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The Year in Film: Some of the year's best movies never made it to theaters

by Philip Martin | December 30, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
A scene in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma features Marco Graf (from left), Daniela Demesa, Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey and Carlos Peralta.

Something changed in 2018.

It has been coming for some time, but now it's clear, at least for those of us here in the provinces, that there's no bright line border between movies we see in the theater and movies we can watch on our devices. Because most of you did not really have an opportunity to see the year's best movie in a theater. Because it is streaming on Netflix.

Sure, there was a token theatrical release, but it didn't play in Arkansas because the distributor had no real interest in making it available. Even if it had, it's difficult to imagine a local exhibitor picking up a movie that anyone with a Netflix password could watch at home. Even if the film in question is one that benefits from being shown in the most immersive environment possible.

This created a problem for me, as someone who covers movies for this general interest newspaper. In retrospect, I made a mistake. We did not review Alfonso Cuaron's autobiographical masterpiece Roma in the newspaper this year because it was our (or, I guess, my) rule that we review movies on the Friday closest to their opening date. Since it never opened, we didn't run a review (though we did write a couple of columns about it).

Neither did we take official notice of Joel and Ethan Coen's excellent The Ballad of Buster Scruggs when it made its streaming debut (Netflix's strategy with Buster was curious; they seemed to want to discourage anyone from finding out about the very few theatrical screenings of the film). There were other notable "films" we didn't review because they didn't play in an Arkansas theater.

In retrospect, this was an error. Our movie coverage is ever-evolving. We'll do better next year.

But you've come for the list, and here it is. It is light on certain kinds of movies. Documentaries for one, which deserve their own end-of-the-year wrap-up essay and will get one in the next couple of weeks. It's also light on horror films, because certain kinds of movies appeal to me more than others. Nevertheless I acknowledge it was a good year for the genre, and that smart movies like A Quiet Place, Hereditary, David Gordon Green's Halloween reboot, Alex Garland's Annihilation, Steven Soderbergh's Unsane and Lars Von Trier's The House That Jack Built (another movie that I should have reviewed even though it didn't show up in local movie houses) are worthy of thought and discussion. Maybe we'll get around to that later, too.

This is a snapshot of my taste at the end of 2018. There are still films I've yet to see that likely would have had a place in this piece -- Cold War by Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski chief among them. I've not caught Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria -- which I understand isn't quite a remake -- either. But unlike some years, I don't feel impossibly behind. I'm relatively confident declaring the following my:


1 - Roma -- The only reason not to put Cuaron's masterfully controlled, neo-realistic tone poem about a particularly tumultuous year in childhood at the top of this list is because everyone else seems to be doing it. By acclamation, it seems, Roma is the movie of 2018, the one we will remember in 50 years. Whether that translates into Oscar glory may be largely a matter of politics. This is a movie you feel more than follow; it blends intimacy and epic-ness in a way very few ever have. Shot in lustrous black-and-white­(yeah, and it's subtitled too) it is a chain of indelible images that add up to more than a love story, although it's mostly that. A love story about loss and politics, the way the world shifts and tilts. It re-imagines a particular world filled with people strange and blighted -- ruthless and remote, yet capable of sublime tenderness.

Back in 2014, in an interview with Variety after the release of Gravity, Cuaron noted how much he'd been influenced by big directors like Fellini, Kurosawa, Scorsese, Bergman and Coppola. "Maybe I'm a movie director and not an auteur," he mused. So maybe he set out to prove something, as much to himself as any of us. While Roma has been widely compared to Fellini's Amarcord (and Fellini's Roma), let me suggest one other reference point: the deeply humanist work of British director Mike Leigh, particularly 1990's Life Is Sweet.

​​​​​Lily Franky (left) and Jyo Kairi star in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s powerful Shoplifters.
​​​​​Lily Franky (left) and Jyo Kairi star in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s powerful Shoplifters.

2 - Shoplifters -- This strange, wonderful and completely accessible dark comedy from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is about an impoverished makeshift family and how they live by their wits on the margins of Tokyo. It made its debut at Cannes, where it unexpectedly walked off with the Palme d'Or. It's very funny and quietly devastating and not at all difficult to love.

3 - First Reformed -- This amounts to a comeback of sorts for Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo), a film artist who is equal parts philosopher and theologian as well as one of the original movie brats. Ethan Hawke plays the Rev. Toller, minister of a dwindling church in upstate New York that has become more museum than organizing principle. After Toller fails (by his lights) one of his few remaining parishioners, a young woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), things turn bleak.

As Schrader has noted, there are some echoes of Robert Bresson's 1951 coolly emotive masterpiece The Diary of a Country Priest and Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. Hawke's performance as another of God's lonely men demonstrates his maturation into one of our most committed and nuanced actors.

4 - Leave No Trace -- Debra (Winter's Bone) Granik's latest opens in the braky, lush and verdant jungles of Oregon. A man and a girl -- Will (Ben Foster), father to Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) -- are camping, going about essential tasks with wordless efficiency. He splits wood for a fire with a camp shovel, she uses a knife to carve curls on feather sticks. They forage for mushrooms, boil eggs, capture rainwater for drinking. They play chess. Somehow it emerges that they are not just here for the weekend, that they are homeless in paradise.

They are cast out, and the rest of the film is devoted to exploring the insufficiency of good intentions. While some audiences might be underwhelmed by Leave No Trace, it's a masterful piece of cinematic art that drills down into an invisible part of America. Granik is generous but unsentimental; allowing every character, no matter how minor or briefly glimpsed, a measure of dignity. No one -- not even a leotarded Christian dance troupe called For Your Glory -- is made to seem ridiculous. It is a generous movie for a miserly time.

Alia Shawkat (left) and Ben Dickey star in Blaze, a film about what you might have to give up if you want to live as an artist.
Alia Shawkat (left) and Ben Dickey star in Blaze, a film about what you might have to give up if you want to live as an artist.

5 - Blaze -- Ethan Hawke's delicate Blaze isn't really a bio-pic; it's not really about Blaze Foley, although Foley (Little Rock native Ben Dickey) is a central character and you will find out a few things about the relatively obscure singer-songwriter by watching the movie. Blaze is really about what you might have to give up if you want to live as an artist -- if you're compelled to live as an artist. Blaze is about the meager recompense of living the authentic life: like a knight, like a monk.

Foley was born Michael David Fuller in Malvern in 1949, and died penniless after being shot by the son of an elderly friend in Austin, Texas, in 1989. In between he wrote and sang a lot of songs, slept in dumpsters and under pool tables, disappointed some people, and annoyed others. He walked with a limp from a childhood bout with polio and needed medication to keep his brain from jumping out his skull. He had a bad childhood (alluded to in a scene with Kris Kristofferson).

He met Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), an actress and playwright, who might have been the best luck he ever had.

Then he blew her off to live as a kind of knight errant of art.

While it's easy to be cynical about things like this, Blaze seems to genuinely come from a place of love. It doesn't presume to know the answer to its central question: Do you have to blow off everything to not be a hack?

I hope not. So does Hawke.

Skate Kitchen is writer-director Crystal Moselle’s film about a real group of young women who skateboard in lower Manhattan. Pictured are (from left) writer-director Moselle, Rachelle Vinberg, Nina Moran, Ardelia Lovelace and Ajani Russell.
Skate Kitchen is writer-director Crystal Moselle’s film about a real group of young women who skateboard in lower Manhattan. Pictured are (from left) writer-director Moselle, Rachelle Vinberg, Nina Moran, Ardelia Lovelace and Ajani Russell.

6 - Skate Kitchen -- Writer-director Crystal Moselle seems to approach this meta-fictional film about a real group of young ladies who skateboard in lower Manhattan the same way she approached her documentary The Wolfpack, about seven shut-in Manhattan siblings whose understanding of the world was shaped (and distorted) by the movies they consumed and acted out. She's determined to let her subjects be themselves, even as they are playing fictional characters with trajectories at variance with their own.

The arcs of the characters are gentle; the lead character is a not completely socialized 18-year-old skater who lives with her mother in Long Island. After a scary injury (that could have been a lot worse), Camille's mother demands she give up skating. But Camille won't quit, and travels to Manhattan to hook up with the SK girls she has been following on "the 'Gram."

They bond -- quickly and with little ceremony -- and soon are more than holding their own in a testosterone-dominated scene. Much of the movie involves them bantering about the different varieties of sex and the Mandela Effect. While the language is frank and teenagers will do what teenagers will do, this isn't some Larry Clark-style survey of the sordid lives of young people or an impressionistic Gus Van Sant slice of life. Bad things happen, conflicts arise, but no one gets very hurt for very long.

Moselle has made a delightful life-affirming movie with an uncanny verisimilitude and a bunch of likable kids. Movies are unreliable illusions and we shouldn't assume that we know anything because we've watched a few. But Skate Kitchen made me feel good about people very different from myself.

7 - Vice -- Christian Bale is Dick Cheney, and director Adam McKay has a few ideas about storytelling. I might not like this as much in a year or two, but I'm still thinking about it, which counts for something.

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a stunning stop-motion animation film that tells a story of politics, corruption, morals, family, victims and heroes.
Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a stunning stop-motion animation film that tells a story of politics, corruption, morals, family, victims and heroes.

8 - Isle of Dogs -- Wes Anderson's stunning stop-motion animation anchors a complicated story of politics, corruption, morals, family, victims and heroes. While questions persist about whether this amounts to unwholesome cultural appropriation, I prefer to allow artists wide latitude in the worlds they imagine and to see it as a sublime shaggy dog story.

9 - Wildlife -- Different in significant ways from the Richard Ford novel it's based on, Paul Dano's directorial debut is a deep and detailed examination of the point in a young man's life when he begins to understand the fallibility of his parents and manages to love them regardless. A remarkable evocation of an American 1960s that some of us can just about remember.

10 - The Rider -- Chloe Zhao's naturalistic story of a broken man putting his life in order that, like the aforementioned First Reformed, also evokes Bresson (though it is Zhao's use of non-professional actors that sparks the comparisons). I love the deliberate pacing, the painterly, understated cinematography and the way it allows its characters their dignity. It technically came out in 2017 and made some critics' list then. But most of us didn't get a chance to see it until this year.

I've assembled another list, any of which might have found their way on to the above list had I been in a different mood at deadline:


We the Animals -- Jeremiah Zagar's Sundance Award-winning debut feature invites viewers into a very specific world, that of the youngest of three close-in-age brothers living a kind of feral existence seemingly on the rural edge of civilization, in a working-class home in upstate New York in the 1980s. There's not much to it in the way of narrative drama; it's a series of dreamy vignettes, some of which seem naturalistic and rooted in specific incidents. A terrifying swimming lesson, parents shaking you awake late at night, car rides -- at various points I was reminded of other incongruous-seeming artists. I thought of Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and of a minor character in Anne Tyler's latest novel Clock Dance who, it is remarked of in passing, "resigned" from her family. While not the kind of movie the Oscars honor, it argues for film as the most potent art form.

BlacKkKlansman -- Spike Lee at his most furious, unsubtle and effective.

Madeline's Madeline -- A deceptively slight piece of meta-fictional psychodrama about an emotionally fragile, fiercely committed young actor (Helena Howard), her well-meaning mother (Miranda July) and the director (Molly Parker) who discovers her.

Border -- Probably a touch too clever to be considered absolutely first-rate, but a highly enjoyable modernization of an old fable.

The Death of Stalin -- Absent authoritarianism, human beings would have less need of comedy. Scottish writer-director Armando Iannucci deserves to be called a satirist. In his blackly funny film, he uses cinema verite techniques and works closely with a team of writers to create a kind of hyper-reality that works a critique of contemporary regimes as well as a kind of drunken history.

Every tyrant, given enough time or a safe distance, presents as a clown.

Eighth Grade -- Let me turn the floor over to my colleague Piers Marchant, who in his review said: "Bo Burnham's stunning directorial debut plays along similar lines, but eschews the usual teen platitudes and self-congratulations, and the moral condemnation, by utilizing characters whose emotional lives are a good deal more complex and labyrinthine than the genre typically embraces. The result is a film that feels as if it gets things just about right, even as it utilizes more standard structural underpinnings: Capturing modern young teenagers and revealing them in their natural habitat, like one of those rigged-up National Geographic cameras that shows through a tripped flash the comings and goings of a secretive, nocturnal species."

Eighth Grade feels real, and more to the point, true.

You Were Never Really Here -- I don't know why this tight-as-a-fist Joaquin Phoenix thriller didn't get more run. It never showed up in local theaters but was my favorite horror movie of 2018.

The Tale -- Another movie (this one from HBO) that didn't get much of a theatrical release, though the Arkansas Cinema Society brought it to town for a one-off screening. It's documentarian Jennifer Fox's first scripted feature, a cinematic memoir of her 13th summer, when introspective Jenny temporarily escapes her upper-middle-class suburban upbringing with the help of two glamorous mentors -- her married horseback riding instructor, primly British Mrs. G and Mrs. G's lover, Bill, a running coach who saw potential in Jenny.

The film starts with adult Jenny (Laura Dern) minimizing her horrified mother's (Ellen Burstyn) discovery of a story Jenny wrote after that fateful summer when she spent weekends at Mrs. G's camp. Mom thinks the story is proof that the couple sexually groomed and abused her daughter; Jenny remembers it differently. She had an older lover while she was in her teens, which mightn't have been ideal, but hey, it was the '70s and people weren't so hung up.

In flashback, we see what Jenny means. As a teenager she was vivacious and confident; in a less enlightened time some of us might have called her a nymphet. In the '70s we didn't worry so much about political correctness. But then she discovers a photograph of who she actually was -- a prepubescent girl desperate for the attention of the adults in the room.

Garrard Conley (left) with actor Lucas Hedges. Conley, who grew up in Arkansas, wrote "Boy Erased." Hedges plays a character based on Conley in the film version of "Boy Erased."
Garrard Conley (left) with actor Lucas Hedges. Conley, who grew up in Arkansas, wrote "Boy Erased." Hedges plays a character based on Conley in the film version of "Boy Erased."

Boy Erased -- Joel Edgerton's film is based on the memoir of Arkansan Garrard Conley, who in 2004 entered a Memphis program called Love in Action, which was supposed to cure him of his nascent gayness. In the film, the character (Jared) is played by Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) as an earnest, slightly jockish college freshman who is aware of (and disturbed by) his attraction to men but other than a chaste night spent with a boy he finds attractive, hasn't yet acted on those feelings.

He is, however, victimized by a fellow student, who out of his own self-loathing and guilt calls Jared's parents Marshall (Russell Crowe) and Nancy (Nicole Kidman) to let them know they're raising a homosexual. This precipitates a family crisis that leads Jared to LIA's intake area, where he's forced to give up his phone and notebook ("no journaling," he's officiously told) in which he sketches out stories. He's willing to give himself over to the presumably wiser man who runs this program, Victor Sikes (Edgerton, conscientiously underplaying a role that could have been played otter-sleek and smarmy).

What's best about this movie is not the rather straightforward story, told in a nonlinear way, or the remarkably calibrated performances from everyone involved, but its insistence on the humanity of all of the characters, even those who only appear for a scene or two to drive the action forward or to offer a poignant gaze. With impeccable performances from Kidman, Crowe, Hedges and Edgerton, it is extraordinarily well-cast, down to musician Flea's menacing sketch of an old-convict-come-to-Jesus who helps out around the LIA offices.

At Eternity's Gate -- A bio-pic that's a lot like Vice in that, if you've been paying attention, you're not likely to learn much new. But the lead performance -- by Willem DaFoe as Vincent van Gogh -- and the cinematography make it a must-see.

• Ten films that could have made the second 10 had I been in another mood: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Kindergarten Teacher, Annihilation, Widows, The Land of Steady Habits, The Favourite, Sorry to Bother You, If Beale Street Could Talk, Private Life

• Honorable mention: Antiquities, Never Goin' Back, First Man

• Ten great documentaries: Bisbee '17, Free Solo, Shirkers, McQueen, Hal, Three Identical Strangers, Filmworker, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, RBG, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

• Most meaningful viewing experience that didn't make this list: Springsteen on Broadway

• Four unheralded performances: Charlie Sexton, Blaze; Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, Private Life

• Movies I wanted to like but didn't: A Star Is Born, Damsel, Destroyer

• Movies I should have seen before making this list: Cold War; Burning; Hale County This Morning, This Evening

• Movie that everyone likes that I guess I don't get: Green Book

• Worst move I watched all the way through and wrote about: Death of a Nation

• Worst movie we turned off after 15 minutes: Life Itself


Style on 12/30/2018

Print Headline: The Year in Film: Some of the year's best movies never made it to theaters


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