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.

TRUMPTY DUMPTY  Send This Review to a Friend


Trumpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Trumpty Dumpty had a great fall,

All of the Republican women and men,

Couldn’t put Trumpty together again.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--COLD WAR  Send This Review to a Friend

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” is a very hot movie. (See my Best Ten films of 2018 list.) Inspired by the lives of his late parents, he has created a turbulent love story that rages on both sides of the iron curtain. Exquisitely filmed in realistic black and white, “Cold War” is rich in visual atmosphere as it dramatizes the opposing political realms under which the lovers maneuver in their on-again, off-again relationship. The film, shown at the 2018 New York Film Festival, is now going into commercial release.

Handsome Tomasz Kot plays Wiktor, a pianist for a Polish folk song troupe. (The film’s score is a major plus.) He is rapidly smitten by a beautiful singer, Zula, portrayed by the captivating Joanna Kulig. She is clearly manipulative in figuring out a way to be in the forefront of an audition. How can Wiktor resist? There is resentment on the part of an older woman colleague who recognizes what is happening as Zula catapults into a starring presence in the choir. Troupe manager Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), also attracted to Zula, is extremely jealous.

A love affair between Wiktor and Zula blossoms and deepens. But there is increasing pressure on the folk company to inject more Stalinist propaganda into its programs. (Kaczmarek knuckles under as a cooperative fuctionary.) Having to conform gets to a point that Wiktor cannot stand and he plans an escape to the West. Zula pledges to go with him. But she doesn’t show up at the rendezvous, and he takes off on his own.

There begins a period of longings and reconnections, Wiktor plays piano at a jazz club in Paris, and you know that Zula will eventually turn up. But working out a life together is fraught with complications.

A driving underlying force is Zula’s feeling for her homeland despite all, and Wiktor feels that too. The film indicates how unsettling it is to leave one’s roots behind, as many emigrants have discovered. For all that is politically problematical, Poland still has a strong pull on both, even with Wiktor in danger if he returns.

Zula shows her love for Wiktor when he is imprisoned… but no further spoilers here. The film surges to an ending that is at one beautifully romantic but ultimately deeply upsetting as it achieves a well-rounded finale consistent with all that has gone before, even though one might wish for a different outcome.

It is no wonder that “Cold War” has been collecting awards. If you want to be sure not to miss one of the year’s best films, put “Cold War” on your must see list. An Amazon Studios release. Reviewed Dec. 20, 2018.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--HAPPY AS LAZZARO  Send This Review to a Friend

A film that starts in the tradition of Italian neo-realism, “Happy as Lazzaro,” which was showcased at the 2018 New York Film Festival and now goes into commercial release, veers into a highly imaginative mode that escalates its creativity and establishes the work from Italy as among the year’s best. It stands as an important social commentary on class differences and exploitation. In addition, there is an implicit Biblical reference.

Alice Rohrwacher has done a superb job of direction from her screenplay, and she has as her leading actor the non-professional Adriano Tardiolo giving a riveting and deeply sympathetic performance in the title role of a young man with an ethereal screen-worthy face. The film is set in the past, with Lazzaro willing to cheerfully take on any task demanded of him in the community of tobacco farm workers exploited by the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi). The men and women are treated as serf-like sharecroppers.

The story is inspired by a 1980s case of a rich noblewoman, who became known as the tobacco queen and similarly exploited workers who had been cruelly kept ignorant of the fact that such sharecropping had been outlawed. The film details the daily lives of the characters under the Marchesa’s rule until they are rescued when officials discover the illegal abuse.

Before that plot development, we see the Marchesa’s layabout son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), making a friend of the impressionable Lazzaro, whom he personally exploits. Lazzaro thinks this is a sincere friendship. Eventually (spoiler here) tragedy strikes as Lazzaro tumbles to his death from a high cliff.

Anyone familiar with the Biblical story of Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raises from the dead, can make the film’s connection as it jumps to the present when Lazzraro appears looking exactly as he did in his youth, much to the amazement of those who, now older, encounter him and are flabbergasted.

The film, rich in imagination, takes on a new dimension. Some of those freed from their lot as sharecroppers now are scrounging for a living in various ways. The Marchesa, having been exposed, is reduced to poverty. Lazzaro encounters the older Tancredi (now played by Tommaso Ragno) and a bizarre episode unfolds, demonstrating the moral superiority of those who had been the sharecroppers.

Rohrwacher’s film rises to become very special in its religion-tinged allegorical outcome. Scene after scene is superbly photographed (cinematography by Hélène Louvart). Perhaps the film could be trimmed a bit, but “Happy as Lazzaro” emerges as a film that may haunt your memory and engender special respect for this rare accomplishment. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 28, 2018.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--ROMA  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Alfonso Cuarón has searched into his own life to create “Roma,” his film set in the early 1970s in Mexico City, showcased as the centerpiece of the 2018 New York Film Festival and now in commercial release. It is both an intimate story and a look at the larger picture of society, within which the lives of a middle-class family and its devoted nanny and housekeeper unfold.

Central to the story, which is filmed impressively in black and white (the director was also the cinematographer) with all the realistic advantages the style communicates, is Yalitza Aparicio in the role as the dedicated Cleo. Remarkably, given her deeply sympathetic performance, Aparicio is not a professional actress. Cleo looks after a family, consisting of Sofia, the mother (Marina de Tavira), four children (three boys and a girl) and their grandmother. We briefly meet the unfaithful father, who goes off on a business trip with another activity in mind. There is also the important family cook, Adela (Nancy Garcia), who is very close to Cleo in friendship as well is in work.

There is special poignancy in Cleo’s relationship with the children, who are a handful, and one harrowing scene at the beach emphasizes how much Cleo cares for them. She works for modest wages, but when she gets into trouble, help is provided.

The trouble arrives when she finds herself pregnant after an encounter with a lout who refuses to have anything to do with her when she confronts him and says it is his child. Aparicio’s understated performance is what holds the film together even though we also become involved in the other characters.

Cuarón makes a point of stressing life in Mexico City, starkly dramatized by including shots of a major controversial event, a protest demonstration by students brutally confronted by rampaging police—an episode in 1971 called the Corpus Christi Massacre. The director handles this by showing what is happening from the viewpoint of Cleo and the grandmother who observe the demonstration and the police attack.

Thus we do not get just an isolated portrait of the family for whom Cleo works and its daily lifestyle and crises, but also the director’s take on the Mexico City he knows. All is surveyed masterfully in human terms via the story, casting, involving performances and direction, a combination that results in a major film of the year. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 21, 2018.


Leave it to Joel and Ethan Coen to come up with a film that’s different, as they have with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," shown at the 2018 New York Film Festival prior to its commercial release. They have created a half dozen Western tales, presented as if based on a book, which is fictional and evidence of the extensive imagination shown by the Coen brothers.

The first episode makes it seem as if we are entering a blaze of satire. It is an often rollicking look at a singing cowboy, The Kid, played by Tim Blake Nelson. He is fast on the trigger, and when he walks into a bar, watch out. Nelson is extremely amusing in the role, and the Coens have come up with a gunplay variety, including one that is a particular hoot.

But the leading hilarity gives way to a mix, some of it also funny, but other portions serious, wistful or tragic. The Coens show storytelling command throughout as they spin tales set in the atmosphere of old west. The casting is smart too.

James Franco is Cowboy, who robs banks, which gets him into deadly trouble. In another episode, very sad, Liam Neeson runs touring show exploiting a deformed man who draws spectators. But when would-be customers turn their attention to another attraction, the impresario switches gears at the expense of his former lure.

Among the many cast members are Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jefferson Mays, Bill Heck, Granger Hines and Saul Rubinek. The segments vary in length, and at times one may wish the brothers had shortened the 132-minute opus.

There’s a section titled “The Mortal Remains,” consisting mostly of a stagecoach ride. Those assembled may make you think of the John Ford classic, “Stagecoach,” and I particularly enjoyed Tyne Daly as a passenger with a mission as she rides along with others and the talk becomes intense.

The effect of seeing this latest Coen film is like having gone back in time for a trip prompting thoughts about what made American westerns so unique, yet also standing as a hip modern take on it all from the perspective of two movie buffs who enjoy being different. A Netflix release. Posted November 8, 2018. `

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--AT ETERNITY'S GATE  Send This Review to a Friend

Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate” is especially important for two reasons. It provides a new look at the final days in the life of artist Vincent van Gogh and excellent actor Willem Dafoe gives an extraordinary and memorable performance as the artist.

Collaborating on a screenplay with the eminent Jean-Claude Carrière and also with Louise Kugelberg, director Schnabel peers into the sad fate of van Gogh and the pitiful situation in which he never sold a painting. The screenplay also depicts the artist’s death in a way that counters the more accepted idea of his having committed suicide.

Throughout Dafoe is superb in the portrait he gives us of van Gogh, a nuanced look at what his life was like in intimate terms. The supporting cast is first rate too, including Rupert Friend as his supportive brother, Theo, Oscar Isaac as Gauguin, Mathieu Amalric as the important Dr. Gachet, Emmanuele Seigner as Madame Ginoux and Mads Mikkelsen in a key role as a priest.

As one has come to expect from Schnable, he creates an impressive artistic atmosphere that in this case creates a vivid sense of the time in which the artist’s final days unfold. The superb cinematography by Benoît Delhomme helps enormously in achieving the affecting visuals.

An unusual mourning scene is chilling, with van Gogh’s coffin in the center of a room, and his paintings on surrounding walls, as visitors select art that he could not sell during his life. The scene is an inkling of the fame that will eventually embrace him posthumously and the enormous prices his work will ironically command. A CBS Films release. Reviewed October 27, 2018.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--MONROVIA, INDIANA  Send This Review to a Friend

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman takes his camera into the small town of Monrovia, Indiana, with his fly-on-the-wall style to examine life in this example of American heartland. As of 2017 the population in Monrovia was 1063. Wiseman gives us a revealing look of what it is like to live there and what the people are like. The meticulously observant film was showcased at the 2018 New York Film Festival and is now in commercial release.

Wiseman focuses on conversations, not interviews, which lets his subjects talk among themselves. We see city council arguments about how to expand building without ruining the town. We get a look at students. In one segment we see the surgical clipping of a dog’s tail, depicted as serious an episode in Monrovia as a heart operation might be.

There is emphasis on farming, as well as idle chats between residents. One observation I came away with was how fat so many people are. We see an example of an overweight population typical of what we read in the country’s obesity statistics.

There is observation involving death, and there is one especially long—too long in my opinion—of a cemetery service and burial. But it does focus on family loss and the personal meaning of death.

By the time Wiseman has finished, and the film clocks in at 143 minutes, you get an in-depth tour of this community, and you can see why Indiana is such a conservative state and Donald Trump country.

Add “Monrovia, Indiana,” to the list of the many Wiseman films, such as "Titicut Follies" and "Hospital," that fascinatingly chronicle various aspects of American life. He is an invaluable documentarian to be lauded for his choice of subjects and for his dedication to digging into the fabric of America and shedding light on how people live and how they think. A Zipporah Films release. Reviewed October 26, 2018.


I wonder what Orson Welles would have thought of the completed version of his “The Other Side of the Wind,” which has been finally brought to light after years of rights battles and professional efforts to piece together the footage left incomplete in Welles’s lifetime.

The New York Film Festival has provided a service by showing the film in its revivals section and Netflix deserves credit for bringing about its release. Now it is up to the public to judge and the results are bound by the very nature of the enterprise to be mixed. First, it is important to attempt to surmise what Welles was trying to do when he began shooting in 1970.

From the reconstruction it would seem that Welles was attempting to cast a satirical eye on the process of making movies, with particular attention on the odd gang of people involved in the making. His vision is a turbulent, dark and often comic take behind the chaotic scenes, including a sprawling party in honor of a director’s 70th birthday. One may think of Fellini’s “8½,” also about a director trying to make a movie.

Story-wise the result is an odd conglomeration, as per the screenplay credited to Oja Kodar and Welles. Kodar, born in Croatia, was Welles’s significant other in the latter years of his life. Their collaboration added a further personal dimension.

On the plus side there is fabulous imagery throughout. John Huston, cast as the director, Jake Hannaford, has a face that is totally impressive and it is repeatedly shown in commanding close-ups. His imperial manner is also there, and one of the film’s pleasures is watching him in this central role.

There are also scenes with the beautiful Kodar playing the leading actress, including many nude shots of her, and they are extremely arresting as seen from various camera perspectives doting on her.

The cast also includes Peter Bogdanovich as a disciple of the director, a role played in real life. It is interesting to see the shots of him in his youthful days. His extensive appearances are especially appropriate, as he has been an expert on Welles and a force in pursuit of getting the film freed and completed.

There are impressive appearances of Lilli Palmer, Susan Strasberg, Mercedes McCambridge, Paul Stewart and Robert Random. In fact, one can enjoy the nostalgia of seeing such notables as Edmund O’Brian and Cameron Mitchell. Claude Chabrol, Stephane Audran, Henry Jaglom and Paul Mazursky are also on hand.

Other pleasures are to be found in the set pieces, including a sequence in a drive-in theater. As you might expect, Welles amassed many shots in keeping with his reputation for trying to be unique, and the film is a visual treasure trove.

However—and this is a big however--the bottom line is that if a viewer cannot enjoy all of the above attributes from the point of view of a cinema junkie, one can become completely lost and exasperated in trying to follow what’s going on in the story.

Welles would have undoubtedly edited his film into more solid shape story-wise before he was finished. What we get now is a mélange of his footage. But it must be said with satisfaction that at last the fabled Orson Welles movie is out of the closet, and the mystery can be relegated to film history, the film now to be viewed as part of the great director’s body of work. A Netflix release. Reviewed October 21, 2018.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--WILDLIFE  Send This Review to a Friend

Growing up is difficult for Joe (excellent Ed Oxenbould) in “Wildlife,” shown in the 2018 New York Film Festival and now in release. He must deal with the disarray in the lives of his parents in the film directed by Paul Dano, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zoe Kazan based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel.

Set in the 1960s in Montana, the story focuses on Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry Brinson, a man who can’t find a satisfactory place in life. He works on a golf course, but gets fired for being too cozy with members with whom he likes to chat, and when he is offered the opportunity to return, his sense of dignity leads him to refuse no matter how badly he needs money for keeping up with expenses.

Carey Mulligan plays his wife, Jeanette, who stoically tries to cope as best as she can with the difficult circumstances. But her patience runs out when Jerry suddenly get a bug that he can fulfill himself and gain self-satisfaction by enlisting to fight forest fires raging in the state. Jeanette is appalled that he would go off to risk his life when he has a family.

Jeanette gets a job as a swimming instructor, and soon she is being pursued by one of the enrollees, Warren (Bill Camp), who has a successful automobile business. Warren, although older and not especially attractive, is Mr. Nice Guy, and an affair blossoms while Jerry is off battling blazes.

I’m not sure I buy the personality transformation Jeanette undergoes, although the affair itself has its logic. She also doesn’t hide her liaison from Joe, and it is from his viewpoint that the film achieves its greatest poignancy. Joe must learn to fend for himself emotionally no matter what the situation with his parents becomes. Oxenbould does a fine job in portraying Joe, which is a highlight of the film.

One gets caught up in wondering how it will all turn out, which is a tribute to this first directorial job by Dano and to the screenplay. Sympathy is engendered for the parents, as well as for Joe, thanks to the solid acting by Gyllenhaal and Mulligan, and “Wildlife” emerges as a solid drama. An IFC Films release. Reviewed October 19, 2018.


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