I lost my last paying gig as a movie reviewer this year, which means I now watch movies for free, in every sense of the term. I still get invited to press screenings, and attend one or two a week, but writing about them has become more or less a hobby, though publicists and distributors seem to pay attention when I post the reviews on this blog. What’s that worth, I’m not sure, other than the notion that they’ll keep me on their mailing lists. Maybe they’re just being polite. God knows, I feel sort of silly if I tweet links to movie reviews. I have no idea who’s reading them, and haven’t really checked to see how many people are.
Consequently, I only see movies I think I’ll like, or films that people are discussing so that I can see what all the fuss is about. I missed a few that might have ended up on this list if I had had more presence of mind, so it’s hardly comprehensive in that regard. I don’t have as much of an option to watch films after they’ve been released, because there’s only one theater complex near where I live and they mostly show major films. The only movie on this list I didn’t see at a press screening was The Lost City of Z, which didn’t have a press screening and played for only two weeks at a small theater in Tokyo. I had wanted to see it, so I actually made the time to.
As always, the movies on this list were released in Tokyo during the 2018 calendar year in theaters. I subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime but I haven’t included any streamed movies here because I’m still doctrinnaire about these kinds of lists. In any case, I didn’t see any on TV that I would have included. I have yet to watch Roma, which didn’t play at any theaters in Tokyo before being streamed, unless you count its one screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival, which I also missed. Maybe next year, I’ll start including streamed movies here, but for now I’ll stick with being old-fashioned.
1. I, Tonya (US): Craig Gillespie’s breathless chronicle of the figure skating career of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) is as tabloid-ready as her life. Viewers won’t know whether to laugh or cringe at Tonya’s crude choices and potty mouth, her husband Jeff’s (Sebastian Stan) penchant for domestic violence, or her mother’s (Allison Janney) cartoonish tough love act, but they’re likely to be as enlightened as entertained. Better than any movie in recent memory, I, Tonya captures the schizophrenic frisson of the post-Reagan American dream. The famous Nancy Kerrigan maiming is almost incidental to the film, which focuses on Tonya’s justified confidence in talents that will never be taken seriously by the skating establishment simply because of what she represents to them. An anti-Rocky story for the healthy cynic in all of us.
2. Loveless (Russia): A 12-year-old boy goes missing in present-day Moscow, and his parents, who are in the process of breaking up, don’t notice until it’s too late. Though the viewer sees the situation better than they do, once the police are involved, the movie dashes from one misleading clue to another, driving the parents (Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rosin) into more violent acts of self-condemnation. Andrey Zvyagintsev is interested in how we make a broken home, and the hell he puts these people through seems almost clinical in its cruelty, not so much because they deserve it, but because we see them through the eyes of the authorities, who don’t hide their disgust, even if they’re complicit in the way modern life has simultaneously institutionalized a forced sense of domestic order and undermined the bonds that were once the source of that order. The parents can’t help themselves. They’re loveless by design.
3. The Lost City of Z (US): At the turn of the 20th century, British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) makes several journeys to the Amazon rain forest in search of an unnamed city that vanished centuries ago. His aim is to prove there were other civilizations as sophisticated as Europe’s, a notion that offends the rich, educated sponsors who look on exploration as a noble, supreme endeavor. American director James Gray presents Fawcett as a character out of Joseph Conrad, conflicted by his need to know and his love for a woman (Sienna Miller) who encourages his curiosity at her own expense. The resulting movie is not strictly an epic. It’s more of a canny combination of David Lean and Merchant-Ivory, an odd and restlessly exciting study of a real-life hero who seems to exist out of time.
4. Sennan Asbestos Disaster (Japan): Kazuo Hara spent more than a decade chronicling a lawsuit brought against the government by the residents of the Sennan enclave of Osaka, which at one time contained many asbestos factories. The government knew that exposure to the substance was deadly but did not warn workers and neighbors until the 1990s. Thanks to official sandbagging, the case moves at a snail’s pace, as more and more of the plaintiffs die off from lung disease and cancer. Hara documents every single death, showing not only the victims’ suffering, but how contentious the suit was even within the community, which, after all, wouldn’t have existed without the factories. As the suit finally reaches the highest levels of the health ministry, the plaintiffs’ patience finally breaks. No documentary has ever presented the bureaucratic mindset in such a maddeningly forthright manner.
5. Ralph Breaks the Internet (US): Disney plays catchup with online life, on paper a dodgy proposition that unexpectedly makes for one of the cleverest observations of how the internet affects our discourse. Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), the video game denizens of 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, venture innocently into cyberspace in search of a lost part for a broken arcade game and as their understanding of the environment develops, their relationship is challenged. Following the usual Disney formula, all plot devices are wielded to prove an existential point, but the filmmakers know their apps and websites backwards and forwards and are able to incorporate some really famous brands into a story that’s both exciting and emotionally effective. For once, Disney outperforms its one-time ward Pixar.
6. The Death of Stalin (UK): The creator of Veep and In the Loop trains his curdled comic sensibility on a watershed moment in world history. Armando Iannucci closely follows the particulars surrounding the death of the Soviet tyrant while exaggerating the venality of his inner circle, who undermine one another as they jockey for coveted positions within the Politburo while at the same time desperately avoiding any conflict that would place them in front of a firing squad. At least half the film’s comic resilience can be credited to casting: Jeffrey Tambor’s opportunistic obsequeousness as Malenkov, Michael Palin’s intemperate glad-hander Molotov, Paddy Considine’s inept radio director, Simon Russell Beale’s oily and sinister Beria, and, especially, Steve Buscemi’s preternaturally sardonic realist Kruschev. Invaluable bonus: The film teaches you something useful about the USSR.
7. In Jackson Heights (US): Called by some the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the world, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York remains one of the city’s unspoiled experiments in socioeconomic tolerance and progress. Frederick Wiseman’s usual peripatetic style is perfectly suited to exploring the way individuals interact across ethnic, commercial, sexual, and age boundaries for the overall benefit of a community. If Wiseman seems to spend an inordinate amount of time at business association meetings and political rallies, it’s because he understands that what keeps Jackson Heights vital is continued communication in an urban context where tribal loyalties have become paramount. Perhaps the most exhilirating example of this vitality is a scene in which the gay councilman, Daniel Dromm, fetes the unoffical “mayor” of Jackson Heights at a coffee shop filled with randy senior citizens. It will resurrect your faith in humanity.
8. Black Panther (US): As he did with Creed, Ryan Coogler adapts a proven, predigested formula for a narrower demographic and in the process creates a work of popular art that redefines the formula for a much larger audience. The Marvel action premise remains unsullied, but is deepened by the effort to not only incorporate the mythical nation of Wakanda into the Marvel universe, but tie that mythos to an origin story that is epic in thematic power and narrative rigor. Reaching from the heart of Africa to the west coast of the U.S., this royal family saga addresses the legacy of black heroes who fight the powers that be while also transcending the resentments generated by historical submission. Expertly combining noble sentiment, street-smart practicality, and the usual measure of Marvel histrionics, Black Panther is like no other action movie.
9. Shoplifters (Japan): A work of empathy rather than outrage, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Cannes-winning feature purposely profiles an unconventional family living on the margins of Japan’s storied socioeconomic homogeneity. Loosely plotted, the movie samples its various members’ respective daily situations to arrive at a portrait of poverty that avoids desperation but also gratuitous sentimentality. The titular methodology is only one of the means these people use to survive. In essence, it’s the family dynamic, cleverly tooled by the director to highlight the commune’s “Japanese” quality, that ensures their psychic if not material survival, even if none of the members are tied by blood. Kore-eda’s peculiar genius is setting the viewer up for an emotional fall once the group’s lifestyle clashes with the more powerful structural forces of the establishment. It shouldn’t be as shocking as it is, but that’s the way great drama succeeds.
10. The Cakemaker (Israel/Germany): Israeli director Ofir Raul Graizer’s debut feature is a wicked take on romantic transference that takes place in that fraught frontier of historical anxiety that lies between Israel and Germany. Thomas (Tim Kalkhof), a Berlin baker, is having an affair with Israeli Oren (Roy Miller), who visits the German capital occasionally on business. When Oren dies back in Israel, Thomas inexplicably travels to Jerusalem and finagles a job as a baker at the cafe of Oren’s widow, Anat (Sarah Adler), without her knowing Thomas’s provenance as her husband’s lover. Though much of the plot tests credulity, the details of the German-Israeli relationship, not to mention how those details affect the interaction between Thomas and Anat—and, by extension, her family—is so emotionally assured that you believe in these characters wholly, even when they are obviously lying to themselves.
–Lady Bird (US): The authenticity of Greta Gerwig’s coming of age movie is there in the subversive dialogue and the portrayal of Sacramento as the “Midwest of California.” It’s also there in Saoirse Ronan’s deceptively naturalistic performance as a teen whose intelligence and sensitivity interfere with any capability she might have to enjoy adolescence the way she’s supposed to.
–The Day After (Korea): More conventional than most of Hong Sang-soo’s antiromantic comedies, The Day After is hilariously on point and witheringly precise about the marriage dynamic as it applies to a faithless, self-absorbed publisher and his inability to keep his hands off his female employees.
–The Florida Project (US): Sean Baker captures the poor residents of motels in the tourist enclave of Orlando, Florida, with a certain detachment. His main subject, Halley (Bria Vinaite), a sometime prostitute raising a hellion of a five-year-old under difficult circumstances, does not come off well, and in questioning their judgement, viewers are forced to define tragedy within the exigencies of real life.
–Faces Places (France): Veteran nouvelle vague director Agnes Varda and visual artist JR travel the French countryside in pursuit of meaningful encounters, using large photographic posters of the people they meet as entry points into their lives, which they post in public places. Ostensibly, the movie is about average lives, but its real appeal is the humorous and life-affirming interaction between the elfin Varda and the tall-drink-of-water JR.
–A Fantastic Woman (Chile): At times too intimate, Sebastian Lelio’s Oscar-winning tale of a transgender woman (Daniela Vega) suddenly cast adrift when her older lover dies piles one indignity on another, to the point where you wonder if the entire city of Santiago is conspiring against her. Strength is not a credible option; only fortitude in the face of a towering intolerance.