Travis’ top ten of 2018

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 12/26/2018

Trying to find a common thread between the films I chose for my fifth year-end list, I notice: there are a lot of male directors here. I flush in private, embarrassed. Yes, a couple titles have been omitted to avoid overlap with my counterpart Angela – for example, You Were Never Really Here. And I’ve been thrilled by several other films by women, like Sephora Woldu’s quirkily energetic debut feature Life is Fare and Malena Szlam’s Altiplano, an incredible 35mm study of volcanic lands in Chile. But still, the strong majority of the films I chose to write about were directed by men.

A subsequent observation is that, despite this fact, my list features many strong female protagonists directed by men (Vox Lux, Phantom Thread). Some actually feature a virtually all-female cast (Support the Girls, Annihilation). What does this say about women in cinema, about a generally increasing awareness and subversion of the male gaze? I don’t think I have much to say about this. Perhaps it’s encouraging that some (more?) visible male directors are portraying women in strong, multifaceted ways; they’re still men doing so. If considering the director as auteur, there’s in fact no real way to justify the male-dominated nature of this list. The only positive thing for me to say is that these stories were consistently surprising, challenging, and beautifully crafted, and surely all benefited from the collaborative nature of cinema, which necessarily includes actresses and everyone else who contributes to making these uniquely complex art works, whoever they are.

The list:

Annihilation – Alex Garland

Being a huge fan of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach book trilogy, of which Annihilation is a part, I was cautiously optimistic for this one, especially after its well-publicized marketing and production difficulties. Cautious because one of the book’s most distinctive qualities is a deeply literary one: how it describes in precise detail the main character’s attempts to parse and understand information for which she has no reference point. Garland’s film, however, does a neat job of not literally illustrating this experience, finding cinematic equivalents instead, so it’s full of meticulous and memorable images and sounds (including the unforgettable Murderbear). Its daring, stylishly retro climax is a delirious fractal dream, capping a film just as mysterious, elusive, and personal as the book.

Support the Girls – Andrew Bujalski 

A perceptive festival programmer described this as being in line with the tradition of “let’s put on a show” pictures, which dates back to the earliest days of cinema; the show in this case being that of a smoothly functioning “breastaurant,” whose staff can both fulfill the complex roles demanded by patrons and help each other out in their sometimes chaotic lives. In this way Bujalski is doing something similar to his inimitable Computer Chess, where a social event (in this case, the performance of daily restaurant life) is created and characters bounce around appealingly inside its parameters. Through many injustices, humiliations, and triumphs, Bujalski remains completely sympathetic to this winning ensemble of women led by Regina Hall.

HolidayIsabella Eklöf 

Like the more widely seen Revenge, Holiday is written and directed by women, and portrays women reacting to depraved circumstances that have been put in place by men. The difference with Holiday is that its reaction to these women is more nuanced. The beautiful young Sascha is on holiday in Turkey with a group of Danish drug lords, who appear as an ersatz family. When she strikes up a mild flirtation with another holidaygoer, violence of many kinds ensues, including an extremely graphic rape scene. The story is tightly written, and scenes with Sascha’s boyfriend Michael are brutally smart, showing him to be not only vicious but also completely out of touch with the broader world: telling racist jokes and uncomfortable stories, misinterpreting things, and showing no empathy whatever for other points of view. Sascha eventually has a chance to escape the luxurious captivity to which she has become accustomed, and her actions at this moment force viewers to examine to an intense degree their notions of female agency.

Chained for LifeAaron Schimberg 

I was already blown away from the first moments of Chained, which posits that although we tend to like actors because they are beautiful, exceptional beauty is as much an aberration as grotesque physical deformity. The rest of the film expands on this destabilizing observation, portraying the connection between a beautiful actress shooting a film and her co-star, a disfigured man. The film wittily sends up small independent film productions in odd locations, while toying skillfully with questions of identity and the artifice of filmmaking itself. Writer-director Schimberg creates a shell game that bewilders the viewer within seemingly controlled situations. Shot on Super 16mm film, its precise color and depth lend inviting warmth to the piece that it then provocatively subverts.

A Leaf Is The Sea Is The Theatre – Jonathan Schwartz

Jonathan Schwartz was an experimental filmmaker of refined, searching, delicate work that in the hands of a lesser artist could be dismissed as precious. But his films rose above such concerns with an elevated sense of sensitivity, being “that much more” than the sum of their parts. This reached a new level in the films, including A Leaf, that were made during his final illness. Made up largely of views of nature, the film’s ineffable feel and magical 16mm cinematography are allowed to linger and layer, and they’re balanced by a brutal toughness that occasionally but unmistakably rises to the surface to make the viewer cower in the unmistakable presence of the terrible beauty of life that could necessitate this work. A Leaf provided a powerful group filmgoing experience as well, and I’m grateful to have seen it among friends at the Media City Film Festival, where a juror described it as “a gift to cinema.”

Cold WarPawel Pawlikowski 

Among other things, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s most recent film, Ida, balanced romance and hard realism in its story of a young nun who finds out she’s Jewish. Cold War ratchets up both to an almost unbearable degree in its portrayal of an all-consuming love affair taking place midcentury, bouncing between European countries and states of hope and despair. Working once again in black and white in the narrow Academy aspect ratio, Pawlikowski swooningly conjures this period of exposed brick, smoky bars with moody American jazz, cobblestone sidewalks, and peasant dances, and we never doubt for a moment that his lovers will rearrange their lives for one another, even if – the hard realism part – it costs them everything and may be impossible. This film makes a beautiful case that such amor fati is very much worth living for.

Scene and Life – Chak Lee Cheewit

Ex-lovers meet and talk warily by a pond; a farmer attempts to sell his old house to a hotshot real-estate buyer, who balks at the price; a conversation ensues at a bus stop; a stoic woman sells vegetables at a roadside restaurant; a sullen teenage son torments his family with antagonizing boredom; a man whose wife has kicked him out of the house runs out of gas in front of a monastery and receives aid from an elderly monk. There’s not a whole lot that happens in this Thai film, but it all adds up into a nuanced portrayal of life in a village. Everywhere there are subtly fascinating contrasts between lives, played out in small connections between people who otherwise remain anonymous. Blurring documentary, staged, and professional situations – I’m still not clear on what, if anything, was staged, and I like it that way – this film’s distinct gentleness and pacing made it a unique and quietly moving viewing experience.

Leave No TraceDebra Granik 

Like its subjects, Granik’s film could easily blend in with its surroundings. It’s saved from doing so by its own skill and empathy. A veteran and his daughter live in the woods in the Pacific Northwest, until they are discovered and everything changes between them. Their relationship is a close and trusting one, and we immediately become immersed in the rhythms of their lives. But when dropped back into society, father and daughter react quite differently, with the daughter curiously exploring the world around her while the father retreats into himself, unable to face the realities of social life. Granik places the pair in small rural communities of veterans, farmers, and outsiders, whose pain sits just outside the frame. Their kindnesses add to the bittersweet feeling, dramatized so well here, of father and daughter growing apart.

Vox Lux – Bradley Corbet 

Although not everything worked in this brazen story, it has stuck with me because of its willingness to take extremely bold risks. A high school girl experiences a school shooting that places her, as a survivor, in the national consciousness; from this, she ascends to pop mega-stardom as Celeste. Turning the story of the Anointed Artist on its head, Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the adult Celeste is occasionally perplexing and sometimes falls into tropes of the haggard, pressure-cooked celebrity rock star. But on a broader scale, the film illustrates a fascinating connection between public trauma and the collective catharsis of pop. We see how Celeste has adopted the role of broad cultural symbol. It goes beyond simply being beneficial to her or not; she has no control over this life and can only react to it. The contemporary American condition of being chosen, as for royalty, is the idea that drives the film, and it was telling that I wanted this film to be expanded into novelistic detail.

Phantom ThreadPaul Thomas Anderson 

Even though I watched this on a DVD, it was clear that every shot in this film has been exquisitely executed, every gesture precisely calibrated, and every cut intimately conceived, all in service of a story with fresh, rich themes and unfathomably complex characters and interactions. This film felt like a farewell of sorts before a departure for unknown territory, like its creator is readying for something even further beyond.

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