• James Rutherford

10 for ’18: My Favorite Films from the Year of the Dog

10 for ’18: My Favorite Films from the Year of the Dog


1. Three Identical Strangers

Movie poster for the documentary Three Identical Strangers from filmmaker Tim Wardle

“Three Identical Strangers” is an unbelievable and stunning true-life documentary that begins with 56 year-old Bobby Shafran narrating the story of his matriculation to college as a freshman in 1980, only to be jubilantly welcomed “back” by fellow students who believe him to be their friend “Eddy”. Only after a mutual acquaintance realizes the coincidence and promptly drives Bobby to Long Island does he meet his long-lost twin, Eddy Galland, face-to-face. With their incredible reunion soon making waves in the press, David Kellman of Queens, NY comes to realize that he is, in fact, a third brother also separated from his siblings at birth. Once united, the three are enraptured by one another, becoming media sensations and appearing together on numerous talk shows before eventually opening a restaurant together in New York City. Yet these amazing developments only serve as the prelude to a storyline that delves headlong into the mysterious intentions of the agency that assigned the brothers to their adoptive families—including the presence of a clandestine research study that may have monitored their development since childhood. It all plays out as a fascinating human interest story beset by dark currents of moral ambiguity and tragedy, conveying as phenomenal-a-true-story as you’re ever likely to come across on film, or anywhere else.


View the trailer here.



2. Blindspotting

Movie poster for the film Blindspotting starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal

“Blindspotting” is a serio-comic excursion into the lives of two longtime Oakland-based friends, Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal). Collin finds himself within the final days of supervised probation after spending time in prison for aggravated assault, and is dead-set on remaining out of trouble and away from the law. Yet for Collin, his biggest challenge is his allegiance with Miles, a fun-loving yet often volatile hothead prone to outlandish behavior and willful lawlessness—to which Collin steadfastly objects despite their long-standing camaraderie. While driving a moving truck one evening in Oakland, Miles witnesses the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer, and is subsequently haunted by the incident, besieged by nightmares and lurid hallucinations of the atrocity that he has witnessed. Perilous excursions with Miles only exacerbate his anxiety, culminating in a frenzied confrontation with the murderous police officer—a moment of profound and dramatic tension conveyed in the furious spoken word form that Diggs honed so deftly in his Tony Award-winning performance in Broadway’s “Hamilton”. It’s a wonderfully alive, urgent and powerful film full of humor and tension sure to raise your eyebrows and heartbeat in equal measure.


View the trailer here.



3. Free Solo

Movie poster for the documentary Free Solo about rock climber Alex Honnold

“Free Solo “ is a mesmerizing documentary from National Geographic Documentary Films that follows world-renowned rock climber Alex Honnold as he plans out and executes his boldest challenge to date: a free solo climb of Yosemite National Park’s “El Capitan”—a 3,200 wall of sheer vertical granite—without ropes, harness or other protective gear. Honnold comes off as an utterly fascinating individual, whose other-worldly physicality and dedication to the sport is illuminated by biographical details that include the implication that he may have inherited Asperger Syndrome from his father. This striking revelation lends fascinating insight into Honnold’s mind-set, his near obsession with conquering Yosemite’s greatest attraction and his unique relationship with his girlfriend, Sanni. The suspense that develops as his feat approaches is remarkably palpable, with the film disclosing some very precise and appreciated insight into the technical details of free solo climbing as well. Yet aside from Honnold himself, the additional highlight of the film is the amazing direction of JImmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhely and the phenomenal camerawork of Chin, MIkey Schaefer and Clair Popkin. They bring the entire experience to stunning, often terrifying life and illuminate what a remarkable and one-of-a-kind feat Honnold is able to achieve.


View the trailer here.



4. Roma

Movie poster for the Mexican film Roma starring Yalitza Aparicio

“Roma” is a spellbinding, one-of-a-kind Spanish-language drama set in 1970 largely within the titular “Roma” neighborhood of Mexico City, and follows the life of Cleodegaria "Cleo" Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio), who works as a housekeeper for a wealthy doctor’s family. Firmly established as a source of both labor and emotional support to Antonio, his wife Sofia and their four young children, Cleo fulfills her role dutifully even while being pursued by Fermin—a young martial arts novice who seduces and ultimately impregnates her. Fermin, however, abandons Cleo upon learning of her state, coinciding all too distressingly with Antonio’s departure from his own family, leaving an emotionally fragile Cleo to support a devastated Sofia and her children. Written and directed by cinematic luminary Alfonso Cuarón ("Y Tu Mama Tambien", "Children of Men"), “Roma” is based in part on his own childhood in Mexico City, and the film radiates the human compassion and grandeur he clearly carries in his heart from adolescence. He surrenders not only enormous empathy for the character of Cleo and the surrogate family she comes to shepherd, but also delivers one of the most unduly beautiful films in cinematic history. It’s warm, sweeping, and majestic black-and-white photography bolsters the poignancy, the heartbreak and every bit of humanity on display, from beginning to end.


View the trailer here.



5. Mandy

Movie poster for the film Mandy starring Nicholas Cage and Andrea Riseborough

“Mandy” is a fierce and extravagant fantasy-horror-thriller set in 1983 and starring Nicholas Cage as Red Miller, a logger who lives in the remote Shadow Mountains of California with his artist wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Their reclusive and tranquil life is upended unexpectedly by the intrusion of the “Children of the New Dawn”, a deviant cult lead by the enigmatic “Jeremiah Sand” (Linus Roache)—who takes a immediate liking to Mandy upon spotting her hiking one day. Sand summons a demonic horde of evil bikers known only as “The Black Skulls” to abduct and restrain both Red and Mandy, pumping Mandy full of hallucinogenic drugs and attempting to convert her to his unique system of veneration and devotion—only to be rebuked for his effort. In a moment of brutal vindictiveness, Sand lashes out at both Mandy and Red, leaving them for dead, never realizing that Red would soon be mounting a rousing and unholy campaign of retribution and destruction. Written and directed by Greek-Canadian filmmaker Pans Cosmatos ("Beyond the Black Rainbow"), “Mandy” is a wildly irreverent and wonderfully unhinged orgy of sight and sound—highlighted by Cage’s eccentric screen persona in the best possible manner. It’s all completely off-the-chain—replete with brutal, balls-to-the-wall violence—and comes together as an utterly bonkers modern masterpiece.


View the trailer here.



6. If Beale Street Could Talk

Movie poster for the film If Beale Street Could Talk starring Kiki Layne and Stephan James

Set in Harlem in the early 1970’s, Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” follows the burgeoning love affair between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), childhood playmates and adult lovers who strive for prosperity and validation in a world beset by systematic injustice. Learning early on that she is pregnant at just 19 years of age, Kiki struggles to divulge her secret to her family and that of Fonny in the days following Fonny’s unjust and mistaken arrest by corrupt police officers. Facing fierce criticism and abject scorn, Tish and her family —including her mother Sharen (a magnanimous Regina King)—dedicate themselves to a proper upbringing for their future progeny as well as the redemption of Fonny from his wrongful incarceration. They remain steadfast and passionately determined, even as Fonny’s time in jail progresses without reclamation and the plight of his legal team and loved ones becomes increasingly strained. Much of the storyline alternates (via flashback) between their enraptured period of flowering passion and the grievous reality that falls upon them after Fonny’s confinement, providing a fervid depiction of earnest, youthful passion. Based on the novel by James Baldwin, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is rousing and emotionally galvanizing social commentary—a fever dream of love, loss and bittersweet acquiescence.


View the trailer here.



7. Eighth Grade

Movie poster for the film Eighth Grade starring Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton

“Eight Grade” is a humorous and touching comedy-drama that charts the final week of 8th grade for 13 year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a painfully shy girl whose only open expression comes in the form of motivational videos she posts to YouTube. Narrating to her online audience in profoundly optimistic form, Kayla belays a confidence and optimism she struggles to translate to her daily interactions with friends, classmates and her single-parent father (Josh Hamilton). Often handicapped by social anxiety and desperately pining for both friendship and male interest, Kayla finds unexpected buoyancy from Olivia (Emily Robinson), a kind-hearted 12th grader who Kayla meets through a high school shadow program, even as she experiences repeated disillusionment with boys whose only interest in her lies in their pursuit of sexual gratification. Written and directed by Bo Burnham, a comedian and celebrated YouTube celebrity in his won right, “Eighth Grade” is a remarkably original take on the teen comedy-drama. It constructs a fresh and insightful peek into the often emotionally harrowing experiences of so many young people enmeshed in social media for the sake of personal affirmation, and scores big from Fisher’s wonderfully authentic performance. Both she and Burnham have enormously promising futures.


View the trailer here.



8. Widows

Movie poster for the film Widows starring Viola Davis and Liam Neeson

Set in modern-day Chicago and based on the original British television series from the 1980’s, “Widows” is an elaborate and enthralling crime thriller from director Steve McQueen ("Shame", "12 Years a Slave") and writer GIllian Flynn ("Gone Girl", "Sharp Objects"). The storyline begins with four thieves, lead by master burglar Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), staging a daring robbery of crime boss and political candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), only to be gunned down in a malicious act of sabotage. In the days following, Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) is threatened by Manning and informed that she is expected to recoup his lost $2 Million, leaving her in dire straits without any contingency for such an outcome. Only after discovering Harry’s notebook and his elaborate plans for a separate $5 million heist does Veronica identify a possible game-plan—one that will force her to recruit the three surviving widows of Harry’s deceased partners in order to succeed. Dense and multi-layered, replete with an eclectic cast of compelling characters, “Widows” is a dynamic action film taken to a whole new level by Flynn’s razor-sharp script and McQueen’s pristine direction. They’ve successfully crafted a full-on exposé of Chicago’s crime world within the larger framework of modern American society—amounting to a remarkable hybrid of potent action thriller and galvanizing statement piece. A+ filmmaking not to be overlooked.


View the trailer here.



9. The World Before Your Feet

Movie poster for the documentary The World Before Your Feet from filmmaker Jeremy Workman

“The World Before Your Feet” is an enchanting documentary about a civil engineer named Matt Green who found himself burnt out by the everyday doldrums of work and vacated his job in 2011 in order to walk the streets of New York City. Fascinated by maps and yearning to explore "The Big Apple", Green embarked on an audacious journey of discovery—with the goal of walking every single street and block throughout all five boroughs—parks, cemeteries and beaches included. Estimating his goal to extend over 8,000 miles, Green approaches his newfound challenge casually, mapping out his daily goals using tracking technology and couch-surfing from neighborhood to neighborhood, often times doubling as a cat and dog sitter. What ensues is a warm and lively journey of discovery, as Green engages locals and strangers alike, often taking great time to converse and share with those he chances to encounter along his daily routes. The film paints a portrait of a kindly young man simply enraptured by the sights and sounds of New York City, and dedicated to his lofty goal of taking it all in—quite literally. It delves into shades of his upbringing and personal life, interviewing family members and former girlfriends in kind, yet nothing dispels the aura of his open-minded and open-hearted embrace of New York and all of the wonder it offers and entails. A rich and rewarding experience.


View the trailer here.



10. Everybody Knows (Todos Lo Saben)

Movie poster for the Spanish film Everybody Knows starring Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz

Written and directed by renowned Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi ("About Elly", "A Separation"), “Everybody Knows” is a Spanish-language mystery-drama that follows Laura (Penélope Cruz) as she travels from Argentina to her hometown in Spain with her children in order to attend her sister’s wedding. Laura and her family enjoy a lively period of jubilation surrounding the wedding, as extended family and friends come together and reunite—including Laura’s old flame Paco (Javier Bardem). Amidst the wedding celebration, however, Laura’s daughter Irene disappears without a trace—setting off a frenzied search for the impressionable young teen. What ensues is a a dense, unnerving mystery as to Irene’s disappearance and whereabouts, tied inextricably to ownership of the land and vineyards owned by Paco and his family. Once kidnappers contact Laura demanding a large sum of money do the stakes come into full view, with the dynamics within the extended group becoming hostile and replete with accusation and acrimony. Building on the great success he has enjoyed in his home country, it’s exciting to see Farhadi extending his craft to foreign soil and sharing his trademark absorbing ensemble drama within a new culture. “Everybody Knows” scores wonderfully in this regard, and delivers a finally wrought drama piece whose mystery elements will hold you until the very end.


View the trailer here.

 

HONORABLE MENTION


Capernaum (Capharnaüm)

Movie poster for the Lebanese film Capernaum starring Zain Al Rafeea

“Capernaum” is a Lebanese drama that opens with 12-year old Syrian refugee Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) appearing in court as the plaintiff against his own parents, who he accuses of neglect in giving him his very life. The storyline then shifts to the past via flashback, tracing Zain’s tumultuous adolescence as the oldest of six children within a one-room apartment, beset by poverty and often abusive treatment by both parents. When his sister Sahar is sold off to a local merchant for the sake of marriage, Zain is incensed and leaves home to live on the squalid streets of Beirut. Scraping and clawing to get by, Zain forges an unlikely friendship with Rahil, a Ethiopian migrant worker who provides him with shelter and food in return for his assistance in caring for her young son, Yonas. When Rahil mysteriously disappears, however, Zain is left to care for Yones himself on the unrelenting streets of the city. A harrowing true-to-life depiction of subsistence and survival, Capernaum is a profound indictment of the collateral damage suffered under the tyranny of military and governmental regimes—all too often amidst the youngest and most at-risk of society. Heartbreaking and utterly unforgettable.


View the trailer here.



First Reformed

Movie poster for the film First Reformed starring Ethan Hawke

“First Reformed “ is a tense and riveting human drama starring Ethan Hawke as Pastor Toller, a minister at "First Reformed Church" in upstate New York. As the congregation experiences declining attendance, Toller suffers his own crisis of faith sparked in part by the death of his son in the Iraq War. He finds himself beleaguered by growing desperation before meeting Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant young woman concerned about her husband Michael’s radical left-wing environmental activities. Terrified by the fact that Michael wants her to abort their child before it enter a world threatened by climate change, Mary grows close to Toller in her desperate search for guidance. Unaware of Toller’s own spiritual and existential crises, Mary ultimately provides him with the very tools he needs to illicit revenge upon a society he no longer believes in, not sees fit to receive the word of the Lord. It’s a haunting depiction of lost faith and spiritual degradation from writer/director Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver"), featuring an absolutely stunning performance from Hawke. His mesmerizing portrayal of Pastor Toller cements the story’s darkest undertones and helps to deliver a utterly memorable depiction of abject self destruction.


View the trailer here.



Minding the Gap

Movie poster for the documentary Minding the Gap from filmmaker Bing Liu

“Minding the Gap “ is a documentary that follows the lives of three friends (Kiere Johnson, Bing Liu and Zack Mulligan) in Rockford, Illinois who share a common passion for skateboarding. Liu himself directs and shoots the film impressively as he paints a portrait of young men on the cusp of adulthood, struggling under economic hardship and facing numerous challenges in their personal lives—skateboarding the salve that soothes and unites them. Kiere remains haunted by his deceased father who raised him under a strict and abusive hand—struggling to understand his identity and the role as a burgeoning adult. Mulligan eschews responsibility in favor of skateboarding and partying, unnerving his girlfriend Nina when it comes to caring for their young daughter. And Liiu himself carries painful memories of an abusive stepfather that his mother strains to justify or explain. Their utterly personal stories are painful and true, spelling out tales of abuse and neglect within a Rust Belt community bedeviled by hard times and undue hardship. Marketed as a straightforward skateboarding documentary, “Minding the Gap” bears so much more in terms of true human interest—marking it as one of the very best documentaries of the entire year.


View the trailer here.



Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Movie poster for the film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse starring Shameik Moore

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is an animated fantasy from Marvel Studios featuring young Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who attends boarding school in New York City and enjoys graffiti art in his spare time. Delving one evening into the heart of New York’s underground to practice his skills, Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider that imbues him with superhuman powers parallel to those of the famous Spider-Man. Upon further inspection, Miles discovers that the spider originated from a secret underground laboratory built by the menacing Wilson Fisk, an arch-villain who has crafted a particle accelerator in order to explore alternate dimensions. Miles soon comes face-to-face with the real Spider-Man, Peter Parker, and finds himself caught up in a whirlwind battle against Fisk and his forces—including assistance from various (and amusing) forms of the Spider-Man persona who have entered the world from alternate dimensions. “Into the Spider-Verse” is a wonderfully creative, wildly enjoyable escapade that delivers fresh characterizations and stunningly dynamic comic book-like animation. It’s exhilarating and unique grade-A entertainment, from top to bottom.


View the trailer here.



Private Life

Movie poster for the film Private Life starring Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn

“Private Life” is a seriocomic portrait of a forty-something couple, Richard Grimes (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel Biegler (Kathryn Hahn), striving to become parents despite a series of failed attempts at artificial insemination. Opting to explore in vitro fertilization, Richard learns that he suffers from a blockage that will require surgery at a hefty cost of $10,000—a fee that they debate before ultimately agreeing to borrow the funds from Richard’s brother. At the same time their 25 year-old niece, Sadie, decides to leave school to live with her favorite aunt and uncle in Manhattan, inspiring Richard and Rachel to approach Sadie with the prospect of serving as an egg donor—setting off a cascading series of negotiations and quarrels that test the limits of their loving family dynamic. “Private Life” is an honest, empathetic and often quite amusing depiction of hopefulness and heartache, bringing fresh energy and quirkiness to the family drama genre. Director Tamara Jenkins ("Slums of Beverly Hills", "The Savages") has a wonderfully equitable style of storytelling that she brings to full fruition with “Private Life”, delivering (via Netflix) one of 2018’s most underrated sleeper gems.


View the trailer here.

 

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