What makes Felix van Groeningen’s addiction drama Beautiful Boy stand out is how it differs from other films like it. Stories about relapse and recovery and rock bottom have built in tension and act transitions, and they often choose to end happily with some breakthrough, giving the viewer the impression that the events of the film only depict a phase in a character’s life and not a continuous struggle. Beautiful Boy, adapted from David and Nic Sheff’s memoirs, discards that triteness, rightfully so. If addiction is a chronic disease, then preventing relapse is a lifelong and daily process, and for Groeningen, who made the similarly unflinching Broken Circle Breakdown, this struggle must be shown in its maddening truth. That kind of admirable honesty, where every victory is temporary and choosing to do nothing can be the best choice, perversely makes the film itself into a slog, an earned one but a slog nonetheless.
Hirokazu Koreeda’s naturalistic films layer emotional truth onto high-concept family dramas. Still Walking is the least high-concept of his films that I’ve seen, but that doesn’t diminish its potency. Koreeda brings it early, reminding the viewer how superb he is as a crafter of achingly real cinema with a simple scene of a hobbled old man on a morning stroll greeting his neighbors. Elegance and poignancy from something so elemental makes Still Walking, like all of Koreeda’s family dramas, instantly watchable and endearing.
As far as critically acclaimed actors adapting their teenage lives into directorial debuts go, Jonah Hill was scooped by Greta Gerwig by nine months. Where she put the equivalent of her early-2000’s senior year of high school in Sacramento onscreen in Lady Bird, Hill goes further back for his exploration of LA skate teens in Mid90s. Though the background comparison invites itself, the aims and scope of the films stops there. Lady Bird took a more holistic view of the people around its protagonist, from her friends to her parents and her teachers, while Mid90s exists solely in the head of its lead and how he’s perceiving the world around him. Hill’s narrow perspective provides an intimate look at a kid learning, for good and ill, how to be a man as he rides his board down city streets.
Ethan Hawke has been quietly tearing up screens as a master of the one-for-them, one-for-me method of career building. I say quietly because his ones-for-them are disposable trash too insubstantial to generate the kind of derision someone like Nicolas Cage gets while his ones-for-me are tiny craft projects that no one sees but critics and cinephiles. Within this framework, the star of Born to Be Blue and Regression, of The Magnificent Seven and First Reformed, is operating at the highest level of his career, playing parts in both the best and worst movies of any given year. Hawke’s 2018 was especially superlative between his titanic role in First Reformed and his directing of Blaze, a biopic of a little-known outlaw country singer. Hawke reinvents a much-derided subgenre with his handling of Foley’s life, one that lacks the major milestones that operate as millstones around adaptations of more famous musicians’ lives. That Blaze can communicate who its subject was while also resisting genre tropes, finding universality in the life of a gifted man, and be a stunningly beautiful piece of art is a rarity and one more piece of evidence in the continued, idiosyncratic brilliance of the film’s director.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.