Image Credit to Variety
Here are short reviews of some, but not all, of the films I saw in December 2018. Star Ratings are out of 4.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman): ***
An animated origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man (Shameik Moore), this picture cleverly uses the standard plotline of alternate universes colliding to bring different types of Spider-Man into contact with Miles. An old, weary Peter Parker (Jake Johnson in the year’s best voice performance), a charming Gwen Stacy Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), and hilariously lighthearted figures such as a black and white Spider-Noir (Nicholas Cage), a pig Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), and a futuristic Peni Parker Spider-Robot (Kimiko Glenn) all try to help Miles adapt to his newfound powers, learn how to use them responsibly, and commit to making the world better.
The film’s ability to properly develop intriguing characterizations of Miles, the supporting superheroes, his family, and the villains while balancing a variety of tones, including comedy, sadness, and adventure elevates it above much recent blockbuster fare. However, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse so heavily focuses on getting all its parts in order, fleshing out every character, and swinging from big emotion to big emotion that it never has a moment to breathe. It never lingers on an aspect of its incredibly designed universe or gets lost in its imaginative world. The work is efficient, not graceful.
The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos): * ½
The Favourite tells the story of two 18th century women, Abigail (Emma Stone) and Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who compete to be the trusted right hand of Queen Anne of England (Olivia Coleman).
With its period details, emphasis on its characters’ comedic and secretive schemes and behavior, and arty filmmaking, The Favourite is an easy film to dismiss as pretentious. However, as a follow on Twitter stated, insulting the picture in this way is being kind to it because such an insult conceals how safe the work is.
Every single element of The Favourite is appropriate, unsurprising, and lifeless. During an ominous scene, ominous music plays. When Abigail gets too comfortable in Queen Anne’s presence, Stone displays it by carelessly harming one of Anne’s delicate pet rabbits. Despite focusing on Abigail and Sarah’s rivalry, the work always makes sure to pull back and reveal how petty such a conflict is when compared with most of what the Queen’s subjects are enduring during wartime.
The Favourite isn’t pretentious, just plain.
Roma (Alfonso Cuarón): * ½
The Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival and the Oscar Best Picture frontrunner, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma tells the story of a maid/nanny, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who takes care of a middle class family in Mexico City, 1970-1971.
Cuarón has two seemingly contrasting, contradictory ways of shooting the picture. Much of the time, his eye focuses on Cleo. In crowd scenes, the camera follows and stays on her. Rarely does Cuarón inhabit another person’s point-of-view to study Cleo. Her dialogue takes precedence over the dialogue of others, including her employers. Lastly, the film’s most noticeable motif-repeating shots of airplanes flying away-seems to speak to her desire to escape her professional and personal situation.
However, while such choices suggest intimacy between Cuarón’s style and Cleo’s character, other decisions oddly signal a barrier. Cuarón, for the most part, avoids shooting Cleo in close-up, so her eyes are concealed through much of the work. He rarely films her perspective through over-the-shoulder shots or point-of-view shots. Finally, in key moments-such as when Cleo experiences a trauma at a hospital- Cuarón usually elects not to cut the scenes to describe Cleo’s mental and emotional state instead choosing to mostly film such events in long takes where Cleo features prominently in the geography of the scene.
As a result, Roma is strangely distant and vague for a film glued to one individual’s perspective. It is a frustrating, and ultimately, lackluster piece.
Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker): * ½
Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline tells the tale of a depressed teenager, Madeline (Helena Howard), who wishes to play a larger role in an ensemble experimental theater group headed by an encouraging Evangeline (Molly Parker) despite reservations from Madeline’s mother, Regina (Miranda July). The picture features two of the best performances of the year and one of the worst screenplays.
Howard brings perfect balance to a role requiring her to depict many different emotional states. Meanwhile, Parker is uncannily remarkable at playing a figure who seems outwardly caring, but is ruthlessly selfish on the inside.
Sadly, both performances work to salvage moments and fragments from an overwrought script. People tend to complain about how tedious it is that so many film characters always or almost always have the right thing to say at the exact right time. Madeline’s Madeline proves it is equally as tedious to have characters (in this case, the teacher and mom) who always or almost always have the wrong thing to say at the exact wrong time.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (The Coen Brothers): ***
Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a collection of short stories about the West in which the protagonists of each story often learn that they have far less control of their lives and the world around them than they originally thought. While the narrative structure can be repetitive, the Coens’ ability to draw you into their characters’ physical realities and mental states through detailed filmmaking and good direction of performances makes for a satisfying viewing experience. The last story, in which the landscape of the Old West seems to reveal itself as a nightmarish hell for a bunch of stagecoach passengers, is astoundingly creepy.
Zama (Lucrecia Martel): ***
A film about Don Diego de Zama, a government official settling legal disputes in Spanish controlled Argentina, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama has received praise for its crisp sound design and plot’s critique of the protagonist’s colonial attitudes. I found both elements too calculated for my taste.
However, what felt organic was Martel’s visual sense. The playful and pointed way people, animals, and objects pop in and out of the frame to mirror how they come in and out of Zama’s mind is beautiful. Her knack for using cramped sets and dim lighting to explore Zama’s professional marginalization and growing alienation is scary. And lastly, the way she cuts from a scene’s ending shot to shots of Zama standing in a precise location within a landscape to suggest how an emotion or desire (usually romantic/sexual in feeling) from one event lingers in him is remarkable.
The Mule (Clint Eastwood): ****
Astonishingly chaotic and deceptively elegant, Clint Eastwood’s The Mule is one of the funniest and most thrilling experiences of the year. Based on a true story, the film examines a 90-year old Korean War veteran named Earl (Clint Eastwood) who, after driving his family away and losing his business and home, starts transporting drugs for a cartel.
Featuring scenes of Earl having threesomes, outfoxing a drug-sniffing dog, throwing a racist cop off the scent of his Mexican handlers, and driving on state highways singing along with the radio, The Mule is surprisingly wild. However, it is also uproarious and not just because of what situations it presents, but how it presents them: Earl’s first threesome being shot from the point-of-view of his super serious and incredibly critical drug handler, Julio (Ignacio Serrichio) is a choice so out-of-left field, so inspired, and so right that weeks after seeing the work, I am still cracking up remembering it.
Still, for all the joyous laughter The Mule delivers (and it contains far more of it than any comedy released this year) the picture also hones in on a powerful, heart-melting sense of loneliness and regret. In the comedy-oriented scenes, the humor might seem to distract from this sadness, but that pain is there on closer inspection or more thoughtful analysis. It can be found in Earl’s forced carefree attitude during his threesomes, his phony jolliness while chanting the lyrics to his favorite songs on the road, and in his knack for being able to convince law enforcement he’s a harmless old man.
When the work brings his isolation and guilt to the forefront, when it has Earl reckon with the harm he’s caused his family by being neglectful of their emotions, in close-ups of his anguished face at social gatherings celebrating him or in moments where he sits by the bedside of his ailing ex-wife mustering a weak apology for his past, the results are overwhelming and piercing. Earl’s life full of nasty self-hatred, poor decisions, and an inability to show love to those who matter is felt intensely and the agony deepens as it becomes clearer that the resolution to this mess is not in his hands, but in the hands of the family he let down.
Simply put, The Mule is more fully realized and moving than any other picture I saw in 2018.