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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Short Takes: Amazing Spider-Man 2, Grand Budapest Hotel & more

906429 - The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2- Peter Parker is much more interesting than Spider-Man in this sequel to a reboot.  In fact, Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his on-again, off-again soul mate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) seem to be acting out a completely different movie, a romance with genuine warmth and feeling.  The rest of the movie is a straightforward superhero mash-up, with generically assembled fight sequences and standard villain templates (maniacal corporate brat, vengeful outcast, Russian gangster).  It’s fairly easy to see where director Marc Webb’s heart was while making this mega-budget spectacle, but there are too many movies here trying to cram into one. Grade: C

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REVIEW: Nebraska

nebraska

Nebraska
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk

The most endearing image of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is of an old man stubbornly trudging along the highways and sidewalks of rural America.  The camera is placed a patient distance in front of him, not sighing at his pace but simply waiting for him to catch up.  That distance is indicative of the relationship that that man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), has with the rest of the world.  He’s quietly stubborn, wearing a look of defeat as his default expression.  His son David (Will Forte) sees that and pities him.

Pity is the main engine that drives Nebraska’s sparse story, which Payne makes incidental to character and landscape.  Woody is walking from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a $1 million slip he got from a sham marketing company.  His wife Kate (June Squibb) can do little but throw her hands up in the air in exasperation at his repeated attempts to walk there (his license was revoked).

“I didn’t know the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire.  He should have thought of that years ago and worked for it,” she says in one of the movie’s best lines.

What makes Woody’s painful-looking shuffle resonate is not that he is aimless but that his goal is unattainable.  David eventually indulges him, embarking on a road trip that lands them, almost too conveniently, in Woody’s hometown. Hawthorne is a small Nebraskan village that seems forgotten by time.   Payne’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white only enhances this, adding a tinge of melancholy to the wide open plains and quaint, vacant streets.

Word spreads quickly about Woody’s million-dollar jackpot.  Despite David’s attempts to quell any celebration of it his father soon becomes the talk of the town, for better and worse.  He is envied and celebrated for a while, until family and old friends start to subtly bring up past debts.  Woody is oblivious to almost all of this, and Dern gives the impression that his character’s journey is so single-minded because it’s all he has the energy to focus on.

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Nebraska’s weakest link is in the way the story forces itself together.  There is no real reason why Kate and her and Woody’s oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) need to join them in Hawthorne.  After Woody hits his head after a fall, Bob Nelson’s script seems determined to pin him and his family in that town for much longer than Woody would ever actually stay there.

Payne balances the somewhat sloppy story with the most emotionally delicate direction he’s done so far.  The Descendants, his previous feature, also had a contrived story, and it felt like it did.  Nebraska doesn’t.  It unfolds more spontaneously, never a slave to its central plot and much better off for it.  It’s an elegiac, bitterly funny examination of the Grants rather than a father/son bonding narrative.

The best scene happens in Hawthorne’s cemetery right after Kate arrives from Montana.  She, David and Woody are surrounded by the stumps of countless modest graves.  Kate talks blatantly about the people buried beneath them, her crass observations offset by her son’s discomfort and her husband’s weary obliviousness.

Kate’s brazen manner thankfully softens as the movie goes on, creating more than a castrating caricature.  Squibb slowly reveals the kindness inside her without failing to skillfully execute many of the script’s best comedic moments.  Her and Dern show us a couple hardened by a less-than-ideal life, but still trying to make a go at it.

Nebraska is just as funny and humane as Payne’s best movies.  He offers a view of rural America that the Coen brothers might have made if they were (just a little) less condescending.  Working with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, he has also created his most visually accomplished work to date.  In films like Sideways and About Schmidt, I remembered the terrific dialogue and the richly conceived characters, and the way Payne found a way to understand them when they seemed unreachable.  There weren’t images as memorable as what he has here, though.  It is a fairly big leap for him as a filmmaker, with all the imperfection that often comes with such risks.

Grade: B-

CANNES REVIEW: Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: David Cronenberg (screenplay), Don DeLillo (novel)
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon and Paul Giamatti

All this modern billionaire ever wanted was a haircut, though in Cosmopolis it becomes quite clear that he pretty much has everything else a person could desire.  David Cronenberg brings his typical visual menace to this deeply intellectual examination of the one percent, staging what amounts to little more than a series of conversations as increasingly intense verbal battles.

When Eric (Robert Pattinson) untints the windows of his hyper-modern limousine, we see an outside world that is coming closer and closer to collapse.  He of course is numb to everything but his own concerns, a simple haircut used to exaggerate how miniscule they are in relation to everything else.  As he talks (and talks and talks) to his girlfriend, his prostitute, his financial adviser and a myriad of others, it becomes clear that there is a pent-up frustration that is slowly being unraveled as the economy and his fortune near demise.

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REVIEW: Win Win

Win Win
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Written by: Tom McCarthy (screenplay)
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, and Melanie Lynskey

Tom McCarthy’s Win Win reminds you that even a genre labeled “independent” can succumb to endless cliches.  This is not because it is predictable, but because you are lead to believe that it will be from the beginning.

Armed with a mordant wit (what successful indie comedy filmmaker isn’t?) and a sly sense for what a movie with Paul Giamatti is supposed to be like, McCarthy dismantles the sports genre and the midlife crisis movie from the inside out.  We follow Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) a down-on-his luck New Jersey lawyer with a tough-but-loving wife (Amy Ryan, who else?) and two children.

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