Wednesday, January 9, 2019

:::: FILMS OF 2018 ::::


TOP FILMS OF 2018 IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
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Bruno Dumont  "Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc"  (France)
Bi Gan  "Long Day's Journey Into Night"  (China)
Valeska Grisebach  "Western"  (Bulgaria)
Alfonso Cuarón  "Roma"  (Mexico / United States)
Pietro Marcello  "Lost and Beautiful"  (Italy)
Alice Rohrwacher  "Happy As Lazzaro"  (Italy)
Lee Chang-dong  "Burning"  (South Korea)
Pawel Pawlikowski  "Cold War"  (Poland)
Hu Bo  "An Elephant Sitting Still"  (China)
Jia Zhang-ke  "Ash Is Purest White"  (China)
Hirokazu Kore-eda  "Shoplifters"  (Japan)
Yorgos Lanthimos  "The Favorite"  (Greece)
Claire Denis  "Let The Sunshine In"  (France)
Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias  "Cocote"  (Argentina)
Masaki Yuasa  "The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl"  (Japan)
Brady Corbet  "Vox Lux"  (United States)
Paul Schrader  "First Reformed"  (United States)
Jim Jarmusch  "Mystery Train"  Restored Re-Released (United States)
Raúl Ruiz  "Time Regained"  Restored Re-Released (Portugal)
Henri-Georges Clouzot  "The Prisoner"  Restored Re-Released (France)
Dennis Hopper  "The Last Movie"  Restored Re-Released (United States)
Zhao Liang  "Behemoth"  (China)
Michael Glawogger & Monika Willi  "Untitled"  (Germany)
Claude Lanzmann  "Shoah: Four Sisters"  (France)

Two years have now passed since favorable ratings, and public appetite for spectacle, motivated both liberal and conservative media to marginalize more viable options and instead elevate a reality TV celebrity, media mogul and real estate magnate to one of the most influential positions of power in the world. We now live in the wake of those events. America may never be the same. Consequently we find ourselves in in an environment in which high and low-level attacks have been leveled at the remaining journalistic press and even the First Amendment itself. These effects amplified by the net overabundance of the 21st Century, in which media sources are decentralized, but not necessarily diversified, presenting a new set of dangers to the less digitally savvy. Between the polarization of the commercial news sources and the erosion of institutions of true investigative journalism, social media has found itself in the role of the most influential editor in the world. Subsequently, America not only receives different information, as a divided nation, we've come to perceive different realities. Less travel this year, both domestic and international translated as being essentially grounded here in the United States, with the noise, misdirection, confusion, and division of this toxic social fallout of the 2016 election. All the while wealth becomes further stratified, with fewer and fewer institutions owning a larger slice of the domestic economy, and their influence increasingly felt in government.

In the midst of it all, it was a great relief to find memorable performances, festivals and exhibitions domestically. Gallery-going and the cinema played an even more prominent role this year. Hitting the mark of 400 films seen, it was another record setting twelve months in catching cinema in the theater. A worrisome trend seen in recent years continued though, as no small number of significant films were only available for viewing online or at home. The most notable visual art event witnessed this year was the fourth-annual Paul Allen funded Seattle Art Fair. Initial speculation on it's inaugural launch as to the fair being another tech money vanity project has long since been dispelled. Again proving to be significantly more than a elaborate philanthropy endeavor, this year's fair saw an expanded body of galleries, over 100 in total, along with it's program of talks, on-and-off site performances and collateral events. The programming coup of this year was found in Survival Research Laboratories, founder Mark Pauline presenting a demonstration of his various machines and devices. While insurance costs prevented a full-scale exhibition like that witness at Marlborough Contemporary this past year, wherein "Fire-Breathing Robots Bringing Anarchy to a Chelsea Art Gallery", Pauline was on hand for presentation and discussion on his long running kinetic theater of destruction. Initiated as an early industrial culture project in the late 1970s, the machine shop and performance of its creations spans decades. As part of this year's lecture series, Pauline was joined by influential science fiction author Bruce Sterling in conversation. The author and the outsider artist, technologist and robotics specialist have intersected on previous occasions, memorably 20 years prior in the pages of Wired, for "Is Phoenix Burning?".

As is the case with many of the cultural and economic epicenters in the United States, in the last decade Seattle has gone through a series of notable changes to its urban, communal, and arts identity. Reflecting the still stratifying economic and cultural landscape of the city, two of the most influential regional festivals had closing years in 2015. These two institutions previously brought an underground, international scope to the city's music programming, and cumulatively tens of thousands of attendees. That year saw the final installments of the Seattle's two dominant festivals of electronic, neoclassical and experimental music in the final editions of Rafael Anton Irisarri's Substrata Festival, and in an open letter Decibel Festival's 13th year closed with programming director Sean Horton's farewell to the city. Horton has since announced the revival of the Decibel in 2018 in a Los Angeles iteration, while a proposed Seattle satellite festival remains unrealized. In the three years since the closing of these international forums, Seattle's monthly showcases of electronic and experimental sounds, Elevator, Secondnature, MOTOR, Patchwerks, False Prophet and Wayward Music Series have stepped up to filled the void. Elevator and MOTOR have since ceased monthly programming in 2018, yet the former continues with performance and exhibition curation following the 2016 inauguration of their annual Corridor Festival. It's daylong meeting of audio-visual media, installation art, music and performance has evolved into the city's best new festival for cutting edge sounds. Certainly moreso than Paul Allen's less successful migration into music and media with the launch of Upstream. Though the future of Allen's founding of numerous cultural and arts institutions, and significant philanthropic contribution to the city, is now less certain with his passing this October.

In his year end overview, The New Yorker's Richard Brody tackles the most significant factor in the contemporary landscape of moving pictures; “2018 has been a banner year for movies, but you’d never know it from a trip to a local multiplex, or from a glimpse at the Oscarizables. The gap between what’s good and what’s widely available in theatres - between the cinema of resistance and the cinema of consensus - is wider than ever." For supporting evidence, look no further than this past year's selection on offer at Cannes and Venice, and contrast these with domestic cinema programming. This gulf is also reflected online. The digital age is still proving to be at a narrow impasse rather than the promised plateau of abundance, which many are learning to navigate. Particularly evident in the world of film distribution, though footing is being found on the growing independent streaming platforms. Award winning films from festivals in New York, Berlin, Vienna, Venice, Hong Kong, Seoul, Cannes, Paris, London, Toronto and Cannes topping Film Comment, The Guardian, Cinema-Scope, and the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound annual overviews, have yet to screen in the United States. Or even show up streaming online. So count yourself fortunate that you live in an urban cultural center if you do, as more and more of the world's greatest film aren't to be found for purchase, rent, streaming or even download (legal or otherwise).

Four pieces of new Asian cinema are perfectly illustrative of the depth of this divide between the quality of critically hailed work seen in festivals around the globe and the content available on screens domestically. First of them, "Burning", is a sensuously shot and musically rhythmic mystery by Lee Chang-dong taken from a Haruki Murakami short story centering around the inklings of an obsessive love. Where this sometimes hallucinatory psychological drama differs from its source novel is that it is set in the cultural fallout of modern consumerist Korea. With bold diversions into the pastoral and liminal, this visually gripping observation on "Male Rage Blazes a Chilling Trail on the Korean Border", is fixated on the emptiness of spaces, both in the locative sense, as well as the interpersonal. Chang-dong leaves the tale's central mystery untouched, instead foregrounding the fine details and uneasiness of suppressed violence. Suggestive and psychologically sinuous, the implications of the physically ravenous consequences remain unseen and unknown. While many cities didn't have opportunity at all, this high ranking film in Film Comment's year end overview saw a one week run here at Northwest Film Forum. The second is the newest by the sixth generation Chinese director at the spearhead of mainland cinema for over two decades now. In the long arc of Jia Zhang-ke's increasingly expansive art, he has constructed a body of observations on globalism, largely comprised of a mildly surreal tangent of social realism, with an unexpected recent turn into the realm of politically conscious crime drama. As Peter Bradshaw's review details, "Ash is Purest White" falls into the classification of the latter. Setting it apart, Zhang-ke has imbued his crime tale with what Bradshaw describes as a "miasma of visionary strangeness", giving a distinct glow to the film's social realist grit. Seen through the film's eerily futurist sheen, this complex romantic tragedy set within China’s crime classes is a "Chinese Gangster’s Girlfriend Saga that Burns Bright".

Even less represented on screens regionally were Hu Bo's final and single directorial effort, and Bi Gan's sophomore leap into neo-noir. The latter returning after the extraordinary debut of 2016's "Kaili Blues", with a noirish dream of a movie, centering around the fading embers of a mysterious romance told in the key of early Wong Kar-Wai. Told through almost omnipresent dialogue, much of it in voiceover, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" centers around the return of Luo Hongwu to his hometown Kaili in southwestern China’s Guizhou province, to find the woman he’s loved and never forgotten. This most noirish of storytelling devices circles around a set of recurring concepts, whether journeys, romantic encounters, the abstraction of recollection, time, (or during one startling technical sequence) cinema itself, all expressed with the same half-remembered quality. Mention should be made of the strength of the film's independent components. Particularly Liu Qiang’s set design and the ethereal electro-acoustic score supplied Lim Giong and Point Hsu. Most significantly, during the film's initial sequence the sensuous and atmospheric cinematography of Yao Hung-I and Dong Jinsong, setting the tone for the extended set piece that culminates this highly stylized and oneiric cinematic voyage, whereafter "Long Day’s Journey Into Night Follows its Own Woozy Dream Logic".

Most elusive of all, the single directorial work by novelist Hu Bo before his suicide in late 2017. Based on the story of the same name from his novel of that same year, "Huge Crack", Hu's extended duration film swept critical attention and gained great notice at this past year's Berlin International Film Festival. The film's title, concerning a folk tale of an elephant in the Manzhouli zoo, both acts as a commentary on surviving in increasingly demanding times, and a zen ideal to strive toward. Its parable resonates among the film's youthful protagonists, all deeply unhappy in their isolated industrial locale, as they struggle with the conflicting forces of apathy and meaning. Unrelenting as its tone and duration may be, Hu's telling proves a delicately layered, subtly shot work that distinguishes itself with lived-in characters expressing a set of incisive statements on the prevalence of apathy, arrogance and egotism in modern China. “An Elephant Sitting Still: Melancholic and Mesmerising" in the extreme, conveyed in long, uncut sequences and a muted tonal palette, follows its protagonists as they search for a path out. Coming to envelop completely as the viewer joins them in the miasma of this, "Shattering, Soul-Searching Chinese One-Off". There's hope that Hu's singular directorial feature will receive domestic screenings in the next year with its acquisition by KimStim distribution.

This year's Seattle International Film Festival again showed weaker programming, choosing to overlook much of the abundance featured in the international festival circuit cited above, instead continuing the less than memorable trend of years before. Which was doubly disheartening after the strength of their 40th Anniversary offering. Their year-round programming at SIFF Cinema compensating for the oversights of the festival, bringing advance screenings, rare prints and numerous exclusive screenings to their three cinemas including the Film Center and restored Egyptian. With indie cinemas closing around the nation, it was that much more important to support the local theater opportunities. Particularly with the subsuming of Sundance Theaters into the corporate AMC chain and the fast-shrinking and now single remaining regional theater of the independent Landmark Theatres. Though there is hope. After potential bids from both Amazon and Netflix, the long-running independent and arthouse theater chain has just recently been purchased by Cohen Media Group. In “A Trade Between Billionaires: Mark Cuban Sells Landmark Theatres Chain to Film Buff Charles Cohen”, we may see the nationwide assembly of cinemas revitalized and open again with fresh, inventive programming. If Cohen's track record is any indication. Seattle Art Museum continues their cinema programming with the longest running film noir series in North America alongside retrospectives of such auteurs as Yasujiro Ozu, and Ingmar Bergman. Our own Northwest Film Forum had a strong calendar year, in stiff competition with the seasonal programming seen on the longest running independent screen in this town, The Grand Illusion Cinema. In a succession of years, this micro-sized theater in Seattle stepped up to fill the growing theater void after strengthening their nonprofit partnership with Scarecrow Video in 2014.

Much in the way of the 2016 Action, Anarchy & Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective, and Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien of 2015, this year's Losers, Loners, Outcasts & Outlaws: The Early Works of Jim Jarmusch, was a major programming coup for the independent theater. Now assembled together by Janus Films, and freed from complex licensing issues in rereleases by The Criterion Collection, fans of what the New York Times called "The Last of the American Indies", could once again marvel at "How the Film World's Maverick Stayed True to His Roots". The Grand Illusion's monthlong series of these early works making for the Northwest theater going event of the year. Many of the most notable films seen this year, when they did come to the cinema, had runs that lasted no more than a week. Others were never to appear again outside of an initial festival screening. One can't imagine that in the age of digital piracy that this process has aided global cinema finding an audience. Again proving the wisdom of getting out there, seeing the city and prioritizing the remaining opportunities that we're fortunate to have in our urban crossroads. Even so, no small percentage of these films even avid theater-goers living in urban centers didn't have opportunity to see. Making the almost singular resource that is Scarecrow Video, recipient of the 2016 Stranger Genius Award, that much more irreplaceable.

Most worrying in the changing landscape of moving pictures, is the dearth of global cinema and critically lauded works available to view on the dominant streaming resources. In a span of a half decade, it's become graphically apparent that, "For Cinephiles, Netflix Is Less and Less an Option". The diminishing of both quantity and diversity on the platform has been further accelerated by the phasing out their physical media catalog. For a microcosm, look to the fact that less than 1/15th of "Spike Lee's list of 86 Essential Films" are available to view on Netflix. The per-capita is even more poor when one examines any of the selections made in the global poll of 900 critics, programmers and academics for the British Film Institute's, "The 50 Greatest Films of All Time". And don't think to go to Hulu, Youtube, or Amazon as an alternative, despite their claims. Concurrently, Netflix has begun to assemble exclusive content and new works by notable American and international arthouse directors. Released in limited engagements, or in some cases not at all outside of being available on its streaming platform, their venture into film has further complicated access to a recent string of releases. By producing, distributing, and exhibiting new films by Orson Welles, Bong Joon-ho, Alice Rohrwacher, Alfonso Cuarón, Aleksei German, and the Coen Brothers, "Netflix’s Movie Blitz Takes Aim at Hollywood’s Heart", thereby significantly limiting the opportunities for these director's work to be seen and achieve notoriety in the traditional theatrical sense.

As a product of the combined effect of market dominance, and lack of diverse content on offer from Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, resources like Fandor, Mubi, and FilmStruck have become the online destination of choice for film lovers. With the merger of AT&T and Warner Brothers this past year, the third in this trio was deemed a "niche market", and shuttered by Warner Media. Thereby closing the resource of thousands of classic, foreign, and arthouse films that Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection had amassed as a, "Streaming Service that Places a Big Bet on Cinephiles". In response, Criterion and Janus Films announced that a, “New, Independent Criterion Channel will Launch in Spring 2019”. Facilitating particularly valuable programming and distribution, these independent streaming platforms have stepped into the international festival arena. The fruits of their curation and criticism offered throughout the year in their respective digital magazines, Notebook, and (the now shuttered) Streamline, and Keyframe. In many ways, of them all, "Mubi: A Streaming Service with a Ticking Clock" has come out on top. Unlike the "Streaming Rabbit Hole Worth Falling Down" represented by Fandor and FilmStruck, each offering a vast catalog of thousands of titles, Mubi watches as a online cinema, with a new film featured every day. In addition to the monthlong selection of titles on offer, Mubi has engaged in special programming with festival series, director highlights, movement, and genre overviews.

In just the past year showcasing such luminaries as Raul Ruiz, Segei Loznitsa, Joseph Losey, the later films of Jean-Luc Godard, and a selection of crime and noir from Jean-Pierre Melville. There were also series from Takashi Miike, the architecture films of Heinz Emigholz, Krzysztof Zanussi, a selection of the later Luis Buñuel, Vittorio De Sica, Philippe Garrel, and a set of Ryuichi Sakamoto documentaries. Mubi proved to be one of the only places to see the work of rising new Chinese independent Bi Gan, the rarely screened Indian independent cinema of Guru Dutt, the quietly confrontational Francois Ozon, and the films of banned Chinese director Lou Ye. Forging into new territory, Mubi's Special Discovery series has showcased new films selected from the world's most prestigious festivals, spanning works from established directors alongside some of the boldest new talent emerging on the scene. Also to be found on the platform was a series of documentaries on Unusual Subjects, and a extensive selection of hard-hitting Chinese Independents. Offerings such as French Cinema after the New Wave, restorations of lost genre and psychotronic cinema by Nicolas Wending Refn, a May 1968 documentary double feature, and the annual seasonal programming found in Horrific October, made Mubi more essential than ever.