a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Best Films 2018

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I live in a small town

A small town where it’s at

Just 14 million people

And myself… and my cat.

– Lyrics to a song I wrote in Tokyo a few years ago.

But now I really live in a small town. Upsides and downsides. One downside is getting to see films. I still haven’t had the chance to see some films that would probably have made my best list – Burning, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Favourite, Bisbee ’17, You Were Never Reallty Here, Cold War. Some of those titles may never make it here. But some are on the way. Thank you Olympia Flm Society. Heaven forbid if I’ll ever get to see films like Season of the Devil, Jinpa, What Are You Going to Do When the World’s on Fire and a so many other films that are making waves, pushing boundaries, keeping the art of cinema alive. But I’m going to keep pushing, making sure that I see films that are really important. This year I promise to see more films and keep on the cutting edge. Think I’ll send an email to Lav right now and see where I can catch his most recent film(s) online.

Herewith, though, are a few films that made an impression on me this year – and will stick with me. Some are mainstream, others a bit obscure.

This is America – D.Hiro Murai

I know this is the year that a new wave of black cinema was, as explained to us by white critics,  taking off. Black Panther, the big push into the Marvel universe of big, big, special-effects movies was supposed to be a breakthrough. I’m glad it made a mess of money and a bunch of black actors got paid a lot, but all in all it was a pretty lame story full of cliche tormented-black male tropes and goes to show how far Ryan Coogler has fallen since Fruitvale Station. But hey, I liked the Afroed Amazonian guards and the battle rhinos. Sorry To Bother You – huh? A forgetably baroque something-or-other masquerading as a black comedy. And Blackklansman, a welcome return from Spike Lee, but its attempt at mixing blaxploitation with true-life crime drama and agitprop missed the mark. The agitprop worked best – an exploration of the roots of racism that set the tone for Hollywood blockbusters and the final montage of Trump world. It was great to see it in a mall cinema in a small town. Very necessary. The most of the film just didn’t really take off.

However, the 2 minute 16 seconds of Hiro Murai and Childish Gambino’s amazing music video brought agitprop, music, dance – and a serious exploration of the role of entertainment by black men to an impossible nexus, where enjoyment becomes pain and pathos, where we are all forced to address the fundamentals of racism, racist violence and what the fuck Trump -America is doing to us all.

First Reformed – D.Paul Schrader

Taxi Driver meets Diary of a Country priest with a little Carl Dreyer thrown in for fun. This is what Schrader’s been working toward all his life. It may not have the cultural import and zeitgeist that Taxi Driver had, but as a late bow (I hope Schrader has a few more years and films up his sleeve) he’s made his most transcendent and beautiful film.

Zama – D.Lucrecia Martel

Martel’s first period piece showcases a brilliant performance by Daniel Giménez Cacho in a grubby vision of colonialism and the imperialist ethic.  With lives debased and absurd in the New World, these freaks were still the masters. Zama does get his comeuppance, though, in a scene of strange transcendence. A more mystical, impressionistic view of the early colonial period than How Tasty was my Little Frenchman, but a perfect companion piece to Dos Santos’ seminal work.

The Hymns of Muscovy / Гимны Московии – D.Dimitri Venkov

Moscow as the city of some sci-fi future. Venkov does a simple and beautiful trick of filming the monuments of classical and soviet architecture upside down. Set to the soundtrack of nationalist anthems, these images of what seem to be monumental space stations simultaneously reify, critique and strangely find the visual wonder in the modern state of Russia.

Roma – D.Alfonso Cuarón

Cuarón’s best film since Y tu mama tambien. Visually stunning, but listen to the soundtrack. There’s so much detail going on offscreen, filling out context and background to the great black and white images. The film, even with references to the bigger events of history, seems all about background to the more intimate story of Cleo, a bit mythicized, but made real by the the great portrayal by Yalitza Aparicio.

Trote – D.Xacio Baño

The tragedy of Trote is endless. Not only the one that the viewer is thrown into – the death of the mother of a family – and is revealed slowly by the taciturn players and their failures to speak about their grief, but the one that invades the entire place and culture. The central character, Carme, breaks out of it for a short moment, but the stunning – and terrifying – denouement, documenting the Rapa das Bestas (a brutal ritual of men wrestling horses) puts an enigmatic, but final end to that hope.

Shoplifters / 万引き家族 – D.Hirokazu Koreeda

Koreeda’s drama/exploration of an intentional family expands his familial obsessions over the years as he himself has become a family man. It’s not quite the masterpiece that I Wish/奇跡 was. It seems that Koreeda-san’s still working through some stuff. Which is great! He’s an artist that continually pushes himself. The ending seems a bit pat in its resolution of all the incredible stuff that happens through the first three quarters of the film. And he does throw away a lot of forgiveness when he has little Shotu-kun recognize Osamu as his dad at the end. That said he gives Lily Franky and Sakura Ando the roles of their lives – along with the the kids – Kairi Jou and Miyu Sasaki. And a shout out to the small role by Akira Emoto as the old shopkeeper – he’s one of my favorite character actors.

Aliens – D.Luis Lopez Carrasco

La Movida Madrileña is one of Carrasco’s obsessions – what it meant and how it has set the course and influenced contemporary Spanish society. In Aliens he looks at scenester Tesa Arranz. Described as “la musa de la Movida,” she’s comes off as a bit of a sad parody of herself, describing her high life, which was pretty drink- and drug-addled. On top of all this, her delusions about aliens is amply illustrated by her countless naive paintings of said aliens.  That said, she’s a survivor, a cultural touchstone, and a ruin, but Carrasco shows her humanity and a bit of pride in that weird time in Spain’s history that allowed for someone like her to flourish.

Sweating the Small Stuff / 枝葉のこと- D.Ninomiya Ryutaro

Ryutaro, in his second feature outing, starring himself again, relentlessly explores his ideas about death, relationships – all filled with a searing sense of regret. Like his previous film, The Charm of Others, it’s intensely personal. He’s one of the few Japanese filmmakers who honestly portrays down-and-out dead-end-jobbers – and brings their feelings, limited aspirations and lives to the screen. By putting himself at the center – and his complete immersion into his acting (ala Casavettes), he makes things more than real. Sweating the Small Stuff is not a perfect film – and that’s what makes it perfect.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

January 11, 2019 at 8:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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