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2018 As a Year in Double Features

Roma

Every year, when looked back upon in its final days, reveals patterns. For the past four years, I’ve capped the holiday season with a list of 10 double features from the year in film here at Filmmaker. Each capsule review is, in essence, a mini-thinkpiece on a cinematic trend from the year. This past year gave us many such boomlets: the year of the horse movie, the year of the “white voice” movie, the year of the movie set entirely on digital screens.

A delightful interplay emerges when you watch, or think about, films in pairs. One movie brings out the flavors in another. Like a glass of red to a medium-rare steak, one film complements the other, activating certain traits that may not have been as pronounced in isolation. Double bills, at their core, showcase the different choices directors make in their approach to a similar subject or genre or style. Below, I wade through the offerings to find 10 choice double features from 2018 (see here for my comparable pieces from 2017, 2016, and 2015). May the tradition of double features outlive us all.

10: Unfriended: Dark Web and Searching: Screenlife cinema
“A new film language that tells your story entirely on a computer screen.” That’s how Screenlife, the production company behind Unfriended: Dark Web, describes itself. The term “screenlife” is as good as any for this new sub-genre. Like “found footage,” screenlife films are narratively agnostic — there’s no reason you couldn’t tell a romantic comedy this way — but thus far the films have gravitated toward suspense and horror. This double bill reveals the surprising elasticity of this young, high-concept style. Dark Web, like its 2014 predecessor, uses the format to deliver lean, nasty horror. The film unfolds in real time, mining the banal images and sounds from a laptop computer for scares. It captures the mounting stress of digital life, where we juggle multiple conversations and tasks at once, all day. The result is at once crude and genuinely experimental; no film has ever looked or unfolded like Unfriended and its sequel. Searching, meanwhile, shows us what a more conventional screenlife film might look like. It relies on the tools of most movies: scene changes, montages, camera moves, sentimental music. Searching made much more money than Dark Web, likely for this reason: It feels new, but not too new. Neither film is a triumph, but therein lies part of the excitement. Screenlife cinema has much potential, and its first masterpiece has yet to be made.

#9: The Mule and The Image Book: The 88-year-olds
What would the history of cinema, as an artform or a popular entertainment, even look like without Clint Eastwood or Jean-Luc Godard? Both men turned 88 this year, and both released what may be their swan songs. With The Mule, Eastwood completes his character arc from iconic gunslinger to geriatric who never picks up a gun. He spends much of his time apologizing in The Mule: for his past deeds, his capriciousness, his inability to be a family man. The laments are vague enough to apply as well to Eastwood’s violent screen persona across the decades. With The Mule, he accepts his guilt and rides off into the sunset once (and likely) for all. Godard finds a similar culmination with The Image Book, his dizzying cine-essay on his complicated, lifelong engagement with cinema. This is a difficult film to put into words. At the least, one comes away convinced that The Image Book is the work of a polymathic artist at the end of his life. The film’s final moments telegraph Godard’s – if not cinema’s, if not mankind’s – demise after a century of furious activity. He and Eastwood have created two fitting capstones to their 60-year careers.

#8: Mandy and Revenge: Revenge revamped
Few storylines remain as evergreen as the revenge saga. From The Virgin Spring to John Wick, revenge films bank on primal thrills: a tragedy in the first act justifies a bloodbath in the third. In most hands, such stories are both crass and formulaic: a mix of sexual violence, cheap thrills, and maudlin flashbacks to taste. These two midnight movies inject some fresh blood into the proceedings. Mandy bathes the familiar story beats in a vat of retro-psychedelic acid. The film toggles between the moody and outrageous, hitting the heightened reality of a slow-building trip. It lurches in the fog until it lunges at your throat. The aesthetics marvel alongside a love story that feels lived-in and far from perfunctory. Revenge offers a more overt revision of the genre. Coralie Fargeat is the first woman to write and direct a rape-revenge movie, and she infuses the material with a feminist streak no splatter addict could ignore. She delivers the cathartic goods, sure, but she also confronts you with just how vile such entertainments are at their core. As in Mandy, drugs help fuel the transcendence of genre. One film doses you with LSD in the woods, the other peyote in the desert. Who can deny the pleasures of drugs and midnight movies?

#7: Private Life and Hereditary: “Genetic contribution”
There’s nothing about children that’s not scary. The decision to have them and upend your lives forever? Scary. The growth of a life form inside one of you? Scary. The labor process? Scary. The day-to-day job of raising them so they won’t become sociopaths? Very scary. There’s miracles along the way, I’m told, but their promise can’t cut the fear entirely. Private Life drills down on the anxieties of having children later in life. A work of intense emotional honesty, Tamara Jenkins’ first film in 11 years explores the realities of “putting off” kids until well into your 40s. She depicts the trials of IVF and egg donation – the uncertainty, the expenses, the cycles of hope and disappointment – in grim detail, even as she does so with humor and human decency. There’s nervous talk of “genetic contributions” in Private Life, which echoes the dread behind Hereditary. If the former speaks to the horrors of trying to have a kid, the latter does the horrors of trying to raise one. Hereditary joins the growing pantheon of horror films about motherhood, from We Need to Talk About Kevin to The Babadook. It acts, like Private Life, as a potent dose of cinematic birth control.

6: Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman: White voice
No pair of films on this list got the thinkpiece treatment harder than Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman. Here, after all, are two summer releases that hinged on the idea of “white voice.” Both films depict a black man whose profession demands that he disguise his race on the phone. The trailer for BlacKkKlansman, which plays up the “white voice” angle, drew slow, confused laughter before my screening of Sorry to Bother You. If the first wave of thinkpieces weren’t enough, director Boots Riley sparked another after he posted a scathing three-page critique of BlacKkKlansman on Twitter. Viewed as a pair, the films’ differences come into focus: One was made by a first-time director and self-described communist, the other by a veteran filmmaker who’s cool shooting commercials for Uber, Nike, and Taco Bell. For Riley, the issue of race is tethered to the film’s larger target: our dehumanization under capitalism. Spike Lee, not one to call for such systemic overhauls, ends his film with what appears to be a call for social justice advocates and police to…work together. Whichever voice you gravitate toward (or roll your eyes at) reveals a good deal about your own politics.

5: Lean on Pete and The Rider: Year of the horse
Look, it’s not that deep. Sometimes you just need to watch two horse movies. This year gave us plenty (see also: The Tale, Thoroughbreds, Sorry to Bother You). The heartbreakers of this double feature have an extra kinship: They’re both portraits of fragile cowboys and poverty in the American West. Thanks in part to these films and Mitski’s Be the Cowboy, this sturdy icon of American masculinity took a major hit in 2018. The cowboy of Lean on Pete is so sensitive that he doesn’t ride his horse on principle. He simply walks it across the desert, treating it more as a therapist than an animal trained for the racing circuit. The film plays like a near remake of Wendy and Lucy, another story of a soft-spoken homeless youth with an animal companion in the Pacific Northwest. That Andrew Haigh’s film is somehow sadder than Kelly Reichardt’s should serve as a kind of trigger warning for this viewing experience. The Rider eschews storybook tragedy for a more organic slice of modern Americana. Chloé Zhao casts a real-life rodeo rider (Brady Jandreau) for her story of an injured cowboy who can no longer ride his horse. Like Lean on Pete, The Rider is a heretofore-unseen depiction of a man and his horse in the American West.

4: Shirkers and The Other Side of the Wind: Unfinished films, finished
Netflix released two films long considered lost by their creators and would-be admirers in 2018. The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles’ unfinished final project, has languished largely unedited for decades. Netflix used its clout to get the footage, get the rights, and get it made into a coherent – if also inherently chaotic – feature. The film takes the shape of a mockumentary about the making of an unfinished film-within-a-film (also called The Other Side of the Wind). That structure recalls Shirkers, Sandi Tan’s documentary about the making of an unfinished film she wrote and starred in as a teen (also called Shirkers). Tan lost the footage for decades after its director, a creepy white adult man, vanished with the reels. Both Wind and Shirkers, as such, have at their core a melancholy for a film project that will never be fully realized. These are acts of reconstructive surgery designed to salvage what remains from those long-ago film shoots. Tan will never again be that teenager of unbridled creative energy; Welles will never be alive to finish what he started. The ideal moment in time for these projects has long since past. In their final forms, though, Wind and Shirkers find beauty in their own incompleteness.

3: The Favourite and The Death of Stalin: Modern period satire
This double feature unites two cutting, quotable political satires. Both are insult-machines that delight in the anachronistic, their period settings undercut by the brazenly modern. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite concerns a love/power triangle in the palace of Queen Anne. The three leads here, all women, trade barbs and dagger-glances as they vie for dominance over one another. Despite the setting and acting caliber, one could never associate The Favourite with “prestige” cinema. Lanthimos deploys more fish-eye lenses than a ’90s rap video, and he indulges in scenes like an absurdist dance number that’s more “Soul Train” than awards bait. The Death of Stalin, meanwhile, is a nearly all-male look at the cloak-and-dagger machinations after the Soviet dictator’s death. Few have mastered the art of the insult like Armando Iannucci, and he employs them here (in English, because why not) with little regard for how these people may have spoken in 1950s Moscow. Lanthimos and Iannucci keep the quips coming until the end, when they switch gears to sober the shit out of us. Along with the acidic wisecracks, these costume comedies have another raison d’être: to show us how our leaders seize, and maintain, power.

2: Roma and Zama: The full frame
“I just can’t stand that empty space in the frame above a person’s head, so I always avoid it,” Lucrecia Martel told Filmmaker earlier this year. “It’s a problem I have, and sometimes perhaps I go too far!” As far as problems go, I’d call this a good one. Martel creates compositions that quake with an uncanny energy. In Zama, as in her previous films, she stages action in the foreground and deep background, leaving no inch of the frame wasted. Zama belittles its lead, a European colonialist in South America, with deep-space staging that erupts with peripheral characters: indigenous residents, random passersby, wandering llamas. To watch Zama is to wonder: Why don’t more filmmakers use the cinematic frame to its full potential? Roma, another Spanish-language period film, provokes the same question. A typical frame in Roma overflows with visual information, much of it from the fringes. Critics like to call Roma an “intimate epic” for this reason; Alfonso Cuarón tells a personal story with the eye of a city planner. Characters rarely enter a scene in a Cuarón or a Martel film with a simple cutaway. They emerge, instead, within choreographed takes across multiple planes of action. One can, of course, debate the merits of this visual style. Those of us who dig rich, uninterrupted images teeming with sensory detail, however, will find much to savor with this pairing.

1: First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here: Travis Bickle, 2018
Travis Bickle haunted two of the most aesthetically radical wide-release films of 2018. In First Reformed we saw Bickle reincarnated as an Upstate New York pastor: part social recluse, part unhinged avenger drowning in his own inner monologue. Rev. Toller represents the latest in writer/director Paul Schrader’s “man in a room” series, which includes Taxi Driver. With First Reformed, Schrader’s man in a room directs his rage at the intractable machine of capitalism. Schrader films Toller’s radicalization with an austere camera in the vein of the “transcendental style” he first wrote about in 1972; this is a shiveringly ascetic picture, far quieter than A Quiet Place. He transplants his most iconic character – and a visual approach far outside of today’s content mills – to the here and now, delivering a stiff shock to the system. The trailers for First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here both name-check Scorsese’s film: the former is an “outrageous update of Taxi Driver,” the latter a “21st century Taxi Driver.” Lynne Ramsay finds a Bickle acolyte in Joe, a veteran who’s managed to turn De Niro’s vigilantism into a full-time freelance gig. Joe isn’t driven by any political convictions. He’s a mere machine – a broken man of little use outside blunt force. Ramsay deals in narrative and visual fragments. The bloodshed, and the story beats, remain offscreen, leaving us as disoriented as Joe himself. Like Rev. Toller, Joe is a resurrection of Schrader’s ’70s masculine icon: anti-social, self-serious, and prone to misguided acts in the name of a greater good.

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