Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) Written & Directed by Dan Gilroy
Morf Vanderwalt is a dissatisfied art critic searching for something that will bring inspiration to him both personally and professionally. His relationships with other members of the art community are all transactional leaving him even more hollow. Josephina, a lover of Morf’s and an agent in the art world, discovers a neighbor has died, and his home is full of hypnotic, unsettling artwork. Ventril Dease is the deceased artist and no matter who glimpses his Goya-esque paintings they seem enthralled. Art gallery owner Rhodora Haze sees a long term market for Dease and decides to squirrel away most of the thousands of pictures to trickle them out slowly over time. This is when the strange deaths begin, and Morf starts to realize that there is an evil presence surrounding this artwork.
Black Swan (2010) Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Nina is a ballerina working in a New York ballet company with aspirations of maybe becoming the lead dancer one day. Her chances arrive sooner than she realizes when prima ballerina Beth, aging and bitter about what the director has made her do over the years, is pushed aside for Nina in the lead role of Swan Lake. Thomas, the company’s director, is growing increasingly frustrated with what he says is Nina’s constraining inhibitions. While technically perfect she lacks the passion he wants to see and uses new company member Lily as an example of real emotion in the work. Nina’s mother doesn’t help things by creating a perpetual childhood in their apartment, treating the young woman the same as she did when Nina was a girl. All of this pressure begins to show the cracks in Nina’s psyche as she glimpses a shadow-self, a doppelganger wandering the streets living a life parallel to our protagonist. What is real and what is in the life of the mind begin to blur and dissolve.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Written by Charlie Brooker Directed by David Slade
Stefan Butler is a young man obsessed. It’s 1984, and he is plugging away at adapting the cult novel Bandersnatch, a choose your own adventure style book, into a PC game. He pitches the unfinished version of the game to the new kid on the block game company Tuckersoft. Butler lives at home under the worried gaze of his father while attending therapy sessions with Dr. Haynes. With Dr. Haynes, he talks about and relives the moment in his life that has caused the most trauma, the tragic death of his mother. Bandersnatch was something she left behind and, because of that emotional tie, he has become obsessed with the tome. From there, things get weird as the film is an interactive presentation, much like the book the viewer will choose the paths Stefan goes down, and that’s where the problems begin.
Here are the best shows I watched over the course of 2018.
Detroiters Seasons 1 & 2 (Comedy Central) It’s always my luck to get into a show as soon as the network decides to cancel it. That is also true of the best thing I (re)watched on this list which you’ll see at the end. Detroiters is a show co-created by and starring Sam Richardson (Veep) and Tim Robinson (SNL). The series tells the story of best friends Tim and Sam who are running Tim’s dad’s advertising agency after his father ends up having a nervous breakdown and is committed. So the duo goes about creating advertisements for clients that aren’t something you’d see airing outside a local market. However, the show isn’t even really about the workplace; its strengths are the friendship between its two central characters and the highlighting the city of Detroit. The comedy here is not meant to shock you, but it also isn’t without an edge, it’s a wonderful balance you don’t find too often anymore. You can’t help but genuinely feel good after watching an episode.
I spent the year watching and revisiting the entire film catalog of distributor/producer A24. Now that I’ve seen all they have to offer, here are my top twenty favorites in ascending order.
20. Lean on Pete (2018) – Written & Directed by Andrew Haigh
From my review: It was so much darker and bleaker than that. Yes, there is somewhat of an uncertain happy ending at the film’s conclusion, but overall Lean on Pete is a character study of a young man put through the wringer by life. I loved it. I don’t think I have seen a picture in a long time that so unflinchingly depicts the descent into homelessness that a young person can encounter. Charley tries to argue that he isn’t to a fellow transient in a shelter, who replies with a chuckle and lets Charley know, “Sorry to break it to you kid…”
The city of Kingsport is unique in that it is home to 40,000 ghosts, most of whom died under tragic circumstances at the old mental hospital. Mayor Tracy cleared that building away to make room for a strip mall plaza and has relocated the wandering spirits to the Ghost Town neighborhood, effectively a ghetto. It’s been years since a significant supernatural occurrence in the city until tonight when a shadowy figure kills a pizza delivery boy. There are also reports of Dax Lycander, a werewolf who used to work for Yummy Yummy Chinese Delivery is back in town. Astrid, the pizza boy’s ex, is determined to avenge his murder and sets out to lure the killer out into the open. However, there is much more happening in the shadows of Kingsport that Astrid realizes.
The Favourite (2018) Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
In the early 18th century, Britain engages with France in war. All of that is unimportant because we are front and center in the court of the highly dysfunctional, depressed, and insecure Queen Anne. She is in the middle of a tug of war between the Whigs (who seek the war to continue until a victory is secured) and the Tories (who are tired of being taxed to fund a seemingly never-ending battle). Showing very little interest in all of these boring matters of state, Anne allows her longtime friend and confidante Lady Sarah Marlborough to handle them. Sarah is quite comfortable by the queen’s side and in her bed until her estranged cousin Abigail arrives. This wastrel finds a place as a scullery maid but wants to regain a position of import. Abigail cleverly listens and observes learning all she can about the court and in particular the specific whims of Anne. A power struggle begins between cousins, Sarah versus Abigail, a polite war that escalates quickly.
The Favourite is a film that left me thinking, without hesitation, “this is a masterpiece.” I am a rare fan of period pieces, particularly English historical ones. However, the lure of director Yorgos Lanthimos brought me to this one. His acidic humor has given us great films like Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The promise of more of his particular style combined with the talents of the three actresses helming this production (Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Coleman) was enough to entice me to the theater with little argument. What I found was a profoundly complex comedy about depression and the nature of codependency. Overlooking the trimmings of the age, the story at the heart of The Favourite is both relevant for our modern political times and our personal experiences.
Queen Anne, played stunningly by Olivia Coleman, is a walking shambles of a human being. The only thing that keeps her going is the fact that she is the queen of England. She’s plagued by nighttime throbs of gout that have forced her to use either crutches or a wheelchair. Anne harbors an infection of sorrow and pain over the death of all seventeen of her children. She cannot even enjoy the simplest of sweets without her stomach going into fits forcing her to vomit it up. The combination of physical ailments and emotional ones has made every personal relationship she has a potentially dangerous one. Any person that gets into her good graces is going to have their lifeforce drained from them. Sarah appears to be managing this as well as anyone can, giving into Anne’s desires while using a stern hand to rebuke her honestly. The film, much to its benefit, never truly makes Sarah’s intentions clear. She’s been friends with Anne since they were little girls and keeps it real with the monarch. However, there is an ever-present unanswered question about what Sarah truly wants. The film makes it clear that no one at Court is there out of goodwill.
Sarah and Abigail prove to be proper foils for each other. Sarah is well versed in the political process, having been raised as a noble since birth. She dresses in a masculine manner after her husband leaves for the war, wearing pants and jackets, allowing her to slide into the realm of men without any question. Sarah can maneuver with ease when it comes to balancing the moodiness of the queen and the demands of Parliament. Abigail acts as a wrench in the gears practicing a more improvisational act to gain the affections of Anne. Abigail appeals to the emotions of Anne; her first gesturing is embracing an element of Anne’s life that Sarah rejects in the opening scene. Unlike Sarah, it is blatantly apparent to the audience that Abigail has a reason to manipulate the queen. She was lost by her father in a card game and spent years with an old man whom she worked to escape. Abigail tells a member of the court that she isn’t on anyone’s side except her own and that fate sometimes causes her side to coincide with another’s.
The Favourite keeps in tone with being a pitch black film as we would expect from Yorgos Lanthimos. He isn’t here to offer a happy ending, but rather an honest one. There’s no way these three characters, after the way they venomously manipulate and emotional torture each other, are going to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They orbit around a figure who is trapped in her neuroses and has been given near limitless power. There’s no real escape, and the hill they scale has no summit. Everything is the mire, and they are wallowing in it.