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The Best Movie Posters of 2018

Written by Jared Mobarak, December 27, 2018 at 10:00 am 

“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column (with a special year-end retrospective today) focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.


If there’s one consistency throughout the sixty-plus posters I shortlisted this year for Top Ten glory, it’s a conscious desire to play with and spotlight unique typography.

Big Hollywood studios are often too old school to want anything but the same bold sans serif with high-contrast color differentiation that pops their title off the page. It’s a generic, numbers-driven format that sees them refusing to let their designers find a complementary balance between type and image as though legibility can’t be achieved alongside a little fun.

To therefore gaze upon so much cursive, period-specific lettering, and full-blown contextual and aesthetic integration below is exciting. The art of movie poster design is gradually overtaking its capitalistic utility for the kind of pop cultural longevity that can survive any shortcomings of the product its selling. While you can’t blame a studio for thinking outside the box when hocking a false bill of goods with a clunker, it’s difficult not to applaud them for taking risks on the sure-things too. A one-sheet will often serve as the final visual distillation of the whole. That’s a role worthy of its own genius.


Honorable Mentions


#25
A Cool Fish
Unknown

#24
Suspiria
Sara Deck for Mondo

#23
Proud Mary
LA with Cullin Tobin

#22
Slice
BOND

#21
The Endless
Brandon Schaefer

#20
Madeline’s Madeline
Brandon Schaefer

#19
Private Life
P+A with Chris Ware

#18
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
Unknown

#17
A Simple Favor
LA

#16
The Commuter
LA

#15
Wildlife
P+A

#14
Boy Erased
BOND

#13
Shoplifters
Huang Hai

#12
Flower
Gravillis Inc.

#11
First Reformed
P+A

Top Ten

#10
The Sisters Brothers
BOND

To spy BOND’s sheet for The Sisters Brothers from across the room is to see a visualization of the film’s atmospheric mood. John C. Reilly’s name is still top-billed (he’s been the driving force behind the project since buying the novel’s rights in 2011), but he is not in our face to spark any misconceptions towards comedy. Instead it’s all about the sunset purples of a western-setting shrouded in mystery as death lingers above these outlaws’ heads. The title pops, interacts with the imagery, and crackles like fire beneath the smoke of a foreboding skull. The whole sucks you in and dares you to come along for the arduous journey that awaits.

#09
Tully
ARSONAL

ARSONAL outdid themselves with their poster for Tully because their brilliant concept is the type that could have easily been phoned in. They could have picked a glamour photo devoid of shading or chosen a profile view rather than two-thirds to avoid any contouring when “applying” their stickers. Instead we receive the dramatic lighting and off-center crop to bring the dejected mood that sells Charlize Theron’s character’s fatigue and futility to life. The rainbow barely hangs on. The stars glimmer. And the title owns its fuzzy, puffy construction as it wraps across her cheek. This is a self-portrait perfectly embodying its all too relatable subject.

#08
Zama
Unknown

There’s a great duality this advert for Zama that cleverly depicts the dynamic between colonizer and colonized. First is the Spaniard gazing home, back to the land he’s conquered. Second are this new world’s trees imprisoned within the confines of the title’s large letters—one struggling free to breathe the air of freedom. The color contrast of cool against warm conjures juxtapositions of relief/anxiety, power/oppression, and a climate disparity between European comfort and South American heat. Add an exacting compositional grid with the “M” calling its focal point out and you have a work that knows exactly what it’s doing.

#07
A Fantastic Woman
Dan Petris

The simplicity to Dan Petris’ portrayal of Daniela Vega’s A Fantastic Woman is incomparable. He’s chosen an image suspended in motion with wisps of hair flowing bright as flames behind a somber, blue-tinted face. There’s excitement and chaos with an energetic space above towards which she can ascend if/when the tragic circumstances rife with prejudice faced cease. The hand-written title appears atop her cheek, drafted in light to ensure we know she is whom those words describe. Rotated 90-degrees, they trend upwards with optimism and hope. We see Vega as an angel unafraid to reveal herself to the world.

#06
The Favourite
MIDNIGHT OIL

While many prefer The Favourite‘s surreal festival sheet, it’s MIDNIGHT OIL’s more straight-forward hierarchal depiction that delights me. Along with its quick overview of character dynamics with Emma Stone on the outside looking in is a minimalistic visual panache. The frame around Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz signifies their literal coupling as well as the figurative construct of which their new acquaintance seeks to infiltrate. It’s both there (the royal gown hanging atop its bottom stanchion) and not, regal portraiture and prize to destroy. The attitude of the film oozes from its comparably just left of center period aesthetic.

#05
BlacKkKlansman
Gravillis Inc.

Gravillis Inc. distilled BlacKkKlansman to its purest form with this unforgettable poster of John David Washington donning leather jacket and KKK hood while holding pik and fist in the air. The iconography is blatant enough in its juxtaposition to keep us off-balance about whether to laugh or cringe—much like the film itself. You want to guffaw at the absurdity of it all yet don’t want the cause of your mirth to be misconstrued. It speaks to the importance of the subject matter and why it matters to help fight against injustice even if doing so seems impossible or against your narrow definition of “best interests.”

#04
Angels Wear White
Huang Hai

This brightly-colored, graffiti-grunge, painted pop art curio has haunted me since watching Angels Wear White a year ago. Its giant Marilyn Monroe legs dwarfing Meijun Zhou as waves of tradition crash ashore mix all the themes of sexuality, abuse, conservatism, and escapism you need to truly appreciate what director Vivian Qu has crafted. These are worlds and cultures colliding while unfortunate universal tragedies mar everything on their path to dismantle humanity in the name of progress. Purity is tainted with ignorance, trust broken by shame, and idols transformed from hopeful beacons to harbingers of darkness.

#03
November
Unknown

It’s apt that the year’s eeriest sheet is for Estonian fantasy horror November. A stunning black and white mood piece with demonically-possessed objects, mud-slinging devils, and witches helping regular folk descend into madness should be represented by a goat’s empty eyes peeking out from behind a woman frozen as though underwater. This is the sort of ghostly apparition to earn the necessary mindset to appreciate its lunacy while the trisected title in rough, bold letters screams for us to acknowledge the beauty and terror of a disturbing yet funny fable depicting the inevitable sorrow born when sacrifice trumps obsession.

#02
American Animals
Empire Design

The inspiration was flowing when Empire Design took Bart Layton’s docudrama hybrid American Animals from film to page. They craft masks from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America—the object of these trenchcoat-wearing amateur thieves—before tearing the page in a way that makes us want to lift those disguises to see what’s underneath. But what would we find? The real culprits who periodically arrive to tell their version of events or the actors channeling their bored adolescent audacity? Or are those avian visages of wild animalism their true identities once they relinquish their humanity to do what must be done?

#01
We the Animals
The Boland Design Company

Discovering the crayon-scrawled field of color atop The Boland Design Company’s We the Animals poster is an animated effect used throughout the film only makes its lo-fi, confrontational declaration of existence more powerful. By itself it’s the visual manifestation of the boy’s silent yell, the title exiting its acidically yellow breath of wild rebellion and juvenile excess. How that infers upon what’s put onscreen therefore magnifies its emotional outburst, the poetically composed tale of a boy finding his place within an ever-cruel world of contradictions exploding out of frame so as not to consume its subject whole.

What is your favorite poster of the year?

See more year-end features.

Christopher Schobert’s Top 10 Films of 2018

Written by Christopher Schobert, December 25, 2018 at 9:00 am 

shoplifters

It was a year of triumphant returns—for Barry Jenkins, Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Schrader, Joel and Ethan Coen, Steve McQueen, Pawel Pawlikowski, Spike Lee, Marielle Heller, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Orson Welles (!), and, of course, Paddington. And, it was a time in which new(ish) voices asserted their authority. Consider the likes of Boots Riley, Chloé Zhao, Paul Dano (and co-screenwriter Zoe Kazan), Ari Aster, and, yes, Bradley Cooper. Any cinemagoer who calls 2018 a disappointment simply was not looking hard enough.

Interestingly, my own top ten list features four foreign language films and two “kids” films. These categorizations are flawed, of course. Language makes no difference here, and anyone who considers Paddington 2 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to be kid-only movies is certainly close-minded. So let’s dispense with the categories and merely say that listed here are 10 gems (and five honorable mentions) that struck me as bold, original, breathtaking films to remember–and to watch again.

Honorable Mentions

Widows, Sorry to Bother You, Wildlife, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, and Annihilation

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., Rodney Rothman)

spiderman-into-the-spiderverse-1

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the seventh big-screen entry for Marvel’s beloved webslinger, is the only animated film this year that can comfortably fit on the top 10 list for a 10-year-old superhero junkie and a paunchy, late-thirtysomething film critic. Thanks to a stellar creative team (including directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, as well as co-producers Christopher Miller and Phil Lord), Into the Spider-Verse is the finest superhero film in a year that featured some pretty darn good ones. Here is a superhero film that feels utterly fresh, offering stunning animation, legit humor, and the most likable onscreen Spidey yet. While there are moments that recall some of the character’s greatest big-screen adaptations, Spider-Verse swings to its own bold beat.

9. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)

thefavourite

It hurts to watch the films of Yorgos Lanthimos—emotionally, yes, but there are times when one can almost feel the physical pain endured by the characters on screen. In the case of The Favourite (as well as The Lobster and Dogtooth), this is a compliment. The Favourite is a film of repellant behavior, 18th-century grime, and utter degradation. It is also gleefully hilarious and luridly intoxicating. Featuring career-best performances from Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as her closest friend and confidante, and Emma Stone as the servant who comes between them, The Favourite practically dares the viewer to turn away—and knows there’s little chance of that happening.

8. Burning (Lee Chang-dong)

burning-1

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, adapted from a Murakami short story, takes its time to unfold. Indeed, there are stretches in which it is nearly impossible to know where the story of an aimless young adult, the girl who mesmerizes him, and her wealthy, enigmatic friend will go next. The answers make this Tom Ripley-esque tale one of the year’s most unsettling experiences. Highlighted by Steven Yeun’s performance as Ben, an unnervingly confident frienemy, Burning is half-class study, half-modern masculinity-nightmare. After this masterpiece of psychological cinema, you’ll never look at a greenhouse the same way again.

7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel and Ethan Coen)

the-ballad-of-buster-scruggs-1

The Netflix release of the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen probably meant The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was destined to be underrated. However, that should not be the case. It is too early to say whether Buster Scruggs is top-tier Coens, but there is not doubt the Old West anthology is every bit as accomplished as, say, True Grit and Hail, Caesar! The six stories that comprise the film are simultaneously funny, harrowing, moving, and sour. “What’s your favorite Buster Scruggs segment?” could be Film Twitter’s “Who’s your favorite Beatle?” Suffice to say, I cannot stop thinking about “The Gal Who Got Rattled” (especially the performances of Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck) and the bitter, haunting “Meal Ticket.” The ending of the latter… my goodness.

6. Paddington 2 (Paul King)

paddington-2

Paddington 2 is a genuine delight, a sequel that improves upon its (very good) predecessor. It is also the rare family film that has appeal for everyone in the family. As with 2014’s Paddington, director Paul King has zeroed in on the inherent magic of Michael Bond’s classic stories while incorporating scores of Wes Anderson-esque sight gags. Plus, there is a game cast of British heavyweights—Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent, and, this time around, a superb Hugh Grant—and gorgeous London locations. Most of all, there is the titular bear himself, a wondrous CGI creation sweetly voiced by Ben Whishaw. It is not hyperbolic to call Paddington one of the most adorably life-like computer-animated characters in cinema.

5. Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski)

cold-war-1

In a year of beautiful, painful love stories, Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War ranks near the top. The Polish director’s follow-up to 2015 Oscar-winner Ida is a 1950s-era drama about the multi-year love between a singer (a stunning Joanna Kulig) and the musical director (Tomasz Kot) who discovered her. The characters undergo dramatic physical and emotional changes during the course of the film, culminating in an unforgettable final scene. Pawlikowski has solidified his place among the world’s most talented filmmakers.

4. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

shoplifters-1

The most heartstopping, suspenseful moment in 2018 cinema is also one of the quietest. It occurs near the end of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning drama, Shoplifters. A secret is revealed that shakes the foundations of all we’ve seen before, and leads the audience to rethink how this offbeat, poverty-stricken family of shoplifters should be viewed. Kore-eda, the director of Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm, excels at this type of emotional detonation. With Shoplifters, he has made his most devastatingly powerful film to date.

3. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)

first-reformed

Who would’ve expected that 2018 would see the release of Paul Schrader’s greatest achievement as a director? After a number of years in the wilderness—The Canyons, The Dying of the Light, and Dog Eat Dog are undeniably fascinating, but none are classic Schrader—the writer-director roared back with First Reformed. With a career-best Ethan Hawke in the lead, Schrader deftly explored some of his recurring thematic concerns. But in this, the story of a small-town pastor drawn to a similarly sad pregnant woman, Schrader found an opportunity to make the most psychologically probing, dramatically profound film of his career. First Reformed also ranks among the most spiritually insightful motion pictures ever made.

2. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)

roma-1

There isn’t a stretch of 2018 cinema that is as emotionally affecting, dramatically powerful, and effortlessly beautiful as the last twenty or so minutes of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. The conclusion of the filmmaker’s heartfelt story of a wealthy family in early 1970s Mexico and its devoted housekeeper is not surprising, exactly; there are signals of what’s to come throughout. This Netflix-released, black-and-white masterpiece is the year’s strongest memoir, and ranks as Cuaron’s most mature effort to date. Roma is a staggering achievement, and one that will resonate with audiences for years to come—no matter how you watch it.

1. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)

if-beale-street-could-talk-2

Comparing a director’s latest film to his or her previous effort is almost always unwise, or at least, a bit foolish. When both films are extraordinary achievements, however, pondering the works in tandem seems fruitful. This is certainly true when looking at Barry Jenkins‘ newest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, and his last, Moonlight. The latter deservedly took home an Oscar for Best Picture, and heralded Jenkins as a filmmaker whose empathetic touch knows no bounds. Now comes his James Baldwin adaptation, which reaches the same magnificent emotional register as Moonlight. Jenkins has written and directed an exquisite, timeless film about a place and historical period—Harlem in the 1970s—that feels painfully connected to the present. It is a film both tender and tough, with a time, a place, and a story to lose oneself in. Sublime in its depiction of an emotional connection and subtle in its layers of systematic oppression, Beale Street is a major work from a filmmaker whose gifts are clearly boundless. It is undoubtedly the finest film of 2018.

Continue: The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2018

the-best-films-of-2018-header

The Best Performances of 2018

Written by The Film Stage, December 24, 2018 at 9:05 am 

best-performances-of-2018

Following our top 50 films of 2018, it’s time to zero in on the best performances of the year. Rather than divide categories into supporting or lead–or even male or female–we’ve written about our thirty favorite performances, period. (A few more, if you add some pairings we couldn’t leave out.) Check out our countdown below and start watching the ones you’ve missed here.

30. Michelle Pfeiffer (Where is Kyra?)

where-is-kyra

A pervading sense of isolation and despair runs through Where is Kyra? and Michelle Pfeiffer carries it all with an emotionally resonant performance of subtlety and deep ache. The story of a woman struggling to make ends make following the death of her mother, Andrew Dosunmu’s drama is keenly attuned to the pressures of living in a city that doesn’t care whether you’re there or not. Bradford Young’s distinct eye for solitude also painstakingly paints Pfeiffer’s character into the desolate corners of her locale until there’s no route to take except for the most difficult one possible. – Jordan R.

29. Blake Lively (A Simple Favor)

a-simple-favor-1

So far the movies haven’t known what to do with Blake Lively. They either obsess with her beauty (The Age of Adaline) or try to make her “unattractive” for capital-a-“acting” purposes (The Town). They either see her as a damsel in distress (Green Lantern) or a destructive femme fatale (Savages). But Lively contains all of those and all at once, as she reminds us in A Simple Favor, where she plays Emily Nelson, the sardonic, mysterious working mom who becomes the object of craft vlogger Stephanie’s (Anna Kendrick) devotion. Clad in tuxedos that she turns severe or disarming with a glance, Lively’s Emily is the embodiment of creepy chic and modulated warmth. She’s the woman everybody wants to be. She’s Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich, Lucille Ball, and Eartha Kitt, Garbo and Marilyn… you get the point. – Jose S.

28. Claire Foy (Unsane)

unsane-3

Released early in 2018 and seemingly forgotten, Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot horror film Unsane was one of the year’s best offerings, and in huge part due to the wide-eyed anxiety of Claire Foy. The fuzzy, deep depth-of-field of the iPhone combined with stilted framing/cutting and sudden camera moves follow Foy through her descent into the hell that is the American privatized healthcare system as she’s involuntarily held in a psych facility so that they can profit of her workplace insurance plan. Foy transitions with ease from understandable paranoia/panic to playing the agreeable roles expected of her while she’s being gaslit and stalked within the narrative (and the subjective, voyeuristic style) to a full-blown combination of the two as she works her way through physical/emotional assaults of her abuser and claustrophobic headspace he put her in, and eventually overcomes that monster only to have the lasting psychological consequences of the experience linger. – Josh L.

27. Laia Artigas (Summer 1993)

summer-1993-1

Preternaturally talented is a praise that gets sung a little too often that it should, but there could be no better way to describe the extraordinary 10-year-old newcomer Carla Simón has cast as the lead actress in her riveting debut feature, Summer 1993. As Frida, a 6-year-old who suddenly loses both parents to an unspeakable tragedy and leaves native Barcelona to settle with her uncle, aunt and little cousin in the Catalan countryside, Artigas handles a harrowing material with an endearing mix of intelligence and grace. Watching her “play the adult” with her younger cousin, instructing her to “call her mum” only to ask not to be bothered in a typical parent lingo – “I’m too tired to play, darling” – is a miracle of stage chemistry, and one of the most poignant scenes of the year. – Leonardo G.

26. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster (Leave No Trace)

leave-no-trace-2

Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s first narrative film since Winter’s Bone, finds Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie at the heart of a subtly calibrated tearjerker on finding bonds (and communities) of support that exist outside the norm. Foster’s performance as a rugged, introverted veteran—cast aside by civilized society and living an ostensibly feral lifestyle with his daughter—is a layered one, filled with pain and heartache at the idea that he might be imposing his own inadequacies on her. Meanwhile McKenzie has an even trickier job of balancing her curiosity (that eventually gets them both into trouble with the police and children’s aid) and desire for change/growth with her deep-rooted affection for her static father. The cumulative effect of the two being a heartbreaking catharsis at the idea that your kids will be better than you; and that that’s okay. In fact, that’s how you know you did your job. – Josh L.

25. Meinhard Neumann (Western)

western-1

In a year filled with films led by non-professional actors, one of the most distinctive performances came from one such performer: Meinhard Neumann, the lead of Valeska Grisebach’s Western. His presence, founded largely upon the weathered stoicism of his physical bearing, is key to the film’s transplant of the eponymous genre’s tropes onto a story of garbled communication between German workers and Bulgarian villagers. As he attempts to bridge this divide, Neumann’s quiet confidence radiates outwards, instilling the film with its own odd, palpable sense of urgency. – Ryan S.

24. Hugh Grant (Paddington 2)

paddington-2

There’s an abundance of glee in Hugh Grant’s mustache-twirling Phoenix Buchanan, the narcissistic has-been actor behind all of Paddington 2’s mischief. Writ large, the self-parody inherent in the casting is its own treat, but ingrained in Grant’s bonkers dramatist, ever the chameleon, is an unhinged egomaniac. Traversing London’s landmarks as a tramp, a knight, or an unusually attractive nun, Buchanan is a conspiracy of one, with only his bygone roles for company. Whether in earnest or self-mock, Grant makes a meal out of it, leaving teeth marks all over the scenery, and immense delight in his wake. – Conor O.

23. Lady Gaga (A Star is Born)

a-star-is-born-3

In a way Lady Gaga has been building to this moment her entire career. Musicians have been moving into the shimmering glow of cinema for nearly the entire history of the medium, and for the last great MTV music video icon the move was seamless. Playing a struggling musician whose career explodes through a viral video is essentially a mirror. What truly made her stand out, however, wasn’t the musical performances, it was the dynamic physicality she shared with co-star Cooper. They were beyond just chemistry. They sold the idea of love. The entire movie hinges on her ability to convey her deserved stardom and their unstoppable love for one another, and Gaga? Well, she did both better than anyone would have rightly expected. – Willow M.

22. Adriano Tardiolo (Happy as Lazzaro)

happy-as-lazzaro-3

While we teach our children to be virtuous, honest and kind, these traits are far too often misread or exploited as weaknesses in adulthood. In Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro, a saintly and pure-hearted peasant works tirelessly, completing any orders barked at him without complaint, until fates outside of his control conspire to reshape his world forever. As Lazzaro, first-time actor Adriano Tardiolo projects heartfelt sweetness with a boyish charm and sincerity, a divine man of few words. What is most remarkable about Tardiolo’s performance, and the fact that we view certain plot reveals from Lazarro’s point of view, is the way it helps the rather shocking narrative twists to impact with such resonance, all the while remaining grounded in a tangible emotional reality. – Tony H.

21. Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

can-you-ever-forgive-me-2

The pairing of Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant is not the first one that would immediately come to mind, which is precisely what makes watching them spar in Marielle Heller’s chilly but surprisingly tender Can You Ever Forgive Me? so mesmerizing. They have a natural comedic energy, landing hysterically acidic one-liners and barbs at each other’s expense. But the real joy of watching the two of them together is seeing them try and mask the hidden pockets of loneliness and sadness that plagued McCarthy’s Lee Israel and Grant’s Jack Hock, right up until their final stunning scene in an empty bar room, where it dawns on them how they just might be the only two people in the world who actually understood one another. – Stephen H.

Continue >>

The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2018

Written by The Film Stage, December 21, 2018 at 8:52 am 

the-best-films-of-2018-header

For our most comprehensive year-end feature, we’re providing a cumulative look at The Film Stage’s favorite films of 2018. We’ve asked our contributors to compile ten-best lists with five honorable mentions–those personal lists will be shared in the coming days–and, after tallying the votes, a top 50 has been assembled.

It should be noted that, unlike our previous year-end features, we placed no requirement on a selection being a U.S theatrical release, so you may see some repeats from last year and a few we’ll certainly be discussing more during the next twelve months. So, without further ado, check out our rundown of 2018 below, our ongoing year-end coverage here (including where to stream many of the below picks), and return in the coming weeks as we look towards 2019.

One can also follow the list on Letterboxd.

50. Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)

ash-is-purest-white_1

For over two decades the filmmaker Jia Zhangke has, through his movies, shown Western audiences a barometer of life in 21st Century China. Ash is Purest White was both the most expensive and, arguably, least political film that Jia has made (read into that what you will) but it was also his most shape-shifting, adventurous and heart wrenching work, too. The director’s partner Zhao Tao provides that heartbeat as the wife of an absent mob guy who goes on an odyssey to find him. The film–and perhaps the world of Jia itself–would simply evaporate without her. – Rory O.

49. Widows (Steve McQueen)

widows

An adult thriller in a time where such resources are scarce at the multiplex, it might be easy to dismiss Widows as a gritty, trashy heist caper. It’s got the exterior of a genre flick better digested on Netflix, but Steve McQueen and the women of Widows decidedly have more on their minds. While it serves as a wonderful popcorn piece, it confronts more than just female empowerment. McQueen weaves in treatises on race, gentrification, class warfare and police brutality, never tacking them on. They become the texture of the film without overshadowing the fun genre trappings, allowing Viola Davis to grace Hollywood with more of her all-time best crying. For those craving some smart, substantial snack food, Widows is a gift to be savored. – Conor O.

48. Personal Problems (Bill Gunn)

personal-problems

“The attempt to bury Bill Gunn began in his life,” wrote Greg Tate of filmmaker Bill Gunn (Ganja and Hess) in a Village Voice piece in 1989. Gunn, who scripted Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, passed away that same year, leaving behind a stunning catalogue of work, including the unreleased erotic melodrama Shop. His masterpiece may be the sprawling shot-on-video epic Personal Problems, originally produced in 1980 with the intention of airing on public television. That never happened. Now, nearly 40 years later, Gunn’s collaboration with novelist Ishmael Reed finally hit screens, and it’s a revelation. Following a Harlem nurse whose life changes after she learns of her husband’s infidelity, Personal Problems is half soap opera and half kitchen-sink melodrama. Textured by a Brechtian layer of motion ghosting, complete with falling boom mics, the film is not only a one of a kind work of aesthetic boldness and emotional sincerity, it’s also an essential entry in the filmography of an unfairly forgotten pioneer of African American cinema. – Tony H.

47. Dead Souls (Wang Bing)

dead-souls-2

Wang Bing spent over a decade tracking down survivors of Mao Tse-tung’s Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s, seeking to create a record of their unspeakable suffering and salvage the memory of this forbidden chapter of Chinese history before it is buried forever. Out of some 120 testimonies and 600 hours of footage, he drew the 8.5-hour Dead Souls, a filmic masterpiece of such monumental proportions, it fully merits the many comparisons it has received to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. – Giovanni M.C.

46. The Old Man & the Gun (David Lowery)

the-old-man-and-the-gun-1

At the time of year when people are falling all over themselves to award topical movies that no one will recall the context or possible importance of in five years, there’s a lot to recommend in a solid, playful, deft little character drama. Robert Redford is beguiling as the septuagenarian bank robber at the center of this romantic caper flick, and David Lowery conducts the whole affair with wit and charm to match Redford’s central performance. – Brian R.

45. A Paris Education (Jean-Paul Civeyrac)

a-paris-education

A promise: if you are bothering to read a non-mainstream publication’s best-films-of-2018 list and, moreover, its entry on A Paris Education, you will find interest–masochistic, cringe-inducing, subject-me-to-more-please interest–in A Paris Education. The year’s most giggle-inducing laceration of myopic cinephilia (arguments about Fincher and Verhoeven vs Ford and Vigo, oh my) is, in turn, a great story of fuck-ups in their many forms–first comic, then tragic, and finally as a semi-stable state of contentment. Civeyrac’s brilliance lies directly in line with his intent: to watch this, something about which its all-too-real-feeling figures would argue in a perfectly attenuated shot-reverse dynamic, is to feel like you’re within its confines. – Nick N.

44. Revenge (Caroline Fargeat)

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Revenge immediately declares itself as a visual treat with playful compositions and energetic editing. Then, it takes the masculine components of those ideas and snaps their proverbial neck 180 degrees, effectively—and yes, nastily—flipping them around on themselves. What emerges is an incredibly rousing proclamation of feminine endurance and triumph, blood-splattered and jolting, that makes each moment ancient and elemental, yet pressing and present. It is as outlandish and knowingly over-the-top as it dead serious; a fable and a slap in the face. Star Matilda Lutz traverses geographic and ideological spaces of masculine and upper-class hell in her righteous quest for vengeance, and director Caroline Fargeat shoots the whole affair with an eye for tension and a healthy fixation on viscera and cheeky subversions. She continually calls viewers’ attention to the power of the gaze by mimicking objectification, flipping it on its head, and then smashing it to pieces. Revenge is lean and biting, enticing and vicious. A vital cinematic cleanse that boils the blood, churns the guts, and then soothes the soul. There’s still work to be done, so someone please, give this woman a gun. – Mike M.

43. Before We Vanish (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

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Consensus-best is, needless to say, a horrible metric, but it’s only logical that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish is the consensus-best since 2008’s masterful Tokyo Sonata: within its ever-moving widescreen walls are an ideally familiar-but-surprising angle on the alien-invasion film, conceits never entirely explained just as their danger is forever felt, sans too much emphasis on what-it-means-to-be-human angles that hobble many of its ilk. Is the deepest thing under the skin love? Of course not. – Nick N.

42. Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack)

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A time capsule that’s as fresh and powerful an experience as it must have been when recorded live in Watts in 1972, Amazing Grace is arguably one of the year’s most-anticipated films arriving after years of litigation and a fetal technical glitch that was resolved thanks to digital workflows. The film that exists, finished by producer Alan Elliot, bursts with intimacy and immediacy capturing a captivating and sublime performance by Aretha Franklin. In between the incredible artistry we discover and are introduced to several influences of Franklin’s including her father the minister and civil rights activist CL Franklin who provides a moving context for the performance along with commentary provided by Reverend James Cleveland. Amazing Grace is a rousing performance lensed with simple, raw, intimate filmmaking that’s unforgettable and nourishing for the soul. – John F.

41. Sunset (László Nemes)

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László Nemes’ Sunset doesn’t just live up to the promise of his Oscar-winning debut, Son of Saul, but surpasses it. Nemes employs a very similar aesthetic, again constructing the film from handheld long takes that stick close to his protagonist at all times, hurtling along with her as she navigates a series of increasingly chaotic situations that eventually culminate in the outbreak of WWI. The rush generated through this formal strategy is nothing less than, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the storm which we call progress. – Giovanni M.C.

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The 50 Most Overlooked Films of 2018

Written by The Film Stage, December 20, 2018 at 3:17 pm 

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There are a multitude of reasons why any film may get unfairly overlooked. It could be a lack of marketing resources to provide a substantial push, or, due to a minuscule roll-out, not enough critics and audiences to be the champions it might require. It could simply be the timing of the picture itself; even in the world of studio filmmaking, some features take time to get their due. With an increasingly crowded marketplace, there are more reasons than ever that something might not find an audience and we’ve rounded up the releases that deserved more attention.

Note that all of the below films made less than $500K at the domestic box office at the time of posting–Netflix/VOD figures are not accounted for, as they normally aren’t made public–and are, for the most part, left out of most year-end conversations. Sadly, many documentaries would qualify for this list, but we stuck strictly to narrative efforts; one can instead read our rundown of the top docs here.

Check out the list of 50 below, as presented in alphabetical order and, in the comments, let us know the 2018 films you loved that aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. A great deal of the below titles are also available to stream, so check out our feature here to catch up.

One can also follow the list on Letterboxd.

24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami)

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A push-pull experience par excellence: beautiful in its still backgrounds but roughshod in superimposed effects; statically framed but open to variables, experimentation, “accidents” that are all maybe part of a larger plan, depending on what production story you’re getting; and thrilling for its imagination but also a bit boring in its follow-through. Which, good: the mind needs more time to sit, wander, think for itself in the face of so much stimuli that render the likes of 24 Frames all the more a product from some place far-flung. Woe betide the audience saddled with the final work of master filmmaker–arguably the greatest living in his time–but look and listen to its very end. Could the last moments have been any better? – Nick N.

A Bread Factory (Patrick Wang)

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With a small theatrical release and its runtime of four hours (split across two parts) it’s not particularly surprising that Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory went overlooked this fall, but one should seek it out. One of the best American indies of the year, it is a Rivettian look at an upstate theater company that takes both an authentic look at the mechanics of survival in the arts and a fanciful approach at showing the joy of performance. I don’t imagine the entire thing will work for everyone, but there are too many delightful bits to let it pass by. – Jordan R.

A Ciambra (Jonas Carpignano)

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Director Jonas Carpignano returns with his first film since Mediterranea (which broke out from Cannes Critics’ Week sidebar two years ago) to remind us that alpha male pecking orders are unavoidable in some parts of the world and that life is still incredibly difficult for Italian Romani. Examined through the microcosm of a four-generation strong family in a small settlement in Calabria in Southern Italy, A Ciambra follows the compelling coming of age story of a young man named Pio (Pio Amato) who is thrust into adulthood when his father and brother are locked up. – Rory O. (full review)

Angels Wear White (Vivian Qu)

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One of our festival favorites from last year, Angels Wear White got a small theatrical run this past summer. “Let’s think about the title to Vivian Qu’s sophomore effort Angels Wear White because the meaning goes far beyond the words themselves,” Jared Mobarak said in his review. “On the surface it’s simply describing religious iconography and the idea that angels wear flowing white linens with halos on heads and harps in hands. But we’ve taken this concept and brought it into real life too. “White” has become synonymous with purity, trust, and expertise. We see a white lab coat on a doctor and automatically provide him/her a reverence built on nothing but an article of clothing. We don’t know them. We merely assume they have our best interests in mind. That white sheen doesn’t mean they’re incorruptible, though. Anyone can be bought or sold despite appearances. Everyone has a price.”

Araby (Affonso Uchoa and João Duman)

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“I’m like everyone else,” writes about himself Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), the working class hero at the center of Affonso Uchoa and João Dumans’ Araby, “It’s just my life that was a little bit different.” Calling that an understatement would be a euphemism. An average-sized and average-looking factory worker in the Southern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, Cristiano is an everyman par excellence. Neither charismatic nor particularly striking – at least not on a first look – he seems so ordinary it takes us twenty minutes to understand he’s Araby’s protagonist, and not some flickering extra. When we first meet him, he is given a lift to his steel factory; up until then, Uchoa and Dumans had followed Andre (Murilo Caliari), a pensive and bookish teenage boy living with his aunt Márcia (Gláucia Vandeveld) in a derelict house close to the hellish steel mill. By the time we next hear about him, Cristiano has suffered an unseen work accident, and is stuck in a coma. Asked by Márcia to collect his belongings, Andre arrives at Cristiano’s place, and happens upon a spiral-bound notebook which the man has used to transcribe a decade’s worth of memories. – Leonardo G. (full review)

Ava (Sadaf Foroughi)

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Sadaf Foroughi’s fulminating debut feature, Ava, may strike a few chords among Persepolis enthusiasts. A role-model schoolgirl turned rebel, its eponymous teenage girl is a rollicking blend between Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s black-and-white punk teen and The 400 Blows‘ Antoine Doinel – a heroine fighting to reassert her freedom in the face of an ultra-conservative environment. Tehran-born, Montreal-based writer-director Foroughi draws from her childhood memories to conjure up a gripping coming-of-age story where the claustrophobic relationship between an overprotective mother and her teenage daughter acts as a synecdoche to expose a patriarchal society eager to chastise whatever falls outside its rigidly policed norms. – Leonardo G. (full review)

Before We Vanish (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

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Consensus-best is, needless to say, a horrible metric, but it’s only logical that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish is the consensus-best since 2008’s masterful Tokyo Sonata: within its ever-moving widescreen walls are an ideally familiar-but-surprising angle on the alien-invasion film, conceits never entirely explained just as their danger is forever felt, sans too much emphasis on what-it-means-to-be-human angles that hobble many of its ilk. Is the deepest thing under the skin love? Of course not. – Nick N.

Bodied (Joseph Kahn)

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Joseph Kahn’s music video background has colored his relentlessly kinetic, blistering pop ADD filmmaking, one that is the closest the movies have ever gotten to resembling what the navigation of thoughts and spaces by the Extremely Online Millennial feels like—I, unfortunately, know this from experience. Bodied takes that style previously established in his post-postmodern teen slasher riff Detention a step further by situating it in the current discourse of identity politics; taking pot-shots at but also often considering the modern arguments surrounding free speech and performative wokeness. It sounds obnoxious and horrifying, and there are times where it is, but it’s also very clever and funny with how it both presents and digests the range of thoughts on the subjects (personally and politically), and ultimately Kahn uses it to draw a compelling formal ouroboros of how impossible it is to fully comprehend (and by conscious of) the consequences of your words but that that does not at all exempt you from them.  – Josh L.

Border (Ali Abbasi)

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“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” At a glance, you might conclude that that line from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has provided the foundations for pretty much every decent monster movie since James Whale adapted the text back in 1931; perhaps even before. This delightfully grungy and ethereal contemporary horror from Iranian-born, Denmark-based Ali Abbasi concerns a romance between two creatures who happen to be feeling out those opposite warring sides. One is attempting to satisfy a craving for love while the other indulges the violence (incidentally, could Abbasi’s debut Shelley be named for the 19th century writer?). Border, like Frankenstein, is a work about the “Other” and how that Other might operate if it was raised against its nature, only knowing human society. – Rory O. (full review)

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The Best Cinematography of 2018

Written by The Film Stage, December 17, 2018 at 11:21 am 

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“A cinematographer is a visual psychiatrist — moving an audience through a movie […] making them think the way you want them to think, painting pictures in the dark,” said the late, great Gordon Willis. As we continue our year-end coverage, one aspect we must highlight is, indeed, cinematography. From talented newcomers to seasoned professionals, we’ve rounded up the examples that have most impressed us this year. Check out our rundown below and, in the comments, let us know your favorite work.

Araby (Leonardo Feliciano)

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An epic travelogue of Sisyphean proportions zeroing in on the beguilingly ordinary, meandering life of a Brazilian ex-con trying to make ends meet by working any job imaginable, Affonso Uchoa and João Dumans’ Araby features several stunning vistas of the Brazilian South, but Leonardo Feliciano’s cinematography crafts a lot more than a travelogue. Alternating the lush palettes of the sprawling Brazilian countryside with the darker, grittier looks of factories and steel mills, Feliciano’s Tati-esque rift between urban and rural conjures a whole mode of existence – gracing Araby with a lyrical and ecumenical tone. – Leonardo G.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Bruno Delbonnel)

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With their latest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coens made a number of seeming career-shifting decisions. Chief among these was their choice to shoot on digital for the first time, collaborating with returning Inside Llewyn Davis cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. The results are ravishing, imbuing each of the six Western tales’ settings with its own defined look, while still drawing out a visual clarity that suits the elegiac, examining tone of the film at large; even more than usual, the visages register as strongly as the vistas. – Ryan S.

Burning (Hong Kyung-pyo)

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Shot with beautiful attention to space and color, Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning floats between medium-close and medium-wide compositions seen through regular Bong Joon-Ho cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo’s shallow focus prime lenses; producing a uniquely enigmatic subjectivity to the images that emerges as we slowly sink into the protagonist’s worldview, accumulating his financial discontent and male resentments under the guise of a Hitchcockian murder mystery, and are eventually incriminated in his voyeurism and (spoiler?) eventual destruction. As pure—and icky—a formal experience as 2018 had to offer. – Josh L.

Cocote (Roman Kasseroller)

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Marooned between the urban and rural, religion and modernity, Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias’ Cocote is a tale of dichotomies, which billow to life in DOP Roman Kasseroller’s juxtapositions between the still city life of Dominican gardener Alberto and the ancestral world of his hometown, where he will return to mourn and avenge his father’s death. Static and black-and-white shots leave room for a lush palette and more free-floating camerawork in this hypnotic tale of homecoming and belonging. – Leonardo G.

Cold War (Lukasz Zal)

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Cinematographer Łukasz Żal was originally the camera operator on Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2014 Oscar winner Ida until he stepped in when the original DoP fell ill. It may rank as one of the great serendipitous moments of the decade (no offense, Ryszard Lenczewski). For Cold War, Żal had six months to perfect the black-and-white, 4:3 framing of Ida and delivers something richer, more varied, captured by digital Alexa cameras but graded to mimic the depth that 35mm gives to darkness. Depth is the key to the film’s photography, contrasting sharply-focused close-ups against icy landscapes and cruel cities, as if to heighten the intensity of Wiktor and Zula’s on-off relationship against the oppressive history in which they live. Żal says he’s influenced by the photography of American Ralph Gibson; but with the film’s static shots I thought more of painters, of the loneliness of Edward Hopper and, especially in the pastoral scenes, of Caspar David Friedrich, who richly combined landscapes with religious imagery–think of the movie’s devastating final scene. Cold War movements are primarily accentuated by music–folk, big band, or jazz. According to myth, Mozart said, “music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” In Cold War, that silence is the movie’s stunning photography. – Ed F.

The Favourite (Robbie Ryan)

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A rollicking, endlessly quotable and ruthless portrait of royal excesses at the early-18th-century court of Queen Anne, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is a joy for the eyes, courtesy of cinematographer Robbie Ryan (of Andrea Arnold, The Meyerowitz Stories – New and Selected, Slow West, and I, Daniel Blake fame), who here alternates camera spins and fisheye lenses, capturing some stupefying interiors and the distorted perspective of solitary royals populating them – mirroring, to some degree, the visual experiments Lanthimos had toyed with in The Killing of A Sacred Deer. – Leonardo G.

First Man (Linus Sandgren)

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Damien Chazelle finally found the perfect material for himself in First Man, documenting the tangible procedure and emotional will of technicians. He and cinematographer Linus Sandgren primarily film in soft, grain-y 16mm film and extremely tight compositions, suffocating us in Neil’s obsession while maintaining a subtle sensitivity that indicates the emotional yearning giving it life. Kitchen sink domesticity eventually gives way to horrifying, white-knuckle flight sequences (as thrilling as they are disorienting and shaky) of sweating boys hurtling through space at ungodly speeds, nothing but rickety aluminum separating life and death, all before the big IMAX-photographed moon landing sequence, which with its abrupt entrance and attention to visual detail (as well as emotional POV) is myth-making as tangible and delicate as we can hope to see on the big screen. – Josh L.

First Reformed (Alexander Dynan)

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A culmination and exaltation of Paul Schrader’s decades-long fascination with Christian guilt and lonely, isolated men; First Reformed stands out in his career for how formally committed he is to containing it in his theory of “transcendental style” (to which he credits Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer in his book). Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan film in a beautifully spare, stripped down mise-en-scène and Academy ratio that recalls the existential priests of cinema’s past—particularly Diary of a Country Priest and Winter’s Light—and a sharp, digital photography, drawing a captivating visual contradiction that, combined with the static framing and patient editing meant to leave room for physical and spiritual meditation on behalf of the audience, creates a feeling of lost time and space as the melancholy and violent psychosis of Schrader’s Taxi Driver (or Rolling Thunder) slowly infects the film. – Josh L.

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The Best Documentaries of 2018

Written by The Film Stage, December 13, 2018 at 8:31 am 

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An epic concert from nearly a half-century ago, sports documentaries that break the mold, a look at the American Midwest, a document of a film that never was — these were just a few of the subjects and stories that this year’s documentary offerings brought us. With 2018 wrapping up, we’ve selected 16 features in the field that left us most impressed, so check out our list below and, in the comments, let us know your favorites.

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack)

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A time capsule that’s as fresh and powerful an experience as it must have been when recorded live in Watts in 1972, Amazing Grace is arguably one of the year’s most-anticipated films arriving after years of litigation and a fetal technical glitch that was finally resolved thanks to digital workflows and persistence. What remains is a powerful and captivating performance by the great Aretha Franklin as she opts to record a live album after a string of number one hits. Reverend James Cleveland accompanies along with the Southern California Gospel Choir for a spiritual performance that brings the house down and attracts the likes of Mick Jagger to observe. Before the first night of her performance Revealed Cleveland tells the audience that you don’t have to believe to feel the spirit the spirit and 46 years later the film still inspired a range of raw reactions from clapping, toe-tapping, and tears when screened at Film Forum during its sold out Oscar-qualifying run. The raw, often handheld improvisational style of its filmmaking is a departure from the heavily-choreographed and -covered performance documentation we see today, giving the film the raw intimacy of sitting in the church watching the production of the record take shape in the moment. Amazing Grace, directed by an uncredited Sydney Pollack and completed by producer Alan Elliott and editor Jeff Buchanan is a powerful experience and one that should be seen (and heard) in cinema.  – John F.

Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene)

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Over the past decade, Robert Greene has carved out a place as one of the most vital American documentarians working today, and with Bisbee ’17, he has produced perhaps his most accomplished work to date. A chronicle of the centennial reenactment of the forced deportation of mining workers that occurred in the eponymous Arizona town, the film emerges as a clear-eyed, blistering look into contemporary political divisions through an entire spectrum of viewpoints, while still possessing some of the most lucid and impressive filmmaking of the year. – Ryan S.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson)

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Throughout the remarkable Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? – director Travis Wilkerson’s attempt to learn more about and confront the murder of the African American Bill Spann by his white great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, through a cinematic essay on racism in America – there are many black-and-white images of houses, forests, and roads in Alabama, the state in which the killing took place. As interview subjects recount memories or details related to the crime — through either first-person testimony or Wilkerson’s second-hand paraphrasing — the film often eschews focusing on the speaker to dwell on local spaces, quietly moving through static shots of Alabaman milieus. These images are so still that, at first, they resemble photographs — specifically, old photographs of the sort that one might find in the photo album of someone who was alive when Bill Spann was killed. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the leaves and grass are actually moving, rustling ever so slightly in the breeze. – Jonah J. (full review)

Good Luck (Ben Russell)

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There is a symbol at the beginning, middle and end of Good Luck. It is a simple geometric circle with a horizontal line evenly separating top from bottom. Does it represent above ground and below; Northern and Southern Hemispheres; Ying and Yang; daylight and darkness? It could be any one of these or all of them at once. Shot in 2016, this visually stunning, obliquely political, and rather extensive ode to the hardest of graft is built to offer the viewer the otherworldly experience of first going down the shaft of a state-run copper mine in Serbia and, in the second half, that of illegally digging for gold under the Surinamese sun. – Rory O. (full review)

The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Galen Johnson, Evan Johnson)

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Few directors seem to reinvent cinema with each new picture, but Guy Maddin and his passion for boundless experimentation does it time and time again. His latest formally thrilling film is a “parallel-universe version” of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, utilizing footage from San Francisco-set features, ranging from Hollywood classics to avant-garde films to prime-time television. Commissioned by San Francisco Film Society, it’s not only a must-see for cinephiles but not since Thom Anderson’s L.A. opus has a filmmaker so gleefully dissected a location with clearly beloved footage. – Jordan R.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross)

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Structurally, Hale County This Morning, This Evening does not do much to distinguish itself from other contemporary vérité documentaries which focus on quotidian details within a certain milieu. But even so, it still finds value in the unique incidents it captures. Send a hundred different filmmakers to a hundred different places, and even if their work is aesthetically identical, they’ll each document at least a few unique moments that will make each piece worth it. Beyond that, director RaMell Ross demonstrates a talent for framing a scene in a striking manner, such as shooting a trash fire so that the rays of the sun shine through the smoke. – Dan S. (full review)

Infinite Football (Corneliu Porumboiu)

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In Romania at the end of the 1980’s–the autumn years of the Ceausescu regime–Adrian Porumboiu worked as a professional referee for the national football league (or however it was referred to at the time). His son Corneliu (born in 1975) would grow up to become a significant filmmaker in the so-called Romanian New Wave of the mid ’00s. In 2014, Corneliu made a movie about his dad called The Second Game in which he narrated over a full 90-minute match that his father had refereed. Through the ever-politicized veil of sport the director was able to talk about the realities of those times. He returns to the beautiful game in 2018 with Infinite Football, a contemporary portrait of a man who suffered a bad injury before his career—at least in his eyes–had the chance to take off. – Rory O. (full review)

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The Best Directorial Debuts of 2018

Written by The Film Stage, December 11, 2018 at 9:03 am 

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While we aim to discuss a wide breadth of films each year, few things give us more pleasure than the arrival of bold, new voices. It’s why we venture to festivals and pore over a variety of different features that might bring to light some emerging talent. This year was an especially notable time for new directors making their stamp, and we’re highlighting the handful of 2018 debuts that most impressed us.

Below, one can check out a list spanning a variety of different genres and distributions, from those that barely received a theatrical release to wide bows. In years to come, take note as these helmers (hopefully) ascend.

Blockers (Kay Cannon)

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Blockers doesn’t pull off the impossible so much as it turns the tables on a common formula, finding something fresh, empowering, and hilarious in that time-old story of a group of friends making a pact to lose their V-card on prom night. Directed by Kay Cannon in her debut, there are a few more real-world complications for our leads, including Lisa (Leslie Mann), a single mother with an unhealthy obsession with her daughter; Mitchell (John Cena), a buff yet sensitive dad in a committed marriage; and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), a party boy with surprising depth. This studio comedy even finds room for a tender (yet still very funny) coming out story to overbearing parents. – John F. (full review)

Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada)

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A confident, clear-eyed debut by director Carlos López Estrada and writing duo Rafael Casal and (Hamilton alumni) Daveed Diggs, Blindspotting is a film of heightened, theatrical rhythm that builds layers of feeling and performance into both its comedy and drama; providing a propulsive movement that gives this story of class, race and gentrification a rare kind of joyful energy that leaves the viewer unconscious of the political realities of these issues until they come crashing back, manifested in the daily lives of the people who make Oakland what it is. – Josh L.

Cam (Daniel Goldhaber)

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It’s scary to be a woman online, where safe places don’t exist and any creep can look up your address if he pleases. That horror hasn’t fully acknowledged this 21st-century truth is evidence that the genre sometimes needs a woman’s touch in order to fully bring to light what’s truly scary. While the directorial debut of Daniel Goldhaber, Cam, unlike most horror films this decade, feels relevant in large part thanks to screenwriter Isa Mazzei who forces viewers to confront the horror of a total loss of agency in the digital age. – Willow M.

Custody (Xavier Legrand)

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Custody shows domestic abuse isn’t something that comes and goes. It’s not a 0-60 scenario where some days escalate and others don’t. Life perpetually travels at 80 mph instead. You must be ready for any outcome because your predator is as desperate to find you as you are to escape. And when your only connection is a young boy who can’t help being coerced by constant questioning and outside interference, isolation isn’t permanent. – Jared M. (full review)

Den of Thieves (Christian Gudegast)

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Writer/director Christian Gudegast exploded early in 2018 with this stunning 2-hour, 20-minute piece of pop sleaze cinema. His debut Den of Thieves is Heat by way of Monster energy drink; all the broad strokes of an exciting crime drama but slick, sweaty and loud, and chock-full of all the cartoonishly toxic machismo and grease-stained details you could ask for. Gerard Butler brilliantly fills in the Pacino role as “Big Nick,” a drunken, divorced gorilla cop whose violent tendencies are displayed as prominently as his cheap-takeout-filled beard.” – Josh L.

Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)

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Eighth Grade, the comedic-dramatic study of a 13-year-old girl which marks comedian and writer-director Bo Burnham’s freshman venture into feature filmmaking, is a sometimes sidesplitting, sometimes gut-wrenching film in which, on a certain level, nothing of any tremendous significance happens. And yet, with Burnham’s immensely empathetic observations of character psychology, clever choices of structure and editing, and cinematographer Andrew Wehde’s striking closeup shots and dreamy, saturated color palette, we are brought so close into the emotionally turbulent world of a struggling middle schooler that every petty social pitfall and personal triumph carries the emotional weight that many lesser films resort to pure shock value to achieve. Dialogue about Snapchat, vlogging and sexting isn’t just there to proclaim the film’s up-to-the-minute relevance, either: the film is almost an oblique science fiction piece, insofar as it repeatedly interrogates how the technology of ubiquitous ultra-networked devices uniquely affects the psychological, social and sexual realities of a generation of Americans living their formative years in the shadow of Twitter, Instagram and Youtube. Eighth Grade isn’t just the definitive tween comedy of the 2010s: it’s an accomplished piece of impressionist cinema which announces the arrival of a potentially electrifying young talent. – Eli F.

The Great Buddha+ (Huang Hsin-yao)

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Huang Hsin-Yao is a new voice in independent Taiwanese cinema, and his first narrative feature–an adaptation of his short film The Great Buddha–carries itself with all of the vitriol that one would expect from somebody angry at the state of the Taiwanese film industry and government. This is apparent from the outset of The Great Buddha+, when Huang speaks to the audience as the credits roll, speaking harshly about the producers and delivering a personal statement. This anger remains throughout–a character named after the producer that Huang is particularly dissatisfied with is even killed off in a darkly humorous manner. – Jason O. (full review)

The Guilty (Gustav Möller)

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The Guilty is an exhilarating, minimalist thriller that effectively sinks its hooks in, despite its bland, melodramatic title. In the vein of Locke and My Dinner with Andre, it isn’t exactly a one-man show fronted by Jakob Cedergren, but works as well as it does thanks to director Gustav Möller’s taut editing, voice cast, and sound effects that create a haunting scene halfway through the film without a drop of onscreen blood. – John F. (full review)

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Recommended New Books on Filmmaking: Howard Hughes, Tintin, ‘Isle of Dogs,’ Beastie Boys & More

Written by Christopher Schobert, December 10, 2018 at 8:00 am 

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Yes, you could spend your holiday in the company of family and friends. But wouldn’t you rather curl up with a new book centered on cinema? There are new options aplenty, but let’s start with the latest from one of the most insightful, compelling voices we have: the great Karina Longworth.

Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood by Karina Longworth (Custom House)

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Is there more to say about Howard Hughes after decades of biographies and films? Indeed, and the latest from Longworth, the host of the essential podcast You Must Remember This, is evidence. The focus in Seduction is not only Hughes himself, but the many women in the mega-tycoon’s orbit. These include household names like Katharine Hepburn but also figures like silent star Billie Dove and Mighty Joe Young star Terry Moore. Longworth brings these women to vivid life, and captures the absurdity of Hughes’s universe. The final years, especially, are unforgettably described by the author, one of the finest currently writing on cinema (or anything else): “He barely ate; it would regularly take him eight hours to finish a can of soup. The nourishment of food couldn’t compete with the fulfillment he got from the same source that had been providing it for him for decades: Hollywood movies, starring Hollywood women.”

First Man: The Annotated Screenplay by Josh Singer and James R. Hansen (Titan Books)

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With still a few weeks of releases to go, it’s hard to say if Damien Chazelle’s First Man is the year’s most overlooked prestige picture, but one can make the argument that the Ryan Gosling-starring biography of Neil Armstrong deserved a greater reception from audiences when it debuted this past October. It also deserved this proper screenplay release from Titan Books, which gives one an entirely different experience of this journey to space. In addition to the script, the book also includes notes from screenwriters Josh Singer and James R. Hansen, and plenty of stills.

A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away by Lorna Luft and Jeffrey Vance (Running Press)

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Who better to explain the tangled history of 1954’s A Star Is Born than Lorna Luft, the daughter of star Judy Garland? With co-author Jeffrey Vance, she explains why the film’s production was so difficult, and also why it was such a crushing disappointment to her mother. (It was a financial failure, and did not bring Garland the Oscar she’d longed for.) Luft also shares why Star has always been “an upset experience” for her: “The film’s story, and its underlying message about fame and addiction, hits too close to home. The massive disappointment of the film at the time hardened my mother’s heart about Hollywood.” Happily, the years have been kind to A Star Is Born. And with the gargantuan success of Bradley Cooper’s remake, it’s a fine time to explore the power of George Cukor’s version.

The Wes Anderson Collection: Isle of Dogs by Lauren Wilford and Ryan Stevenson (Abrams)

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One of the most delightful literary creations of the past few years are the ongoing Wes Anderson Collection books from Abrams: hardcover, gorgeously designed texts that include interviews, analysis, and production anecdotes. The latest, on Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, is every bit as insightful as the first three volumes. Of particular interest are the behind-the-scenes shots of the stop-motion animated production, as well as a lengthy chat with Anderson and co-writers Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. Along with a discussion of process and influences, Coppola makes a shocking revelation: “I prefer cats.” Well then!

The Female Gaze by Alicia Malone (Mango Publishing)

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I’m not sure there’s a more engaging host than Alicia Malone, the delightful author known for her work on Turner Classic Movies and the dearly departed FilmStruck. Her latest book, The Female Gaze, is a passionate, tremendously enjoyable exploration of milestone films made by women. In addition to Malone’s writing style, what makes Gaze stand out is its sheer variety–not just writing on canonical classics like Cleo from 5 to 7 and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, but The Lure and The Babadook as well. Wonderful writers/critics like Farran Smith Nehme, Jen Yamato, and Danielle Solzman also contribute essays.

Star Wars TY-1300 Millennium Falcon Owners’ Workshop Manual by Ryder Windham, Chris Reiff, and Chris Trevas (Insight Editions)

To paraphrase a young Anakin Skywalker, now this is an owners’ manual. Insight Editions goes deep — schematics of a hyperdrive engine deep — to explain the inner workings of the Millennium Falcon. The result is fascinatingly detailed and surprisingly fun. Note also that the book includes every film featuring the Falcon, from A New Hope to Solo. Finally, a clear view of Lando Calrissian’s custom bar!

Best Movies of the 80s by Helen O’Hara (Portable Press)

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I’m always on the look-out for books I can someday pass on to my kids for some film history background, and Best Movies of the 80s is an ideal choice. This chronological breakdown of each year of the decade is short on surprises (don’t expect, say, Dead Ringers or Diva), but heavy on the fun factor. There’s also solid insight from author Helen O’Hara on the likes of The Thing and Heathers.

Tintin: The Art of Hergé by Michael Daubert (Abrams)

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When my now-eight-year-old son was a newborn, I decided to buy some of Hergé’s Tintin comics, and every so often we revisit the young reporter’s globetrotting adventures. We’ll do the same in future with Tintin: The Art of Hergé, a weighty celebration of ninety years of the character. Filled with biographical details about the author (including some of his other works), early sketches, and pages from the comics, this is a visually sumptuous book–one fans will be poring over happily for years to come.

Monsters of the Week: The Complete Critical Companion to The X-Files by Zack Handlen and Todd Vanderwerff (Abrams)

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Monsters of the Week is the essential guide casual X-Files viewers have been waiting for. For this is an epic, episode-by-episode study from the very start through both films and the latest season. The authors, both AV Club vets, write in a lively, often hilarious manner. Their conversational tone makes Monsters a genuinely gripping read; I love Handlen’s diagnosis of the first Files feature: “Fight the Future sprang more out of brand extension than creative necessity, so … it’s hard to get tremendously excited about the result. But it absolutely could’ve been worse.”

Ad Nauseam: Newsprint Nightmares From the 1980s by Michael Gingold (1984)

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If you long for the days of opening up a newspaper and discovering oodles of ads promoting upcoming films, Ad Nauseam is for you. While the ads herein are mostly for genre films (Terror Train, Funeral Home, Legend of the Bayou), there are also some higher profile selections like Angel Heart and The Fly. There is so much creativity and artistic excellence to savor in these ads, and the text by Michael Gingold is note-perfect.

Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz (Spiegel & Grau)

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There simply could not be a more Beastie Boys book than, err, Beastie Boys Book. This 500-plus page collection of memories from Mike D and Ad Rock, vintage photos, contributions from the likes of Spike Jonze and Colson Whitehead, and truly epic mixtape playlists captures the soul and spirit of the band. The book is also laugh-out-loud funny and, when remembering the late Adam Yauch, a little sad. It adds up to one of 2018’s essential releases.

Power Rangers: The Ultimate Visual History by Jody Revenson and Ramin Zahed (Insight Editions)

Insight’s Power Rangers: The Ultimate Visual History is a shockingly exhaustive trip through every era of Ranger-ia. And even if one is a non-fan (right here!), the book is a grabber. The early days of the series are probably most interesting, but authors Revenson and Zahed spend pretty significant time on every single incarnation, right up to the 2017 film.

Harryhausen: The Movie Posters by Richard Hollis (Titan Books)

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Ray Harryhausen is a film legend whose name is practically a genre. We know what’s coming from a “Harryhausen” effort: elaborate, hand-crafted creatures and epic battles. It makes sense that the poster art for films like 20 Million Miles to Earth and, of course, Jason and the Argonauts would be classics. Paging through them here is a treat, just like the films themselves.

 

Star Trek: The Art of John Eaves by Joe Nazzaro (Titan Books)

John Eaves is not a household name, but for Star Trek fans, it should be. As this book shows, the artist has defined the look and feel of modern Trek. From the dreary Star Trek V: The Final Frontier through the J.J. Abrams reboot and series like Discovery, his work is bold and unique. It’s a joy to see how Eaves’s concepts have evolved.

 

Star Wars Icons: Han Solo by Gina McIntyre (Insight Editions)

star_wars_icons_han_solo_coverStar Wars Icons: Han Solo is described as “the definitive book for Han Solo fans,” and my goodness, that’s an accurate assessment. This hardcover look at every appearance, right down to the comics and Expanded Universe, is wonderfully readable and beautifully designed. What makes Icons especially nice are the new interviews with figures like Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, Alden Ehrenreich, and Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan.

Dungeons & Dragons Art and Arcana by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer (Ten Speed Press)

“I grew up in the 1980s, and despite what Stranger Things would have you believe, in those days, Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t cool.” So writes Joe Manganiello in his forward to Art and Arcana. As he explains, and the book demonstrates, “[t]hat nerdy, basement game for weirdos and ‘Satanists’ has somehow become both mainstream and prestigious.” Indeed it has, and this visual history, featuring more than 700 pieces of artwork, is the logical next step. It delves into the history of the game and its characters, and also breaks down how and why it took the world by storm.

Blu-ray bonus

Shampoo (The Criterion Collection)

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Hal Ashby is deservingly back in the spotlight, to some degree, with the recent documentary Hal and the Criterion release of one of his most entertaining films, 1975’s Shampoo. The Warren Beatty-Julie Christie starrer has needed this transfer for years — the film has never looked better — and the disc also includes an insightful essay from Frank Rich, and even better, a conversation between Rich and Mark Harris. The greatest pleasure here, though, remains the sight of Beatty at the peak of his sex-god powers.

Continue: The Film Stage’s 2018 Holiday Gift Guide

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See more recommended books on filmmaking.

Posterized December 2018: ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,’ ‘Cold War,’ ‘The House That Jack Built,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, December 6, 2018 at 7:36 am 

“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.


DC, Marvel, and Transformers? It must be … December. The studios are going big this Christmas on the counterprogramming for Oscar-bait titles and you can’t really blame them. While your cinephile family member brings the tissues, you can bring the fun.

It’s kind of nice too because that means more films to skip as you catch-up on end-of-year list must-sees. The comic book and toy franchises will still be out come January, so you can take your time and give your money to the independents this holiday season instead. They deserve it.


Contractually obligated collage

The poster for Capernaum (limited December 14) isn’t the kind of collage you’d expect—nor is it like the three I’ll be talking about next. Rather than position heads of differing sizes in the center of the page, Sony Pictures Classics goes heavy on critic quotes. And it’s not just brief buzz phrases either since a Pete Hammond centerpiece spans thirty-eight words and four lines. Add the slew of accolades at the bottom and its obvious the studio is banking on praise to sell tickets before unsuspecting theatergoers have a moment to realize there will be subtitles.

It’s too bad because the festival sheet with the same imagery (although clearer, more colorful, and attractive) is stunning by comparison. The painted Arabic is a welcome touch and the single laurel for a Cannes Jury Prize says all you need.

Next is Aquaman (December 21) and its Comic-Con sheet of kitchen sink aesthetic. Jason Momoa might be in the foreground, but Patrick Wilson and Black Mantha take center stage with giant heads stealing our gaze from the chaotic mess below. You can’t necessarily blame Little Giant Studios, though, considering this work is more about exposing paying fans to an early character tease than anything else. This isn’t selling the movie as much as fueling blind excitement from sycophants frothing at the mouth.

And let’s face it: this result succeeds in that goal where B O N D and photographer Michael Muller’s Finding Arthur Curry does not. Is this thing exemplifying his marine biology skills? His shark whispering skills? The designer’s Photoshop skills? All I know is that it’s difficult not to laugh at the grid-like collection of animals with a tagline that says “Home Is Calling” as though they’ve been invited to dinner.

The duo’s gold-plated serious face isn’t any better, but at least it’s positioning this hero as someone who commands respect while still offering some levity thanks to the juxtaposition of “He’s not around here.” You don’t say? The trident tease by Concept Arts is probably my favorite of the bunch, though, since it leaves things to the imagination.

BLT Communications, LLC doesn’t fare much better with their floating heads on Bumblebee (December 21). I will give them credit for letting the Transformer have top billing size-wise, however. Because let’s face it. This property has run its course and the only reason anyone is interested in continuing the ride is the titular character’s penchant for humor. Sorry Hailee and John, but your airbrushed faces framed by a videogame-esque neon logo ain’t the draw.

I’m merely disappointed the studio went in this direction when the kid-friendly, Iron Giant retread imagery was executed with skill. You should lean into the whole kid befriending robot angle because that type of fantasy dynamic will get younger attendees excited. If Paramount were smart they would have gone full PG too with Laika boss Travis Knight at the helm. Transformers are toys after all. The nostalgia my generation had when the first film bowed is gone now. Target the product’s actual demographic.

At least BLT was allowed to do exactly that on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (December 14). It helps when the medium is animation, though, since it brings a built-in preconception of fun. And when the whole point of the film is to showcase a crazy amount of different web-slingers from alternate dimensions, go crazy. Put Miles Morales, Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, and those other two in frame with a sense of kinetic motion. Create a faux idea of three-dimensionality so the children walking by can stare mouth agape in awe.

And if you want to go a bit more serious, shift the color palette. I’d argue the cooler blues and greens of the teaser complement Spidey’s darker suit with bright red best. The 180-degree spin to have his falling down appear as though he’s flying up adds an invigorating sensation of vertigo too. You can feel the rush of adrenaline watching this thing in 3D will most certainly provide.


Dynamic duos

A film I was intrigued by until watching the trailer, Holmes and Watson (December 21) gets a teaser from WORKS ADV as funny as it is tragic. “Holmies?” “H” and “W” hand gestures as gang signs? It’s cultural appropriation at its worst with humor ten-plus years stale. Just give us Step Brothers 2 already.

Thankfully Creative Partnership knows how to do a good two-hander with Mary Queen of Scots (limited December 7). Here we have authentic gazes that can pierce through your soul with an eye for the beauty and drama of period aesthetic rather than its potential for laughs. I love the hand-scrawled title font and the dark coloring to let those two pale faces in chiaroscuro pop and look our way with determination.

B O N D it equal to the task with their gold text on gold wardrobe on gold background piece of art, pulling the camera out to get a look at the full regalia. But it’s the character sheets that outshine them all. These two look like paintings on canvas made all the more stunning with their deep blue on blue and red on red of actors bleeding into backdrop. Stick a gaudy frame on these and ready for war.

Welcome to Marwen (December 21) goes the opposite direction with bright light, plastic surfaces, and odd couple juxtaposition courtesy of Steve Carell and sixth-scale action figure Steve Carell. I’m very leery of the direction this film’s marketing has taken considering the heavy subject matter it’s based upon, but I’d like to give director Robert Zemeckis the benefit of the doubt. Making the intentional choice to pick Forrest Gump out of his filmography, however, doesn’t bode well as far as handling things with a deft touch.

At least LA’s tease gives Carell’s doll a stoic expression as soulful as it is resilient. This is the face Mark Hogancamp’s story deserves and hopefully will be provided. The rest is just clean sans serif text atop more of the same, each letter blending into the next so the artistry and emotion of the portrait shines through.

Kudos then to Empire Design for delivering the month’s best-designed duo with Stan & Ollie (limited December 28). They knew that the most iconic visual motif this comedy partnership has is its hats and they create a funny scene to prove it. Rather than lose that simplicity upon deciding to remove the newspaper, the firm keeps things light and jovial with the white space above the actors reserved for Laurel’s cap in flight.

And don’t discount the font thickness increasing from thin Stan to heavy Ollie. It’s subtle enough to not be a “fat joke” and effective enough to supply a visual metaphor without sacrificing legibility.

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