If the Great Man theory of history had to be applied to the symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs, some nameless, intrepid human had to be the first one to extend their hand to some nameless, curious, probably low-testosterone wolf. Such a pivotal, nonexistent moment gets adapted into Albert Hughes’ Alpha, a deft and effective picture of survival left to languish in the dregs of summer. Hughes brings a mythic sweep to a film that many directors hackier than him would have contentedly left as a marginally grittier Incredible Journey or an equally corny 10,000 BC. From its opening sequence to its rousing ending, Alpha emerges as one of 2018’s biggest surprises.
The Paddington Bear character has been a part of British children’s literature for decades, and Paul King’s adaptation could have been released in the immediate aftermath of the character’s mid-century debut. With the exception of the seamless CGI creation that is the titular character, there’s little in Paddington that doesn’t feel like a throwback. By eschewing the glitz and noise of its contemporaries in the family film genre, Paddington achieves a timeless quality and avoids the corniness that can emerge alongside attempts to revitalize classic jokes and tones. King and co-writer Hamish McColl reject the snark of the age and embrace the same earnestness that animates Paddington himself.
Andrew Haigh’s brief and eclectic filmography moved from lusty gay romance to elderly marital drama, and he takes another genre leap in the modern Western Lean on Pete. Haigh’s intimate and naturalistic work with his actors is well-suited to this tale of a preternaturally good kid who runs through an earth-shaking run of bad luck. In the lead, Charlie Plummer is on the level of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone for breakout performances, and every single actor down the cast list, no matter how small the part, gives him plenty to play against. Haigh has an affection for Lean on Pete’s characters, as much as Plummer’s Charley Thompson has for the titular beast, and out of that affection comes a deeply-felt film.
Wes Anderson returns to his natural medium of stop-motion animation in Isle of Dogs. Where better can the director, so well-known for his just-so filmmaking, exact complete control over what comes onscreen than with figurines and miniatures and models instead of imperfect humans? In that vein, Anderson leaves behind people as the main characters in his latest, focusing instead on a pack of exiled pooches in near-future Japan. Though he’s telling stories around a different species, Anderson can’t help but make the same choices he always makes, for good or ill. The fan of Anderson will love Isle of Dogs, the detractor will find plenty to be irritated about, and the wait-and-see moderate, like this reviewer, can see both sides clearly and wish the director would try and branch out.
The 19th film from Pixar studios, Coco, takes liberally from the animated masterpieces that have come before it. Outliving one’s usefulness is here, as it has been in the Toy Story films. A magical moment of Proustian recall evokes personal favorite Ratatouille. A theme of reunion runs through Coco, as it did in Finding Nemo/Dory and The Good Dinosaur. This kind of connection to Pixar’s artistic past is anything but a crutch, especially when Coco itself is dedicated to keeping the past alive. This applies to the characters within Lee Unkrich’s and Adrian Molina’s beautiful film and to Coco itself, another Pixar masterwork that slots in next to the studio’s many other highlights.
Author-turned-screenwriter David Remnick’s young adult book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and its Martin Scorsese-filmed adaptation Hugo reveled in the simple sight of an inquisitive child taking in the world around him. With Wonderstruck, Remnick and director Todd Haynes exchanges a Parisian train station and Georges Melies for New York City museums. Like Hugo, Wonderstruck is an utterly earnest film made by someone who doesn’t deal in that realm. Neither Scorsese nor Haynes typically feature characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves, with the former more comfortable in macho self-delusion and the latter in sexual repression. Maybe it takes a director who’s got a gift for liars and obfuscators to make Remnick’s brand of independent young protagonists pop off the screen. Wonderstruck might be out of Haynes’ wheelhouse, but it’s a welcomed change when the product is as endearing and beautiful as this.
David Oelhoffen’s bleak film set at the cusp of French-Algerian war begins in a one-room schoolhouse amidst the North African landscape. Viggo Mortensen’s Daru is teaching young Algerian children about French geography, a particular set of knowledge probably less pertinent than others for rural kids under France’s colonial yoke. Daru, an ostensibly charitable man still teaching from a Euro-centric standpoint, is revealed to be a man tentatively accepted by both sides but not fully at home in either. His European blood gives him a pass from the French masters, but his sympathies and preferences lie with the Algerians. Though he fought with both during WWII and maintains close multicultural friendships, the days of straddling the fence are coming to an end. Far From Men forces its characters to choose sides despite all evidence speaking to the impossibility of such a choice.
In Spirited Away, the most critically acclaimed film in Hiyao Miyazaki’s extensive and oft-praised career, the most powerful and memorable image isn’t of wonders like a multi-armed spiderman operating a bellows or a dragon fleeing from a swarm of paper birds. These, and many others, fill Spirited Away, but an early shot wins out. It’s simply a broad-shouldered man, shot from a low angle, walking confidently forward. Through the eyes of pre-teen protagonist Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragai), daughter to the man, the whole world is captured in her gaze as she watches her father lead her into an unknown future. Her parents can lead her to the enchanted spa she finds herself stuck in, but she has to be the one to get out of it. That shot is so self-evidently loving, that it is enough to want Chihiro to escape a truly incredible place, one of cinema’s great fantasy locations. It’s the fulcrum on which the film is balanced, and it powers Miyazaki’s masterpiece as surely as that aforementioned spiderman powers the spa.
Genius animator Hayao Miyazaki stretches his pacifist muscles in Howl's Moving Castle, a film produced and released during the run-up to and execution of the Second Gulf War. Outspoken in his opposition to military adventurism, Miyazaki puts anti-war critique side by side with magical scarecrows and obese witches. His best films, My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, get their considerable power from small-scale emotions and a healthy helping of awe. Howl's Moving Castle retains these attributes but slightly muddles them with allegory and some jumbled storytelling.
In The Lost City of Z, well-regarded American director James Gray takes a page from legendary German director Werner Herzog. There's a fair amount of Fitzcarraldo in Gray's jungle-trekking protagonist Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), though Gray takes a far kinder view than Herzog towards the purpose of the onscreen mission. Where Herzog's favored lead, Klaus Kinski, was impossible to believe as a pure-hearted character and therefore was never cast as one, Gray's choice of Hunnam gives him a straightforward hero trekking towards his own glory and plugging away at the small-minded beliefs of his fellows. The Lost City of Z loses something in that uncomplicating, but still leaves the viewer with plenty to chew on. In this decades-spanning adventure, Gray weaves a dense tale of obsession, regret, and pride under the umbrella of imperialism.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.