by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Film Year in Review

Top 10 Films of 2018 (So Far)

July 10, 2018

Yesterday, we presented our Top 10 Albums of the Year (So Far). Today, we do the same for film — which also gives us the chance to offer takes on some films that haven’t been covered in our regular Blockbuster Beat reviews. (In fact, not a single “blockbuster” made the list, unless you count that dog movie we failed to review during its release.) Generally speaking, our best films of 2018 are actually from 2017: festival premieres from Toronto, Cannes, Sundance, etc. that took a bit of time to make it to U.S. theaters. Not a one feels any less fresh, and a few feel even more relevant and necessary.

24framesThe limitations that Abbas Kiarostami set for himself when making 24 Frames — 23 photographs and one painting (Pieter Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow), imagined into motion-picture existence using digital rendering in roughly four-and-a-half-minute segments — aren’t too different from the restrictions that the late Iranian filmmaker often implemented throughout his career. In 2002’s Ten, the camera rested on the dashboard of a cab driver’s car, and for 2003’s Five Dedicated to Ozu, static longtakes were used exclusively to capture the scenery of a beach. These films represent cinema at its most stripped-down and contemplative, without unnecessary movement or intrusive sound. And several of the vignettes in 24 Frames use a similar cooperation of these two components (sight and sound) to capture a sense of profound poetic grace. Frame Seven features the movement of three black birds contrasted against a backdrop of pouring rain and crashing waves, reveling in the power of natural systems while displaying the fragility of their constituent parts. The moments that carry the strongest emotional resonance, however, are derived from Kiarostami’s diegetic and non-diegetic use of music: Francisco Canaro’s tango-waltz “Poema” plays over a couple of horses braying at each other, and Maria Callas’s muscular rendition of the famous aria “Un bel dì vedremo,” in Frame Six, plays over the clean composition of a tree outside a house’s window. It’s worth noting that none of these “frames” telegraph the feeling of trying to impress an audience with After Effects wizardry; instead, the spare animation serves as a jarring reminder of the fictitious world being created from real-life images. The “truth” has always been subjective in Kiarostami’s films, but in 24 Frames that subjectivity extends into an examination of fundamental differences between film and photography, how the two mediums inform each other, and their means of representation. This is particularly evident in the last segment of the film, which serves as a conclusory gesture on a number of levels: for the film itself, of course, but also for the clip that a nameless sleeping editor is watching on her iMac computer — and extra-textually, for the career of one of the most important filmmakers to ever craft a beginning and “THE END.” Paul Attard

claireOf the three films Hong Sangsoo made in 2017 with actress and romantic partner Kim Minhee, two were released in the U.S. in the spring of 2018 — shortly after his latest film, Grass (which also stars Kim), premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. As always, the hyper-productive Hong outpaces the capabilities of the international art house distribution system. Claire’s Camera was made in a rush, even by Hong’s standards: Shot over a few days at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, with a rough cut completed a day after filming wrapped, it’s a deceptively light and sunny film, the flip-side of the cold, bitter worlds of Hong’s other two 2017 films (On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After). Kim plays Manhee, a young woman who is working for a film marketer who abruptly gets fired in the middle of the festival. She doesn’t know why, and her boss won’t tell her, but later we learn it’s because the boss believes Manhee slept with the director they’re representing, and with whom the boss is having an affair. All three Koreans encounter Isabelle Huppert’s Claire, a music teacher visiting the festival for the first time. The director carries on an awkward flirtation with her, the boss is vaguely cold and suspicious of her, while Manhee is charm incarnate, their meet-cute on the beach in broken English one of the most adorable scenes of the year. Out of these simple elements, a handful of provocative lines, and some temporally confounding scenes and images, an unfathomable mystery forms — and the film only grows more enigmatic on repeat viewings. What can we know about other people, or even ourselves, in a world where truth is malleable; where people lie to themselves and each other; where even a camera, in theory an objective record, can produce deceptive images, or transform the thing it photographs? Sean Gilman

DayAfterA caustic and trite melodrama about a man who cheats on his wife with the woman who works at his publishing house, The Day After is radically destabilized by the presence of Areum (Kim Minhee), who, in her confident self-belief and faith in the world, simply refuses to get sucked into the nonsense of a Hong Sangsoo film. At a job interview that turns into a long debate on the nature of truth and the meaning of the universe — over food and drink, of course — Areum gives her statement of belief, a repudiation of the self-regard and miserablism of so many Hong heroes: “I think that I have no control over my destiny and that I don’t play the leading role in it. I think that I can die at any time, I am ready to accept it. I think everything is less serious than it seems. In fact, I think that everything is wonderful, always. I believe in this world.” She enjoys the conversation, and seems to like the idea of working for the publishing house, but by no means will she get involved with her boss. In fact, the minute the boss’s wife mistakes her for a mistress, Areum begins pulling away, out of Hong’s carefully balanced frames, forcing minute panning movements to try to keep her in the picture. Eventually, when the boss’s real girlfriend comes back for her job, Areum has no regrets, and we follow her escape in a cab to a brief scene of wonder and awe as she enjoys the winter weather outside her window — a moment of natural beauty rarely observed in Hong’s work. The Day After’s coda reiterates that Areum has only been a supporting player in this story, so minor that she’s easily forgotten. But the corollary is also true: the boss, his wife, and his girlfriend are merely supporting players in the story of a woman who met some terrible people but refused to get involved with them, who wouldn’t let their sickness blind her to the light and the snow. SG

FirstRPaul Schrader has returned from the DTV hinterlands for another one of his so-called “man in a room” efforts, leaving a character alone with his thoughts. First Reformed is one of his very best works, and it isn’t only an extended riff on Robert Bresson classics Pickpocket and Diary of a Country Priest, or Schrader’s own under-seen Light Sleeper — it’s also a look at the transformative powers of fear and love and guilt, the limits of our ability to do violence (and the means we use to inflict it), and humanity’s universal sin of destroying our planet. Moving, suspenseful, hilarious…who would have thought putting Ethan Hawke in that “empty room,” thinking about drinking Drano, would make for one of the best films of the year? Matt Lynch

goldenexits2The bourgeois Brooklyn of Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits is a “wasteland in the middle.” The film opens with an airplane flying away for somewhere else, followed by what is probably the least grooveful version of “New York Groove” that anyone has ever performed. A 25-year-old foreigner, Naomi (Emily Browning), is the one singing the very lugubrious version of that Ace Frehley anthem, and like the interstitial dates that appear onscreen throughout Perry’s film, her youth serves as a constant reminder of time gone by. The mere presence of Naomi taunts the various Gen X-ers that enter into and around her orbit, including two married couples — Nick (Adam Horovitz) and Alyssa (Chlöe Sevigny); Buddy (Jason Schwartzman) and Jess (Analeigh Tipton) — who begin to question their commitment to commitment, reconsidering past mistakes and present instabilities. As with his four previous films, Perry focusses on faces, and favors the intensity of the close-up. But what’s different this time is the passivity of those expressions: While Listen Up Philip and especially Queen of Earth were built around big moments of emotional upheaval, Golden Exits is all painfully unresolved repression. That tone is bolstered by an almost uncanny sense of atmosphere; the characters, in particular Sevigny’s (the secret heart of the film), fortify their anxieties with cryptic, evasive musings, while composer Keegan DeWitt’s score pirouettes ominously around them. The combined effect is something like a new form of melodrama: a film that absorbs John Cassavetes’s bracing emotional intimacy, as well as contemporary American indie film aesthetics, and filters these through an impressionism and an elegance (this is the first time Perry’s forgone handheld) that feels at once unfamiliar and classicist. Sam C. Mac

isleoDWith Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson has finally made a children’s film. That may be a strange assertion given the existence of Fantastic Mr. Fox, his Roald Dahl adaptation and previous foray into stop-motion animation. But more so than any of Anderson’s other works, Isle of Dogs functions as a straightforward and earnestly sentimental film, with the recurring strain of adult melancholy present, but less prevalent. That could be considered a pejorative — and indeed, alongside rampant charges of cultural appropriation, it already has been. The story, after all, is like something out of a brightly colored pop-up book: A tale of loyalty between a boy and his dog, set in the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki and as well the outskirts of Trash Island, to which all canine life has been quarantined. The simplicity of the film’s narrative thrust, though, coupled with the familiarity and reliability of Anderson’s aesthetic toolbox, seems to have obscured its considerable virtues for some: often breathtaking formal play, sharp verbal comedy, continually shifting narrative modes, and playful chronological scrambling, not to mention the numerous politically charged visual associations. And then there’s the impressive breadth of the film’s engagement with Japanese art, which goes much further than its various cinematic references — of which the Seven Samurai cue is likely the most conspicuous — would otherwise indicate. Isle of Dogs may be fairly uncomplicated in terms of emotional appeal, but Anderson’s aesthetically fluid, rhythmically flawless, and continually inventive articulation of that appeal makes for perhaps his most thrilling film to date. Isle of Dogs is a children’s film that functions as a Rube Goldberg contraption of formalist delights and stands as the purest demonstration of Anderson’s ability to fuse a variety of disparate effects into a completely pleasurable whole. Lawrence Garcia

sunshineinLet the Sunshine In is an exquisite romantic comedy in part because its laughs are sad and its sadness is funny. Claire Denis isn’t a filmmaker to let the complexity of the human emotions she either captures physically or insinuates psychologically settle into easy interpretation and understanding; Let the Sunshine In, her lightest film to date, shades its relationship dynamics with existential panic, insecurities, unabashed biases of class, and, of course, an intimate understanding of the sexual politic. Juliette Binoche provides the perfect gateway drug for Denis into the realm of the rom-com: in both body and mind, Binoche’s Isabelle — a divorced Parisian artist who flits rather fickly from one romantic partner to the next — always commands the audience’s attention and curiosity. And Denis meets her star’s quixotic, swooning screen presence with subtle adaptations of her filmmaking to this new genre form. A scene of escalating banter between Isabelle and the rude, married business man that she’s been hate-fucking offers a variation of the shot-reverse-shot grammar that the actors’ blocking would typically call for, as Denis opts for a single take that floats back and forth in dreamy fashion, but also with a sense of needling anxiety. Denis and her co-screenwriter, novelist and playwright Christine Angot, have stated that their inspiration for Let the Sunshine In came from Roland Barthes’s 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, but their own “fragments” form a kind of loose interpretations that’s often accented by little allusions to Denis’s own work and its constituent parts: Isabelle has a framed image that resembles the bloodied wall from Trouble Every Day hanging in her apartment, and at an art gallery, she and a potential romantic interest (Denis regular Alex Descas) admire and discuss Skies, September ’10—September ’11, a painting by go-to Denis composer Stuart Staples’s wife, Suzanne Osborne. There’s also a smoldering dance scene in Let the Sunshine In taking place at a night club and set to Etta James’s “At Last” that recalls similarly disarming moments from 35 Shots of Rum and Beau Travail. The purpose that these auteurist signifiers serve is a reaffirmation that Let the Sunshine In is less a proper narrative than a very personally furnished artist’s space for Denis to conduct an exercise, a vignette-like assemblage of romantic situations. Isabelle is the only real character in this film, the one fully dimensional personality; the rest of the figures here seem specifically designed to fill roles, and for Binoche to formulate reactions to. Which is why the finale of Let the Sunshine In, which does introduce another person of equal or greater agency, feels so revelatory, and sends the film hurtling down a rabbit hole of new possibilities. SCM

WesternEverything’s a western nowadays — so how, then, does one approach Valeska Grisebach’s bold, self-consciously titled entry: Western? For the German director, whose Cannes triumph follows up a decade-long filmmaking absence, the answer lies (fittingly) in a considered withholding: of iconography, signification, and expectation. “I’m here to earn money,” says Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), the film’s grizzled, impressively-mustachioed protagonist, before Grisebach’s gauntlet-throw of a title card. The “here,” in this case, is a town by the Bulgarian-German border — the European frontier for Meinhard and his German compatriots, workers sent to the area with the object of building a hydroelectric power plant. Grisebach renders the region with an ungraspable grandeur; as in her previous film, Longing, her camera style is precisely calibrated, unobtrusive and unadorned, so on the surface it scans as dry or even academic, but it’s also, paradoxically, conspicuous in its dramatic de-emphasis and withholding of traditional narrative payoff. The result is ambiguous and destabilizing: individual scenes are often scintillating and always tense, suffused with unease and a distinct sense of dislocation — the perfect embodiment of the European Union, with its blurred borders, lingering historical scars, and open hostilities. Over the course of the film, Meinhard immerses himself in the contradictions of his outsider status; he attempts to learn the locals’ language and assimilate into their culture, befriends the local town leader, and alienates himself from his fellow Germans in the process. Western’s overall tension, then, is structural, built around systemic misunderstandings and deep-seated mistrust. But its action remains inescapably, unquestionably elemental — the stuff of genre, in other words. Thus, Grisebach’s ultimate achievement is a forceful, audacious assertion of territory. With Western, she’s taken familiar, well-trodden territory — the untamed undulations of an arid landscape, the gravel shifting beneath a horse’s hooves, the threat of a raised, loaded rifle — and made it threatening and new. LG

YWNRHLynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here operates and succeeds in much the same way as the director’s 2002 sophomore effort, Movern Callar, its clear formal antecedent. Presenting itself as a minimalist character study, YWNRH drops us into the midst of a crucial moment in the life of hitman Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), and commits to a study of the character’s interiority through impressionistic flashbacks that suggest domestic and occupational trauma — and that give the film an uncomfortable, almost voyeuristic sense of intimacy. Joe makes for a generally discordant presence: unkempt and schlubby, he suffers recurrent suicidal ideation and demonstrates paranoiac thinking, but is also brutishly effective in his work. This contrast extends to narrative particulars, as the vague machinations of the loosely defined underworld Joe traverses make for a more unsettling milieu through a lack of specificity. Ramsey further engages with this motif in her aesthetic approach, transmuting the fuzziness of Joe’s haunted past into the griminess of his present circumstance. She’s less interested in any complex psychological excavation than in an artful visual and tonal expression of a particular inscrutability. And while this results in an admittedly limited thematic scope, YWNRH never feels inconsequential, its concision and austerity instead maximizing its vicious impact. Luke Gorham 


If Lucrecia Martel’s Zama were compared to another film — besides, of course, Martel’s others, which are very much in line with Zama‘s skewering of privilege and its interrogation of repressed national trauma — then Lisandro Alonso’s 2015 film Jauja might be the most appropriate candidate, at least on a thematic level. Both films follow colonialists who are essentially conquered by the South American territories that they’ve been sent to colonize, and whose mental conditions deteriorate, over time, from the combination of estrangement they feel toward these foreign lands and the grinding persistence of the bureaucracies that sent them there. Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) finds himself stuck in an in-between state of authority and helplessness; he requests to leave Paraguay, where he’s stationed, for a position in Argentina (where his family is), but is repeatedly denied, thanks to a series of Kafkaesque situations that only build in their ridiculousness. The biggest set-back to Don Diego’s plans comes in the form of the specter Vicuña Porto, wanted by the Spanish crown, who seemingly everyone with a rank has captured or killed at some point, and who serves as Don Diego’s theoretical antithesis: an unseen target described by others as deranged, villainous, and unrestrained by the rules one’s expected to obey in civilized society. Martel is clearly fond of such contrasts; she builds her version of the Asunción settlement around another one — the presence of both devastating poverty and lush opulence, a veritable hellhole for the well-to-do. The first section of Zama feels almost claustrophobic: the offices of the local magistrate are crammed with as many bodies as can be fit into one frame, and when Don Diego hears news that his transfer has been withheld, even his agony-filled face is forced to share the screen with a llama barging into the room from behind him (apparently an accident that Martel kept in the film). But as Do Diego continues his stay in Paraguay, is stripped of his power, and is sent deeper and deeper into the country — which is slowly gaining independence, and which as a result views him with even less respect than his commanders do — Martel’s camera takes on more lateral movement, and captures the vast openness of the territory, often losing Don Diego in the expanse. By the end of the film, there’s no sign of Western civilization left in Don Diego — madness has completely consumed the lowly corregidor. Which serves to register as Martel’s ultimate comment on the “progress” that colonialism brings: its failures break even the most loyal to its cause, and have continued to do so, as the folly repeats itself. PA