By William Wolf

THE BEST TEN FILMS OF 2018  Send This Review to a Friend

The films on this list have been selected from among those released in New York theaters during the year and are listed in order of preference.

1. Blackklansman

2. Cold War

3. Becoming Astrid

4. Roma

5. Fahrenheit 11/9

6. The Insult

7. Capernaum

8. Happy as Lazzaro

9. RBG

10. On the Basis of Sex

Other outstanding films of 2018 listed in no particular order include: A Star is Born; Leave No Trace; Lives Well Lived; Memoir of War; A Private War; The Death of Stalin; Can You Ever Forgive Me?; The Front Runner; The Other Side of the Wind; Wildlife; Tea With the Dames; If Beale Street Could Talk; Green Book; Widows; Back to Burgundy; Measure of a Man; The Wife; Chappaquiddick; Eighth Grade; Rodin; Operation Finale; The Bookshop; Crazy Rich Asians; Nelly; Vice; Colette; Love, Gilda; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Pick of the Litter; The Guilty; Submission; Summer 1993; At Eternity’s Gate; The Favourite; First Reformed; Boy Erased; Shoplifters; Shoah: Four Sisters; Searching for Ingmar Bergman; Monrovia, Indiana; The Price of Everything; On Her Shoulders; The Waldheim Waltz; Studio 54; Call Her Ganda; Lizzie; American Chaos; Bisbee ’17; Let the Sunshine In; Godard mon amour; Lou Andreas-Salomé –The Audacity to Be Free; Ben Is Back, Three Identical Strangers, Summer 1993 and Itzhak.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX  Send This Review to a Friend

Following the well-received documentary “RBG” about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we now have a superb dramatization of the formative stages of her life and extraordinary career. “On the Basis of Sex,” directed by Mimi Leder and written by Daniel Stiepleman, Justice Ginsburg’s nephew, bristles with authenticity as it covers a landmark case that Ginsburg won and also the sexist issues that she was up against in her quest to establish herself as a woman lawyer. (Both “RBG” and “On the Basis of Sex” are on my list of The Best Ten Films of 2018. See Search.)

The quality of Leder’s film depended largely on finding the right actress to play Justice Ginsburg, and Felicity Jones fits the bill brilliantly. Although British, she speaks convincingly as an American, and she embodies Ginsburg’s fighting spirit most effectively. This is achieved not only through dialogue but through Jones’s skill in communicating observances of all that goes on around her. Her visual reactions are nearly as penetrating as her words.

The film also solves the tricky problem of making Ginsburg's personal life credible, as in the relationship with her husband and legal partner Martin, a consistently excellent Armie Hammer, and her being a mother and inspiration to her feisty daughter Jane, played colorfully by Cailee Spaeny. The love between Ginsburg and Martin is depicted with warm affection, including a sexual encounter that goes just far enough to remain in good taste.

The screenplay places emphasis on showing how Ginsburg in the 1950s had to face prevalent sexism. Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold, sharply depicted by Sam Waterston, is shown in a scene in which he asks of a group of women, Ginsburg included, who had just been accepted into Harvard, to each justify taking a place that could have gone to a man. He is also shown as being on the wrong side of the landmark court tax case that Ginsburg won on the principle of equality for men and women.

Suspense is injected into the court battle via the writing and direction, and the issues are well-clarified for viewers, as, for example, with a practice session in which Ginsburg is grilled as to tactics. There is also a key portrayal by Melvin Wulf of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who is shown reluctant to get involved in the case that Ginsburg wants to pursue, but finally coming around to take part. Kathy Bates delivers an appealing performance as civil rights lawyer and feminist Dorothy Kenyon, who overcomes initial reluctance to be a supporter of the position taken by Ruth and Martin Ginsburg.

Chris Mulkey is earnestly convincing as Charles Moritz, the client around whom the case is built on the issue of his having been denied a tax deduction for caring for his ill mother because he is a single man, as only women have been considered to be home care-givers. By winning his right to the deduction, Ginsburg established equal rights for men and women not only in that tax case, but also in a host of unequal laws that could no longer stand as a result.

The film has scenes that register emotionally, and there is a solid ending as we see the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the present. Those who wish her being able to continue on the Supreme Court at least until a Democratic president, not Donald Trump, can get to name a replacement will get a particular charge and feeling of uplift from this profound, exciting and moving screen biography. A Focus Features release. Reviewed December 24, 2018.

THE UPSIDE  Send This Review to a Friend

A remake of the 2011 French film “The Intouchables,” the newly titled “The Upside” is a very American take on the story and benefits from a strong cast. According to my memory, the French film contained more comedy and less anger than this version, which also adds more complications. But inspired by a real-life situation, the basic story line is the same, combining humor with human issues in the tale of emotional bonding and recovery from despair.

The always-excellent Bryan Cranston plays Phillip, the billionaire who became a paraplegic as a result of a parasailing accident. That, in addition to the death of his wife, has left him terribly despondent and without the will to live. Although he is sharp mentally, he must be fed and attended to with respect to all of his body functions. Nicole Kidman, also impressive as usual, plays Yvonne, his doting but stern assistant and manager of his life and business affairs.

Enter Kevin Hart as Dell, an angry, unemployed, broke ex-con who needs signatures to show he has been looking for a job in order to collect unemployment benefits. Dell is down in the dumps with respect to his wife and son not wanting anything to do with him because he is such a loser. He shows up in Phillip‘s posh Manhattan apartment thinking he is to be interviewed for a job as janitor without knowing that Phillip is interviewing applicants to be his caretaker. Phillip is hostile as usual, and, seeing the inexperienced Dell as someone who could help speed his demise, insists on hiring him despite Yvonne’s objection.

What follows is the gradual affection the men develop for one another as Dell learns to care for Phillip (there are some funny scenes as Dell finds it difficult to fulfill such chores as changing Phillip’s catheter) and ultimately instills a more positive attitude in his charge. Along the way Phillip instills in Dell an appetite for culture. However, Dell pushes too far with respect to a correspondence Phillip has been having with a woman whom he has never met, resulting in a sharp setback. We, of course, know that there will be an ultimate happier outlook. Phillip will feel better about himself, he and Dell will bond, and the relationship will turn Dell into a better human being who recovers the respect of his wife and son.

All of that is a tall order, and this version, written by Jon Hartmere, Eric Toledano and Oliver Hakache, based on the French film, and directed by Neil Burger, gets more complex and far-fetched than the original. But the performances by Cranston, Hart and Kidman elevate the story, and many scenes are brashly entertaining in contrast to those that are emotionally devastating. Remakes often fail dismally, but “The Upside” is a modestly respectable and often gratifying transfer into an English language, American-style success despite the overboard excesses. A STX Film release. Reviewed January 11, 2019.

TOUCH ME NOT  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Adina Pintilie’s meditation on the body and emotional hang-ups is totally weird in its explorations. Part documentary, part staged and set in Germany, the film contains abundant nudity. But the nakedness is more lab study than erotic. “Touch Me Not” can also become intermittently boring during its two hour, three minute running time.

The format is an interview technique, but the behind-the-camera perspective morphs into dramatized scenes that illustrate the director’s concerns about how we view our bodies and the need to unleash repressed emotions and achieve more freedom. The object-in-chief is Laura, played by Laura Benson, whose hang-ups are extensively examined.

Laura is fearful of human contact, and she is seen with men she hires to make cautious attempts to get her to loosen up. Pressing her too quickly results in her withdrawing. It takes an awful lot to finally lead her to wanting to be nude in front of a man, and even to cuddle a bit. My patience was sorely tried, and at one point I felt like shouting out, “Get laid already.”

There is lots of philosophical discussion, including with and by Christian Bayerlein, physically deformed but mentally sharp. Another subject for study is Tómas, played by Tómas Lemarquis. There is a depiction of “Touch Therapy,” which is meant to help those who need assistance in dealing with their physicality, bodily urges and limitations. One scene involves a supposedly therapeutic orgy, with abundant S and M.

“Touch Me Not” veers from the sincere to the pretentious and when Laura finally stands naked before us, the effect is, shall we say, anti-climactic. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed January 11, 2019.

STAN & OLLIE  Send This Review to a Friend

Laurel and Hardy were such a unique comedy duo that it would be difficult for actors to imitate them without becoming caricatures. Their expert routines evoked world-wide laughter, and a note I once received from Woody Allen remarked that someday we might discuss who was funnier, Laurel or Hardy. We never had that talk but whenever I have seen one of their vintage comedies I have pondered the question without any definitive conclusion. Each was hilarious in his own way, and together they were remarkable.

I am happy to report that Steve Coogan as Laurel and John C. Reilly as Hardy resemble close to the real thing in capturing the pair’s comedy without looking like caricatures. But this film directed by Jon S. Baird and scripted by Jeff Pope, achieves more than that as it delves into the off-screen relationship between the two. It is a story of ups and downs, affection and irritation, but ultimately a reaffirmation of the emotional closeness that defined their bonding through life and work. (Hardy died in 1957, Laurel in 1965.)

Reilly’s performance, abetted by make-up and costuming to achieve Hardy’s portly figure, is the more amazing of the two. But Coogan is subtly superb as well, nailing the Laurel nuances and indicating the underlying dissatisfaction of not getting sufficient recognition for his genius in scripting the situations leading to the hilarity.

The film also gets an amusing boost from the versatile Nina Arianda, here playing Laurel’s comically acerbic Russian wife, Ida, with Shirley Henderson as Hardy’s contrasting wife, Lucille. The cast also includes Danny Huston as Hal Roach, and a depiction by Rufus Jones as Bernard Delfont, in charge of trying to boost the careers of the comedians, past the best years of their fame as they make a British music hall tour in 1953 in hope of stimulating their plans to do a “Robin Hood” film.

The overall view of their lives as shown here is a sad one. Resentment has brewed about the greater fame and fortune that Charlie Chaplin achieved. The story of rise and decline is a familiar one that other stars have endured. But the Laurel-Hardy situation, as dramatized here, is an extra complicated one as a result of the symbiosis involved. Each is little without the other, a condition that is tough to face.

“Stan & Ollie” excels in this respect. The film, its period settings created with expertise, becomes moving, thanks to the convincing performances by Coogan and Reilly. And yet we get some very funny scenes reminding us of why the team was so great. I have fond recollections of when as a child I sat with buddies in a small town local theater on Saturday matinees, and when the bouncy theme music for Laurel and Hardy came on, we squealed with delight in anticipation. Watching “Stan & Ollie” revived such memories even as the film maturely communicated the dark side behind their comedy in exploring the problems in their relationship. But "Stan & Ollie" also sentimentally captures the deep affection they are shown to harbor despite the pressures and disappointments that came along with the adulation. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed December 26, 2018.

COLD WAR  Send This Review to a Friend

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” is a very hot movie. (See my Best Ten films of 2018 list.) Inspired by the lives of his late parents, he has created a turbulent love story that rages on both sides of the iron curtain. Exquisitely filmed in realistic black and white, “Cold War” is rich in visual atmosphere as it dramatizes the opposing political realms under which the lovers maneuver in their on-again, off-again relationship. The film, shown at the 2018 New York Film Festival, is now going into commercial release.

Handsome Tomasz Kot plays Wiktor, a pianist for a Polish folk song troupe. (The film’s score is a major plus.) He is rapidly smitten by a beautiful singer, Zula, portrayed by the captivating Joanna Kulig. She is clearly manipulative in figuring out a way to be in the forefront of an audition. How can Wiktor resist? There is resentment on the part of an older woman colleague who recognizes what is happening as Zula catapults into a starring presence in the choir. Troupe manager Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), also attracted to Zula, is extremely jealous.

A love affair between Wiktor and Zula blossoms and deepens. But there is increasing pressure on the folk company to inject more Stalinist propaganda into its programs. (Kaczmarek knuckles under as a cooperative fuctionary.) Having to conform gets to a point that Wiktor cannot stand and he plans an escape to the West. Zula pledges to go with him. But she doesn’t show up at the rendezvous, and he takes off on his own.

There begins a period of longings and reconnections, Wiktor plays piano at a jazz club in Paris, and you know that Zula will eventually turn up. But working out a life together is fraught with complications.

A driving underlying force is Zula’s feeling for her homeland despite all, and Wiktor feels that too. The film indicates how unsettling it is to leave one’s roots behind, as many emigrants have discovered. For all that is politically problematical, Poland still has a strong pull on both, even with Wiktor in danger if he returns.

Zula shows her love for Wiktor when he is imprisoned… but no further spoilers here. The film surges to an ending that is at one beautifully romantic but ultimately deeply upsetting as it achieves a well-rounded finale consistent with all that has gone before, even though one might wish for a different outcome.

It is no wonder that “Cold War” has been collecting awards. If you want to be sure not to miss one of the year’s best films, put “Cold War” on your must see list. An Amazon Studios release. Reviewed Dec. 20, 2018.

VICE  Send This Review to a Friend

I have trouble approaching a film about Dick Cheney and also involving Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush. I have long believed that if there were any justice all three would have been charged with crimes against humanity for the multitude of dead and wounded they caused by invading Iraq with the lie of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction. But in a country perpetrating war crimes such acts are merely considered policy mistakes.

The saving grace for “Vice,” a story of Cheney’s rise to power and use of it, is that writer-director Adam McKay mixes history with underlying satire. The film is also distinguished by a superb portrayal of Cheney by Christian Bale, who, by means of makeup and acting prowess, makes Cheney come realistically alive. It is among the year’s major acting achievements.

Another performance I thoroughly enjoyed was that of Sam Rockwell as President George W. Bush. He has Bush’s look, speech and demeanor down pat. He could have fooled me. Another plus is the depiction of Cheney’s tough wife, Lynne, by the excellent Amy Adams. Steve Carell etches a sharp portrait of Rumsfeld.

“Vice” captures the sweep of history and its take reflects McKay’s basic disapproval. He pulls no punches about Cheney’s wielding of power and the resulting widespread loss of lives. It is a remarkable study of a man’s scheming and cleverness in achieving such a position, and given the history of vice presidents being more in the shadows, his influence in the office is certainly unusual.

But McKay also seeks to reveal the human personal side of Cheney, and that someone softens the critical blows. To his credit, McKay also often retains a sense of humor in exploring the outrageousness of it all. The entourage of other political figures of the era is portrayed by a large and efficient cast.

On balance “Vice” stands out as an important film of the year no matter how one might react to its content. An Annapurna Pictures release. Reviewed December 25, 2018.

DESTROYER  Send This Review to a Friend

The only reason I can think of to endure sitting through “Destroyer” is to see a different Nicole Kidman on screen. Instead of her well-appreciated beauty, here she is a barely recognizable, vengeful cop with emphasis on making her as plain-looking as she is lethal. Her character is also extremely troubled, and Kidman proves again she can act effectively whether gorgeous or gritty.

However, “Destroyer” itself, directed by Karyn Kusama from a screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, is a hodgepodge of a tale, with awkward shifts between the present and flashbacks as we get a portrait of a life gone awry. Erin Bell (Kidman) was a former FBI agent working undercover, but an episode went terribly wrong and she has berated herself ever since, while sinking into a haze of alcohol.

But in the present Bell is pulling herself together from her long funk and seeking to gain retribution. We get a picture of her as a tough broad skilled with weaponry and ready for action, and there is even a scene in which Bell masturbates a guy from her past in order to gain information from him. It is Kidman anew, and that makes her particularly watchable as she goes through the convoluted script, which also depicts her having problems as a mother of a rebellious and resentful daughter.

There is a strong supporting cast making up the assortment of characters, good and bad. But the story, heavy with violent action, is often confusing and not worth the trouble of wending one’s way through it. Yes, Kusama directs with panache, but to what end? An Annapurna Pictures release. Reviewed Dec. 25, 2018.

CAPERNAUM  Send This Review to a Friend

One of the Best Ten Films of 2018 (see list), “Capernaum” is a rare accomplishment that generates the kind of excitement I felt when first encountering the films of Italian realism. “Capernaum,” sublimely directed by Nadine Labaki, takes us through the poverty-stricken streets of Beirut and focuses on the survival efforts of a resourceful boy who may be about 12 (he can’t be sure of his birth date).

Labaki has found a remarkable protagonist In Zain al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee cast a boy also named Zain. We see him early on after being jailed and brought to court where he wants to sue his parents for the “crime” of bringing him into the world. They should be forbidden to have other children, he insists. His feeling so forlorn is heart-wrenching, and yet through his actions we see his resourcefulness and fighting spirit.

Zain is wracked with fury at the decision of his parents, mired in poverty, to sell his 11-year-old sister, Zahar, into marriage with the son of their landlord. Zain desperately wants to halt the deal. When he runs away from home and takes to the streets, he encounters Rahil, an African refugee, who is in Lebanon illegally and struggling to get by. Played by Yordanos Shiferaw, she is a needy mother of a young child. The altruism in Zain emerges when he cares for the youngster while the mother goes off to her menial work.

Circumstances bring complications, but we see how kind and smart Zain is as he navigates life. The naturalistic performance that the director evokes from actor Zain zeroes in on our emotions. How can one ever forget this boy who symbolizes the agony gripping so many others?

Director Labaki’s casting ability results in life-like performances. Zain’s parents are played by Kawthar al Haddad (the mother) and Fadi Kamel Youssef (the father), with the father controlling and very abusive. Zain emerges as the principled one, especially in connection with his devotion to his sister targeted for a forced marriage.

The film s rich in the atmosphere of street life, and as we watch Zain in charge of Rahil’s son, the sight of the two together is particularly poignant.

When I have described the film to a few acquaintances, I received responses that the film sounded too depressing to experience. Yes, there is sadness, but there is also the rare exhilaration one can get from encountering a cinematic work of art in the best traditions of socially aware filmmaking. “Capernaum” is a must for those who value such achievements. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed December 14, 2018.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK  Send This Review to a Friend

James Baldwin’s novel, set in Harlem in the early 1970s, has been adapted into a searing, poignant film written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Sadly, the issues raised in this story of African-American lovers versus injustice continue to plague our country today. But in this period piece, two compelling actors draw us into their struggle as characters up against insurmountable odds. “If Beale Street Could Talk” was showcased at the 2018 New York Film Festival and is now in commercial release.

Childhood friendship blossoms into love for Stephen James as Fonny and Kiki Layne as Tish. Fonny pursues his efforts at sculpture and Tish become pregnant with their child. Signs point to a potentially happy life for them. But then…

Fonny is falsely accused of rape as a result of a lying witness manipulated by a vengeful cop with a grudge. The situation for Fonny and Tish becomes painfully tragic. When Fonny is convicted and sentenced, the battle begins to clear his name and free him.

The efforts include an attempt by Regina King as Tish’s mother, Sharon, traveling to Puerto Rico, to seek out the accuser and get her to tell the truth. Fonny also has the support of a lawyer, played by Finn Whitrock. But all are up against the entrenched system in which a black man’s word has little or no chance against an accuser and an evil cop.

What makes the film so effective is the deep love portrayed so eloquently by James and Layne, as well as the sensitivity with which Jenkins (“Moonlight’) endows the adaptation. We become attached to Fonny and Tish and root for them to emerge from their nightmare. We can sympathize with Fonny’s effort to deal with prison, and with Tish’s devotion.

But what can the outcome be in the face of the reality that confronts them?

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is among the outstanding films of 2018. An Annapurna Pictures release. Reviewed December 14, 2018.

  

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