Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Favorites of 2018: Movies and television

Favorite films of 2018

In 2018 we cut way back on our viewing, so this short list of favorites is drawn from a total of only about 30 films. And as always my choices were made from films first seen (but not necessarily first released) in the past twelve months or so. We were underwhelmed by a number of movies that lots of other people seemed to love, including The Red Turtle (2017), Academy-Award-winner The Shape of Water (2017), and Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs (2017), so you'll notice that only one of my favorites is a recent film.

Loving Vincent (2017; written by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, and Jacek Dehnel, and directed by Kobiela and Welchman)

An exploration of the mystery of the final days of Vincent Van Gogh, animated in the style of his paintings. Loving Vincent's visuals vividly render the sensation of swirling motion and psychic turmoil we have when viewing Van Gogh's late work.

I'm somewhat amazed that no one had thought of doing this before, but perhaps an explanation is provided by the daunting technique involved: each of the film's tens of thousands of frames is an individual oil painting. Most scenes are based on specific Van Gogh subjects, but some evoke the photographs of Van Gogh's contemporary Eugène Atget. If the stunning animation overshadows the film's narrative, perhaps that's as it should be—leaving us not with any neat explanations of Van Gogh's tragedy (the film acknowledges that none are possible), but with a renewed sense of wonder at his achievement.

Here is a short documentary describing the process of making the film, narrated by its co-writer, -director and -producer Hugh Welchman:

Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966) and A Report on the Party and Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966)

These two films were both co-written by Ester Krumbachová, a major figure of the Czech New Wave.  

Daisies follows two young women, Marie I and Marie II, as they gleefully violate many of the societal restrictions on women relating to public behavior, food, alcohol, and sex. The two Maries ultimately discover that every rebellion provokes a powerful reaction, and that for women especially, conformity can be deadly.

A Report on the Party and the Guests portrays the subtly shifting dynamics among a group of friends on a picnic in the countryside when they are confronted by an ominous gang of men. Then the men's superior shows up and informs them that it's all been a mistake; the men were sent to invite the group to his al fresco birthday party. A party that everyone is forced to attend becomes a brilliant analogy for political life under the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, and when one of the group tries to leave, the mask of benign paternalism comes off. . .

Both films are essential viewing. For more, along with a discussion of the Krumbachová-written film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), please see Ester Krumbachová: Three films of the Czech New Wave.

Nayak (The Hero, 1966; written and directed by Satyajit Ray)

After a drunken nightclub brawl and the unwelcome news that his latest film has flopped, Bengali matinée idol Arindam Mukherjee (played by Bengali matinée idol Uttam Kumar) decides it's time to get out of town. But instead of providing distance from his problems, his trip will bring him face-to-face with the increasingly cynical and opportunistic choices that have brought him to this crisis. In his dark night of the soul, Arindam recognizes how empty and unprincipled he has become—but also how many others are struggling in a corrupt and pitiless world. In Nayak, as in his many other masterpieces, Ray offers no easy answers.

For more, please see Nayak: The Hero

Favorite television of 2018

Doctor Thorne (2016)

When Julian Fellowes' adaptation of Anthony Trollope's novel aired on Britain's ITV, The Guardian's Viv Groskop called it "a carnival of cleavage." Add magnificent gowns, elegant interiors, lush greenswards, a literate script and excellent actors, and the appeal of this series to a fan of period drama shouldn't be too mysterious.

The late Jenny Diski wrote of Fellowes, "These purveyors of escapist fantasies of love and landed wealth come directly from the social world and political party that talks compulsively of 'honest, hard-working families' while giving us austerity and cuts in public spending for most, and tax breaks for the already wealthy and overpaid."

Diski is right to point out the grotesque hypocrisies of the ruling class to which Baron Fellowes belongs. But Trollope's Doctor Thorne is anything but a comforting escapist fantasy. It depicts a social and economic system in which two young people who love each other are kept apart because they can't afford to marry. Mary (Stefanie Martini), the ward of Doctor Thorne (Tom Hollander), will likely live out her days alone in abject poverty, while the local landowner's son, Frank Gresham (Harry Richardson), is faced with becoming a fortune hunter and contracting a loveless marriage for financial gain. The inheritance that would enable Mary and Frank to escape these fates is so improbable that it functions as its own critique. So if indeed Fellowes is nostalgic for the heyday of the landed gentry, he chose the wrong vehicle to convey those sentiments.
For more, please see Doctor Thorne.

Mr. Selfridge (2013-2016)

A young woman comes from the provinces to the capital city to make her way in the world, and finds a job in a new kind of retail establishment: a department store. At the store—a cornucopia of tempting consumer goods—she must sell to wealthy customers luxuries she will never be able to afford herself. Her immediate female supervisor is strict and severe (and possibly jealous of her youth and beauty). But the store owner is impressed by her ideas (and by her youth and beauty) and becomes her secret ally. The owner is advised by a competent and upright accountant, as well as by a right-hand man who is sometimes skeptical of his boss's radically innovative schemes. Meanwhile, the young woman is courted by her brash male co-workers—but she's looking for a partner who shares her sensibility and ambitions.

If you are a regular reader of E & I, all this may sound quite familiar. In my Favorites of 2016: Movies and Television I included the BBC series The Paradise (2012-2013), based on Emile Zola's novel Au bonheur des dames (The Ladies' Paradise, 1883). It's a wonderful series about the founding of a department store and the (sometimes catastrophic) effects it has on the social and economic fabric of its community.

The ITV series Mr. Selfridge, despite being created by the excellent writer Andrew Davies from (it's clear) the same source material, is not quite as engaging. The series is about the founding of Selfridges, a real-life London department store. The social dimension that is a key focus of the earlier BBC series is only background in the ITV series. And when there is a Mr. Selfridge episode that focuses on larger social questions, as in an episode that deals with the women's suffrage movement, it often falsely back-projects 21st-century attitudes onto its characters.

Also, Harry Selfridge is a far less complicated figure than The Paradise's predatory John Moray. Yes, Harry is a womanizer, but he is also open, aboveboard, always wants the best for everyone, and knows that the answer to every question raised by consumerism is more consumerism (and the series takes his point of view). Far more than The Paradise, Mr. Selfridge is a period-piece soap opera—and only grows more so in the third and fourth seasons.

Nonetheless, the characters are sympathetic, especially Harry's wife Rose (Frances O'Connor), gone by the end of the second season, and the shopgirl Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus) and her mentor, designer Henri Leclair (Grégory Fitoussi), both gone by the middle of the third season. The series spans two decades, from the Edwardian era to the Roaring 20s, and the sumptuous period sets and costumes are also enjoyable eye-candy.

But in the third season the one-dimensional villain Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle) and Harry's self-regarding son-in-law Serge de Bolotoff (Leon Ockenden) have quickly grown tiresome. This may sound like I'm damning the series with faint praise, but we're hoping that the appearance of the Dolly Sisters (Zoe Richards and Emma Hamilton) and the return of the witty Lady Mae Loxley (Katherine Kelly) will liven things up in the fourth and final season.

Joni Mitchell: A Woman of Heart and Mind (American Masters, 2003)

Susan Lacy's documentary traces Joni Mitchell's life and work from her mid-1960s beginnings singing as Joni Anderson in Calgary coffeehouses, through her 1970s heyday and her subsequent fall from pop music favor. Lacy has tracked down some rare photographs and film and television footage, and interviewed many of her colleagues, collaborators and former lovers. Even if you think you aren't interested in Mitchell or her music, her determination to explore her own path in the face of what seem at times to be insurmountable difficulties is compelling.

Both Zadie Smith and I have had to radically rethink our responses to Joni Mitchell's music; for more, please read Attunement: Conversion experiences.

Biggest disappointment

Our reduced viewing schedule didn't permit us enough time to see more than a few Bollywood films. We did manage to watch Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat (2018). But despite the presence of three E & I favorites in the cast (Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor), the excellent music and SLB's stunning production design, the film felt like an overlong and schematic ISIS allegory. (The black-clad, black-flag-waving Muslim horde treacherously stabs the Rajasthani hero in the back—and yes, I do mean literally.)

So Padmaavat's heavy-handed script was our biggest disappointment of 2018. But did I mention the excellent music and stunning production design? Here is "Ghoomar," picturized on Deepika Padukone, choreographed by Kruti Mahesh Midya and sung by Shreya Ghoshal:

As you may have already seen, an utterly unexpected appearance by Shreya Ghoshal was one of my favorite live performances of 2018.

More Favorites of 2018:


  1. I've received a comment from M. Lapin. Because Blogger can only accommodate 4096 characters at a time (about 650 words), I've split it into two parts. My response will follow.


  2. Dear Pessimissimo,

    I think you need to go out to the movies more. See them on the big screen. I have a sneaking feeling that some of your disappointments are due to the loss of visual information by viewing it on a small box (assuming, of course, you don't have an 80" flatscreen and surround sound system at home). So, some response comments and a few viewing suggestions...

    Loving Vincent is a visual feast, endlessly playing with both Van Gogh's tableaux and various animation techniques. The visually gorgeous results completely overwhelm the lame story of a postman father's request for his ne'er do well son to deliver Van Gogh's last letter and to come of age in the process (yawn). But as a gallery walk, it's pure delight.

    Czech New Wave. I've seen Daisies but not A Report on the Party. I agree Czech New Wave films are required canonical viewing. Yet with the collapse of Soviet Communism, I find it requires the cultivation of a certain historical sensibility to make the films powerful. The cinematic techniques and absurdism-as-political-critique narratives remain brilliant, but the context simply doesn't resonate for me as strongly as in decades past. However, some movies produced in Eastern Europe during the Communist era remain powerful today, either because the critical issues continue to resonate or have reemerged as dark threats. I am thinking in particular of Hungarian director István Szaboó's Apa (Father, 1966). A son's memory search for his father, "disappeared" during WWII, remains powerful not only as a personal story, but as historical trauma and amnesia as well. With renewed antisemitism and the rise of ultranationalism and neofascism in post-Communist Eastern Europe (indeed, across Europe and in the U.S.), the film has immediacy today. I find the latent content of the closing scene, meant to be comforting, deeply disturbing.

    Knowing next to nothing about South Asian or Bollywood cinema, I have nothing to say. I have seen a few incredible films over the years, though. Nayak will certainly be added to my Satyajit Ray must-view list.

    I've noted a marked gentility preference over class conflict across media in your biog posts in recent years. I get that. As I age, caring and sensible behavior matter to me immensely. But I'm with Jenny Diski; not at the expense of masking class conflict and pursuing social justice agendas. Here, I'm going to recommend an entirely contemporary movie to nudge you out of the 19th and early-20th centuries and into the 21st: Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You. On an utterly fantastical level—one that exaggerates reality rather than dishing up a comforting alternative—race, class, sex, gender and personal ambition collide in Oakland, California (sound familiar?). Hilarious and savage, not for the squeamish. NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg pegs it as the most anticapitalist movie ever to come out of Hollywood ("Pop Culture Gets Radical"—https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/27/opinion/sorry-to-bother-you-dietland.html).

    For documentaries: here, too, I recommend being more up to date. Two fabulous ones about women artists that came out this year: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (PBS, 2018) and The B-Side: Elsa Dorman's Portrait Photography (Errol Morris, 2018). Hedy Lamarr hated being a "bombshell," valuing her mind more than her body on cinematic display (her incredible life as an inventor is highlighted in the documentary). The Elsa Dorfman film is simply delightful, about her life and career as a large format Polaroid portrait photographer. She always photographed two poses, keeping the one she did not sell to clients—the B Side—for herself.

  3. Finally, watching Isle of Dogs on the box instead of the big screen is a disappointing experience, indeed (I've seen it both ways). That's why it has to be seen in a theater. I swear, 95% of the visual information is lost—as crucial to the viewing experience as what's going on with the front and center characters (who are, after all, Wes Anderson props, not people). I agree with The New Yorker columnist Moeko Fujii that charges of Orientalism against Wes Anderson are misplaced ("What 'Isle of Dogs' Gets Right About Japan"—https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/what-isle-of-dogs-gets-right-about-japan). If you're willing to cut Loving Vincent some slack for being visually glorious while having a ho-hum narrative, I ask you to give Isle of Dogs (which actually contains social justice messages, even if a cartoon) a second chance should it come round again on the big screen. It could be you simply don't like Wes Anderson movies (many people do not). But I think it's a remarkable cross-cultural movie achievement.

    On a related note for recommended viewing, Tokyo Godfathers (2003) has become my favorite Xmas movie of all time. Directed and written by renowned animator Satoshi Bon, a homeless trio (drunk, drag queen, runaway teen) find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve and set out in search of her parents. It's a remarkable achievement of cultural intersectionality (loosely based on a 1913 American novel, pivoting around a Christian holiday in the modern-Buddhist-Shinto hybrid that is Japan today) rather than exoticism or cultural appropriation. And I just had the good fortune to see a late night screening at the Logan Theater in Chicago (my large scale visual information admonition about Isle of Dogs applies here, too; the characters are much more compelling, however). I'll never watch It's a Wonderful Life again.

    M. Lapin

    1. Cher M. Lapin:

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comments and your alternate list of favorites. There's a lot to unpack, but I'll try to be succinct.

      The big vs. the small screen: More than a decade ago in one of the first posts on this blog I quoted Pauline Kael's introduction to 5001 Nights at the Movies: "If you watch a great movie on TV, you will be committing an aesthetic crime, of which you are the victim." One reason that movies are figuratively as well as literally diminished at home is that the balance among the visual, auditory and narrative elements is changed. In particular, as the visual impact of a film is reduced the story and characters receive more of our attention, and any flaws in the script can become exposed in a way that might not be as apparent (or perhaps not as bothersome) in a theater.

      So I couldn't agree more that most films were meant to be seen on the big screen, especially those with a distinctive visual style. But thanks to a number of factors, including the demise of many neighborhood theaters, deafening sound levels, showtimes that don't fit our schedules, and poor public transit options, it has become a ever-greater effort to go out to the movies—an effort that we are less and less willing to make given our other interests (see my favorite live performances of 2018). So perhaps my favorites movies list should instead be "favorite movies that managed to impress me despite being seen on the small screen."

      Gentility vs. class conflict: Hmmm. This comment echoes Jenny Diski's disdain for period dramas, or as she once put it:

      "This 'nothing will ever be the same again' is the single motif that conditions all the plots of the books and programmes, which otherwise are undistinguished stories of love and money lost and won. Mostly the nothing that will ever be the same is the centuries-old entitlement of a small group of highly privileged people, for whom, for various reasons, we must feel sorry."

      But as I wrote in an earlier post, "I think [Diski] has over-simplified the implicit class perspective of many period dramas; it's not all nostalgia and misplaced sympathy. . .[They] can be quite subversive in their attitudes towards the constraints of class and gender." To describe books from the 19th century and earlier (and many of the film and television adaptations that are made of them) as merely genteel is to overlook the intense social conflicts they often depict.

      In Doctor Thorne, for example, Dr. Thorne's brother Henry can impregnate and abandon the sister of stonemason Roger Scatcherd because his class position in the pseudo-gentry insulates him from any consequences (until he dies after being assaulted by Scatcherd). Admittedly Mr. Selfridge doesn't foreground the economic consequences of the rise of the department store in the same way as The Paradise, but it does show the homelessness, mass unemployment and post-traumatic shock that followed World War I. Sexual coercion, transactional marriages, the plight of those (particularly women) without means—period dramas are not all Rich People's Problems.

      In a post on the movie Chori Chori Chupke Chupke I wrote, "with many Bollywood films, you just have to take the crunchy with the smooth." Perhaps to enjoy period dramas you have to take the smooth (the clothes, the carriages, the mansions) with the crunchy.

      I'll pause here and continue in Part 2 below.

    2. My reply Part 2

      Anti-capitalism and cross-culturalism: Sorry to Bother You is on our viewing list for the coming year. Anti-capitalism tends to be in the eye of the beholder, but if I had to pick an anti-capitalist film I might well name It's a Wonderful Life, the movie you've vowed never to see again. Capra's film shows the rapacious banker Mr. Potter ruthlessly crushing all who stand in the way of his greed. And in the "world without George Bailey" sequence we see the consequences of Potter's success: people living in filthy slums, hardened against their neighbors in want, while corruption and violence are rampant. (Interestingly, Potter is the one character who isn't redeemed at the end of the film.) I think the presence of Jimmy Stewart and the "happy ending" (really?) tend to mask how strong a critique this film makes of the economic system. But our differing views of It's a Wonderful Life aside, I second your recommendation of Tokyo Godfathers.

      Documentaries: We haven't seen the Hedy Lamarr documentary, but we're looking forward to it. Bombshell's news—that Lamarr (together with avant-garde composer George Antheil) invented a frequency-hopping communication system for radio-guided torpedoes that has become the basis of wifi and GPS technology—isn't exactly a bombshell, though. Ten years ago her invention was the subject of a play and articles in Scientific American and Wired; a few years later Richard Rhodes published Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (Doubleday, 2011).

      We did see The B-Side; and although we enjoyed it, we found Lacy's film and its subject to be more compelling.

      Being "more up to date": But why on earth include a film from 2003 (not to mention three films from 1966) in my Favorites of 2018 list? From the start of these year-end surveys I've chosen my favorites from anything first experienced in the previous twelve months. Partly this is because otherwise most of the opera, Indian films, and 18th- and 19th-century literature I seek out so obsessively would be excluded from consideration. And partly it is because there are vast industries, both cottage and mass-cultural, devoted to ranking the "best" books and music and movies released in the previous year. I'm much more interested in conveying the excitement I've felt when discovering something new to me, no matter what year it was produced in.

      We were pointed to Lacy's documentary by John Lahr's (negative) LRB review of David Yaffe's Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell (Farrar, Straus, 2017). I also recommend Carl Wilson's review in Bookforum, "Chords of Inquiry: How Joni Mitchell created her own tradition."

      Wes Anderson: I'm neither a Wes Anderson hater nor an indiscriminate fan. I'll point out that my favorite films of 2014 included Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel. We've seen about half of his films, and it's interesting to me that the ones we haven't enjoyed have both been animated (Isle of Dogs and The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)). For the record, the other films of his we've seen are Rushmore (1998) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012).

      Ignorance is bliss: You write that "Knowing next to nothing about South Asian or Bollywood cinema, I have nothing to say." Had I followed that most admirable principle—to paraphrase Wittgenstein, whereof we are not qualified to speak, we must remain silent—this blog would not exist.

      Many thanks for your comments!