John Curran’s Chappaquidick considers the political figure as a fundamentally weak individual. For all the nobility of public service, the job of an elected official is to work for the constant approval of one’s constituents, a transaction that, uncharitably framed, could be described as neediness, and Curran’s film frames its protagonist as a particularly needy individual. The Ted Kennedy of Chappaquidick is stuck in the martyred shadow of his brothers, and suspects that he’s the Kennedy least capable to fulfill his dictatorial father’s dreams of greatness. So much of the Chappaquidick incident took place behind closed doors, so the film inevitably fills in gaps with dramatic license, but it feels like it’s on the firmest ground when it’s considering the trade-offs and compromises that public life requires, up to and including the distortion of the final moments of a woman’s life to preserve a man’s career.
For his feature debut, Jeremiah Zagar embodies the independent cinema tradition of cribbing from Terence Malick, but with minority protagonists. Zagar’s film about a multi-racial family of five in upstate New York immediately evokes the Waco portions of Malick’s Tree of Life with its central family of three rambunctious boys, a gentle mother (Sheila Vand), and an unpredictable father (Raul Castillo). This strategy worked for David Gordon Green’s George Washington and it may very well work with Zagar, because his We the Animals is the work of a deep and promising filmmaker.
Debra Granik, who along with Kelly Reichardt functions as an empathetic chronicler of white rustics, finally returns to feature filmmaking with Leave No Trace. In the eight years between her latest and the long shadow of Winter’s Bone, Granik’s only output, thanks to failed pilots and films stuck in development, was 2014’s Stray Dog, a compelling documentary about a man not dissimilar from a character in Leave No Trace. Fellow female auteur Lynne Ramsay also returned to screens in 2018 with her latest masterpiece, You Were Never Really Here, and the rapturous response to it and Granik’s Leave No Trace will hopefully mean that we won’t be in the middle of the next decade when their next films are seen. As a director telling perceptive and affectionate stories about the nation’s underclass, there has to be a place for Granik on the annual release schedule, especially when she’s capable of heartfelt output like this.
Oakland found itself as a key location in three significant 2018 releases. Far away from the Wakanda-adjacent Oakland of Black Panther and the tech-dystopia of Sorry to Bother You lies Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Blindspotting, the only one to take place in a contemporary reality and, by extension, the best of the three. Written by and starring Oakland native Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, from neighboring Berkeley, the film feels like a sociological snapshot of a rapidly changing city torn between the people who’ve lived there for generations and the waves of new money crashing on its shores.
Judging by the softening tones of his films over fifteen years, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson is losing his edge as he ages. Together contains an ecstatic ending but it’s achieved by enduring a couple hours of poisoned leftism, and his follow-up, Lilya-4-Ever, is a harrowing slice of misery porn borne out of the true story of a sex-trafficked teenager. We Are the Best! is far from that level of darkness, or any darkness at all, as exemplified by the title’s exclamation point. All the aforementioned films feature teenagers, and while Together and Lilya both portray a lost innocence and parents disappointing their children down, We Are the Best finds room for that kind of standard issue coming-of-age realization plus the un-self-conscious joy and vulnerability that two teen friends can have with each other. There is pure, infectious optimism to be had here, like the earned cathartic relief of Together’s ending was spread out over 102 minutes. Moodysson has made his bleak films, and We Are the Best is the polar opposite.
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.
Chloe Zhao tells a traditional story untraditionally in The Rider. Her modern western and critical breakout about a rodeo rider adjusting to a life away from his calling could have easily cast some up-and-coming young males, maybe getting a ringer like Sam Elliot to play a supporting role and lend her film instant credibility. Instead, Zhao found the subject of her story on the South Dakota badlands and cast him in a loosely biographical film about his own life. Her cast plays themselves, a non-professional trope that doubles as a family. This blending of narrative and documentary achieves a Herzogian ecstatic truth where the details get lost amidst the broader emotional accuracy of what Zhao’s protagonist is experiencing. However, The Rider is most interesting in its background and its production; the film itself fades not unlike the many Dakota sunsets captured that grace the screen.
Brett Haley makes a pitch for himself as the American John Carney with his winning Hearts Beat Loud. Like Carney’s Once or Sing Street, characters use music to express thoughts they can’t speak, leaving them no choice but to sing them instead. These kinds of emotional dramas are continuously at risk of corniness or treacle, but like Carney, Haley avoids any eye-rolling by squeezing every drop of charm and charisma out of his characters, making earnest outbursts of raw feeling as potent for the viewer as they are for the character.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.