2018 in Review: Top 10 Films

05. Cold War

Directed By Paweł Pawlikowski
Written By Piotr Borkowski, Janusz Głowacki, and PAWEŁ PAWLIKOWSKI

The first half of Cold War echoes Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy in its depiction of a 20-year relationship developed over multiple chance encounters. Knowing that the film clocks in at under 90 minutes, I was concerned that director/co-writer Paweł Pawlikowski would try to condense the magnitude of Linklater’s arc into one-third of its runtime. Cold War unfolds as a series of vignettes, jumping through the years and across Europe as its two leads, Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), finding each other over and over throughout their time as musicians. I don’t think I initially appreciated just how much of a risk Pawlikowski took here. The scattered nature of the narrative leaves much to the imagination, which can obscure exactly what it is that bonds them beyond physical passions. But Cold War reaches a point at which it turns that scattered nature to its advantage; Zula and Wiktor are finally able to be together, but the oasis they saw in one another is imperfect. Where the time gaps were originally used as a means of scattering the characters across time and space, they later are used to drastically change the characters’ frames of mind. It is when they go from passionately in love to arguing and stirring jealousy within one another that those time gaps become devastatingly effective. In spite of their troubles, however, they always recognize just how much they need one another; whether in the artistic haven of Paris or behind the Iron Curtain in Yugoslavia, they are never away from home. The most poignant moment of the film occurs right as it ends, a text card reading “for my parents. Indeed, Cold War is loosely based on Pawlikowski’s parents and their own complicated relationship over the decades, and the realization that a love story so grandiose could actually be real is the cherry on top of an already-gorgeous romance. Cold War is a beautiful reaffirmation that Pawlikowski’s efficiency as a filmmaker is matched only by his emotional lethality as a storyteller.

04. If Beale Street Could Talk

Directed By Barry Jenkins
Written by Barry Jenkins

An actor looks directly into the camera. It cuts in close. We see a wrinkle in their nose. We see purpose in their eyes. For less than a minute, the actor becomes the subject of a portrait, high art aesthetic colliding with a working-class realism. Barry Jenkins, by way of this recurring shot of his, conveys his characters’ soulfulness with a depth and finesse that’s rare for a filmmaker with only three features under their belt. Moonlight already made a name for Jenkins as an insightful, nuanced storyteller, and If Beale Street Could Talk puts him well ahead of his peers. The film brims with humanity, even under the weight of dread that permeates throughout. But after the premise is established—Tish (KiKi Layne) must prove her boyfriend Fonny’s (Stephan James’s) innocence of a rape while also carrying his child—it becomes clear that If Beale Street Could Talk is less about whether or not his innocence will be proven and more to do with the lengths people are willing to go to protect those they love. That love is made palpable by the chemistry between Layne and James, and by Regina King’s career-defining performance as Sharon, Tish’s fiercely determined mother. Amazingly, Beale Street’s unbridled sense of romance and devotion manages not to conflict with its realism as to the nature of life for marginalized groups in America. Love may not always be able to save everyone, but it can have the power to sustain them through life’s tribulations.

03. Shoplifters

Directed By Hirokazu Kore-eda
Written By Hirokazu Kore-eda

Hirokazu Kore-eda has an immense empathy for his characters, a ragtag family of social outcasts who shoplift simply to get by. In some respects, Kore-eda echoes the compassion of Italian neorealists like Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti, whose unfiltered depictions of people in the dregs of poverty wove larger, more universal stories of interdependence among the poor. The characters of Shoplifters face classic neorealist circumstances; Osamu (Lily Franky) is unable to work due to an injury, Shota (Kairi Jō) is abandoned by his parents, and Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is neglected and abused by her own, to name a few of those circumstances. Where Kore-eda breaks from Bicycle Thieves or La Terra Trema, however, is his optimistic tone towards humanity. Shoplifters tells the story of people in heartbreaking conditions, but it’s about the kindness that those conditions can inspire. Shota and Yuri are taken in by a family with not much more than they, but that would love them more than their biological relatives ever did. Shoplifters is set against a larger socioeconomic backdrop—in this case, the Japanese Recession—that grounds its story in true life. Perhaps that true life can be different, but only when people see the poor and marginalized as real people, and not simply as shoplifters.

02. Leave No Trace

Directed By Debra Granik
Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini

What is the nature of the familial social contract? What do we owe to our kin simply on the basis that they are kin? Leave No Trace offers no easy answers to these questions, but its attempt to tackle such a complex issue at all merits serious admiration. It’s a film that offers a lot to chew on, but deceptively so. Not unlike Debra Granik’s previous film Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace bares a stripped-down aesthetic, minimal dialogue, and something of a formless narrative. That last element is important, because it puts the audience in the shoes of its characters: when PTSD-addled war veteran Will (Ben Foster) takes his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) off the grid to get away from a society he no longer recognizes or wants to participate in, it’s as unclear to them as it is to us just exactly where they will end up. And with Will’s mental state in question, one begins to wonder just how much better off Tom is with her father. Foster and McKenzie both turn in excellent performances here, conveying multitudes with as little as a glance between father and daughter. Their bond is palpable, but is it healthy? Leave No Trace finds strength in its uncertainties; it’s a confident-enough piece of filmmaking to trust that when it asks these questions, its viewers are sufficiently thoughtful to explore the answers on their own.

01. Roma

Directed By Alfonso Cuarón
Written By Alfonso Cuarón

For just about all of its runtime, Roma is a glorious contradiction of scale, a film magnificent in visual splendor and ambition yet intensely personal in its details. Alfonso Cuarón’s loving tribute to his own childhood nanny is bursting with empathy, quirky humor, and crushing tragedy. Her story may be authentically human, but the breadth of Cuarón’s narrative and photography grants her near-sainthood; she is one person in a world of many, but to him, she is a giant. The mise-en-scène of every frame feels carefully curated to the smallest detail, such that even watching the film on mute can be enormously rewarding to the eyes (Cuarón also serves as cinematographer and co-editor). But as beautiful as it is aesthetically, its beauty as a piece of storytelling is even more remarkable in just how grounded its dramatic stakes are. Its tragedies have weight but never buckle under melodrama; its lighter moments can be quite funny but never to the point of distraction. Cuarón strikes the kind of precise tone and visual panache that only a consummate professional such as he could achieve, and no doubt Roma will remain a landmark film for him as a result. It’s a star-making vehicle for both Yalitza Aparicio (as Cleo, a fictionalized version of his real nanny Libo) and Marina de Tavira (a fictionalized version of his mother), whose obscurity lends another layer of truthfulness to the film; Cuarón insisted on casting everyone in the film himself in order to achieve that truthfulness. In just about every capacity, Roma is a jaw-dropping work of art that will not only go down as one of the best films of 2018, but one of the crowning cinematic achievements of the entire decade.

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