Extracts, February 2019

"Close" (Vicky Jewson, 2019)
Select review blurbs collected from Letterboxd & Twitter

Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez, 2019)
If "RoboCop" took place in the "Titanic" movie universe under the narrative guidance of whoever was responsible for "Street Sharks". If you can jive with contrivances in the school of a Saturday morning cartoon, there is enough in "Alita" to leave you interested in the clear direction for a follow-up without all the origin story-itis. The best part is that one Toto song finally makes sense. Also 100% thought that was James Cameron before he took the goggles off.

Close (Vicky Jewson, 2019)
Tomb Raider by way of Tom Clancy. Though rarely rising above direct-to-whatever sensibility, there is plenty to mine from this extremely expedient Noomi paycheck. And there is little more agreeable in cinema today than Noomi getting a paycheck.

High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh, 2019)
Soderbergh at his Soderberghiest. Every hallmark is here. A single, static camera placement for a conversation about contracts can be studied the way entire classic scenes are studied.

The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, 2018)
Unlike “On the Silver Globe” proving unfinished films can be monumental, there is sadly so little to “The Other Side of the Wind” that it leaves me wondering only these two things: why anyone even tried, and whether latter years Welles was more bitter or more horny.
This review blurb led to an intriguing conversation with a Welles enthusiast on Twitter, in which we observed among other things that "Other Side" evokes John Cassavetes' "Faces".

Velvet Buzzsaw (Dan Gilroy, 2019)
Glimpses of an interesting film biting at the business of modern art that suffocate when stitched to an embarrassingly pedestrian, go-nowhere “A Nightmare on Elm Street” wannabe. One would be forgiven for watching due to the Jake Gyllenhaal factor, and rewarded only by another look at Daveed Diggs.

"Velvet Buzzsaw" (Dan Gilroy, 2019)


The Best Films of 2018

Honorable Mentions: Bad Times at the El Royale (Drew Goddard), Widows (Steve McQueen), BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee), First Reformed (Paul Schrader), Tully, (Jason Reitman), Dogman (Matteo Garrone)

10. Unsane, Steven Soderbergh
9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman
8. If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
7. The Old Man & the Gun, David Lowery
6. Creed II, Steven Caple, Jr.
5. 江湖儿女 [Ash Is Purest White], Jia Zhangke
4. Minding the Gap, Bing Liu
3. Transit, Christian Petzold
2. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Ethan & Joel Coen
1. The House that Jack Built, Lars von Trier

It seems crazy to think that all I heard about "The House that Jack Built" before giving it a go myself was that Lars von Trier had finally gone off the deep end to make a full gonzo exploitation piece with the sole purpose of putting emotionless violence on a screen. This may have seemed conceivable after the greatly anticipated "Nymphomaniac" failed to narratively justify its own envelope-pushing content despite great effort, but it's so distant from the truth. With his latest Cannes-stirrer von Trier has turned inward to develop an explicitly detailed and absolutely fascinating autobiographical dissertation on artistry itself (including stumbling blocks, manipulation, meticulous study, rule-breaking, happy accidents, narcissism, experimentation, and finding comfort and confidence in one's artistic identity) as well as the interpretation of art (such as effects of casual and professional criticism, opinion of one's audience, conformity, divergence, and the terms of legacy) through the metaphorical characterization of a necessitated detachment from sentimentality. On paper certain choices may read as tacky and self-important but in context feel earned and insightful, and through it all not once does von Trier stray from his meticulously composed and edited methods of messing with us thereby driving home his overarching thesis through perhaps his most thorough evidence in favor of it. To send it off, the final segment contains per my estimation by far the most sumptuous and resonant cinema I've seen the filmmaker produce to date.

With a most impressive catalog topped by all-time majors like "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "The Big Lebowski" and otherwise comprised of such potent works as "Burn After Reading" and "Blood Simple", it's incredible to see the Coens maintaining their steep standard across the decades. "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" manages to thematically tie disparate western subgenres in a completely enrapturing and perfectly paced anthology on the human condition akin, quite honestly, to "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" in its chapter-based existential brilliance. It is one of a rare echelon of films in possession of effervescent intangibility that practically generates a purifying chemical release enjoyed throughout its running time. Between this being a seemingly widely viewed and well-liked Netflix exclusive and "Red Dead Redemption 2" being a masterful new benchmark in open world gaming, 2018 may come to be viewed as the time the cowboy retook pop culture. And... I'm sure it must be but mere coincidence that my two favorite films of the year are each told in six parts and conclude with... well, you know.

Out of time and corporeality, "Transit" is almost sneaky in its mesmerizing precision that swiftly takes hold and passes like a dream. Added to "House" and "Ballad" this now makes for a hat trick of top films involving a literal or allegorical [insert spoiler and shifty eyes emoji here].

At once one of the most narrative-driven documentaries I've seen as well as one of the most candid, "Minding the Gap" bears its strength in near every instant, thriving just as much on its hangout quintessence as its sense of organic discovery.

In "Ash Is Purest White" the marital duo of Jia Zhangke and Zhao Tao have again crafted a sprawling and cozily signatured examination of magnetic characters navigating life in contemporary China, featuring tangents this time perhaps even richer than the throughlines.

At once a tried-and-true "Rocky" entry as well as new ground for the franchise, "Creed II" surpasses its immediate predecessor under a newer director thanks to the surprisingly subdued and melancholy approach to the Drago family dynamic as well as an overriding somberness that defines the piece as a whole.

Lowery may undermine the effectiveness of the charm in "The Old Man & the Gun" by fading back up from an ideal conclusion point to show the epilogue of this true events biography, but the bulk of the piece feels right in fraternity with the spirit of "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid".

An assured step for Jenkins from his already attention-grabbing "Moonlight", "If Beale Street Could Talk" facilely coheres on the strength of its palpable central romance, virtually ever-present music inhabiting its spaces, and a dedication to the spirit of James Baldwin.

Even without the familiar Peter Parker as its fulcrum, the proudly peculiar "Into the Spider-Verse" is both the best embodiment of the character's spirit we've gotten on screen as well as a long-absent reminder of how cool movies about colorful superheroes can be in general.

With "Unsane" the curious, medium-testing side of Soderbergh again elevates a basic concept with his utterly impeccable cinematography skills, resulting in tight and efficient entertainment.

Complete 2018 list on Letterboxd (rankings subject to change).