Our favorite movies of 2018

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1. The Other Side of the Wind— After sitting unfinished for decades, Orson Welles has a new film. The Other Side of the Wind, a bleak and bleakly funny dig at the movie industry, centers on Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a drunken, disillusioned movie director.  His birthday celebration becomes an excuse for all manner of people to gather and talk shit about him while enjoying his latest movie (also called The Other Side of the Wind). Shot like a mockumentary from a variety of perspectives of people at the party and interspersed with stunning footage of Hannaford’s movie-within-a-movie, The Other Side of the Wind is as disorienting as it is difficult to shake. Welles’ last completed film is a bitter vision of a rotting, death-stalked Hollywood, and a masterpiece.

2. Let the Sunshine In— Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In moves to the beat of Juliette Binoche. The two French titans prove a revelatory pairing, matching Denis’ inimitable rendering of bodies searching for connection with Binoche’s conjuring of simultaneous conflicting feelings. In telling the story of Isabelle, a painter stuck dancing between romance and disappointment, Denis structures the movie more around the character’s emotional whims than along a traditional narrative. Though her encounters with men end mostly with disappointment, Isabelle’s sudden eruptions of passion, including during a show-stopping, Etta James-backed dance sequence, suggest that her endless cycle of pursuits is not in vain.

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Our favorite performances of 2018

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1. Juliette Binoche- Let the Sunshine In- The key to Juliette Binoche’s performance as Isabelle in Let the Sunshine In is in the way she and director Claire Denis show us the character searching; searching for love among a group of less than stellar contenders, searching for meaning in the space between those affairs, searching for the right emotion in any given moment. Several sometimes wash over Binoche’s face within the span of just seconds. That her performance seems so natural amid such a rapidly shifting emotional landscape is a testament to her brilliance.

2. Helena Howard- Madeline’s Madeline- Easily the year’s great breakout performance, Helena Howard is front and center in Josephine Decker’s swirling fever dream of a movie. Howard and Decker thrust viewers into the head of Madeline, a teenager battling mental illness who is also part of an experimental theater troupe. Howard’s rapid shifts in mood within scenes is astonishing, and much of the movie’s energy is built around the risk of her throwing any given moment into chaos.

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Short Takes: Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Oldboy and More

With 2013 winding down and noteworthy releases pummeling theaters in droves hoping for awards attention, here are a few movies I saw recently that I either didn’t have time to write about or didn’t have enough to say to merit a full review.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire- A big improvement over the first film.  The second half in particular is visceral and engaging.  Jennifer Lawrence actually looks like she wants to be here this time around too, turning Katniss into a full-fledged character instead of her deadly-but-lifeless turn in the original.

Catching Fire also feels more thoroughly alive and consistent.  Director Francis Lawrence revels in the excesses of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian nightmare but doesn’t lose sight of its dread.  He plunges right into the story from the get-go, which meant a somewhat rocky start.  By the time Katniss and Peeta are plunged back into a second round of Hunger Games, though, he paces it exceptionally well.  Grade: C+

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Oldboy- Spike Lee’s adaptation of Oldboy is better than the cult classic Korean film by Park Chan-wook.  Although it is more awkwardly stylized between an homage to that 2003 original and Lee’s own aesthetic sensibilities, it is driven by a mapped-out worldview that that movie sorely lacked.  It doesn’t come off as a revenge fantasy as much as a nihilistic journey into bottomless torment.

Oldboy is set in 2013, but the past seeps into nearly every scene.  As Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) sifts desperately through his life for the key to a torturous mystery, I was reminded more of David Cronenberg’s underrated 2002 film Spider than anything else.  The movie falters most when it tries to reenact scenes from the original instead of standing on its own bold feet. Grade: B-

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All Is Lost- This movie is almost completely dependent on an audience’s on-screen history with Robert Redford.  After a brief letter reading at the beginning, he doesn’t speak hardly at all for the rest of the movie, nor do we really get any sense of who this man is.

J.C. Chandor may have meant for this vagueness to convey an existential journey, but I left it feeling like I did after Gravity: admirable and efficient filmmaking driven by its own concept instead of any idea or purpose.  Redford is a weary, sometimes captivating old man at sea, but the movie is otherwise empty and dull.  Grade: C-

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Ender’s Game- This movie will likely be eclipsed by all the glory being lauded on Katniss and company.  It’s actually a much more consistent and thrilling final product, and one of the best big budget studio releases of the year.

However idiotic and creepy the author’s views on gay people are, this (from what I understand) very loose adaptation is a terrifically conceived, well-acted spectacle. The action scenes are well-orchestrated without hovering over the violence, and the movie never loses sight of the fact that these are children being trained for war.  It also features several young stars who have given great performances in recent years, from Hugo’s Asa Butterfield to True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld and Little Miss Sunshine. Grade: B

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Bastards- Claire Denis’ latest is an unremittingly bleak neonoir about, among other things, sex trafficking.  She is a master of using expressive close-ups with her talented crew of performers; however, that humanity is in the service of a bleak and often overly-callous story. I walked away from Bastards not really feeling anything for the characters, but there are sequences so grotesque and haunting that the movie is undeniably effective.  I look forward to seeing it again and (hopefully) appreciating it a little more.  Grade: B-

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Enough Said- Nicole Holofcener has directed some of my favorite episodes of Parks and Recreation and Enlightened.  That being said, both of the movies I’ve seen by her (this and Please Give) are pretty unbearable.  Though there are a pair of excellent performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and the late James Gandolfini, Enough Said feels half-conceived and lazily executed.  The conflict, that a woman is dating a friend’s ex and starts seeing his flaws the more she gossips about him, could be resolved in three minutes.  The story is so enthralled by a condescending upper middle class whiteness that it never seems to grasp that.  Grade: D+

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Passion- See Brian De Palma’s latest instead of the remake of Carrie.  It has a very, very uneven first half but by the time the corporate revenge narrative double and triple reversed I was enthralled at the spectacle.  The ballet/murder split-screen is among the finest and most beautifully done sequences this director has ever done, which is saying quite a bit.  Grade: C

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Carrie- De Palma’s Carrie is easily one of my favorite horror movies of all time, so I was extremely skeptical about a remake.  Kimberly Pierce seemed like the right choice to tap into the isolation of Carrie White, but the final product has none of the outcast humanity or grit of her other films.  Sadly, it felt like Stephen King’s story had been adapted to the world of an uninteresting CW show.  The crucial prom scene goes off without a hitch, and Julianne Moore is dementedly over-the-top as Carrie’s religious nut mother, but the movie is stale and uninteresting. Grade: D

REVIEW: White Material

White Material
Directed by: Claire Denis
Written by: Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye, & Lucie Borleteau (screenplay)
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, and William Nadylam

When viewed through an American lens, the new film by French director Claire Denis has an almost eerily identifiable allegory to our society.  It follows Maria (Isabelle Huppert) as she tries to cling to her way of life as the French colonial society in Africa crumbles.  The economy and the very fabric of society are tanking, and she and her family’s wealthy coffee plantation are at stake.

Maria is not solely sympathetic.  Her stubbornness and white arrogance have led her to a place where she thrives while many around her are left to suffer in poverty and death.  Denis gets this point across not just by putting Maria in the midst of this chaos, but by showing us first-hand the toll of poverty in the form of child soldiers.

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And the winners should be…. 2011 Oscar Predictions (Matt’s Picks)

Best Picture

The Social Network
Black Swan
The King’s Speech
127 Hours
Winter’s Bone
The Kids Are All Right
Inception
Toy Story 3
The Fighter
True Grit

Should Win I’d be the most happy with Social Network, Black Swan, or The Kids Are All Right.  There’s no real Blind Side this year, but The King’s Speech is the least deserving… and it’s also one of the front-runners.
Will Win: The Social Network has a real shot, but so does The King’s Speech. Many have already handed it to King George, but I’m leaning toward King Zuckerberg.
Snubbed: There’s really no Blind Side this year among the nominees. However, over The King’s Speech I would’ve nominated The Ghost Writer, Enter the Void, White Material, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Splice or I Am Love.


Best Director

Tom Hooper- The King’s Speech
Darren Aronofsky- Black Swan
Joel & Ethan Coen- True Grit
David Fincher- The Social Network
David O. Russell- The Fighter

Should Win: Aronofsky.  His direction on Black Swan was the best thing about the movie, which is saying a lot.  Fincher is also great, but so many other elements of Social Network would’ve worked on their own if not as well.  You can’t really say that about Black Swan.
Will Win: Fincher.  Even if The Social Network doesn’t walk away with the night’s biggest trophy, this one is a pretty safe bet.
Snubbed: Yes, yes, Christopher Nolan deserved a nomination  for Inception here over Tom Hooper, but don’t forget Danny Boyle.  His direction on 127 Hours was impeccable and his movie was better than both Inception and The King’s Speech.   I’d also throw in Lisa Cholodenko’s low-key genius in The Kid’s Are All Right, Gasper Noe’s hallucinatory brilliance in Enter the Void, Roman Polanski’s artful storytelling in The Ghost Writer and the mesmerizing work of Claire Denis in White Material.

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