Peter Jackson’s stunning World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old made me understand what it must have been like to see The Wizard of Oz in 1939. The director, most famous for special effects wizardry in films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and his King Kong remake, has employed jaw-dropping digital restoration work to century-old footage to bring the Great War to life. His film is a chill inducing experience.
Toward the end of A Star is Born, one character describes a favorite bit of wisdom about music from Jackson Maine, one of the two central figures of the movie. Jackson – Jack to his friends – loves to say that there are only 12 notes between any octave. “Twelve notes and then the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over. All that the artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”
It might have been a strategic move to include this observation in the movie considering this is the third remake of the 1937 film of the same name. That’s four versions of A Star is Born – six if you include the 2013 Bollywood film Aashiqui 2, which is also based on the ’37 film, and a 1932 movie called What Price Hollywood?, which is essentially the same story. This version of A Star is Born is how Bradley Cooper sees the notes. He offers a fresh, energetic take. I was in from the very start, when we see Jack play one of his songs in front of a crowd of thousands of cheering fans.
I’m blaming screenwriter David Kajganich for Suspiria’s biggest failures as a remake of a cult classic. I caught up with the original – Dario Argento’s bonkers Italian giallo horror film from 1977 – almost a year ago. That film overwhelmed my senses in the best possible way. The hallucinatory color palette, grand guignol-style gore, and seminal score from prog-rock band Goblin collaborated to give me an unforgettable experience.
Director Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake is too concerned with making the movie about something.
We all have that acquaintance, friend, or family member who use their Facebook profile solely to antagonize members of their social circle whom they consider their political enemies. These are almost always people who would never do the same thing in a face to face setting. They like to “start shit,” but from the safety of their phone. These people are a shade different from what are popularly known as internet trolls, because they believe in the opinions they’re expressing, so it’s not 100% about getting under their target’s skin. It’s only 75% about that. Vice, Adam McKay’s inflammatory, obnoxious biopic about Dick Cheney, arguably the most destructive vice president in American history, is the cinematic equivalent of these true-believer assholes.
Even in the climax of his superhero movie trilogy, which took him nearly two decades to complete, M. Night Shyamalan had to add one last twist. The director, who is divisive among critics and audiences alike, has made shock revelations in the final minutes of his movies his signature ever since his 1999 breakout hit The Sixth Sense. Shyamalan and surprise endings are like peanut butter and jelly or Oreos and milk. The twists tend to fall into three general categories. There are the effective ones that also have the benefit of being bolstered by characters and a story that make repeated viewings a rewarding experience. The best example of that is the revelation at the end of Sixth Sense. Then there are the ones that just sort of sputter out, like the climax of Signs. Finally, there are the ones that not only disappoint after the initial viewing but collapse completely when you apply any scrutiny at all. The ludicrous ending to The Village fits here.
Having only seen Glass once, I’ll classify its surprise ending as a mix of the first and last categories, although it will probably hold up fairly well on repeat viewings.
There’s been plenty of digital ink already spilled about Green Book being a White Savior Film. While I’ll also spill a bit of my own on the topic, there isn’t much I can add. For me – an average white dude who’s seen his fair share of movies – the most glaring fault about the picture, a dramedy dealing with race relations in the Jim Crow era, is the paint-by-numbers feeling of it all. This is a movie that strives to hit every standard beat in the uplifting “inspired by a true story” template. As an exercise in mediocrity that serves up something we’ve all seen dozens of times before, Green Book is an unparalleled success. It’s utterly predicable and is the kind of movie that would have felt fresh had it been made 20 or 30 years ago. Still, for all it’s flaws, Green Book isn’t entirely without its charms. In addition to a superb turn from actor Mahershala Ali, the movie does provide some inspiring moments and a message about race that plenty of people still haven’t absorbed.
Barry Jenkins displayed a deep emotional intelligence and sensitivity with his breakout film Moonlight, which won a raft of awards after its release. In his new film, If Beale Street Could Talk, the director delivers another stunning drama about the black experience in America. It’s brimming with love, fear, heartache, and, ultimately, hope. Jenkins is a preeminent humanist filmmaker; he treats his characters with a great deal of empathy and dignity. He is also a singular film artist. If Beale Street Could Talk, like Moonlight, contains spectacularly gorgeous images. It is a triumph in American cinema.
On the Basis of Sex stresses that its subject, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is uncompromising and unmatched when it comes to the mastery of her chosen profession. The film is right to do so. In 1956, Ginsburg was one of just a few women admitted to Harvard Law School, and she graduated at the top of her class at Columbia after transferring there so her husband could take a job in New York City.
She later used a unique case – the focus of the film – to challenge the constitutionality of legal gender-based discrimination. She would eventually reach the pinnacle of American jurisprudence when she was confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. It’s disappointing, then, that the cinematic tribute to such a historically significant, dynamic figure like Ginsburg should be as middling as it is. On the Basis of Sex tries to cover too much ground in its first half, and the picture only really hits its stride in the last act. It’s a biopic that covers a vital individual in an unsatisfying, if entertaining, way.
If you want an intriguing mystery buried inside a documentary that pontificates on the act of moviemaking itself, look no further than Shirkers. One of the things I prized most about my number one film of 2018 – the documentary Free Solo – was how layered that film is. Shirkers is the same. Director Sandi Tan’s film never stops blossoming from beginning to end. It continually digs deeper into questions of creativity, friendship, obsession, and betrayal.
Joel and Ethan Coen have put their inimitable stamp on just about every film genre there is. Their movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t even really their first attempt at an anthology. They previously turned in a segment in two different anthology collections. The first was for the film Paris, je t’aime, where each story is set in the City of Lights. The second was a three minute short for a film commissioned as a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival, called Chacun son cinema.
Scruggs, however, is all Coen Brothers, from start to finish. The film contains no out-and-out clunkers, but, as is the case with most anthologies, the whole is a bit uneven.
Cold War is my first experience with the work of director Paweł Pawlikowski. I need to see Ida, his film about a woman set to take her vows as a nun in early 1960s Poland, but I haven’t had time to catch up with it yet. After watching Cold War, I’ll be sure to make the time. His new picture is a painfully mournful tale of two star-crossed lovers whose own personalities and the realities of the world around them conspire to make the match an ill-advised one. Still, their passion burns bright, even when they are separated from each other for years.
It’s impossible to say if author P.L. Travers would have liked the second Disney film to feature her most beloved creation, the magical nanny Mary Poppins, any more than she liked the first. As documented in the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks, Travers disliked almost everything about what became one of Disney’s most cherished movies, 1964’s Mary Poppins. She hated the musical numbers, she hated the animated characters, she hated the changes Disney made to the Poppins character. If Saving Mr. Banks is to be believed, she hated the general whimsy of the picture. That’s the exact quality that has made it such an enduring piece of pop culture.
The new sequel Mary Poppins Returns – a project which Travers stymied for decades and her estate finally approved years after the author’s death – manages to conjure some of the whimsical magic of the original. But the movie also suffers from being over-plotted to within an inch of its life. It’s true that the original has a message, but it never becomes as overbearing as the one in Mary Poppins Returns. The actress portraying Poppins in the new film, Emily Blunt, also has the insurmountable task of living up to the iconic performance of Julie Andrews. Both of these factors make Mary Poppins Returns a shadow of the movie that it attempts so very hard to evoke.
With Leave No Trace, her first narrative feature film since 2010’s Winter’s Bone, director Debra Granik continues to focus on characters on the fringes of society. Granik is a filmmaker whose work is steeped in social realism. Winter’s Bone chronicled crushing poverty and the devastating effects of methamphetamine use in the rural Ozarks. In Leave No Trace, the focus is a veteran struggling with PTSD who is also trying to care for and raise his teenage daughter. Granik and her writing partner, Anne Rosellini, adapted Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment for their film. The picture is a meditation on familial love, mental illness, and even the personal sacrifices we all make to be members of society. Granik imbues the film with a great deal of empathy, and her film features two of the best performances of 2018; one from a newcomer who shows talent beyond her years, and the other from an experienced actor turning in the best, most nuanced work of his career.
The cliché is that the older you get, the faster time seems to fly. I’m only 38, but I can definitely affirm that it is a cliché for a reason. The year 2018 is a complete blur. Looking over my film-viewing log for the year had me confused. “Wait,” I thought, “Black Panther was this year?!? It feels like it was at least two years ago when I saw that.”
The North Texas Film Critics Association (NTFCA), of which I am a member, voted this month to honor the best films of 2018. As an organization, the NTFCA is proud to call attention to outstanding achievements in the craft of filmmaking. I consider movies to be not only entertainment, but in the best examples, they are also art. They teach us about the human condition. Here are the winners for each category in which we voted:
It’s probably ridiculous for me to describe the Chicago-set crime thriller Widows as authentic. That’s not due to any fault with the movie. In fact, it’s nothing to do with the movie at all. It’s because I’ve lived almost 90% of my life in Texas. While I’ve done my fair share of traveling, I have not so much as set foot in the state of Illinois, let alone Chicago (a situation I’m anxious to rectify). Widows is as much about that city as it is anything else. It’s an incredibly authentic rendering of the Chicago of my imagination, which I’ve conjured through pop culture representations, journalism and non-fiction works, and basic cultural osmosis.
The movie weaves together fundamental Chicago touchstones into a dense and layered story: corrupt machine politics, a deadly criminal underworld, uneasy racial tensions. Meanwhile, the heist at the center of the movie is as taught and suspenseful as anything you’ll see on the screen this year.
Yorgos Lanthimos delivers everything you might expect visually from him in his first period piece. The Greek director’s meticulous attention to detail and exacting standards are brought to bear in The Favourite. It’s a sumptuous, visually arresting examination of power struggles in the early 18th century English royal court. Many of Lanthimos’ thematic preoccupations are present as well: the blackest of comedy that highlights the worst instincts and actions of which humans are capable; how his characters wield power over others; the mingling of the humorous and horrific to shock and disturb his audience.
While the nihilistic aesthetic Lanthimos employed in films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer remains essentially unchanged in The Favourite, the effect becomes numbing here (especially in the final act) where it doesn’t in the earlier films. This is another morality tale like The Lobster and Sacred Deer. In The Favourite, the ultimate moral is: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.
It appears that the opioid crisis has finally reached far enough beyond fly-over country for Hollywood to notice it and feature it as the social problem of the moment. Two awards season hopefuls showcase not just drug addiction, but the kind of drug addiction that has been making headlines for almost a decade now. Both Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back focus on men in their early 20s who are opioid addicts and how their parents struggle to help them break free of the addiction.
I have no opinion yet on Ben is Back, because I haven’t seen it as of this writing (although the screener is sitting on my desk in the “to watch” pile) but looking at the cast and a brief plot synopsis, I’m willing to venture a guess that it shares the same problem Beautiful Boy has. While the picture achieves what it sets out to do, Beautiful Boy is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the easy way of exploring the devastating opioid epidemic.
Director Alfonso Cuarón has synthesized the best elements of his career to date for his latest film Roma, a touching, ethereal masterpiece. The subject matter is semi-autobiographical, like elements from his breakout hit Y Tu Mamá También. Just like his visually stunning work in Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón’s absolute mastery of the cinematic techniques of camera movement and framing are also on display in this film. What sets Roma apart, though, is its lyrical, contemplative mode of storytelling. Those elements are present even in Cuarón’s most anxiety-inducing picture, Gravity, but the director is exploring them more fully here. Roma is emotionally complex and mature; it’s a beautiful film, both visually and thematically.