Friday, January 04, 2019

The Best Non 2018 Films I Saw in 2018

13. Who Took Johnny (2014) - The documentary "Who Took Johnny?" begins as a compelling true crime effort and morphs into something conspiratorial  and quite unhinged. As an avid reader of true crime novels, the film soothed an investigative nerve. As someone prone to anticipating the murkier explanation behind things, it scared me to the core. Directed by David Beilinson, Michael Galinsky and  Suki Hawley, the film begins straight-forwardly enough as it tracks the strange disappearance and police investigation into a young boy named Johnny Gosch in Iowa in the early 80's. The case soon gained worldwide notoriety because his face became the first to grace the backs of milk cartons in an 80's style plea for pervasive social media. Adding intrigue to the case is Johnny's mother, Norene, who steadfastly never gave up on the investigation... even after most law enforcement officials did. What's unique and altogether startling about this story, however, is the claim that Norene received a visit from her son in the 90's, confirming the theories that he was abducted and held as part of a nationwide child sex ring that services an illuminati-like cabal of rich and powerful individuals (see also Franklin Scandal). "Who Took Johnny?" burrows down so many conspiratorial holes (and interviews) that emerging from it will leave one shaken, confused and wholly unsure of what happened. That one young person (and family) were the devastating center of it all and they still have no closure is reason enough to be shaken, let alone the curtains of darkness that may be responsible.

12.  Good Times (1967) - Although its story of Sonny and Cher playacting kooky scenarios such as a western, film noir and a swinging Tarzan rip off, William Friedkin's mid 60's pop film is brimming with dazzling visual artistry and enormous heart. Think of it as the 60's "La La Land". One scene in particular, with Cher dancing slightly out of focus against a brick wall with Los Angeles sprawling below her in sharp focus, stands out as an example of Friedkin's denotation of architecture over character... something that would linger in many of his later films. As to the story itself as the couple wander through their sunny California days trying to compromise their willingness to work for a tyrannical studio head, "Good Times" is fun, brisk and ultimately a slight middle finger to the organized Hollywood studio system. Basically, it took me by complete surprise.

11. The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2015) - The Way Brothers, Chapman and MacLain, scored big this year with the Netflix documentary "Wild Wild Country", but this earlier documentary about the finite life of an independent league baseball team in the 70's is just as compelling and, ultimately, more innovative. With a cast of unforgettable rebels and a short history that defies expectations, their loving documentary blends the best of informative storytelling against a hidden sports backdrop that often gets categorized in something like an ESPN "30 For 30". I would have easily watched an episodic examination of this, but instead, the story and compact running time feels perfectly adequate for the ruffian attitudes and non-conformist joy this film's athletes represent.

10. Black Souls (2014) - Francesco Munzi's drama about a close-knit mafia family is exactly the dry, bureaucratic gangster film I mostly love. As if directed by late career Francesco Rosi, "Black Souls" does feature a few bullets, but its impact is derived from the intensely quiet moments of restraint shown by a series of brothers as their ranks slowly dwindle. The conversations are muted... the acting is slow-burn and so authentic feeling.... and the dread is palpable as the family attempts to close ranks and prevent any more deaths in a squabble of power. I'm not sure how much of a release this got a few years back (I do remember seeing trailers for it at my local art house theater), but it's a gangster film that deserves its place with the best of Coppola, Scorsese and Rosi for the way it weaves a low-key elegy of the high drama implicit in the underworld and its complex codes.

9. A Touch of Zen (1971) - Settling a long held blind-spot in my movie-watching career, "A Touch of Zen' is the first film I've seen from revered director King Hu. I recently read somewhere that his "Legend of the Mountain" has seen a restoration and that it's beyond sublime, which makes me crave the rest of his work even more. With this film- the story of a princess in hiding, the Buddhist warrior monks who strive to protect her and the somewhat naive artist who comes into contact with their battles both physical and spiritual- "A Touch of Zen" has plenty of story to burn, but it's the inherent calm at the center of the film that overwhelms. Yes, the swordplay is exotic and cut within an inch of its life, but the visual structure, often focusing on the weeds of grass or spiderwebs in the background as the action takes place, that feels like the real crux of Hu's vision. It's as if he's telling us a wuxia tale from the point of view of Nature. Sounds precocious, but it works. NOt being a huge fan of this style of filmmaking, I was blown away by Hu's vision and his almost Catholic way of paying attention to the silences, starts and stops of people in their environment, as if we've entered a church are are supposed to be quiet and observe the rituals of the ceremony. Just a cathartic experience.

8. Fellini's Roma (1972) - It's difficult to call "Roma" episodic. It's a film that doesn't follow a true narrative arch and although its mostly rudderless, it does feature two anchors that continually pop up throughout the film to provide some semblance of characterization. One of them is a young man who gets to observe the chaotic assembly of people eating dinner in the town square or the unusually deconstructive nature of how brothels in Rome work... the first for the lower class and the second for more 'monied' men. The second (sometimes) constant piece of "Roma" follows a camera crew as they film around the city, providing two of the film's most stunning technical achievements including a hectic film shoot along a rain-soaked Rome highway and the other a mystical, transfixing venture beneath the city where a construction crew accidentally discovers centuries old artwork. Of course, their presence and the exposure to air subsequently destroys the work and casts a rapt commentary on so many things at once. Everything else in the film plays as if the city itself belched up its own memories, feelings and ideas mixed with the circus-like atmosphere of a filmmaker of Fellini's attention. It's at once wondrous and frustrating and maniacal. It's also one of Fellini's best.

7. Operation Ogro (1979) -  In the latter half of the twentieth century, cinema's attraction to the heroic romanticism and ultimate fatalism of the Wild West outlaw shifted onto the righteous terrorist. Just as committed to their brand of outlaw justice as Billy the Kid, the terrorist also served as the perfect (for better or worse) embodiment of the every-man's indignant right to fight "the man". So, it's no surprise that far left-wing filmmakers like Gillo Pontecorvo (who ascended to international acclaim after his 1966 film "The Battle of Algiers") would make such a film like "Operation Ogre" in which the sole burden of empathy and attention is given to a set of terrorists who meticulously planned and attacked Spanish Prime Minister Luis Blanco in 1973. In fact, their bomb was so potent that it sent the Prime Minister's car up in the air far enough to land on a building the next street over. The fact that "Operation Ogre" isn't just a radicalized political statement or transparent attempt to memorialize such men and women is a feat Pontecorvo pulls off brilliantly. In fact, I'd dare call "Operation Ogre" his best film, even better than "The Battle of Algiers" or the cultish "Burn!" starring Marlon Brando. More of a procedural thriller with some stunning shifts of time than anything else, its such a sad fact this film is rarely available on any home video format.

6. Flirting (1991) - I never attended a boarding school. I never possessed the philosophical angst of young Danny (Noah Taylor). And I certainly never had a girlfriend like Thandie Newton fall for my non philosophical and angst-ridden self. Yet, having admitted all that, John Duigan's "Flirting" still manages to inhabit a space of young adulthood that feels both exaggerated and intimate.... truthful and fitfully novel.... and, above all, aligned with the pitfalls and soaring emotions of a beautifully rendered coming-of-age tale whose moments both big and small feel like a universal framework for us all. Director Duigan would go onto a strong career of minor gems ("Lawn Dogs" with Sam Rockwell anyone?), but "Flirting" remains his masterpiece. It's a film that-besides launching a number of terrific talents- has the courage and sincerity to tackle such a common subject with varying degrees of complexity. I can't say I've ever drowned myself in the works of Kafka quite like Danny Embling, but I have experienced the acute pangs of a star-crossed relationship, living through letters and second guessing every emotion and decision about said person. All that's left now is for Duigan to continue the lives of Thandiwe and Danny after all these years.

5. Shock Troops (1965) -  One of my very favorite films of all time is Jean Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" (1968). Focusing on Maquis (the mountainous revolutionaries who fought the Nazis), Costa-Gavras' late 60's French thriller, titled "Shock Troops",  belongs as a startling companion piece to Melville's very serpentine "Army of Shadows". While that film focuses on the hushed, shadowy procedures of the underground French Resistance and their fait acompli deaths, "Shock Troops" follows an actively violent group of men and women who struck quickly, killed Nazi soldiers and freed prisoners of war through barrage machine gun attacks. After a razor sharp, tense opening, "Shock Troops" settles into a more psychological thriller as the group of Maquis wonder if one of their freed men (Michel Piccoli) is a turncoat or not. Framed, edited and paced breathlessly, "Shock Troops" is one of Costa-Gavras' more difficult films to find, but one that deserves its place in French cinema as the aggressive cousin to Melville's masterpiece.

4. Ryan's Daughter (1970) - 
There's a harsh juxtaposition of technique towards the end of David Lean's maligned two hundred minute 1970 drama "Ryan's Daughter" that, for me, aligned all my lingering thoughts of greatness into sharp contrast. After falling in love with a tortured soldier (Christopher Jones), young wife Rosy (Sarah Miles) runs out before daybreak to catch a fleeting embrace with him on the hill overlooking their house. The music swells to a lush ovation before cutting back to silence (suddenly) as older husband Charles (Robert Mitchum) watches them morosely from the window. Add to the fact that Lean (and screenwriter Robert Bolt) refuse to create violent physical tension between the two men that would usually provide the undertone for such a film dealing with turn of the century love triangles, and "Ryan's Daughter" is an immense achievement in understated filmmaking crossed with the overstated aesthetic of Lean's usual compositions. It may be sanctimonious to declare this film my very favorite of Lean's over the more prestigious "The Bridge on the River Kwai" or "Lawrence of Arabia", but there it is. I fell in love with this film from the outset. Not only does it exude a master's touch- just watch the early scene where Rosy awaits Charles in his schoolhouse and the camera pans across walls and doors from her point of view as Charles enters the other room and his lumbering physique is heard coming closer, which feels like an imprinted visual touch adapted later by everyone from David Fincher to P.T. Anderson- but it's an old fashioned romance that rarely saw the light of day as the 70's rolled in. And that was the general complaint against Lean's film, that he was regurgitating previous themes and motifs from earlier efforts and that, at best, "Ryan's Daughter" was second-tier copy. My reply? If this is second tier, then I wish more filmmakers would attempt it. 

3. The Man From Majorca (1984) - Bo Widerberg's procedural thriller "The Man From Majorca" could be labeled as the Swedish "The French Connection" both in its portrayal of two central cop characters singularly devoted pursuit to capturing a criminal on the loose as well as the film's overall sense of nilhilism concerning the embedded corruption of a society intent on wringing the truth from sight. It even features an ending (or perhaps non-ending) where the good guys don't always win and the bad guys keep on smiling in the drawn quarters of their manipulated worlds. But enough comparisons there. "The Man From Majorca" is a terrific gem of a film whose procedural narrative includes tons of dead ends, dead witnesses and even deader souls as two undercover cops (Sven Wollter and Thomas Von Bromsson) are the first to respond to a bold daytime bank robbery and chase the suspect when he gets away. From there, their investigation traces realistic steps as they interview witnesses, rely on good old fashioned intuition and happenstance upon sheer luck to uncover corruption that goes far further than they imagined. Far more focused on the intelligent rather than the kinetic (although there is one well staged car chase that feels like a page from John Frankenheimer's playbook as the camera remains pointed on the road from license plate level as cars scream through narrowly congested Swedish streets), "The Man From Majorca" is a stunning achievement in low-fi crime whose existence should be much greater than it currently is. All I can say is film festival programmers, please find this one and curate it for your 80's Euro-thriller retrospectives now!

2. Kate Plays Christine (2016) - Robert Greene's "Kate Plays Christine" is a jangled web of theories and diversions that not only brilliantly upends the very definition of "documentary", but causes one to marvel at how the boundaries of the genre can be obliterated and re appropriated so easily. That the film also works into its mechanized study touches of tried and true onerism such as an actress burrowing into a role with little abandon for her well being and "Kate Plays Christine" very likely will melt your brain. The actress in question, Kate Lyn Sheil (who I first noticed in a supporting role on Netflix's "House of Cards") plays herself accepting the role of portraying Christine Chubbuck, a now infamous 70's era Florida reporter who committed suicide on air, and then traveling to her hometown researching her life and mannerisms. Greene, ever present by Sheil's side (which is the first hint that maybe his intended idea was the intense preparation all along) observes the moral and professional hurdles Sheil comes in contact with as she gets to know Chubbuck through co-workers and friends. Watching Sheil struggle with crawling into the dark mind space of a woman who found both her life and professional ambitions as unworthy of anything more than eventual public shock appeal is tremendous. Even more cringe inducing is the footage of Greene filming the fictionalized moment when Sheil as Chubbuck commits suicide on air. Draw out over an agonizing 15 minutes as Sheil continually starts, stops, fidgets and internalizes the scene, it's one of the more harrowing and perfectly realized recreations of acting I've seen in quite some time. Robert DeNiro gaining forty pounds to play Jake LaMotta has nothing on Sheil here. As I said at the beginning, what makes "Kate Plays Christine" so energizing is just where Greene's intentions lie. If the film was slyly conceived to be what it is, then he's a master provocateur of the hybrid documentary. If all of this was happenstance and the focus of the film slowly morphed out of Sheil's true struggle with capturing the inner demons of Chubbuck after realizing she was nothing more than an undiagnosed woman with manic depression, then that makes the final product all the more shattering. Either way, "Kate Plays Christine" stands as a probing and masterful exploration of the boundaries between real and fictionalized emotion.

1. In the Darkness of Time (2002) -  A collection of short films from world renowned filmmakers, the success rate of "Ten Minutes Older" is commonly varied. Piecing through the mundane comes Jean Luc Godard's effort to the group, Dans Le Noir". Not unlike the experimental video essays that have marked most of Godard's career since the late 80's, this short is a powerful rumination told through clips of (mostly) Godard's older films set to Arvo Part's somber music. It's a film that brings me to tears in the way it contemplates the destruction of ideas, things, people and emotions. It's a film that brings me to tears in its formalism of images attached with such force and intuitiveness, such as the last minutes "of cinema" being the image of a projector screen wildly flapping against the robotic arms its perched against, barely able to sustain itself on the ground anymore. Godard can often be accused of pretentiousness, but with "In the Darkness of Time" he again resuscitates the artform with a collage of meaning and truth that's hard to deny.

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