Leave No Trace
At Eternity's Gate
Mary Queen of Scots
For the beauty of the craft
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018): A woman in Harlem embraces her pregnancy while she and her family struggle to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime.
Barry Jenkins is a master filmmaker. Plain and simple. He can take any story, no matter how crass, and craft it into a mesmerizing work of art. That's what If Beale Street Could Talk is: an overbearing (and at times slightly insensitive) story composed by one of the true masters of the craft in Hollywood today. We are truly blessed to be in the presence of Barry Jenkins, who, unlike someone like Adam McKay, proved that his breakout film was no fluke.
The calling card of this film is the filmmaking itself. Director Barry Jenkins displays an extraordinary ability to make any scene captivating, regardless of circumstance. Barry Jenkins brought back most of his crew from Moonlight and excelled in the cinematography, editing, and score: all three are very close to the best I've seen in 2018, with the later being the best I've seen BAR NONE. Nicholas Britell follows up his amazing score for Moonlight with an equally captivating and memorable score. But this time, it also packs an emotional wallop that brought me to tears at several points. That's right: the SCORE of this film made me emotional. It's that good. Barry Jenkins personal cinematographer, James Laxton, crafts an incredible work of art with the camera lenses. Shots feel beautifully intimate while carrying an undeniable gravitas to them thanks to the intentionally out-of-focus backgrounds. Various scenes have a beautiful rhythm to them thanks to the constant and subtle camera movement. I honestly cannot believe Laxton was snubbed a Best Cinematography nomination. Performance-wise, Regina King leads the way, (and received a deserving Oscar nomination) but this is certainly an ensemble film. People like Bryan Tyree Henry, Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, and Pedro Pascal only have a scene or two, but all of them do the best with what they are given. Especially Bryan Tyree Henry. Oh my GOD he's so good. He gets literally one scene, but his performance is unforgettable. When Sharon Rivers (King) finally gets her moment, though, she doesn't let it go to waste.
That said, I've been beating around the bush of the somewhat major fault of this film, and now we gotta talk about it. The story here is…..mediocre. It's overbearing and it hasn't aged particularly well. There are some voiceovers scattered throughout that do nothing but act as a crutch and overexplain things to the viewer, and the subject matter of this story feels a bit inopportune given the #MeToo era we currently live in. Barry Jenkins does a fairly good job at walking the tightrope between two very real problems, (and I, being the straight white man that I am, certainly don't claim to have any firsthand knowledge of either) but there were a few moments where I found myself a little uncomfortable at the approach. The voiceovers are the bigger culprit, though it doesn't detract too much from the overall film, because even as we see an overbearing voiceover, we're still looking at some gorgeous craft. But, sadly….. this story is no Moonlight. Nor does it even deserve to be used in the same sentence.
In summary, the craft of this film was exquisite to watch, but it does surround a screenplay that is both crass and oppressive. Barry Jenkins makes this film great with his technical mastery, but the film is held back by it's subject material. Oh, and it's main characters. I haven't mentioned them at all to this point because Tish and Fonny are a tad forgettable The chemistry between them is…..uninspired. But when the craft is so intoxicating to look at, it's hard to care. This will be a phenomenal movie to watch in film class down the road, because this is exactly how movies should be made.
My number: 8/10 Great.
An intimate family epic
Roma (2018): A year in the life of a middle-class family's maid in Mexico City in the early 1970s.
Every so often, a glorious film comes along that completely reinvigorates my love of cinema. In 2017 it was Phantom Thread. This year it was films like The Favourite and Eighth Grade. Now, you can add Roma to the list. Director Alfonso Cuarón returns for his 8th feature film, set almost entirely in Mexico City in the early 70s. The acclaimed director also wrote the screenplay, produced the film, edited the film, and shot the film. In short, Roma is Alfonso Cuarón's baby, and it is undoubtedly his best work yet. (Which is high praise given his previous film, Gravity, was my number 1 film of 2013.) The film has a simple, intimate, yet emotionally powerful story surrounding the housekeeper Cleo (played by first time actress and star-in-the-making Yalitza Aparicio) and her relationship to the family she cares for as her life unfolds over the course of a year. That's it. Far cry from the technical achievement that was Cuarón's previous film. And yet, this film feels every bit as epic as Gravity did with the extra emotional kick that comes with a truly great story. If you haven't figured it out yet, Roma is well worth your time, and easily the best film Netflix has distributed to date. By a significant margin.
Let's start with the most obvious thing we can see: the acting. The entire cast, outside of Sofía (Marina de Tavira) are first time actors. (Furthering the mythos of Alfonso Cuarón) Cleo is the center of the story, and the intimate, human, genuine performance Yalitza Aparicio gives portraying this character is one of the best of the year. She effortlessly displays an immense range of emotions, and the genuineness of these emotions were increased thanks to the bold decision of Cuarón to hold back key plot details from her until they actually happened. (Yes, including the unforgettable emotional climax of the film.) Actually, that's a good moment to mention the fact that Cuarón was very secretive about the script. The entire film was shot sequentially, (which is actually fairly unusual in filmmaking) with the director often not even giving the actors the script for an individual scene until the day that scene was to be shot. (Something which director Hirokaza Kore-eda also did shooting Shoplifters, to achieve a similar effect.) While this does sometimes hurt the film more than it helps it, particularly in the opening few scenes, it's still mesmerizing to see this cast have as much chemistry with each other as they do with such an incredible level of authenticity.
But the calling card, of course, is the sheer scale of Cuarón's vision. This film is a triumphant family epic if there ever was one. The production design, sound editing, sound mixing, and cinematography are all the best I saw/heard in 2018. Cuarón captures so many nuanced details in every frame: so many extras, creatures, and natural occurrences unfold to a dizzying extent in his grand (and I mean GRAND) one-shots. It will take your breath away, and needs to be adored on the largest screen possible. I know that's a bit of a cliché in movie reviews, but it's deserved for Roma. There was not another film that dropped in 2018 that will sweep you off your feet more. And it's all held together by some of the most amazing cinematography I've ever seen. Alfonso Cuarón certainly made Chivo (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki - originally slated to shoot Roma before scheduling conflicts arose and Cuarón's cinematographer on films like Gravity and Children of Men) proud with the stunning 65mm black and white aesthetic of the film. The camera is always a calm but confident presence, with a lot of slow, poignant pans from left to right and vice versa being the signature of Cuarón's style. With the two best-looking films of 2018 almost certainly being Roma and Pawel Pawlikowksi's Cold War, also shot in black and white, I think the great film critic Roger Ebert may have been right when he said color handicaps film. (That's a great article he once wrote, by the way. You should read it.)
And that doesn't even mention the sound design. The sound is another reason why you need to see this on a big screen. (At least watch it with surround sound.) The sound mixing is possibly the best I have ever heard, with a mesmeric attention to detail taken by Skip Lievsay, Alfonso Cuarón, and company. You are immersed with the sounds of Mexico City, with the sound making the camera feel like you are right in the middle of each scene. From shopkeepers to mariachi bands to something as nuanced as food being made behind you because the camera is facing the bar and the food is behind you, there is never a moment missed within the sound mixing.
This film is a masterpiece. It'll capture you within the first few moments and not let you go until the final plane soars overhead. It is a flawless epic that is beautiful in both its emotional intimacy and ambitious scale. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and do everything in between. A film like this is exactly why I love the movies, and it gives me the mental drive I need to sit through lesser works. It's also a wonderful foray into the world of foreign film: if you've always been intimidated at the idea of having to read the dialogue unfolding in front of you, (I know I was for a long time) this is a fantastic place to start. And, with it on Netflix right now, there's every reason for you to make tonight a movie night.
The Critique: an emotional powerhouse told on a grandiose scale, Alfonso Cuarón's triumphant masterpiece is a wonderful reminder of why I am hopelessly in love with the world of cinema.
The Recommendation: An absolute must-see for all.
The Verdict: 10/10 Perfect.
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