Sunday, December 30, 2018

My Top Sixteen Films of 2018

It was a strong year of discovery for me.  Like most years, many of the high points were from the past, but I also was really moved and struck by a few films that came out in 2018.

Maurice Pialat's La maison des bois
It is very possible that within one of the cinema's greatest bodies of work this little seen seven part series for television is Pialat's greatest achievement.  It is certainly his most humanistic film and the work that most clearly grants him the title as Jean Renoir's closest French cinema successor.  All of it is remarkable, its characters, its Frenchness, its patience, its rigor.  And Pialat, time and time again, gives us moments that are so alive and so rich, and that surprisingly make us feel as if we are seeing them on film for the first time.  
Zachary Treitz's Men Go To Battle
The kind of imaginative lo-fi work that makes me rethink my normal skepticism around low budget digital filmmaking.  It feels like the cinematic equivalent to something Will Oldham might author.  It is quiet and earthy and comfortable just being pure and unadorned.  The acting is tremendous, and its restraint from using much light or music refreshing.  As strong of an American micro-indy as I have seen since Blue Ruin  
Bi Gan's Kaili Blues
Gan's ability to move a camera is startling.  Almost every shot is magical in the way it uses both space and time.  The locations are consistently among the most interesting and cinematic I have seen in a very long time.  Meanwhile, Gan's choreography of the long take immediately announces him as one of the next great filmmakers in the tradition of Hou Hsiao-hsien or the Romanians.  To read that Gan was in his twenties when he made this film is beyond comprehension. 
Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman
Spike is totally in his element and his passion and talent come through in ways that I haven't seen in his work in more than twenty years.  I found it messy, uneven and raw, as in akin to an early draft that still needed an editor's touch.  But I also thought it the closest American film I have seen in the 21st century to the spirit of the daring and uncomfortable batch of great indies that first burst on the scene in the early to mid eighties.   
Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women
I have never been much a fan of her work.  Having seen Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek's CutoffI often felt her work was admirably minimal without the heft or depth of a Bresson or Ozu.  But her latest feels different to me, saying a tremendous amount without saying much at all.  Reichardt uses one of cinema's greatest weapons, silence, to get underneath her themes and wonderfully rich characters and stories.
Frederick Wiseman's Boxing Gym
Perhaps my favorite of all of the Wiseman films I have seen to date.  Wiseman is pure cinema, devoid of non-diegetic music and devoid of anything that feels put on, forced, unnatural or basking in cinematic artifice.  Aside from feeling so human and so real, what impressed me the most about this work were its rhythms.  You could close your eyes and be mesmerized for almost 120 minutes by the musical sounds of its voices, words and movements. 
Luis Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty
One of Bunuel's most free-flowing and "liberated" films is pure sexual and unpredictable fun.  There are a number of all-time great moments but for me it was the unconventional dinner party and the final sequence at the zoo.  Bunuel's key themes are all there - anti-establishment, anti-Catholic church, surrealistic flights of fancy - but the contemporary setting gives them a lightness and impact that I have rarely felt while watching his other work. 
Alice Rohrwacher's Happy as Lazzaro
The first film I have seen from the young Italian filmmaker is impressive.  The best way I can describe it is a welcome concoction of Kiarostami's feel for the land, Lynch's ability for rupturing time and early Van Sant's poetic feel for the rough and marginal.  Based on this film, Rohrwacher is full of talent and tough to categorize.  I am very excited to see what she does next.            
Robin Campillo's BPM (Beats per Minute)
I knew going into it that it was Les Inrocks' favorite film of the year and their taste is often closely aligned with my own.  What struck me most, aside from its performances, was its shape.  Campillo is able like Kechiche with Blue Is the Warmest Color or Bonello with Saint Laurent to avoid classical scene shape without seeming unstructured.  His modernism is not abrasive, loud or jarring.  It is immersive, fluid and welcoming.
Matt Wolf's Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell
One of those documentaries that immediately convince you to go out and dig into the work of the featured artist.  Prior to watching the film, I had only heard one song by Russell and now I am very curious to spend more time seeing what he was all about.  He strikes me as part Scott Walker, part Mark Hollis and perhaps part Nick Drake.    
Cy Endfield's The Sound of Fury
I did not know what to expect, having never seen a film from Endfield.  But I knew the film had a pretty big reputation and was curious to see what it was all about.  It has elements of Lang's Fury that place it in an interesting cinematic context (Endfield certainly has much of Lang's dark, venomous abilities) and offer some historical clue to some of what Endfield may be up to, using noir to lodge an attack on WWII atrocities.  What struck me most is how far Endfield goes into the darkness.  You cringe numerous times as you feel Howard splintering apart, first into violence and then into adultery and alcoholism.  This is uncomfortable noir, spewing out in all directions, unconcerned with softness or any commercial sentimentality.
Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth
I thought I had seen Hartley's debut, but it turns out I never had.  It has to be one of the most stylistically assured debuts in the history of cinema.  Hartley's films are heavily musical, rhythmic in their mood and editing, but not in the way Hollywood uses wall-to-wall music to provide most of the surface emotion.  Hartley's music is his primary tool for carving out his special cinematic world.  While there may be no known adjective, it is as distinctly "Hartleyian" as David's world is Lynchian.  The acting, the locations, the framing, the almost Bressonian dialogue delivery combined with 80's Godard unique feel for the ellipsis immediately announce a very singular auteur.  This is a startling debut.  
Claire Denis' Let the Sunshine In
Perhaps most remarkable about Denis' films, aside from the fact that they are always top shelf, is that they consistently feel modern.  As she advances in her career, her work never feels regressive with respect to her own filmography or retro with regards to the history of the medium in general.  Denis and Binoche are a potent combination.  They are two of our most daring artists, repeatedly willing to defy labels, classification or emotional signposts in their venturing.  When the end credits roll, it is clear once again that Denis is writing the book on film grammar today.  It is precisely the little touches like this that keep us moving forward and remind us, once again, that she is one of the greatest filmmakers at work today.      
Elaine May's A New Leaf
The first May film I have seen in its entirety, and it immediately made me want to go watch her entire filmography.  Her style is loose and modern while still feeling intimate and restrained (I know, some of those words seem to be in direct conflict with one another!)  Perhaps it's her ability to achieve such lived-in, natural performances from her actors that makes her work vibrate so or maybe it's the fact that she never feels to be following any known framework or genre.  Her output as director is limited, but if her debut film is any indication, it ranks up there with the highest shelf of American filmmaking in the seventies and that's no small statement.


FJ Ossang's Zona inquinata
About as great of a mix as I could ever imagine of Boy Meets GirlRepo Man, and Permanent Vacation.  Absolutely blew my mind with its formal beauty and uninhibited cinematic boldness.  
Amy Scott's Hal
Another documentary, like the recent one I saw on Arthur Russell, that makes you immediately want to dig further into the subject's body of work.  As a long time fan of Ashby, Shampoo for instance might be in my all time top ten, I have always been curious to learn more about the filmmaker.  Having seen this doc, which I cannot recommend highly enough to any fan of Ashby, I now can't wait to go back and watch all seven of his films from the seventies.

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