February 19th, 2019

Best of 2018! And more…

Before I list my favorites of 2018, here’s a recap of other films covered by CHIRP’s Fourth Wall last year:

One of my all-time favorite relationship films, Drinking Buddies delves into a quartet of intertwined Chicagoans, two of whom are co-workers at a local microbrewery. What are we all looking for in relationships? Director Joe Swanberg emerged a decade ago as one of the champions of the “mumblecore” film movement which strives for authenticity, and here, all four characters seem completely honest and real.

When it comes to the bank-robbing brothers Connie and Nick in Good Time, well — the ultra-suave Rat Pack this is not. After a bungled heist ends with a sack of worthless money and Nick in custody, Connie is forced to ad-lib an assortment of schemes over the next 24 hours in the hopes of freeing him… with misfortune befalling any unfortunate soul who gets sucked in along the way.

With any and all political documentaries, “truth” is a murky subject, and it’s no different in 13th. Director Ana DuVernay’s agitprop film was a compelling launching point for a discussion on race, politics, and the criminal justice system. As for her answers? Your Mileage May Vary based on your worldview.

In director Jason Reitman’s Tully, there’s a montage early on that spins us between diaper-changing, wailing, and assorted spills in rapid-fire fashion. It didn’t take much imagination for this humble scribe to visualize childrearing as an exhausting horrorshow. So how does Marlo (Charlize Theron) deal? Enter Tully…

While I was disappointed with his latest offering The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ distinctive brand of deadpan weirdness was on full display in his previous film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Here, he asks the question: how much stress can we inject into a household before even fundamentally serene people start to crack?

And now for my Top 10 of 2018:

1)Leave No Trace — Ben Foster plays a PTSD-stricken vet who lives with his teenage daughter in the woods outside of Portland, until he’s forced to vacate and falls into the hands of social services. One of the rare films that truly has no villains; almost everyone the pair meets is trying to help and do right by them in some way, but Foster’s unspoken past won’t let him re-integrate with society. His daughter (Thomasin McKenzie in a brilliant performance), however, isn’t bound by those same constraints, and doesn’t understand why they can’t be part of a community. (The photo at the top of this post was a still from this film.)

2)The Rider — Chinese director Chloe Zhao turned her camera on the world of horse farming and rodeo riding in South Dakota, and essentially posed the question, “What if you knew you were put on Earth to do one thing… and then were no longer able to do it?” Enter rodeo rider Brady, who has just suffered a severe injury at the start of the film, and finds himself facing this very dilemma. When I first saw the film, I was astounded at the level of authenticity, and then I learned that Zhao’s cast was comprised entirely of non-actors. Brady Jandreau really is a horse trainer, and the people playing his father and sister are in fact his real family.

3)Roma — Another first-time actor, Yalitza Aparicio, stars as a maid for a well-to-do family in 1970s Mexico, during a time of political unrest. “Quiet desperation” is the name of the game for many of the films on this list, and especially so for Aparacio’s Cleo, whose navigation through socioeconomic spheres brings to mind a (much) less-stuffy version of British “upstairs/downstairs” tales like Gosford Park. Shot in B&W by Alfonso Cuaron, who also wrote the screenplay — it’s a semi-autobiographical depiction of his own upbringing.

4)Wildlife — What happens to the women who tend to the homesteads while the men are off fighting war? Carey Mulligan is a wife whose aimless husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) splits town to join the forces waging battle against forest fires in 1960s Montana. She’s got rent to pay, a teenage son to feed, and no money coming in from her spouse… so what’s her play? And how does that mesh with the newfound attention from an automobile dealer (Bill Camp), the wealthiest man in town? At what point does pragmatism take over? Stunning performance by Mulligan here — this is her film to carry.

5) They Shall Not Grow Old — I’ve grown wary of documentaries in recent years due to oversaturation of the genre, but this World War I film from director Peter Jackson is a stunning achievement on both technical and storytelling levels. Jackson and his team of studio wizards have resurrected the grainy archival footage of the war with stunning clarity. And this ain’t Ted Turner colorizing classic movies to the horrors of cinephiles; as Jackson explained in the post-film “Making Of” feature, the original cameramen would’ve loved to have had color and consistent frame rates if such a thing were possible at the time. Did I also mention the sound? When the audio accounts of the soldiers are meshed with recreated artillery blasts and gunfire, you are there in the thick of the action. For better or worse.

6) Ava — Along with Wadjda (2012, Saudi Arabia) and Mustang (2015, Turkey), this Iranian film is another gut-wrenching look at life for young girls growing up in conservative Muslim societies — and the consequences of even appearing to step outside of the rigid expectations for females. High-school student Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is an exemplary student and musician… but what will people think if word spreads that (gasp!) she’s been seen with a boy? All three film mentioned above were written and directed by women of Middle Eastern descent, and in particular, Wadjda was the first movie made by a Saudi Arabian woman in Saudi Arabia. The times-they-are-a-(finally)-changin’.

7) First Reformed — Where does Ethan Hawke rank among Gen X actors? Is there a better Everyman out there right now? Writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) tells a tale of a pastor (Hawke) who counsels a pregnant woman who’s pressured by her husband to have an abortion; the husband thinks that mankind’s mistreatment of the planet will render the world inhospitable for future generations. And it seems that the pastor begins to agree. Should he be compelled to act, even violently, in the name of environmental justice? We’re privy to his thoughts and internal debate via a journal-turned-inner monologue. The ending is a bit polarizing, but this was a thoroughly engrossing, Slow Burn tale.

8) Loveless — Remember Kramer Vs. Kramer, where Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play parents who are both fighting for custody of their son? In the Russian film Loveless, it’s apparent that neither of the separated couple want to be saddled with their 10-year-old boy. Ugh. The soon-to-be-divorced parents have yet to sell their condo, but have already settled into new relationships, and one night, neither of them return home to keep an eye on their kid. By the next morning… he’s gone. And so begins a manhunt that re-opens many of the wounds between the two along the way. When combined with the backdrop of a Russian winter, Loveless is as bleak as a film you’ll find all year. (What a tagline for the movie poster! Trust me, it’s also rather cathartic.)

9) Madeline’s Madeline — What price art? This film brought to mind the notorious wars waged between director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, where Herzog often drove the mercurial Kinski to the brink of insanity (and then some) in the hopes of securing superlative performances. In Madeline’s Madeline, theater director Evangeline (Molly Parker) showers young actress Madeline (Helena Howard, in a fantastic debut) with the sort of praise and attention that Madeline has a much tougher time eliciting from her mom (Miranda July). Along the way, Evangeline keeps pushing and pushing her protégé to bring dark secrets to the fore during rehearsals, and… did I mention that Madeline was taking medication for mental illness? Enter the Unreliable Narrator. Standout performances from all three leads here.

10) Summer 1993 The second of two autobiographical tales on the list, Summer 1993 is Spanish director Carla Simón’s recollection of her childhood at age 7 — when her mother died and she moved to the Catalan countryside to live with her uncle and his family. Young Frida (Laia Artigas) is confused and upset, and doesn’t quite know how to express her anxiety at the situation. Probably the best performance I’ve seen from a child actress since Onata Aprile in 2012’s What Maisie Knew (another one of my favorites).

Honorable Mention: Border, Three Identical Strangers, Eighth Grade, Free Solo

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Kevin Fullam is a writer and researcher, with extensive experience in fields ranging from sports analytics to politics and cinema.

In addition, he has hosted two long-running radio series on film and culture, and taught mass media at Loyola University.

Episodes of his two shows, Split Reel and Under Surveillance, are archived on the Radio page.