SCREEN GRABS As 2018 comes to a close, we can pause and reflect that as so often is the case, what was a pretty horrible annum for nearly everything else turned out to generate some pretty good art. There is general consensus that this was an above-average year at the movies. While I don’t share some of the common enthusiasms (Black Panther is still just a comic-book movie in my book, and the appeal of A Star is Born eludes), there must be some truth to that: I couldn’t chop my “top 10” down past 25, despite relegating documentaries to a separate list. There were so many good-ish movies that not even the Honorable Mentions could encompass many I liked well enough but had significant reservations about (Blindspotting, Buster Scruggs, Sorry to Bother You, The Other Side of the Wind, Spider-Verse, etc.).
Anyway, all this stuff is highly subjective, and should not really even be taken as a “best” list but simply one of the movies I happened to personally like and admire the most. Science has yet to invent a formula for determining value in art, although try telling that to a fanboy (or film major). So, here we go, in alphabetical order:
Narrative Top 25
Araby (Brazil, d. Joao Dumans & Affonso Uchoa)
Beirut (U.S., d. Brad Anderson)
The Cakemaker (Israel—Germany, d. Ofir Raul Graizer)
Capernaum (Lebanon, d. Nadine Labaki)
Cold War (Poland, d. Pawel Pawlikowski)
Disobedience (Ireland—U.K.—U.S., d. Sebastian Lelio)
The Endless (U.S., d. Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead)
En el Septimo Dia (U.S., d. Jim McKay)
The Favourite (Ireland—U.K.—U.S., d. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Godard Mon Amour (France, d. Michel Hazanavicius)
Green Book (U.S., Peter Farrelly)
Journey’s End (U.K., d. Saul Dibb)
Mandy (Canada—U.S., d. Panos Cosmatos)
Mid90s (U.S., d. Jonah Hill)
Mom & Dad (U.S.—U.K., d. Brian Taylor)
Museo (Mexico, d. Alonso Ruizpalacios)
1985 (U.S., d. Yen Tan)
Paddington 2 (U.K.—France—U.S., d. Paul King)
The Rider (U.S., d. Chloe Zhao)
Roma (Mexico, d. Alfonso Cuaron)
Summer 1993 (Spain, d. Carla Simon)
Support the Girls (U.S., d. Andrew Bujalski)
Tully (U.S., d. Jason Reitman)
The 12th Man (Norway, d. Harald Zwart)
You Were Never Really Here (U.K.—U.S.—France, d. Lynne Ramsay)
Hon. Mentions: Beast, Bitter Melon, Blackkklansman, Boy Erased, Ghostbox Cowboy, Hereditary, The Little Stranger, Lowlife, Men and Monsters, Private Life, The Quake, A Quiet Place, The Seagull, Thunder Road, Wildlife.
Documentary Top 10
Bad Reputation (U.S., d. Kevin Kerslake)
Cielo (Chile—Canada, d. Alison McAlpine)
Dark Money (U.S., d. Kimberly Reed)
Fail State (U.S., d. Alexander Shebanow)
Filmworker (U.S., d. Tony Zierra)
Free Solo (U.S., Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (U.S., d. RaMell Ross)
Minding the Gap (U.S., d. Bing Liu)
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (U.S., d. Morgan Neville)
The World Before Your Feet (U.S., d. Jeremy Workman)
This is traditionally the sleepiest week in the entire calendar for new openings—the assumption being that everybody is already queued up for Mary Poppins Returns, Aquaman, or whatever. But there are a few things happening for those willing to walk out the door and brave those spine-chilling winter temperatures in the high 50s…including the arrival of the last-mentioned title on my documentary list, above.
The World Before Your Feet
This year everybody got their own hit documentary about a driven, high-achieving individual: Free Solo for boys, RBG for girls. More charming than either is this portrait of another person committed to a singular mission that no one is going to derail, hard as they may try. Matt Green is a thirtysomething ex-civil engineer who no longer works, yet is very, very occupied. His chosen task is walking every block (also including parklands, cemeteries, and other “open” spaces) in all five boroughs of NYC. So far this has consumed over six years, logging over 8,000 miles—and there’s no end in sight, yet.
One suspects Green doesn’t want it to ever end, as he’s endlessly entertained not just by the human and scenic diversity encountered, but by the voluminous research into historical trivia he’s taken on as part of his wanderings. This amiable obsessive is great company for ninety minutes. As multiple ex-girlfriends here attest, however, trying to take up any more of his time is a loser’s game; the streets beckon.
Jeremy Workman’s feature is itself a delightful compendium of sights, sounds and errata, as well as a testament to the difference between just looking and really seeing. Green encounters people who’ve lived in their neighborhoods their whole life, yet the deeper intel he’s sussed out about the area always takes them by surprise—like everybody, they take their environment for granted. Some scratch their heads at his seemingly useless (and non-income-generating) quest, but he says “It’s just about the value of paying attention to something.” And that turns out to be a very high value indeed. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here.
Oscar Shortlisted Documentaries
Speaking of good non-fiction, some cinemas around the U.S. are hosting special screenings of the fifteen documentary features on the Academy Award shortlist, from Dec. 31 through Jan. 21. (On the 22nd, that list will be reduced to five remaining actual nominees.) There’s no lack of worthwhile titles here, from the theatrical hits Free Solo, RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Three Identical Strangers to strong meditations on current U.S. political issues (Charm City, Crime + Punishment). Venturing farther afield to probe injustice is The Silence of Others, about the legacy of Gen. Franco’s four-decade dictatorship in Spain, and On Her Shoulders, in which a young woman exposes ISIS-condoned sexual slavery to the international community.
Child welfare is the focus in a powerful verite domestic drama from Poland (Communion), a study of life in Eastern Ukraine’s war zone (The Distant Barking of Dogs), a look at the fostering of radical Islamic jihadists in Syria (Of Fathers and Sons). Our favorites in the roster include the poetical Hale County This Morning, This Evening, the much more conflicted slice of small-town life Minding the Gap, and Kimberly Reed’s Dark Money, a forceful analysis of the biggest single problem in American politics today. Mon/31-Mon/21, Alamo Drafthouse & Rafael Film Center.
Roma in 70mm
Netflix has come under fire for acquiring films designed with a theatrical viewing experience in mind, then giving them little or no theatrical release. It seems the universal acclaim being showered on Alfonso Cuaron’s period Mexico City tale is forcing their hand, as the film continues to be enormously successful on the few screens it’s playing. Let’s hope a wider release ensues.
In the meantime, the Castro is playing a short run of the feature (which was shot in 65mm) on 70mm, which should be splendid—it’s doubtful any primarily small-scale, B&W family drama has ever demanded the big screen so much as this one, with its commanding use of interior space and tracking shots. Wed/2-Sat/5, Castro Theater. More info here.
2001: A Space Odyssey X 2
The science-fiction movie the family goes to see in Roma is Marooned, a starry 1969 “space opera” that benefitted from being released shortly after the real-life Apollo moon landing, but was quickly forgotten as a flop and a bore. Never forgotten was the prior year’s much more cerebral Stanley Kubrick opus, which after a muted initial reception became one of the defining hits of the era—and an endlessly revisited classic ever since.
Because some people can’t see 2001 enough, the Castro is showing the now half-century-old feature in both of its recent new versions: A 4K restoration, and an “unrestored” 70mm print struck from the original camera negative. Which to choose?!? Please see both, discuss the minute differences between them, and get back to us with your conclusions. Fri/28-Tues/1, Castro Theater. More info here.