Yay, I’m done! Well, sort of. I’ve now officially seen as many movies as I needed to to make my top ten of 2018, which will be coming on Saturday. At the end of March I’ll be posting one more official batch of movie reviews from last year, but none of them made my top ten, so it’s just to finish things off (I’m a completist). Thank you for reading!
BORDER * * * (Dir. Ali Abbasi)
If you’ve ever wondered how the mythology of trolls would manifest itself in the grounded, real world that we live in, this dark fantasy is your chance to find out. A very unsettling, strange yet intriguing journey of self-discovery is at its heart, as Tina, a woman who appears to have some kind of facial deformity or physical condition, works as a security guard on the Swedish border. She’s good at her job because she can literally smell if someone has something hidden- not just drugs or illegal goods but the shame, guilt and rage that swells inside a person. She puts her unusual and very handy skills to use in helping the police track down pedophiles, but one day she meets someone coming into the country whom she’s instantly drawn to. His name is Vore, and he’s just like her, a man who seems to have the same condition, who also likes to eat insects and can intrinsically communicate with wild animals. Tina has felt alone all her life, but no longer. Vore teaches her what she really is and how she really fits into this world- and even though it’s nothing she’d imagined, somehow she’s always known. This movie glides at a slow enough pace so that you can wonder what it’s all about and where it’s going, maintaining a mysterious, slightly surreal atmosphere that reaches its peak in one of the wildest sex scenes you’ve ever seen on film. It’s not a frightening movie though- it is in fact, sympathetic as you grow to identify with Tina, who is a highly original female character, a heroine you can even imagine in other settings. I can picture it now- the troll who helps cops find crooks could be a great pilot in this age where any idea can be adapted into a series.
MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS * * 1/2 (Dir. Josie Rourke)
As costume dramas go, you could do worse than Mary, Queen of Scots. It has a very somber, grave tone, yet doesn’t dwell too much on politics and takes the history seriously. It also benefits from a spirited performance from Saoirse Ronan as the fiery, 18-year-old queen who had it in her to challenge her cousin Elizabeth to the throne of England and never regretted it, even as she went to her death. But it also feels a bit flat and drab, unfortunately draped with a dark, rusty color palette that may be intended to evoke the dreariness of 16th century Scotland but feels more like we’re trapped in a series of rooms filtered through a dirty window. Despite strong performances and an entertaining battle of wills, this isn’t a film that really sticks with you after it’s over- there are not enough memorable scenes or gripping moments in Mary’s life as depicted (one exception may be the brutal execution of her male chamber attendant, but even that scene goes on a bit too long, as if director Josie Rourke knew this was the most lively scene in the movie and wanted to milk the gore). Margot Robbie is mostly fine as Elizabeth, but let’s talk about the makeup for a second. For some reason, every scene piles on an increasingly distracting makeup job (smallpox, then the smallpox scars, then the powdered face/wig, terrible haircut, etc.) that holds her back from disappearing into the role like those who came before her (Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett in particular). Instead, you keep wondering if this was their way of de-beautifying Robbie as much as possible. In the end, the message of the film is that these two fierce queens could have had it all if the hapless men around them hadn’t gotten in their way so much and derailed their plans for greatness. Isn’t that always the way of it.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE * * * 1/2 (Dir. Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman)
For anyone who’s wanted an American animated film to actually look, feel and sound different from the consistent Disney/Pixar corporate model of family fun, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse comes as an exuberant, joyful surprise. In fact, it’s the first good Spider-Man movie Sony has released since Spider-Man 2 in 2004. From a story and screenplay by Phil Lord, of Lego Movie fame, this movie is a vibrant visual experience that looks like nothing else you’ve seen in the world of animation for a long time. The screen is painted by a comic book inspired aesthetic filled with colors that pop and a schematic that sees characters move around and interact in different rhythms. Side-swipes and air bubbles pop up to denote inner thoughts and the pace, while quick, is not so Lego Movie frantic as that franchise, leaving room for an emotional story with fully realized characters. The lead is teenager Miles Morales, who lives in a world where Spider-Man has been at his job for long while. When the hero dies suddenly, and Miles himself is bitten by a radioactive spider, he must figure out how to take over the mantle, but he has a lot of help, thanks to an inter-dimensional breach that brings alternate universe Spider-Men (and women) into his world to help him save the day and face the challenges of his own origin story. Such a creative and innovative vision that this movie presents is paired with an original idea that finally puts a real spin on the standard superhero origin and makes a joke out of it. There are a myriad of obscure comic book references but not an overload of Lord and Miller humor, thanks to sharp direction (from three directors) and a commitment to Miles as a real kid with feelings and a desire to do his best by his new powers and his family (we know the credo by now). My favorite alt-Spider-Man is an over the hill Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), who steals the show as a laconic mentor type, but he’s almost shown up by Nicolas Cage as “Spider-Noir,” in a hilarious sight gag that makes the most of Cage’s famous eccentric energy. American animators are rarely allowed by the studios to take the kinds of chances this movie does, both visually and storywise, but it all pays off beautifully in the pure dynamic pop art creation that resulted from the risks.
EVERYBODY KNOWS * * 1/2 (Dir. Asghar Farhadi)
Asghar Farhadi can weave a web of human drama like nobody’s business. The characters and the family situations he sets up in his films and then strips down to their core always make for a fascinating, intriguing mix of mystery, revelation and the questioning of human nature. Everybody Knows is his first Spanish-language film, starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem as just two of the people caught up in a criminal incident that occurs at a family wedding in a small town in Spain. The event in question leads to a pretty straightforward whodunit involving a large ensemble cast and various potential suspects in a family where long buried resentments and issues rise to the surface in the wake of crisis. The actors bring their A-game (as they usually do for Farhadi), but this time, the resulting conclusion is a bit underwhelming compared to his recent films. Cruz and Bardem are compelling as always, but a crucial reveal towards the end of the movie is fairly predictable, and the tidy result of this mystery leaves you wondering, was that it? Farhadi usually has deeper themes lying in wait under the surface of his family dramas that keep them from being lurid or overly melodramatic, but those deeper issues seem absent from this one, which leads me to think that in the absence of a larger meaning, the mystery itself needed to be more melodramatic in order to carry more weight as a thriller. The story is interesting as you watch it, but you’re left waiting for a dramatic punch that never quite comes.