Beast (Directed by Michael Pearce)
From my review: There are some genuinely despairing moments, highlighting how a woman like Moll, coping with social-emotional issues can be used and beaten up by a society that just wants her to conform. She is pursued romantically by a local police officer whom Moll shuns when she ends with Pascal. Later, she needs this man’s help, and when she goes to him, he tosses her out on the street knowing her pleas are real and she is potentially going to be harmed. It’s a harsh moment and a significant turning point for Moll to come to the realization that she is by herself. The night that follows is transformative, including a metaphorical and literal self-burial. Moll emerges in the daylight with a plan to bring all this madness to an end.
Foxtrot (Directed by Samuel Maoz)
From my review: Foxtrot is a heartbreaking comedy-drama, able to evoke deep pathos but still retain a tone of surreality. At times, the images on the screen caused me to recall the films of Terry Gilliam and the early works of the Coen Brothers. Maoz isn’t interested in presenting a dour, bland didactic lecture on the problems in his home country but knows his work should be injected with passion and emotion, pointing out the absurdity of military life through a disconnect with the workings of reality. The final images of Foxtrot will jolt the viewer, bringing the vignettes the picture is composed of, to a single focal point, a visual reference to the dance in the title, we come back to where we started asking what we’ve gained from all of this.
Columbus (Directed by Kogonada)
From my review: Columbus is a very symmetrical film with its two lead characters paralleling each other from the start and then swapping situations by the end. Both Jin and Casey are struggling with their obligations to parents, with Jin saying he is comfortable not being there for his father and Casey unable to imagine not protecting her mother. One is coming back to a place they don’t want to be, and the other is trying to figure out if they should move on to somewhere else. There’s a romantic attraction between Jin and Casey, but neither the characters nor the filmmaker sees that as interesting territory to explore. This is a much more delicate business than some maudlin love story between two people. This is a movie that is melancholy without being sad, being honest with its audience about the fear that comes with making the first steps of your life.
A Fantastic Woman (Directed by Sebastian Lelio)
From my review: What I loved most about Marina was how quiet the role is and how the movie puts us in her head. Marina is not a loud person; she’s just a person, working a job to pay her bills and in love with someone who appreciates her without judgment. I wondered how much the film would acknowledge her transgender status and it’s clear from the first act that she’s going to struggle to have her right to grieve recognized by Orlando’s family. When they berate her or toss off insults saying she is “a perversion” or deadnaming her, you can read her face and body language and the pain they register. These verbal slights are like striking her across the face.
Happy End (Directed by Michael Haneke)
From my review: Haneke sees the middle class of Europe as wholly degraded into self-indulgence and obsessive gratification. Digital media appears to be the most comfortable access to the fix they need, and the culture is keeping them comfortably in their economic class, so they never have to think about the struggles of others. Pierre seems the most aware of what is happening in their community, the ongoing refugee crisis that continues to fill Europe with a servant class. One instance in the film involves the Laurents’ faithful Syrian housekeeper and butler whose daughter was bitten by their dog. The family’s immediate concern is that the dog not bite one of them while consoling the crying, injured little girl that it’s not that bad. Haneke makes sure the bite is bloody and nasty without becoming too gory. To the Laurents, threats are only dangerous if they are the ones who might get hurt.
The Florida Project (Directed by Sean Baker)
From my review: It would be dangerously easy for The Florida Project to slip into harmless sentiment. That’s often the case with films that deal with poverty. A filmmaker becomes too worried about being too harsh to his mostly middle-class audience that they soften the blows. Baker diminishes nothing about Moonee’s life. Hailey loves her daughter but doesn’t have the necessary opportunities to create a safe, healthy life. Moonee isn’t given any sense of discipline, and as a result, rifts form between Hailey and her friends with children. Others are trying to instill a sense of responsibility and respect for their kids, but Hailey is still a kid herself. We don’t dislike Hailey though, she is a strongly sympathetic character.
A Ghost Story (Directed by David Lowry)
From my review: There is a now-infamous scene of Rooney Mara eating a pie in the film. If you have heard about this scene but haven’t viewed it in the context of the entire movie, then I would understand why you would think it was art house drivel. However, what Lowrey is doing with time throughout A Ghost Story is playing on our perceptions of time during periods of grief and joy. The saddest moments of the movie are slowed down excruciatingly, emphasizing how in despair the hands of the clock move slowest. It feels like we will never move beyond the most profound pains. Lowrey counters this when our protagonist views his wife making the first steps to overcome her grief. Her morning exit for work begins to happen in rapid succession; an overwhelming loop. This reflects how when events in our lives are happy we can feel like we are desperately trying to hold on before they are over.
Call Me By Your Name (Directed by Luca Guadagnino)
From my review: The story of Call Me By Your Name is less concerned with plot as it is the characters’ experiences, sensory and of the heart. The narrative unfolds lazily, in much the same way barefoot and shirtless Elio meanders through the terracotta tiled hallways of his house and through the apricot orchards nearby. Timothée Chalamet has a been a presence in cinema for some years, with audiences likely recognizing him from a supporting part in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. It is under Guadagnino’s guiding hand that this remarkable actor has experienced his unveiling. He imbues Elio with the sort of brash adolescent arrogance that at first pushes us away but is slowly revealed as a buffer for the stir of volatile emotions and feelings.
Loveless (Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev)
From my review: Director Andrey Zvyagintsev is not cherished by the Russian government. His previous film Leviathan drew the ire of Putin and so no government arts funding was offered up. Instead, Zvyagintsev procured international financing and made Loveless anyway. He is deeply concerned with the total lack of empathy fostered in contemporary Russia. It could be argued that empathy has always had a hard time in Russian society, but for the purposes of this film, Zvyagintsev is examining it in a modern context, in a post-Yeltsin, Putin context. He intends for his two lead characters to be profoundly unsympathetic but not so gross in their behaviors that we cannot connect with them. If a film audience only ever allows themselves to feel a connection with positive, constructive characters, then they are not honest about their human nature.
The Death of Stalin (Directed by Armando Iannucci)
From my review: Yes, the movie is about the death of Josef Stalin and the subsequent backstabbing that followed. But Iannucci is not just interested in lampooning the now-defunct Soviet Union. His work on The Thick of It was a direct incendiary commentary on British politics of the post-9/11 era. Veep is a response to the growth of neoliberal ideology in American politics. The Death of Stalin appears to be a continuation of themes developed on both those television works. Iannucci believes power should be mocked to its face, that authority should be the first taken down by artists, and it should be done without mercy. The ceremonial veneration lauded onto the world’s leaders is vacuous and laughable. Instead, the director reminds us even the most enshrined figures of history are fallible humans, inclined to indulge their vices rather than their virtues.
Phantom Thread (Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
From my review: Daniel Day-Lewis is no slouch, reminding us once again why we consider him one of the great film actors of our age. It is almost unbelievable that this is the same man who played Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. The mannerisms, physicality, and demeanor of these characters could not be more different yet so perfectly capture the nature of their respective nations. The similarities are that Reynolds and Plainview are both men who savor their power over others, who actively subjugate others to their whims. While Plainview wishes to be rid of all people and have his mansion to himself in the finale, Reynolds demands he has people there to perform his maddening dance of submission. He lives in emotional cycles of hunger, satiation, boredom, frailty, and then hunger again. The women he invites into his home are unwitting victims of this cycle and his sister, Cyril is the one who enables it to exercise her own personal sense of power.
The Rider (Directed by Chloe Zhao)
From my review: Zhao tells the story of the male identity and the myth of the cowboy through this quiet passage in Brady’s life. His friends circle around him assuring the young man that he will make a comeback and be riding competitively again. There is constant encouragement from people around him, but it is Brady who harbors internal doubts. He begins experiencing small seizures that seize up one of his hands which he has to pry back open with the other. He’s not going to die from his injuries but he may well if he gets back up in the saddle again. His best friend Lane acts as a warning, played by Lane Scott another real-life rider who was injured so severely he was left partially paralyzed and incapable of speech. Scott’s performance is remarkable, able to convey a wide range of emotions despite the limits of physical capabilities. You can see joy, concern, sadness, every feeling imaginable pass across Scott’s face.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
From my review: The opening shot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer sets the stage for what you are about to see. After a brief musical overture, we go from black to the image of an actual human heart, splayed open in a patient’s chest during surgery, writhing and pulsing. The camera slowly pulls up from this overhead shot but never far enough away to get this raw, visceral image off the screen. Director Lanthimos is about to put us through an intensely uncomfortable and horrific cinematic experience. This heart is one of only a few moments of gore, as Lanthimos chooses to evoke horror through profoundly strange and awkward conversations, punctuated just by sharp, dissonant strings.
First Reformed (Directed by Paul Schrader)
From my review: Typically I am not too fond of a voice-over in films, and it is often used as a narrative crutch when a filmmaker or studio doesn’t feel confident in the storytelling of a picture. However, the voice-over (readings from Toller’s daily journal) works because it is an internal thought process after the fact that informs the audience of how Toller has come to feel about the events of the day. The viewer gets to hear these thoughts while the situation is taking place, so it recontextualizes what is happening in front of us. The best example is the exchange between Toller and Michael where the Reverend appears to be distraught with what Michael is telling him. The voice-over reveals that Toller feels exhilarated by their debate, referring to Jacob wrestling with the angel. Toller has a rebellious nature that simmers and never truly comes to fruition in the film, but we see him staring over the edge and into oblivion by the conclusion.
Blade Runner 2049 (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)
From my review: There’s no way in words to convey the power of this film, it honestly has to be experienced. However, we are here so I will attempt to put together something that gets across an iota of what it felt like to see this picture. The first thing that feels like the original Blade Runner is the music. Composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch manage to capture the exact essence of Vangelis without ever sounding like pure copycats. There are familiar cues but woven into new themes, all utilizing the vast droning electronic landscape. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is stunning. He has been a regular collaborator of the Coen Brothers as well as Villeneuve, but he has never delivered something so gorgeous and intricate. Deakins masters the use of shadow and light that frankly looks better than the original, and that is saying a lot. There is one moment of sheer beauty where the embers of fire become the lights of a sprawling cityscape that has to be seen.
Good Time (Directed by Benny & Josh Safdie)
From my review: The film accurately captures the quicksand mire that living on the edge of poverty can bring. Characters are pushed to make illegal choices because their options are limited. They display very little sense of long-term critical thinking because they are like animals being rattled in a cage, always kept off balance so they cannot think beyond the present. The movie never lets Connie off with this excuse though. He is still an adult who is ultimately responsible for his actions, and he savages some people over the course of the story. It’s hard to forget how Connie leaves a security guard beaten to a pulp and overdosing on LSD. He manipulates his older girlfriend who seems to exhibit some emotional problems. He weasels his way into an elderly woman’s home and drives off with her granddaughter. Every action leads to a plethora of complications and betrayals. While he is the protagonist of the film he is in no way the hero. His story is beyond merely a tragic drama and into the realm of horror.
You Were Never Really Here (Directed by Lynne Ramsay)
From my review: What You Were Never Really Here is actually about is the despair of victims of abuse. Joe is a victim. Nina, the girl he is rescuing, is a victim of abuse. Joe’s mother was the victim of abuse. Joe has become her caregiver as a response to his knowledge of her victimhood. We never get the full detail of what happened to the two of them decades ago, only brief flashes. Joe has suicidal ideation in the form of suffocation; this is how the movie introduces us to him. There is a looming sense of despair throughout the picture. But then the ending comes, and you think you know this is going to end in some nihilistic fashion. And it doesn’t. And you have hope.