Mustang – 5

Wonderful acting – by the horses. The opening scene of wild mustangs being herded by helicopter over a Nevada plain is the movie’s high point. The main story – horse tamed by man, while man is tamed by horse – is predictable to the point of cliche, although it may not have seemed so to the Belgian/French filmmakers. The two subplots – drug dealing among the convicts and the family relations of the hero – are too confusing to gain traction. Matthias Schoenaerts is the same bullheaded tough he played in Rust and Bone and Bullhead, but is less convincing when he moves out of character.

Brink – 4

A narrow-scope documentary, showing Steve Bannon at work and at rest, not much else. He can be charming, which is interesting to see, but the film offers little insight into his thinking or relationships (if he has any). The camera is always there when he meets foreign leaders, but pulls away before anything really happens. In trying hard not to editorialize, director Alison Klayman gives us little more than this week’s TIME cover story.

Us – 6

Welcome to Jordan Peele’s gun-free America, where peopled are murdered by shears, baseball bats, putters, fireplace pokers and rock crystals, as far as we could see. Nothing in the movie made sense, up to and including the final plot twists, but I suspect that is not required of a horror flick, so long as it keeps you on the edge of your seat – which Us did, unless like my viewing partner you quickly dismissed the whole thing –  which is why I give it a positive score. I also suspect that the buzz it is getting is due to the cast’s being African-American and Peele’s previous film, Get Out, having long legs.

Woman at War – 5

A morally ambivalent story that could be about many things: industrial pollution, corporate greed, citizen action, family, the media, the futility of resistance, the Big Brother state, love. Perhaps it was an Icelandic fable, as the heroine had supernatural powers in an otherwise realistic film, and two musical trios kept showing up, possibly projected from the heroine’s mind. Unfortunately, the heroine wasn’t terribly sympathetic, and when she finally embarked on a truly heroic action, the movie cut off in ambiguity. In all, I’d prefer New Zealand.

Transit – 8

A teaser of a mystery thriller, in which each plot point you anticipate turns in another direction. Franz Rogowski, for starters, didn’t seem like the leading man, until he was. And all the pieces you expected to fall into place at the end, fell apart. German storm troopers invading Paris made you think this was 1940, but the clothes and cars were modern. Nothing was as it seemed, which became a metaphor for Rogowski’s character. How we would behave under stress, political and personal, is a subject of Christian Petzold’s other remarkable films, Barbara and Phoenix, and he draws you in by making his people and their world so real, even when it isn’t. (Special shout-out to Paula Beer, who is the enchanting love interest in both Transit and Never Look Away.)

Birds of Passage – 8

The story of how an indigenous Colombian culture goes to pot, literally and figuratively. Cristina Gallego does a remarkable job of locating us inside the world of the Wayuu people (think Dances With Wolves) then setting in motion a tragic scenario in which everything and everyone is destroyed (think Hamlet or Lear). This was also the country and era of Narcos, which conditioned us to accept that this was going on in the countryside while Pablo Escobar was rising to fame in the city. Tragedies are never fun to watch, but they can lead us to reflect upon human nature and find the universal in a world as remote as this one.

Never Look Away – 9*

This may be the best film about an artist I’ve ever seen, plus it’s a searing look at Nazi-era Germany and a charming love story. It also features six captivating (and attractive) actors who fill the screen and absorb our attention, none more than Tom Schilling, who radiates intelligence with his every look. Sebastian Koch, familiar from The Lives of Others, is almost as compelling in the more challenging role of the alpha villain. I didn’t watch this as a biography of Gerhard Richter, although of course I recognized Richter’s art in the paintings Barnert (Schilling) made and scenes he saw; so I am not judging the movie on that basis. It was simply a great movie on its own terms, with substance and style. When it ended I was sorry, and amazed that more than three hours had passed since its beginning.

*A note on the rating: I don’t believe I have given out a 9 since, maybe, Nashville, and it is time to adjust. I can save 9.5 and 10 for the perfect movie, if one ever comes. By bringing 9 into play I have more room to differentiate, without resorting to lots of fractions. I was finding that too many movies were falling between 7 and 8 to make my scale meaningful. Henceforth, 5 is a movie that leaves me cold but isn’t bad; 6 and 7 are movies that I’m glad I saw but have minor or major reservations about; 8 is a movie I can heartily recommend; and 9 is a landmark that holds up both while watching and afterward, a sure Top-Tenner for the year. The numbers below 5 reflect how much I disliked the experience.

Cold War – 6.5

Filmed in bleak-and-white, Cold War tells the oft-told tale of a man driven by lust who gives us his career, his country, and ultimately his life enslaved by his infatuation. She does little to merit his devotion and much to mock it, leaving me to impatiently and vainly implore him to get over it. The setting in Warsaw, Berlin and Paris, 1949-1964, lead us to hope for a geopolitical dimension that will justify the double entendre of the title, but all we get is changing music and hairstyles over the decades. Rather than sympathy or emotional entrapment, I felt dislike for the female lead, which made this a not very satisfying love story.

Top Ten 2018

Just in time for Oscar voting, I list my favorite films of 2018. As I grow older, I find I rate films less on artistic merit or innovation or cultural relevance and more on the questions, Did I enjoy myself and Would I recommend the film to all my friends? Thus, my choices may seem more mainstream than my list of two decades ago, but this also brings me more in line with the Academy and will give me relevant rooting interests come February 24.
That said, my two favorite movies this year both happened to be documentaries, only one of which is up for an Oscar.

  1. The King. Of all the movies I saw, this is the one I would be happiest to watch again. It featured a bunch of interesting musical acts, an acute commentary on our society and, of course, Elvis. It was less a documentary than an essay, like nothing I had ever seen.
  2. Free Solo. Also an unusual documentary, as the filmmakers were an important, and visible, part of the story they told. Alex Honnold was a charming subject, and the footage of his climbing was so gut-gripping I had to look away, even knowing the outcome.
  3. BlacKkKlansman. This had humor, spirit and message in equal doses, with more going on and more interesting characters than any other film, justifying its nominations for Film, Director, Supporting Actor, Score and Editing. I hope it gets something.
  4. Bohemian Rhapsody. Totally unoriginal and perhaps not truthful, but this rendition of the Queen story milked the rock-band story – creation/success/breakup/reunion – to perfection. You felt good not just about Freddie Mercury but for all the supporting characters, as well. And I liked the music.
  5. Green Book. Another “based on a true story” whose accuracy has been questioned, but who cares? It’s the feel-good movie of the year, with comedy leavening the heart-warming story of race relations. Mahershala Ali should win an Oscar, but Viggo Mortenson’s performance was even better.
  6. 8th Grade. An excruciatingly realistic account of a not-popular girl’s rough voyage through that terrible middle school year. Who couldn’t identify with at least some of the scenes and situations, yet Elsie Fisher’s courageous performance kept the experience watchable. (Similar kudos to the less-seen Searching.)
  7. Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Those daffy Coen Brothers added to their legacy with this collection of five offbeat Western short stories, from humorous to tragic, dastardly to noble. You never knew what was coming next, either in the story you were watching or the one to follow. Zoe Kazan was my star.
  8. Juliet, Naked. Off the beaten awards path, this small rom-com starred some of my favorite actors: Chris O’Dowd, Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne. That it centered on an obscure rock star and his music placed it right in my alley.
  9. Black Panther. I felt good watching a blockbuster in which excellent black actors and strong female characters ruled the screen. There was also an uplifting story, visual delights aplenty and lots of African art.
  10. Game Night. A bauble, compared to some of the above, but it had a fun premise, kept me guessing to the end and starred some of my favorites: Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman and Kyle Chandler.

Favorite Foreign Film:

Shoplifters. A casually adroit comment on Japanese society and the concept of family, told in a style that resonated with Japanese cinema of the last 60 years.

The Year’s Worst Films (all of which received favorable notice to some degree from NYTimes critics)
Support the Girls; Vox Pop; A Private War; Death of Stalin; At Eternity’s Gate; Ocean’s 8.
My Oscar Awards (from Academy nominations)
Film: BlacKkKlansman
Director: Spike Lee
Actor: Viggo Mortenson
Actress: Olivia Colman
Supporting Actor: Adam Driver
Supporting Actress: Regina King
Adapted Screenplay: Buster Scruggs
Original Screenplay: Vice
Cinematography: The Favourite
Although I wouldn’t be upset if Oscars went to Rami Malek, Christian Bale, Glenn Close or any of the films also on my list. I have omitted Mahershala Ali and Emma Stone only because I don’t see how their roles can be classified as “supporting,” as I understand that term. They were both co-stars, and quite excellent at that.

Capernaum – 8

A tremendously powerful film about a 12-year-old street urchin in Lebanon who alternately games the system and is thwarted by it. The depiction of Arab street life might be hard to take for the unfamiliar viewer, but resonated with my North African Peace Corps memories. The plight of the refugee woman and son, not to mention Zain’s family life, seemed dramatically hopeless, but director Nadine Labaki tacked on a happy ending out of the blue that made the viewing experience enriching, not devastating. (Incidentally, this was a nice companion piece to fellow Oscar nominee, Shoplifters.)