It is the cinema which chronicles the passions, nightmares and dreams of an era. To look back at the movies of any given decade is to peer into the very fabric of an age’s consciousness. We are currently living through a period of historical transition, a moment Gramsci would recognize as a moment when an old world is beginning to die and what will come forth we do not yet know. Paris is burning, new parties worship the cult of blood and land. This helps explain why much of the year’s defining cinema obsesses itself with the past, the present and an aching uncertainty over what is to come. Yet some movies were also full of hope and tenderness, wisdom and the reverie of romance. I spent much of this year in darkened screening rooms all over Los Angeles. Whether in a hidden corner of Rodeo Drive or in some distant multiplex in Burbank, I found myself moved, exhilarated or challenged with despair. Here are ten offerings which defined the year in film, and crystalize our place in this current passage of time.
- First Reformed
No other film captured the spirit of the times like this one. A return to form for legendary screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke in one of his great roles as the Reverend Toller, who undergoes a radical awakening after meeting a doomed environmentalist and his pregnant wife, played by Amanda Seyfried. Schrader, who also wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for Martin Scorsese, both films which explore restless souls, explores faith, love and sincerity in a darkening world with a meditative, transcendental style reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman. It is a film about a heart unchained and made dangerous when it becomes aware of a world nearing cataclysm. Schrader is himself the product of a Calvinist upbringing, which has always fueled the fascination with fanatical commitment in his works, from Mishima to The Last Temptation of Christ. In First Reformed, Schrader uses a fierce poetry to evoke the battle between the flesh and idealism, hope and despair. There is an eloquently radical message at the heart this film, more dangerous in a sense than a Molotov cocktail. It is all embodied in a stunning moment where two people kiss, the camera turning and turning around them in a crescendo, as if to say that the most revolutionary act is found in loving authentically, beyond the superficial, deeply and truly.
A Proustian evocation of memory. Alfonso Cuaron reaches back into his childhood to deliver this hypnotic, cinematic reverie. Filmed in a crisp black and white, Roma is told from the point of view of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the maid of a middle class family in 1970s Mexico City. Cuaron brings to life the sights and sounds, political clashes and social realities of an era. As the façade of the home Cleo works for cracks, we also follow her into the bowels of the monster city, where young men are trained to be paramilitaries and protests can transform into bloodbaths. Cuaron applies the haze of memory to surreal moments where the Mexican upper class go shooting in dreamy valleys, the heads of their former pets mounted on their walls. For Cuaron this is also his most personal work, visually poetic and as intimate as a remembered dream. Cuaron fills every inch of the frame with a richness of detail that is breathtaking. This filmmaker who has conjured the feeling of being marooned in space with Gravity, and predicted quite accurately our trajectory as a civilization with Children of Men, here crafts a film that has the power of remembering the sensations of a moment in time, from the way sunlight illuminated a kitchen to how she looked when you found her alone and sad in a balcony.
Oh what Shakespeare would have written about our modern-day tyrants. Vice takes the life of former Vice President Dick Cheney and transforms it into an epic study of power. Director Adam McKay reveals himself to be a great iconoclast, almost in the tradition of Gore Vidal. Cheney becomes a vehicle to explore the last 40 years of American imperial history. His rise from rural drunkard to power player moves hand in hand with the rise of Nixon, the age of Reagan and neocon hubris following 9/11. Christian Bale disappears behind the character, becoming a large, hulking political animal who changed history more than we could ever imagine. Amy Adams is a virtual Lady Macbeth as Lynne Cheney, driving her man in a thirst for power for its own sake. Sam Rockwell is pure frat boy corruption as former president George W. Bush. Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld prowls like a rat, laughing when asked what he believes in. This is politics elevated to a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. When Cheney plots the invasion of Iraq, McKay cuts to scenes demonstrating what the actual effects of an air bombing are, in all its horrific bloodshed. Like a young Oliver Stone, this film combines a fevered craft with an urgency to tell us about this man and his times. McKay transcends the exhilarating visual style of his previous opus, The Big Short, which somehow put into clarity the mechanics behind the 2008 crash. Having chronicled the modern downfall of capitalism, now McKay steps into an arena as bold and ancient as the Romans. Indeed, even the music score by Nicholas Britell storms like an imperial march. There stands at the entrance to the Oval Office Cheney, casting a long and menacing shadow over the republic, unleashing the Furies now devouring the system itself.
4. The Favourite
Oh what absurdities lie behind the pomp and pageantry of empire. Greek enfant terrible Yorgos Lanthimos brings his absurdist knife to the period piece genre in this rousing dark dramedy. The Favourite travels back in time to 1700s England where a deceptively victimized Emma Stone engages in a savage battle of wits with a cold, calculating Rachel Weisz. Olivia Colman is decadent fun as a plump, tantrum-throwing Queen Ann. Lanthimos basks in the absurdity of aristocratic power as the Lords race ducks, the ladies threaten each other with gold-plated muskets and gossip becomes currency. The cinematography evokes classics like Barry Lyndon but with a wicked edge. Lanthimos remains true to his Dadaist exuberances, but here applies them with a fresh refinement. He has dabbled in horror (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and romantic dystopia (The Lobster), but The Favourite is Lanthimos gleefully distorting history to display the raging human jealousies hiding behind fine silks.
5. The Death of Stalin
Again the cold and bloody heart of power’s unforgiving wheel. Armando Iannucci directs this dark comedy with the spirit of a Mikhail Bulgakov. The sudden death of Soviet overlord Josef Stalin (played with titanic fury by Adrian McLoughlin) provokes a scurry for power among his minions, now left without an idol issuing instructions. Like all great satire it transcends its sources, becoming a general farce about the allure of absolute control. Iannucci uses superb exaggeration in the writing and performances to evoke a world ruled by fear, where one wrong word can get you killed. One imagines the court of Gaddafi or the Saudi royals to operate in the same fashion. Like The Favourite, Iannucci mocks the pageantry of power, in this case the stylings of totalitarian dictatorship. Soviet iconography is as farcical as the Politburo officials who refuse to disagree with Stalin, even after he is but a corpse. This film plays like a chess game where everyone wants to the throne, and only the most cunning will survive. Steve Buscemi is a smart but cautious Nikita Khrushchev, Simon Russell Beale is a power-hungry Beria and Jeffrey Tambor is a superbly bafoonish Georgy Malenkov, as clueless in suddenly being proclaimed head of a revolutionary state as Nicolas Maduro is today in Venezuela. . .
To read the rest of Rengifo’s Top 10 of 2018, go to Riot Material Magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/film-top-10-2018/
And please follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/riotmaterial/