A still from 'Glass'.
January 17, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Half Empty

2019 / USA / 129 min. / Dir. by M. Night Shyamalan / Opens in wide release on Jan. 18, 2019

There is no pleasure in reporting that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass is the low point in the filmmaker’s three-feature “realistic superheroes” cycle. The first film in this chronologically lopsided trilogy, 2000’s Unbreakable, remains Shyamalan’s best feature to date: a gorgeous, quietly marvelous rendition of superhero archetypes and narrative arcs within a small-bore, grounded context. (Compared to that film, Christopher Nolan’s Batman features look as bloated and outlandish as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.) Pivoting off the renewed success he found with his found-footage Grimm brothers riff The Visit (2015), Shyamalan pulled off an impressive fake-out with Split (2016), revealing at the literal last second that his horror tale about a serial killer with 23 warring personalities was also a stealth sequel to Unbreakable. Two years later, Glass re-unites the previous films’ extraordinary characters – invulnerable strongman David Dunn (Bruce Willis), post-human cannibal Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), and diabolical mastermind Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson) – for an ambitious swan song.

The result is a bit of a hot mess, a confounding jumble of euphoria, ingenuity, tedium, kitsch, and inanity that has become something of Shyamalan’s calling card – more so than the twist endings the director was known for once upon on a time. It’s exactly the sort of film that is likely to inspire scathing indictments in most quarters, but also a small, passionate cadre of cult admirers. Perhaps inevitably for the climactic chapter in a nominal superhero series, the filmmaker goes all-in on the pulpy silliness that was Split’s least appealing aspect, and similarly embraces Unbreakable’s cutesy meta-awareness of comic-book logic, to an irritating extent. And yet Glass, for all its stumbles, still illustrates why Shyamalan is an intriguing genre filmmaker: His stories might be replete with supernatural and science-fiction weirdness, but they are always earnest, human-centered stories with an almost quaint belief in the power of hope and connectedness. Occasionally that impulse leads to an unqualified gem (Unbreakable), sometimes to an unsettling vision (The Village, Split), and sometimes to a baffling cinematic train wreck (Lady in the Water, The Happening). Glass is more of a mixed bag: compelling when it’s good, but numbing and absurd when it’s bad.

The film picks up, somewhat unexpectedly, just three weeks after the events of Split: Kevin Crumb, a monstrous but pitiable man with dissociative identity disorder (DID) is still at large and has been subjecting Philadelphia to a reign of terror. He has abducted not one but two additional groups of teenage girls since viewers last saw him, murdering and devouring the first set and presently prepping the second set – four high-school cheerleaders, pleated skirts and all – for the same fate. Or, to be perfectly accurate, the “Horde” has committed these crimes, not Kevin Crumb. As seen in Split, three of Kevin’s personalities (or alters) have joined forces and seized control of his body, all to glorify the hidden 24th alter that has recently emerged: the Beast, a bloodthirsty entity blessed with superhuman strength, agility, and toughness. Disturbingly, the Horde – supercilious Miss Patricia, OCD-afflicted creep Dennis, and guileless 9-year-old Hedwig – has begun to win over other, previously recalcitrant alters to their twisted views. (One of Glass’ more successful and unsettling touches is the queasy spectacle of the alters gradually falling one by one to the zealotry of this doomsday cult that exists entirely in Kevin’s head.)

Fortunately for the good people of Philadelphia, David Dunn is on the case. Now in his 60s, but evidently still as strong and unbreakable as ever, David owns a small home-security business with his adult son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, reprising his role from 19 years prior). This endeavor is largely just a front for David’s ongoing superheroics, which apparently involve delivering vigilante beatdowns to any violent criminals he stumbles across in his nocturnal “rounds” of the city. The recent appearance of the Horde has freshly focused David’s attention, and with remote, digital-savvy support from Joseph – who acts something like the Oracle to David’s Batman – he is zeroing in on Kevin’s lair, concealed somewhere in a decaying industrial district.

This is plainly the stuff of a standard hero-vs.-villain comic-book story, filtered – as in Unbreakable and Split – through the lens of a quasi-realistic setting. (All of Shyamalan’s features take place in what might be called “Weird Pennsylvania,” which is not so much a cinematic universe as a shared strain of pulpy uncanniness combined with a native’s detail-oriented affection for the Keystone State.) Glass upends the expectations engendered by this setup relatively quickly, however: Both David and Kevin are captured by the authorities during their first face-to-face confrontation and swiftly committed to a state psychiatric hospital under the care of an outside consultant, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). She specializes in the treatment of superhero delusions, and – besides designing the custom cells that control David and Kevin by exploiting their weaknesses – she makes it her mission to cure them of their mental disorders or at least abandon the belief that they possess supernatural abilities.

That same hospital, not incidentally, also houses Elijah Price, the brittle-boned, comics-obsessed terrorist mastermind who “discovered” David by crashing airplanes, burning down hotels, and derailing trains until he found a singular individual who could not be physically harmed. Confined to a wheelchair and semi-catatonic thanks to perpetual sedation, Elijah doesn’t seem like much of a threat anymore, but, of course, there’s always been more to him than meets the eye. What’s less clear is why Dr. Staple has insisted on housing all three of these dangerous individuals in adjacent rooms at the same hospital. Or, for that matter, why her treatment technique involves group-therapy sessions wherein she badgers David and Kevin with mundane explanations for their abilities while Elijah just sits there, drooling.

Some of this makes more sense as the film’s revelations gradually come to light, and some of it doesn’t. As is often the case with Shyamalan’s films, the director at times seems to stage scenes primarily for their visual impact, story and logic be damned. In what is arguably the most successful expression of this compulsion, the therapy sessions take place in an enormous, abandoned ward that has been painted pink from floor to ceiling, with Dr. Staple and her patients seated (for some reason) at the far end of the room and rows of orderlies standing at attention along the walls. It’s utterly preposterous, but also wonderfully, memorably weird in the way that genre films should be. Overall, Glass could use a lot more of this weirdness, as it helps distract from the film’s clunky screenplay, narrative shagginess, and maddening insistence on spelling out every thematic beat, just in case the viewers in the nosebleed seats didn’t catch it.

The foremost problem here is one that previously reared its head in Unbreakable whenever Elijah started monologuing about the mythic resonance of superhero comics. (Yes, yes, the modern successor to Greek myths; it’s no longer a radical thesis.) Or in Split whenever Kevin’s late psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), waxed poetically and pseudo-scientifically about the latent, evolutionary potential of DID-afflicted individuals. Namely, Shyamalan’s screenplay gets less compelling – and, frankly, dumber – when his characters start proclaiming themes or when the subtext becomes text. The occult and sci-fi concepts that undergird his stories can be quite potent when left to simmer, but they just sound ridiculous when flesh-and-blood people start articulating them.

Glass commits this sin over and over, and never more annoyingly than when Elijah actually starts narrating the film’s action with purple comic-book prose. It’s a gesture whose insufferableness lies somewhere between Scream’s smug self-awareness of slasher tropes and a Reddit post listing 19 reasons why the Sonic the Hedgehog games are totally structured according to the Hero’s Journey. This is one reason that the series’ most fascinating cranny is the bizarre inter-alter “society” that resides in Kevin’s brain: Shyamalan’s writing underplays it, never calling attention to how peculiar and mind-boggling it truly is and never visualizing it with special-effects gimmicks.

Glass’ other conspicuous flaw is one of sheer directorial indulgence: There is absolutely no reason this film needed to be 129 minutes long. Unlike some features with unnecessarily swollen running times, this has less to do with superfluous scenes than with scenes dragging on for far too long. Characters repeat themselves, obvious facts are pronounced aloud, and thriller set-pieces grind away while bystanders gawk emphatically in endless reaction shots. Shyamalan rarely manages to capture the sense of wonder and terror that characterized Unbreakable and Split (respectively), and much of that failure is entwined with his unwillingness or inability to tighten the whole damn thing up. Once David and Kevin are locked away under Dr. Staple’s watchful eye, the film loses much of its momentum. Glass struggles to find it again, even as the clock ticks towards a three-day deadline that’s never adequately explained and West Dylan Thordson’s jittery score insists that something is at stake.

These problems drag down what is otherwise a serviceable and at times genuinely startling conclusion to the story that began with Unbreakable. There remains a strong streak of humanism in the feature’s core, even when the director’s undisciplined inclinations are otherwise getting the better of him. Pointedly, each of the nascent superheroes/villains has a corresponding “normal” person who is concerned for their well-being. David has Joseph; Kevin has Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the girl who escaped the Beast and is convinced she can reach the man’s original, sublimated identity; and Elijah has his elderly mother (Charlayne Woodard), who can’t deny that she still loves her boy, his mass-murdering ways notwithstanding. (Shades of We Need to Talk About Kevin there.) Of course, Shyamalan often doesn’t know what to do with these characters, other than have them show up at the hospital now and then to half-heartedly push back against Dr. Staple’s rationalist theories. Casey spends a curious amount of time paging through superhero comics, as if there were some solution to Kevin’s tribulations hidden somewhere in this esoteric medium that she has just discovered. (Glass is weirdly inconsistent on the matter of comic books themselves: They are either an arcane, niche subculture that is completely unfamiliar to most people or a cynical corporate product that is ubiquitous in our late-stage capitalist reality.)

For much of the film, Elijah is more of a prop than a character. He simply stares out at the world blankly through a pharmaceutical haze, his head lolling to the side. (Thereby imparting a Dutch tilt to his point-of-view shots; a touch that harmonizes with Unbreakable’s assertion that comic villains see the world through a slightly skewed perspective.) It’s a strange way to treat the film’s titular character, but that title is, of course, the tell that Mr. Glass is not to be underestimated. Elijah is Up to Something, although the full extent of his scheme is not apparent until several plot swerves have revealed themselves. One of those twists – a hackneyed attempt to retroactively connect the events of the preceding two films – invites eye-rolling. What's more, Shyamalan succumbs to a disheartening world-building impulse late in the third act, tacking on the sort of ridiculous shadow history that’s a better fit for the John Wick films. There are, however, some authentic narrative surprises, most of them involving the filmmaker’s gratifyingly subversive fondness for setting up expectations and then yanking them away at the last minute.

Ultimately, Glass lives and dies by the viewer’s interest in seeing how the story of Unbreakable and Split concludes. Those who were already lukewarm on the previous two films have little reason to endure the new feature’s missteps. For filmgoers who were swept up in the stirring spirit of David Dunn’s origin story or who trembled at Kevin Crumb’s B-movie madness and mutations, the new film’s earnest pathos and sheer conceptual novelty are likely worth the toll of some middling-to-bad Shyamalan dialogue and pacing. For all of Glass’ pitfalls, it’s still an intriguing experiment, a sincere effort to think lucidly about the parameters of a genre that – in the nearly two decades since Unbreakable – has been subsumed by slick blockbuster breeziness. Shyamalan’s triptych is not a faintly contemptuous deconstruction of superhero conventions in the manner of, say, Watchmen. However, it shares with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ revolutionary comic an interest in how such Olympians individuals might function in the real world, where heroes die every day and stay dead, forever.

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The House That Jack Built'.
January 4, 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.

You Might Be the Killer

2018 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. by Brett Simmons / Premiered online on Dec. 4, 2018

You Might Be the Killer begins in media res: Covered in blood and fleeing a knife-wielding masked maniac, nebbishy summer-camp manager Sam (Fran Kranz) rings his friend Chuck (Alyson Hannigan) on his smartphone. She – being a horror-film geek – gamely attempts to help extricate Sam from his trope-laden slasher-flick situation, but by the film’s 15-minute mark, she’s already sheepishly suggested the titular hypothetical. Director Brett Simmons unleashes the film’s pre-spoiled twist so early, the viewer naturally expects another shoe to drop. Sadly, the feature doesn’t have much up its sleeve other than low-budget gore, pointless structural zig-zagging, and trite, overwritten cleverness. Franz channels a bug-eyed Bruce Campbell in Sam’s struggle against the story’s ancient evil, but the sneaky stoner pathos he brought to The Cabin in the Woods (2011) was a better fit for the actor. The comparison evoked by his presence is unfortunate: Killer is an amusing but disposable feature-length joke, rather than a brilliant meta-textual mind-screw.  Rating: C [Now available to stream on Shudder and to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Into the Dark: Pooka!

2018 / USA / 83 min. / Dir. by Nacho Vigalondo / Premiered online on Dec. 7, 2018

Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes; Colossal) is known for stories in which identities (and sometimes entire people) fragment and metamorphose, Jekyll-and-Hyde-style. That theme is perhaps most explicit in Pooka!, the director’s entry in Hulu’s anthology of original horror films, Into the Dark. Struggling actor Wilson (Nyasha Hetendi) reluctantly accepts a gig capering around in a furry costume as Pooka, the year’s hottest Christmas toy. Before long, the Pooka persona – an off-putting hobgoblin that oscillates erratically between cutesy and homicidal – begins to take control of Wilson’s life. Vigalondo is cagy regarding the Pooka’s real nature. Is it a delusion? Magical curse? Opportune excuse for Wilson’s nastier impulses? This ambiguity unfortunately means that the film spins its wheels on lots of trite dual-personality mischief without any real payoff. While Pooka! is the most gratifyingly weird film in Hulu’s series to date, it’s still a chintzy, half-baked horror effort, where neither the ideas nor the execution justify the feature-length running time. Rating: C- [Now available to stream exclusively on Hulu.]

Christmas Presence

2018 / UK / 85 min. / Dir. by James Edward Cook / Premiered online on Dec. 13, 2018

The prelude to Christmas Presence – titled Why Hide? in its native UK – teases a straightforward Insidious-style ghost story, but most of the feature feels like a banal and unpleasantly sour indie drama about Britain Today. Six mismatched acquaintances gather over the holidays at a posh but remote country house, where they get roaringly drunk and snipe at each other’s politics, careers, and lifestyles. For a long time, the creepy stuff is relegated to stray twitching shadows, before it suddenly ramps up with a vengeance. This kind of slow-burn, single-location chiller can theoretically be effective, even on a modest budget, but the screenplay for Christmas Presence has absolutely no clue where to focus the viewer’s attention. Accordingly, what should have been a relatively simple story ends up feeling needlessly complex: a meandering confusion of lazy character archetypes and shrill interpersonal melodrama that is only fitfully interested in ripping off Stephen King’s ItRating: C- [Now available to stream on Shudder.]

The House That Jack Built

2018 / Denmark / 152 min. / Dir. by Lars von Trier / Premiered in select cities and online on Dec. 14, 2018

The House That Jack Built is, remarkably enough, Lars von Trier’s first overt foray into that evergreen art-horror subject, the serial killer. Much as the provocative Danish director’s minimalist Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005) comprise a matched set, Jack quite deliberately mirrors the filmmaker’s masterful erotic epic Nyphomaniac (2013). Like that film, von Trier’s latest is an episodic thing, built on the scaffolding of a confessional conversation: Here, an unseen, dyspeptic companion (Bruno Ganz) listens to the self-flattering ramblings of the titular Jack (Matt Dillon), an architect who has murdered dozens of victims. Jack is too bluntly vicious, too thematically bleary, and – in its final stretch –  too damn weird to convert von Trier skeptics. At times, the film disappears so far up its own ass that it suggests self-parody. Still, there’s plenty to admire: clever deconstruction of serial-killer tropes; haunting, ghoulish tableaus; chthonic allusions to The Divine Comedy; and plenty of Nymphomanic’s dark cheekiness.  Rating: B [Now available to rent from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.)

Bird Box

2018 / USA / 124 min. / Dir. by Susanne Bier / Premiered online on Dec. 21, 2018

Bird Box has a killer cold open, in which Malorie (Sandra Bullock) lays out this sci-fi thriller’s conceit in curt, almost vicious commands to her 5-year-old charges, the nameless Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair). Rule No. 1: Don’t ever take off your blindfold, as the slightest glimpse of the mysterious entities lurking all around can drive people to suicidal madness. Unfortunately, what follows that prelude reveals Bird Box as a clunky, middling rehash of tired apocalyptic-fiction tropes. The film keeps flashing back to the direct aftermath of its unconventional Armageddon, which shatters the present-day story’s momentum while also underlining that the Living Dead drama of those past-set ensemble scenes is meaningless. (Clearly, only Malorie and the kids survived.) Perhaps the time-hopping and gimmicky creatures work better on the pages of John Malerman’s original novel, as even the estimable Danish director Susanne Bier has trouble wrangling the material’s wobbly components into a sturdy cinematic form. Rating: C [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

2018 / USA, UK / approx. 90 min. (varies) / Dir. by David Slade / Premiered online on Dec. 28, 2018

Bandersnatch isn’t just the first feature-length entry in Netflix’s bleak sci-fi anthology, Black Mirror. It’s also the streaming company’s first experiment with interactive fiction. Bandersnatch allows viewers to direct the trajectory of the story, which has numerous possible tangents and endings. Set in 1984, the film concerns programming prodigy Stefan (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead), who longs to design a cutting-edge, choose-your-path adventure for a trendy video-game company. Reality soon starts to unravel for Stefan, a disintegration signaled by the feature’s Lewis Carroll-derived title and articulated with a retro-futurist vibe that evokes John Carpenter, Alex Cox, and David Cronenberg. Although Bandersnatch never quite transcends its self-aware gimmick, writer/creator Charlie Brooker and director David Slade employ it for a darkly funny and authentically unsettling work of existential horror, one that both involves and implicates the viewer. (Or is it “controller” now?) The illusion of choice is a perennial sci-fi subject, but Netflix, in its self-reflexive way, finds a fresh means to explore it. Rating: B [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

Banner for Every Horror Films of 2018, Ranked
December 27, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Very, Very Good and the Horrid

Last year was an unusually strong one for the horror genre, in terms of both artistic merit and the broader pop-cultural context. (Any year in which a straight-no-chaser indie horror feature can run away with a $250 million box office and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar is momentous.) Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that 2018’s horror offerings would feel like a bit of a letdown, a return to the more typical distribution of quality, wherein a few dark jewels stand out in a sea of mediocrity and outright garbage.

Looking back over the smoking ruins of 2018 — both in the cinematic and real-world sense — some of the year’s best horror cinema seemed to be absorbed with doom: variations on the notion that an awful fate is (or at least seems) utterly inescapable and unalterable. Beyond that sensation of a cataclysm slouching its way forward, a potent atmosphere of pessimism and fatalism also ran through the horror of 2018. Looking back over films as diverse at Annihilation, Beast, Hereditary, The Little Stranger, Mandy, and Suspiria, one is inclined toward the kind of anguished Old Testament sentiment voiced by Job: The thing which I greatly feared has come upon me.

What follows is an all-inclusive assessment of this year’s theatrical horror features, ranked from worst to best. A feature film qualifies for this list if it had an Academy Award-qualifying theatrical opening in New York City or Los Angeles between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2018, and could be viewed theatrically by the ticketed general public in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

31. Slender Man

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Sylvain White / Opened in wide release on Aug. 10, 2018

It takes more than mere creative incompetence and a dearth of scares for a film to reach the nadir of these rankings. What makes Sylvain White’s jaw-droppingly terrible Slender Man the Worst Horror Film of 2018 is just how spectacularly incoherent it proves to be. The plot isn’t convoluted per se, but it is so ineptly conveyed that it becomes virtually impossible to parse. Forget apprehending what the titular bogeyman wants or what its powers are: It’s often challenging to puzzle out what the hell is even happening at any given moment. (White doesn’t deserve all of the blame here. The absence of the most promising tidbits from the film’s first trailer hints that studio monkeying is partly responsible.) That such baffling movie scrapple was crapped into multiplexes in the service of a hackneyed and forgettable teens-vs.-creepypasta story – rather than, say, some kind of misguided avant-garde experiment – is the ultimate insult

30. The Predator

2018 / USA / 107 min / Dir. by Shane Black / Opened in wide release on Sept. 14, 2018

The worst film Shane Black has ever made, by a depressingly enormous margin. In an attempt to pay homage to John McTiernan’s masterful and hyper-masculine 1987 original, The Predator takes a unceremonious dump all over its legacy. Embarrassingly terrible for a Hollywood franchise film.

29. The Meg

2018 / USA, China / 113 min. / Dir. by Jon Turteltaub / Opened in wide release on Aug. 10, 2018

Ever wondered what one of those crappy sci-fi horror “mockbusters” from The Asylum would look like if it was produced for $150 million? Director Jon Turteltaub made one. A film in which Jason Statham fights a 70-ft shark was always going to be stupid, but did it have to be this dull and disdainful of fun?

28. Winchester

2018 / Australia, USA / 99 min. / Dir. by Michael and Peter Spierig / Opened in wide release on Feb. 2, 2018

There’s a touch of daft ambition in the Spierig Brothers’ effort to weave an ahistorical ghost story and anti-gun morality tale (huh?) out of the real-world weirdness of the Winchester Mystery House. Of course, there’s also a touch of daft ambition in jumping headfirst off a cliff.

27. Venom

2018 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Ruben Fleischer / Opened in wide release on Oct. 5, 2018

Sony and Ruben Fleischer attempt to turn Spider-Man’s nastiest nemesis into the anti-hero in a stand-alone body-horror action blockbuster. Unfortunately, the weirder bits aren’t remotely weird enough to justify Venom’s moronic superhero monotony.

26. Assassination Nation

2018 / USA / 108 min. / Dir. by Sam Levinson / Opened in select cities on Sept. 21, 2018

What happens when a writer-director gets it in their head to modernize The Crucible as an unholy hybrid of CW teen kitsch, sub-Tarantino edginess, and The Purge franchise? Assassination Nation happens: a gory, pseudo-woke thriller than doesn’t have a politically or morally cogent thought in its pretty little head.

25. Insidious: The Last Key

2018 / USA / 103 min. / Dir. by Adam Robitel / Opened in wide release on Jan. 5, 2018

The kindest thing one can say about the fourth entry in the increasingly idea-starved Insidious franchise is that the producers remain admirably determined to center their horror series around an emotionally vulnerable septuagenarian heroine (Lin Shaye). Sadly, The Last Key is otherwise a tedious grab-bag of soulless haunted-house shocks.

24. Hell Fest

2018 / USA / 99 min. / Dir. by Gregory Plotkin / Opened in select cities on Sept. 28, 2018

Hell Fest is saddled with chintzy production values, an embarrassing script, and terrible performances. And yet there’s an elemental pleasure in watching an old-school slasher flick like this unspool with such guileless confidence, and without superfluous, franchise-minded world-building.

23. The Nun

2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Corin Hardy / Opened in wide release on Sept. 7, 2018

The Nun boasts some excellent, creepy production design that evokes the classic horror features of the 1930s and ’40s, but that’s about all Corin Hardy’s prequel-spinoff to The Conjuring has going for it. It’s the platonic ideal of the crappy multiplex horror release ca. 2018: all aimless, mechanical jump-scares, ineffectively shored up with muddled “mythology.”

22. Truth or Dare

2018 / USA / 100 min. / Dir. by Jeff Wadlow / Opened in wide release on April 13, 2018

A rather ridiculous attempt to turn a drinking game into a feature-length horror story turns out to be … not as dreadful as it could have been? Granted, Jeff Wadlow’s Truth or Dare is trash, but it’s intermittently entertaining trash that’s almost charmingly committed to its confused premise.

21. Anna and the Apocalypse

2017 / UK / 93 min. / Dir. by John McPhail / Opened in select U.S. cities on Nov. 30, 2018

John McPhail’s zombie Christmas musical splatter comedy is the inflection point in these rankings where the year’s horror features shift from bad to passable. There’s little in Anna and the Apocalypse that’s an outright misfire – excepting some of the later songs and a too-cartoonish antagonist – but it also feels like a complete waste of a promising genre mash-up.

20. The Possession of Hannah Grace

2018 / USA / 86 min. / Dir. by Diederik Van Rooijen / Opened in wide release on Nov. 30, 2018

Director Diederik Van Rooijen’s feature has a ruinously generic title, but while Hannah Grace is drearily beholden to demon-possession conventions, it’s also an odd departure from them. Beginning where such stories typically end, the film builds a kind of locked-room thriller around a late-night morgue attendant and a corpse infused with Satanic hoodoo. This glumly functional film is often stuck wandering in circles, but it’s also peculiar enough to leave an impression.

19. Bad Samaritan

2018 / USA / 110 min. / Dir. by Dean Devlin / Opened in select cities on May 4, 2018

Dean Devlin’s dunderheaded but modestly enjoyable serial-killer thriller has a few marks in its favor, principally Robert Sheehan, better than the film deserves as a petty thief who stumbles into the lair of a human monster. Given a bigger budget, a surer hand than Devlin, and a more ruthless commitment to its horror elements, Bad Samaritan might have emerged as halfway-decent art-horror trash.

18. The First Purge

2018 / USA / 98 min. / Dir. by Gerard McMurray / Opened in wide release on July 4, 2018

The Purge films have always been conceptually ludicrous, but with The First Purge, director Gerard McMurray at least manages to fashion the franchise’s latest chapter into grisly, semi-woke fun. The feature’s politics are only an inch deep, but at least they’re intelligible this time around, with McMurray fully committed to highlighting the plain but unfortunately relevant racial and class angles in the material.

17. Halloween

2018 / USA / 106 min. / Dir. by David Gordon Green / Opened in wide release on Oct. 19, 2018

The Predator might have been a complete boondoggle, but the sequel-slash-reboot to John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece was somehow the genre's bigger disappointment in 2018. The talent involved was promising – David Gordon Green directing! Jamie Lee Curtis returning! – but the resulting feature is little more than a slick, misguided Halloween fan film. At least Carpenter’s new score is aces.

16. Lizzie

2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. by Craig William Macneill / Opened in select cities on Sept. 14, 2018

To explore the why of Lizzie Borden’s real-world crimes, director Craig William Macneill adopts an approach halfway between psychological character study and revisionist feminist history. Unfortunately, Lizzie is neither insightful nor sharp-elbowed, just an atmospheric but turgid crime-horror flick that indulges in unnecessary structural shenanigans.

15. Overlord

2018 / USA, Canada / 110 min. / Dir. by Julius Avery / Opened in wide release on Nov. 9, 2018

One is reluctant to call Overlord a failure, given that it unequivocally delivers on its conceptual promise: a throwback World War II-era actioner that takes a hard left into the sci-fi horror of the Castle Wolfenstein video-game series. Perhaps it’s simply that when compared to amusing Nazisploitation kitsch such Dead Snow and Iron Sky, Overlord feels strangely prosaic and straitlaced.

14. Upgrade

2018 / Australia / 100 min. / Dir. by Leigh Whannell / Opened in wide release on June 1, 2018

Director Leigh Whannell reaches behind the couch and pulls out a VHS tape in a ragged cardboard sleeve dated 1993. Inside is Upgrade, a modestly entertaining blend of action, sci-fi, horror, and black comedy that feels like something from an earlier era of genre filmmaking. Predictable and ludicrous but oh-so-stylish, the film features Logan Marshall-Green showing off some truly bonkers physical acting.

13. The House with a Clock in Its Walls

2018 / USA /  105 min. / Dir. by Eli Roth / Opened in wide release on Sept. 21, 2018

The Good: A pleasant, throwback atmosphere of warmth tinged with danger; Jack Black and Cate Blanchett as quirky next-door frenemies; Eli Roth proving he can deliver a film that isn’t sophomorically provocative; Blanchett’s chic purple ensembles. The Bad: So mild and by-the-numbers it will probably vanish down the memory hole in a year.

12. Unfriended: Dark Web

2018 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. Stephen Susco / Opened in wide release on July 20, 2018

Director Stephen Susco preserves the MacBook-desktop formal conceit of Unfriended and throws out everything else, including the supernatural hook. Instead, Dark Web serves up an abrasive, ludicrous, and yet chilling update to thrillers like The Game and The Net – one suitable for an era in which kitchen appliances are WiFi-enabled and personal privacy has been quietly strangled in the alley.

11. Good Manners

2018 / Brazil / 135 min. / Dir. by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas / Opened in select U.S. cities on July 27, 2018

Perhaps not the Brazilian social-realist, urban-musical, lesbian-romance werewolf movie the world deserves, but the Brazilian social-realist, urban-musical, lesbian-romance werewolf movie the world needs right now.

10. Unsane

2018 / USA / Dir. by Steven Soderbergh / Opened in wide release on March 23, 2018

At first glance, Unsane resembles one of director Steven Soderbergh’s “for the suits” features. It Girl? Check: Claire Foy. Genre picture? Check: psychological horror. Zeitgeist relevance? Check: #MeToo angle. However, Soderbergh’s latest plays more like the chilly cynicism of Side Effects filtered through his experimental inclinations, resulting in a strange, skin-crawling entry in the ever-fecund subgenre where the protagonist may or may not be losing their mind.

9. The Little Stranger

2018 / UK / 111 min. / Dir. by Lenny Abrahamson / Opened in select U.S. cities on Aug. 31, 2018

While not an unqualified success, The Little Stranger represents one of 2018’s more impressive feats of cinematic adaptation. Director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Lucinda Coxon translate Sarah Waters’ unsettling, ambiguous Interwar novel into an equally unsettling, ambiguous film. Contrary to the feature’s marketing, it’s barely a horror picture at all, but so intensely Gothic that it almost drips with Midlands damp.

8. Strangers: Prey at Night

2018 / UK, USA / 85 min. / Dir. by Johannes Roberts / Opened in wide release on March 9, 2018

If there was one truly unexpected development in the horror landscape of 2018, it’s that the overrated 2008 home-invasion thriller The Strangers would receive a sequel that, in its best moments, attained a giallo-level aesthetic intensity. Prey at Night is mostly just a gratifying maniacs-vs.-family slasher picture. And then: Bonnie Taylor’s 1983 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” starts playing over the PA at a deserted swimming pool ...

7. Annihilation

2018 / UK, USA / 115 min. / Dir. by Alex Garland / Opened in wide release on Feb. 23, 2018

Alex Garland follows up his 2014 sci-fi masterwork Ex Machina with an ambitious and self-assured adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s enigmatic novel Annihilation. While at time straying into predictable creature-feature rhythms, Garland’s film is consistently bracing in terms of its formal artfulness. And by the third act, it turns seriously weird, radical, and mesmerizing.

6. Border

2018 / Sweden / 110 min. / Dir. by Ali Abbasi / Opened in select U.S. cities on Oct. 26, 2018

Between his twice-adapted vampire novel Let the Right One In and the screenplay for Border (reworked from his own short story), writer John Ajvide Lindqvist is well on his way to establishing a shared universe of dark European folklore reimagined for a modern world of loneliness and hidden depravity. Ali Abbasi’s unhurried and twisty supernatural thriller is the kind of cinematic curio that defies genre categorization, but it’s foremost a film that both revels in and humanizes the grotesque.

5. Suspiria

2018 / 152 min. / Italy, USA / Dir. by Luca Guadagnino / Opened in select U.S. cities on Oct. 26, 2018

All credit to Luca Guadagnino: Faced with the seemingly lose-lose challenge of remaking Dario Argento’s hallucinatory 1977 masterpiece Suspiria, the director essentially gave birth to its evil twin. Severe instead of florid and political instead of mythic, Guadagnino’s feature is a ferociously feminine invocation of all the unsettled horrors of the 20th century. It might be content to be thought-provoking rather than ground-breaking, but it’s also utterly horrific in bizarre, innovative ways.

4. Mandy

2018 / 121 min. / USA / Dir. by Panos Cosmatos / Opened in select U.S. cities on Sept. 14, 2018

It’s as though director Panos Cosmatos read a sniffy review that called his trippy but narcotic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow “weird” and thought, “You haven't seen weird yet ...” On paper, Cosmatos’ sophomore feature Mandy is a straightforward – if gory – revenge picture. In practice, it’s an utterly deranged descent into psychedelic Rule of Cool movie logic, the sort of film where a spot-on Nicolas Cage pauses in the middle of his rampage against demonic bikers and a messianic sex cult to forge a Klingon battle axe. Because why the hell not? The future stoner classic of 2018.

3. Beast

2017 / 107 min. / UK / Dir. by Michael Pearce / Opened in select U.S. cities on May 11, 2018

A genre purist would probably maintain that Beast is not really a horror picture, but director Michael Pearce’s deeply disturbing, astonishingly confident debut speaks for itself. Set on the wind-kissed Isle of Jersey, this tale of suffocating social isolation and wild-eyed paranoia is centered on the self-pitying Moll (Jessie Buckley). When she tumbles into a romance with a charismatic bloke who might be the island’s at-large serial killer, the question that vexes Moll isn’t so much whether he's guilty but, rather, whether his guilt even matters to her – and what does that say about her? In a just world, Buckley’s performance would be a star-making turn: It's a rare actor who can turn the “psycho eye-twitch” into an understated and authentically unnerving flourish.

2. A Quiet Place

2018 / 90 min. / USA / Dir. by John Krasinksi / Opened in wide release on April 6, 2018

For the horror aficionado, there’s a distinct pleasure in observing a mainstream audience connect with an standout entry in the genre, and that’s especially true of John Krasinki’s nerve-wracking creature-feature hit A Quiet Place. Conceptually irresistible yet narratively modest, Krasinki’s film sets itself apart from other multiplex fare through two small but brilliant gestures: brutally dispatching a seemingly untouchable character before the opening title even appears, and then cutting to black on a moment of absolute perfection, exactly at the 90-minute mark. In between those bookends, the director delivers one of the best family-in-peril thrillers of the past decade, built on little more than an elemental scenario, capable performers, and Krasinki’s own nimble, freshly energized instinct for cinematic storytelling.

1. Hereditary

2018 / 127 min. / USA / Dir. by Ari Aster / Opened in wide release on June 8, 2018

The word-of-mouth that followed director Ari Aster’s debut feature in the wake of its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January was the kind of hype that invites scoffs from jaded horror enthusiasts. (This generation’s The Exorcist! The scariest thing you’ve ever seen!) Such hyperbole is almost never justified in the harsh sunlight of a wide release. However, when it slithered into theaters this summer, Hereditary didn’t just claim the mantle of Best Horror Film of 2018 – it was revealed as one of the most terrifying and traumatizing films of the 21st century.

If, by chance, the reader has not yet submitted themselves to Aster’s blood-curdling vision, the less said about the film the better. Suffice to say that Hereditary may not be the best horror film since the turn of the millennium, but it’s almost certainly the one that leaves the deepest scars. The feature contains images that sear themselves into the viewer’s brain, providing an unfailing reserve of nightmare fuel for years to come. Such suffering is the toll one pays for Aster’s bleak yet deeply resonant observations regarding humanity’s enthrallment to irresistible forces: genetic sequences, parental abuses, and the whims of the unquiet dead.

Much of the credit for this darkling triumph naturally goes to Aster’s virtuosic direction, as well as Colin Stetson’s almost preternaturally upsetting avant-garde compositions – a contender for the best film score of the year in a field with some stiff competition. Nonetheless, what elevates Hereditary from chilly formal exercise into something profoundly, calamitously harrowing are its performances, including excellent turns from Gabriel Byrne, Anne Dowd, and Milly Shapiro. However, the film’s clear breakout star is Alex Wolff, whose portrayal of adolescent son Peter acutely conveys the boy’s crushing sense of guilt and his creeping awareness of an approaching doom.

That said, the center ring of Hereditary undeniably belongs to the incomparable Toni Collette, delivering a career-best turn that is (somehow) simultaneously an authentic, spellbinding, and comically unhinged performance. Decades from now, when the gatekeepers of the horror canon look back on 2018, it’s going to be challenging for them to choose just one of Collette’s numerous iconic moments in Hereditary to exemplify the film’s hellish intensity. Of course, there’s only one moment that they probably can pick, when all is said and done: Collette, bug-eyed, face contorted, mouth a yawning abyss of Saturnian fury, shrieking across the dinner table at her petrified son: I am your MOTHER!!!

Tags: Year in Review Andrew Wyatt

Banner graphic for the Best Films of 2018.
December 26, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Lens Critics Reveal Their Top 20 Lists for 2018

Although the calendar year is an admittedly arbitrary framework for the discussion of cinema, when the end of December approaches, even the most high-minded writer is usually compelled to look back on the past 12 months and catalog their favorite films. (List-making is fun, after all.) Accordingly, now that 2018 is drawing to a close, the Lens critics have labored on their own individual inventories of the best films released this year. Each contributing critic – Cait Lore, Joshua Ray, and Andrew Wyatt – has prepared a list of their top 20 films of 2018 and also offered some brief thoughts on their top 10 features. Next month, the critics will publish a roundtable discussion of the list, wherein they reflect on the year’s overall characteristics, enthuse over their shared favorite films, and knife-fight over their rabid disagreements.

For the purposes of this post, a “film of 2018” is a feature with an Academy Award-qualifying theatrical opening in New York City or Los Angeles between Jan. 31 and Dec. 31, 2018, or an exclusive online premiere during the same period.

Cait Lore

20. Minding the Gap

19. Support the Girls

18. Custody

17. Incredibles 2

16. Blockers

15. Madeline’s Madeline

14. Jeannette: The Story of Joan of Arc

13. Suspiria 

12. Thoroughbreds

11. You Were Never Really There

10. Beast

2018 / UK / 107 min. / Dir. by Michael Pearce / Opened in select cities on May 11, 2018 

Something sinister is stalking Jersey’s countryside. Who (or what) it is no one knows, but it seems to be tied to one small town’s bucolic landscapes. A serial killer lurks in the forests, murdering little girls and filling their mouths with dirt. Moll (Jessie Buckley) thinks it could be her impossibly hot boyfriend (a note-perfect Johnny Flynn). But does she even care? Beast walks a fine line between high- and low-art filmmaking, evoking some of the best of 1970s genre cinema. An ambitious debut featuring a breakout performance from Buckley, Beast is a post-pastoral horror film for Brexit-era Britain.

9. Hereditary

2018 / USA / 127 min. / Dir. by Ari Aster / Opened in wide release on June 8, 2018

In Ari Aster’s Hereditary, there’s a suspicious lack of anyone — doctors, police, detectives — that could possibly save Annie and her family from their themselves. Aster seems to assert that madness is a birthright, one with an ironclad grip. Sitting comfortably next to films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, horror is in Hereditary’s DNA. That being said, at times Hereditary seems like an accidental horror film. Aster’s feature, with table-talk scenes capable of shattering nerves, seems most interested in aligning itself with the films of Ingmar Bergman. It’s the things that can’t be unsaid, such as the scornful invective Toni Collette’s Annie directs at her son, that haunt every frame of Aster’s debut feature.    

8. We the Animals

2018 / USA / 94 min. / Dir. by Jeremiah Zagar / Opened in select cities on Aug. 17, 2018 

Favoring impressionistic storytelling technique and voice-over narration, We the Animals brings viewers unbearably close to its lead protagonist. Noah, nearly 10 years old, feels as if his life is closing in on him. It has a destabilizing effect on the boy, and so he turns to art projects to try and document the changes happening around him. The film, at its best, explores the early pangs of queer desire with quiet courage. These scenes, in which Noah is left awestruck by his sexual stirrings, are as disquieting as they are rapturous. 

7. The Wild Boys

2018 / France / 110 min. / Dir. by Bertrand Mandico / Opened in select cities on Aug. 24, 2018

Heaven-sent for the world’s tender perverts, The Wild Boys plays like Lord of the Flies by way of James Bidgood. The viewer watches naturalism collapse in on itself, giving way to lurid technicolor in Bertrand Mandico’s erotic odyssey. In a time when Hollywood, now abruptly queer-conscious, has found a way to appropriate queer stories into humdrum morality plays, a voice like Mandico’s is desperately needed. Perhaps the only film that can clear a room quicker than Suspiria, Mandico’s debut functions as a hyper-erotic critique of biological determinism. It also has dick-fountains. God bless this film’s filthy little heart!  

6. The Favourite

2018 / UK / 121 min. / Dir. by Yorgos Lanthimos / Opened in select cities on Nov. 23, 2018

Starting with The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos has now made his last three features with Film4, a UK production company known for kitchen-sink-style pictures. While Lanthimos continues to be one of the most reliable filmmakers working today, his last two features raise some alarm bells for hardcore fans of the Greek Weird Wave enfant terrible. The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer are, after all, almost “normal” movies, by Dogtooth standards. With that in mind, it is a great relief to see a film like The Favourite come from Lanthimos and Film4’s partnership. Based on the real-life romances of Queen Anne, this is a biopic with one eye on the present. It feels like a story that only Lanthimos could tell, and one that seems to open up new routes for the director’s audacious approach to narrative and world-building. Few things in this rotten world ever really change, says The Favourite, least of all the petty games of the ruling class. And, for what it’s worth, watching Olivia Coleman eat cake, vomit, and then eat more cake, only to vomit again, is the scene by which 2018 will be remembered.

5. Paddington 2

2018 / UK  / 104 min. / Dir. by Paul King / Opened in wide release on Jan 12, 2018

Not since the original Mary Poppins has London been so delightfully drawn. Literally. It’s a pop-up-book that catches Paddington’s eye, one with fanciful portraits of London landmarks, for his sweet Aunt Lucy’s birthday. The film dazzles, as Paddington moves through these iconic London locations, hot on the heels of a show-stealing Hugh Grant. The film breezes through beautifully constructed visual gags, with references to Ealing comedies that will delight even the most jaded filmgoers. As it turns out, this year’s most kindly feature is also the funniest, and it’s better than the original, too. 

4. The Third Murder

2018 / Japan / 125 min. / Dir. by Hirokazu Kore-eda / Opened in select cities on July 20, 2018

Best known for his heart-shredding stories about family affairs, Hirokazu Kore-eda is repeatedly boxed in by critics as the spiritual successor to Ozu. Even now, a dozen films later, he still finds himself correcting journalists: Class, not family, is the director’s primary subject. The Ozu comparison, Kore-eda fears, de-politicizes his work. With its opening scene – in which one man bashes in another’s head – The Third Murder seems to set the record straight: Kore-eda films aren’t for tea time anymore. A courtroom drama that still manages to stay true to the director’s roots, it breathes new life into one of Japan’s finest filmmakers. Kore-eda’s track record is near spotless, but this one is his best film since 2008’s instant classic Still Walking.

3. First Reformed

2018 / USA / 113 min. / Dir. by Paul Schrader / Opened in select cities on May 18, 2018

When speaking about this year’s Suspiria, another St. Louis-based critic described the film as a “roadmap through the history of European art films.” One can also think of First Reformed as a similar type of roadmap, but the history is far more personal. “You can see a number of lessons in his face that he doesn’t have to act. Life has put them there,” says Paul Schrader in an interview with NPR. He’s speaking about the decision to cast Ethan Hawke in the role of the Rev. Ernest Toller, but the same sentiment can be extended to the director himself. The roadmap here takes audiences through Schrader’s personal film history (Bresson, Dreyer, Tarkovsky). The lessons, though, the ones that life put there, are lurking in every frame, in each moment of deafening silence that Toller confronts. As esoteric as it is insightful, First Reformed will provide viewers with truths to mine from for years to come.   

2. Shirkers

2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Sandi Tan / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Oct. 26, 2018

There is a certain type of movie that feels both immediately familiar and undeniably original when it is viewed for the first time. Shirkers, like Ghost World and Diary of a Teenage Girl before it, is perhaps the first in the coming-of-age counterculture canon to take the form of a self-archiving documentary feature. A film-within-a-film, Tan’s 2018 feature seeks to breathe new life into her uncompleted 1992 feature of the same name. When she was a teenager in the 1990s, Tan’s film — think the French New Wave meets underground comix — would have been groundbreaking. Then, at the start of post-production, both the film and Tan’s dear friend went missing. Twenty-five years in the making, Shirkers shows what happens when the past won’t stay buried. It’s a courageous piece of filmmaking and one that’s bound to leave an indelible mark on both the hearts of wayward teenagers and feminist film history. 

1. Bisbee ‘17

2018 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Robert Greene / Opened in select cities on Sept. 5, 2018

Like Shirkers, the best film of the year employs both a hauntological lens and a genre-bending approach to the documentary form. Bisbee ‘17, however, does so on a far larger scope. Borrowing from the most unusual sources — the American musical, Westerns, Bertolt Brecht, and even podcasts — director Robert Greene attempts to “write” with the past (and the documentary form) to engage with the present day. A career best for Greene, Bisbee ‘17 is both challenging and astute, inventive and timely; it’s a landmark in documentary cinema.

Joshua Ray

Honorable Mentions: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Blindspotting; The Death of Stalin; Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami; Incredibles 2; McQueen; Memoir of War; Minding the Gap; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; The Tale; Wildlife

20. The Great Buddha+ 

19. We the Animals

18. Lean on Pete 

17. Madeline’s Madeline

16. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

15. Private Life

14. First Man

13. The Favourite

12. Western

11. Shirkers

10. Paddington 2

2018 / UK  / 104 min. / Dir. by Paul King / Opened in wide release on Jan 12, 2018

Paddington 2 smartly expands the world of the lovable British icon to include Brexit-era nationalism, impulses to which the first film only alluded. The titular talking bear is othered and ostracized but retains his remarkable resilience, inspiring even the coldest of hearts. He’s exactly the hero that 2018 needs. Paul King's film also boasts the best action set piece of the year (sorry, Christopher McQuarrie) and an inventive filmmaking that’s alive with the possibilities of the medium. By all rights, this kids and family affair should be as sticky and sweet as Paddington's beloved marmalade sandwiches, but instead it's a reminder that greatness can come in any shape, size, or species.

9. Shoplifters

2018 / Japan / 121 min. / Dir. by Hirokazu Kore-eda / Opened in select cities on Nov. 23, 2018

With Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda builds a world in which his characters are people so forgotten by the outside world they can freely create and live in their own fantasies, forging a family of their own choosing. Of course, anyone who refuses to play by society's rigid rules eventually becomes an enemy of the people, and halfway through Kore-eda's gentle deconstruction of his own tendency towards the maudlin, the heartwarming transforms into heartbreaking. A high-wire act that could have gone disastrously wrong, Shoplifters presents the filmmaker at his most expertly balanced, in marked contrast to an unjustly imbalanced world.

8. Happy as Lazzaro 

2018 / Italy / 125 min. / Dir. by Alice Rohrwacher / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov. 30, 2018

Like Shoplifters, Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is a fantasy bifurcated by world-altering revelations that undermine its characters' realities. In this Pasolini-inspired fable, holy fool Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is a blank-slate receptacle for the abuses of power that fuel the world he inhabits. After surviving a life of indentured servitude and one nasty fall, Lazzaro (read: Lazarus) reawakens to find himself a time traveler, stumbling into an era in which previous systemic failings are now institutionalized. Rohrwacher's third feature is her most ambitious, presenting a refreshing vision of moral condemnation and magical realism that feels equally reverent to the past and awake to our contemporary times.

7. Burning

2018 / South Korea / 148 min. / Dir. by Lee Chang-Dong / Opened in select cities on Oct. 26, 2018

The pace of Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning might have alienated viewers if the time spent uncomfortably nestling itself into the psyche of Lee (Ah-in Yoo) weren’t so transfixing. Over its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, the twentysomething writer protagonist embroils himself in a ménage à trois of sorts with an old classmate and her affluent, mysterious boyfriend. Throughout, Chang-Dong maintains a razor’s edge of suspense, and the film’s final moment reveals its center’s rotten core, wholly reconfiguring the viewer’s experience. All the while, the Korean filmmaker also manages to encapsulate an entire generation’s identity-based anxieties, presenting a world of people in limbo, unable to truly understand each other or even themselves. 

6. Suspiria 

2018 / Italy, USA / 142 min. / Dir. by Luca Guadagnino / Opened in select cities on October 26, 2018

Having garnered widespread acclaim and cultural cachet with last year’s Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino doesn’t appear to be concerned anymore with such fruitful recognition. Instead, with his reimagining of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, he crafts a grotesque Grand Guignol that’s high on ambition and low on good taste. Thank God. Suspiria is the most giddy bad time at the movies in 2018, a violent and operatic ode to womanhood that reflects the schadenfreude politics of now. The spiritual polar opposite of the other movie-movie of the year, Paddington 2, Guadagnino's film maudit infuses Fassbinder’s radical political cinema with every cinematic trick in its maker’s wide-ranging arsenal, gleefully dancing its way to a bloody female revolution.

5. The Other Side of the Wind

2018 / USA / 122 min. / Dir. by Orson Welles / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov. 2, 2018 

As a poison-pen letter to Hollywood, The Other Side of the Wind is Orson Welles’ angriest work, and it’s certainly justified. After boy wonder Welles made “the greatest film of all time” with his debut, Citizen Kane, RKO massacred Welles’ second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, a work that even in its truncated and altered form bests its predecessor in sheer cinematic elegance. The next 30 years in the wilderness seem to have done a number on Welles, and his finally completed final film condemns the nastiest sides of the Dream Factory and the privileged people who run it. A feat of meta-textual showmanship — a late-in-life director attempting to resurrect his career with a wild ride of a film is both Wind’s story and its backstory — the decades-gestating film is even more dazzling in its kaleidoscopic construction. Although principal photography ended in 1976, it’s the 2018 release that looks the most brazenly futuristic.

4. Let the Sunshine In

2017 / France / 94 min. / Dir. by Claire Denis / Opened in select cities on April 27, 2018

Unfairly accused by some as being Claire Denis Lite, Let the Sunshine In is nevertheless as brutally frank about the complex interiority of its lead character as her two previous films, White Material and Bastards. It’s just that Sunshine deals with Isabelle’s (Juliette Binoche) monomaniacal search for romantic fulfilment, rather than explorations of a man’s violent heart; a rich and filling dessert after two lean, mean courses. Although the thematic subject matter is new to Denis (her sublime Friday Night comes the closest), this romantic-comedy subversion is still as wildly creative as any in the master filmmaker’s oeuvre. It’s an elliptical and structurally adventurous work with a strident and erratic focal point, a character who becomes the perfect showcase for Binoche, one of the great actors of the present moment.

3. Zama

2017 / Argentina / 115 min. / Dir. by Lucrecia Martel / Opened in select cities on April 13, 2018

Zama is Lucrecia Martel's return to narrative film after her surreal and insular 2008 “thriller," The Headless Woman. On the surface, this adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto's postmodern deconstruction of 18th-century colonialism couldn't be further from Martel's previous film, but the Argentine director puts her finger right on the bourgeois pulse she's always been condemning. To see a middle-management Spanish corregedor (Daniel Giménez Cacho) lose his head within the bureaucratic system he himself supports is one of the year's greatest pleasures, and this is all before the film morphs into a damning and cinematically thrilling journey into the heart of darkness that is the masculine drive for supremacy. 

2. Support the Girls

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Andrew Bujalski / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Aug. 24, 2018

Support the Girls is one of the smallest films on this list but also one of its biggest triumphs. Andrew Bujalski’s film about a day in the life of Lisa (Regina King), the manager of a Hooters-like bar and grill, reads like the pilot of a new sitcom, but it plays like the funniest Dardennes brothers' film ever made. At every turn, the film is a testament to women's defiance in the face of adversity, whether it manifests as the smallest inconveniences or as biblical tests of faith. It also philosophically challenges the notion of self, seemingly without much effort. The work is there, though, with monumentally alive performances from Hall, Shayna McHayle, and Haley Lu Richardson, among many others. The final rooftop howl into the sky from those three actors cements Support the Girls as the year's most endlessly repeatable anthems of self-worth.

1. If Beale Street Could Talk

2018 / USA / 119 min. / Dir. by Barry Jenkins / Opened in select cities on Dec. 14, 2018

If Beale Street Could Talk is just as swooningly romantic and heartbreaking as Barry Jenkins’ previous film, Best Picture Oscar-winner Moonlight. The two are remarkably similar in scope, both tracing the decades of a central relationship made impossible by the social forces that work against it. The film demonstrates a refinement in Jenkins’ skill at repurposing the ache and longing of the color-coded melodramas of art-house giants Jacques Demy and Wong Kar-Wai, in particular. Like those masters, Jenkins so expertly captures the elation of falling in love that his characters would all but levitate if they weren't so damagingly grounded by the reality of the world in which they live.

In adapting James Baldwin's landmark 1974 novel, Jenkins furthers the author's glorious act of giving black voices a resounding platform. Although the author is ever-present in the film — it retains his masterly prose in lead character Tish's (KiKi Lane) narration — If Beale Street Could Talk isn't a typical literary adaptation. On the contrary, this is a cinematic celebration of black life, depicting the centuries' worth of information exchanged in simple glances among marginalized people. Jenkins also reconfigures Baldwin's hallucinatory "happy" ending into a stark reminder of how little has changed in the intervening time, both in the characters' and black Americans' lives.

Andrew Wyatt

Honorable Mentions: Beast; Bisbee ’17; Blaze; Blindspotting; First Man; Golden Exits; Incredibles 2; Isle of Dogs; The Kindergarten Teacher; Lean on Pete; Mirai; Paddington 2; A Quiet Place; Revenge; Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda; Sorry to Bother You; Sweet Country; Tully; Vox Lux; We the Animals; Widows

20. Shoplifters

19. Wildlife

18. The Rider 

17. If Beale Street Could Talk 

16. Leave No Trace

15. The Cakemaker

14. The King

13. Zama

12. The Favourite

11. You Were Never Really Here

10. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

2018 / USA / 147 min. / Dir. by Christoper McQuarrie / Opened in wide release on July 27, 2018

The best action franchise of the 21st century has implausibly improved with each post-M:I III iteration, but it attains its jaw-dropping apotheosis with Fallout. Tom Cruise risks life and limb in some of the most spectacular action set pieces ever filmed, tempting an outright blood sacrifice for viewers’ amusement. Any one of those scenes would make Fallout a classic; assembled into one film, they constitute a kind of multiplex miracle, placing Christopher McQuarrie’s feature into the rarefied company of touchstones such as Police Story, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Whether during the 25,000-foot HALO jump, the bone-crunching men’s-room brawl, or the mind-blowing Parisian breakout-cum-getaway, the film consistently exudes an astonishing assurance, ferocious and confident but never weightless. One can almost hear Mr. Cruise rhetorically glorying: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

9. Minding the Gap

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Bing Liu / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Aug. 17, 2018

Strictly as a keenly observed sub-culture portrait and lyrical sports documentary, Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap is an uncommonly accomplished work, the sort of debut feature that signals the arrival of an instantly vital filmmaker. What makes Liu’s nonfiction triumph truly great, however, is the invisible and yet pitiless way it reveals itself as something much more profound than a scruffy hangout film about three young skateboarders coming of age in Rockford, Ill. Mirroring the director’s own evolving understanding of his material, Minding the Gap emerges as a shockingly potent and intensely personal dissection of violence, trauma, race, and toxic masculinity. It’s at once wistful, woebegone, and unsentimental, the sort of dynamic, gutsy filmmaking that leaves the viewer astonished and disconsolate.

8. Eighth Grade

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Bo Burnham / Opened in select cities on July 13, 2018

In a year of fantastically auspicious debut features, there was arguably none unlikelier and more miraculous than Eighth Grade, directed by a fellow who got his start performing silly parody songs on YouTube. In his touching, slice-of-life dramedy about the tribulations of newly minted adolescent Kayla (a sublimely sweet-’n’-awkward Elsie Fisher), Bo Burnham achieves a wondrous balance between affectless realism and indie quirk, discovering an inspired middle way that is at once grounded and heightened. Eighth Grade isn’t merely a so-real-it-hurts elicitation of universal 13-year-old anxieties. (The loneliness! The humiliation! The horniness!) It’s a soulful, slippery, quietly radical portrait of the Kids Today, who, it turns out, are a lot like kids from every era – just less private and more attuned to the postmodern maelstrom of performative living that’s sweeping them along.

7. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

2018 / USA / 117 min. / Dir. by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman / Opened in wide release on Dec. 14, 2018

Two decades into the superhero film’s indefatigable box-office winning streak and attendant artistic fossilization, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse swings into the multiplex like a red-and-blue bolt of radioactive plasma. To birth one of the best comic-book films of all time, Sony’s Columbia Pictures simply had to ditch the live-action actors – and then throw out every hidebound rule that has governed 21st-century computer animation. Equal parts thrilling, touching, sidesplitting, and downright hallucinatory, Spider-Verse blends its seemingly dissonant elements with such sneaky elegance, it looks virtually effortless. Establishing a new, dizzying gold standard for pop entertainment, it’s the rare film that simultaneously elevates and democratizes its genre through its ecstatic formal artistry and heartfelt characterization. Excelsior, indeed.

6. Hereditary

2018 / USA / 127 min. / Dir. by Ari Aster / Opened in wide release on June 8, 2018

No horror feature from the past decade can compare to director Ari Aster’s indescribably terrifying debut – at least in terms of sheer, white-hot traumatizing potency. Gnawing the viewer’s nerves raw from the opening notes of composer Colin Stetson’s disquieting score, Hereditary drags the viewer – first gradually, then in a frenzy of kicking and screaming – into a pitiless occult nightmare of familial grief, guilt, and resentment. Headlining this demonic vision is the unparalleled Toni Collette, who undergoes a succession of frightful and yet wholly credible psychological upheavals as an irrevocable, unthinkable doom descends on her household. In an era when mainstream horror has become dully formulaic, Hereditary is an exemplar of the form at its most brutally unpredictable and unhinged. It’s the sort of once-a-decade cinematic experience that leaves scars — deep, lasting, and exquisite. You have been warned.

5. The Other Side of the Wind

2018 / USA / 122 min. / Dir. by Orson Welles / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov. 2, 2018 

Despite – or perhaps because of – Orson Welles’ canonization as one of the all-time masters of cinema, the posthumous completion of the director’s final feature seemed like the sort of questionable artistic endeavor that could have resulted in an epic boondoggle. Happily, such pessimism was not only unwarranted but completely misplaced: The final product testifies not only to the perseverance of filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich and producer Frank Marshall but also to Welles’ unruly and enduring genius. Exhausting, impenetrable, and endlessly fascinating, The Other Side of the Wind is an eminently fitting swan song for the director, equal parts time capsule and timeless critique. A quasi-autobiographical fusillade directed squarely at Hollywood, the film arrives like a multi-camera, multi-textured whirlwind, declaring – in John Huston’s tobacco-juice growl – that it might have just rolled in from the 1970s, but it already has your number, you 21st-century cocksuckers.

4. Shirkers

2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Sandi Tan / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Oct. 26, 2018

Equal parts sorrowful, livid, and flabbergasted, Sandi Tan’s superb artistic memoir Shirkers is the kind of vibrant, masterful documentary feature that conceals myriad layers. Initially, it assumes the form of bittersweet recollection about Tan’s formative experiences as a 19-year-old indie filmmaker in Singapore, where she and her friends channeled their cinephilia into a seemingly groundbreaking Jarmuschian feature (also titled Shirkers). Then the documentary evolves into a fraught, decades-old mystery concerning the creepy middle-aged American mentor who absconded with the friends’ film, crushing their artistic ambitions. Then it shifts again, into a more convoluted, self-lacerating meditation on youth, gender, betrayal, loss, memory, and the perilous alchemy of storytelling. Throughout, Tan maintains a disarmingly honest and ambivalent sensibility, allowing the viewer to steep uncomfortably in the vinegar of her remembrances. It’s unabashedly personal filmmaking at its most fruitful and fascinating.

3. Thoroughbreds

2018 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. by Cory Finley / Opened in select cities on Mar. 9, 2018

Director Cory Finley’s pitch-perfect debut feature might be a black comedy, but it’s just as horrifying as anything in Hereditary, if only because this frosty tale of adolescent sociopaths-in-training feels unnervingly relevant in 2018. Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke are superb and unnervingly watchable as a pair of scheming WASP princesses – the latter already an old hand at soulless amorality and the former a disturbingly quick study. Formally flawless and utterly remorseless, Finley’s film gawks in revulsion at the warped process by which the filthy rich unlearn basic human decency, leaving a hollow that fills up with cruel ambition and narcissism. Thoroughbreds is the sort of crackling, morally gangrenous story that Nicholas Ray or Billy Wilder might have delivered, had they lived to witness the Trump Era. It’s a delectably nasty triumph, and nothing less than the feel-bad film of the year. 

2. First Reformed

2018 / USA / 113 min. / Dir. by Paul Schrader / Opened in select cities on May 18, 2018

Paul Schrader’s decades-long exploration of anguished “men in rooms” achieves its most heightened and vehemently Calvinist expression in First Reformed, an austere portrait of spiritual agony that veritably quakes with pleading despair. Inverting the classic crisis-of-faith narrative for an era in which global devastation can be livestreamed, Schrader presents the tormented Rev. Toller (a never-better Ethan Hawke) as a man whose guilt-wracked and freshly inflamed species of Christianity has twisted him into a snarl of powerless rage and anxiety. At once cerebral, visceral, and inscrutable, First Reformed is spiritual cinema at its most staggering. It harmonizes with the works of Schrader’s illustrious forebears Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer – and yet is still its own haunted, distinctive thing, an impeccably realized vision of Christian angst that no other filmmaker could have delivered.

1. Roma

2018 / Mexico / 135 min. / Dir. by Alfonso Cuarón / Opened in select cities on Nov. 21, 2018

The breathtaking wonder of Roma is that its grandeur emerges, almost numinously, from the raw materials of prosaic childhood remembrances. By means of director Alfonso Cuarón’s heedless cinematic ambition, everyday fragments of 1970s Mexico City life – shirts fluttering lazily on rooftop clotheslines; slot-cars buzzing around a plastic track; dogshit smeared beneath a gas guzzler’s tires – attain a vivid, almost mythic resonance. In this epic tale of a Mixtec live-in housekeeper (Yalitza Aparicio) and the troubled family that employs her, every shot thrums with silvery vibrancy, every detail as considered as the individual grapes in a still-life painting. Yet, miraculously, nothing about Roma feels fussy or arranged. It is a feature that feels unaccountably alive; a virtuosic rendering of the past rather than a musty re-creation. Destined to be savored and studied for years to come, it’s nothing less than the best film of 2018.

Tags: Year in Review Cait Lore Joshua Ray Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Roma'.
December 19, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Life Itself

2018 / 135 min. / Mexico, USA / Directed by Alfonso Cuarón / Opened in select cities on Nov. 21, 2018; locally and available to stream via Netflix on Dec. 14, 2018

It is apparent from the film’s first, fantastically crisp black-and-white image – a prolonged closeup of a tiled driveway, its surface periodically slopped by sudsy water – that writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s quasi-autobiographical opus Roma is going to be something special. The opening credits hypnotically fade in and out over this image while the shhhhht shhhhht of an off-screen scrub brush functions as a kind of unhurried, arrhythmic pulse. And yet the scene is anything but contemplative. Rather, it invites attentiveness and an intensely active sort of watching. Cuarón is easing the viewer into his approach with a visual and aural aperitif, attuning the senses to the overwhelming whirlwind of detail that will characterize virtually every shot over the next two hours and change. Then, there it is: For a few seconds, the water sloshing over the tiles suddenly stills, ensnaring the reflection of a commercial aircraft passing far overhead. Even in the abstract, it’s a striking moment of prosaic loveliness, but it also signals Roma’s ambition to revel in both everyday minutiae and the epic grandeur of the human experience.

Unfolding over approximately one year in the early 1970s, the film centers on the experiences of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young, live-in Mixtec domestic worker in a white bourgeois household in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood (the “Roma” of the title). Her employers are Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), the latter a doctor whose professional obligations often take him away from home for extended periods. Among Cleo’s duties are the care of Sofia and Antonio’s four children, Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), Paco (Carlos Peralta) Pepe (Marco Graf), and Sofi (Daniela Demensa). Rounding out the household are Sofia’s elderly mother, Tereasa (Verónica Garcia), and a second Mixtec housekeeper, Adela (Nancy García García).

Drawing from his own memories of growing up in Roma, as well as the experiences of the housekeeper who is Cleo’s real-world analog, Cuarón crafts a sweeping, episodic tale of upheavals – personal, domestic, and national. At first blush, Roma might seem to be a plodding, even sluggish film, the sort of feature where earnest scrutiny is afforded to banalities such as a woman walking along a lively city street, the careful cracking of a soft-boiled egg, or the protracted, faintly absurd ordeal of pulling a massive automobile into a narrow carport.

Yet the film never feels like “Slow Cinema,” or the kind of calculatingly bland realism that attempts to de-romanticize a remembered time and place. Roma is gloriously alive, every square inch of its frame bursting with texture and activity. Despite its down-to-earth character, the film has justifiably drawn comparisons to the more heightened and darkly ironic works of Federico Fellini, especially his masterworks La Dolce Vita (1960) and Nights of Cabiria (1957). One can see the resemblance, not just superficially in the film’s evocative black-and-white photography but also in its canny eye for the delights, travails, and absurdities of ordinary life, as well as its taste for left-field flourishes. An inexplicable background set piece involving a human-cannonball stunt at a political rally feels like something inadvertently left out of Fellini’s La Strada (1954) or that director’s own semi-autobiographical feature, Amarcord (1973).

However, the filmmaker who also leaps to mind is Jacques Tati, and specifically the French director’s comic masterpiece Playtime (1967). While Roma replaces that film’s droll satirization of modern life with kitchen-sink realism, Cuarón’s feature is similarly abuzz with energy, its every frame a dizzying mini-masterpiece of dense composition and balletic choreography. Whether observing Cleo as she silently goes about her morning laundry routine or following a lively Christmas party at a hacienda, Cuarón – who here assumes the roles of both director and cinematographer – turns every shot into a silvery Renaissance painting, coaxing the eye this way and that in search of little visual discoveries. However, unlike, say, the dollhouse fussiness of Wes Anderson’s works, or even the long-take showstopper set pieces in Cuarón’s own Children of Men (2006), Roma never emits a telltale whiff of exertion or orchestration. Much like Fellini at his best, Cuarón displays a virtuosic elegance here that is gobsmacking in hindsight; similar to La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ (1963), Roma never looks like work. It looks like the splendor, heartbreak, and strange madness of life itself.

For all its self-assured lavishness, Roma is a multi-pronged but relatively straightforward film at bottom: a nostalgic celebration of a particular time and place; a revisionist mash note to a marginalized woman who was central to Cuarón’s young life; and an illustration of the ways that the personal and the political are inextricably co-mingled. The paired dramatic foci of the film’s story are the disintegration of Sofia’s marriage and Cleo’s unplanned pregnancy, tribulations that unfold roughly in parallel. On paper, there is a certain telenovela soapiness to these events, but Roma’s approach is too sweeping and digressive for the film to be characterized as a straight melodrama.

The feature doesn’t have a succinct plot so much as a sour through-line: the selfishness and cruel indifference of men. Antonio is engaged in the slow-motion abandonment of his family – Cleo discovers at one point that his supposed conferences in Quebec are a cover for visits to his mistress – an unwelcome change that the family members all react to with differing levels of denial, anger, and anguish. Meanwhile, Cleo’s cocky, martial-arts-enthusiast boyfriend, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), bolts at the first mention of their impending baby, excusing himself to the restroom during a movie and then never returning. This unceremonious desertion upends Cleo’s solid routine, infusing it with a queasy uncertainty about the future.

Although Cleo is nervous about revealing her pregnancy to her employer, the family reacts to the news with genuine joy and kindness. Perhaps prompted in part by her own troubles, Sofia makes Cleo’s imminent motherhood a personal priority, sending the housekeeper to one of Mexico City’s best obstetricians and allowing her to pick out a crib at an upmarket department store. It’s during this shopping trip that Cleo and Teresa run headlong into the June 10, 1971, Corpus Christi massacre, in which student demonstrators were brutally attacked by a black-operations army group, Los Halcones. This sequence – a staggering and harrowing feat of historical re-creation punctuated by a personal tragedy for the film’s characters – is the most conspicuous instance in which blood-spattered reality spills over into Roma’s generally heartfelt conjuration of the period’s prosaic rhythms. It’s undeniably riveting to watch, but also one of the few occasions in which the film’s commitment to period verisimilitude shades into Forrest Gump-ian implausibility.

Cuarón is on much surer footing when he quietly illustrates the innumerable ways that Mexico’s social and political inequalities inform character dynamics. In this, the director’s decision to center his feature on Cleo rather than one of the non-indigenous adults or children is essential. Like many live-in domestic workers, Cleo and Adela are at once an integral part of the family’s daily life and pointedly separate from it, their outsider position demarcated by their ethnicity, class, and employee status. Cuarón emphasizes these divisions repeatedly, without ever explicitly referring to them in the film’s dialogue. To wit: Cleo and Adela are obliged to sleep in a tiny, upper-floor apartment across the courtyard from the main house. After sunset, the women keep the lights in their little flat switched off, lest they invite a scolding from Sofia for “wasting” electricity. This sort of disdainful highhandedness seems to be the exception rather than the rule, but the little indignities are always there, subtly reminding Cleo of her place in the household. In one fantastic scene in which the family has gathered to watch television, Cuarón’s crisp attentiveness to the housekeeper’s movements around the room underlines her simultaneous intimacy with and separation from them.

The unassuming miracle of Roma is that this systemic subtext is subordinate to but never completely banished by the film’s rich sentimentality and dry humor. The shadow is always there, at once sharpening and complicating an otherwise humane, loving portrayal of the Mexico of Cuarón’s youth. The filmmaker achieves this in part by privileging a different personal-is-political dimension to the story: namely, the bond between women of all stations who have been wronged by men. Resigned to the reality of her abandonment, a mascara-streaked Sofia sniffles bitterly to Cleo, “We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”

This miserable notion is self-evidently false, of course: Cleo and Sofia have each other, and they have the children whom they both adore. The sublime grace of Cuarón’s feature lies in how he permits the connection between Cleo and the family to flourish and mature unironically, all without neglecting its thornier racial and class aspects. In the film’s final act, that connection crystallizes during a weekend holiday at a seaside town, a trip in which the last traces of Antonio are figuratively washed away. Said holiday concludes with a terrifying incident that establishes a new emotional intimacy between Cleo and the family, and highlights her status as a cherished member of the household.

Besides Cuarón’s own stunning ambition and cinematic talents, Roma rests to a great extent on the shoulders of newcomer Aparicio, whose sincerity, serenity, and vulnerability are integral to the film’s down-to-earth humanity. Cleo is a figure who seems at once earthy and celestial, her centrality to the story never in question, notwithstanding the maelstrom of city bustle and historical destiny that swirls around her. She is unmistakably the Protagonist in a cast of thousands, even when she is passive – such as mischievously playing dead in the afternoon sun with her youngest charge, or simply standing agog in her nightgown as men rush to extinguish a furiously burning plantation orchard.

Even in 2018, there is a certain radicalness intrinsic in placing a dark-skinned, working-class Mixtec woman at the center of her own story. What makes Cuarón and Aparicio’s approach so fascinating is how carefully they balance the character’s messy humanity with her idealized aspects. On the one hand, for example, the film shows Cleo gazing appreciatively at Fermín’s naked body as he poses for her amusement. (How often are indigenous female characters allowed to simply acknowledge that they have libidos?) On the other, Cuarón crafts a vibrating moment of magical realism in which Cleo – and only Cleo – is capable of assuming a yogic pose that an army of martial-arts students find impossible. Who is Cleo? A victim? A hero? A worker? A flesh-and-blood woman? An unassuming Virgil in this cinematic time machine? A guardian angel plucked from Cuarón’s memories? Yes – all these things, and many others. Like every person living or dead, she’s the star of her own story, and all the world's a stage.

Ultimately, what makes Roma so enthralling is how grand and majestic it feels, even in its smallest moments and simplest gestures. It’s a film that captures the vibrant pulsations of life in all its myriad iterations: in a child’s playroom; during a freak hailstorm; in a hospital emergency room; under the rooftop clotheslines; in a basement cantina; in the midst of a riot; in a tranquil courtyard at dawn, where the parakeets chirp and Cleo’s day begins. In Roma, Cuarón has crafted not just a great feat of cinema, but a work that’s destined to be savored and pored over for decades to come. “Let’s talk soon,” Cleo remarks to Adela after returning from her beach holiday with the family. “I have so much to tell you.” Roma has so much to tell us, it’s practically overflowing.

Rating: A

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse'.
December 12, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Like a Streak of Light, He Arrives Just in Time

2018 / USA / 117 min. / Dir. by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman / Opens in wide release on Dec. 14, 2018

Even hardcore aficionados of superhero films would likely concede that the genre has struggled over the last 20 years or so to replicate the giddy, astonishing sensibility of comic-book action. Perhaps paradoxically, cinema – a medium that combines color, motion, and sound – has never been quite as effective as flat, static images on paper, at least when it comes to conveying the hyper-real fantasy of spandex-clad heroes pummeling and blasting villains. There have been a few welcome exceptions: the delightful loopiness of Ant-Man’s (2015) scale-morphing; the psychedelic contortions of Doctor Strange’s (2016) mystical duels; and the ecstatic, Olympian spectacle of Woman Woman’s (2017) emergence from the trenches of the Great War. Overall, however, it’s not the fights, chases, and stunts but the characters that have defined the genre since X-Men (2000) ushered in the modern super-powered era of studio blockbusters.

Case in point: In a year in which Marvel Studios delivered two gargantuan box-office hits, the best superhero action sequence didn’t belong to Black Panther or Iron Man, but to Elastigirl in Incredibles 2 – an animated film with no built-in comic-book legacy. This suggests that perhaps cinema per se isn’t the sticking point, but rather live-action filmmaking. All the CGI wizardry in the cosmos can’t cover up the fact that the MCU’s Thor is clearly Chris Hemsworth jumping around awkwardly in front of a green screen while dressed in a goofy costume. (No patch on Hemsworth, of course: Thor’s meathead charisma and the evolution thereof illustrates how crucial Marvel’s pitch-perfect casting is to their mega-franchise.)

Now that the final superhero feature of 2018 has arrived, it seems inarguable that live-action filmmaking is never going to be as potent as animation at capturing the distinctive dazzle of comic-book action. After 16 years of Spider-Man sequels, reboots, and spin-offs – widely varying in quality, but none of them enduring entries in the genre – Sony’s Columbia Pictures has at long last cracked how to turn their film rights to Marvel’s iconic Web-Slinger into cinematic gold. Namely: Ditch the live-action actors altogether. The deliriously fun, dimension-tripping animated adventure Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just the best Spidey feature ever. It’s one of the best superhero-comic films, full stop, and probably the purest cinematic expression to date of the experience of flicking through the ink-and-paper exploits of a favorite hero. It also has a cartoon pig named Spider-Ham.

At this point in the era of superhero saturation, any child from Baltimore to Belgrade to Bangkok can probably give the nickel summary of Spider-Man’s origin story, and co-directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman wisely capitalize on that familiarity. Taking a literal page from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s superb All-Star Superman comics (2005-08), Spider-Verse disposes of the radioactive-spider bite, Uncle Ben’s death, and “great power, great responsibility” in its opening moments. “You know my story,” Peter Parker (Chris Pine) remarks knowingly, as he flits through the highlights of his storied multimedia career with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references to the deeds of his past comic-book, animated, and live-action incarnations. (Including, yes, the dance.)

It’s an early sign of the encyclopedic, meta-textual quality to Spider-Verse’s humor, a trait it shares with another recent animated superhero feature, The LEGO Batman Movie (2017). However, whereas that film foregrounded its jokey fan service and rat-a-tat-tat DC Comics gag delivery before all other concerns, Spider-Verse uses its winking references primarily to set the film’s cheeky vibe and signal its fast-and-loose approach to the Web-Slinger’s convoluted continuity. A Ph.D. in Spider-Man Studies isn’t necessary to enjoy Spider-Verse. However, the viewer should be prepared for a dizzying plunge into ludicrous Marvel staples like time travel, parallel universes, and jarring genre mashups. (Indeed, the film at times plays a bit like one of Marvel’s goofy, speculative What If? one-shots, albeit a superb example of such.)

The viewer’s entry point into this Spider-Verse is one Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn Afro-Puerto Rican teenager with the usual assemblage of adolescent concerns: parents, school, girls, and the struggle with identity. Miles’ folks – NYPD officer Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and ER nurse Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) – are loving but discipline-minded, especially Dad. When their son lands a lottery slot at the prestigious public boarding school Visions Academy, it’s a given that Miles will be obliged to don the blue blazer and leave his neighborhood school (and friends) behind. Miles is a smart kid, but AP Science can’t hold a candle to the allure of his artwork, the latter encouraged by his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), Jefferson’s laid-back, bachelor brother. It’s Aaron who takes Miles to an abandoned subway tunnel where the boy can practice his graffiti skills on a crumbling brick canvas, and it’s there that a strange spider slips into Miles’ hoodie to later deliver a seemingly innocuous bite. This leads to all sorts of awkward, um, changes for Miles: a growth spurt, sticky palms, and a psychic tingle that warns him of danger.

It’s familiar stuff, at least in terms of the broad story beats. Hold up, however: Miles’ NYC already has a Spider-Man, the aforementioned Peter Parker, and he’s an adored crime-fighting celebrity with his own merchandise and Christmas album. (Not beloved by Miles’ dad, though; being a cop, he’s hung up on the whole masked-vigilante thing.) Through the sort of unlikely coincidences that comic books are adept at hand-waving away, the nascently super-powered Miles ends up a witness to a violent showdown between Spidey and the monstrous Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone). Said brawl unfolds inside a colossal dimension-warping doomsday machine financed by hulking crime lord Kingpin (Live Schreiber) and overseen by scatterbrained scientist Dr. Olivia (Katherine Hahn). Fortunately, with an assist from Miles, Spider-Man manages to disable the contraption shortly after its activation. Unfortunately, even that briefest window of operation results in flickers of uncontrolled, inter-dimensional strangeness throughout New York. Even more unfortunately, Spider-Man is caught and unceremoniously murdered by the Kingpin right before Miles’ eyes.

Co-writers Rothman and Phil Lord – the latter one of the mischievous minds behind 21 Jump Street (2012) and The LEGO Movie (2014) – thereby commit to the unthinkable, killing Spider-Man by the end of the first act of a Spider-Man movie. Unlike many superhero deaths, Spidey’s demise appears to be real and permanent, leaving Miles to grapple with the possibility that his own emergent powers obligate him to take up the Web-Slinger’s identity, no matter how ill-prepared for crime-fighting he might feel. He is encouraged in this by Peter’s widow, Mary Jane (Zöe Kravitz), who asserts that her unassuming husband’s real legacy was that anyone can wear the mask and be a hero.

It’s at this point that Miles rather incredibly runs into a different Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), this one a decade older, more defeated, and a little softer around the middle. It seems that Peter v.2.0 hails from an alternate reality, having been unwittingly sucked through a portal into Miles’ dimension when Kingpin’s device was briefly switched on. Quickly falling into the pattern of the overeager, pestering student and acerbic, reluctant teacher – respectively – Miles and Peter formulate a plan to get the latter back to his own dimension. This scheme requires Kingpin and Dr. Olivia to rebuild and reactivate their reality-ripping contraption, before the heroes destroy it for good. (It all somehow hinges on a USB drive, which Peter terms the “Goober,” his word for any high-tech MacGuffin used to foil a supervillain’s plans.)

Miles and Peter are soon joined by Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), aka Spider-Girl, a teen from Miles’ school who it turns out was hurled through both space and time by all the dimensional craziness. Thereafter, the Spider-exiles from parallel universes start piling up quickly: Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), a hard boiled PI from a 1940s black-and-white world; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese-American middle-schooler who pilots the SP//dr mech suit via a spider-mediated psychic bond; and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) aka Peter Porker, a wise-cracking, sledgehammer-wielding anthropomorphic pig. It’s all exactly as silly as it sounds, and yet utterly glorious in its reflexive nuttiness. (Man-Spider, Spider-Man 2099, Spider-Wolf, Spider-Monkey, and Spider-Hulk will presumably make appearances in the inevitable sequel.)

Ostensibly, the stakes here are to get all the Spider-People back to their proper dimensions and to stop the Kingpin’s plan, which has the potential to tear the multiverse asunder. (For all his brutality, the gangster isn’t without his humanity: The whole mad scheme is a means to see his dead wife and son again, a touch that echoes the post-Batman: The Animated Series iteration of Mr. Freeze.) In practice, the big dramatic gestures of Spider-Verse center on either Miles’ struggle to control his powers or the fraught relationship between him and Peter, who is simultaneously jealous of the Spider-Man identity and bitterly pessimistic about his own ability to change the world for the better. It’s a testament to the filmmakers’ deft handling of the material that all the story elements blend together with such effortless elegance: the wacky sci-fi premise, the web-swinging action, the timeless adolescent angst, and the proxy father-son melodrama. New complications in Miles’ relationship with his dad and uncle also emerge, and while there’s a rudimentary, kid-friendly quality to the emotional topography here, it consistently feels genuine and well served by the screenplay.

Perhaps it’s burying the lede somewhat not to discuss Spider-Verse’s astonishing visuals until 1,500 words into a review, but it’s worth observing that the film is a solid and authentically touching Spider-Man story, quite apart from its qualities as an animated feature. That said, what elevates the film from merely good to one of the best superhero films to date is its eccentric style, which establishes the feature's thrilling sensibility of a heightened, fantastical reality. The designers and animators at Sony Pictures Imageworks have truly outdone themselves, delivering one of the freshest and most innovative works of animation in the 21st century.

There’s so much going on in the film’s visual approach – which blends multiple methods of computer and hand-drawn animation to create a superficially busy style that still feels lucid and unified – that it's challenging to describe it without getting mired in the wonky details. In general, the filmmakers affect some of the traditional elements of Japanese animation, with broadly 2D character designs, extensive use of multiplane camera, and a jerky quality to the motion (i.e., twice as many static frames per second). The film’s color is often deliberately nudged out of line, in the fashion of misaligned four-color process printing or a stereoscopic 3D image seen without glasses. This paper-like illusion is further heightened by the profuse use of Ben-Day dots for shading, evoking the cheaply produced Silver Age comics of the 1950s and 60s; as well as iconic Spider-Man touches like the squiggly lines that represent his “Spidey sense.” The character designs in Miles’ world are recognizably comic-like, although the villains tend to have a more exaggerated look, with Kingpin’s inhumanly monolithic bulk squatting at the far end of this spectrum.

The cumulative effect of all this aggressive styling is intoxicating and immersive, establishing a universe that is instantly recognizable as a “world of superheroes”, but resembles nothing that the genre has produced before. It’s an unqualified triumph of design and animation, and it sets a high-water mark that should terrify other digital-animation studios, which have spent the last decade or so refining their house styles into uninspired blandness. (Only Dreamworks seems willing to flirt with modestly inventive design flourishes in recent years.) Most significantly, this evocative reality allows directors Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman to create spectacular, almost hallucinatory action sequences that offer both hyper-kinetic thrills and moments of exquisite beauty. Spider-Verse’s images feel like comic panels come to life, and while that phrase has been applied to ripped-from-the-page adaptations such as 300 (2006), Sin City (2005), and Watchmen (2009), the fussy tableaus of those films have nothing on this feature’s heady dynamism. Simply put, Spider-Verse feels alive.

Sometimes the pursuit of the “convincing” can rob cinema of its magic. Roger Ebert often observed that the obvious fakery of the original, stop-motion King Kong (1933) heightened rather than detracted from is otherworldly terror. When Miles-as-Spider-Man plummets like a stone to the ground, only to swing away at the last second, the moment is uncluttered by the effort it would take to trick the viewer into believing that he is a flesh-and-blood adolescent human soaring between New York’s skyscrapers. Instead, the directors can focus on making the moment as exciting, frightening, and blissful as possible. In the live-wire urban fantasy of the superhero genre, a cartoon can be more redolent than live action. Spider-Verse embodies this notion: Like all the best works of graphic storytelling, it stimulates the imagination rather than supplanting it.

Rather than evoking anime, the stuttering movements of Spider-Verse’s characters suggest flip-book animation and, by extension, the turning of a comic book’s pages as a reader follows the bang-pow action. It’s a tiny thing, almost subliminal, but it illustrates how Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse sweats the artful details even as it swings for the fences. The film’s nimble facility in threading that needle – to be at once familiar and radical, modest and elaborate, earnest and ridiculous – is what distinguishes it as both a fantastic work of animation and a long-overdue jolt to the superhero genre. Excelsior, indeed.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Scenes from a Marriage'.
December 4, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Domestic Disturbances

To celebrate the centenary of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s birth, the boutique home video label the Criterion Collection has released a beautifully-curated mammoth box set containing 39 of the director’s features. Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema is a gift from the cinephile gods, and includes a 248-page book with critical essays alongside writings from the man himself. The set comprises 30 Blu-Ray discs that include Academy Award-winning arthouse classics like The Virgin Spring (1960) and Fanny and Alexander (1983), as well as rarely seen gems such as Hour of the Wolf (1967) and From the Life of Marionettes (1980). Uniquely, Criterion has also programmed the release like a film festival, carefully selecting centerpieces and sidebars around his major periods – i.e., early melodramas, experimental 1960s work – and major themes like generational divides, the theater, faith, and marriage. 

Marriage, as Ingmar Bergman and his films would have it, is the ultimate societal bond between two individuals, as well as a cosmic linkage unbreakable by adultery, loss, or even divorce. The Swedish film director was preoccupied with the church- and state-sanctioned institution and its flaws from the very beginning of his career. His international breakout hit, Smiles from a Summer Night (1955), is a sex comedy about societal norms squeezing marital tension to its breaking point when its characters start playing musical beds. Bergman would continue exploring nuptial disharmony, sometimes in the margins like in the psychological drama Through a Glass Darkly (1961), or on a larger scale with a couple caught in war-torn Europe in Shame (1968). 

Bergman would most explicitly explore the subject in the aptly titled Scenes From a Marriage (1973), a six-part television mini-series chronicling the breakdown and dissolution of the relationship of an affluent couple, Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johann (Erland Josephson). The series – and its subsequent theatrical cut – would become another milestone in a career already full of them: a major television event in its homeland that would renew its creator's popularity there and around the world. Scenes had such a significant impact on Bergman's career that the director would return to its central characters thirty years later in what would be Bergman's cinematic swan song, Saraband (2003). The films – including both cuts of Scenes – are appropriately coupled together in Criterion’s new set, providing a glimpse at what a “Bergman Cinematic Universe” might resemble.

Scenes from a Marriage

1973 / Sweden / 283 min. (Mini-Series) or 169 min. (Theatrical Cut) / Dir. by Ingmar Bergman / Opened theatricaly in the U.S. on Sept. 15, 1974

Scenes from a Marriage must be particularly striking for those viewers only familiar with the most recognizable Bergman surfaces: the ones with Death (Bengt Ekerot) playing chess with a Medieval Knight (Max von Sydow) from The Seventh Seal (1957), or Ullmann and Bibi Andersson’s faces melding into one in Persona (1966). Scenes is possibly the director’s most deceptively simple-looking production. Made for television on 16mm film stock in the 1.33:1 square-ish Academy ratio, it features very few of the stylistic flourishes for which Bergman and his frequent cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, had become known. Having previously worked on The Rite (1969) for Swedish television – and being isolated on the island of Fårö, spending time cooped up with the small screen medium almost exclusively – the director knew that the TV would be perfect for the scenarios he had created. 

Scenes is comprised of six chapters largely constructed of medium two-shots and close-ups, a schema demonstrating the shifting power between its male and the female protagonists. The film focuses on Marianne and Johann almost exclusively in spare environments – their home, their respective offices, a country cottage. The setting is so spare, in fact, that their children are only glimpsed once at the very beginning of the film; they are little more than props for an interviewer exploring how the couple “makes it all work.” The feature’s scenarios were partially inspired by a seemingly happy married couple with whom Bergman was acquainted: "I remember they irritated me so intensely, that I once tried to seduce the wife (this is over 20 years ago). I failed, of course, and that made me even more annoyed. I did it in pure desperation, just to bloody well show them. Suddenly I pictured them sitting [on] my old sofa and being interviewed. And I thought: 'Now I'll get them.'"

This act of exploration-cum-revenge fantasy backfired on Bergman as he appears to project his own past marital and relationship failings onto his fictional characters, having recently separated from his longtime muse Ullmann and already remarried. In the major pivot chapter of "Paula" (each part is roughly an hour in length and bestowed with its own title), Johann comes to his wife to not only confess that he's fallen in love with the titular other woman, but that he plans to leave the family behind to stay with her. Ullmann's performance here is a master class in fireworks and subtlety; she oscillates between coy acceptance, explosive panic, and simmering anger. Although they had worked together for almost a decade and Ullmann had become the ultimate manifestor of Bergman's words, the clarity with which the actress betrays the character's mindset must have sprung forth from a raw nerve. 

By the end of Scenes, Marianne is the character who undergoes a complete transformation: from content mother, housewife, and career woman to a divorcee figuring out her new station in life and how to negotiate her ex-husband and the new men in her life. Johann, however, flounders terribly, grasping at any opportunity to knock his life out of balance – whether that be with other women or short-term career changes. His strident attitude towards his work, marriage, affairs, and his future points towards a middle-class malaise that forewarns self-destruction. To this end, Bergman indicated that his purpose in making the mini-series was to explore this exact idea: "The absolute fact that the bourgeois ideal of security corrupts people's emotional lives, undermines them, frightens them." If Bergman was mining Ullman's behavior for her character, it's possible that Johann can be seen as an auto-critique for the director who had cycled through many relationships and two marriages at this point in his life. The candidness with which the filmmaker exposes himself and his own failings is the reason why Scenes from a Marriage remains one of his most relatable and humane works.

Rating: A-

Saraband

2003 / Sweden / 107 min. / Dir. by Ingmar Bergman / Opened theatrically in the U.S. on July 8, 2005

Following major ebbs and flows in both his popularity and critical standing (old hat for Bergman), the director had all but retired from filmmaking, turning in an occasional one-off theatrical production filmed for television. For Saraband, another Swedish telefilm, he would reunite Johann and Marianne, played by their original actors. In a prologue, Marianne – Ullmann now thirty years older but as glowingly warm and stoic as ever – sifts through pictures from the past, telling the audience in direct address that she plans to surprise Johann in his remote cabin in the woods. Initially, what follows is the expected: The two meet and make small talk, reminiscing about what could have been. However, Saraband subverts its resemblance to a late-in-life work by a director who wants to cap their career with one last treacly nostalgia trip.

Instead, Bergman – ever the brutally honest exhibitor of humanity as its peaks and nadirs – explores the cyclical nature of familial trauma and abuse, focusing on how the couple’s marriage informed the strained relationship between Johann, an absentee father, and his failed musician son, Henrick (Börje Ahlstedt). The middle-aged offspring lives in his elderly father's guest cottage – sufficiently removed from Johann’s house to avoid an unwelcome confrontation – with his daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius), a talented cellist who is strung along by her father to keep her close. Similar to Scenes, this film unfolds in chapters that feature every possible pairing between the four lead characters as they attempt to relate to each other, allowing resentments to implode their interpersonal relationships. 

Although Saraband is considerably shorter than Scenes from a Marriage, it still manages to deftly explore three generations of trauma. Here, Josephson’s superb return to the role actualizes what any audience familiar with the previous film could have predicted about Johann’s future. He is a haggard old man whose successes and failures in life have made him unapproachable to those who should be closest to him. When Henrick finally visits Johann, admitting how difficult it was to ask his father for a loan, the older man refuses to hand out any more money, instead taking the opportunity to belittle his already shrunken son. In the next scene, Johann uses his familial power to manipulate his granddaughter away from her father, an act that is at once cruel but ultimately merciful as it becomes apparent that Henrick is physically and sexually abusive to Karin.

Much as Scenes’ aesthetic was informed by the conditions of television production, Saraband was filmed using early high-definition digital cameras. It sometimes looks like the prettiest of home movies, but it also occasionally reaches moments of filmic grace: a shot of Ullmann walking through a chapel as the harsh daylight all but burns a cross onto her body is notably striking. There is, however, an odd dissonance between, on the one hand, Bergman’s mid-century European art film aesthetic and writing style and, on the other, the film’s modern setting and technology. It sometimes makes for an awkward fit, suggesting a work from a filmmaker way past his prime mimicking his glory days. However, this discord does mirror the generational rifts between the film’s family members and Bergman’s own disconnect from 21st-century cinema – a reckoning from an aging man shoring up his legacy. 

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Border'.
November 29, 2018
By Cait Lore

Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me

2018 / Sweden / 110 min. / Dir. by Ali Abbasi / Opened in select cities on Oct. 26, 2018; locally on Nov. 30, 2018

Even in a place as drab as the Swedish customs office, Tina (award-winning stage and screen veteran Eva Melander) stands out. There’s something about this short, stocky woman that, well, just doesn’t look right. Ancient scars trace her outlandishly round, rather puffy face. A gnarly overbite makes it difficult to hide her yellow teeth, and when she sniffs the air, which she does frequently, her upper lip twitches wildly. In her border patrol job, Tina is used to the nasty comments, the impolite stares. Almost nothing comes easily for someone like her. Luckily, Tina has an unusual talent. She can smell human emotions — fear, guilt, shame. She takes pride in her profession, and no one is better than her at (literally) sniffing out contraband. And so, even on the bleakest days in Tina’s life, she has at least some value here, at the border.

At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, director Ali Abbasi’s new feature Border won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section. In its first act, the film presents an inauspicious portrait of Tina’s daily life, oddly reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s miserablist Bleak Moments (1971). However, Abbasi’s film is an adaption of a John Ajvide Lindqvist story, the Swedish author behind Let the Right One In. Fittingly, then, Border is yet another fantastically melancholic take on (in)human cruelty and life on the fringes of society. It’s a film for the wayward wallflowers of the world, the ones that won’t stop talking about Morrissey. 

Who knows if the The Smiths even exist in the dreary world of Border? If only Tina had something — a copy of Hatful of Hollow, or perhaps just a hobby or a friend — to give her some feeling of connection to the world outside of herself. At home, she’s got a live-in boyfriend, Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), who can’t be bothered to think of her. At least he has some hobbies, such as eating cereal on the couch, wrestling with his scabies-infested show dog, and talking to mysterious strangers on the phone. Even Tina’s senile father (Sten Ljunggren), who quite literally forgets she exists, realizes that Roland is using her. She doesn’t mind. It’s better than being alone, she says.

Then Vore (Eero Milonoff) arrives, and everything is suddenly different for Tina. Standing in front of her, in the middle of the Swedish port, is a man with the same physical attributes: the aggressive overbite, the curious scars, the elongated snout. Yet, these cartoonish features seem to rest differently on his face. People don’t laugh at Vore: He’s too sure of himself, unnervingly so, to be the butt of anyone’s joke. When he insists that Tina and her co-worker search him, they don’t say no. And what do they learn? That Vore eats maggots — with aplomb, no less. More startling, however, is a series of realizations regarding Vore’s complex sexual identity. It’s this revelation that really pulls Tina closer to the forthright — if not a little charmless — drifter. What starts as a heady mix of disgust and arousal, soon turns into full-blown romantic obsession.

The titular ‘border’ references Tina’s job and the periphery role she assumes in daily life, of course. However, on a more self-reflexive level, the film seems to be commenting on its ever-shifting relationship with genre. At first it seems to be an ugly duckling story with a social realist edge, only to bloom into a gothic romance, a supernatural horror story, and a Nordic noir. For the most part, Border shifts through these modes effortlessly — quite the feat for a relatively young filmmaker like the 37-year-old Abbasi, here directing only his second feature. However, Border is not without its problems, most of which are confined to the last leg of the film. 

In one philosophically-charged discussion, Vore tells Tina that the “entire human race is a disease”. When he says it, it’s tough for Tina, and anyone watching the film, to disagree with him, even if they wanted to. And here’s where trouble arises: Everyone outside of Tina, including Vore, is obnoxiously cruel. When the noir scuzziness finally rears its ugly head — a pedophile ring is thriving in Sweden, which (of course) only Tina can help with — it all becomes a bit too much. (Unsurprisingly, this plot thread is not a part of Lindqvist’s original story.)

Furthermore, the film’s success hinges on viewer’s believing that Vore is, in some way, a good fit for Tina. It can be a wicked, toxic affair as long as audiences feel their attraction. Melander and Milonoff turn in tremendous performances — not even heavy silicon masks can conceal this — but the actors can only do so much heavy lifting. Vore may look like Tina, and he may be living proof that there are others out there like her, but he also seems to be just as vile and nasty as the rest of the world. It simply too difficult to believe in their romance and the transformative power it has on Tina.

Another 2018 film, Michael Pearce’s Beast, proves it’s possible to strike a balance between toxic personalities and life-changing romance. Vore doesn’t have to be a goody-goody for viewers to get caught up in the romance. What may be going wrong here is in the way Abbasi decided to approach the couple’s sexual encounters. It’s unflinching, almost documentary-like, and, boy, is it ever nasty. Abbasi seems to be well-intended, as this comes off as some sort of political statement; it unapologetically confronts the audience with non-normative sex. In other areas, this bold and uncompromising approach pays off big time. However, by the end of the film, it’s clear that Border is lacking nuance and the sort of tenderness that should be the film’s beating heart. It’s strange to say that a movie about bug-eating, sexually fluid creatures who that can smell emotions is somehow slight, but there you have it. 

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Cait Lore

A still from 'Cam'.
November 29, 2018
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.

Welcome to Mercy

2018 / USA / 103 min. / Dir. by Tommy Bertelsen / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov. 2, 2018

An occult chiller set primarily in an eerie Latvian convent, Tommy Bertelsen’s Welcome to Mercy is a lazy, muddled horror feature, but at least it’s wily about concealing that fact. Relying on an admittedly evocative setting and familiar demon-possession tropes, it almost succeeds in obfuscating the clumsiness of its storytelling. Spurred by her father’s ailing health, Americanized single mom Madeline (Kristen Ruhlin) returns to the Old World with her young daughter. However, this homecoming unleashes a hibernating unholy power in Madeline, and she reluctantly agrees to a spiritual convalescence at the nearby convent. Cue the confounding flashbacks, Satanic parlor tricks, and nunsploitation eroticism, none of it amounting to much. Bertelsen seems overly impressed with screenwriter Kristen Ruhlin’s plot – which is somehow both trite and confusing – and giddily drapes it with a foreboding that it never earns, even in hindsight. The performances, cinematography, and production design are all solid, but by the time the underwhelming “twist” ending arrives, it’s apparent how gravely the film’s craft has been wasted. Rating: C- [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Cam

2018 / USA / 94 min / Dir. by Daniel Goldhaber / Premiered online on Nov. 16, 2018

An existential techno-horror meltdown for the current, performative era of the digital age, Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam is centered on full-time camgirl Alice, a.k.a. “Lola” (Madeline Brewer), who live-streams her NC-17 frolicking and edgelord faux suicides to chatrooms of enthusiastic, anonymous viewers. As it chronicles the banal details of Alice’s routine with a stylized, candy-colored eye, Cam initially seems to be setting up a sex worker spin on the “obsessed fan” thriller. In truth, scripter Isa Mazzei – who drew from her own experiences as a camgirl – is up to something cleverer and much more unsettling. Abruptly, Alice discovers that she’s been locked out of her account by a doppelgänger who begins climbing in the rankings and siphoning her income. It’s this year’s Unfriended: Dark Web by way of Lost Highway (1997) and Enemy (2013), with a hefty dose of gig economy anxiety. Mazzei and Goldhaber take that heady concoction to some harrowing places, but they ultimately keep the story frustratingly grounded, never fully realizing its nightmarish potential. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

The Clovehitch Killer

2018 / 109 min. / Dir. by Duncan Skiles / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov 16, 2018

Drawing from real-world bogeymen such as Dennis “BTK” Rader, The Clovehitch Killer treats a hackneyed premise – the serial killer burrowed deep into the cozy camouflage of flyover suburbia – with an admirable, unfussy solemnity. Director Duncan Skiles sketches an uncommonly authentic portrait of whitebread evangelical family life around teenager Tyler (Charlie Plummer), whose discovery of an unsettling clue triggers a consuming paranoia that his square, blue-collar father (Dylan McDermott) is the killer who once stalked their small Kentucky town. There’s a measured, modest quality to Skiles’ filmmaking here that complements the veneer of Middle American normalcy – the family game nights and the scouting food drives – which the murderer uses as his hunting blind. Unfortunately, the director and screenwriter Christopher Ford never justify their earnest, ponderous approach to the story or their late-game structural shenanigans with any unexpected swerves or thematic depth. Clovehitch is too predictable to be a compelling thriller, but too hollow to be taken seriously as a critique of middle-class rot. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Wildlife'.
November 21, 2018
By Joshua Ray

The Fire Within

2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. by Paul Dano / Opened in select cities on Oct. 19, 2018; locally on Nov. 23, 2018

Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), pubescent son of Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), stands in the frame of their bathroom door, staringly lovingly and inquisitively at his mother. She’s readying herself to hit the streets of their new hometown, Helena, Mont., to look for work that will pay better than her part-time gig teaching swimming at the local YMCA. This situation has come about because Jerry has just abandoned his son and wife, signing up to fight the wildfires raging in the north – and ignoring his family’s wishes to the contrary – out of stubborn masculine pride. Joe and Jeanette exchange hopeful wishes for the future, with Joe seeking reassurance from the only person who should represent stability for him. Jeanette isn’t quite stable, though, already showing her penchant for irrational outbursts and flightiness. She questions her son’s trust in her thoughts and motivations, and to that he quips, “I don’t know what you’re thinking.”

The line is an encapsulation of Wildlife as a whole. Actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut – adapted by him and actress Zoe Kazan from the Richard Ford novel of the same name – is a quiet and contemplative film about the ultimately futile effort to truly understand another person. Positioned almost entirely from the youngest Brinson’s viewpoint, the film emerges as a carefully calibrated act of observation about observation itself. Dano often confidently rests his camera either directly on Joe or within his range of sight, allowing audience identification with a character who – possibly to the detriment of the film’s thrust, as this is a slow burn – largely remains a cypher. In this way, Wildlife often resembles a narrative culled from its main character’s memories, albeit one thankfully lacking any preening grasp at nostalgia. 

On the contrary, the film is a brutally frank investigation into identity formation and familial influence. Joe, capably played by newcomer Oxenbould, is mostly an innocent and passive bystander in his parents’ volatile relationship. Jerry’s preoccupation with fighting the wildfires stems from the absence of any other purpose in his life. “I got this hum inside my head. I need to do something about it,” he explains to his son as he obsessively watches documentary footage on their half-working television, rhetorically propping up the distant firefighters as heroes. As demonstrated by the family’s constant uprooting, Joe is a rolling stone that happened to gather moss in the form of a wife and son. When he’s fired from the golf course where he initially works, he refuses to return even after his employer concedes that it was a mistake to let him go. 

For Gyllenhaal, an actor who’s bounced from indies to mainstream in an effort for cred and relevancy, Jerry is a character that permits him to negotiate between fragile masculine force and a tender aching for purpose, a kind of amalgamation of his career-best roles in Nightcrawler (2014) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). Jerry’s request for an embrace from his son as he’s being shipped away is played beautifully by the actor, becoming a tragic reminder of Jerry’s need for love – one that is squarely at odds with his quest for importance. When he later finds out what his wife has been up to in his absence, Gyllenhaal becomes unexpectedly frightening, flailing and wailing like a wounded wild animal.

What exactly Jeanette has been up to is the main thrust of Wildlife. If the film can be thought of as mystery expressly about people, Jeanette is its complex puzzlebox center. She’s a former beauty queen – as she often likes to point out – once a young woman of promise who dropped out of college to raise her child. She’s just as stuck between stations as her husband; the sort of woman who might have been classified as a “manic depressive” by a doctor contemporary. The film thankfully forgoes any clinical diagnosis, but the 32 year-old woman does demonstrate wild flights of erratic behavior, a lack of impulse control, and severe bouts of hopelessness. Those symptoms having a meeting point when she drives her son up to the wildfires, not to visit his father, but to see the devastation in which the man has recklessly centered himself. Jeanette is also strong-willed, using charm and manipulation as she refuses to take no for an answer when she’s asking for work at the YMCA. That will is precisely what drives her spiral downward as she allows her family life to dangerously overlap her lascivious activities with a local wealthy older man (an appropriately skeezy Bill Camp).

Casting Carey Mulligan as Jeanette is a major coup for new director Dano. She has steadily become one of the most reliable female actors of her generation, just barely missing resounding recognition for any one of her great performances: Daisy in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013), put-upon Jean in the Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2014), or her breakout performance in Lone Scherfig’s An Education (2009). Here, the actor’s purposeful speech – an effort to supplant her British accent with a finely tuned American tenor – demonstrates Jeanette’s presentational manner. Mulligan’s performance is remarkably similar to the bolt of electricity that is Cate Blanchett as the titular character in Todd Hayne’s somewhat similar 2015 masterpiece, Carol. Much as Blanchett did with her complex role, Mulligan rarely misplaces a move or a look – save for Jeanette's moments of raw anguish and desperation – her eyes drawing the viewer and the film’s other characters in with the force of a gravitational pull. 

Also similar to Haynes’ film, Wildlife takes place during the middle of the 20th century, and it uses the aesthetic values of that era to its thematic benefit. Joe, against his father’s wishes, gets an after-school job at a portrait studio, and that same style of photography informs the color-drained and shallow-focus cinematography by Diego García – the lenser behind Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s gorgeous Cemetery of Splendor (2015) – as well as giving the film an apt (but possibly pat) resolution about capturing memories. Undoubtedly inspired by its rural Montana setting, Dano’s film is also indebted to pastoral American art, occasionally presenting painterly wide compositions as both an ode to the land and to showcase its oppressively loneliness. Notwithstanding its grand Western setting, however, Wildlife has small ambitions, possibly too small for some viewers. It’s a snapshot of a very specific time during in which a young man reckons with the truth of his upbringing and lineage. In other words, it’s perfect fodder for a green filmmaker to render on a large canvas for his first outing – one that proves supremely successful in this case.

Rating: B

 

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray