Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney has the misfortune of arriving in theaters years after Asif Kapadia’s Amy. Both documentaries track the rise and fall of generational musical talents, the former about Whitney Houston and the latter about Amy Winehouse. Their lives were elevated by what made them unique entertainers and artists and brought low by drug use, manipulative fathers, and bad relationships. Kapadia avoided nonfiction biopic clutter and sameness by piecing together much of his film from paparazzi footage of Winehouse, a formal statement that matched the path that his subject’s life was taking. Macdonald doesn’t use that kind of formal invention, and instead relies on the power of his talking heads and of Houston’s own dominating charisma. Whitney proves to be a capable documentary thanks to those aforementioned strengths, as well as some aggressive editing from Sam Rice-Edwards. Houston is revealed to be the kind of multi-faceted personality that no one could make a bad documentary about.
The best kind of horror movies are about some kind of unspeakable impulse or thought embodied by demons or monsters. So much of David Cronenberg’s work is about a body revolting against its owner. The slasher movies of the 80’s enact some form of retributive morality on sexual freedom. Familial bonds aren’t spared from interrogation, whether in a classic like The Shining or the more contemporary Babadook. Ari Aster’s disconcerting debut Hereditary is in this last vein, stuffed with corrupted relationships to the point of bursting. It gives explicit voice to taboo feelings, especially about motherhood, as it moves between subgenres of horror in its different acts. Some of these transitions are more successful than others, but the total package is masterful in its evocation of earlier horror staples while also making its own contribution to the genre.
Morgan Neville isn’t breaking new cinematic ground with Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary about the life of children’s television host Fred Rogers. He’s not even as formally inventive as he is with his Oscar winner, 20 Feet From Stardom, in which he used memorable camera tricks to show how one backup singer can now do the work of several. This film is as straightforward and uncomplicated as its host, and it loses little power by being so. Sometimes, the choice of a documentarian’s subject is enough to make a film a dead ringer, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor has made that choice.
At the opening of the Stanley Kubrick exhibit at the LA County Museum of Art, 13 years after his 1999 death, the director’s personal assistant and guardian of his legacy, Leon Vitali, was not invited. Vitali is a living refutation of auteur theory, and there is no greater auteur than Stanley Kubrick. Perhaps having Vitali in attendance would’ve pulled focus from Kubrick. In Tony Zierra’s documentary about Vitali, it is the assistant who pulls focus from the auteur. Zierra’s Filmworker finds in Vitali the most dedicated below-the-line workhorse and makes a film dedicated to all those like him, men and women who ensure a film is completed in exchange for a blip in the end credits and the knowledge that even if no knows who they are, they too built that. This is a documentary that reframes how a person thinks about movies, and will cause this reviewer to think twice when he gives all the credit to the director.
The title of Matthew Nelson’s Who We Are Now refers to the irrevocable return to one’s earlier self after a life-changing event. The new person is still walking around in the old person’s body, but they can’t get their brain into the same place no matter how much they might want to or how much the people around them want to get back to normal. Reconciling that gap is shown to require a level of vulnerability that most people are incapable of, especially when desperation opens up the possibilities of easy exploitation. Nelson’s actors’ showcase is the ideal form of agitprop, one that resists speechifying and naked political statements for the lived experiences of those on the margins.
If a theme had to be forced onto the films that just happen to have been released in 2018, despair comes to mind. It’s been present in works ranging from arthouse indies like Eighth Grade and You Were Never Really Here to the big-budget spectacles of Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2. Nowhere is despair more prevalent than in Paul Schrader’s haunting First Reformed, where all forms and all scales of dread are encapsulated by another of Schrader’s ‘god’s lonely men.’ Calling to mind the spare, religious-inflected introspection of mid-century masters like Robert Bresson, First Reformed is a bleak rebuke of hope and a dense treatise in search of it.
With only four films over a 19 year period, Lynne Ramsay is tragically not a prolific filmmaker. Her stylish direction and singularly difficult protagonists mark her as a notable talent, with each film better than the last. After the bracing psychological horror of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay finally returns to screens with the equally unsettling You Were Never Really Here. Led by Joaquin Phoenix, who’s adding another brilliant performance to his resume, the film moves quickly and packs a fierce punch, alternately thrilling and emotional and terrifying in its depiction of dark underbellies and psychic scars.
Great Gerwig recently gave movie viewers one of the best coming-of-age stories about a high school girl, or any teenager, in Lady Bird, and one year later, the cinematic world gets a middle-school complement with Bo Burnham’s stellar debut, Eighth Grade. Where Gerwig plumbed the depths of her own life with a semi-autobiographical story, Burnham turns his film into a sociological case study, investigating how young teens live now while also remembering to make his characters heart-wrenchingly real. Part bildungsroman, part satire, and part horror of the uncomfortable, Eighth Grade is required viewing, a painfully nostalgic trip to a universally awkward time and what feels like a deeply researched and observed voyage into this specific moment in cultural history.
The writing/directing combo of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman have made a film about teenagers and another about unmoored and bitter adulthood. With Tully, they continue their Linklater-esque journey down the path of major life events, usually starring an aggressively un-self-conscious Charlize Theron. In five years, maybe they’ll reunite again for a mid-life crisis exploration, but now, they’re concerned with motherhood and the porousness of different stages in a person’s life. Reitman and Cody both have been in the woods in recent years, with he languishing in overwrought romantic dramas and Crash-esque ensemble pieces as she takes lower-profile TV projects and has her own lackluster directorial debut. By reuniting with each other and with Theron, they’re able to recapture their earlier magic while also demonstrating more maturity, moving past the home-skillets of Juno and into something more grounded with the feel of lived-in experience and truth.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.