Don’t Sleep

Halfway through the year, our film critic looks at his favorite movies so far.

This is what I haven’t seen yet, this is what I regret seeing and these are the common themes of the year: blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada.

Does anyone read the introductions to listicles?

They certainly are among this critic’s most thankless tasks, and I always write them last. I will say, however that, yes, I’ve missed several big movies this year, which is the peril of working various jobs simultaneously and, when experiencing time off, valuing a beer and TV with your girlfriend over seeing and contemplating a buzzed-about something or other.

But I have plenty of time to catch up (sure) and I’ve already seen many remarkable movies, the 10 below being the most notable of the notable.

“Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” (directed by Lili Horvát)
A powerfully intellectualized erotic thriller: The potential couple here is a pair of neurosurgeons drawn into a possibly illusory romance that underscores the divide between the rational and irrational. A few lines of dialogue almost give the game away: “The brain is like a city with various neighborhoods. They’re not all of the same value.” Correspondingly, a woman’s desire is rendered in intoxicatingly geographic terms: People are framed behind windows, engulfed by empty apartments and old buildings, or seen navigating winding corridors and stairways. These images physicalize how our surroundings shape our psyche and how we attempt to divide impulse from reason.

“All Light, Everywhere” (Theo Anthony)
I’ve written about Theo Anthony’s extraordinary cine-essay documentary several times already, for here and elsewhere, as it bracingly merges intellectual curiosity, humanism and political op-editorializing, with many wooly expressionist tangents along the way. Anthony’s central concern is the subjective fallacy of police body cameras, which he links to the essential fallibility of the human eye itself and to the insidious grip that corporations have on society. Astonishingly, much surveillance technology, encroaching upon our lives like weeds, is protected as intellectual property and seen as above the restrictions of the government or the criticism of the populace. “All Light, Everywhere” is this year’s scariest and most resonant real-life sci-fi film so far.

“Come True” (Anthony Scott Burns)
I’ve also written about “Come True” before, and it continues to linger in my mind. A teenage runaway, haunted by nightmares of hellish portals and shadowy specters, takes part in a sleep study that does not go well. Debuting writer, director, producer, editor and composer Anthony Scott Burns, a veritable one-man band to rival the ingenuity of Steven Soderbergh, renders a fairly traditional horror movie premise into haunting poetry of alienation and longing. The year’s scariest and most resonant fantasy so far.

“Zach Snyder’s Justice League” (One guess)
Blockbusters have become so workshopped, skittish, faux progressive and so very, very dull that Snyder’s baroque fantasia comes as a shock to the system. Say what you will about the alternately exhilarating and tedious filmmaker, but he takes this stuff seriously, refusing to hide behind the impersonal snark that’s typical of Marvel movies. Aiming for Wagner and occasionally coming closer than one could reasonably expect, Snyder’s four-hour recut of a forgettable 2017 movie turns Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman et al’s adventures into an ecstatic orgy of torment and power. Think Ridley Scott’s “Legend” with the scale of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” with otherworldly go-for-broke action and the adolescent pathos of a vintage Aerosmith or Meat Loaf album.

“The Real Thing” (Kôji Fukada)
Another four-hour movie that, come to think of it, also concerns torment and power, in this case as reflected in the oscillating relationship statuses between a white-collar salesman and a flaky woman who’s run off from her husband and run afoul of the yakuza. Fukada utilizes the running time to establish the profound space between the potential couple and their other lovers, who dip in and out of one another’s lives, and to show a progression of emotional epiphanies in something resembling real time. As “The Real Thing” goes on, characters who initially resemble stereotypes become agonizingly human.

“The Carnivores” (Caleb Michael Johnson)
A couple hits a romantic crisis due to one of the women’s obsession with her dog, who disappears after a while. Seemingly as a protest to the pet’s dominancy over their relationship, the other woman verges on rejecting her vegetarianism. This sounds like the set-up for a self-consciously insular and opaque lo-fi indie American dramedy, which it is to a certain extent, but Johnson and his superb leads, Lindsay Burge and Tallie Medel, imbue “The Carnivores” with the live-wire mystery and beauty of a Raymond Carver story.

“Pebbles” (P.S. Vinothraj)
Performative outrage has become a commercialized industry unto itself, and it’s seeping into our cinema and limiting its empathy and scope. “Pebbles,” however, shows how issues of systemic prejudice can be examined with style and fury without succumbing to banal preaching. The film concerns a man’s walking trek between two hamlets in India to find his wife. He’s a drunk and abusive husband, who isn’t above subjecting his young son to his petty torments, yet Vinothraj and the daring actor Karuththadaiyaan show these actions to be rooted in deeply submerged misery, which they dramatize with a startling sense of humor. And Vinothraj’s John Ford-like long shots have a heated urgency that shows the much-abused women to be the casual lifeline of this hyper-masculine society.

“Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” (Jeffrey Wolf)
Another film that tackles systemic atrocities with verve. Jeffrey Wolf’s sprightly 75-minute documentary traces the life of Bill Traylor, a man born into slavery in Jefferson Country, Alabama, around 1853 who worked a family’s plantation for decades, even after achieving his freedom. Winding up as an old man living in the streets of Montgomery, Traylor sketched and painted images of life, particularly of slave life, that are rendered in a dynamic minimalist style with a profound sense of movement. He captured the riddles of his predicament – the unimaginable pain as well as unexpected bliss. Wolf’s film is aware of similar paradoxes, abounding in Traylor’s singular images and in minute records that elucidate America’s thorny, shameful and confusing past.

“About Endlessness” (Roy Andersson)
Roy Andersson’s style – imagine an ultra-droll version of “The Far Side” comic strip with a dash of David Lynch’s inscrutability – isn’t for everyone. It’s not even for me all that often, but “About Endlessness” ferociously merges images of absurdist loneliness with a surprisingly explicit theme of mortality and regret. How explicit? Andersson even has a few characters define the meaning of his title for the audience. Certain vignettes – there is no linear plot – suggest what Andrew Sarris once famously called “strained seriousness,” but the best bits, including a pair of scenes concerning a despairing preacher, achieve an inexplicably hilarious and poignant kind of existentialism. The best humor, no matter how dark, is the kind you can’t explain, and Andersson is a master of it.

“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” (Ryûsake Hamaguchi)
One of my favorite films of the year so far, Hong Sang-soo’s “Introduction,” isn’t on here because an American release date hasn’t been confirmed. Hamaguchi’s “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is apparently getting a release sometime this year though, so I’m bending the rules for it. As he illustrated in his nearly five-hour “Happy Hour,” Hamaguchi is a master of coaxing and capturing subtle physical movements in actors, allowing them to plumb emotional baggage in depth. This gift is very much on display in “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” which is comprises three shorts all pivoting on various kinds of dwarfed romance. The best, and most audacious, episode concerns a manipulation between a male teacher and (adult) female student who understands the psycho-sexual dynamics of Philip Roth’s writing better than any actual Roth adaptation.


WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: