I have not seen many mainstream films because I live in Hudson, New York, and I don’t drive. I see almost all of my movies at Time and Space Ltd., a mixed performance/art gallery/cinema a couple of blocks from my loft. So all of these films were seen there this past year – except the one I think is overrated and the one I liked the least. Oh, and number (5) I saw at our new local boutique – but mainstream – theatre here, Cosmic.
(1) The Guardians (les gardiennes). I am fascinated by WWI and, moreover, how it so deeply affected people worldwide with the utter physical and emotional destruction left in its brutal wake. I feel the same way about the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 and the Polio Epidemic of 1952. I think it has to do with my being a gay man of a certain age who survived the AIDS Plague in the 1980s and 1990s, and who is HIV positive myself. I think it has to do with my being one of the survivors of that time and being troubled by the sense of cultural amnesia about it. Sometimes it seems as if it never happened and the forgetting of such sadness and fear in our lives now strikes me as purposeful, as if it were another way to survive it. But I will always honor it by never forgetting those who fell to HIV/AIDS during those dark days. And though I did not live during WWI or the Spanish Flu Epidemic or the Polio Epidemic, I do feel a solidarity with those who did because they too are forgotten. I choose not to forget.
All of that serves to say this: I was predisposed to like this French film, written and directed by Xavier Beauvois, for it too is about not forgetting. But I was not prepared for its beauty and emotional resonance. I knew from the French title that it would have a feminist point of view – or, more precisely, a female one. As Peter Bradshaw wrote in his review in, yes, The Guardian: “The gender divide of this movie, and its whole point, are clearer in the original French title: Les Gardiennes, the female guardians, the women who worked the land in France during the first world war. This richly compassionate, fiercely acted and beautifully shot period drama is about the second conflict, the battle of wills on the home front, as its characters struggle to maintain a family farm in the Deux-Sèvres region of western France.
“A way of life, with its Hardyesque seasonal rhythms of sowing and reaping, is minutely, sumptuously depicted. But all the time in the background – in the letters home, in the muttered hints of the grim-faced men on leave and their shellshocked dreams – is the horror of war. Those seasonal rhythms come to include regular visits from officials with telegrams.
“The Guardians is directed by Xavier Beauvois, terrifically shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, and adapted by Beauvois, Frédérique Moreau and the film’s editor Marie-Julie Maille from a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon, the teacher, Goncourt-winning author and first world war veteran who in 1940 refused to collaborate with the Vichy regime, had his books banned and finally died of a heart attack brought on by the stress of daily Gestapo harassment.
“Nathalie Baye gives a performance of effortless authority as the widowed Madame Hortense, the matriarch who must impose her will on the running of the farm. Her daughter Solange (played by Baye’s real-life daughter Laura Smet) is her most important worker, given that her father-in-law Henri (played by non-professional Gilbert Bonneau) is too elderly to do much. Smet plays Solange as a passionate woman who, like her mother, has accepted the patriotic duty of reining in her emotions. Her husband Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin) comes home from the front, angry at the hypocrisy and cruelty of war. The Germans, he tells them all, are just like them: workers, husbands, fathers. …
“The beauty and the pathos of the film are vivid in every frame. Most unbearable is the shot in which Constant says his farewells before returning to the war and walks away from the farm up a shady country lane that leads back to the station: he turns and waves, framed by the trees, his brave, open face lit by a heartbreakingly good-natured smile. The terrible omen is obvious.
“Then there is the remarkable scene in which Georges takes Francine into the forest, which is part of the family’s estate – a magical place made even more mysterious by the standing stones there, which, incidentally, are a further reminder of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Stonehenge. The stones’ presence imbues that whole place with something profoundly moving and erotic, and the woodland itself consecrates the love between Georges and Francine.
“The years are flashed up on screen as the time goes by: the harrowingly important years of 1914 and 1918, but then, without any great fanfare, we get 1919 and 1920. There is no war’s-over scene with dancing in the streets – or farmyard. Hardscrabble life goes on as it went on before the war, and the widowed Hortense was in any case used to running things without a husband. Beauvois concludes the film with an affecting, melancholy song. It is the music of regret and acceptance.”
The Guardians was my favorite film I saw last year. Here are nine other favorites.
(2) RBG. The documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Directed and produced by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, it won the National Board of Review award for Best Documentary and has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary category.
(3) Wildlife. This film has been ignored during awards season but to me it was a quiet, disquieting work of art. Based on the novel by Richard Ford, it was directed by Paul Dano and adapted for the screen by Dano and Zoe Kazan. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan who are giving two of the most devastating performances of their careers. And the young Australian actor Ed Oxenbould, who plays their son, is the beating heart of the film; he is there to bear witness. Find this film. See it. It bears witness to its own artistry.
(4) Shoplifters. This Japanese film is nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Directed, written and edited by Hirokazu Kore-eda and starring Lily Franky and Sakura Ando with a mesmerizing and masterful supporting performance by Kiki Kirin, it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Palme d’Or. I wish Kirin had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress this year at the Oscars. It is about poverty but also in some deeper sense about living a purposeful life. This is its title in Japanese 万引き家族 .
(5) Can You Ever Forgive Me?. This film is rightly nominated for three Oscars – Best Actress for Melissa McCarthy, Best Supporting Actor for Richard E. Grant, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. I would not be sad – would I be happy? – if all four won in their three categories. That last sentence is sort of in the spirit of this keenly observed film, which is also one of the most insightful films I’ve ever seen about the chaotic nature of addiction and alcoholism. Indeed, it might have affected me more than any other film this year, my being a writer and a 62-year-old gay man who once had a pretty big life, wrote two New York Times bestsellers, and is now struggling to make ends meet. In that regard, if you’re reading this, thank you for subscribing to this online magazine and being a part of this community. I am deeply grateful. It is a gratitude that does make me happy, not just not sad. Truly: thank you.
(6) Lean on Pete. Written and directed by Andrew Haigh (Weekend, Looking, 45 Years, among other films and television series), it is based on the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin. The film stars Charlie Plummer, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Femmel, and Steve Buscemi. The narrative is about a 15-year-old boy who begins to work at a stable in order to discover some stability in his own life and befriends an ailing racehorse in order to try to heal himself. It was screened in the main competition of the Venice Film Festival and Plummer won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress. He deserved it. I’m tearing up right now remembering this film. So tender yet tough. It’s terrific. It helped me heal.
(7) King Lear: National Theatre Live. This one is a bit outside the box since it is a filmed production of a play. But what Ian McKellen and his company of actors from The Chichester Theatre Festival and the director Jonathan Munby accomplished with this contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s moving and shocking play – by turns, oddly and diabolically violent while gratefully aghast at gentleness when it was in its midst – lent itself to the camera even more than to the stage. I didn’t see it when it moved to the West End, where this was filmed, but I sense that it worked better before the lens than it did inside the Duke of York Theatre even though the theatre had been reconfigured to coerce some intimacy from it. The camera lens was the kind of coercion of intimacy called for in this production. It caught it, then cauterized it.
(8) Summer of 1993. Directed and written by Catalan director Carla Simón, it is an autobiographical story about her own childhood after both her parents died of AIDS. It is heartbreaking and insightful and subtly disturbing – disturbingly subtle? – yet without a moment of sentimentality in it. The deeply felt and natural performance elicited from the child actors are remarkable to behold and still haunt me. Jeanette Catsoulis, writing in The New York Times, began her review by noting how the film “balances delicately on the aftermath of a tragedy, but its tone is far from dismal. Melancholy, yes, and even momentarily wrenching; yet its emotional arc bends insistently from inarticulate sadness to gentle catharsis.” I realize as I’m writing this list that so many of these films speak to me because they are about emotional catharses – hard-won, sometimes even wanton – but they navigate difficulties and sadness and hardship and somehow reach a kind of curious joy that catches one unaware and sends one on one’s way toward survival.
(9) Border (Gräns). This Swedish film was directed by Ali Abassi and written by Abbasi, Isabella Eklöf and John Ajvide Lindqvist. It is based on the short story of the same name by Lindqvist from his anthology Let the Old Dreams Die. The film won the Un Certain Regard award at the Cannes Film Festival last year and was selected as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Film this year. But – inexplicably, to me – it was not nominated. It did get one nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. I don’t want to say too much about this film because you should discover its subject matter and surprises for yourselves. I will say this: it has the most jaw-dropping sex scene I’ve ever seen on film. The whole film left me agape with wonder and sometimes disgust but always with a kind of stupefied awe. It is like no other film I’ve ever seen and the the great Swedish actress Eva Melander is giving the performance that I will remember the most from 2018, awful and brilliant all at once. My nostrils are flaring right now in honor of it. I can smell her greatness as I’m remembering the experience of discovering her and this film. I just checked Rotten Tomatoes. It has a 98% rating.
(10) Monrovia, Indiana. This documentary by the great Frederick Wiseman is a film I think we will look back on someday in order to understand the Trump era and see it all for what it really was. It delineates the decency of the people conned by such an indecent lowlife as Trump. There is the disquieting hum of homage throughout the film as it unspools and we see the descent and death of decency because of the subjects of the film being conned and, in being conned, their degradation of themselves. Wiseman isolates the isolationism of such decent folks found in “the heartland” and discerns – but never judges – the death of America by its decency dying at the tiny hands of the terrible con man. A fascist regime rises in Washington as rigor mortis sets in out here in America. The last long scenes and images of this portrait of this small town take place at a funeral of someone we’ve never even met in the film and then out at a cemetery for the lowering of a body into the cold, hard, unforgiving ground as we find within us the forgiveness that the cold, hard land itself does not have. It is a difficult film to sit through. It calls for patience. Even fortitude. As this era itself does. The film is even pointedly boring at times as it bores down into the lives it witnesses. It is not an indictment. It is instead a diary. A journal. A true document that dares us to see ourselves. And yet, as it refuses to judge its subjects, does its empathetic discernment normalize what is going on in Washington by averting its gaze from what is going on there to look more intently on those who choose to avert their gaze as well? It is the great irony of this troubling documentary that by so closely seeing this town and these townspeople, it too averts its gaze from what is really going on. The aversion of one’s gaze is the point of Wiseman’s own wise gaze. There is greatness in this film as it sits there in front of us and makes us aware that we are not so great. We can not make the country something it never was.
TWO FAVORITE PERFORMANCES
(1) My eleventh favorite film is writer and director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. And I acknowledge Ethan Hawke as my favorite actor of the year in it. Hawke is currently giving a graceful, gritty, pretty great – oh, okay, truly great – performance in True West on Broadway co-starring Paul Dano. But Hawke in First Reformed, as he essays a man’s loss of faith, has found an artful ironic route to salvation; it is both lacerating in its truthful depths yet lovely somehow in how it straddles the different meanings of grace, both physical and spiritual, which finally is the kind of straddling of such a divide that all great acting accomplishes when it dangerously steps off the precipice and winglessly finds not danger in the wind current but a kind of elemental uplift.
(2) The Wife is not a very good movie but it is good enough to hold the nuanced and noble performance by by Glenn Close at the center of it. I have written about Close in this film -directed by Björn Runge, written by Jane Anderson based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer, and co-starring Jonathan Pryce – in a prior iteration of sessumsMagazine.com. I predicted when I saw the film several months ago that she would win many awards for it, including finally the Oscar. I still hope that I am right about that.
MOST UNFAVORITE FILM OF THE YEAR
Aquaman. It also contained the worst performance of the year by Amber Heard. I couldn’t understand why if they could make us believe they were underwater why they couldn’t make us believe it was real hair on the heads of the actors. I thought it would never end.
MOST OVERRATED FILM
I know I will get flak for this. Here goes. I liked director and writer Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and appreciated it, but I did not love it. And I was never moved by it for a moment. I also had problems politically with its “happy servants” aspect since the film had a rather paternalistic take on domestic servitude and the system that fosters it within the culture into which it invites us with a kind of condescending elan as it alludes to just such issues but only to dismiss them with the way it tells its story – even as it cunningly focused on the maid’s life in doing so. The maid Cleo even says at the end that she was happy she lost her baby and in the next scene she looks downright blissed-out to be caring for her boss’s lovely, spoiled children yet again. I thought the film was gorgeous. I admired the performances of Yalitza Aparicio Martínez as Cleo and Marina de Tavira Servitje as her boss. I am happy for the former’s Best Actress Oscar nomination and the nomination of the latter for Best Supporting Actress. I assume the movie itself will win the Oscar for Best Film. But regarding its take on servitude and its maternalism and paternalism and its condescension, I’ve told friends in describing the film that it is Gone with the Wind if Scarlett had never slapped Prissy.