently angles the camera up at a character, and it's fascinating to note what power dynamics he alludes to with each viewpoint and how he personalizes a lens to each woman. His extreme wide angles show us the full opulence of the surrounding set (such a contrast from the stark, minimal glacial atmosphere of Sacred Deer), but also show us how hemmed in and insignificantly small the characters are. The lavishness adds to the claustrophobia and the constant borders and lines emphasize confinement. There's constant use of a fish-eye lens, which through its bloatedness is constantly reminding us of the excess of the court as well as the fact that this is a manipulation of history as it happened through the visual perversion.
That is part of the interesting contrast here as he clearly employs natural lighting as much as possible, which is most apparent in the lovely scenes where a person crouches in a dark corridor with only a brightly burning candle to illuminate their features. Lanthimos shoots 35 mm which gives a lovely tone and grain to those images. However, he has no problem showing his hand as a director and story-maker, of bringing the audience out of the story to remind them that what they are seeing is a fabrication. The Favourite is told in chapters, each section coming with a title card. Other than the fish-eye, there are swish pans, and action is often done on a Libra Head, giving both a smoothness and often a sort of physical "come look at this action with me" movement.
The obvious fabrication of the story does more than add to the fun and playfulness however; it does more to remind us how their relationship and power struggle can be reflected in contemporary times. Queen Anne's subjects are at the whim of their monarch's petulant mood swings and whoever can flatter her best at the moment. Furthermore, the war is not always won by those who love best or who are the most capable, but by whoever is most skilled at bamboozling others.
Lanthimos is not known to be tender towards his characters, but The Favourite at least is actually a story of its women rather than an exercise on a hypothetical. Anne, for example, could easily be a monster to behold on many levels. However, her dotage on her pet rabbits is representative of her burden. They symbolize both her helplessness in situations small and large, and also the tragedies of a past she is unable to move on from.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan does terrific work in collaboration with Lanthimos here, showing a large departure from the light-dripping American Honey. The music, like everything else, veers from period appropriate to not with the harpsichord leanings of Vivaldi to the atonal scrapes of Messiaien. It's lavish at times and startlingly austere at others.
The Favourite is not a particularly warm story, but it is visually extravagant, and features three powerhouse performances that aren't to be missed. With all its obvious technique, Lanthimos' best move was in the casting of this well-written and stellarly-performed piece. Through all its reference of black and white, both visually and metaphorically, it's the shades of grey here that take this movie up a notch from what he's done before.
In Border, Swedish customs officer Tina (Eva Melander) has an inexplicable but undeniable talent for sniffing out the feelings of people around her -- she can smell anger or guilt, which allows her to uncover any number of crimes enclosed within the people walking by her inspection point. Her senses go haywire one day when Vore (Eero Milonoff) comes through, and she encounters for the first time someone who looks like her but at the same time holds no shame or apology for it. It's hard to tell which aspect is more intoxicating to her, which has consequences that alter her world irreparably afterwards.
Abbasi's second film is based on a short story by Let the Right One In's John Ajvide Lindqvist and features the same sort of ubiquitous loneliness of the Other. Abbasi has said he wanted to emphasize the experience of being a minority, and Tina is repeatedly shown to be maligned, sometimes subtly but often not. She is stared at in grocery stores, she finds herself looking at closed doors that she realizes she has no power to open, and she lives with someone whose indifference is outmatched by the outright aggressive behavior of his three dogs who clearly detest her. And yet, to typify her experience as a metaphor for the minority, for the immigrant or for the transgender (both of which Abbasi denies), is irresponsible when we see how the story unspools. In many ways, Border is a love story...not even necessarily of Tina and Vore, but of Tina and herself. For Tina, she is able to feel both remarkably beautiful but also finds liberation in being normalized. But while it's important for her to grow and appreciate herself, it is not necessary to do so at the price of discarding humanity itself, especially if she is meant to embody a minority.
As a character, Tina is kind -- you see it in her interactions with others, namely her father, and in the childlike wonder as she communes with nature and the animals around her (besides, for whatever reason, dogs). The film tries to balance a high-falutin idea in introducing the worst of humans, and yet emphasizing that perhaps it is the best of what humans are capable of that prevents Tina from completely abandoning them. No more should be said plot-wise at the risk of spoiling Border, but there is a disavowal of nuance and depth in Tina's ultimate choice. Her kindness comes from some of the goodness in life, even as she has experienced cruelty. When Abbasi looks through a cut and finds a scene or a frame that looks too "good", he'll reportedly cut it out, because he doesn't want the beauty of an image to distract from the film. Unfortunately, this application applies to both his visuals and his storytelling, but to deny that beauty is to disturb the verisimilitude of its subject. There is good in humans, and there is beauty in the life that Tina lives -- and to ignore that is to simplify the subtlety of her moral decisions.
More than anything else, Border is interesting because of its genre bends and plot twists, but beneath the core of that there's not much of a beating heart. Abbasi is certainly to be appreciated for what he has attempted with the film, but it could have spent more time on the borders between nature and nurture, the borders we place within our hearts, and the borders we traverse to connect with other people outside of those we look like.
A group of WWII soldiers must take down a Nazi radio tower in a small French town in order to allow the Battle of Normandy to take place. In the catacombs of the church underneath the tower, they find horrors concocted by Nazi scientists intending to build an immortal army for the Germans.
To call Overlord a Nazi zombie flick is misleading, although that's the go-to phrase for this movie. The Nazi/WWII backdrop is more of a convenience, considering its revisionist alternate history makeup of the army (no one bats an eye at the mixed races and the sergeant is a respected African-American man) and the ease of an indelibly evil adversary. There aren't quite enough zombies to make it a zombie flick either, nor do we have the usual braindead bloodthirsty inanimate bodies scrambling around.
The reason this isn't a zombie movie is because it misses all the beats of its predecessors, even while making references to Moreau and Carpenter. It takes itself completely seriously, almost to a flaw. There are beats in the movie where you expect a joke, but Overlord purposefully elbows those moment aside as if to assure you how seriously we should take it. This is fine, but it then makes it harder to excuse the lapses in judgment the characters make. There are a few too many unzipped bags, syringes used with devil-may-care-consequences, or trusting peeks into darkened cells for any normal person to make. There's an attempt at the theme of not becoming the monsters you're fighting, but it peters out fairly easily. Boyce (Jovan Adepo) is the protagonist here and he serves as a moral compass for the group, supposedly not even able to kill a mouse. But as Overlord progresses, he sometimes unwittingly shows the lack of moral compass for the story, including his readiness to move to violence in one scene. There's no moral quandary or dilemma found there...in fact, you'd find more of that in Shaun of the Dead.
With all that said, however, Overlord is still a fun ride. Part of this is because you come to love the troop, and that's always half the battle. The characters are easily established in the first few minutes, from fast-talking Tibbet (John Maguro) to brooding transfer Ford (Wyatt Russell), and this unfortunately is what so many current horror movies lack and what their weakness is. The livelihoods of these men wouldn't matter a whit otherwise, and thankfully we don't have that problem here. The special effects don't have the same verisimilitude that, say, Saving Private Ryan does, but we don't really need it to. The first sequence of their parachute jump is a completely whipped around, manufactured ride...but it's still exciting and breathless all the same. On par with that is the discovery of the Nazi lab, which is manufactured and breathless in a different way. The eeriness of that scene makes it one of the highlights of the movie, where otherwise things are little too matter-of-fact.
Zombie movies have often been a social commentary on the current events. If Overlord were to serve that purpose, it might be the refreshing recourse of an easy bad vs good and being able to take matters into your own hands on the side of good. The film might not be trying anything at all though, because the strength of Overlord is indeed in the artificiality of it, including its disavowal of the other horrors that can be (and were) created by those with power. Its assurance of no moral grays is vaguely reassuring, and it's a movie that would be better categorized as an action movie that will engage the viewers for its runtime.
There's a scene in Wildlife when Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) takes her 14-year-old son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), to see a wildfire raging in the Montanan forest. "Do you like it?" she asks him. His response is in the negative, as he gazes, bewildered and horrified at the destruction before him.
The same could be said of Joe's reaction to his mother's path of destruction in Paul Dano's directorial debut Wildlife. The film is about the changing roles of a nuclear family in 1960s, but only tangentially. Wildlife is told chiefly through the eyes of Joe, who is unaware of social shifts of the decade, and can only witness and feel what is happening to his family before him.
Jeanette is devoted-- supportive in every way and perfectly fulfilling all that the role requires of her as a good mother and wife. This is perhaps why she reacts the way she does when her husband lets her down in conforming to his role of what a good husband should do in providing for the family. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), loses his job and decides to take on low-paying and dangerous work of fighting wildfires, ostensibly abandoning his family to do so.
Mulligan does an excellent job of playing an unmoored Jeanette, confident as she charges forward, and yet completely uncertain of what her identity is. She's done her part, but what happens when her partner doesn't? She takes on the role of an independent woman, but she's not sure of what that means for her or if she really wants to. At one point, she says "If you have a better plan for me, tell me." Early on in the movie, someone assumes she's angling for a job and she quickly assures them that she's a stay-at-home mom -- it becomes a bit of a loaded statement as the film proceeds.
The question of identity is one that the whole family struggles with to some degree. For Joe, he's still maturing and his questions at first angle around the image of being a good son and football player. He later takes a job where he is taking snapshots of perfect ideals, or perfect moments in time. For Jerry, there's obvious hurt pride after losing his job, but he doesn't even seem to know what his pride is in. His worry consistently is that Jeanette won't be mad at him, and he seems surprised when she doesn't fulfill that cliche. Jeanette of course struggles to fit warring identities throughout the story.
Dano's assurance in composing the film is lovely -- there are some truly wonderful framing shots and for the most part, he avoids the pitfall of trying too hard. There are a couple parts where the technicality of a shot gets in the way of the storytelling, but really only a few. Dano's use of light and landscape is reminiscent of Kelly Reichardt, just one beautiful shot of a face angled in morning light after another. His greatest strength is in the space he allows his actors -- Mulligan of course, but Oxenbould is really fantastic as a precocious adolescent whose love for his parents gives us a more forgiving lens to view the movie in. Gyllenhaal is looser here than usual -- his film roles are often too controlled, too thought through before the film starts shooting. Jerry is so uncertain and Gyllenhaal's portrayal of him is similarly ambiguous, making those moments where he crystallizes into hard focus that much more effective.
There are few times that Jerry and Jeanette come together in physical space, and they provide a poignant counterpoint throughout the film. You can probably sketch the whole story from the weight of the glances Mulligan and Gyllenhaal share (or avoid) with each other. Wildlife is seen through Joe's eyes, but everyone comes of age in this story, and the last scene is a truly heartbreaking portrayal of that.
Six acts and an epilogue, Luca Guadagnino's take on the Dario Argento film of the same name is set in 1977 Cold War Berlin. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is a young Mennonite whose dream is to study at a dance academy under the choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). But something at the school is unsettling, other than the bombs and demonstrations raging outside. A student has disappeared amidst uncertain rumors and something other than the dancers appears to be sighing within the walls.
Guadagnino's Suspiria is every bit as drenched as his former Call Me By Your Name, albeit in different ways. But there are still his trademark moments in the smallest of motions -- the trace of a finger across a page that you can hear as well as feel. And for whatever reason, there's no other director that can make you feel the wind blustering through tree branches outside the window more tactilely. And then there are, of course, a few scenes where you get a little more than the scrape of a tree branch to feel.
At times, Suspiria appears a bit confused -- there are a few underrunning subplots that don't quite coalesce, including a constant reference to an RAF (Red Army Faction) guerrilla campaign. However, the biggest mistake in going into this movie is to be under the impression that it is meant to be a horror movie that thrives on thrills. It does have its share of gore and blood, but Suspiria is more of a suspense that explores themes of motherhood and guilt. Not for nothing is the main dance of the film named "Volk". When the dance company performs it, Madame Blanc announces that it will be the last time that they do so.
Guadagnino works again with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and editor Walter Fasano, and their work together is crucial in creating a flow -- not only of this story which is one of sadness as much as destruction, but also in getting the most impact from the choreography, which is reminiscent of Pina Bausch. The camerawork here is never afraid to let us know of its intrusion. Quick cuts show agitation, as well as the idea of something working behind the scenes. Unlike Call Me By Your Name, where an outside touch is unobtrusive, we have sweeping camera actions and swish pan. For all its debauchery at times, Guadagnino never turns his film into a spectacle. The ending of the film may come as a surprise, but that's only if you've been too focused on the blood spurting out of wounds. Take a look again (if you care or dare to), and think on the relationships between the women, but also the changing dynamic of a daughter or creation to her mother, as well as the meaning of memory and the tragedy in muting it.
Dakota Johnson is fantastic here, able to convincingly portray her evolution from the first innocence we meet in her character. Tilda Swinton, with her sweeping hair and dresses is terrific in her enigmatic and eerie persona. Thom Yorke also does the soundtrack wonderfully -- it's understated, but more than that it molds to the shape of Susie, from the heartfelt to the eerie. It's a personal portrayal of the character's moods and evolution.