Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Walter's Top Ten for 2018

So, having once again missed the deadline of beating the Oscar nominations (because of rushing to get a few last films in), I now offer my top ten for the year. I remind readers that this list refers to their value to me and are not meant to highlight the best crafted films of the year.

I suspect that I have seen fewer films this year than any of the last ten - a fact not unrelated to the number of reviews that I posted in 2018 (0). Clearly my life is too busy with less important matters. So, many good candidates remain unwatched including: Can you ever forgive me?,The Silent Revolution, A Private War, Boy Erased, and Capernaum.

Nevertheless, I still found enough to have a list that I feel ok about, as well as the usual honourable mentions and disappointments.The honourable mentions are Leave No Trace, Indian Horse, First Reformed and the Guernsey Literary etc. That's a wide diversity of fine films that didn't quite make the list.

Before the top ten, here is my "spilled coffee list" (having totally blown the chance to warrant the salute of a raised mug of coffee). First of all: Sicario: Day of the Soldado - this was the one I expected to disappoint, and it did. Such a step down from the first. Then Crazy, Rich Asians. Really? Critics: what the heck? How did this warrant any more attention than the average rom-com? So ordinary. And the disgusting display of outrageous wealth without the slightest awareness that this is problematic. Sigh. Finally, Annihilation. Yes, my hopes shouldn't have been raised when this is not my genre. But it was sci-fi horror with nothing extra to make it worthwhile (Sorry, Vic, I just don't see it).

Here's the top ten:

(10) Roma & Cold War - OK, here's the thing. These are two very well made films, but neither fulfilled my hopes. The b & w cinematography is gorgeous in each (I significantly preferred Cold War on a purely aesthetic basis.) They both succeeded in creating an amazing sense of mood that felt exotic and powerful. In spite of the excitement about Roma, I thought I was going to like Cold War better because it was so beautifully done, and I sensed it had a stronger narrative. It may have, but the narrative was pathetic. Vic referred to it as a passionate love story, but I would prefer "pathological" love story. Roma just didn't give enough story period, and though it had the potential to "mean" something anyway, I didn't find it succeeded in a meaning that I cared about. If I felt it succeeded in telling Cleo's story, I would have put it high on my list (because several scenes were truly amazing). But it didn't succeed. It felt like Cuarón's imaginings and glorifications from the boy's perspective, which didn't quite honour the real Cleo. So I'll just leave both these films parked here at the tail of my list.

9. Juliet, Naked – The best rom-com of the year (though that’s not a perfect description or genre). It’s a clever film well worth a light evening of entertainment.

8. The Insult – Strikingly less light - this story, as good films often do, deepens the complexity around a common conflict, taking us through many layers and a variety of emotions toward each "side." It asks good questions about the use of emotional manipulation. (2017 film but not released in Canada until 2018)

7. Puzzle – The acting makes this interesting little film work. A repressed housewife discovers her superpower and it slowly draws her into a larger world in which she has more of a voice. 

6. The Children Act – Few could have made this such a great film as Emma Thompson does. She makes us feel her world and her dilemma, even as she struggles with feeling anything. It’s a window into how professional wisdom and personal brokenness get credibly tangled up. 

5. Isle of Dogs – I haven’t always been a fan of Wes Anderson, though increasingly his films have been catching the outskirts of my attention. This is one of the best. More than ever, there seemed to be a point to it (the lack of which has been a problem for me in many of his other films). It felt like a finally "got" some of the things that he was up to creatively.

4. The Guilty – Reminding me of a favourite from a few years back (Locke), this Danish thriller is another great example of how you can tell a deeply engaging story from a very constrained perspective; this one takes place entirely within an office receiving emergency calls. The way the ending is handled (as Vic already noted) takes it from good to great. 

3. Tully – A creative film that succeeded in its unique approach. See it without asking too many questions. There was more clever writing to lighten things up than I expected and lots of beautiful and inspiring reality about care and self-care.

2. The Rider – This is a film that I enjoyed on viewing, but my appreciation grew even more as I thought about it. Reading about how the film came to be deepened that even more. The Rider centres on an Indigenous family and deals well with that reality without drawing any unnecessary attention to it. It celebrates human diversity in a context where you don’t expect it. Some scenes were amazing.

1. Green Book – Take two interesting characters that make an odd couple, based on a true story. Throw in a lot of good piano music, some great laughs and a few surprises. Add some social and historical insights that you see from a new perspective. And you've got a great movie that underlines how deeply important it is for us to build relationships across divides.

Thoughts on the Academy Award Nominations for 2018

The Academy has listed its nominations for 2018 and overall I am more than a little disappointed. Here are my thoughts, in brief:
  1. I have stated my opinion that Roma is perhaps the best film of the century, so I was pleasantly surprised to see how many nominations (10) that it received. I consider it a crime (i.e. an offence against the history of the film industry) that I had to watch Roma on Netflix.
  2. Only two of my top fifteen films received Best Picture nominations, which is quite disappointing, especially when I believe half of the films nominated don’t deserve to be on the list.
  3. Two of the best films of 2018 (You Were Never Really Here, Leave No Trace) were made by women. These films are nowhere to be found among the nominations. Very sad.
  4. Related to the above, my favourite performance of 2018 was by Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here. Not even nominated.
  5. I understand why critics think The Favourite is a brilliant film, but Lanthimos is beginning to scare me a little and I think his film is overrated, so the 10 nominations are a lot.
Using the Academy’s nomination list, here are my votes in eleven key categories:

Best Picture: Roma
Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Best Actor: Viggo Mortensen, Green Book (haven’t seen At Eternity’s Gate)
Best Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Best Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Best Adapted Screenplay: If Beale Street Could Talk
Best Original Screenplay: First Reformed
Best Foreign Language Film: Roma
Best Cinematography: Roma
Best Original Score: If Beale Street Could Talk

Friday, 11 January 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk

It's been a great year for films about the black-American experience and this is the best of them. My review can be found at Third Way: http://thirdway.com/beale-street/

If Beale Street Could Talk gets ****. My mug is up.

Vic's Top Fifteen Films of 2018

For me, 2018 was not a great year for film (relatively few “wow”s and a short must-see list), so I watched twenty fewer films in 2018 than in any of the past three years and I suspect the films on my list below would not hold up well against the films on my last four lists. There were, however, a few classic masterpieces that are among the best films of the century, and it was a great year for films about the black-American experience (three are on my list and another three came close, which is an extraordinary total). And while women have not made serious inroads into Hollywood filmmaking, I again watched more films made by women than in any previous year. Two films in my top ten were among them and a third was written by a woman. I admit this is not a high percentage, though it’s higher than most previous years, and I was glad to see that over half of the films on my list had a female protagonist.

Honourable mentions this year go to Paddington 2, The Hate U Give and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (which I saw on Netflix the day it was released, but have not yet reviewed). 

Other observations about my list:
  1. Debra Granik, Lynne Ramsey, Alfonso Cuarón, Alex Garland and Pawel Pawlikowski all have their second straight films on my list (and all in my top ten).
  2. The two best films of 2018 (ranked four and five on my list) are filmed in black & white and are the most gorgeous films of the year. Does that mean B&W actually makes films look better?
  3. Two of my five favourite films are filmed in an old-fashioned square aspect ratio.
  4. Four of my five favourite films reminded me of Tarkovsky, which must reveal something about the kinds of films I appreciate.
  5. The one word that best encapsulates most of my top ten films is “haunting”, which must also reveal something about my tastes.
  6. Four of my top nine films are foreign language films. 
  7. Seven of my top fifteen are in Gareth’s top 17 (always a good sign). 
Here’s my list, counting down:

15. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? - Fred Rogers wanted to make the world a better place by speaking honestly with children. This moving and inspiring documentary by Morgan Neville, about TV’s greatest hero, is highly recommended to everyone.

14. Indian Horse - Stephen Campanelli’s film is not a work of cinematic art, but this vital tale about the life of an Ojibwe boy in Ontario in the 1960’s and 70’s is well-made, compelling, and essential viewing for every Canadian.

13. The Wife - I loved every minute of Bjorn Runge’s intelligent drama about the tense relationship between an aging writer and his wife. Brilliant screenplay by Jane Anderson and a sublime performance by Glenn Close, who should win an Oscar for this.

12. Eighth Grade - Bo Burnham’s wise, compassionate and life-affirming drama about the life of a 14-year-old girl in today’s social-media-obsessed environment has perhaps the best father-daughter scenes ever filmed.

11. Blindspotting - This raw (language warning!), insightful and always quirky film about life in a black neighborhood in Oakland treats every character with empathy and compassion. Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada and written by the two lead actors, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal.

10. Leave No Trace - Speaking of treating characters with a unique level of compassion, Debra Granik’s magical film is remarkable for the positive way it portrays every single character in the film. A marvellous quiet study of relationships and community in the 21st century.

9. The Guilty - I can’t believe I have yet to review this wow film, which I caught at the Edmonton International Film Festival in October. A real-time thriller about a police officer on emergency-call duty who gets a call from a kidnapped woman, this astute Danish film from Gustav Möller features a terrific performance by Jakob Cedergren and an ending that blew me away.

8. The Silent Revolution - This riveting tale from Lars Kraume about a twelfth-grade classroom in East Germany in 1956 is a brilliantly-structured and incredibly intense examination of life in an authoritarian state.

7. You Were Never Really Here - The darkest film on my list (and there are many dark films on my list) is Lynne Ramsey’s terrific character study of a very violent man. This raw brutal film features my favourite performance of the year by Joaquin Phoenix. 

6. If Beale Street Could Talk - Reviewed just today is this gorgeous poetic film from Barry Jenkins about a young black woman whose fiancé is wrongly imprisoned in late 1960’s New York City. Based on a novel by James Baldwin, it is the year’s best film about the black-American experience.

5. Cold War - Getting to see this film proved to be a challenge (it hasn’t made it to Winnipeg and was just released on Blu-ray in Europe), but I knew it would be on my list, so I made the effort. Filmed in gorgeous black & white, this haunting masterpiece from Pawel Pawliowski is a passionate love story that takes us from Poland to Paris and back between 1949 and 1964.

4. Roma - Easily the best film made in 2018 (maybe in this century), Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece gives us a glimpse of life in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City in 1970/71 through the eyes of a young Mixteco woman who gets pregnant while working as a live-in maid. The cinematography is sublime. If I had seen Roma on the big screen (as it should be seen!) instead of Netflix, it might have been my favourite film of the year (as it was Gareth’s).

3. Green Book - Peter Farrelly’s film addresses racist attitudes without tackling systemic racism. To me, that’s a minor infraction, given the kind of film it is. However, insofar as the film misrepresents a well-known musician (Don Shirley), it does deserves some condemnation. Nevertheless, Green Book was the best time I had at the cinema in 2018 (I was unaware of the controversy at the time) and features astonishing chemistry between Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. 

2. Annihilation - Slow-paced, dream-like, thought-provoking, intense and gorgeous, the latest film by Alex Garland is sci-fi at its best. It’s all about self-destruction, especially at a biological level, which doesn’t sound too exciting, but I was riveted from start to finish.

1. First Reformed - When one of his church attendees asks Reverend Toller whether God will forgive us for what we are doing to the planet, Toller’s wrestling with God takes on an even darker tone. Brilliant theological drama (one of the best theological films of the century) from Paul Schrader, with a terrific performance by Ethan Hawke.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

The Old Man & the Gun

One of my more enjoyable cinema experiences in 2018 was watching this old-fashioned laid-back film, based on a true story, about a 70-year-old bank robber/prison escape artist named Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) who falls in love with Jewel (Sissy Spacek) while carrying out his most audacious robberies yet and avoiding the pursuit of a smart rookie detective named John Hunt (Casey Affleck). 

The actors above were all terrific, as are the characters they play. Throw in a great scene by Tom Waits and you have a very special and delightful film. It’s not surprising that it was written and directed by David Lowery, whose last two films (Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story) are among my favourites. The Old Man & the Gun also has a great period feel (it is set in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s and the film has a grainy style that make it look like it was made back then). 

The Old Man & the Gun could have made four stars and a place among my top films of the year if I hadn’t been so bothered by two things: 1) the complete absence of any true-to-life sense of the horrors (in many ways) of armed robbery, and 2) the lack of credibility in terms of how Tucker survived his chosen profession (since it’s a true story, there must be a way to make it credible).

Nevertheless, The Old Man & the Gun gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. Highly recommended for those who appreciate quiet laid-back films.

Friday, 4 January 2019


I went into the cinema with low expectations, having heard mixed reports about Vice. As a result, I enjoyed Vice much more than I thought I would, though it is definitely an uneven film and therefore not deserving of more than ***+ (which is what I’m giving it). 

Vice tells us the story of Dick Cheney, from his college days through his vice-presidency under George W. Bush. It’s a story that deserves telling because Cheney is responsible for more death and destruction than any man alive. As Vice clearly shows, Cheney was responsible for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11 (which, at the least, he immediately used for his own ends), he is single-handedly responsible for the very existence of ISIS, and his efforts in support of the fossil fuel industry (and against the environment) may impact the planet for centuries to come. One expects to see how such a man brilliantly schemed, from childhood on, to take over (and destroy) the world, so it’s surprising to discover how average he was. It’s also surprising (though with Trump in the White House, it should not be) to see how easy Cheney’s rise to power was, despite that average background. 

To tell such a story as a dark comedy/satire is entirely appropriate and, in its attempts at comedy, Vice frequently succeeds (a scene in the middle of the film is as funny as any I’ve seen this year), much more often than shows like Veep, for example. Where Vice fails is in trying to make the film a serious drama as well as an insightful comedy. The mix just doesn’t feel right and there were a number of scenes I felt were quite unnecessary (and could have been replaced with a lot more of the crazy satire elements). 

Nevertheless, I did find Adam McKay’s film thoroughly entertaining, especially watching the incredible acting efforts of Christian Bale (as Cheney), Amy Adams (as Lynne, Cheney’s wife) and Sam Rockwell (as W). A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The Wife

One of the more under-appreciated films of 2018 was this marvellous drama from Bjorn Runge (brilliantly written by Jane Anderson, based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer) about the tense relationship between Joan and Joe Castleman, who have been married for 40 years. Joe, played perfectly by Jonathan Pryce, has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the fulfillment of his dreams, but the trip he and Joan (Glenn Close) make to Stockholm to claim his prize will not be a happy occasion.

As the title suggests, the focus of The Wife is on Joan, and Close deserves at least an Academy Award nomination for her understated spot-on performance as a woman who has obviously had to put up with a lot during her long marriage to a rather unlikable conceited man. Other important characters in the film are Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who wants to write a biography about Joe and believes he has uncovered some secrets, and the Castlemans’ son, David (Max Irons), who wants to be a great writer himself and is desperate for his father’s approval. There are also a number of important flashbacks featuring a young Joan and Joe (Annie Stark, Close’s actual daughter, and Harry Lloyd).

The plot isn’t entirely credible, which prevents The Wife from being a pure four-star film, but I enjoyed every minute of this riveting film. With its many delicious scenes between Joan and Joe, along with its delightful performances, this intelligent and thought-provoking film was one of my favourites of the year. ***+ - ****. My mug is up.