A still from 'Braid'.
February 26, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

Braid

2018 / USA / 82 min. / Dir. by Mitzi Peirone / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Feb. 1, 2019

With a potentially fatal drug debt looming over their heads, prickly party girls Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) and Tilda (Sarah Hay) devise a Hail Mary solution: robbing their mentally disturbed childhood friend, Daphne (Cam’s Madeline Brewer), who dwells alone in the moldering New England mansion where the trio once played as children. However, this betrayal requires that the prodigals re-immerse themselves in Daphne’s surreal imaginary world, where skin-crawling mockeries of twee role-play scenarios are governed by violent, arbitrary rules. Writer-director Mitzi’s Perione’s hallucinatory debut feature doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, which is both its most frustrating flaw and its greatest asset. Freely plucking scenarios and motifs from Alice in Wonderland, Great Expectations, and Psycho, Perione creates a debauched atmosphere where the boundaries between reality, fantasy, and outright nightmare dissolve in a blur of psychosexual weirdness. The plot might be lethally obfuscated by the filmmaker’s approach, but there’s still something seductive about the film’s uniquely feminine vision of treehouse horror. Rating: B- [Now available to stream from Hoopla and to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Piercing

2018 / USA / 81 min. / Dir. by Nicolas Pesce / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Feb. 1, 2019

Long before it begins quoting musically from Italian horror classics like The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972) and Deep Red (1975), it’s apparent that the sophomore feature from writer-director Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother) is drunk on its own heightened, giallo-indebted style. There’s some Japanese DNA in Piercing as well, partly retained from the 2007 Ryū Murakami novel of the same name, partly discernible in the film’s allusions to In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Audition (1999). Seeking an outlet for his bloodthirsty compulsions, uptight family man Reed (Christopher Abbott) secures the services of an enigmatic prostitute, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska). She almost immediately derails his fussy homicidal preparations, however, drawing him into her own disturbed world over the course of a single phantasmagorical evening. Although undeniably striking from an aesthetic standpoint – the deliberately phony model skylines are a particularly memorable touch – Piercing is dragged down by the repetitive, ultimately vacuous cat-and-mouse games that preoccupy its supremely twisted couple. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Velvet Buzzsaw

2019 / USA / 113 min. / Dir. by Dan Gilroy / Premiered online on Feb 1, 2019

Writer-director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) plainly had a lot of fun creating Velvet Buzzsaw, a self-consciously garish B-picture in which the ruthless, pretentious denizens of LA’s contemporary-art world – the gallery owners, agents, dealers, critics, and other hangers-on – are murdered by supernaturally cursed works of art. Unfortunately, Gilroy’s palpable glee over this karmic bloodletting doesn’t translate into any actual satire, even though he and his overstuffed cast treat the material completely straight, echoing Ruben Östlund’s superior (and much funnier) modern-art send-up, The Square (2017). What the viewer is left with, then, is a half-baked work of shambolic horror-kitsch, one that is barely functional as a story but still enjoyable for its moments of fleeting midnight-movie madness. (A platinum-wigged Toni Collette having her arm amputated by a malfunctioning “discovery sphere” installation is a highlight.) Watching the A-list cast – including a scene-stealing Jake Gyllenhaal as a narcissistic art critic – stumble through the Art Basel version of a Final Destination picture isn’t without its pleasures. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror

2019 / USA / 83 min. / Dir. by Xavier Burgin / Premiered online on Feb 7, 2019

The first original documentary produced by streaming service Shudder, Horror Noire is as aesthetically unremarkable as any given VH1 nostalgia-thon, consisting almost entirely of film clips and a cavalcade of talking heads. Fortunately, director Xavier Burgin doesn’t need to do anything flashy, given that his subject is intrinsically intriguing and his interview subjects – an authoritative array of actors, directors, writers, critics, and historians – are suitably insightful and enthusiastic. Adapted and condensed from Robin R. Means Coleman’s book of the same name, Horror Noire hustles through the history of African-American horror cinema from the medium’s beginnings through the present, highlighting the ways in which the genre has demonized, idealized, and dissected blackness and the black experience. Although it engages in its share of breezy box-checking, Burgin’s film is dense with both trenchant observations and revelatory “forgotten lore,” such that even horror obsessives will inevitably learn something new. Indeed, the primary takeaway is that the topic could benefit from a soberer, long-form docuseries. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

St. Agatha

2018 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Darren Lynn Bousman / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Feb. 8, 2019

Although it relies on a dank, spectral atmosphere and familiar religious-horror motifs, director Darren Lynn Bousman’s St. Agatha is more of a slow-boil Southern-gothic thriller than an outright nunsploitation scare-fest. In 1950s small-town Georgia, broke and pregnant con artist Mary (Sabrina Kern) turns to a religious order that provides room and board to “unfortunates.” The convent’s nuns demand rigid obedience in return for their charity, but Mary quickly discerns that the sisters are up to something more sinister than workaday Catholic zealotry. Bousman’s feature engages in the usual post-Conjuring creepshow theatrics, but these amount to a misdirection tactic. They conceal a ludicrous but unremarkable captivity thriller, one that pits Mary against the banal evil of the order’s sadistic Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy). Despite solid performances, the film is swallowed by endless, ambiguous scenes of haunted-house strangeness, punctuated with brutal passages of emotional and physical abuse. The result is suffocating and monotonous, and never adequately counterbalanced by the feature’s clunkily expressed theme of liberation. Rating: C- [Now available to rent on from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

The Changeover

2017 / New Zealand / 95 min. / Dir. by Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Feb 22, 2019

To better distinguish themselves in a saturated genre, adaptations of YA fantasy novels often overextend themselves with respect to idiosyncratic world-building. It’s refreshing, then, that the horror-tinged coming-of-age tale The Changeover takes such a restrained approach, limiting itself to a handful of characters in a relatively grounded suburban New Zealand setting. Adapting Margaret Mahy’s 1984 novel of the same name – and giving it a faintly post-apocalyptic spin by setting it in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 Christchurch earthquake – the filmmakers rely on familiar fantasy components, such as curses, demons, witches, and ritual magic. However, the story of psychically sensitive teenager Laura Chant (Erana James) and her efforts to rescue her young brother from a parasitic entity has a persuasively edgy, forlorn tone that vibrates with the feminine energy of a PG-13 version of the 2018 Suspiria. It helps that the great Timothy Spall portrays said monster, Mr. Braque, whom the actor imbues with a menace and ambiguity that was absent from his unctuous Harry Potter villain. Rating: B- [Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, PlayStation, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'To Dust'.
February 25, 2019
By Cait Lore

Don't Fear the Reaper

2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir by Shawn Snyder / Opened in select cities on Feb. 8, 2019; locally on Feb. 22, 2019

When his wife died, Shmuel (Géza Röhrig), a Hasidic jew, first sought comfort in his faith, dutifully committed to its mourning rituals. He tore into the fabric of his jacket, a practice known as keriah. Following the Taharah ritual, he had her remains washed and purified and dressed her in a tachrichim for her funeral. And then, when Shmuel and his sons (Leo Heller and Sammy Voit) laid her to rest, they buried her in a simple pinewood coffin, one with three small holes drilled into its base, so that her soul might find peace as it returns to the earth.

There is no peace for Shmuel, however. Nightmares of his wife’s decaying corpse bedevil him. “Last night it was her toe,” he confides in his rabbi (Bern Cohen). “The nail had browned and cracked, bent back like a leaf.” It has been 30 days, observes the rabbi. Shloshim has come to a close. Now is the time to mend the jacket, return to the children, and move on with one’s life. When Shmuel speaks to his mother, it’s more of the same. Their words don’t reach him. It’s as if they’re speaking through water. 

Consumed by grief, Shmuel begins to pull away from his family and his religion, receding further into his tormented mind. Has his wife’s body begun to decompose? Has her soul met the earth yet? Has it found peace? His thoughts are clouded by questions. Questions that, he believes, demand answers. Shmuel’s young boys would like some certainty as well. Their father, a cantor, no longer fills the house with song. They know of his nightmares, of course, and they whisper to each other at night, about how their father spends his afternoons poring over his wife’s belongings. The boys are merely children and aren’t sure how to make sense of their father’s grieving process. They believe the other children who claim that their father is possessed by a dybbuk — a spirit of the dead, likely their mother.

Choosing to venture outside his community, Shmuel knowingly commits a grave sin. He wanders into the everyday world, even choosing a funeral parlor of all places, to ask perfect strangers if his wife’s neshamah — her soul — feels pain. No one knows what to say, of course, and when he asks if she is “dismantling the earth,” their reactions are much the same. The absurdity of the situation hangs over every scene, giving way to To Dust’s rather bewildering ambitions of being a fish-out-of-water comedy. From here on out, Shmuel is more Homer Simpson than the Rev. Toller.

Soon enough, a bumbling Shmuel finds his way into a classroom, standing in front of Albert (Matthew Broderick), a science professor at the local community college. It’s Shmuel’s instinct to pummel the sad-sack professor with his usual questions, and it’s Albert’s inclination to edge toward the door. In spite of how weirded-out he is, however, Albert can’t seem to turn his back on Shmuel. It seems that Albert, a man who cares for nothing, is drawn to something in Shmuel; it’s something that the former man either never had or has long forgotten. Whatever it is, audiences will find themselves doing the heavy lifting for To Dust’s patchy script.

With precious little to bind them but a film that must go on, Shmuel and Albert (who calls his newfound companion “Shmell” and thinks he’s a rabbi) conduct a series of “wacky” science experiments, some of which involve labored slapstick. When Smuel brings a live pig into Albert’s home — wait, doesn’t Homer Simpson do this too? — audiences will question just how stupid To Dust wants them to think its main character is.

Despite the spectacularly unfunny script, Röhrig and Broderick are an absolute delight. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Election (1999) serve as clear reference points for Broderick’s casting, and it works well. For a character with seemingly no personal life or interests, Albert is immediately familiar. Brockerick plays his character like a tired, worse-for-wear Jim McAllister; re-meeting Broderick in this way helps define a character whose motivations are ambiguous at best.

Yet it’s Röhrig’s performance that not only carries the film forward but also shines a spotlight on To Dust’s most appealing attributes. Managing the film’s bizarre shifts in tone is a responsibility that falls squarely on Röhrig’s shoulders. The humor is broad, maybe even problematic. (One can’t help but wonder how a Hasidic Jew would feel about this representation.) When To Dust strains for comedy, however, Röhrig bends with it. Although he can’t save the jokes from falling flat, his multifaceted performance never lets go of a very real ache that runs through the heart of the film.

Despite its many shortcomings, To Dust brings a pure-hearted approach to its unconventional narrative techniques. In an early scene, Albert takes Shmuel to the campus library. They read from a book about forensic taphonomy. Albert opens to a chapter on pigs — a human’s closest biological relative — detailing the act of decay, the ways in which maggots might take up residence, and a grisly phenomenon known as “skin slippage.” It’s ghoulish stuff, sure, but To Dust isn’t going for shock; its line of inquiry is sincere. For Shmuel, breaking from a standardized grieving process and confronting the earthly realities of death brings a strange comfort, allows the fullness of life to return to him. And for Albert, witnessing Shmuel’s journey is a transformative experience.

These are precious insights coming from a film that’s likely to be one of the more audacious pieces of work this year. As hard as it might try, To Dust fails to score big laughs. It may, however, mend a heart.

Grade: C+

Tags: Reviews Cait Lore

A still from 'The Favourite'.
February 22, 2019
By Joshua Ray

This Year's Oscar Contenders, from Worst to Best

Best Popular Film. No Best Popular Film. No host. Kevin Hart. No host, again. Gaga and Kendrick only. All song nominees, but just a little bit of them. Cut the boring awards no one cares about. Oh, wait, everyone cares about them. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for all it’s worth, sure knows how to give a good pre-show, whiplash notwithstanding. This has been a seriously contentious award season unlike any in recent memory. The Oscars have been making headlines beyond the awards gossip sites, even more than 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite and the great Envelope-gate that was the bungled 2017 ceremony.

Beyond the sturm und drang of ABC’s poorly handled attempts to make Oscar relevant again, the Academy Award nominees across all categories are a wildly diverse set of films, ranging from populist favorites to critical darlings to, well, Vice. Although the seemingly daily tragicomical dithering about ceremony logistics has dominated the news, it’s the nominees themselves that have elicited contention and hand-wringing among serious awards-watchers.

Since the Best Picture field was widened from a possible five nominees to up to 10 nominees after The Dark Knight was snubbed in 2009, the reconfiguration has mostly seemed to have benefited on-the-cusp indies. Features such as  2017’s Lion and 2018’s Call Me by Your Name can score a spot on the shortlist for cinema’s biggest prize without ever having a realistic chance of winning. This expansion of the nominee pool notwithstanding, the Best Picture races in subsequent years have still featured either clear front-runners or neck-and-neck rivals.

This year, however, the case for the win could be made for any of the eight nominees. Roma is the critical favorite and the most nominated foreign-language film ever with 10 nods. It’s tied for the most nominations of 2019 with a film actually named The Favourite. A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody are unqualified box-office hits, the former headlined by a high-profile pop star and the latter about a deceased one. Black Panther is even more of a money-maker, being one of the highest-grossing Best Picture nominees ever. Green Book and BlacKkKlansman are hits on their own scales, and both check the “period piece” box Oscar voters seem to favor, although they’re catering to very different sectors within the Academy. Then there’s Vice, a film that didn’t find an audience or critical favor, but feels engineered to win over Oscar voters. So far, it’s worked, pulling in copious “pre-Oscar” awards nominations, as well as wins for star Christian Bale at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards.

After the ceremony airs this Sunday and the awards-season hangover clears, the 2019 Best Picture hopefuls will be the group of nominees most worth dissecting, in terms of reflecting contemporary politics and culture -- much like the 1968 lineup Mark Harris used as a jumping-off point for his seminal book on New Hollywood, Pictures at a Revolution. The comparison between 2019 and 1968 even goes beyond zeitgeist-tapping and into the divergent quality of the films selected for Best Picture for both years, with the 1968 group also featuring future classics (In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate), misguided Important Pictures (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?), pop trailblazers (Bonnie and Clyde), and one of the worst-ever films to be slotted for the big prize (Doctor Dolittle). The parallels to 2019 can be found below in ascending order of quality, from (spoiler alert) a bad Queen biopic to a bad-queen “biopic.”

8. Bohemian Rhapsody

What’s the most offensive thing about this castrated biopic of everyone’s favorite anthemic pop-rock band, Queen, and its frontman, Freddie Mercury? Is it the hackneyed scripting? The piecemeal editing (see: now viral establishing shots of chairs), likely attributable to the film’s troubled production? Is it the flashy yet empty direction that attempts to seduce the viewer into believing they’re watching a film and not an overlong Behind the Music installment? Is it the most praised aspect of the film, Rami Malek’s lead performance, which looks and sounds like an audition for a Batman villain Bane prequel, complete with inane vocal tics, facial obstruction (those exaggerated teeth!), and dead-behind-the-eyes blankness? Or is it the fact that the film’s persona non grata director sublimates his own disgusting worldview by equating Mercury’s queer identity with his ultimate downfall? For all of these reasons and more, Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the most deplorable Hollywood products in recent memory.

7. Green Book

Director Peter Farrelly attempts to “heal the wounds” of a divided America, but instead tips his hand at his own white-liberal ignorance. Green Book is not only an old-fashioned, treacly, and moldy vision of the past, but it’s also capably made and performed, which makes its existence all the more insidious. This wolf in sheep’s clothing chooses to tell the story of black classical pianist Don Shirley Jr.’s (Mahershala Ali) trip across the Jim Crow South through the eyes of his racist (and racially stereotyped) white driver, Tony (Viggo Mortensen as a Mario Brother). The perspective is certainly a problem, but the logical dissonance in endearing the two to each other without truly addressing the black experience, the queer experience, or the black queer experience is simply appalling.

6. Vice

Of the three bad Drunk History episodes featured on this list, Vice is the least offensive, but its existence is the most baffling. This overblown and undercooked screed against former VP Dick Cheney and the heedless quest for power in the American political system fails to be particularly funny or thought-provoking, especially when director and screenwriter Adam McKay haphazardly employs the same distancing didacticism he used in his somewhat better The Big Short (2015). His purpose may be to illuminate the present by exploring the horrors of a not-so-distant past, but the real show is witnessing the steady parade of SNL-level impersonations by Hollywood stars, ranking from a pound-packed Christian Bale doing his best talking-from-the-side-of-his-mouth mimicry to an embarrassing Tyler Perry as Colin Powell.

5. A Star Is Born

What’s most disappointing about actor Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is that it eventually falls so deep into the, ahem, shallow that it thuddingly grounds what soared in its first act. Of course, Ally’s (Lady Gaga) rise to fame with the help of her rock-star lover, Jackson (Cooper), was bound to be more intoxicating than the inevitable downfall, but who knew the new director was capable of making his audience so drunk in love during the film’s first half? Later rote mechanics and questionable gender politics aside, A Star Is Born is nevertheless fueled by Gaga and Cooper’s palpable chemistry, with the latter giving his best performance yet. (Read the Lens review here.)

4. Roma

A silver-screen experience unlike any other from 2018, the virtues of Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white panorama Roma have already been litigated at length here at the Lens. This 1970s Mexico City memory palace is intricately devised, but the purpose of its cinematic brawn and the rift between its stoic perspective and heartstring-tugging turns remain curious. Alternatively transportative – its beach-scene climax is truly stunning and possibly the key to unlocking its mysteries – and dull – the camera moves left, the camera moves right, continue – Roma is respectable film-school fodder for the ages. (Read the Lens review here.)

3. BlacKkKlansman

As brash as its maker, Spike Lee’s exhilarating BlacKkKlansman finds the provocateur back in popcorn mode after more than a decade in the indie wilderness. His last foray into blockbuster territory, bank heist-cum-American capitalism missive Inside Man (2006), was far more subtle and subversive in exploring societal imbalances in the United States, while this tale of a black cop (John David Washington) who infiltrates the Klu Klux Klan during the 1970s foregrounds polemics over Hollywood product. Lee does get bogged down in his own confused politics, with some hotly contested choices working (the Charleston coda) and other oddball moves (Alec Baldwin prologue) reeking of nose-thumbing condescension. What’s in between, however, nearly approaches the best filmmaking of Lee’s career.

2. Black Panther

Black Panther is, in fact, as revolutionary as its rabid fandom would have it. Not only does the Marvel film finally give black filmmakers an opportunity to fully realize a black superhero on the same scale white superheros have been afforded, but the very conditions that prevented its far-too-delayed realization are also built into the film’s narrative. To that end, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) fight not only a physical war but also an ideological one that challenges each to reckon with their black identities and the sovereignty of Wakanda. This shimmery lightning bolt is a righteous revisionist superhero film unfortunately too tied to its MCU roots. Marvel’s peculiar house style of waxy over-digitization and pre-visualization prevents director Ryan Coogler from transcending the genre, but hopefully its success means that the future Coogler-helmed sequel will be an even bigger game-changer than this one. Wakanda forever, indeed. (Read the Lens review here.)

1. The Favourite

If Vice is a complete miscalculation regarding the dangers of power, then Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite thankfully gets the formula right. Luring the viewer into its wicked pomp and circumstance with gloriously ostentatious execution, Lanthimos points his jaundiced vision to the erratic and gouty Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her entitled right hand Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), scheming social climber Abigail (Emma Stone), and their constantly-in-flux carousel of sex and power. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script is also bitingly funny and particularly succinct in realizing what drives the human psyche: “I like when she puts her tongue in me.” The film’s ribald and rollicking unfurling – perfectly encapsulated by its top IMDb plot keywords, including “throwing blood oranges at someone,” “dragged by a horse,” “hand job,” “female nudity,” and “wig” – are reasons The Favourite will remain meme-able and quotable after the 2019 awards-season dust settles. However, its deserved crowning as an instant classic is shored up in its unabashed queerness and in the negotiations its women characters make to balance love, trust, and pain.

The 2019 Academy Awards ceremony airs Sunday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. CST on ABC.

Tags: Ranked Joshua Ray

A still from 'How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World'.
February 21, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Draco Libre

2019 / USA / 104 min. / Dir. by Dean DeBlois / Opens in wide release on Feb. 22, 2019

There have been two unfailingly consistent bright spots in the 20-plus years’ worth of animated theatrical features produced by Dreamworks Animation. The first is the Kung Fu Panda series (2008-16), whose silly cartoon animals and underdog-sports-flick tropes conceal a trilogy of deliriously entertaining martial-arts films set in a richly textured mythic China. The second is the How to Train Your Dragon franchise (2010-19), which, under the steady yet fanciful guidance of writer-director Dean DeBlois, has been revealed as a wacky but thrilling adventure series that doubles as a sensitive allegory about the relationship between animals and humankind. Given that the aesthetically triumphant (and still-underappreciated) Kung Fu Panda 3 wrapped up the saga of Po the Dragon Warrior so enjoyably in 2016, there is a bit of trepidation surrounding the arrival of How to Train Your Dragon’s concluding chapter. The sheer consistency exhibited by the two preceding Dragon features – in terms of the quality of animation, design, and storytelling, not to mention a distinctive but modest tonal equipoise – feels like an increasingly rare and precious thing in 21st-century studio animation. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is accordingly positioned to either enshrine or dash the series’ legacy.

Happily, the third Dragon feature does the franchise proud, at least in terms of its most vital selling points: eye-popping design, soaring animated action, and a poignant thematic core that builds quite splendidly on the beats of its predecessors. Disappointingly, however, The Hidden World tends to fumble some of the storytelling and comedic fundamentals that the first two films approached with such creamy self-assurance. Like Kung Fu Panda 3 – but to a more distracting extent – the latest Dragon is an unaccountably lumpy film, lacking the narrative sleekness that was one of the low-key pleasures of the franchise up to this point. The Hidden World also leans harder on the broad, shrill character humor that has always been one of the series’ weaker aspects, expanding what should have been dopey throwaway jokes into lethally unfunny extended gags. It is therefore a credit to DeBlois and the entire Dreamworks team that this concluding Dragon film ends up being such a touching endpoint to the series, despite these flaws. The way that The Hidden World wraps up the story of unlikely dragon rider Hiccup and his loyal steed Toothless is somewhat unexpected, but in retrospect it’s the only way that the saga could have concluded while retaining its honest, heartfelt essence.

Picking up roughly a year after the events of the second film, The Hidden World finds the indefatigable Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and the Night Fury dragon Toothless leading daring raids against an increasingly active and far-flung contingent of dragon trappers. Having ascended to the chieftainship of the Viking village of Berk after the death of his father, Stoick, Hiccup has aggressively set himself to the task of rescuing the world’s myriad dragon species from human exploitation. Assisting him in this endeavor are his fellow dragon riders: his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), a warrior-shaman and dragon savant in her own right; his battle-maiden girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera); the strapping reformed dragon trapper Eret (Kit Harington); and Hiccup’s original coming-of-age cohort, consisting of Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and fraternal twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple).

Although Hiccup’s strike team has its bumbling moments, these forays have been so succesful that Berk is starting to feel the strain of draconic overpopulation. The village has been impressively and ingeniously modified over the years to accommodate its scaly residents, and the formerly sleepy Berk is now an undeniably crowded and chaotic place to live, where humans rub shoulders with swarms of dragons of every imaginable shape and size. In a sense, Hiccup’s home has become a victim of its own success, and while the young chief is at least partly in denial about this fact, Berk is now a juicy target for ambitious dragon hunters.

The most dangerous of these is Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), a droll and cunning fiend who proudly boasts of hunting the world’s Night Furies to the brink of extinction. On hearing that Berk’s dragon-loving chief rides such a creature, Grimmel sets his sights on Toothless – and, by extension, all the village’s dragons, as Toothless’ alpha status ensures that Berk’s draconic population follow him. Unfortunately, Grimmel has an ace up his sleeve in the form of a female Light Fury, a related breed of dragon that resembles a pearly-white, eel-smooth Night Fury. Grimmel also commands a sextet of scorpion-like Deathgripper dragons, creatures cruelly drugged into obdience with their own potent venom. One attack by these fearsome beasts is all the motivation Hiccup needs to initiate a long-gestating plan. Guided by little more than sketchy legends once related by his late father, Hiccup organizes a mass exodus of Berk to the fabled Hidden World, an eldritch dragon nesting ground allegedly located at the far edge of the ocean. His hope is that Berks’s dragons and humans will be able to live together peacefully in this sanctuary, unmolested by dragon-hating outsiders.

The Hidden World is thus revealed as a sort of Promised Land story, and although – at the risk of slight spoilers – the titular realm is indeed a physical place, its true significance is that of a plot-pushing MacGuffin, an idealized destination for the characters to strive toward. Unfortunately, writer-director DeBlois has some difficulty maintaining the ruthless focus that a literally linear story such as this demands, cluttering up the plot with a glut of back-and-forth action and some very hazy geography. (The spatial relationships and distances between important locales – the village of Berk, Grimmel’s fortress, the dragon trappers’ armada, a waystation island, and others – are distractingly messy, even for an animated fantasy.) The film simply feels narratively shaggy in a way that its predecessors rather elegantly avoided, and as such it can’t help but feel relatively disappointing. Even when DeBlois’ indulgent streak pays amusing dividends – such as extended wordless sequence in which Toothless haplessly courts his Light Fury crush – it comes at the expense of the trimness that made previous Dragons such pleasing pop morsels.

Even more frustrating is the extent to which The Hidden World allows its crass secondary characters to run roughshod over the film’s comedic tone. Craig Ferguson’s garrulous blacksmith Gobber remains a highlight, as usual, but the clueless blustering of Snoutlout, Ruffnut, and Tuffnut is wearisome to the point of being interminable. The overbearing teen wannabe dragon slayers of the original film were always its least entertaining aspect, but in small doses they at least were a source of mild, groan-inducing amusement. The Hidden World expands these now-adult characters’ lines and screen time, a questionable move that unfortunately echoes the “Mater-fication” problem that plagued Pixar’s Cars 2 (2011). The results range from unfunny and icky (Snoutlout’s flop-sweaty and age-inappropriate efforts to woo Hiccup’s mom) to unfunny and leaden (Tuffnut’s inexplicable insistence on being Hiccup’s romantic mentor) to unfunny and exhausting (Ruffnut pretty much all the time).

These missteps are dispiriting but hardly fatal, especially considering how thrillingly the film fulfills the series’ more defining features. As a feat of animation and design, The Hidden World is everything a capstone Dragon feature should be. It not only reflects the technological advancements that have occurred over the past decade or so, but also serves as a giddy continuation of and elaboration on the franchise’s commitment to its cartoonish, Dark Ages-flavored fantasy visuals. It surely comes as no surprise that a 2019 animated film is light-years beyond its 2010 predecessor in the depiction of grass, hair, metal, cloth, scales, water, sand, and even a toddler’s slightly runny nose, but it’s still mightily impressive to witness the bright attention to detail that has become a hallmark of the series.

The film’s artists – led by production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent, returning from the second film – continue to realize the setting with an extravagance that feels both wondrous and suitably lived-in, from the anarchic riot of color and motion that characterizes the dragon-packed Berk to the colorful, pebbly dragon-scale armor donned by Hiccup and his fellow riders. One notable small-scale delight is the character design of Grimmel: a vampiric figure whose jocular, self-possessed menace is ornamented by little touches such as his thin, chapped lips and unruly shock of white hair. As one might expect, the legendary Hidden World is also a highlight, being an Avatar-like subterranean wonderland of phosphorescent fungus, luminous crystals, and dizzying swarms of fantastic creatures. Cinematographer Roger Deakins once again serves as the series’ visual consultant, and his virtuosic understanding of light and color is apparent in practically every frame of the film.

Consistent with the Kung Fu Panda series, the How to Train Your Dragon films have always been superior action films – better, in truth, than most contemporary live-action features – and The Hidden World is no exception. Like its predecessors, the third film is the rare theatrical feature whose appropriately free-wheeling sense of space and motion makes fine use of the remastered 3D IMAX format. The dizzying aerial chases and battles are, naturally, a reliable high point, but there’s a claustrophobic set piece set inside a hellish, chain-link labyrinth that capably showcases the flip side of the film’s visual sensibility, with the heroes scrambling through nooks and crannies to evade the gouts of green acid belched forth by Grimmel’s Deathgrippers.

At bottom, however, the factors that makes the Dragon franchise something more than a competent-but-unremarkable animated fantasy saga are the series’ emotional poignancy and allegorical forcefulness. The improbable connection between human and dragon has always been the dynamo that drives the films – as embodied in the image of Hiccup’s open palm tentatively coming to rest on Toothless’ curious snout. The Hidden World regards this relationship seriously but with clear eyes, and as a result the third film winds up concluding the series in a manner that is somewhat melancholy and bittersweet. While The Hidden World engages in its share of tear-jerking, it never feels unearned or calculating, consistently proceeding from a place of frank affection for the characters and the bonds they’ve established.

“Loss is part of the deal that comes with love,” Stoick (Gerard Butler) says to a young Hiccup in a flashback sequence, and although the burly chieftain was speaking of his presumed-dead wife, the point applies to the Berkians’ relationship with their dragons – and, by extension, humans’ relationship with animals in the real world. The How to Train Your Dragon films have always been at least partly message pictures about the virtues of giving living creatures the attention, affection, and dignity they deserve, as expressed through a misfit pioneer spirit. Even if Dreamworks never quite intended for the original Dragon feature to serve as a fanciful metaphor for the pre-historical process of domestication, it works splendidly on such a level. The Hidden World takes this metaphor to its admittedly tough-minded conclusion, positing that there comes a time when putting the needs of another living thing above one’s own comfort and desires becomes, if not a moral imperative, then at least the Right Thing to Do. The fantastical and unambiguously intelligent nature of the film’s dragon species allows for an ethical clarity that is not often found in the real world, but The Hidden World isn’t aiming to be anything so strident as, say, an Okja-style appeal for veganism. It is, rather, a plea to think carefully and self-critically about relationships of all sorts, but especially those with creatures that can’t speak for themselves.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Happy Death Day 2U'.
February 12, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Déjà Vu All Over Again

2019 / USA / 100 min. / Dir. by Christopher Landon / Opens in wide release on Feb. 13, 2019

[Note: This review includes major spoilers for the 2017 film Happy Death Day.]

There’s a nagging irony pulsing at the heart of the 2017 horror-comedy sleeper hit Happy Death Day. In that film, Louisiana coed Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) finds that she has been unaccountably damned to continually relive the day of her own murder – dying repeatedly at the hands of a mysterious, masked killer. Like Phil Connors in Harold Ramis’ now-beloved 1993 feature Groundhog Day, Tree eventually resolves to use her Sisyphean circumstances as an opportunity for self-improvement. The perspective gleaned from dying over and over allows Tree to evolve from a petulant, self-absorbed party girl to a halfway-decent person. Oddly, this moral growth proves to be almost incidental to the murder plot: Tree doesn’t so much solve her own slaying as eventually blunder into the realization that the killer is her secretly jealous and deranged sorority-house roommate Lori (Ruby Modine). It’s the sort of subtle narrative disconnect that can be attributed to ordinary sloppiness or intentional absurdity, depending on how generous one is feeling toward the screenplay.

What’s more, Happy Death Day never bothers to explain Tree’s slasher-film loop – like Phil’s Pennsylvania purgatory, it’s just something weird and inexplicable that happens – nor why evading death by preemptively shoving Lori out a window ultimately unsticks Tree in time. The film works largely due to the simplicity of its elevator-pitch conceit, the gallows fun director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell have with that premise, and especially Rothe’s star-worthy comedic turn. She elevates a relatively unpolished mean-girl-turned-final-girl role through sheer charisma and a delightfully committed, expressive performance. One could even go so far as to say that Rothe’s take is better (or at least more engaged) than Bill Murray’s in Groundhog Day, given that the latter actor never quite manages to shed his trademark above-it-all contemptuousness.

Ultimately, Happy Death Day is barely a horror film, masked-killer tropes and Blumhouse Productions logo notwithstanding. The feature is more of a PG-13 comedy-thriller with horror elements – a combination that is infinitely more interested in capitalizing on viewers’ familiarity with genre formulae than in scaring them outright. Moreover, unlike the characters in Wes Craven’s meta-slasher franchise Scream (1996-2011), HDD’s characters don’t seem to be aware of B-movie conventions. The only other film mentioned in the screenplay is Groundhog Day itself, referenced solely to set up a final, gratuitous punchline: Tree has never seen it. The dorm-room posters of nice-guy love interest Carter (Israel Broussard) do, however, hint at director Landon’s pop-cultural touchstones: Repo Man (1984), Back to the Future (1985), and They Live (1988).

It’s therefore not entirely unexpected that those films and other 1980s influences are at the forefront of Happy Death Day 2U, given that Landon serves as both director and screenwriter for the sequel. What is surprising is how definitively HDD2U tosses out any pretense that it is a slasher film. Aside from the presence of another killer – still clad in a creepy mask fashioned after the fictional Bayfield University’s mystifying mascot, the Baby – all the horror has been wrung out of the sequel. In lieu of chills, Landon serves up a giant, gooey homage to a very narrow mid-’80s wave of teen/college studio sci-fi comedies, including the aforementioned Back to the Future, My Science Project (1985), Real Genius (1985), and Weird Science (1985). (There’s a touch of Teen Wolf [1985] and Adventures in Babysitting [1987] in there, too.)

It’s certainly an unexpected turn for this nascent franchise, and a daring gear shift given the relatively light footprint of the preceding film. “Groundhog Day as a slasher film” was all the context one needed to appreciate what Landon and Co. were up to in the first outing. In comparison, Happy Death Day 2U feels like a fearless, sloppy, gloriously looney-toons swing for the fences, one that’s so committed to a specific retro stripe of harebrained campus farce that it often feels like a fever dream. Among the new characters introduced in this chapter is – honest to God – a buffoonish, sourpuss university dean. At one point, the heroes’ scheme depends on a character distracting said dean by pretending to be a sexy-yet-bumbling blind French foreign-exchange student. So … yeah: It’s broad as hell and utterly daft, but also sort of endearing if one can attune oneself to HDD2U’s odd quantum wavelength.

The obvious question is how the sequel undoes the seeming finality of the first film’s conclusion, in which Tree dispatched her would-be killer, reinvented herself as a less awful person, and got the proverbial guy in the form of the dorky-but-handsome decent dude Carter. HDD2U picks up literally the next day – Tuesday the 19th – after Carter’s dorm mate Ryan (Phi Vu) has once again spent the night in his car so that Tree can sleep over. He makes his way to the campus physics department, where he and his research partners, Samar (Suraj Sharm) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin), attempt to sort through some confounding data from their experimental “quantum reactor.” (The science in HDD2U is total gibberish, but in that breezy, non-bothersome way that echoes its 1980s forebears, as well as the mind-bending cartoon sci-fi of Rick & Morty – the film’s other major tonal touchstone.)

Abruptly, an irate Dean Bronson (Steve Zissis) appears with security in tow to confiscate the reactor, as the power-sucking device has been triggering repeated blackouts on campus. As if this crushing academic setback were not enough, Ryan is later ambushed in the deserted lab by a knife-wielding figure in a baby mask. As the blade plunges into his heart, Ryan jolts awake in his car: It is early Tuesday morning again, and he navigates the now-familiar events of the day with escalating bewilderment bordering on existential panic.

Fortunately, Tree is on hand to help Ryan navigate his temporal crisis. (Her ears perk up the moment he mentions his uncanny déjà vu, sending her into no-nonsense problem-solving mode.) She deftly summarizes the events of the first film in 30 seconds or so, then concludes that Ryan has become trapped in a similar loop. Together she and Carter – the only other person with whom she has discussed her Möbius-strip ordeal – accompany Ryan back to the physics lab in search of the waiting killer. Complications ensue, but to discuss anything of the plot beyond the 20-minute mark is to wade into major spoiler territory. Given that one of the crunchy pleasures of HDD2U is how it veers this way and that – the primary crisis switches three or four times over the course of the film – it’s best if viewers experience it for themselves.

However, the most conspicuous strength and weakness of HDD2U is apparent almost from the start. The sequel retroactively reveals a pseudo-scientific explanation for the events of the first film: Namely, Ryan and his partners’ quark-fiddling had the unintentional side effect of trapping a random nearby person (Tree) in a temporal loop. This conceit provides the entire justification for the sequel, which complicates the first film’s premise with familiar time-travel and parallel-universe snarls. Given how much kooky, often morbid fun Landon and his cast have with this elaboration, it’s hard to fault them for expanding the story in such a manner.

However, it’s also the case that HDD2U’s retconning unavoidably diminishes the self-contained quality of the first feature, not to mention undercutting its thrill- and character-centered approach. The commitment that Happy Death Day evinced in simply rolling with its Fortean weirdness focused the film gratifyingly, keeping the viewer’s attention on its Halloween-style theatrics and Rothe’s winning performance rather than nitpicky “Why?” and “How?” queries. Learning that It Was Mad Science All Along can’t help but feel like a bit of a letdown, particularly given that HDD2U’s loosey-goosey physics is more Back to the Future than Primer (2004). (Both hard-science geeks and clutter-hating cinephiles are bound to be unsatisfied on some level with the sequel’s approach.)

To its credit, Landon’s screenplay gets out in front of these inevitable criticisms. On learning that her ordeal was caused by a glitchy science project, Tree almost seems disillusioned, sulking that she had enjoyed thinking of her time loop as a gift from the cosmos, an opportunity to become a better person. Carter’s sensible riposte to this disenchantment – that Tree created positive meaning out of a meaningless quantum hiccup – points to the sequel’s low-key engagement with some surprisingly heady topics, such as the philosophy of personal identity. The introduction of temporal tangents and alternate realities into the series’ mythos allows Landon to replace the first film’s gauzy, Instagram-affirmation worldview with a tougher but more sure-footed “indifferent universe” materialism. This in turn permits HDD2U to deconstruct the notion of iterative improvement that undergirded the first film – and, indeed, almost every time-loop tale that has followed Richard A. Lupoff’s nihilistic 1973 short story “12:01 P.M.”

This is not to say that HDD2U is in any way a cerebral science-fiction film. Far from it: Landon’s sequel is almost gleefully dopey and cracked, mimicking the sensibilities of the broadest high-concept comedies of the 1980s. It’s the sort of exercise that is so taste-dependent that it almost defies criticism. Whether an individual viewer will enjoy, for example, the sight of Tree diving into an industrial chipper-shredder while dressed as Evel Knievel – for absolutely no reason beyond the dumb, grisly spectacle of it – is not really subject to critical persuasion. It is the Hawaiian pizza of sci-fi comedy. (Although the gusto with which Rothe leaps into every one-off physical gag is undeniably admirable.)

What salvages HDD2U from its own cornball lunacy – and the film does, in fact, veer into cringy, clumsy schtick in a few scenes – is the surprisingly light touch that Landon exhibits in realizing the film’s overall retro atmosphere. In an era when so many filmmakers think of “homage” as an opportunity to scatter clunky allusions to other, better films, Landon takes a more lithe approach, replicating the tricky tone and less showy aesthetic attributes of its mid-’80s sci-fi-comedy antecedents. (Again, only one feature is actually name-dropped – Back to the Future II this time around – and only to elbow Tree for her pre-2000 pop-cultural illiteracy.) This isn’t the reverent look-and-feel replication of the Grindhouse (2007) shorts, but something closer to a 1985 feature made with contemporary film grammar and technology. The film’s nods to Reagan-era cinematic history don’t always work as smoothly as Landon imagines. Case in point: The filmmaker turns the final 30 minutes into a lo-fi heist that would be better suited to a campus sex comedy, a decision that proves lethal to HDD2U’s already-uneven momentum. In the end, it’s the little things that tend to leave deepest impression, such as the way that Bear McCreary’s score evokes but does not imitate Alan Silvestri’s indelible compositions for Back to the Future – until a quotation of the older film’s twinkling “time travel” cue makes a delightful late-game appearance.

Once again holding the whole thing together is Rothe, whose presence in insipid studio romances (Forever My Girl, 2018) and calculatingly “heartwarming” indies (Please Stand By, 2018) feels increasingly like a waste of a fearless comedic star. Which isn’t to say that the actress neglects the more heartfelt aspects of HDD2U. To the extent that the film has any ambitions beyond being a cheese-slathered junk-food feast, its effectiveness is attributable to Rothe’s ability to wring pathos out of daft situations – and to Landon’s unchecked confidence in her. In this respect, the film is arguably more successful than its predecessor. While Happy Death Day directed a good-natured finger-wag at late-Millennial/early-Gen Z selfishness, HDD2U is, remarkably enough, more reflective and melancholy. The film employs its outlandish sci-fi conceit to pivot from abstract ruminations to starker, more personal questions about identity and morality. And Rothe, to her endless credit, sells every tearful inch of the tough choices her character is obliged to make – when she’s not gamely tossing, flattening, shredding, poisoning, and electrocuting herself through a succession of slapstick deaths worthy of Wile E. Coyote.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'High Flying Bird'.
February 12, 2019
By Joshua Ray

He Got Game

2019 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Steven Soderbergh / Premiered online on Feb. 8, 2019

Steven Soderbergh has been in the game for 30 years. His auspicious debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape, was the talk of the 1989 Sundance festival, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival mere months later, and premiered on North American screens that fall to become one of the most praised and watched indies ever. Simply put, the film ushered in a new wave of American independent cinema. Then, two years later, Soderbergh released Kafka. An intellectual, obtuse, and overproduced amalgamation of Franz Kafka academia and worship, the film bombed – critically and financially – and is the epitome of the sophomore slump.

Soderbergh's subsequent career is a storied one, full of hits and misses in and outside of the Hollywood studio system, but – “retirement” period from 2014-17 notwithstanding – the filmmaker remains one of the most adventurous and prolific directors working today. Auterists have a difficult time pigeonholeing him. For one, his aesthetic approach varies, dictated more by each film’s narrative and the director’s current technological interests rather than an overarching Soderbergh-ian style. If anything, he can be regarded as a genre dabbler in the Hawksian mode, although that old Hollywood master’s films are instantly recognizable as Hawks’ works, both stylistically and thematically.

Acknowledging that this kind of reductive classification may not even be necessary, there is one consistency across the entirety of Soderbergh's oeuvre: He is the ultimate purveyor of contemporary social and cinematic issues working through genre frameworks. This is especially true of his recent theatrical features: post-recession showbiz “musical” (Magic Mike, 2012); big-pharma mystery-cum-modern identity crisis (Side Effects, 2013); silent-majority heist romp (Logan Lucky, 2017); and #MeToo parable/health-care-system indictment (Unsane, 2018). The mix of social critique and genre revision in these films has been alternatively unsuccessful (Unsane), too sly for mainstream audiences (Logan, Side Effects), or roundly revered (Magic Mike).

High Flying Bird not only finds Soderbergh in this mode once again, but it is also one of his very best. The film is both a multi-layered salute to individual integrity within a rapacious industry and a crackling genre exercise with some of the director’s most controlled yet expressive filmmaking ever.

The ostensible genre here is the sports movie, but as in the baseball hit Moneyball (2011) – a film Soderbergh developed before Bennett Miller took the reins – the narrative privileges the business of the game over the game itself (basketball in this case). Ray Burke (André Holland, in another next-level performance after Moonlight [2016]) is a longtime sports agent known for bending the rules to his clients’ benefit. One of those clients, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), is a No. 1 draft pick freshly signed to the New York Knicks but prevented from playing due to protracted labor negotiations between the NBA team owners and players. This lockout stops the cash flow to players and therefore their agents. The main goal of the protagonists in Bird is therefore relatively simple: stop the lockout and get the players back on the court.

Of course, doing so is not so straightforward, and in the incredibly complex details of achieving that goal, the film smartly uses the elements of another genre, the film noir, to position Ray as Jerry Maguire by way of Sam Spade, a cunning and charming manipulator always three steps ahead of his opponents. He even has a gal Friday named Sam (the enviably cool Zazie Beetz of television’s Atlanta), his recent ex-assistant, a woman who is herself a capable detective. The rest of the noir archetypes are also present. Erick is the ingénue, while Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), another top draft pick, is Erick’s antagonist and the mark. Jamero’s mother and manager, Emera (Jeryl Prescott), is Ray’s rival sleuth gunning for the No. 1 spot. Spence (Bill Duke), a retired neighborhood coach, is a wise, curmudgeonly ally to Ray. David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), the New York Knicks owner, is the seedy mastermind who attempts to block Ray at every move. In the middle of it all is Players Association representative Myra (Sonja Sohn), an old friend of Ray’s whose official position often complicates his plans, like a good cop to his gumshoe.

If Bird is a basketball drama laid over The Maltese Falcon (1941), then this film’s MacGuffin is something even more intangible than the former’s gilded “stuff that dreams are made of.” The largely white owners use the largely black players’ love for the game to curtail their autonomy, employing restrictive regulations to oppress them while increasingly benefiting financially from their labor. The struggle for earned and deserved autonomy, respectability, and acknowledgement is the conflict at the heart of the lockout, the ultimate goal for Ray and his allies as the agent makes moves to change “the game on top of the game” through both expertly plotted strategy and a few Hail Mary passes.

Screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney – who won an Oscar for co-writing Moonlight with that film’s director, Barry Jenkins – deftly complicates the industry-interruption narrative with both personal trauma and collective black trauma, never reaching for preachy didacticism and always displaying sparkling wit. Buried in the background of Ray’s motivation is his complex pain in suppressing his former client and cousin’s sexuality before that man’s premature death (implied to have been suicide). Even more complex is each character’s relationship to Christianity and its tenets of forgiveness and understanding. In Bird, the religion acts as built-in cultural trait – not a central narrative conceit as in so much trite “faith-based” fare. Some characters use religion as a justification for exploitation, while others employ it as a guiding light. McCraney eschews more hackneyed metaphors, going so far as to lambaste them through Spence. The old-timer recoils indignantly at NBA-as-slavery analogies, requiring in every instance that the speaker recite a biblically flavored mantra as penance.

Soderbergh, clearly re-energized by McCraney’s text, matches its dexterity by further developing his recent preferred production workflow of shooting on an iPhone, which he first used for Unsane. Whereas that madhouse horror used the fuzziness of the device’s images to suggest a confused state of reality, Bird looks remarkably polished, as crisp and clean as any other of Soderbergh’s digitally shot work. With a wide-angle lens affixed to the camera, the small and portable setup allows for at least two important visual touches. First, Soderbergh is able to frame his figures as though they are enveloped by the surrounding, stiflingly modern architectures, neatly mirroring the characters’ anxieties. Second, the director is able to easily exaggerate distance and movement. The result is a new, digital expressionism, an apt aesthetic for the noir proceedings that attempts to mimic the visual brawn of Orson Welles’ own excursions in the genre, The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958).

Those touchtones are simply inspiration, however, as High Flying Bird is not necessarily a groundbreaking masterwork. It doesn’t need to be. Compared to any of Welles’ and most of Soderbergh's own features, Bird is modestly scaled, and its director seems keenly aware of this. Soderbergh worked under the constraints of a $2 million budget, premiered the feature at the Slamdance film festival – Sundance’s “little sister” festival, of which he is highly supportive –  and is now releasing it without much fanfare on Netflix, sans any theatrical distribution. It’s a particularly interesting move for a film about an industry disruptor, directed by a filmmaker who could be called exactly that, and it’s entirely possible Soderbergh’s identification with the lead character is why the film resonates so potently. Steven Soderbergh is at the top of his game right now, and High Flying Bird is a slam dunk.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part'.
February 7, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Bricked It

2019 / USA, Denmark, Australia / 106 min. / Dir. by Mike Mitchell / Opens in wide release on Feb. 8, 2019

When Warner Animation Group (WAG) announced that it would (to exactly no one’s surprise) return to the glossy plastic well with a sequel to its critical and box-office hit The Lego Movie, it was perhaps inevitable that the result would be less appealing and invigorating than the 2014 original. After all, part of what made the first Lego Movie such a delight was the left-field nature of its aesthetic and comedic success. Five years ago, the very concept seemed like an unintentional satire of Hollywood’s anemic idea factory. A feature-length animated adventure based on a construction toy? Seriously? What might have been a mere 90-minute commercial for the ubiquitous studded bricks turned out to be a visually innovative, relentless cheeky, and genuinely tender pop treatise on the Tao of Play: an appeal for a “middle way” that blends the best aspects of fussy model-building and imaginative chaos. (Of course, corporate synergy being what it is, The Lego Movie was also a 90-minute commercial.)

The 2014 film’s triumph was generally attributed to writer-directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs; 21 Jump Street), although just as essential was the team at Aussie animation studio Animal Logic – who established the tactile, faux-stop-motion style that instantly distinguished The Lego Movie from the cheapie computer animation of so many direct-to-video Bionicle, Chima, and Ninjago projects. That said, it’s tempting to chalk up the diminishing returns of the 2014 film’s theatrical spinoffs, The Lego Batman Movie (2017) and The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017), to the absence of Miller and Lord’s deft handling, given that the pair stepped back to a producer-only role for those outings.

For the original film’s first full-fledged sequel, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Miller and Lord have returned as co-scripters, although directing duties this time fall to family-animation veteran Mike Mitchell (Shrek Forever After; The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water; Trolls). Mitchell doesn’t have Miller and Lord’s track record in the director’s chair – he also helmed the notoriously risible Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (1999) – but The Second Part’s failings have less to do with creative shakeups than the lightning-in-a-bottle factor. It would be challenging for any filmmaker to replicate the sense of surprised delight that attended the 2014 film, if only because filmgoers (and Warner executives) have expectations that must be fulfilled. Beyond the sheen of the new, however, The Second Part also lacks the narrative cohesion and propulsion that made the first chapter such breezy fun. For shockingly long stretches, this new Lego Movie is more of an ungainly, plodding jumble than a functional film.

The action picks up almost exactly where the original feature left off, with the Lego city of Bricksburg under attack by the adorable but fearsome Duplo invaders. Guileless plastic everyman Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) attempts to appeal to the Duplo people’s sense of community and compassion, to no avail. Fast-forward through five years of incessant assaults, which have reduced Bricksburg to the despoiled Mad Max-esque wasteland of Apocalypseburg. Everything is decidedly not awesome anymore. (The parallels with the real-world zeitgeist shift from “Yes We Can!” optimism to “This Is Fine” despair are plain but remain studiously un-addressed by the filmmakers.)

Cyber goth Master Builder Lucy a.k.a. Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and the rest of Brickburg’s residents have adjusted to this darker, edgier reality, but Emmet remains as fervently upbeat and clueless as ever. Dreaming of an idyllic existence with his maybe-girlfriend, he constructs a cozy dream house that’s almost immediately reduced to blocky rubble by an arriving spaceship. Said craft is piloted by Gen. Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), a glittery intergalactic warrior from the nefarious Systar System, which appears to be some sort of offshoot or evolution of the Duplo people. Mayhem swiftly absconds with Emmett’s pals – Lucy, the brooding Batman (Will Arnett), spaceship-obsessed Benny (Charlie Day), sweet-and-spicy Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie), and cyborg pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) – prompting Emmett to convert his demolished bungalow into a spacecraft to pursue them.

Mayhem brings Lucy and her friends before Systar’s queen, Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), a colorful, shapeshifting conglomeration of bricks who assures them – somewhat ineffectually – that she has the best of intentions. Batman’s fragile ego prompts him to insist that he is the leader of Apocalypseburg, whereupon the queen reveals her scheme to marry him, thus unifying their worlds. While the rest of the companions are distracted by Systar’s catchy pop music and sparkly amusements, Lucy attempts to uncover Watevra’s almost certainly nefarious aims. Meanwhile, Emmet runs into chiseled action hero Rex Dangervest (Pratt again, imitating Kurt Russell imitating John Wayne), a space-hopping cowboy, archeologist, and velociraptor trainer. Emett is taken with Rex’s rugged man-of-action schtick – and his dark, mysterious backstory – and the pair promptly team up to battle the Systar denizens.

The most conspicuous misstep The Second Part makes is how early (and eagerly) is shows its hand. The first Lego Movie uncovered affecting warmth and a gentler stripe of humor by means of a third-act paradigm shift: The epic battles dramatized by the film’s minifigs were revealed as proxies for the real-world conflict between a persnickety adult Lego collector (Will Farrell) and his rules-busting 8-year-old son, Finn (Jadon Sand). In contrast, The Second Part lets the audience in on its “frame plot” almost immediately, revealing through impressionistic but still thuddingly obvious insert shots that its story is rooted in the increasingly shrill skirmishes between now-13-year-old Finn and his 8-year-old younger sister, Bianca (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince). It’s a theoretically fruitful source of pathos – the age- and gender-loaded conflict between siblings is often expressed through possessiveness and territoriality over toys, after all – but The Second Part fumbles the story’s potential by letting the audience in on the secret from the first jump and then harping on it incessantly. There’s little incentive to care about the film’s toy-level plot when the viewer is reminded with almost obnoxious frequency that Watevra’s devious grasping and Emmet’s anxious masculinity are stand-ins for a couple of suburban kids’ squabbles over their objectively enormous and costly Lego collection.

What’s more, The Second Part consistently struggles to construct a sturdy story from its component scenes, most of which play out like the action-adventure equivalent of sketch-comedy routines. In the moment, there’s a diverting and even lively quality to many of these sequences, which tend to be more rooted in character humor and absurdist digressions than in the 2014 original. However, Mitchell, Miller, and Lord are so hellbent on turning every set piece into a self-contained, flop-sweaty joke machine, they neglect the propulsive energy that would have kept the film skipping along. The Second Part makes some concessions to the well-worn conventions of the Hero’s Journey, but it ultimately feels like a half-baked version of a contemporary animated studio feature, with all of the metatextual gags and easy familiarity but no clean lines, narratively speaking. The first Lego Movie adeptly embodied the freewheeling Calvinball chaos of children’s play, but this outing just feels like an adult improv troupe gamely but futilely trying to emulate the same.

There’s still plenty to admire about The Second Part, at least from a technical standpoint, as Animal Logic has impressively refined the style of the first film and its spinoffs over the past five years. The sheer tangibility of the characters and environments is often startling, incorporating as they do unbelievably fine virtual details such as mold lines, scratches, and thumbprints. Although The Second Part necessarily feels like less of a delightful sensory discovery compared to its predecessor, this outing is nonetheless a noticeable iteration of the “Lego Movie house style” into a marvelously shimmery and flamboyant Version 2.0. There’s just enough visual flair to keep animation aficionados smiling while the film plods along through its shapeless plot, jokey cutaways, and Warner Bros.-approved fanfic tomfoolery. While there’s nothing overtly unpleasant about The Second Part – excepting perhaps the uncritical enthusiasm with which it buys into the Lego Group’s own gendered sub-branding – it’s unmistakably a weaker, flimsier, less charming retread of what should have remained a stellar one-off.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Cold War'.
February 5, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Love Is a Battlefield

2018 / Poland, UK, France / 89 min. / Dir. by Paweł Pawlikowski / Opened in select cities Dec. 21, 2018; locally on Jan. 25, 2019

Cold War is a deeply personal film for director Paweł Pawlikowski. The story of a Polish man and woman who couple and uncouple numerous times across many European countries from 1949-64 is inspired by the tumultuous relationship of Pawlikowski’s own mother and father. As with his previous film, Ida, the filmmaker isn’t just concerned with personal identity here, but with how national identity informs the personal. Ida, which won the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, entangled a nation’s complicity in World War II horrors with a young Catholic nun’s discovery of her Jewish identity. With his latest, Pawlikowski’s historical canvas has become even wider, encompassing an era that saw the reconstruction of European nations, a cultural shift into modernism, and the erection of the Berlin Wall.

What is also retained from Ida here is narrative brevity. At a compact 89 minutes, Cold War is Pawlikowski’s miniature of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), a sweeping epic that traces the political forces that tear a nation and a romance asunder. Unlike that classic behemoth, however, Cold War foregrounds the personal, eliding monumental events — such as the building of the Iron Curtain’s physical embodiment, a barrier that separated East from West Berlin and communism from democracy. Instead, such monolithic political manifestations exist only in the spaces between Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), as backdrops to the reunions throughout their 15-year affair, and underly the push-and-pull that eventually leads to their mutual destruction.

That volatile romance begins in 1949 as composer and conductor Wiktor and his cohorts, Irena (Agata Kulesza) and Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), are mounting a government-backed touring showcase of traditional Polish folk song and dance as an act of national posterity. It’s a pre-television version of American Idol but composed entirely of the countryside proletariat and sans competition — as Poland has recently become a communist nation.

An apparent star does emerge, however, in the form of Zula, as she insinuates her way into dueting with and eventually outshining another potential player in an audition. Her self-identification as an innocent youth born and raised in rural Poland is quickly uncovered as a front when Irena informs Wiktor of the young woman’s true origins and of her arrest for the attempted murder of her father. “He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference,” Zula tells Wiktor in their first one-on-one rehearsal, a session in which their mutual attraction becomes apparent as the two trade bars from George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess song “I Loves You, Porgy.”

In using that classic 1935 standard – probably best known from the popular 1958 version by the singular Nina Simone – which is in stark contrast to the folk music filling the first third of the film, Pawlikowski tips his hand that the music in Cold War functions as a narrative and thematic device. Robert Altman pulled a similar trick in his masterpiece Nashville (1975), a revisionist country-and-western musical that builds its songs-as-commentary into the film’s diegesis without being presentational. Here, the traditional songs find updated iterations as modernity creeps its way into the narrative – cultural history being remade and repurposed. “Two Hearts” is first presented within the touring company’s production as an ode to Polish pride before the song’s subtext is later complicated by Wiktor producing and arranging a jazzy nightclub version for Zula. The modern object that was appropriated from the past to symbolize the couple’s undying passion still contains the seed of the nationalism that keeps them apart.

However, as the tempo of Cold War increases, there’s something wonky in the mix. The same elliptical storytelling that Pawlikowski employs to background historical context in favor of the personal is also applied to Zula and Wiktor’s narrative, possibly to the detriment of a fulsome realization of their great love affair. Throughout, title cards announce the advancing years and shifting locations. The first major narrative pivot is a section set in 1952 East Berlin, in which the touring company is now a Stalinist propaganda machine — contrary to the wishes of the quietly anti-Communist Irena, but to the gain of the insidiously brown-nosing Kaczmarek. Zula finds herself squarely in the middle when she chooses to remain in East Berlin even as Wiktor defects to the West, abandoned by the “woman of his life” because of her fear of the unknown. In Paris in 1954, Wiktor is now a lowly piano player in a nightclub when Zula, an increasingly integral part of the touring company as its rising star, visits him on her last night in the city. These dynamics shift continually with each passage as the film eventually lands on a resolution that feels completely unearned from what comes before it – a shrug of an ending that seems born from the worst art-house-film impulses.

Strictly speaking, the spaces between the couple’s clandestine reunions aren’t the problem, but because of those elisions, the reunions are hardly credible as passionate and magnetic eventualities. One could also blame Pawlikowski’s almost Bressonian approach, using pared-down performances in ostentatious tableaus. This strategy lacks the cinematic sensuality necessary to understand the couple’s supposedly palpable connection. One exception is Zula’s drunken nightclub dance to Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” a spark of defiant electricity and one of the few instances of Pawlikowski allowing his camera some freedom of movement. Overall, Cold War is relatively cool to the touch, but its underlying complications of engrained national identity opposing personal passions would be more effective if the film itself were white-hot.

If the mostly clinical approach is precisely the point, then Pawlikowski must be creating a portrait of unwavering and reckless codependency. Kulig’s performance, in particular, supports the idea: The actor refrains from betraying Zula’s motivations – apt for a character who cons her way into prominence – even as she swings wildly from self-survival, to jealousy and fear, and eventually to an alcoholism seemingly produced by the great weight of guilt from her all but sending Wiktor to a prison camp by emasculating him. Kulig (who resembles, oddly enough, both Jennifer Lawrence and Kate McKinnon) imbues Zula with as much magnetism as her director allows, and she becomes particularly alive when contrasted against her handsome but blank sparring partner, Kotz, who mostly just takes her punches.

Through his choices, however, Pawlikowski appears to think that he is indeed manufacturing the next great doomed romance for the ages. He teams again with the Oscar-nominated Ida lenser Lukasz Zal, and the two choose to work with the black-and-white photography and square-ish 1.33:1 Academy ratio of their previous collaboration. The early roll in the grass in which Zula reveals she’s been selectively informing on Wiktor to Kaczmarek is the glance of impressionistic romanticism, a possible nod to Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936), and a later scene of their lovemaking contains similar strains of these intentions. It’s gorgeous but empty visual storytelling out of the best of perfume ads, but Cold War is at least consistently striking even when it sometimes amounts to nothing.

Elsewhere, there are indelible images and passages, some of them the likely reasons for Cold War’s ardent admirers, of which there are many. (Zal scored another cinematography Academy Award nomination for Cold War this year, and Pawlikowski scored spots among both the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director nominees.) The film is particularly memorable when the frame allows for considerable headspace to envelop the characters within their oppressive surroundings – something of a directorial trademark for Pawlikowski at this point. During a black-tie affair, Wiktor and Irena occupy the lower third of the frame, standing against an impossibly high mirrored wall that reflects the throng of drunk party-goers in front of the two musicians. They’re confronted by the celebration of communism they’ve helped to reinforce in one of the film’s too-few perfectly rendered visual metaphors of its characters’ hypocrisies and identity crises. Cold War itself may suffer from those same ailments but is nevertheless consistently compelling, even with its blurred vision.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Pledge'.
January 31, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

Pledge

2018 / USA / 77 min. / Dir. by Daniel Robbins / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Jan. 11, 2019

For its first half-hour or so, director Daniel Robbins’ Pledge plays like an off-key riff on the conventional cinematic fantasy of fraternity life, in which the Greek system is a gateway to both libertine excess and class-coded prestige. When three misfit undergraduates (Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andrew Botello, and Zack Weiner) stumble onto a mysterious off-campus fraternity during rush week, the scenario is initially a vehicle for shrill cringe comedy and trust-fund lifestyle porn. The film’s bloody cold open, however, reveals that something else is afoot, and as the frat’s hazing rituals quickly become more outré and violent, the film itself gets nastier, stranger, and more unpredictable. Robbins never finds the satirical edge that might have counterbalanced all the mirthless sadism – American Psycho this isn’t – but Pledge at least has the restraint to remain satisfyingly cryptic and volatile, all the way to its cynical final swerve. Ultimately, the feature suggests, it’s not wealth or surnames that define the ruling class, but savagery. C+ [Now available to rent from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

The Best Films of 2018
January 28, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

The Lens Critics Discuss The Year in Film

After publishing their individual “Best Films of 2018” lists in late December, the Lens critics began a spirited discussion via email on the state of cinema in 2018, and on their areas of agreement and disagreement regarding the films what were worthy of praise. Their conversation is reproduced below with minor edits.

Andrew Wyatt: In these sort of Best Of features, I usually attempt to pore over the year's cinematic highlights and tease out a unifying theme (or themes) that in some way explains or summarizes what we saw on our screens this year. In 2017, I perceived a strong pessimism coupled with a taste for boundary-pushing with respect to social, genre, and moral constraints. Looking over the best films of 2018, I'm not sure there's an overarching theme, or at least one that immediately jumps out at me. Comparing our Top 20 lists, the only point where all three of us intersect is Shirkers and The Favourite, which is an intriguing pairing: both unabashedly female-centered features, both shot through with a certain cynicism, but otherwise fairly dissimilar.

Let me pass it to you guys and see if you have any thoughts on the year as a whole? Is there an emergent "macro-story" being told in this year's films?

Joshua Ray: I'm sometimes wary of attempting to cohere films of disparate origin around an overarching theme. It's difficult to say that whether any given year’s great films were in production at remotely the same time, or were even looking to capture "the moment." With this year specifically, we're looking at a crop of films from artists as varied as veterans like Claire Denis and Paul Schrader and newbies like Sandi Tan and Ari Aster.  I think that looking at their four works – Let the Sunshine In, First Reformed, Shirkers, and Hereditary, respectively – you can definitely say that's not the case. (I'm sure we'll get into it at some point, but one of those films, in particular, is so indebted to being about How We Live Now, that I find it to be an obvious BuzzFeed list of "Top Problems with the World in 2018".) One film on both our lists, Andrew, is The Other Side of the Wind, which was "made" in the 1970s. I think we both struggled about its inclusion on our respective lists but found it impossible not to include it. Although it does have timely ideas about people in the Hollywood machine, it's clearly borne from Orson Welles' contemporaneous relationship with the New Hollywood and European imports of its day.

However, as with your 2017 group, sometimes you just look a set of films and there it is: grand unification. My list is filled with portraits of marginalized people trapped on hamster wheels of systemic purgatory. The two that don't necessarily fit that – Zama and Wind – are about what's usually the problem: men and power. I'm not sure if telling marginalized peoples' stories is of particular importance right now due to the rise of nationalism across the globe, or that I'm just keener on these narratives because of the current political climate. Looking over my lists from the past three years, it's clear that this is the year our art started reckoning with the sociopolitical shitshow that's been 2016 and on.

The Favourite and Shirkers can certainly fit in this power/powerless dichotomy, and there's certainly an essay there between the two of them about gender politics. But, as you two wrote so beautifully in your lists, Shirkers is really a treasure of personal essay filmmaking. By the end of it, I finally felt what all those people who loved Richard Linklater's Boyhood felt: the thrill of watching a life unfurl condensed into digestible form. Except Tan's film is far more daring and audacious in form and subject, much more concise than Boyhood, and it’s a miracle that we even have it to treasure.

Cait, do you see a similar overarching theme in your list, or is all of this just too subjective to pin down so tidily?

Cait Lore: The short answer, Josh, is that I’m half with you. When I am assembling my year’s end list(s), I tend to check those sort of insights at the door. That is not to suggest that we should outright dismiss “macro-stories”, as Andrew said. On the contrary, a good film critic should have one eye on the film and another on the culture from which it emerges. But Josh gestures towards an important point – often times these sorts of insights are myopic in nature, and glib on the page. I’m wary of throwing around boilerplate terms, to grasp at some sort of truth about the state of film in 2018.

I’m thinking of Siegfried Kracauer right now. His seminal text From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film is one that everyone reads in graduate school. In his book, Kracauer, a sociologist and film critic, investigates early German film history (1815 - 1933) and its “collective spirit”. This is one of the most important works in German film studies, but its thesis is deeply flawed. To keep it brief: Kracauer, putting on his sociologist hat, says that film is a mass medium, made by a mass of people, for a mass to consume; film is a collective consciousness, he tells us. Kracauer, leaning into his film academic background, posits that Weimar-era film not only laid the foundation for but predicted the rise of Nazi Germany.

Whoa! What? Film can’t predict the future! I think we can all agree on this, yes? But let’s also take a moment to remember that his book was published in 1947. World War II ended in 1945. That means just two years later he publishes one of the most important works in film history. The man is, clearly, brilliant, but something about those two hats, sociologist and film critic, led him astray here. I think, perhaps, the biggest error is that he is too close to the history he writes about. You can only see something clearly when you’re outside of it – when the dust settles. I don’t feel like the dust has settled on 2018 yet. And how much can I say, exactly, about just one year in film history that would illuminate much about the state of film today? I don't know... Maybe I'm the one being myopic now.

With all that in mind, I’d like to start talking about Trump’s America and the #MeToo movement. Just kidding! (I bet I eat these words in the conversation to come. These are tempting topics to engage with...) But seriously, if we do want to talk about the year in film, well, I would start with globalization and the digital era. These topics certainly have something to do with both The Favourite and Shirkers – globalization in particular, which the Internet seems to propel forward at a breakneck pace – if we’re still drawing parallels. You know, I’m so tempted to be Kracauer and talk about how we’re in a new era of modernity. But then I’d be commenting from a very close vantage point – not two years after the fact, but mere weeks – and I’m not a hypocrite!

And I don’t mean to be declare, “I’m too cerebral for Top Tens”. That's not at all what I mean here; I just don’t know how to go about talking about the year-in-film when we're still so close on its heels. This is especially true, when many of my favorite directors' 2018 works aren't yet accessible to me. (I'm looking at you, Lee Chang-Dong!)  With that in mind, I'd like to think about my list first as a document of me, an obsessive cinephile in 2018. I learned a lot about myself in writing mine, more so than any year prior – but I'm not going to go too far into that right now. Instead, I'd like to open this question up to the both of you: Would either of you be interested in talking about your experience making your lists? This year, or any other, I mean. When I'm ranking films, I tend to focus first on what are the most culturally important/significant films of that year. Film is, after all, an inherently political thing, from my perspective, because I’m such a fun, happy person to be around. (Ha.) That is to say, I rarely go for the most perfectly perfect film of any given year. So, how about you two: What do you expect of films? What makes a film the Best Film of the Year in your eyes? And, if you feel like it, what do you think is your role as a critic when making these lists, if it's any different than if you were a "normal" filmgoer?

I don’t expect you to answer all these questions, of course. I’m just wanting to poke around in your head, get a sense of your own personal histories with film. Andrew, I’m especially interested in hearing from you on these matters. You’ve been writing these year-end lists for well over a decade, right? That’s far longer than I have. And so I wonder, how have your lists change over time? A lot of critics tell me they’re more cynical now, harder to please. Is that true of you?

AW: I think your skepticism is valuable, Cate. I'd like to think that most modern critics and cultural observers would treat Kracauer's thesis with the same skepticism. (Maybe not, in the present age of from-the-hip criticism and bad hot takes.) I would hope that no one actually thinks that film can predict the future, or that, collectively, the films of 2018 advance some intentional, collaborative macro-story. Given production schedules, the timeline obviously doesn't even work out. And, of course, the calendar year is itself artificial and fairly arbitrary way to divide the development of cinema. But I'm glad you used the term "emerges", because that's the way I think about these kind of broader themes: as emergent phenomena. I wrote an essay this year for the Common Reader about three cult horror films from 1968, and about how they seemed to presage a nascent shift in English-language genre cinema, and in the counter-culture as a whole. You might, at a glance, regard that essay as committing the exact sort of misstep you attribute to Kracauer, but I try to be careful about how I discuss such ideas. Films can "seem" to presage things, or "seem" to tell a larger story, but it's all retroactive hindsight. Perhaps it's folly to even attempt this sort of analysis a few weeks into the New Year, and when so many of us are still catching up on our viewing backlogs. Still, I think there's some sort of value in these exercises, if only to get us talking about and reflecting on the ways that cinema – which encompasses such a strange spectrum of high and low art – is evolving, even as I'm typing this very sentence.

Any critic or writer thinks seriously about Best Of lists (or any list-making exercise, really) has to grapple with what they're trying to achieve with such a list. Even though we assign grades to films here at the Lens – as most critics do – I don't think any of us would frame list-making as a strictly objective, quantitative exercise. Speaking only for myself, there's definitively a navel-gazing aspect to Best Of lists, where I try to assemble a set of rankings that best represents my at-time idiosyncratic personal tastes. However – with the caveat that I'm the guy who put two studio blockbusters in my Top 10 – I also think that there's value in using our platform to highlight films that people might have overlooked or never even heard about. Or, alternatively, to draw attention to the qualities of a given film that readers may not have considered. Sometimes the rankings have less to do with iterative "good, better, best" judgements that more nebulous considerations. A well-curated Top 10 or Top 20 list should be a little piece of art all on its own. Am I really saying that first-time director Cory Finley's Thoroughbreds is slightly, objectively "better” than the final film of Orson Welles? Not really. But I felt like Finley's film was well-reviewed back in March and then kicked into the memory hole, undeservedly so for such a darkly brilliant, diamond-perfect piece of filmmaking. And so my thought process was that it demands a place of honor, so that when someone looks at this list a year or five years from now, they might take a chance on a great film. A writer's personal politics, ethics, and aesthetics also naturally come into consideration when compiling the films that speak to them. Far from being unbiased, I think a great Best Of list strongly embodies and explores the writer's biases.

To circle back to something that Josh raised: I think all of our lists reflect an interest in marginalized voices, but Shirkers in particular is an interesting and dynamic example of this current. Josh, you picked If Beale Street Could Talk as your Best Film of 2018, and I truly admire the feature as well; it's still in my Top 20, after all! And it's a great example of a film that that manages to have its cake and eat it too, being a swooning fairy tale romance and also a brutal depiction of that way that such fairy tales get derailed in the real world for black Americans. Shirkers, however, is ultimately a more intriguing "marginalized voices" film to me, and I think that has something to do with its interrogative qualities as a documentary memoir of sorts. Barry Jenkins took a novel by one of the great American writers of the 20th century and reverentially translated its story and themes to the screen. And the results are gorgeous. But Sandi Tan did something quite different and perhaps bolder, poring over and dissecting and re-assessing her own youthful experiences (and the documentary evidence thereof). The striking social and political aspects of Shirkers – nationality, class, gender, power, and high/low/counter-culture – are all emergent from her own story. There's something fantastically appealing about that to me, the way that the personal is so clearly political and vice-versa in this sad, frustrating story of an odd, Jarmuschean indie film that now exists forever in this kind of half-born state. Perhaps it's just that I watched a lot of documentaries this year as a part of SLIFF, but docs that break the calcified conventions of the form are something I really value right now. And looking at 2018, with the likes of Shirkers, Bisbee '17, The King, and Minding the Gap, is encouraging. Heck, there are acclaimed, unconventional docs – Hale County, This Morning, This Evening; Infinite Football; and Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (which was on your list, Josh) – that haven't even arrived here in St. Louis yet.

JR: Maybe I'm just exclusively into navel-gazing, as I don't think about anything but my experience when assembling these lists. We tend to avoid first person in our reviews here at the Lens, but the personal is always present in our value judgments. At one point, we talked about trying to aggregate our list into a meta-list but decided we're far too small and our three voices so different that the results would be incredibly wild and therefore unrepresentative of any one of us. I'm not really countering what you said, Cait, about cultural import or significance being criteria by which to make these lists, because I, too, swear I'm a really fun person to be around who thinks film is inherently political. I think that means the context in which these films live is also considered in the space between the screen and our own experience. If that weren't the case and we were talking about cultural import exclusively, where does Black Panther – a film I find exhilarating and intellectually engaging while ultimately falling in line with rote Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) mechanics in its details – belong in our discussion of the films of the year? Not one of us mentioned it in our year-end reviews, but by sheer volume, it has to be one of the most thought- and talked-about films of 2018.

As far as how I assemble these things, I do this really boring and completely pragmatic system of just keeping a running ranking of the year's films that are special to me throughout the year. It acts as a kind of diary of films I liked and makes for an easy jumping off point for the Top 10.  I really only made a couple of last-minute adjustments to that list based on recent re-watches; Paddington 2 and Shirkers swapped places, and I'm sure that the next time I revisit Tan's film, they'll flip-flop again. I agree the rankings are somewhat arbitrary – save for one this year, for me – as is the time frame we use to rank them and the one we use to publish them. Maybe we should do an exercise next year to rank 2018 again and see how that shakes out? Regardless of form or timing, as you both point out these lists have always been invaluable to cinephiles for at least two reasons: What films were of great value to people you respect as film writers, and what films are under my radar completely that I must see?

Which brings me to If Beale Street Could Talk versus Shirkers – a battle you posited, Andrew, that I hadn't really expected, but you make an interesting case for it. Shirkers is such a different beast than Beale Street, but I think your comparison points are valid. I can't make claims that either are exactly analogous to my personal experience, but I will say there's no other film in 2018 that Hulk-smashed me into the ground with such great force than Barry Jenkins', which is incredible considering just how delicately wrought the film is. To me, its position as my favorite film of last year is unimpeachable; I've seen it three times now and if getting to know a film is like dating someone, I'm ready to move in with Beale Street. Especially for a film that's so transcendentally moving, that’s a corny way to say that with each passing viewing, depth has revealed itself beyond the film being simply a reverent adaptation of a respected literary work. It is a full-bodied adaptation that understands the purpose of its source material so well that it even exceeds those intentions by leveraging cinema's great empathy-making abilities. That sustained brutality and fairy tale airiness you suggest that makes it successful is certainly a strength, but in every way, Jenkins' filmmaking has become so sophisticated that some see it as reserved or conservative as compared to Moonlight. I think it's a refinement.

What I will say about Shirkers is that in the so-called "Year of Non-Fiction” – an idea I've seen bandied about throughout the year due to the relative commercial success of RBG, Three Identical Strangers, and Won't You Be My Neighbor? – it is certainly my favorite doc of 2018. (I haven't been able to see the film in Cait's top spot, Robert Greene's Bisbee '17.) While the three aforementioned doc hits were given fine notices by other critics, they're not representative of the artistic boom in non-fiction filmmaking over the past five or so years like Shirkers is. There just happen to be ten other works that compelled me more or in other ways.

Essentially, I've come back to that, yes, these lists spring from personal experience, which is a notion I find of great value in compiling them for myself and in reading others'. With that, I'll say there are films that have seem to have critical consensus as the best of the year, that I will never be able to see in that way. I'm ambivalent about Roma, Cold War, and Leave No Trace at first pass, but I just don't think I'll ever be able to see First Reformed or You Were Never Really Here the way many others do. (You both included the former in your Top Ten, and while you make great cases, I can't seem to gel your great capsules with my own experience of Schrader's latest.) Do either of you have any "What Are They Thinking" moments from 2018?

CL: I’m trying to think of a way to respond to your “What Are They Thinking” question, Josh. I keep coming back to Love, Simon. That movie makes me cynical, guys.  Who is it for exactly? It’s not for gay teens, I’ll tell you that. The film will, too. Right at the start, Simon addresses the audience: “I’m just like you, except I have one huge-ass secret: nobody knows I’m gay.” He’s just like you – the heterosexual audience. Thank god Love, Simon is here to let heterosexuals know that gay people are just like us.

I often listen to a film podcast, Mark Kermode & Mayos’ BBC radio show, and for weeks people phoned in about Love, Simon, talking about sobbing into their coats by the movie’s end. They all seem to agree that this was the movie they needed at 16 and, well, I can’t discount their experiences. I mean, I probably hate Love, Simon more than is warranted objectively. I’m so angry about that film, however, and about how it falls in line with the film industry of today, that I want to say that, yes, my reaction is fair; It insults me now and it probably would have insulted me at 16. But is it really fair of me to be angry about the culture industry including queer people – a demographic I am a part of, by the way –  on the menu? I’m not sure. But I’m still angry!!

I will say that the 2010s, as I see them, will probably be remembered as a time where so-called radical politics –  identity politics, feminism, whatever they can mine from people’s Tumblr pages – became a for-profit venture. This is what I mean when I refer to the digital age has caused a shift in the marketplace of ideas. Consider that we’ve got not one but two cutesy Ruth Bader Ginsburg films released in 2018, both of which are filled with #GIFfable moments. (Actually, Ocean’s 8 is probably even more of a problem in this regard.) And then there’s all the other bougie left-wing morality plays with which, if you bought a ticket to the movie, you probably already agree. I'm glad words like "feminist" have lost the stigma they once had. But I don’t think it means we’ve won any sort of battle – no way. These films don’t make me feel liberated at all. Their messages – "Pray-away-the-gay camps are bad!"; "White complacency exists!" – are, of course, ones with which I agree. However, these films seem to share a half-baked political commentary that suggests an industry capitalizing on a moment in time. These are movies that seem to signal toward virtuous thinking, but not much else.

The liberation movement, as it appears on our movie screens, seems to hunger for positive portrayals of marginalized lives. But, from my perspective, in the case of films like Love, Simon or The Miseducation of Cameron Post, their messages are woefully out-of-date. Most of these films, to me, are too short-sighted to achieve the liberation they seek. Where are all my “left-wing melancholy” films at?! Maybe I’m just mad. I’m starting to feel like words such as “feminist” or “queer" no longer belong to me. My understanding of that word, my life as an outsider, has become drowned out or redefined, or I don't know, stretched so far that it's not as relatable to me. Maybe I just want every film to be 1978’s Nighthawks. If that’s the case, then I’m throwing a tantrum; I’m wrong. But I’d still say that many of these films – BlacKkKlansman, Cameron Post, etc. – simply don’t work, problematic philosophical/political framework aside.

I’ve also got words about Roma, Andrew! It may be your favorite film of the year, but I can’t say I love Roma. Is it my “What Are They Thinking” film of 2018 film? No, I can’t say that. When you speak on the film’s visual language, Andrew, I’m right there with you. Roma asks us to sit close to the screen, so close that you have to turn your head to see the entire image. Without Cuarón's usual cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki this time, the camera movements are a little tighter controlled, more economical; all of which is to the film’s benefit. It’s as if Cuarón’s asks us to slow down and follow his camera’s gaze as it drifts across these panoramic landscapes. Here he taps into a painterly imagination as we’ve never seen him before, but it is also the natural culmination of all his work. So why don’t I love it?

There’s a scene early on, in a restaurant, where Cuarón points his camera at a flickering screen. A muscle-man astonishes a crowd of onlookers by pulling a car across a room, using only his teeth. That man, we later discover, is Professor Zovek, but it might as well be Cuarón if you ask me. That’s my first impression of Roma: Cuarón pulling a car with his teeth for 135 minutes. Is this film really about his maid? I have no idea how to interpret this thing! It’s certainly a monument to human achievement. That achievement is Cuarón and his camera, and all the people in his lens are more like art-objects for him to decorate the space with. In a different movie, I would possibly be fine with this. It’s just Roma insists on being about someone. We’re told that it’s some Proustian “edifice of memory” exercise. But whose memories are they?  The collective consciousness of 1970s Mexico? Are they Cleo’s? Maybe someone’s else? The popular reading, of course, is that Roma is Cuarón conjuring up childhood memories of Cleo. That reading doesn’t work for me; everyone – yes, including the Cuarón stand-in and Cleo herself – seems like an empty vessel, gesturing towards some sort of (idiot-simple) historical allegory for 1970s Mexico. We’re talking about a film that relates a family break-up both to a stillbirth and a failed revolution almost simultaneously. And it’s all so paper-thin in its execution.

If Rainer Werner Fassbinder were building a house with his films, Cuarón is looking to build a museum. I’m okay with that. Really, I am. Maybe I’m missing the point here, but going off my first viewing, Roma feels overdressed and understated.

AW: I'm not quite as cynical as you about Love, Simon, Cate. I saw enough positive responses to the film on Film Twitter to believe that there is a non-trivial contingent of young, queer folks who enjoyed it and appreciated that it is a Thing That Exists. But your comment does raise an issue that's worth considering, since we've been talking about telling marginalized stories. Does it really "count" if the marginalized story in question has been absorbed and transmuted into a middlebrow multiplex film, and denuded of its political and social bite? I'm bearish on Love, Simon mostly because it's a banal, tastefully chaste teen romance that seems to think the hero's sexual identity lends the film a personality. It's bland as hell, and the fact that Simon is a wealthy white kid – one with no real problems other than the closet he's been living in – left a bad taste in my mouth for some reason. There was some mild debate last year about whether Call Me by Your Name was "sufficiently queer" but here's an instructive example of just how bad it can get: Love, Simon has been utterly dehydrated of its queerness. Still, some might contend that bland mainstream films about gay people are a sign that a gay identity is no longer controversial; that fact that queerness has been bloodlessly subsumed into the Hollywood machine is a sign that LGBTQ folks have finally "arrived". (Or, at least, handsome gay white men have arrived.) I'm conflicted about it myself, but it's the kind of issue where I'm inclined to defer to queer critics such as yourself.

The two high-profile gay conversion therapy dramas that came out this year – Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post – are much more in the "Who Is This For?" category for me. I'll allow that there may be group of politically liberal viewers who would endorse those films' broadly tolerant message and are also largely ignorant of what goes on in right-wing fundamentalist Christian circles, but that seems like a very niche audience. (And, personally, I would rather those people just watch a documentary like Jesus Camp or For the Bible Tells Me So.) I'm not sure that there's a point in raging against these kind of bloodless feel-good message pictures, though. They're a thing that's inevitably going to emerge as the small-c conservative wings of Hollywood and indie film-making awaken to the possibilities of niche markets and try to eke out a piece of an increasingly subdivided entertainment pie. But I don't think it's really a zero sum game, or at least not to the extent that the pessimists fear. Boy Erased exists, but so do defiantly weird and unabashedly queer films like one of your favorites from this year, The Wild Boys. The latter might not play at many Middle American arthouse venues, but the ever-burgeoning streaming landscape also means arthouse theatrical space is less important. I watched a lot of good films with same-day VOD releases this year, and not all of them were low-budget horror movies: A Ciambra, Golden Exits, Duck Butter, Revenge, Night Comes On, A Prayer Before Dawn, The Guilty, and one of of Josh's favs, Support the Girls. And that doesn't even include Netflix Originals! Another of Josh's 2018 favorites, Happy as Lazarro – a hypnotically strange film that I'm sure no one had a clue how to market – was on Netflix of all places. Orson Welles' last film was on Netflix! It's a weird time to be a cinephile.

As for Roma, I think this is just one of those "agree to disagree" situations, where we see different things when we look at the same work. In fact, one of the things that seduced me about the film is that its epic quality doesn't feel like a performative, strenuous thing, at least in my eyes. It feels elegant and alive, like the best of Fellini. And the politics, far from being paper-thin, feel sophisticated and even holistic in a rare way. In the light of day, weeks after I first saw it, some of the metaphors do seem a bit on the nose, I'll concede that. However, part of the reason the film is so engaging for me is that those metaphors don't scan as metaphors in the moment: I'm too swept up in the majesty and meanness of this world that Cuarón has conjured/created. It's not really the escapism of a fantasy, however, even though the film has the barest hints of a magical realism to it. It's Truth, if you'll permit the pretension, one that I think zeros in on the way that the political and the personal are often intertwined in the real world in such agonizing, confounding ways. I take Cuarón at his word that the film is, in part, a revisionist celebration-by-proxy of a marginalized woman who was important to him in his youth. However, I also don't care what the artist's stated intentions were in the final analysis, so whether he "succeeded" in that endeavor isn't really important to me.

And for what it's worth, I didn't find Cleo to be a cipher at all; she's the central character of the story after all, and Roma is, in part, a rumination on humanity's tendency to regard ourselves, as individuals, as the center of the universe. With Roma, I've been falling back on comparisons to the paintings of the Northern Renaissance masters, particularly Pieter Bruegel, who created these enormous, busy tableaus that somehow revolved aesthetically and thematically around a single, tiny figure. (Aside: If you haven't yet seen Lech Majewski's breathaking, borderline hallucinatory film about Bruegel, The Mill and the Cross, do so right now.) I think that's comparable to what Cuarón is doing here, giving us a glimpse of the world's enormity and complexity without losing sight of his subject. I've seen some criticism that Cleo's role is underwritten or Yalitza Aparicio's performance is somehow blank and underwhelming, and I just can't agree. Some of that may be plain old racial bias, but – to give my strawman critic the benefit of the doubt – I think some of it is simply that Cleo is a reserved character, partly by nature and partly due to race- and class-related dynamics. (I think we've seen enough upstairs-downstairs dramas over the decades to concede that domestic workers at times practice a "walk softly, watch carefully" way of navigating their world.) If anything, Cleo's reserved qualities make me appreciate Aparicio's performance even more: She's obliged to do a lot just with glances, grimaces, body language, and so forth.

And, yes, you are both monsters for not putting Roma on your lists.

JR: I thought I might have opened a modest can of worms here, but it looks like everyone's willing to concede that we're owning our individual experiences. I had a friend tell me last weekend that he thought If Beale Street Could Talk was "boring." My gut reaction was to say, "You're boring," but I withheld and asked more probing questions since the "boring" tag is itself the probably the most boring reaction anyone could have to any film. It turned out to just be a difference in taste, experience, and perspective. Cait, you nailed my experience with Roma with your take – and people say Wes Anderson makes dioramas as movies. Some critics have compared Cuarón's new film to Fellini – , specifically – but for me, it was missing the music of the Italian master's symphony of light, performance, cutting, and movement. It felt like watching a camera recording the making of a late Fellini film. But, Andrew, you've made me yearn to see it a second time to discover its intricacies you (and just about everyone else who sees it) are so high on.

Love, Simon brings me to things I'm actually angry about. As I'm writing this, the Oscar nominations have been announced, and as many predicted, cultural dumpster fires Green Book, Vice, and Bohemian Rhapsody have scored many nominations including Best Picture nods. It's clear large swaths of people were having a very different time at the movies in 2018 than we did. I don't want to get into the validity of the Oscars as purveyors of Great Cinema, their cultural import, and how they rarely reflect back the culture at large in Academy membership and their eventual awards. However, with the three aforementioned films and their subsequent nods, it seems the industry is keen to pat themselves on the back for their 'white wokeness." I bring Love, Simon into this because all four of these films fit into a system of positive white liberal reinforcement to which Cait eluded: films with a veneer of progressiveness made by old white guys, films that are meant to be inclusive but end up showing their makers' hands as ignorant about others' experience. Bohemian Rhapsody glosses over Freddy Mercury's queerness with the kind of depiction of queer life out of the worst of old Hollywood – cruising never looked so boring! Vice is an unfunny, obvious, and self-congratulatory satire about the Bush administration's puppet master that proposes to be a warning about contemporaneous issues about men and power. (You're years too late and several dollars short, Adam McKay.) And Love, Simon and Green Book both have an issue with perspective, with the latter using a racist's awakening to the plight of the black American's struggles as a depiction of those struggles. I want an honest film about Dr. Don Shirley's (a fine Mahershala Ali, here) journey through Jim Crow South that doesn't root itself in way-past-their-prime racial and cultural stereotypes (Viggo Mortensen folds an entire pizza in half and eats it like a sandwich – did you know his character is Italian?) and ahistoric portrayals of acceptance that work as a backdoor to reward the audience for "how far we've come."

However, as we wrap up our year-end coverage, I don't want to waste words on the bad of 2018 and would like to focus on the good. There are moments, performances, and ideas from 2018 that I'm taking with me into 2019 and beyond. Like Andrew mentioned, I'm grateful for the access streaming services afforded its members to films like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Happy as Lazzaro, The Other Side of the Wind, and, yes, Roma, too, and that people still turned up at the movie theater for riskier and/or original fare like A Quiet Place, BlacKkKlansman, and Crazy Rich Asians. On top of that, and to toot our own horn, SLIFF had a banner line-up this year – a great challenge for the crew to make 2019 even better, along with a recent nod from USA Today proclaiming it one of the ten best film fests in the United States. On the other hand, a film almost no one turned out for, Suspiria, had one of the best and surprising laughs of the year with Madame Blanc's (one of three Tilda Swintons) head hanging by a thread – an apt encapsulation of the mood of 2018. To counter that, I'd like to leave on the image of Regina Hall, Shayna "Junglepussy" McHayle, and Haley Lu Richardson yelling from their rooftop to all the girls that, "It's going to be okay!" What are you two choosing to bring with you into 2019?

CL: Josh, you’re right, this year’s Oscars nominations are so disheartening. I’d go on record saying that it’s the worst batch of nominations in recent memory. That being said, every year’s nominations leave me feeling like Peter Bradshaw when reading Richard Brody. Do you remember what he said in 2009 about Brody’s best-of-the-decade list? Bradshaw was so confounded by Brody’s selection that he felt the urge to run home and "sit at the kitchen table with the lights switched off and a bag of frozen peas pressed to my forehead."  Yeah… I know that feeling well, Mr. Bradshaw. All thanks to the Academy, I’m afraid.

What, exactly, am I taking into 2019? You’ve asked another question that’s not easy to answer, Josh. I, unfortunately, don’t know. Perhaps this is my Frozen Bag of Peas year. What concerns me here is that I’m about to hit five years in the movie-critic game, and yet I end 2018 feeling more clueless about the film medium – what it’s for and what I ask of it – than when I started years ago. You’d think that this milestone would grant me some perspective but, no, it hasn’t: I’m too busy sitting in the dark with that bag of peas on my head grumbling to no one about the state of multiplexes today, what I feel they’ve mined from various demographics, desperate for representation. This applies to Netflix too, if I’m being honest, and in more insidious ways. Analytics replacing test audiences, and human intuition is perhaps the biggest hit to the silver screen’s integrity this side of 2000. But as you both point out, Netflix has done us a lot of good – it’s a mixed bag with them, I guess. I should probably stop myself here, or I’ll end up getting on my Stranger Things soapbox. That TV-series showed me what it might feel like to get one of those uninvolved, bizarrely clinical letters from Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Her. Yikes.

Changing gears here, if only slightly, I’d like to point out that this past year is, perhaps, the weakest since I started reviewing in 2015. There’s not one film on my Best Of list that I feel the urge to return to right away and, as I said a few moments ago, the Oscar nominations are awful. I’m not entirely sure why this past year left so much to be desired but it might come down to bad luck. A lot of the films I was most excited about didn’t hit St. Louis screens until January 2019. Thanks to the Webster Film Series, I was able to catch two of those films recently: Burning and Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Each of which would have earned a top spot in my 2018 list, had I been able to see them in time.

I stand by my praise of Bisbee ‘17, but I think that Burning may be the best film of 2018. This is Lee Chang-dong’s, what, third masterpiece in a row now? As far as I’m concerned, Secret Sunshine is one of the very best films of the previous decade. (If you were to press me to make a Top Ten of last decade, it’d probably come in at the tail end of those rankings, honestly.) Yet here I am now, telling you that Burning is 2018’s greatest film and Lee Chang-dong’s best-to-date. Think Last Year at Marienbad by way of Rebels of the Neon God, and you’re getting close. There’s so many routes one can take to get to the film’s center, but no clear answers. And I think it beats out The Favourite, as far as the performances are concerned. All three young actors are working with the most difficult material; there's no fixed definition of what motivates Burning's lead actors, after all. (If you don’t believe me, then go read some reviews. Each critic seems to define these characters a little differently. There are no answers in Burning, friends.)  It seems that Steven Yeun’s performance is the most roundly praised. My favorite of the three, however, is Ah-in Yoo. No one has moved so slowly and with such a strange swagger since Lee Kang-sheng!

One last thing, before I had things off to Andrew: I can’t have this conversation without stressing my undying belief in the transformative power of cinema, it’s ability to bring us new ways of seeing, ways of being, ways of knowing ourselves. I am of the opinion that no other medium comes close to film, in this particular way at least. And I think the most significant transformations happen in the multiplexes. As much as I love art cinema, those films tend to just speak to me and those who think like me. Do you know what I mean? It can only reach a particular type of filmgoer. I’ve always had wild tastes. My favorite films tend to blur the lines between art cinema and genre films; I think that my Best Of list makes this obvious. But I have yet to see an art film change audiences in as big of a way as Brokeback Mountain did. And where did that one play? Multiplexes. That is to say, if you want to change the world be a pop musician, not a poet; I truly believe that.

AW: At this point, it probably borders on tiresome to grouse about Brokeback Mountain losing Best Picture to Crash in 2005, but I think that evergreen complaint ties together two strands you touch on, Cate: 1) The perennial, somewhat masochistic disillusionment that film critics experience vis-a-vis the Academy Award nominations and winners; and 2) the increasingly fuzzy dichotomy between multiplex and arthouse fare. More trenchant critics than I have pointed out that arthouse films of the late 2010s look a lot like small- to mid-budget "dramas for adults" that were once a staple of multiplexes, the reliable counter-programming to family and genre films. I think that Brokeback, while a modest mainstream success in 2005, is the sort of film that would play exclusively in arthouse venues in 2019. The landscape has changed dramatically in just 10 or 15 years, partly due to the superhero/franchise takeover of the big studios' release schedule, and partly due to other financial and cultural disruptions. By the way, if you guys haven't read Ben Fritz's The Big Picture from last year, I very much recommend it: Using the Sony email hack as a jumping-off point, Wall Street Journal reporter Fritz sketches a concise, cogent picture of the current state of Hollywood, and how exactly we got here. It's a bit inside baseball, but very valuable context for those of us who tend to be focused on the art rather than business side of things.

Our email discussion has dragged on for a few weeks now, but one of the advantages to taking our time to chew over these issues is that it gives us a chance to catch up on films like Burning – and for ongoing developments like the Oscar nominations to send the conversation pinballing off in interesting directions. Again, it's hardly novel that we, a bunch of self-acknowledged snobby film critics, take issue with the Academy nominations. There's nothing more reliable than critics griping about the Academy's pedestrian tastes, except perhaps for the studios and the public griping about critics being out-of-touch elites. I'm admittedly pretty disappointed in the Best Picture nominees myself, although more than anything that's due to the crummy bottom tier – Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, and Vice. I have a hard time attaching a "worst in years" label to any crop that includes Roma and The Favourite. Some of my complaints about the Oscars are of the "What did you expect?" variety. Of course, Shirkers and Spider-Verse didn't score Best Picture noms. Documentaries and animated features are effectively disqualified by virtue of being shunted to their own categories, the odd Beauty and the Beast breakout every decade or so excepted. Of course Hereditary is nowhere to be found, in either the Best Picture or Best Actress categories. Get Out was a rare exception to the Academy's anti-horror bias, not a sea change. Capernaum and Never Look Away in Foreign Language look like glaring misteps when Zama is absent. Where is Eighth Grade or Leave No Trace or You Were Never Really Here? Where is Ethan Hawke? Where is Stephen Yeung?  (Still my fav performance in Burning, with all apologies, Cate. The way Yeung plays his character as an inscrutable hybrid of Jake Gatsby and Patrick Bateman, but completely unshowy, is just stunning to me.)

I also have some more eccentric complaints. (How the hell did Camille Friend's amazing hair designs for Black Panther get overlooked? I'm not one to throw accusations of racial bias around lightly, but... yeah.) All that said, I try to look for the positives every year as well. Yalitza Aparicio in Roma might be unsurprising, but it's enthralling to see an indigenous performer get a lead acting nomination for a foreign-language film. Indeed, Roma and Cold War both received a lot of love outside the Foreign Language gulag, which is heartening. Hale County, Minding the Gap, and Of Fathers and Sons all nabbing Best Documentary nominations is sort of crazy. The two primary Best Score contenders are both from unabashedly black films, and either one would be a well-deserved winner. It seems unlikely, but I would love to see Willlem Dafoe walk away with an Oscar for At Eternity's Gate, partly because he's been overlooked for so long, partly because the role is one that plays to his quintessential strengths, and partly because he really is that good in it.

For what it's worth, I'm slightly less entranced with Burning than you guys, but it would likely have nudged another film or two out of my Top 20 if I had had a chance to see it before we compiled our lists. There weren't any other top-shelf 2018 latecomers that I caught up with in January, although I did sneak in some gratifyingly weird and intriguing features into my tardy viewing, including The Endless, Have a Nice Day, Let the Corpses Tan, and November.

It's easy to be negative about the state of cinema in 2018, I suppose. Of the top 20 box office performers last year, 17 were studio franchise films or some sort or another. (The exceptions? A surprisingly good horror one-shot [A Quiet Place]; a culturally momentous but by-the-numbers romcom [Crazy Rich Asians]; and, er.... Bohemian Rhapsody.) More than ever, originality and risk-taking are anathema to Hollywood. Still, I try to look for the bright spots: The fact that the franchise juggernaut still gave us pop near-masterpieces like M:I - Fallout and Spider-Verse is heartening, and suggests that blockbuster filmmaking's parameters are loose enough to accommodate balls-out ambition and auteurist weirdness. (Let's call it the Mad Max: Fury Road factor...) I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Chloe Zhao is going from The Rider to Marvel's The Eternals. Assuming the franchise dominance at the multiplex doesn't crash and burn in the next couple of years, it may be that shared cinematic universes become a place not just for for Soderbergh-style dues-paying – wherein filmmakers alternate "one for the suits" projects with more idiosyncratic fare – but for auteurs to flex their creativity on the studio dime. As someone snarked on Twitter last year, Disney's commercial and cultural ubiquity allows for the eventual possibility of the $15 million "indie" Stars Wars feature, which means that we might someday get truly offbeat stuff like, say, a Kelly Riechardt film about Obi-Wan Kenobi just wandering around in the desert for a decade, or a Bong Joon-Ho political satire about the travails of inter-galactic garbage-pickers. I'd pay to see that, as they say.

And outside the multiplex, I think there's still plenty of reason to be enthused about film and its power to tell profound, poignant, and groundbreaking stories. New features are coming from the aforementioned Bong Joon-ho, Hirokazu Kore-eda (again!), Claire Denis (again!), Richard Linklater, Roy Andersson, Jennifer Kent, Steven Soderbergh, Abel Ferrera, Xavier Dolan, the Dardennes, Robert Eggers, Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, the Safdies, David Robert Mitchell, Mia Hansen-Løve, Pedro Costa, James Gray, Quentin Tarantino, Ang Lee, and Harmony Korine. Paul Verhoeven has some sort of nunsploitation madness on the horizon that looks like the lesbian sister to Ken Russel's The Devils.  We're getting a new Martin Scorsese film – on Netflix! Again, as easy as it is to be a pessimist, it remains a fruitful and weird time to be a cinephile. As long as people in different markets and with different levels of means and access have the ability to see innovative films – multiplex, arthouse, festival, rental, streaming, or whatever - I think that the future of cinema is always going to be consistently exciting.

Tags: Year in Review Cait Lore Joshua Ray Andrew Wyatt