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Favorite Films of 2018

Below are my Favorite Films of 2018. It must be noted that the list may change slightly if I happened to come across great movies I had missed prior to this post. The same rule applies to all of my annual Favorite Lists. In other words, my lists are updated continually. My hope is to provide alternative movies that are absolutely worth seeing that may not or will not necessarily appear on “Top Critics” picks. Underneath each picture is an excerpt from my review which can be found in the archive. In the meantime, dive in and, as always, feel welcome to let me know what you think.

A Quiet Place
John Krasinski

“The picture’s excellence lies in its willingness to take its time. Observe the key scene where the father decides to take his son by the river. While there, they must wade through water, open traps, and acquire fish. But the son, clearly traumatized by what tends to happen when they make noise, would not even get in the water. The father recognizes that forcing the boy isn’t the right way to go. And so they share a conversation, a quiet moment in a not-so-quiet place, in which it is implied that the timid youngest must learn to push through his apprehension in order to learn and survive. I argue that this sensitive moment is the heart of the picture. Although there is no action, and it is important there isn’t one so we get a chance to focus on both the images and what is being communicated, it wonderfully captures what the story is about. No, it is not about monsters killing people.”

Leigh Whannell

“Every once in a while I come across a work that makes such a terrific impression that I become thoroughly convinced right in the middle of it that the movie will be remembered fondly ten to twenty years from the time of its release. ‘Upgrade,’ written and directed by Leigh Whannell, is such a film for it takes a familiar template regarding our relationship with technology, specifically artificial intelligence, and wrinkles the blueprint just enough to create an ambitious, amusing, suspenseful, and highly entertaining project.”

Steve McQueen

“Leave it to director Steve McQueen to helm a heist film more interested in the people about to pull a job than the actual robbery itself. What results is an elegant, intelligent, character-driven work that commands the precision of high-end thrillers in which the viewer is dared not to blink in order to avoid missing a beat. Notice that the burglary unfolds for a mere five minutes and yet the overall experience is most satisfying. The reason is because seeing the theft is merely cherry on top. We already know that it must be done and how it will be done. And once it is done—I’d even go as far to say that even before it is done—we are more curious about how the characters will choose to move on with their lives.”

Boy Erased
Joel Edgerton

“There are numerous genuinely affecting moments in the picture, like the talk between a doctor (Cherry Jones) who is tasked to draw blood from her patient ([Lucas] Hedges), but one that elevates the film greatly is the final exchange between father and son. To reveal as little as possible is ideal, but what is at stake is how the Eamons family will move forward. There is so much to say and express, but [director Joel] Edgerton chooses to be concise and precise. Beautifully shot and the dialogue so well-written, somehow the confrontation comes across both grand and deeply personal. It is a terrific closer to a wonderful film that just so happens to be well-intentioned.”

The Rider
Chloé Zhao

“The poetry embedded in every frame and every feeling of ‘The Rider’ is something that mainstream Hollywood pictures can only dream of. It offers a different type of entertainment—one that is quiet, yearning, inspiring the viewer look within, to ponder about one’s place in life and where it is possibly heading, rather than eliciting reductive and evanescent reactions stemming from sudden turns in plot or pacing. From its simple but elegant visual style to its deeply humanist approach of allowing the camera to rest on faces and bodies—including that of animals—writer-director Chloé Zhao has created a work that will undoubtedly stand the test of time. It is a joy that it took me completely by surprise.”

We the Animals
Jeremiah Zagar

“Like a most unexpected but pleasant kiss, Jeremiah’s Zagar’s ‘We the Animals’ surprised me for its willingness to paint a snapshot of childhood without relying on dialogue. Instead, this beautiful and captivating picture relies on impressions, initially similar to Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ but one that eventually dares to forge a path of its own. Going into it blind, about halfway through, it made me wonder whether the story was based on the director’s own childhood. The reason is because every second of it feels so detailed and so personal, particularly the boy’s painful realization that he is different than his family and that their love may not be unconditional.”

Lean on Pete
Andrew Haigh

“‘Lean on Pete’ is based on the novel by Willy Vlautin—and it shows. Notice that nearly every single adult Charley (Charlie Plummer—perfect for the role) knows or comes across has been chewed up and spit out by life, from his own father (Travis Fimmel) who pays more attention to wooing women than ensuring the well-being of his son, a female jockey (Chloë Sevigny) who has had her share of broken bones but cannot seem to care deeply about the horses she rides, to the pair of young soldiers (Lewis Pullman, Justin Rain) who just returned from the Middle East. A humanist writer-director, Andrew Haigh underscores the loneliness and sadness that these characters attempt to cover up. So even when someone makes a cruel decision, we do not hate them for it. It can be interpreted that their actions are based upon what life has taught them.”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Morgan Neville

“Underneath the relaxed nature of the documentary, there is a sense of urgency that juts out from time to time. It implies that since the show’s bow in 2001, there has been a void when it comes to such programming for kids. And it makes for a compelling case. I grew up with Disney, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network shows and movies—not one of them offers a high level of insight or courage when it comes to tackling questions or subjects that really matter. I was amazed that ‘Mister Roger’s Neighborhood’ dared to discuss topics such as racism, divorce, death, and even how it feels like to have crippling self-doubt. It made me want to look into the show—entire episodes, not just clips—and see how they are handled. I caught myself thinking that surely there must be an archive of all the episodes because the show is willing to construct a bridge between parent and child so that they are more able to discuss difficult or controversial subjects.”

Jason Reitman

“Here is a project determined to provide a raw portrayal of pregnancy, giving birth, and raising a child during its early weeks post-birth that we rarely see in the movies. We do not see the pregnant woman emitting a perfect radiant glow, a silly panicked rush to the hospital once her water breaks, nor do we come across a miraculous instantaneous recovery once she has been discharged from the hospital. Instead, it is interested in showing the reality of many ever day mothers, particularly the exhaustion that takes over as they struggle to maintain the stability of the household. Although it shows the less than sunny side of how it is like to be a mother, it is a love letter dedicated to them nonetheless. It reminded me of times when I would simply observe my mother as she juggles cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, vacuuming, and making a list for the next day’s trip to the supermarket—all of it after a long day at work while standing most of the time.”

Baltasar Kormákur

“Movies of today tend to forget the importance of an opening sequence. Lesser works offer erratic, uninformative, at times confusing, nonsensical, or boring introductions that have little to do, if any, with what the picture is about. They dampen viewers’ expectations rather than rouse or compel us to keep watching, unblinking. Baltasar Kormákur’s ‘Adrift’ does not make this mistake. He dares to place us after the climax as a young woman wakes up in yacht that had survived a Category 4 hurricane in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We watch her bloodied face and panic-stricken body struggle to find a way out among the debris. We know, and she knows, that the real horror is only about to begin. Kormákur trusts that we can follow the story from there.”


Our House

Our House (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Haunted house flick “Our House” is so boring, so tonally flat, that not even the loudest ominous score is enough to jolt the viewer into caring—strange because the story revolves around siblings whose parents perished in a traffic accident. It has the foundation of a dramatic horror film in which a family’s crippling grief is eventually exorcised by facing literal demons, but the screenplay by Nathan Parker and direction by Anthony Scott Burns lack inspiration. When it doubt, it relies on silly- and fake-looking visual effects—are shadow monsters supposed to be scary? Were they ever?

The eldest of the three siblings is played by Thomas Mann, whose effortless awkwardness is not utilized in such a way that is endearing, someone who we can or want to root for against a mysterious paranormal enemy. Instead, Ethan is written without a strong personality. In the opening minutes, he is established to be a really ambitious college student—so convinced and motivated that he and his team can change the world by creating a device capable of delivering electric power to all appliances without wires . But when tragedy inevitably strikes, his edge, qualities that make him interesting, are swept under the rug. So that viewers would like him on top of feeling sorry for him, he is turned into a bore. And because the protagonist is pushed on autopilot, the rest of the film follows.

Strong horror movies with a concept, especially those that use science—or even pseudoscience—as a gateway for possible paranormal activity, are not afraid to explain how, for example, a technology of interest works. Even if it does not make a lick of sense, entertainment may sprout from the attempt. Here, however, we are merely shown the device spin about. There are buttons on the black rectangular box but we do not learn what any of them do. I could not even tell which one is the on/off button. It is extremely vague. I got the impression that not one of the filmmakers involved has an understanding of basic physics or electrical engineering. Would it have been too much to consult an expert so that the material may command some semblance of weight to it?

Scary movie tropes run amok without fresh ideas that propel them. Bathroom scenes involving a child (Kate Moyer) being threatened to drown in the bathtub with the mere presence of the camera commands no tension. The rebellious-looking middle child (Percy Hynes White—who gives a curious performance because there are times when it looks like he is about to cry any second and oftentimes for no reason) being blamed for initial paranormal occurrences can be seen from a mile away. Due to the lack of interest in establishing each sibling as a unique person with complex thoughts and emotions, one wonders eventually why it is worth watching these characters. The three of them living in a haunted house is not enough. They must be interesting even if there weren’t any haunting.

Perhaps the worst offender is the lack of an effective rising action. In the screenplay’s attempt to neuter Ethan by showing the every day ennui of taking his brother and sister to school, going to his unrewarding workplace, and returning home with a sink full of dishes, it forgets that the protagonist has a brilliant mind. It is necessary to show his depression considering the misfortune that has befallen his family. But without showing the phoenix rising slowly from the ashes, the redemption arc, the light of hope, there is no reason to watch the picture because all it offers is tedium.

And notice the cheapness and lack of subtlety of the final shot. It perfectly summarizes the laziness of the filmmakers involved. I felt annoyed because they could not be bothered to come up with a strong, original closing sentence. Instead, they present the viewer with something that is borrowed from any other forgotten horror film. It is a critique of itself.



Beast (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

“Beast,” written and directed by Michael Pearce, is an interesting hybrid of romance and murder mystery, but it is not a thoroughly engaging psychological piece because the way it is shot gets in the way of telling the story raw and unflinching. Take any individual scene and notice its stylistic flourishes, from the way it is photographed, the calculated acting, and the manner in which the camera moves. Nearly everything is so planned out that we never forget we are watching a movie. The lyricism that courses throughout its the images and the feelings it evokes functions like filter—an incorrect approach because the central couple, particularly the darkness living inside them, demands to be understood without restraint.

Moll and Pascal are played by Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn, respectively, and they share strong chemistry. Physically, they look good together and there are a handful of instances when we are convinced of the romance simply by the two of them looking into one another’s eyes. But the fluctuating screenplay, especially when it is demanded that one of them raises his or her voice suddenly, does not work. It disturbs the relaxed chemistry built by the two performers and the material moves toward the territory of soap opera. One cannot help but wonder that this weakness could be attributed to the fact that it is the writer-director’s first foray into helming a full feature film.

The main question is whether Pascal is the one responsible for the series of murders involving underaged girls that have taken place on the island. Those well-versed in murder mysteries are certain to recognize the classic clues, even subtle ones, that are designed underline the mysterious stranger’s guilt. I enjoyed that the material is seemingly aware of the tropes and so it leaves enough room for us to doubt, that perhaps the many signs are simply red herrings meant to distract. Is it possible that the killer is simply a random stranger that just so happen to be visiting the island?

Intriguingly, the screenplay demands for the viewer to consider Moll as a suspect as well, even though we see the story through her eyes, because of her violent altercation with a schoolmate. Early scenes suggest she is a deeply disturbed young woman, brought up in a home that demands to control every aspect of her life, that she is left with barely any breathing room to be young, free, and spontaneous.

Buckley fits the role like a leather glove; she can look vulnerable and threatening at the same time. It is most unfortunate that the supporting characters, particularly Moll’s family, are so one-dimensional, these people fail to function as mirrors that reflect who Moll is outside of her extreme emotions, blackouts, and tendency to hurt herself or run away. Clearly, in order for the material to work, whether it be a mishmash of genres or otherwise, the drama must be established in a clear, concise, and convincing manner. Here, we never get past curious behavior.

Most beautiful to me is in the way it showcases the story’s animalistic themes. Look at the way Moll and Pascal make love, how they dance, how they wrestle, how they play. Notice how their body language collapses when surrounded by proud trees and verdant meadows. Pay attention to the lack of words shared between the two during deeply intimate moments. Its images are quite strong that at times I considered that perhaps the project might have worked better as a silent film.


The Life Before Her Eyes

Life Before Her Eyes, The (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

Nearing the end of their high school career, best friends Maureen (Eva Amurri) and Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) go inside the girls’ restroom to freshen up and talk about how excited they are for the future. Their conversation is interrupted when they hear students screaming in the hallway. At first, Diana is convinced it is only a prank—just another senior having too much fun. But then they start to hear gunshots. Diana, horrified, claims to know the identity of the shooter. She says Michael (John Magaro) spoke about his plan to kill everybody, but she chose not to report his threat because she was not convinced that he would go actually go through with it.

“The Life Before Her Eyes” surprises slowly then suddenly. The screenplay by Emil Stern stirs the pot, adds, and mixes the right dramatic ingredients to create a tragic story about trauma and how the past manages to cling onto the present and future like stepping on gum. But that is not all that is happening. Underneath is a story about a life in a standstill. Propelling us into Diana’s future, we watch adult Diana (Uma Thurman) struggle through an extremely difficult week: the anniversary of the shooting in Hillview High School.

The camaraderie between Diana and Maureen feels, looks, and sounds credible. There is a complexity to their relationship and it is established through a symbiosis. Even though Diana is the rebellious teen and Maureen is more conservative, they bond not only due to the fact that both of them come from the poorer side of town but also because they balance each other’s wavelengths. Wood and Amurri are so natural around one another, I often felt as though I was watching two real friends just hanging out.

Thurman, on the other hand, is not as believable playing a mother. Although the point is that her character’s trauma has hardened her over time, sometimes I felt she comes off too hard. When the actor gives someone a sharp look, it communicates mean instead of tough. There is a great disparity between Thurman and Wood’s performances—too great that it feels like they are two completely different characters. Perhaps another performer who can pull off tough—but not mean—might have enhanced the flow especially since the picture jumps back and forward in time.

Another possible enhancement is to have introduced the so-called surprise early on. The film is based on a novel by Laura Kasischke so eliminating it completely would have compromised the work. However, by having it revealed much early on, it would have had a more defined structure: a drama with a certain point of view. It probably would have felt less gimmicky.

Despite its miscalculations, I enjoyed “The Life Before Her Eyes,” directed by Vadim Perelman, because of the girls’ friendship and it looks great. The twenty-year (or so) difference between the two stories are subtle and so the material allows us to focus on the characters rather than a time period’s eccentricities.



Cargo (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Although dramatic horror-thriller “Cargo” offers an intriguing premise involving a father who must find a safe haven for his infant child during a zombie apocalypse, the work is neither particularly moving nor exciting. For the most part, it is repetitive in that it involves a lot of walking, sometimes in circles, across beautiful Australian desert lands. I found only modest entertainment out of it outside of moments when the undead lunges and goes for a bite.

The screenplay is written by Yolanda Ramke, who co-directs with Ben Howling, and it is clear that she is going for a more character-driven piece. The desperate father, Andy, is played by Martin Freeman who is suitable for the role. However, the character does not possess much depth to him other than his level of determination to provide safety for his kin. He is thrown into difficult situations, like clashing with an opportunist (Anthony Hayes) who makes an outpost at a former gas plant, but we learn he is not especially strategic or cunning when necessary. We get the impression eventually that he survives thus far simply because the plot requires that he does. I found the character boring at times.

At least the zombies possess curious behavior. Symptoms are bizarre and creepy, particularly when they feel compelled to dig a hole and put their heads in it. Nothing is explained and so we consider the possibilities. Do they feel the need to hide or protect their heads from heat, light, sound, or something else? A brown, viscous substance comes out of their eyes, noses, mouths, even open wounds. These are details worth seeing in a zombie flick because they have not been introduced within this context before. It leaves plenty to the imagination which helps during the film’s slower moments.

Also worth thinking about is the inclusion of an Aboriginal cast. I am not well-versed in the history behind Australia’s ancient people and white men introduced to the island, but it is apparent that there is social commentary about the two groups and infectious diseases. There are beautiful images of indigenous warriors covered in paint slaying the hordes of the undead among the smoke. There is a dream-like quality about it that is almost poetic. I was more interested in getting to know these warriors than the man who wishes to save his baby.

Although the film introduces new elements to the well-worn sub-genre, I found “Cargo” to be tolerable hike rather than thoroughly absorbing as a character-driven dramatic work that just so happens to have horror elements. It cannot be denied that it has ambition, but I found that, as a whole, it is a bit dull and it offers minimal tension. If bitten, victims of zombie attacks have forty-eight hours before they become one themselves. There were moments when I wished to speed up the countdown.



Adore (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) have known each other since they were kids. They grew up along the ocean and decided to stay there as adults. They are so close, their sons are also best of friends. However, when Tom (James Frecheville), Roz’ son, catches his mother walking out of the guest room, where Ian (Xavier Samuel), Lil’s son, is staying at the time, with barely any clothes on, the dynamic among mothers and sons are pushed into a sudden shift. Tom and Lil become lovers, too.

“Adore,” based on Doris Lessing’s novella “The Grandmothers,” is actually a nice surprise—though the picture tackles a subject that can be considered taboo, the screenplay by Christopher Hampton treats the situation and the characters very seriously. The question is not so much whether or not the relationships will survive till the end but which person gives more love and is willing to sacrifice more in a friendship. That is something fresh.

I had my reservations. I expected it to be some sort of sexy skin flick where women of a certain age get their way with young men. But it is not like that at all. The only thing that is sexy about it is how gorgeously it is photographed by Christophe Beaucarne. The interiors of the houses are so spacious and modern but lived in at the same time. The exterior shots, especially ones that take place at the beach, look like the best Hawaiian postcards. Just about everything about the cinematography is inviting—even when it goes for the close-ups of the aging Lil and Roz. We wonder what they are thinking. Watts and Wright appear very comfortable in their own skins and I think that is key in playing characters like Lil and Roz.

The weaker links are Samuel and Frecheville. While I did buy their performances during their characters’ late teen years, I found them sort of awkward when they come to a point where they must portray men in their late twenties. They just look so young, so boyish that I was taken out of the gravity of what their characters are supposed to be going through. Perhaps casting actors who look a little older to play teenagers might have been a better decision because the bulk of the meat is in the latter half when repercussions are due.

There is a running joke in the film that Roz and Lil are so close that they are often mistaken for a lesbian couple. While funny on the surface, perhaps there is something to that. The images on screen made me wonder about the book. Are Lil and Roz subconsciously in denial of their sexual attraction to one another? Is being with one another’s son a way to diffuse or channel or resolve their romantic feelings for each other?

Directed by Anne Fontaine, “Adore” leaves us something to think about even though the content is not that relatable. In some instances, it works against itself completely. There were moments when I thought, “Who cares?” All four seem to be living in a suspended fantasy that no one wants to leave—deep down at least. Still, I am giving it a mild recommendation for the leading actress’ performances and beautiful seaside imagery.


The Midnight Man

Midnight Man, The (2016)
★ / ★★★★

“The Midnight Man,” written and directed by Travis Zariwny, is yet another horror film with potential but one that ultimately fails to deliver. It dares to set the story over the course of one night inside one house, but the types of scares it employs are too safe and predictable. Coupled with a deathly soporific slow pacing, it incurs boredom rather than curiosity or even mild terror. And whose idea is it to allow the titular character to speak?

It makes the mistake of making the final girl to be quite dull. Alex (Gabrielle Haugh) is a nursing student who decides to postpone her studies for the time being in order to take care of her grandmother who has dementia. It is established early on that she is the nice girl, the one who does the right thing, the one with common sense. But once the character stumbles upon the box that contains candles, a needle, a sheet of paper with names, and a list of instructions detailing how to summon The Midnight Man, what we come to know about the character is thrown out the window and Alex is reduced to just another potential victim who fumbles about. There is no strength, cleverness, or resourcefulness that radiates from her. In the middle of it, I wondered why she is a character worth following.

Perhaps it might have been a more interesting choice to make Grandmother Anna the central protagonist provided that the screenplay undergoes significant revisions. The old woman who is losing her mental faculties is played by the great Lin Shaye, but the character is so thinly written that the veteran performer ends up relying on hyperbolic screaming and yelling. And yet despite this, the grandmother is more interesting than the granddaughter because those eyes cannot help but tell a story even when all the lights in a room are turned off. Experience shines through even in the most incompetently made pictures.

To its credit, the film is not completely composed of jump scares. I enjoyed patient moments, for instance, when the camera focuses on a figure, covered with a white sheet as if it were a ghost, that is standing in the background. I liked how practical effects are employed even during the most ostentatious display of blood. However, the look of The Midnight Man is not at all scary or even slightly curious. The level of CGI makes it look campy and fake. Adding a growly voice to an already ridiculous sight, it becomes a challenge not to snicker or laugh.

Perhaps the picture’s worst offender is the expository dialogue. No one talks like a regular person; someone is always explaining something. As a result, there is no flow to the dialogue. Worse, we fail to relate with the characters because words that come out of their mouths almost always serve to further the plot. And yet the plot fails to go anywhere interesting. It is stuck in performing the same old tricks that cease to work only a half an hour into it. It is truly an experience to be endured.


First Reformed

First Reformed (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

The first thing I noticed about the character drama “First Reformed” is its alarming cleanliness. Notice how the inside of the church is extremely well-lit and spotless—like heaven’s light itself forbids imperfection from anything it shines on, how the minister’s home is lacking furniture as if the austerity’s sole purpose is simply so that dust would not settle on extraneous surfaces, how the waiting room of a neighboring church’s pastor commands the impersonality of a hospital. Clearly, these purposeful images is an invitation. Writer-director Paul Schrader wants us to take note of the tidiness, symmetry, and organization of every room. He pushes us to feel uneasy and to examine closely the growing darkness thrumming just beneath the picture-perfect facade.

The work unfolds like silent thriller but a drama at its core. Ethan Hawke plays a minister named Ernst Toller whose life has been in shambles ever since his son’s death in Iraq—followed by his marriage’s dissolution. To numb it all, he drives himself to alcoholism; and despite finding blood in his urine, he continues to postpone a doctor’s visit. Does his suffering come with a purpose? Toller is a fascinating character and Hawke plays him with graceful intensity. When the camera is up close and there is no escape, we can almost feel the demons writhing inside this man. We wish to understand him, to pull him out of his hopelessness even though deep inside we know—and he knows—it is probably too late. In the meantime, Toller is approached by a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband (Philip Ettinger) does not want them to have the baby.

It is bizarre that the material offers environmental messages—which enraged and fascinated me. On the one hand, I agree that, as residents of this planet, we can do a whole lot more to take care of plants, animals, oceans, and untouched lands. We should be mindful of the trash we make and where we put them. We should take action in making sure that our government works for us rather than with money-driven corporations. Climate change is a fact, not an opinion or an interpretation.

Yet despite these, nearly everything about it is so heavy-handed that at times I felt like these well-intentioned messages overshadow the rich character study. I grew impatient. I caught myself wondering where it is going or if it is even going anywhere. On the other hand, it is interesting because eventually the astute screenplay finds a way to tie them into Toller’s increasingly skewed psychology. Maybe emphasis on the environment does need to feel so extreme so that we can appreciate the subject’s fragile mind and spirit. The atonal approach did not work for me completely.

Toller keeps a journal and in it he writes down events of each day for a year. I enjoyed how the film adapts the format of diary; nearly every scene is just another day—sometimes something important happens and other times it is merely composed of meeting with people and continuing to plan a celebration for the church. (The First Reformed Church is about to have its 250th anniversary.) Although a slow burn, there is urgency in each day. We get a sense early on that it is building up to a crucial event—and it does not disappoint.

“First Reformed” is not for the impatient viewer. It is, however, for those who delight in peeling off each layer with a keen eye. On a surface layer, it is a story about a man in crises: his relationships with fellow man and God, his health, his faith, his purpose as a man of the cloth as well as just a man with many flaws. On a deeper layer, it tasks us to consider our morality and our actions.

At one point, Toller offers advice: “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.” As an individual, do you intend to live your life closer to hope or closer to despair? And what about your actions? Do they reflect your intentions?


We the Animals

We the Animals (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Like a most unexpected but pleasant kiss, Jeremiah’s Zagar’s “We the Animals” surprised me for its willingness to paint a snapshot of childhood without relying on dialogue. Instead, this beautiful and captivating picture relies on impressions, initially similar to Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” but one that eventually dares to forge a path of its own. Going into it blind, about halfway through, it made me wonder whether the story was based on the director’s own childhood. The reason is because every second of it feels so detailed and so personal, particularly the boy’s painful realization that he is different than his family and that their love may not be unconditional.

Imagine my surprise then when I found out that the work is actually based on Justin Torres’ debut novel of the same name. Zagar and fellow screenwriter Daniel Kitrosser have done such a terrific job adapting the story and putting it on screen that I had mistaken the work to be a telling of the director’s own experiences as a boy. There is no higher compliment.

The film offers a richness of visuals. I am not referring to special and visual effects more often found in loud, busy spectacles. I am talking about the strength of personality put into the images. A boy walks into a grave and imagines his spirit being elevated to the sky. A traumatizing drowning incident. The sheer shock of seeing pornographic infomercials for the first time. Mother’s bruised face (Sheila Vand) during one’s tenth birthday. Father’s temper (Raúl Castillo) and losing his job. A boy’s most valuable possession—a notebook where he writes his thoughts, hopes, and imaginings—suddenly missing from its hiding spot. Verdant green of summer overtaken by a blanket of snow. Even the passing of time demands attention.

It is critical that images like these are memorable especially because words are not often utilized. When people do speak, at times the words cannot be heard completely, from screaming matches to mumbling out of shame. Non-English language does not get translated. (The mother is white American and the father is Puerto Rican.) The images themselves must tell a story—the correct approach because most of our childhoods are defined by strong impressions, not necessarily words unless, of course, what someone said had created a lesion in our memories. Words, too, can be unreliable; can you remember word-for-word what someone had told you a mere hour ago? How about ten minutes ago? At its purest, the movies is a visual language.

The brothers are played by Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian. The young actors play their characters with matter-of-fact enthusiasm. Most enjoyable are moments when they are clearly not acting but simply enjoying one another’s company… they just so happen to be in a movie where a scene, for example, catches them at play. Rosado is a clear standout not because he plays Jonah, the central protagonist, but due to the fact that his eyes appear to be always thinking, processing, considering. This is a quality, I think, that cannot be taught and performers who ended up having decades of experience have a similar look in their eyes back when they were just starting. Needless to say, Rosado has a bright future ahead of him should he want it.

The experience of watching “We the Animals” can be described as dream-like or semi-impressionistic, but I feel that these words may repel audiences with more mainstream palates. I prefer to refer to the experience as seeing the story through the memories of a child who is learning to recognize and accept his own identity. Notice that in the beginning the three brothers look so alike, it can be a challenge to discern one from the other, especially the middle child and the eldest who clearly have the stronger bond. The more you look at it closely, the more there is to appreciate.



Blindspotting (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Carlos López Estrada’s directorial debut is an exciting piece of work—certainly ambitious because it attempts to tackle an enchilada of challenging topics from white police shooting unarmed black men, gentrification, a convicted felon’s place in a society with a bias against them, to racial identity and the disparity between how one feels on the inside versus how one is actually perceived. These are elements easily found in dramatic pictures but somehow, almost miraculously, “Blindspotting” is also quite comedic—and, it works. Here is a film in which one does not walk away without an opinion—or, at the very least, a strong impression. It is meant to incite discussion.

Collin (Daveed Diggs) is three days away from finishing his probation. But it will prove to be a long three days after Collin, on his way back home for curfew, witnesses a fellow black man—without a weapon in hand—being shot four times by a white cop. The police gave only one warning and the time span between the warning and the gunshots is less than two seconds. The encounter haunts both Collin’s dreams and waking moments. He begins to have anxiety about every little thing that might send him back to prison. It does not help that his hot-headed best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal), has recently purchased a gun and insists on bringing it wherever they go.

The film’s energy is highly infectious. The screenplay by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs is so devoid of storytelling shackles that characters may end up rapping for whatever reason. These need not have a point or contain pointed social commentary. At times it is simply because it would be a fun or funny thing to do. However, these sung poetry almost always provide insight about the character spitting out the words—sometimes during that moment in time and other times how he perceives his place in Oakland, California.

As someone who lives ten minutes away from Oakland, I appreciated that the film is not afraid to show the city as is in 2018. So many movies, television shows, and songs paint Oakland as a dirty, scary place where crime is prevalent. While it may embody these characteristics depending on the neighborhood, Estrada is also willing to show the brightly painted houses, clean streets, people so diverse and multicultural that seeing my reality on screen made me feel proud. Also, it actually shows that people do wish to move to the city, not just a place to run away from. It reminded me how films—to this day—still represent or portray the San Francisco Bay Area in general with one scoop of truth and two scoops of lies because it needs to be more digestible by vanilla America.

Its comic moments aside, it works as a dramatic piece. This is a work in which the viewer can capture the moment when one character’s opinion of another changes. Strong impressions are not expressed right away; as in life, we keep what bothers us to ourselves until a seemingly small trigger breaks the dam and all of it comes pouring our of mouths. Tension-building is a required ingredient in strong dramas—the filmmakers are always aware of this. Sometimes more is said in extended silence than sitting through a barrage of words.

Although it does not compare to Spike Lee’s great social dramas (“Do the Right Thing,” “Get on the Bus”), it is apparent that “Blindspotting” is inspired to function on a similar wavelength. By comparison, it is not as confrontational to the point where it threatens to offend more than handful of viewers. Personally, it could have used a bit more spice, particularly when it broaches the subject of gun violence, but I was disarmed by its flavor.


A Jihad for Love

Jihad for Love, A (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

“A Jihad for Love,” directed by Parvez Sharma, gives us a peek into the lives of Muslims who happen to be homosexuals. Since it widely believed, from the common people to high scholars, that the Quran forbids homosexuality, Muslims who love and are devoted to their religion, Islam, who also consider themselves a part of the LGBTQ community are marginalized, punished, and condemned. Others are put to death.

I do not know much about Islam or what is or is not stated in the Quran, but what I do know is that the Muslims that I have met are kind people. So when I learn about acts of violence toward homosexuals and other minorities related to the Islamic culture in the news, I cannot help but wonder and ask questions. How is life really like for LGBTQ people on the other side of the world? When confronted with questions about homosexuality, how will people who have studied the Quran for many years respond to them?

The documentary lays out the essence of the religion and its followers but only to an extent. Its main focus is on the struggle of those who are treated as outcasts as well as their personal endeavors when it comes to reconciling their theology and being gay.

Particularly memorable is Muhsin Hendricks. He is out of the closet in a very public way and we listen to the radio broadcast of people calling in and expressing their outrage. Some say he, an embarrassment, has no right to be calling himself a follower of Allah. Others demand that he receive physical punishment or be put to death. When he asks his daughters, aware of their father’s homosexuality, if they think gay people should be put to death, the way they answered, not necessarily the content of their responses, is heartbreaking. They are torn from having to choose between their inherent feelings for their father and what they are taught to believe is right or true. A lot of us are not required to make a choice.

Maryam is a lesbian who, in my opinion, clings onto semantics and contradictions in order to be able to live with her sexuality. According to the sacred writing, sexual relations between people of the same gender, specifically between men (never mind the intended context from when it was written), is forbidden. She says she allows herself to love another woman without the physical act—sex—that comes with the relationship. In essence, because she abides by the technicality, she is not committing a sin in the eyes of God.

We may not understand or agree with her point of view completely, but the film does a good job capturing her sadness. We are allowed to sympathize with her. We recognize that she is trapped and perhaps will remain that way for the rest of her life.

The film stays away from showing physical violence committed against homosexuals. The daggers are embedded in the words, the intonations, and the looks given by a respected elder to the homosexual sitting a couple of feet from him. Gay Muslims having to find refuge in other countries out of concern for their safety, as well as their families’, and then later talking about how they miss home and their loved ones via telephone pack a sting, too.

One of the subjects asks, “Why do [people] think the sky has to be the same color for everyone?” It is an excellent question. But I think the reason is this: a lot of people define their lives by following the “right” thing even if a part of them feels that a longstanding rule or belief might be wrong. It is more convenient to overlook or to ignore or to lash out than to consider a challenge, to think about it critically, and to engage in a calm and fair evaluation. Such is the dark side of blind faith.