The Best of Cinema 2018

•December 20, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Of the 34 theatrical releases I saw this year, these are my ten favorite films of 2018:

 

10. Isle of Dogs

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Stop motion animation and Wes Anderson seem to have been destined for each other, as the singular auteur weaves together a surprisingly bleak narrative on a dystopian scale, nestling in the timeless bond between boy and canine.

 

9. Wildlife

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In a year of highly touted directorial debuts by actors, Paul Dano stood assuredly ahead of the rest, with a carefully observed portrait of a family’s gradual disintegration when faced with changing social attitudes, headlined by finely tuned performances from Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal.

 

8. Three Identical Strangers

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A miraculous reunion between three long lost triplets is at first filled with euphoria, but it slowly descends into a twisty and occasionally disturbing examination of one of the fundamental inquiries between nature and nurturing.

 

7. Solo: A Star Wars Story

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The first box office blunder for Lucasfilm, Ron Howard’s space western might have been low on galactic stakes, but it was packed with adventure and some surprising resonance thanks to nicely layered script by Lawrence and Jon Kasdan and an effortlessly charismatic performance from Alden Ehrenreich.

 

6. First Man

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Cinematically tackling arguably the most iconic achievement in all of human history, Damien Chazelle chose instead to focus on the interior conflict of Neil Armstrong himself, not only of his astonishing psychological endurance in the face of terrifying odds, but more vitally, his private emotional burdens, most clearly expressed by a stirring score and an internalized performance by Ryan Gosling.

 

5. If Beale Street Could Talk

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Equally sweeping in its romantic strokes and melancholy depths, Barry Jenkins’ film navigates the waters between the despair of oppression and heart stopping intimacy, with deeply felt performances from its leads, lush photography, and an undeniably sensual score.

 

4. Annihilation

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An unnerving psychological journey, Alex Garland’s sophomore directorial effort features a formidable core female ensemble, all women with differing backgrounds and philosophies who investigate an unearthly phenomena, and are ultimately confronted with their most personal demons.

 

3. Vox Lux

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Abrasive and confrontational, the operatic rise, regression and ostensible resurgence of a pop princess born from traumatic circumstances is the most structurally and tonally bold film of the year, showcasing a fearlessly mercurial Natalie Portman.

 

2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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In times as tumultuous and unpredictable as these, the voice of Fred Rogers vitally points us to our collective decency as humans, as this quietly resonant documentary delves into both his remarkable spirit and his private doubts.

 

1. Roma

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A panoramic evocation of memory and perhaps the culmination of Alfonso Cuaron’s filmmaking career, examining the relationship between individual and societal conflicts, implementing photography and sound design in service of utterly masterful world building, and harboring deeply personal emotion that hits like a tidal wave.

 

Honorable Mentions:

BlacKkKlansman

The Death of Stalin

First Reformed

Paddington 2

Widows

 

Overrated: A Star is Born

Underrated: Ready Player One

 

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Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

•May 25, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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It’s quite possibly the most difficult casting decision in recent cinematic history, and certainly one of the least enviable roles for any young actor to tackle: Han Solo. Oh yes, many a young lad has imagined himself as the charming and brash smuggler on playgrounds and in backyards all over the world, but to actually portray the character on screen is an entirely different task. Not only is the character among the most beloved in contemporary cinema, but it was also the role that catapulted Harrison Ford’s career into the stratosphere. So to think of anyone else in the part and further, to tell an origin story requires a huge leap of faith. Largely succeeding despite these intimidating odds, Solo: A Star Wars Story overcomes some narrative issues thanks to its talented and diverse cast of characters, ably shouldered by Alden Ehrenreich’s effortlessly charismatic performance.

Despite his adopted surname, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) wasn’t always on his own. Living day to day in the slums of the planet Corellia, he has a girl in his life named Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Together they hope to escape their downtrodden lives and explore the galaxy together. But that dream evaporates one day, when on the run from local gangs the two are separated, and Han has no choice but to enlist with the Empire in order to get offworld. Years later, Han finds himself caught in the grind of Imperial warfare, when he manages to catch a few fellow Imperial officers who don’t seem to be up to snuff. Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and Rio (Jon Favreau) are thieves in disguise, intent on stealing a cargo ship for a heist. Despite their best efforts to repel Han, he endears himself to them, especially when he proves himself in accidentally managing to free an imprisoned wookiee. Soon after, he’s whisked away on a series of misadventures where his skills, wits, and relationships will be put to the test.

Needless to say, Solo primarily succeeds or fails on the strength of the young man himself. Everybody has their own idea of what makes Han Solo a great character. Yes, there’s bravado and swagger, but Han is at his best when he’s way in over his head, and doesn’t quite know what he’s going to do next. That unpredictability is part of what makes him so exciting, but more importantly, his personal uncertainty is a vulnerability he always tries to keep from slipping through the cracks of that cocksure exterior. Alden Ehrenreich captures that essence of Solo to a tee. It’s not a Harrison Ford impersonation, and it never should be. There are glimpses of Ford here and there, but Ehrenreich never looks out of his depth, completely embodying the character on his own terms.

The rest of the ensemble around Ehrenreich unquestionably elevates the entire film. Perhaps no relationship is more integral to Han’s life than Chewbacca, and the rapport between the two is easily the best element of the film. Joonas Suotamo has been embodying the wookiee on screen since The Force Awakens, and has admirably filled Peter Mayhew’s shoes. He has a natural instinct for Chewie’s idiosyncrasies as well as his gentle heart. Naturally, another major character in Han’s life in Lando Calrissian, and while his role in the film isn’t quite as prominent as the marketing suggests, Donald Glover leaves an assured and suave impression.

Nearly all of the other characters in Solo are brand new to the Star Wars galaxy. Emilia Clarke has immediate chemistry with Ehrenreich, as the film quickly establishes them as a couple. While the development of Han and Qi’ra’s relationship goes into some half hearted directions, the sparks between the two are quite palpable. Phoebe Waller Bridge’s L3-37 is the biggest scene stealer of a film, a free thinking and morally outspoken droid, who also delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs. Tobias Beckett is the closest thing Han has to a mentor, but he often comes from a place of tough love. Harrelson’s unsentimental, straightforward guidance sets the tone for the way of life Han commits himself to, and the film admirably resists the temptation to patch its crew together as a makeshift “family.” Writers Lawrence and Jon Kasdan are cognizant that these characters are strictly hired professionals, so while there is occasional camaraderie, everyone is mostly out for themselves. It’s a necessary outlook in such a dangerous line of work, but it also comes at a personal cost.

The tumultuous production history of this film has been highly publicized, but thanks to director Ron Howard, the film feels completely of a piece. He stepped in to take over as director with mere weeks before the scheduled end of production, and yet he ended up reshooting the majority of the film for several more months. Howard has mostly had a reputation as a journeyman director, traversing through a number of different genres and stories over the decades, but never quite establishing a personal signature. Lately he’s been more kinetic in his filmmaking, and with a broad canvas like Star Wars, he gets to do some cinematic flexing. Despite the film’s lighter tone, Bradford Young’s photography is moodier than most other Star Wars films. The monochromatic color palettes inform the oppressive state of galactic affairs under Imperial rule, but Young also composes some striking imagery, especially during the film’s crackerjack train heist. There are multiple set pieces in Solo, but none are better than the reputation preceded Kessel Run. It’s the clear genesis of Han’s legendary stature, and every cinematic element operates at peak effectiveness. From the doses of humor, the chaotically organized visual effects, propulsive editing and sound design, and John Powell’s score recalling familiar cues and establishing new melodies, it’s a roller coaster of a sequence that genuinely lives up to the hype.

To be clear, much of Han’s story feels more expositional than progressive in Solo. There’s no doubt a thrill in seeing how Han’s reputation as a great smuggler began, even if his life never feels like it’s in jeopardy. That’s the more instructive thing about prequels, of course. It’s not a question of life or death, but rather the choices that characters make and how that shapes them as individuals. The third act of Solo gets a little convoluted and calculated in this regard, especially as a late in the game cameo by a major character poses an uncertain quandary moving forward. Nevertheless, on the whole, Solo is a highly entertaining and occasionally thematically compelling start to the lovable scoundrel.

Review: Avengers: Infinity War

•May 3, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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To their credit, what Marvel has done over the past decade has been pretty impressive from a long form storytelling perspective. They’ve taken a dozen of narrative strands and interweaved them with efficiency and occasional panache. Now they arrive at their culmination in Avengers: Infinity War, in which nearly all of these characters must face down against their greatest foe to date. While the film manages to strike a balance amongst its massive ensemble, its ominous foreboding of doom leads to nihilism rather than actual despair.

Despite sporting a movie poster with nearly thirty heroes on it, Infinity War is truly only about the villain: Thanos (Josh Brolin). Teased on and off since the end credits of the first Avengers, Thanos has the majority of the screentime in the film. Armed with the Infinity Gauntlet, he searches for the fabled Infinity Stones scattered across the universe. When he acquires them all, they will give him unlimited power, and with it, he plans to wipe out half the universe with a snap of his fingers. His reasoning for this is balance, as he came from a homeworld of Titan that exhausted its resources and only managed to survive by exterminating half of its population.

Naturally, the only thing standing in Thanos’ warpath are the Avengers, who team up with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Several subplots are in play here. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Peter Parker (Tom Holland) find themselves aligned with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in protecting the Time Stone. Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) and the team of Avengers on the run take Vision (Paul Bettany) and the Mind Stone to refuge in Wakanda. The Guardians split up as Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) team up with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), while Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and the others go in search of the Reality Stone.

It’s a lot to digest, but the film moves at a steady clip for running over 2 1/2 hours, and keeps every storyline balanced, even if most of the characters are limited to just a few lines of dialogue. However, the bigger issues here are the stakes. Yes, galactic destruction is on the line, but very few of the heroes have a prior history with Thanos himself, almost all of them only learning of him as the film progresses. Gamora has the most personal relationship to Thanos as his adopted daughter, and the arc between them is admittedly taken to compelling lengths. Tony is afforded something of an arc, coming to realize that his psychological trauma after the first Avengers came from the omens of Thanos himself. And in the opening scene, Thor is a firsthand witness of Thanos’ cruelty, setting him on a path of revenge and the only possible solution to defeating him. Hemsworth has the film’s most resonant scene midway through, as he solemnly takes stock of all that he has lost over the years, and acknowledging that he now has nothing left to lose. The rest of the ensemble is mostly a case of everyone supporting each other mostly out of loyalty, so while there are broad stakes, the personal stakes could have been bolstered.

There’s also an issue with Thanos himself. Marvel has had issues in the past with mostly forgettable villains, and while Brolin imbues Thanos with both towering presence and some surprising gravitas, there’s a bit of a missed opportunity in making him the anti-hero of the film. The plotting of Thanos’ quest to collect all the Infinity Stones is largely a case of busywork. Half of his search is extended to sending forth his lieutenants to retrieve the two stones that are on Earth. The rest of Thanos’ journey in the film is merely a matter of fighting our heroes a bunch at a time, and gaining another Stone. Only in one scenario is he truly tested in an unexpected matter, revealing vulnerabilities underneath his imposing exterior. Had a similar type of character testing experience been applied to each Infinity Stone he needed to acquire, then his arc in the film would have felt more layered and impactful, rather than inevitable.

This brings us to the film’s conclusion. Indeed, Thanos manages to gather all of the Stones after several bouts with the Avengers, and even in a moment where it seems that our heroes might grasp victory from the jaws of defeat, their fates are sealed with a single finger snap. Or are they? The film’s final minutes have a haunting air about them, as half of the ensemble find themselves disintegrating before each other’s eyes, ostensibly gone forever. But what is the true takeaway here? Yes, there’s something of a dire lesson here in that these heroes have paid consequences in not making difficult choices, whereas Thanos has, but it’s hard to imagine that this is the final outcome for those that perished. On the one hand, Marvel has become its own industrial complex, and forthcoming sequels imply that these heroes’ fates aren’t sealed. If that’s the case, then these deaths are rendered as a mere plot point rather than a truly traumatic conclusion. On the other hand, if these deaths are permanent, then these characters’ lives and deaths are meaningless. Their investment in this narrative was obligatory at best, and their passing comes with no sense of personal catharsis or sacrifice, other than perhaps a further motivator for the survivor of Thanos’ apocalypse. So in the end, while these films have their surface pleasures of entertaining spectacle and offer a few solid beats of character development, when it comes time to deliver on truly definitive, irrevocable stakes, one can’t help but sense Marvel pulling more punches.