I've been burning down what little is left of 2018, using ethanol for an accelerant as is my wont. But I've also, after all this time, been watching The Great British Baking Show on Netflix. I resisted it for so long partially because its wildfire popularity and my sullen contrarianism seemed impossibly incompatible, and because English pastry esoterica just isn't my thing. But we started in spite of all that, beginning at season five because Noel Fielding co-hosts and The Mighty Boosh is life, so even if the weird jellies and rolls and what-have-you didn't hold my attention, I'd at least have a familiar point of absurdist psychedelic humor to orient me. Charming as Fielding may be, though, it turns out there's a lot more there for me to like, namely that the contestants, representative of a a great number of British regions and socio-economic strata, are unflaggingly kind and supportive of one another. The show doesn't attempt to pit one against the other and, in fact, evinces little to no artifice in its construction.
I've frequently complained to my wife that American cooking shows, especially those made up of casts of of non-professionals, would have us believe that every contestant can work without a recipe and that, although untrained, they can master technique without practice. It's bullshit, of course, but very much a part of the mythology of American exceptionalism. On The Great British Baking Show, the seams and gaps are always readily evident, there are whole segments with every contestant working directly from a recipe, frequently admitting their own weaknesses and rushing to the aid of others. It's hopeful to me in the context of 2018 because that series represents culture in the aftermath of the collapse of international dominance and this country seems to be doing everything it can, in its dumbfounding, dunderheaded, sinister way, to get there. Maybe once it finally happens we and our entertainments will be nicer and more honest with one another. Or, to paraphrase Jim Morrison, the whole shithouse might just go up in flames.
Such is my perspective as I sit to consider the year in movies. Looking back across 2017, just about 12 months ago — 12 individually vast but cumulatively infinitesimal months — I thought I saw the makings of a groundswell, of hope, optimism and resistance reflected in popular art. A year later I see something more like resignation as the theme of the cinematic year; it might just be my eyes.
There may yet be hope and it may well come in the form of Adam McKay's (Step Brothers, 2008; The Big Short, 2015) Vice, a Dick Cheney biopic that promises to illuminate the perhaps irrevocable takeover of American democracy by corporate America. It remains to be seen, of course (opening Christmas day), but McKay is a true subversive and one of the only real satirists working in mainstream Hollywood today, so let's all wish upon a star or whatever pagan idol we each select.
Of the major label releases from the year past, only a scant handful still resonate. Overlord and Halloween both romp gleefully in genre, while slyly commenting on contemporary issues without harping on them. Mission: Impossible - Fallout set out to be the best action movie of the year and, while it must said competition was thin on the ground, did so with authority. A Star is Born might easily have slid into self-aggrandizement and celebrity worship but instead examines the cost of those very ideas in a raw, gorgeous and deceptively complex way. BlacKkKlansman, to some an outlier but to me a major release from a major director, is an aesthetic and narrative triumph, while also disturbing in the clarity of its message that serious social change has been too long coming in this country. Widows, maybe the movie of the year and arguably the most technically accomplished, screams with a similar theme, albeit from a completely different visual and narrative point of view.
Roma must be considered as one of the main prestige pictures of the year, and rightfully so. But its deliberate other-ness — its setting and language, the intensely intentional choice to shoot it in black and white — will make it something of an oddity to much of the moviegoing public. A shame because it is exquisitely beautiful and deceptively complicated. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs occupies a similar space (both Netflix releases, incidentally), in that its misanthropy and genre specificity will distance some viewers. But it, like Roma, is one of the most beautiful movies of the year. I found Annihilation similarly compelling but it seems to have more detractors than supporters. Beyond misogyny, I can't really fathom why.
Of the mid-sized independent offerings (apparently in the midst of some weird renaissance), I found much to appreciate in the following:
First Reformed seemed to be a return to form for Paul Schrader, a dense and intense examination of faith and futility that I still think about frequently.
Thoroughbreds came out of nowhere with its well-timed antic weirdness, hopefully marking the beginning of something and not just lucky one-off.
The Sisters Brothers took an enjoyable novel and expanded it into an examination of kindness and its place in the male persona, but it's also a cracking good Western, albeit one with a broken heart.
Eighth Grade might be too real, I'll just say that. But everyone should see it.
An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn has nothing to do with reality but I found it utterly delightful in its effortless but very deliberate weirdness. Close friends of mine disagree completely.
Blindspotting, though, is the one I can't and won't stop thinking about, and in that there may be some hope after all. Because even as much as it is a movie about the horror of life in contemporary America, of the infiltration of corporate malfeasance and institutionalized racism and violence into our lives, it is also about recognizing the sameness in our differences — actually seeing each other and, maybe, that way making progress.
—John J. Bennett
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
DIE HARD (1988). Welcome to the party, pal. R. 132M. BROADWAY.
HOLMES AND WATSON. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly do their thing in tweed. PG13. 91M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
VICE. Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell and Amy Adams star in the tale of Dick Cheney's rise to the White House. R. 132M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
AQUAMAN. James Wan directs the butched-up ocean superhero's (Jason Momoa) solo feature with Amber Heard and an army of CG sea creatures. PG13. 143M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
BECOMING ASTRID. Pippi Longstocking's Swedish creator Astrid Lindgren gets the biopic treatment. NR. 123M. MINIPLEX.
BUMBLEBEE. Transformers spinoff starring Hailee Steinfeld and John Cena. PG13. 113M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
DR. SEUSS' THE GRINCH. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the green menace (which is going to give me all kinds of issues) in this latest animated trip to Whoville. PG. 90M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.
GREEN BOOK. The set-up of a racist white man driving a black concert pianist around the South in the '60s is cringeworthy but Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali give such immersive, deeply-felt performances in director Peter Farrelly's surprisingly restrained film. PG13. 130M. BROADWAY.
MARY POPPINS RETURNS. The original super nanny (Emily Blunt) takes on the children of her former charges. With Lin-Manuel Miranda and a freakishly spry Dick Van Dyke. PG. 130M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS. Enough queenly rivalry to make RuPaul gasp in Josie Rourke's historical drama starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. R. 124M. BROADWAY.
MORTAL ENGINES. Hera Hilmar and Hugo Weaving star in Peter Jackson's steampunk adventure with roving cities battling it out in a post-apocalyptic landscape. PG13. 128M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE MULE. Clint Eastwood's storytelling is as controlled as his performance as an aging, failed father smuggling drugs for a cartel as the DEA closes in. With Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña. R. 116M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET. More video game hijinks voiced by John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman. PG. 112M. BROADWAY.
SECOND ACT. Jennifer Lopez accidentally catfishes her way into a high-powered job. With Leah Remini and Vanessa Hudgens. PG13. 103M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. Inter-dimensional spider heroes team up in an animated adventure. Starring Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson and Hailee Steinfeld. PG. 117M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
WELCOME TO MARWEN. A violent assault sends an artist (Steve Carell) into a therapeutic, woman-powered fantasy world. With Janelle Monáe and Leslie Mann. PG13. 116M. BROADWAY.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill