By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 29, 2018)
As 2018 closes, it’s time to share my picks for the top 10 feature films out of the 50 or so I reviewed this year. As per usual my list is presented alphabetically, not in ranking order.
Big Sonia – There is a scene in Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday’s documentary where you witness something just short of a miracle: a group of junior high students sitting in wide-eyed attentiveness; clearly riveted by a personal story emitting not from a cell phone or a laptop, but rather from a diminutive octogenarian woman. By the end of the talk, many of the students are brought to tears (as is the viewer).
But this is no pity party; in fact, many of them now seem genuinely inspired to go make a difference in the world. Her name is Sonia, and her story is much larger and more impactful than her 4 foot, 8-inch frame might suggest. You think you’ve had problems in your life? Let me put it this way…I’ll be thinking twice before I kvetch about my “issues” from here on in. (Full review)
Black KkKlansman – So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.
I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense. (Full review)
Fahrenheit 11/9 – Let’s dispense with this first. Yes, Michael Moore goes “there” in his latest documentary Fahrenheit 11/9…at one point in the film, he deigns to compare Trump’s America to Nazi Germany. However, he’s not engaging in merit-less trolling. Following a brief (and painful to relive) recap of what “happened” on 11/9/16, Moore’s film accordingly speeds off in multiple directions
As he has always managed to do in the past, he connects the dots and pulls it together by the end. In a nutshell, Moore’s central thesis is that Trump is a symptom, not the cause. And the “cause” here is complacency-which Moore equates with complicity. If you’re a Moore fan, you won’t be disappointed (though you may be a bit depressed). If you’re a Moore hater, you won’t be disappointed. (Full review)
The Guilty –Considering that nearly all of the “action” in Gustav Möller’s low-budget gem is limited to the confines of a police station and largely dependent on a leading man who must find 101 interesting ways to emote while yakking on a phone for 80 minutes, Möller and his star Jakob Cedergren perform nothing short of a minor miracle turning this scenario into anything but another dull night at the movies.
Packed with nail-biting tension, Rashomon-style twists, and completely bereft of explosions, CGI effects or elaborate stunts, this terrific thriller renews your faith in the power of a story well-told. (Full review)
Let the Sunshine In – The best actors are…nothing; a blank canvas. But give them a character and some proper lighting-and they’ll give back something that becomes part of us, and does us good: a reflection of our own shared humanity. Nature that looks like nature.
Consider Julilette Binoche, an actor of such subtlety and depth that she could infuse a cold reading of McDonald’s $1 $2 $3 menu with the existential ennui of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123. She isn’t required to recite any sonnets in this film (co-written by director Claire Denis and Christine Angot), but her character speaks copiously about love…in all of its guises. And you may think you know how this tale of a divorcee on the rebound will play out, but Denis’ film, like love itself, is at once seductive and flighty. (Full review)
Little Tito and the Aliens – I avoid using phrases like “heartwarming family dramedy”, but in the case of Paola Randi’s, erm, heartwarming family dramedy…it can’t be helped. An eccentric Italian scientist, a widower living alone in a shipping container near Area 51 (long story), suddenly finds himself guardian to his teenage niece and young nephew after his brother dies. Blending family melodrama with a touch of magical realism, it’s a sweet and gentle tale about second chances-and following your bliss. (Full review)
Outside In – The rain-washed town of Granite Falls, Washington (population 3400) is a palpable character in Lynn Shelton’s drama about a newly-released felon named Chris (Jay Duplass) struggling to keep heart and soul together after serving 20 years for a wrongful conviction. Only 18 when he got sent up, he has a textbook case of arrested development to overcome. Complicating his re-entry into society is his long-time platonic relationship with the only person who gave him moral support over the years. Her name is Carol (Edie Falco), his high school teacher.
Shelton has a knack for creating characters that you really care about, helped in no small part here by Falco, who can say more with a glance, a furrow of the brow, or a purse of the lips than many actors convey with a page of dialog. Duplass (who co-scripted) also delivers a sensitive and nuanced performance. (Full review)
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda – There’s a moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary where Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, after much experimentation with “found” sounds, finally gets the “perfect” tonality for one note of a work in progress. “It’s strangely bright,” he observes, with the delighted face of a child on Christmas morning, “but also…melancholic.”
One could say the same about Schible’s film; it’s strangely bright, but also melancholic. You could call it a series of Zen moments; a reflective and meditative glimpse at the intimate workings of the creative process. It also documents Sakamoto’s quiet fortitude, as he returns to the studio after a hiatus to engage in anti-nuke activism and to battle his cancer. A truly remarkable film. (Full review)
Wild, Wild Country – On one level, co-directors Chapman and Maclain Way’s binge-worthy Netflix documentary series is a two-character study about a leader and a follower; namely the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his head disciple/chief of staff/lieutenant Ma Anand Sheela. In this case, the one-on-one relationship is not a metaphor; because the India-born philosophy professor-turned-guru did (and still does) have scores of faithful followers from all over the world.
This tale is so multi-layered crazy pants as to boggle the mind. It’s like Dostoevsky meets Carl Hiaasen by way of Thomas McGuane and Ken Kesey…except none of it is made up. It’s almost shocking that no one thought to tackle this juicy subject as fodder for an epic documentary until now (eat your genteel heart out, Ken Burns). The Ways mix in present-day recollections from various participants with a wealth of archival news footage. Oddly, with its proliferation of jumpy videotape, big hair and skinny ties, the series serves double duty as a wistful wallow in 1980s nostalgia. (Full review)
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – In his affable portrait of the publicly sweet, gentle, and compassionate TV host Fred Rogers, director Morgan Neville serves up a mélange of archival footage and present-day comments by friends, family, and colleagues to reveal (wait for it) a privately sweet, gentle, compassionate man. In other words, don’t expect revelations about drunken rages, aberrant behavior, or rap sheets (sorry to disappoint anyone who feels life’s greatest pleasure is speaking ill of the dead).
That is not to deny that Rogers did have a few…eccentricities; some are mentioned, and others are implied. The bulk of the film focuses on the long-running PBS children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted in 1968. With apologies to Howard Beale, I don’t have to tell you things are bad. I think this documentary may be what the doctor ordered, just as a reminder people like Fred Rogers once strode the Earth (and hopefully still do). I wasn’t one of your kids, Mr. Rogers, but (pardon my French) we sure as shit could use you now. (Full review)