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.
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.
When confronted by her daughter on the inherent differences between their upper-lower-middle class family and the wealthy denizens of the local country club, Marge Simpson famously replied, “Yes, they’re better.” Depuffing that particular American idea, that wealth bequeathes goodness, among other things, is a reliable satirical strategy, and it’s one on display in the terrific Thoroughbreds. The rich in Cory Finley’s striking debut are only better in their own esteem, and their resources allows them to fool a broader swath of the population. Within their sturdy mansions are only flimsy approximations of human beings, faking what they are incapable of understanding and using their wealth to cover for whatever’s left.
Under assault from declining readership, corporate consolidation, and ideological fragmentation, Steven Spielberg clearly thought journalism could use a pick-me-up. His latest adult drama, The Post, dramatizes one of the profession’s greatest hits as a clarion call for speaking truth to power while also finding of-the-moment hot-button topics like women in the boardroom. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight tread similar ground in 2015, and The Post shares a co-writer with Spotlight in Josh Singer, but that earlier film resisted the triumphalism that Spielberg cannot help but indulge in. As old-fashioned as it is contemporary, The Post makes the viewer wonder if more cynical times still have a place for optimists like Spielberg.
Olivier Assayas’ lengthy resume has been barely tapped into by this viewer, but what’s been seen is admired and sometimes loved. Summer Hours is one of the best films of the 21st century while Clouds of Sils Maria features exceptional acting from its main trio of actresses. One of those actresses, Kristen Stewart, returns to work with Assayas in Personal Shopper. Clouds of Sils Maria was one of several recent films that have established Stewart as a serious artist, obliterating the stink of the Twilight saga. Personal Shopper is another entry in her critical ascendance. Assayas has a habit of returning to the same actresses in his work, and while Personal Shopper can be irritating in its worldview for this skeptic, the partnership between the director and Stewart is plainly one that is working out for both of them.
The standard image of the phoenix rising from the ashes is that of the majestic creature soaring straight up, powerful and reborn with vigor to spare. Christian Petzold’s searing masterpiece invokes the phoenix in direct opposition to such an image. The rebirth that the film revolves around, in which a woman thought dead in the Holocaust returns to post-war Berlin, is tentative and guilt-ridden, bruised and scarred. There is no spreading of wings, because how could there be? Petzold engages in the myth of the phoenix particularly in how badly people want it to be true, that someone could experience trauma and immediately get back to their life. Like the best films surrounding the atrocity of WWII, Phoenix has little patience for that kind of romanticism, but it also avoids becoming a nihilistic dirge. Petzold, along with frequent collaborator Nina Hoss, finds ugly truths alongside powerful demonstrations of resilience, a cohabitation that is the essence of 20th century history.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.