Love, 2018

2018 may be the year studios caught up with indie filmmakers.

We saw the first major studio film featuring an LGBT protagonist as the lead in Love, Simon. The popcorn-friendly MCU brought themes of structural inequality and national guilt to the masses in the global phenomenon Black Panther. Big budget sci-fi went existential horror with Annihilation.

And best of all, these were great movies. In the past few years, it felt like the balance of quality had tipped largely to the independent side (where, to be sure, filmmakers often have a larger degree of creative freedom) but these gutsier, more artistic sensibilities made their way into the studio system as the big players took “risks” on inclusion, social awareness, and complicated themes, and managed to turn out some terrific films.

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“When the sun goes down and the band won’t play, I’ll always remember us this way.”

As much as I’ve enjoyed my time in movie theaters this year, I’m a little sad why I have more time to go there – 2018 also saw the end of FilmStruck, the (now, apparently) too-good-to-be-true streaming service offered by the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies. It was a tremendous digital cinema resource, enabling me to plow through many of the Italian films from Criterion (a personal goal of mine) as well as explore their proactive curation of films. I particularly enjoyed their selections for June 2018 (LGBTQ Pride Month), and discovered some great titles I hadn’t seen like The Watermelon Woman, The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant, and introduced me to the wacky world of Derek Jarman. It was a great product while it lasted, and I look forward to the return of the Criterion Channel soon. If it’s anything like FilmStruck was, there’s a lot to look forward to!

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a look back at my 2018 in film:

  • 212 movies seen (0.58 per day, up from last year’s run rate of 0.52 per day)
  • First movie seen: The Big Sick (2017)
  • Last movie seen: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

TOP 10 LIST:

  1. A Star is Born – It’s funny that a movie concerning a veteran rocker and a rising pop singer is less about fame and celebrity than it is about love. I saw it three times in seven days, and each time was fully transported and engrossed in this intimate epic. No other movie this year followed the open road of love, in all its beauty and ugliness, quite as poignantly as this one.
  2. Love, SimonLove, Simon is not showy, flashy, or attention-grabbing. It is a well-crafted, heartfelt high school comedy that is extraordinary in its ordinariness. Weepy coming-out movies are a dime a dozen, but a quality teen studio movie featuring a gay lead is literally a “first” in 2018. Long after its trailblazing status is an asterisk in history, Love, Simon will continue to be a warm, reassuring movie to visit again and again.
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  3. Avengers: Infinity War – It may be surprising to place this above another MCU entry (which I also love), but Infinity War truly hit all the right notes for me, as both a stand-alone film and elevating established  MCU heroes to their highest stakes and best moments to date. I’m moved to tears by the sacrifices by the Guardians of the Galaxy, feel the lightning adrenaline of Thor brandishing his shiny new ax, and am horrified by the gut-punch ending. This was a massive movie with dozens of stars and sky-high expectations, and they still pulled it off.
  4. Annihilation – I ended up in this cerebral sci-fi as the “plan B” movie of the night, and I’m so glad I did. Possibly the scariest movie of the year, this wholly unsettling journey pits a team of soldiers against alien elements in a battle against time and an unknowable enemy. Alex Garland’s latest is haunting and unforgettable.Annihilation-Movie-2018-Extended-Tv-Spot-Natalie-Portman
  5. Incredibles 2 – Our favorite superhero family is back, in all their mid-century modern glory. The plot and new characters are twisty and occasionally hard to follow, but the ride is a ton of fun and Brad Bird’s intelligent script is endlessly entertaining and quotable. “Done properly, parenting can be a heroic act.”
  6. Black Panther – This cultural phenomenon is possibly the most surprising, though deserving, hit of the year. Its uncomfortable themes of imperialist guilt and the obligations of those more fortunate are captured powerfully by Michael B. Jordan’s ruthless Killmonger, a villain both tragic and despicable. What’s also striking is how comparatively little T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) himself is in it, compared to the impact by Killmonger and the delightful leading ladies of Wakanda: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira, who also steals her scenes in Infinity War), and Shuri (Leticia Wright).
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  7. Hereditary – Another spooky favorite, this (also genuinely horrifying) pick crawls under your skin, lays eggs, and tears you open when you least expect it. Toni Colette is deservedly earning praise for her knockout performance, and Alex Wolff is also noteworthy for his portrayal of her troubled son in this demented family drama.
  8. Mary Poppins Returns – This delightful musical is one of those films where every element, from art direction, costume design, music, all the way to acting and performance, come together so harmoniously it’s easy to take for granted. Arguably more than the original, Mary Poppins Returns sets a clear through-line and each segment cleanly follows that trajectory, delivering memorable moments every step of the way. The finale is a warm reminder of just how magical the movies can be.
  9. Suspiria – The third arthouse horror on the list (can you tell I’m a genre guy?), Suspiria is a big, gutsy, bloody bite into an iconic classic, but spits out an entirely new demon entirely. For its entire two-and-a-half-hour runtime, director Luca Guadagnino casts an unsettling, though surprisingly moving, spell with themes of motherhood, survivor’s guilt, and forgiveness all while trapping us in a Berlin dance academy run by witches. It’s insane on paper, it’s insane to watch, and it’s one of the year’s best.suspiria-dakota-e1538244414570
  10. The Nun – This feels a little goofy to include, but I’ve made my list and checked it twice, and can’t deny how much fun this fifth (!) Conjuring movie is. It’s not particularly scary, but it’s delightfully atmospheric, with more fog, candles, and shadows than you’ll know what to do with. Taissa Farmiga also shines playing against type as a likable character.

Note: There’s a handful of 2018 films still on my watch list, including Roma, Eighth Grade, Green Book, and Vice.

  • Notable Discoveries in 2018:
    • Forty Guns
    • The Gospel According to St. Matthew
    • The Lodger
    • A Matter of Life and Death
    • Maurice
    • Paisan
    • Seduced and Abandoned
    • The Seventh Seal
    • The Young Girls of Rochefort
    • Women in Love
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The Young Girls of Rochefort are also Women in Love!
  • MOST-WATCHED:
    • Coco (4x)
    • Love, Simon (4x)
    • Call Me By Your Name (3x)
    • A Star is Born (2018) (3x)

What were your favorite films & discoveries from 2018? Any special movie memories? Reply below in the comments!

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Vox Lux (2018)

This holiday season, as you and your loved ones decide which holiday classic, or new release, to experience together, the right choice may not be Vox Lux. It is deeply troubling, abrasive, and polarizing. It is also (unfortunately) very timely, haunting, and profoundly thought-provoking.

One foggy morning in 1999, tragedy strikes at a suburban middle school. A teen boy commits a horrific mass shooting. Music student Celeste survives, through painful physical therapy and a bullet permanently lodged in her spine. She and her older sister Ellie express their mourning through song, capturing the hearts, and attention, of their community and the nation. Celeste is snatched away and groomed for a life of pop stardom, plunging her into an adult world of drug use, physical intimacy, and a bitter cynicism beyond her teen years.

Her innocence and light is extinguished that horrible day, and she’s left bearing the scars the rest of her life. As the years pass, the sweet, artistic girl in music class is unrecognizable in the cruel, arrogant demeanor of adult Celeste (played to outrageous perfection by Natalie Portman). Closer to the present era, another tragedy strikes, and all eyes are on Celeste as to what her next move will be: cancel her hometown concert, speak out, or conduct business as usual. Her management asks her whether she’s going to perform tonight as planned, and Celeste shrugs it off, asserting that pop music makes people happy and keeps their mind away from reality.

Light and dark are presented both as a dichotomy, though invariably linked concepts throughout Vox Lux. At its narrative core, a traumatic act of evil is what spurs the initial artistic expression, or at least its introduction to the world. If the attack hadn’t taken place, would Celeste and Ellie have written such a beautiful song? And if they had, would they have had the world’s attention, and been catapulted to stardom?

The darkness is the fuel powering and driving the light, which is senselessly snuffed out by acts of cruelty and evil. Even in the present-day, Celeste is snappy with her daughter Albertine, practically a reincarnation of the optimistic girl Celeste once was. She is the result of an early encounter by young Celeste with a male rock star, itself a meeting that would never have taken place without the tragedy, or the access and platform it brought Celeste. Like a phoenix, from the darkness comes a new light, itself in danger of having its innocence destroyed by the adult world.

At first glance, Vox Lux feels so timely due to its disturbing content, not a stretch from what’s in the newspapers more and more often. But deeper to its core, it asks how we respond to such horrific acts of evil, and the imprint it can leave on the human spirit. We can let it consume us and allow it to spread, or we can confront it head-on, shining a light in the darkness.

A Star is Born (2018)

When Lady Gaga’s The Monster Ball concert tour first hit amphitheaters in late 2009, it was hailed as transcending the traditional live music experience. While formally a rock concert, her breakout tour had equal components of underground dance rave (first-pumping fury with pulsating trance beats), experimental avant-garde filmmaking (projected as thought-provoking interludes between sets), and musical theater (complete with a story, characters, and recurring thematic elements). It expanded so far beyond the definition of a typical concert, it grew into a bedazzled, indescribable gem beyond classification.

The same, astoundingly, can be said for A Star is Born. Yes, it is a movie, and within the frame displays raw, adrenaline-fueled concert footage, behind the camera some excellent directorial finesse by first-timer Bradley Cooper, and on the soundtrack is some of the finest music Lady Gaga has ever recorded. This is more than a film triumph, but also a musical breakout (having flown to the top of the album charts and six of the top ten songs on iTunes), and showcases incredibly talented artists working at the top of their crafts.

The editing is both powerful and purposeful: coasting through plot formalities and allowing breathing room so intimate moments can play out organically. The acting is natural and authentic, with uncomfortably long beats as the characters struggle to articulate themselves, or swallow their tongues in the midst of an emotional exchange. The cinematography is inspired, often keeping us medium length from the action but always focused on a character; we are on this road tour with them and see the world through their eyes.

And what a journey it is. It doesn’t take long for rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) to discover Ally (Lady Gaga) as the lone female singer in a drag bar. From then on, she becomes his muse, collaborator, and even eclipses his fame as his star beings to fade. Through all its ups and downs, Cooper and Gaga are equals for the entire ride. It is an exciting meta journey to watch these two work together, as fictional characters, knowing (in real life) how both are stretching their creative chops into new territory: Cooper as a first-time director, and not known for being a singer, and Gaga in her first starring role in a feature film.

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Though even more than seeing two exceptionally talented people command the screen (and what happens behind the camera), A Star is Born is an emotionally involving, wonderfully intimate love story. As painful and trying as love can be, this is a film that asks us how much we can put up with, and how far we will go, to defend the honor of those we care for. Two individuals who share one heart are together for the ride, no matter where the road might take them. That’s the challenge, the threat, and the exciting possibility of love. A Star is Born shows us all the bumps in the road, but reminds us how worthwhile the journey still is.

I’m off the deep end
Watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground

Crash through the surface
Where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

“The stars turn and a time presents itself.”

– Twin Peaks (2017)

A collection of foreigners, scattered across the globe, gather together on a remote island. The accusation of a love affair between professor and pupil. Free love is a bargaining tool to get from one place to another. Is this challenging, arthouse cinema? No, it’s friggin’ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

This sequel has been on my radar for a while; I really enjoyed the stage musical and I saw the first film twice in its opening weekend ten years ago. But time and space matter not in the Mamma Mia!-verse, as I have come to learn since seeing the sequel less than one day ago.

I was first intrigued by the device of time by the “payoff” poster revealed a few weeks prior to the movie’s release: a dock featuring the entire cast, including “doubles” of characters in their past and present iterations. I was, admittedly, bothered and a little confused that two Donnas, two Tanyas, two Rosies, and two of all the guys were somehow gathered together, somehow transcended time and space to gather together for this group photo.

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Two Donnas, two Rosies, but only one Cher.

As I reflect on this cinematic journey though, my frustration may have been unfair and unfounded. I thought it a silly oversight somehow – maybe the graphic designer didn’t know they were two separate generations of the same characters, and why would they be together all at once. I never once considered it was deliberate, perhaps even foreshadowing.

You see, timelines in the Mamma Mia!-verse are more fluid than the lovely vocals of ABBA. The sequel Here We Go Again is both prequel and sequel, following Sophie as a young married woman, and also flashing back to her mom Donna after she graduates from college and underwent an international sexual awakening. We’re supposed to see parallels between the two narratives, and this is reiterated many times visually: a camera panning up to the sun-kissed sky in one time line, then scrolling back down in another place and time altogether; sliding down a staircase with the carefree young Donna, decades before Sophie descends down the very same steps; and, very memorably, one of them throws up into the toilet, and the camera pans out to reveal the other. Like mother, like daughter indeed!

Time is completely shattered, however, come the polyester-drenched finale number “Super Trooper,” featuring young Donna, Tanya, Rosie; adult Donna, Tanya, Rosie; young Sam, Bill, Harry; adult Sam, Bill, Harry; and of course Sophie and Cher are there too. The youthful and more senior Tanyas even slither back-to-back, sing in the other’s face, and look one another in the eyes. Even more astounding is their sheer coolness about it; they are neither surprised nor confused about seeing the younger/older version of themselves, as if crossing time to be with oneself at another age were perfectly natural.

Making the unnatural natural may be the underlying conceit, or perhaps message, of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Just as the plot is wrapping up with a bow at the end, a cameo by Cher (in an insane wig) helps launch the film back into the stratosphere, complete with artificial backdrops and even CGI fireworks to top it all off. The levels of artifice skyrocket and keep elevating to otherworldly levels, so perhaps the bending of time is simply the next natural phase of this inter-dimensional phenomenon.

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Straight out of the helicopter and onto the green screen

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again doesn’t offer the horrors of other recent sci-fi like Annihilation, though its visual workings and time leaps are truly something out of this world. I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it, but I admire its sheer audacity and how it challenges (or maybe just disregards) standards of continuity and logic in the service of ABBA. I know I sure would.

How Does Life Weigh? The Underlying Question of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (2018)

For those of you keeping track, I wasn’t a fan of the first Jurassic World. I found it a silly pastiche of CGI garbage, though an oddly charming one in its naïveté.

With the follow-up, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, I was also taken on a somewhat mindless adventure, but can’t shake off some of the underlying questions it raises. Yeah yeah, “life finds a way” alright, but whose lives matter? Do some lives matter more than others?

Fallen Kingdom seems to suggest that yes, some do, but I’m not sure the logic follows a clear through-line. The central conflict (before something “else” goes wrong, anyways) is that Isla Nublar, the site of the now-abandoned Jurassic World, is also host to an active volcano and all the dinosaurs left behind are in danger. Swept up in the movement to protect an endangered species, Claire (theme park operations lead turned environmental activist) advocates to save them. When she’s recruited to return to the island for this cause, she doesn’t hesitate to join in.

So do the lives of artificially cloned dinosaurs matter? Yes.

Now, of the dinosaurs they find on the island, only a handful of species are saved – namely the carnivorous ones, such as the T-Rex and velociraptor, and hauled back to the mainland in massive carriers. Boring herbivores like the brachiosaurus are left behind (in a surprisingly touching scene for this kind of movie). They are abandoned to perish horrifically amidst the lava and flame of an erupting volcano, while T-Rexes and the like can nap on their cruise back to safety.

So do the lives of artificially cloned dinosaurs matter? Well, more if they’re carnivorous and “cool” and I guess action-packed.

But then, back on land at Lockwood Estate, the dino version of De Vil Manor, a lengthy action set piece ensues where the Indoraptor (a man-made hybrid of Indominus Rex and a Velociraptor, because sure) becomes free and roams the estate, terrorizing humans and dinosaurs alike. As artificially cloned animals go, the Indoraptor is basically doomed to fail in its moral space; this hybrid is literally built to be a killing machine, but it’s doing what it does best. Who can blame it!

Anyway, I guess the humans can, because the climax ends with the Indoraptor triumphantly punctured by the skull of a triceratops. So “life finds a way” via a relic of a deceased (but real, organic) dinosaur, mortally wounding a recently-alive but 100% man-made dinosaur.

So do the lives of artificially cloned dinosaurs matter? Not if they are a man-made species.

What’s bothersome about this (and I can’t believe I even care) is that the Indoraptor doesn’t matter in this ethical void, and the its death is somehow a victory. Alright, but how is the Indoraptor’s right to live any different or lesser than that of another man-made organism (if not man-made species) like the cloned “real” dinosaurs? Regardless of origin, they’re all living, breathing things. Wouldn’t an advocate for endangered species (I’m looking at you, Claire) be open to, if not enthusiastic about, protecting an animal that’s literally one of a kind?

What’s your take on this whole thing? Am I as crazy as Claire for caring about these man-made dinos? Let me know your thoughts!

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the savviest Marvel fan.

I’ve seen all the movies, and studied each Wikipedia entry numerous times, but I still have trouble keeping track of it all. Who’s romantically linked to who, what sinister backstory the characters emerge from, and last but not least, what exactly the Infinity Stones are.

Even though my passion outweighs my general understanding of what’s going on, I had one hell of a time at Avengers: Infinity War. Experiencing the latest, and undoubtedly most ambitious, Marvel entry in a packed opening-night crowd was the most fun and energetic time I’ve had at the movies in years. I don’t like the idea of “fan service” (which, to me, means a reference for its own sake) but the Russo brothers deliver spectacular moment after spectacular moment, featuring our favorite characters doing what they do best, but all in service of the plot – Thor brandishing his new-and-improved weapon, Black Panther leading the Wakandan army, Doctor Strange melting our minds, to name a few – constantly infusing the audience with high-voltage doses of adrenaline.

The first 80% or so of the film is an absolute blast. The events of the most recent Marvel films (Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 specifically) seamlessly brought worlds together for this epic collaboration. From where the stories have been heading, it does make sense that the spacey world-building existing in parallel with what’s happening on earth, all merge to defeat the Biggest interdimensional Bad in the MCU: Thanos.

And how Bad he is. Thanos is on a quest to collect the Infinity Stones (tied to unique elements of the universe), load them into his handy glove, and wipe out half of existence. The world’s been in trouble plenty before (at least 18 times prior to this, if I’m counting the movies right!) but Thanos’s end goal, and means to do it, is nothing short of horrifying. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the sequence at the end is as unsettling and dark as anything Marvel, or even Lucasfilm, has ever done.

The film’s climax is as bleak as the beginning of the film is delightful, but the story certainly feels far from over. It’s too soon for one to have inspired the other, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of Luke Skywalker’s words in Star Wars: The Last Jedi: “This is not going to go the way you think.” An endless string of critics and pundits have labeled the “Marvel formula,” and Avengers: Infinity War is a giant, Thanos-sized middle finger to any presupposed template these movies are meant to follow.

I’m used to walking away from Marvel movies fully energized and pumped up for more, while this left me dejected and almost mournful; though that’s not a bad thing. The exit corridors echoed with quiet murmurs of what comes next, what can be done, and what the future may hold. Love it or hate it, this is an ending that has audiences talking, thinking, theorizing, about what this all means for characters and worlds we’ve known for 10+ years. Nothing is sacred, everything is up for grabs, and the possibilities are infinite.

Love, Simon (2018)

Hot on the heels of Lady Bird comes the next great high school movie in Love, Simon. It’s a tenderly told coming(-out)-of-age tale, with timeless themes of acceptance and identity set against the digital landscapes of communication, exploitation, and connection.

Nick Robinson gives a starmaking performance as Simon Spier, a teen just starting to embrace his homosexuality, whose “coming-out” moment is threatened by blackmail. It takes a toll on his friends, his family, and his online pen pal, an anonymous figure “Blue” with whom Simon has forged a deeply personal, however digital, relationship.

He knows Blue attends his school, but that’s about it. He looks for clues and references wherever he goes, and finds the boy of his dreams in different moments of his everyday: a chatty waiter at a waffle house, the quiet piano player for the school musical, a friendly acquaintance. This is translated to film to compelling effect, as Blue’s voice and appearance evolve throughout the movie, resembling the closest match Simon can piece together at that exact time.

It’s not an unfamiliar feeling, as the sole gay kid striving to find connection. It’s hard to discern a friendly smile and personal demeanor into a gay “cue” that another male could be more than just a friend. The excitement of possibility, and anxiety of rejection, from so many potential “suitors” ring very true to the closeted homosexual experience.

Just how acutely and perceptively Love, Simon captures these elements is one of its greatest strengths. In a highlight moment (with stellar acting by Mr. Robinson), Simon confronts the one who “outs” him, denying Simon his own empowerment and agency, to stake out his own identity on his own terms. The complications and nuances of this milestone moment for any young adult are difficult to translate to film, much less in a studio picture for a mainstream audience; but Love, Simon does it to astonishing effect.

But more than capturing the struggles and strife of the gay experience, Love, Simon also finds joy, warmth, and affirmation. After coming out to his family, Simon’s mother (Jennifer Garner) confesses that Simon is “more of [him]self than [he’s] been in years.” The conflict tearing Simon apart is the fear that coming out will change others’ perception of him, as though there were a “before” and “after” to his identity; but he’s been the same Simon all along, and his loved ones know that.

I could have used a movie like Love, Simon ten years ago, and I’m so thankful that we have it now. As our cultural climate is evolving to be one of greater diversity and inclusion, it’s great progress to see a story like this, geared toward the younger audience who needs it most, available on such a large scale. The “It Gets Better” initiative launched in 2010, promising that the troubles young LGBT people face will someday diminish; in 2018, young people are being re-affirmed through stories promising that they can have, and deserve to have, happiness right now in the present.