2018 was a traumatic year for me that should turn out to be a good year in hindsight. I read something by a career counsellor who told clients thinking about a change to stop thinking and quit their job. He said you can't know what you can do until you stop doing what you're doing. I've spent the past six months doing things I would never have had the time or headspace for had I not walked off a ledge. It's not good for the heart but it's good for the soul. I've finished a couple of large writing projects and positioned myself to be available for a handful of genuinely interesting opportunities. I'm evolving. It's a daily thing. It's a work of a lifetime. This year, I have watched my friends achieve extraordinary things with their art and it's filled me with joy, not to mention inspiration. I don't know what they see in me in return, but I hope to justify their faith in 2019. I wouldn't have been able to be rash without the strength of my family and the support of my friends. A couple--you guys know who you are--somehow knew when to reach out and did with the right encouragement in what felt like the nick of time.
I do want to mention two films that would've made this list had they received distribution. The first is Issa Lopez's exceptional Tigers Are Not Afraid, which plays like a Guillermo Del Toro movie in its topicality and magical realism. The second, Sam Ashurst's single-set Frankenstein's Creature, is like one of Spalding Gray's filmed monologues, featuring a singular performance by its writer, the incomparable James Swanton, as an eloquent, tortured, playful monster. These are beautiful films, absolutely, and both are still looking for a home.
There was a while there in 2018 when I was pretty sure I was never going to watch a movie in a theatre again; this thing that was always sanctuary for me had become poison. (I'm sorry to speak cryptically.) But I found myself on Cape Cod with my family, who I'd been neglecting terribly, where a quaint little theatre in Chatham was hosting its annual screening of Jaws. We spent the day on the water watching seals and, for my part, wondering how far away the sharks were. Then, Jaws. My son was seeing it for the first time, and in this context, in that setting, I remembered that movies could be magic. I'd forgotten. I don't want to forget again.
The best films of 2018 are about despair and finding a way through it, whether that road is paved with vengeance, acceptance, or grace. And it was a banner year for diversity before and behind the camera, but look for the popular gatekeepers to be a couple of years behind the curve, yet. Bogie won for his performance in The African Queen over Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, after all. It always takes the establishment time to catch up to the crest of the wave, though a wave it is and it's coming hard. The answer isn't a return to the middle--the middle is what produced Trump. The answer is a swing to the left, where there is empathy and diversity. The middle is what every corporation thinks is the answer. Step one, an apology that gaslights anyone who "may have been offended." Step two, the hiring of more white people to teach the existing white people about diversity in a brief seminar. Step three, cobbling together a crisis management team of white people who will advise you stay quiet until the whole thing blows over. It usually does, or appears to. I like the cancer analogy here, too: you can have some days where you feel fine but that doesn't mean the cancer's gone. Ignoring cancer tends to be a bad way to treat it.
I want to take a moment here to say that the film I hated most in 2018 was The Front Runner, for any number of reasons. It may be the only movie from this year I hated at all. I'm still waiting for an answer as to why one real-life figure, white journalist Paul Taylor, was changed to a fledgling, delicate young black reporter (Mamoudou Athie) who bears the brunt of Gary Hart's rage not once, but twice. In between, Hart soothes the kid like a scared fawn when he reveals to the candidate that he's afraid of flying. If this is the filmmakers' single sop to diversity, it's real curious to me that they subsequently made him the whipping boy. Yeah. It's either a terrible thing because you did it on purpose, or a terrible thing because you did it accidentally. So which is it? Actually, never mind. Who gives a shit?
Even giving myself 50 slots to play with there are, in a fruitful year like this, a dozen or so movies that just missed the cut, with regrets. Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom is haunted, lovely; ditto Christopher Robin. Only one of them is that way on purpose, granted. Mandy has maybe the single most pointed moment of emasculation of any film in a year dealing often and explicitly with male toxicity, but also a troubling bit where the villain offers to perform a homosexual act as his ultimate humiliation. I'm still wrestling with that. Wildlife features one of the year's great performances in Carey Mulligan's tormented, fearsome, not-to-be-domesticated force of nature. I liked Den of Thieves more than I liked Widows, but I liked them both fine. I also enjoyed Paddington 2. It's fine. All of which is my way of saying that 2018 was an unusually strong year for film that will still see ossified stuff winning awards over pictures by and starring minority voices that reflect wild progressive swings compared to what the likes of Green Book and A Star is Born do: the old art of hanging on, stuck there steadfast in the middle.
Pendulums don't work that way unless the clock is broken. Tick tock, motherfuckers.
Ismael's Ghosts (Les fantômes d'Ismaël)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer
I love Arnaud Desplechin--his complex, overlapping storylines, dense dialogue, and stock company of actors, the great Mathieu Amalric chief among them. Amalric stars in Ismael's Ghosts as a filmmaker whose wife, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), vanished in the distant past, a loss he's never quite reconciled, although he's started to rebuild with new girlfriend Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Despite Carlotta's name and the complementary theme of obsessive love, the piano score Ismael tinkles during an early party scene is not from Vertigo, but rather Marnie--one of literally dozens of overlapping references Desplechin employs in the telling of this erotic tale of love at once at its most all-consuming and destructive and its most creative and redemptive. Ismael's Ghosts is a puzzle without a solution, but the moment Carlotta reappears after her long absence is the stuff of fainting couches, full of mystery and romantic dread.
Desiree Akhavan's gorgeously angry The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the cream of a 2018 crop of tales of queer coming-of-age, features uniformly fantastic performances from its young cast. Chloë Grace Moretz's young lesbian forced to attend a Christian re-education camp to pray away her gay feels real, conflicted at times, sad at others, passionate and immediate throughout. It must be intimidating to be in every frame of a film with this kind of emotional power and range, but it's not Moretz's first time at bat and not the first time she's tattooed it right over the outfield fence. If the theme of 2018 is despair and survival, David Gordon Green's Halloween sequel soars during a dinner scene where his Laurie Strode, living for decades with PTSD, has a minor breakdown after seeing the subject of her nightmares in the flesh again. Janelle Monáe, making a claim for all-around performer of the year, released a Michael Jackson-esque compendium of videos telling a tale of actualization and rebellion. Her lyric "We don't need another ruler/all of my friends are kings/I am not America's nightmare/I am the American Dream" is the pinnacle moment of uplift and power in 2018, a year in which Monáe came out as bi, declared her love for Tessa Thompson, and dressed up as a giant Georgia O'Keefe vagina and danced in the desert. Yeah, man. Along those same lines, Jim Cummings's defiantly independent Thunder Road describes another personal meltdown and recovery.
The Night Eats the World (La nuit a dévoré le monde)
The House That Jack Built
Dominique Rocher creates in The Night Eats the World a truthful and fascinating account of what would happen if an introvert suddenly had the world emptied out for him. Breakdowns, reconstructions...and away we go. Lars Von Trier reminds me a lot of a more intentional Dario Argento--a soberer Brian De Palma--who trafficks in his bad behaviour in ways that feel personally invasive. He's less provocateur than genuinely offensive and, much like how we prefer to imagine our serial killers, he's probably just smart enough about what he's smart about to make for an unpleasant evening. His latest, The House That Jack Built, is a Hannibal Lecter movie without the charm of a thirst-trap genius murderer. Reprising his role from There's Something About Mary, Matt Dillon, as Jack, ventriloquizes critical theory (Roland Barthes, pointedly) on the history of representation and art while living out the plot of Ray Bradbury's "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl". He confesses his sins to a literal and literary Virgil--played by an actor, Bruno Gans, best known for playing a lovelorn angel and Adolf Hitler--in an attempt to contextualize his murder and mutilation of women who annoy him as his contributions to the Western Canon. Self-reflexive, in a way pretentious (but no less pretentious than an entire rogue's gallery of sexually-seductive screen psychopaths), going on about Michelangelo whilst dining on the "rude"... Call this one Von Trier indicting the audience for seeking out a film they know will provoke them for their predilections. What if the sadistic, turning-people-into-statuary murder doesn't come with self-congratulation for catching the references? A confession to more than just "Verge," it's the latest of the filmmaker's sweeping, hyper-personal operas--Grand Guignol edition. It's also the first of five films this year for Riley Keough, who's amassing an intimidating body of work. We'll see her twice more on this list.
Argentina's Terrified cements the South American country as the centre for a "New" wave. I've thought multiple times over the years that Argentina was on the verge--with the truly terrifying, and fun, Terrified and Luciferina leading the way, maybe it'll take this time. In a year of dancing witches and chainsaw duels, the Conjuring riff that is Terrified contains 2018's most horrifying kill. Meanwhile, Bumblebee is the mid-'80s Amblin movie I wanted every Transformers to be. It also has a girl protagonist with a black boyfriend, and she's actually more in love with her car anyhow. Plus, The Smiths are at the centre of a major emotional beat in it, so I'm as there for it--as I am for Gareth Evans's absolutely bonzer Apostle. A gruesome updating of The Wicker Man, it's an excoriation of organized religion that's among the handsomest pictures of the year.
Then there's The Conjuring director James Wan's own Aquaman, in which a mongrel half-breed looked down upon by an Aryan race rises to take his place as their leader. Aquaman is as seminal a moment for Pacific Islanders and Asians as Black Panther is for African-Americans and tells a similar tale of cultural abandonment leading to reconciliation. Except Aquaman's Arthur Curry is the once and future king, and the old rituals meant to preserve order by the ruling majority are seen as they truly are: antique, frozen-in-time, destructive. It's a lesson we could all stand to learn as we stare in the teeth of the next round of elections. One of the real problems I had with Black Panther--for as much of a cultural watershed as it is--is that its villain is absolutely correct. About everything.
2018 was a good year for the western, too, with Jacques Audiard's The Sisters Brothers starting us off with a surprisingly tender exploration of how brothers love each other. It's violent and funny by turns, ending in a place back home where the need for comfort and safety resolves as ultimately the only thing anyone ever needs. Lots of ruminations on brotherly love in 2018--a hopeful gesture as we find ourselves in a cultural Civil War. I loved, genuinely, David Bruckner's monster wilderness weekend The Ritual, with its quartet of middle-class Brits stuck in the woods with a deer god or something. It's another story about masculine bonds and how they fail sometimes and leave the ripples from that upset to echo and bounce in endless, devastating cycles. It's also about the destructive nature of cults--and isn't it telling that there's so much deep, angry exploration of cults this year? Alfonso Cuarón's Roma is an intensely personal film about class and family--so is Blindspotting, which boasts of an incredible amount of topical interest while somehow avoiding didacticism. Its climax in the basement of a bad cop is raw and volatile; the movie's roughness is almost its message.
First Man, the first Damien Chazelle film I've liked, finds a way to tell a worn story as a personal implosion, a journey of grief, and an examination of the barriers in our hearts that prevent us from taking comfort from those who most want to give it to us. It has my favourite closing shot of any film this year. For all the things I don't like about Chazelle, it's him and Refn who've figured out how best to deploy Ryan Gosling's broken masculinity.
Social, historical borders define Cold War's tale of the star-crossed, setting its story of young lovers separated by politics against folk songs and pastoral cultures appropriated by restrictive, authoritarian governments. So formal it's suffocating--and maybe that's the point. Compare it to Claire Denis's gorgeous Let the Sunshine In, where Juliette Binoche plays a middle-aged woman looking for love in a parade of mediocre, disappointing men. Late in the game, she sits in her living room with a picture of Joan Didion before breaking up with a paramour for essentially playing a type of lover in bed he simply is not. Binoche is transcendent in this cry for authenticity told through a series of conversations and breakdowns. Every emotion plays across her face, and nothing is overdone or artificial. Denis is one of the best filmmakers alive. To have her adapt a book by Roland Barthes with cinematography by the great Agnes Godard? I'm not sure we stop often enough to appreciate the wealth of riches our current cinematic landscape provides. I haven't seen Denis's High Life yet, but I can't wait.
Shot--like much of First Man, as it happens--in glorious 16mm, Aislinn Clarke's stupendous debut The Devil's Doorway applies found footage to a period piece set in a Magdalene Laundry circa 1960, as two priests are called on to witness a miracle...or an abomination. What if it's one and the same? The Devil's Doorway is one of those debuts that speaks to sincere intelligence and empathy for its subject matter and genre. Ditto the Zellner Brothers' Damsel (note: sans "in distress"), a western in which a woman's presumed vulnerability and desire for a man feeds into the hollow fantasies of more mediocre men searching for meaning in their meaningless lives. In 2018, if a woman is a prop in your film, you better have a good reason why, Bradley Cooper.
Jeremy Saulnier makes great movies. Hold the Dark is a great mythology. There's something wrong with the sky. I see it, too. Huang Hsin-yao's The Great Buddha+ deals with social mythology of a different variety, following the exploits of blue-collar Taiwanese labourers as they deal with the complete, back-breaking mendacity of their day-to-day. It's like a Jim Jarmusch film made by Apichatpong Weerasethakul in both its focus on the small and its forced intrusion of the supernatural on the affairs of mortals not entirely ready to accept their part in a larger whole. It's about hypocrisy: social injustices that conspire to keep the classes separate. The Great Buddha+ touches on the lie of capitalism, the emptiness of religion, and how an entire planet raised on a glass teat can't help but begin to eat itself when the masters of said teat tell them to. Think of it as a companion piece to The Death of Stalin. Game Night is another story of brothers, masculinity as it manifests through competition, and loneliness, featuring a lovely, perfectly-timed performance by Rachel McAdams as the emotional, and physical, centre of the piece. Support the Girls locates another hero in Regina Hall's put-upon manager of a "Hooters"-style concept restaurant, dealing with vendors, facilities, and her labour force, each of whom needs something from her during one hellish day. It's so good as a glimpse into the thanklessness of the service industry that I had a minor panic attack watching it, having recently left said industry after fifteen years in it. It is as good at what it does as Lizzie Borden's landmark Working Girls. Then there's Suspiria, the most misunderstood movie of 2018, as well as its most uplifting and heartbroken. I watched it immediately after the Brett Kavanaugh travesty and the sense of catharsis I felt afterward was unequalled this year. This is a film about female power and forgiveness, male shame and powerlessness. There's a line in here where a man is told that he takes women's fears and turns them into syndromes. Set against a Berlin shaken by activists looking to kick Nazis out of their government, it's politically topical, too. Hate it if you must, but dismiss it offhand and I know more about you than you probably meant to reveal. Last time I felt that way about a movie was Synecdoche, New York. If you think there isn't a conversation here, I guess I agree we don't have anything to discuss.
David Robert Mitchell's spiritual sequel to Altman's The Long Goodbye casts its clueless gumshoe Sam (Andrew Garfield) on the path of missing bathing-beauty Sarah (Riley Keough) in a surreal L.A. gaffed by New Wave philosophies and a too-deep obsession with its own cinema history. From his movie-poster-festooned apartment, Sam (Spade?) puts together clues like Ralphie with his Little Orphan Annie decoder, leading him through the candy-coloured superficiality of the City of Angels and the music room of the mysterious Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb). When Sam hefts an axe and asks if it's Kurt Cobain's Fender Mustang, the Songwriter shrugs and bellows that he can't remember, there've been so many. The showdown is one of the more mesmerizing sequences in film in 2018, taking place in a pop-cultural meta-space as it unfolds narratively in a music geek's dream collection. It's so very. The solution to its puzzle as abrupt and unsatisfying as The Long Goodbye's bloody resolution, Under the Silver Lake is an unsettlingly frothy existential exercise in figuring out that all we are is cock and balls: no one at the wheel and a hell of a curve coming up. It plays similarly in its entertaining nihilism to Leigh Whannell's spectacular Upgrade, in which one Luddite's surrender to dehumanizing artificial intelligence leaves him a spectator to his own life. Topical? Astonishingly so. Also the year's best Venom movie by a mile.
Which brings us to Josephine Decker's disorientingly unpleasant Madeline's Madeline, wherein a resplendent Helena Howard (one of several stunning debuts from young actors this year) emerges as an experimental theatre troupe's rising star to the delight of her director (Molly Parker) and the despair of her hapless mother (Miranda July). Madeline is a horror. Riding the edge of 16 hard, she discovers her voice through the animals she inhabits in her acting exercises, acting out against her mother's attempts to mother her in ways so uncomfortable and infuriating that I felt my blood pressure rise. I hate Madeline--and I hate her director, who gets what's coming to her in the end when her troupe calls her on her dangerously pretentious bullshit, and I hate Madeline's mother, who needs to show a little backbone. It's a film, in other words, that challenged me mightily, causing me to question my own parenting and the parenting of others and mentoring behaviour in general. It is, in the end, kind of a wonder. Sorry to Bother You provides another existential jolt. The party scene is something I recognized so intimately, I looked around the theatre expecting to see everyone looking back at me. It was a watershed 2018 moment for me that helped me to realize I needed to step off that ledge. So was Can You Ever Forgive Me?, with its asshole writer only a masochist could love. And she knows it.
What more is there to say about Armando Ianucci's The Death of Stalin but that it slays? It skewers the imbeciles forever at the blunt tip of the authoritarian spear, taking in the sycophants and career opportunists who make it possible, as well as the faint cry of the oppressed that grows steadily into a roar. It's trenchant, hilarious, and terrifying in equal measure. A pity the people who need to see it most, won't. Same goes for Spike Lee's brilliant BlacKkKlansman, which doesn't seem to go far enough for the choir but will in time be regarded in much the same way as his Bamboozled. It's a blaxploitation picture telling a story about white supremacy and, as such, reacquires blaxploitation as a genre following its early hijacking by white filmmakers in the '70s. Folks have complained it doesn't check enough boxes. When Spike speaks, I'd respond, the best tactic is to listen. The dance sequence set to "Too Late To Turn Back Now" is my single favourite moment in film in 2018. It makes me cry every time I see it. I can't explain it. I don't want to try. Folks also want to talk me out of speaking on black cinema as a whole in 2018, but when things that didn't make my list but could have--like The First Purge, Black Panther, The Equalizer 2, Creed II, and SuperFly--and others, like BlacKkKlansman, Sorry To Bother You, and Barry Jenkins's rapturous Wong Kar Wai-ode If Beale Street Could Talk, did, I think it's not only fair but also important to talk about a revolution. Neo-blaxploitation? One can only hope that if it is indeed a movement, it continues to burn this fiercely.
In addition to turning in one of the year's great performances in First Reformed, Ethan Hawke directed one of its great films, a biopic of country singer Blaze Foley. Blaze, marking the auspicious acting debut of singer/songwriter Ben Dickey in the title role, is a rambling, free-form biopic neither hagiographic nor pre-emptively skewered by Walk Hard. It captures a place and time but more importantly the vibe of this guy who put on no false airs and battled his demons in public. Alia Shawkat is wonderful as his ex and sometime-muse. And the final line of dialogue, something about how someone is sorry for someone's problems but we all got 'em, is the sort of thing Billy Wilder would have conjured up once upon a time. Blaze, First Man, even Roma offer evidence that biographies don't need to look and act the same. It's ruddy. It's great. So is Crystal Mozelle's Skate Kitchen, following 18-year-old Camille (Rachel Vinberg) and her obsession with skateboarding as it takes her to New York's male-dominated skate parks and eventually into a circle of girl skate punks, where she's finally at home. With conversations kitchen-sink and performances naturalistic, the picture talks about tribalism and the importance of support systems while largely avoiding the clichés of coming-of-age dramas. No accident that a final sting of the girls riding their boards in slo-mo rapture reminded me of the "Freebird" conclusion to The Devil's Rejects. Camille is an unusual heroine and the film's conflicts are mainly about Camille finding her voice, then finding her freedom, then going home. It offers an unusual message for a movie about teens and rebellion: sometimes mothers love you, are important, and so are friends, sometimes more. Suspiria lives in this space--as does Madeline's Madeline.
Liu Jian's sensational crime drama Have a Nice Day is the second-best animated film of 2018 and frankly the year's best heist film. It's a stoner dramedy, essentially, with its cast of misfits and psychopaths double-crossing one another in mainland China in pursuit of a bag of ill-got Yuan. The film it's most closely allied to in tone and execution is Repo Man, the shambolic, Linklater-ish animation style capturing its feel of idiots colliding with professional idiots--greed as the great leveller. The blood-simple plot drives its monologues on the state of man and the oppressive influence of wealth on the poor and rich alike. Yorgos Lanthimos's latest social provocation is this devastating takedown of politics The Favourite, while the Coen Brothers have created another cynical, misanthropic masterwork in the stygian, hopeless The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a movie, it could be argued, where every character ends up in Hell. Its anger is masked beneath a thick lacquer of craft, and its Rosetta Stone is the title segment, which opens the film with singing cowboy Buster (Tim Blake Nelson) deconstructing the rosy serio-mythmaking of the entire western genre. The Coens subtly skewer religion (Buster goes to Heaven after mutilating a poor, grieving brother), along with dick-measuring contests and nothing less than all the foundational American self-talk that's been found wanting since a narcissistic sociopath took up residence as our figurehead-in-chief. Think Buster is disgusting? We fucking LOVE Buster. Set against such bleakness, the gorgeous Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse begins with true despair (the death of a hero) before leading into its message that there are heroes everywhere. It's an interesting companion to Terrified in its dimensional jaunting, unlocking a sympathetic idea that if we look well, we'll see something we don't expect. Spider-Verse's hero is another mixed-race kid, an Afro-Latino-American afraid he's fronting at an exclusive prep school, seeking an identity of his own as he falls in love with the white girl in class. There's a scene where the hero deals with the weight of that in a conversation he can't have with his father; it's beautiful.
Speaking of art: In At Eternity's Gate, Julian Schnabel captures, for the first time maybe since Jean Cocteau, what it's like to create something for the artist. It's not a heavenly choir, or Buster's harp exchanged for his six-shooter; it's raw and intimate and, more than that, it's a compulsion almost physiological in nature. Nothing almost about it, really. Willem Dafoe's Vincent Van Gogh is not unlike his Jesus, a man beset by visions compelled to create paintings he doesn't entirely understand, can't even remotely explain. His relationship with his brother, Theo (Rupert Friend), is heartbreaking in its frank, unembarrassed affection. When Vincent is committed to an asylum after attacking a group of wayward schoolchildren, Theo crawls into bed with him and Vincent kisses him on the cheek. I don't know that I've seen an expression of fraternal love as open and simple as this apart from a similar scene in Coppola's The Outsiders. Most of the film is seen through Vincent's eyes: too bright, too colourful, too close. Dafoe is one of the few actors who can do mania without camp, making me wonder what Mandy would have been like with Dafoe in place of Cage. His Vincent has a conversation with a Priest (Mads Mikkelsen) late in the film, and his reaction at being told that his work is ugly is a thing of surpassing understatement and complexity.
Leave No Trace
You Were Never Really Here
The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci)
Chloe Zhao--next up, Marvel!--lets her non-actors in The Rider express longing and regret, shame and depression, in her deceptively simple The Rider. What happens when you can't do what you love to do? What are you when the thing you define yourself by is taken away from you? At the end of the trip, there's this surpassing humanity to Zhao's work. It feels like discovery, a plain package wrapped around the secret of persistence. So, in its way, is Debra Granik's quiet, poetic Leave No Trace, following troubled Will (Ben Foster) and his precocious, effervescent daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie, extraordinary) as they try to live off the grid in a world hostile to the idea. There are a lot of ways this story could go--Nell is what I was afraid of--but it's neither noble savage nor poverty porn. Rather, it's a careful, humane study of people doing their best to exist--who love each other very much, but who grow apart because that's what people do. There's no cruelty in the film beyond the cruelty of existence, and while it's easy to locate the picture as being about a father losing touch with his daughter, Leave No Trace is a lot more than that. In a film full of true moments, I was felled by the kindness shown Will and Tom at a small community that takes them in, no questions asked, when they're in dire need of some charity. The story of my life is earmarked by moments where people who didn't need to help reached out a hand to me because they saw something in me worth investing in even when I couldn't. A similar motive is in the underneath of Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here.
Lucretia Martel's unbelievably good Zama stands with The Favourite and The Death of Stalin as 2018's best, most scabrous political satires. It does more, though, in carrying through with the abortive eroticism suggested in Lanthimos's film while magnifying the arrogance underlying the violence in The Death of Stalin. Hero Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) is a minor Spanish official who has won a sinecure as a magistrate in Asuncion sometime in the distant past and now waits, often staring wistfully off over an endless ocean, for a promotion to a more prestigious post that will likely never come. His ennui is the mood of the piece as he sits in a state of constant sexual frustration (see: Under the Silver Lake), castrated by a married Spanish noblewoman (Lola Dueñas) who constantly dangles the promise of sex--along with promotion, freedom, and reunion with the family he's left behind in Buenos Aires. It reminds of Clive Barker's short story "How Spoilers Bleed" in its ruthless, Borgian dissection of how colonialism trapped the colonizers in the mythologies they created to sexualize the promise of new worlds and further frontiers. Their disillusionment is meted out on the bodies of the victim cultures they appropriated. To this day, let's be honest. For Zama, life is purgatory, with every attempt to escape fuel for more paranoia the powers that be have somehow simultaneously planned without sparing him a second thought. He's stuck in the doldrums, cruel at turns and perpetually, progressively pathetic. Life as the pause between birth and death. Kafka to a T. Oh, and it's screamingly funny.
Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylon's The Wild Pear Tree is also funny after a fashion, telling its painful tale of erstwhile author Sinan (Dogu Demirkol) as he comes home from school, self-publishes a novel no one wants to read, and discovers that his father is the same gambling, dreaming, feckless loser he always was. There's a Mark Twain quote I like to butcher about how he thought his father was the stupidest man he'd ever known when Twain was fourteen, but when Twain was twenty-one, he was amazed at how much the old man had learned in seven years. Sinan's dad Idris (Murat Cemcir) dreams one day that he'll find water if he digs deep enough in the family's old farmhouse well. He teaches elementary school, is a compulsive gambler, and has an ingratiating laugh that's made him a lot of friends but drives Sinan nuts. Sinan wants to have big conversations. He harasses publishers and authors with his ideas and challenges them to answer his big questions. Sometimes they scream at him. He engages a religious man in talk about God. Sinan, though, is less a deep thinker than he is young, idealistic--a dreamer like his father. Maybe that's why they don't get along. In the last hour of this three-hour collection of conversations, Idris broaches with Sinan the subject of Sinan's book. The look on Sinan's face when he realizes his father has read his work, has really read it, is an emotional tidal wave. If you've ever produced something no one will look at, you know what I mean. The Wild Pear Tree is full of visions, full of passing moments: arguments, reconciliations. There's a scene under a tree where Sinan runs into a woman (Hazar Erguclu) he's grown up with. They share a cigarette, then a kiss. Ceylon moves his camera in and out, between them, around them, like the wind that scores the scene. It feels like possibility. Then it passes. I've loved each of Ceylon's films, but he seems to keep getting better.
The only one from this group I haven't written on in depth is Tamara Jenkins's lovely Private Life, in which a middle-aged Jewish couple living in New York try to have a kid and fail over and over again. As sort of a last-ditch attempt, Rachel and Richard (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) decide to ask their niece Sadie (Kayli Carter) to be their surrogate. It all comes out unexpectedly at a holiday dinner, and subsequently none of it works out quite the way it's supposed to--but the conversations they have, the way they talk to one another, the three of them, is smart and, even in anger, kind. I think that's the element that holds me to this film more than any other. I like these people. They seem like real people. They seem like people I'd like to know. My wife and I suffered a series of miscarriages before we had our daughter. They're all bad, don't get me wrong. The first one we had was...I'll never be all right. Private Life understands that. It understands wanting to have kids, what that urge is, and it understands what it means to take in someone in need and to sacrifice to be a part of something larger. It knows of loss and it knows that the labour of loving someone through the worst times imaginable is an equal part of agreeing to this trip.
Annihilation spoke to me in a different way: about wanting to die. Shoplifters, about wanting to live more authentically. Burning, about all of those things. First Reformed, too, though it added the question of whether God will ever forgive us for what we've done. I hope so. I hope to continue to earn forgiveness for the things I've done, and I hope to deserve the love I receive every day by showing my gratitude. By giving it back, too. 2018 was awful. So bad, finally, that it can only be explained away as the start of something wonderful. Anyway, it was a great year for despair at the movies. And perseverance. Always that.