By William Wolf

THE BEST TEN FILMS OF 2018  Send This Review to a Friend

The films on this list have been selected from among those released in New York theaters during the year and are listed in order of preference.

1. Blackklansman

2. Cold War

3. Becoming Astrid

4. Roma

5. Fahrenheit 11/9

6. The Insult

7. Capernaum

8. Happy as Lazzaro

9. RBG

10. On the Basis of Sex

Other outstanding films of 2018 listed in no particular order include: A Star is Born; Leave No Trace; Lives Well Lived; Memoir of War; A Private War; The Death of Stalin; Can You Ever Forgive Me?; The Front Runner; The Other Side of the Wind; Wildlife; Tea With the Dames; If Beale Street Could Talk; Green Book; Widows; Back to Burgundy; Measure of a Man; The Wife; Chappaquiddick; Eighth Grade; Rodin; Operation Finale; The Bookshop; Crazy Rich Asians; Nelly; Vice; Colette; Love, Gilda; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Pick of the Litter; The Guilty; Submission; Summer 1993; At Eternity’s Gate; The Favourite; First Reformed; Boy Erased; Shoplifters; Shoah: Four Sisters; Searching for Ingmar Bergman; Monrovia, Indiana; The Price of Everything; On Her Shoulders; The Waldheim Waltz; Studio 54; Call Her Ganda; Lizzie; American Chaos; Bisbee ’17; Let the Sunshine In; Godard mon amour; Lou Andreas-Salomé –The Audacity to Be Free; Ben Is Back, Three Identical Strangers, Summer 1993 and Itzhak.

BIRDS OF PASSAGE  Send This Review to a Friend

Unlike other films related to the drug trade, “Birds of Passage” combines a look into a remote culture with growing marijuana as well as coffee beans and tribal traditions, family honor and feuds. Violence is interwoven with the lifestyle and as a result the film is illuminating as well as jolting.

Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra escort us into a part of Colombia inhabited by the remote, indigenous Wayuu people, who have their own language, and who, as detailed in the story, become involved in the drug business. Despite the dangers, profits are to be made. We see a mix of interesting characters, and also deadly rivalries that explode in inevitable killing.

The screenplay has been written by Maria Camila Arias and co-director Gallego. The film is stunning to look at, as we are transported into the attractive countryside setting for the events that occur, both within families and in relation to drug-buying contacts. The peaceful look of the area contrasts with the passions that rage in the context of traditions and the lurking dangers.

In the midst of it all is a planned marriage. The bride to be is the youg Zaida, played by Natalia Reyes. The groom to be is the more worldly Raphayet, portrayed by José Acosta, who becomes involved in the marijuana trade in quest of money that he needs.

One of the film’s more interesting characters is the matriarchal Úrsula, who is Zaida’s controlling mother, played by the impressive Carmiña Martinez and exercising her will as the story unfolds.

Be prepared for the film’s mounting violence. But the reward is a look at a part of the world about which you are likely to know little and which certainly merits the dramatic exploration to be found in “Birds of Passage.” A The Orchard release. Reviewed February 13, 2019.

A TUBA TO CUBA  Send This Review to a Friend

The tradition of American jazz gets a mix with the music of Cuba in this enjoyable venture into mutual cultures exemplified by a journey. In “A Tuba to Cuba,” directed by T. G. Harrington and Danny Clinch, a group from the venerable jazz institution Preservation Hall in New Orleans goes on a journey to Cuba to meet counterparts there.

We get a glimmer of history in the story of the Founding of Preservation Hall in 1961 by narrator Ben Jaffe’s parents. There is also attention paid to the pride in owning passed-down instruments by members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

As is proper in such a documentary, the real pleasure for an audience is listening to the music, both by the New Orleans players and from the Afro-Cuban music we hear from the artists in Cuba, emphasizing roots in common.

It is enjoyable to see the international interactions and in the process get a sampling of what life is like in Cuba. The contacts and the film’s very existence, without stressing politics, make an important statement. The benefits of breaking down barriers between our two countries are self-evident in this sanctioned visit.

There is much to share, and it is delightful to see musicians performing together. Some of the narration becomes too repetitive, but mainly it is the music that counts, along with the exuberance of the musicians and the sense of jazz history that informs the film. A Blue Fox Entertainment release. Reviewed February 15, 2019.

NEVER LOOK AWAY  Send This Review to a Friend

So much is packed into “Never Look Away” that its three hours, 2 minutes running time doesn’t seem excessive. We follow various threads in the story that begins in Nazi Germany, develops further in Germany’s east under post-war Soviet dominance and moves into the 1960s art scene. Meanwhile, there are personal lives that get close inspection against the background of all that is happening. We are privy to horrendous acts under the Nazis and long-lingering inspiration that a boy who likes to draw nudes carries with him into manhood as a budding artist, with his character seen as a fictionalized reminder of artist Gerhard Richter.

At the outset we view an impressionable six-year-old youngster, Kurt (Cai Cohrs ), whose aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) dotes on him and takes him to art exhibits in Dresden, notably one which the Nazis label degenerate art. Elisabeth is warm but also has neurotic problems manifested in odd behavior. Tragedy strikes as little Kurt watches his aunt being dragged away to an institution under the Nazi policy of eliminating those judged genetically unworthy of living, portrayed with all its horror as Elisabeth fights for her life. The spectacle of his aunt being taken away in a van will remain with Kurt into adulthood.

Excellent actor Sebastian Koch plays Carl Seeband, the wicked Nazi gynecologist who is responsible for sending Elisabeth to her doom, and when the Russians take over at war’s end, he is held prisoner. However, he saves himself by aiding in the delivery of a difficult birth, and the Russian in charge, appreciating the favor done, gives him protection. Seeband, who comports himself with haughty authority, is the sort of slimy operator who will adjust to whatever system he has to appease.

Meanwhile, with time marching on, Kurt, grows into adulthood and s portrayed by Tom Schilling. While entering art school in Dresden, which has been thoroughly bombed in the war, he meets Ellie (Paula Beer), a beautiful young woman who quite resembles his late aunt. The film’s construction shows its labored side here; Ellie turns out to be the daughter of Seeband, who dispatched Elisabeth. Will Kurt ever learn of the connection?

Kurt and Ellie bond as lovers, and when Ellie becomes pregnant, her father is aghast. You’ll be appalled at what follows.

All the while, the film progresses as Kurt wends his way to discover his abilities as an artist, but with no clear direction. He bides his time and earns money painting socialist realist propaganda in the form of a huge mural that he detests. A break in the pattern occurs when he and Ellie, now married, leave the East before the wall is built.

Part of the film deals with the art scene in Dusseldorf, a haven for artists who want to experiment, western style, with new, modern art trends, and there is humor in observing some of the outrageous work passing for art. Kurt struggles in this atmosphere but still has a way to go to set his course. As one might expect, we witness the point at which Kurt finally follows his inner instincts to create works in which he takes pride, and of course, he gains recognition.

Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck works with a lush style and sweeping imagery. Cinematography is by the superb Caleb Deschanel, with often intense music by Max Richter. The overall result is a span of history, within which the unfolding personal stories provide emotion. Schilling as Kurt uses a laid back style, but his good looks and intelligent expressions give weight to his characterization by making him intriguing both as the aspiring artist and the ardent lover. Beer as Ellie makes a most sympathetic partner as they struggle together with deep affection, demonstrated in part by some tastefully explicit lovemaking scenes.

The film thus accomplishes the feat of mixing the art world with the trajectory of history by linking Kurt’s self-discovery to his burst of portraying evil versus beauty in his art work. Despite the film’s various story contrivances, it carries weight and provides pleasure of a good yarn well acted and told with directorial skill. “Never Look Away” already earns special distinction in the early period of 2019. A Sony Classics release. Reviewed January 26, 2018.

THE INVISIBLES: WE WANT TO LIVE  Send This Review to a Friend

Imagine that you are Jew living in Berlin under the Nazis and that to avoid deportation and the death camps you must go into hiding. Where can you find refuge? Whom can you trust? Family members have already been arrested and sent away. Every day you can run into a trap.

The dire circumstances are depicted in a two-tier drama, “The Invisibles: We want to Live,” directed by Claus Räfle , who co-wrote it with Alejandra Lopez. They have hit on their own way to tell the story. The format is past narrations by survivors interspersed with the dramatization of their harrowing accounts by actors. Although the approach can interrupt the action flow, the method constantly reminds us that we are watching the lives of real people, not characters in fiction.

In the process we see bravery, fear, betrayal, gestures of humanity and the constant terror as the war progresses until Germany’s defeat in 1945 amid bombings and the arrival of the Russians. Kind people try to hide Jews at risk to their lives, and some of those living underground become involved in writing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets and trying in various ways to save other lives.

The four key people who were interviewed about their activities and survival and who speak to us on camera are Cioma Schönhaus, Ruth Gumpel, Eugen Friede and Hanni Lévy. The actors playing them in the dramatization are Max Wauff (Shönhaus), Alice Dwyer (Lévy), Ruby O. Fee (Gumpel) and Aaron Altaras (Friede).

One of the most interesting characters is Schönhaus, whose survivor account is especially impressive. This is also true in the dramatization, in which we see him become an expert in forging passports and documents to help a host of others.

The film traces the steps of those in hiding and includes revealing a situation in which a notorious woman, who is a Jew, is known for betraying other Jews whom she identifies.

One moment that is especially emotional occurs when two men coming out of hiding are confronted by Russian soldiers bent on vengeance against the Germans point guns at them and are about to kill them. The Russians refuse to believe it when the men frantically say they are Jews because the Russians believe all Jews have been eliminated. If they are Jews, one demands, they should recite a Jewish prayer. The men recite in unison the “shma yisrael.” Totally surprised, one of the Russians, who it turns out is also Jewish, hugs the men in a passionate demonstration of brotherhood.

Films about aspects of the Holocaust keep turning up and “The Invisibles” is a creatively absorbing one that can make one think of what it would be like to hide throughout a war in an effort to save one’s life against all odds. Only 1700 Jews managed to survive in Berlin. A Greenwich Entertainment release. Reviewed January 28, 2019.

TO DUST  Send This Review to a Friend

To say that “To Dust” is off the beaten path is an understatement. The film, a macabre combination of comedy and religion written by Jason Begue and Shawn Snyder and directed by Snyder, teams a slyly funny Matthew Broderick and a somberly funny Geza Rohrig in a very odd buddy situation.

Rohrig plays Shmuel, a Hasidic cantor who is deeply grieved about the death of his beloved wife. He is not only in mourning, but is overcome by a philosophical-religious-anatomical question of what happens to a body after burial.

Broderick plays Albert, who teaches biology, and is approached by Shmuel for help in answering his nagging question. At first Albert doesn’t want to get involved, but he is soon drawn into Shmuel’s mission of inquiry. Off they go on a path to discovery.

At first they consider burying a pig. But deciding that won’t produce reliable results pertaining to a human being, they bumble along, soon resorting to a cemetery expedition to dig up the wife’s body for examination as to what has happened so far, with an aim of replanting it without a coffin to aid in the research. The exploit involves slapstick comedy, including trying to secretly climb over a barrier and being discovered.

There’s more, and while the film is intermittently funny, it all becomes too absurd to be sustainable, even though one may admire both Broderick and Rohrig as game actors for what they endure in the absurd film. A GDE release. Reviewed February 8, 2019.

UNDER THE EIFFEL TOWER  Send This Review to a Friend

The Eiffel Tower just serves as a send-off point to a tale of wine, booze and romance. Matt Walsh, playing Stuart, a bourbon sales rep who just lost his job, is at the tower vacationing with a best-friend couple and suddenly asks their much younger daughter to marry him. She is aghast at the thought, and Stuart is regarded with utter distaste.

Subsequently, on a train trip he meets the beautiful Louise (Judith Godrèche), who has a vineyard with her husband. Life looks up for the lonely Stuart, although it is soon filled with complications as the entanglement taking place in wine country hurtles into conflict.

Directed by Archie Borders and written by Borders, Godrèche and David Henry, “Under the Eiffel Tower” has its amusing and sincere moments, and one may at times feel for Stuart’s efforts to find happiness, but the film never rises to the occasion of delivering a dynamic story. The cast members are the greatest assets, along with wine country ambiance, as the film tries hard to be a romantic charmer. A The Orchard release. Reviewed February 8, 2019.

THE UNICORN  Send This Review to a Friend

How long does a couple have to go together before deciding to get married? In “The Unicorn,” written by Nick Rutherford, Kirk C. Johnson and Will Elliott and directed by Robert Schwartzman, a relationship has been meandering along. But suddenly the gal and guy agree on the need to spice up their lives with some new sex.

The trigger for Malory (Lauren Lapkus) an Caleb (Rutherford) is a discovery at a 25th anniversary party for Malory’s parents. What do you know—the parents go in for threesomes. After some discussion, Malory and Caleb decide to try the same.

Although Lapkus and Rutherford are appealing in a kooky sort of way, the ensuing misadventures are strained and neither very funny nor very sexy. The concept comes across as old hat, and at times pretty stupid.

One encounter with a young woman who seems hot to trot turns out absurdly when she acts as if they got the wrong idea about her. For the film to work, it needs a much better screenplay.

As is, we must follow the lessons learned through the couple’s pretty silly journey. There is little reason to care about the crisis that strikes the relationship or the outcome. Reviewed February 1, 2019.

THE IMAGE BOOK  Send This Review to a Friend

In his latest film, “The Image Book,” shown at the 2018 New York Film Festival and now in commercial release, legendary filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard regales us with an onslaught of imagery that cumulatively expresses his take on our future from the perspective of his age of 88 and his career in cinema. It is not cause for optimism.

We have come to expect something different from the iconoclast each time out, and his early films like “Breathless” seem models of clarity in comparison with what we get in this new exploration. As we sit watching, it is as if our minds were a giant screen against which Godard projects his thoughts.

They come in a compendium of clips from old and more recent films, news reports, atrocities, warfare, the humane and the inhumane, all sorts of photographs—in short, a visual museum of society as it has existed in the past century. Much is not a pretty picture. Think of a village being obliterated, for example.

This is a film that demands a lot just to sit through it. One’s brain can feel under siege, and it is a hopeless project even to begin to count the images that flash rapidly before our eyes in the filmmaker’s summary of contemporary existence.

One is constantly challenged to derive meaning from particular images, to blend all into something cohesive. What emerges is Godard’s bleak view of so-called civilization and where the world is headed. This could be Godard’s final warning shot, as well as a last example of his artistry that refuses to conform to the conventional or expected. Or, with any luck, Godard will have much more life left and be back with further challenges to demonstrate his continued cinematic genius. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed January 27, 2019.

KING OF THIEVES  Send This Review to a Friend

It is intriguing as well as disconcerting to watch British stars at late stages of their lives. Michael Caine was so appealing in his youth, and although looking so much older now and a long way from “Alfie,” he is still the consummate actor as Brian, leader of a jewelry heist in “King of Thieves,” based on a real, legendary crime, scripted by Joe Penhall and directed by James Marsh.

There is also plenty of nostalgia in watching aged Tom Courtenay, a long distance from the “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” Here he plays Kenny, one of the robbers. We also see veteran actors Jim Broadbent (Terry) and Ray Winstone (Danny), as well as Charlie Cox playing Basil, the younger thief in the entourage.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Caine a few times, most memorably in his apartment diagonally across from the American Embassy in London on Grosvenor Square. I remember with pleasure his saying that after staring at the American Eagle of the U.S. embassy every day he thought of putting up a Cockney sparrow replica outside his apartment. I also recall fondly interviewing Tom Courtenay way back when.

Age hovers over the film, with the effort to pull off one more crime, a huge coup labeled as one of the biggest ever. We see the details of the break into a jewelry business and the efforts to crack a huge safe. Of course, something goes wrong, and there is much humor along the way in watching the blokes having to return a second time.

The trouble is that the plot comes across as familiar in the wake of other such tales, including distrust and the desire to double cross. True, there is a modicum of suspense, but the film is quite old hat in terms of the genre.

However, if you want to relish the opportunity to watch old pro actors who still have commanding screen presence, you might find enjoyment seeing “King of Thieves.” A Saban Films release. Reviewed January 26, 2019.

  

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