Thursday, January 31, 2019

Top 10 of 2018 and Cold War

                    My Best Is Not Fully Anyone Else’s Best
                                                (I can’t help it if they’re wrong)

                                         Comments and Review by Ken Burke
                                                           Top 10 Films of 2018

  You can scroll much farther down in this posting to the Related Links section to see the collective critical consensus for 2018 films along with specific individual lists, but now that I’ve finally had a chance to see enough of the likely contenders for such honors (although certainly not everything released last year, especially in the documentary and foreign language areas) here are my choices:

1. Vice (Adam McKay; review in our January 10, 2019 posting [Rotten Tomatoes 66% positive reviews, Metacritic 61% average score])

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

2. Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham; review in our August 2, 2018 posting [RT 99% positive reviews, MC 90% average score])

3. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins; review in our January 2, 2019 posting [RT 95% positive reviews, MC 87% average score])

4. First Reformed (Paul Schrader; review in our June 21, 2018 posting [RT 93% positive reviews, MC 85% average score])

5. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee; review in our August 16, 2018 posting [RT 95% positive reviews, MC 83% average score])

6. Green Book (Peter Farrelly; review in our November 29, 2018 posting [RT 82% positive reviews, MC 70% average score])

7. Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada; review in our August 9, 2018 posting [RT 93% positive reviews, MC 77% average score])

8. A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper; review in our October 11, 2018 posting [RT 90% positive reviews, MC 88% average score])

9. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley; review in our July 12, 2018 posting [RT 92% positive reviews, MC 80% average score])

10. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller; review in our November 7, 2018 posting [RT 98% positive reviews, MC 87% average score])

(Any Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic discrepancies between what’s posted here and what I cited in my original reviews are simply the result of later input altering percentages at those summary sites.)

 Further considerations for my list included, among others of note (in rough order of preference) Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton; review in our November 14, 2018 posting), The Cakemaker (Ofir Raul Grazier; review in our August 23, 2018 posting), The King (Eugene Jarecki; review in our July 12, 2018 posting), Burning (Lee Chang-dong; review in our November 22, 2018 posting), The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017; review in our March 21, 2018 posting), First Man (Damien Chezelle; review in our October 18, 2018 posting), A Quiet Place (John Krasinski; review in our April 19, 2018 posting), Stan & Ollie (John S. Baird; review in our January 24, 2018 posting)Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018; review in our February 22, 2018 posting), and Searching (Aneesh Chanty) with my chosen 10 matching 8 of the Films Mentioned on Most Critics Top 10 Lists—the link referred to in my opening statement of this post, although only 4 of mine are within the first 10 on that list3 of my "next 10" falling within their collective top 30, although Vice doesn’t even make that cut (Damn!), despite earning an Oscar Best Picture nomination (you can get Oscar info in the Related Links section as well; in a future posting I’ll go into more details on the Academy’s choices, along with my actual preferences in some major categories and predictions on the various winners).  I highly doubt Vice will win the Best Picture race (probably won’t even come close now that I recall those dismissive [I’d say absurd] RT, MC negative responses), although for me it was the finest combination of anything I saw last year of superb acting, creative script, cinematic finesse, and overall impact.  Its 8 Oscar noms plus Christian Bale’s Golden Globe win for Best Actor in a musical or comedy (which it is hilarious in a scathing satirical manner in parts but it’s also a deadly drama when you consider what’s being shown here about the behind-the-scenes-manipulative-power of Dick Cheney as Vice President to G.W. Bush) may help improve its presence in the marketplace now that it’s been boosted up to 1,557 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters, along with garnering a good many nominations (plus a decent amount of wins) from many sources for the film as a whole, McKay as director and/or screenwriter, Bale as Best Actor, in addition to Supporting Actor/Actress nods for Sam Rockwell (as Bush), Amy Adams (as Lynne Cheney); yet, given it’s made only about $42 million at the box-office after 5 weeks in release and likely has little appeal to the roughly 35% of Americans who still support equally-power-mad (although considerably less inept at achieving his political goals) Donald Trump, I doubt we’ll see much more attention given to my “favourite” except for a strong-possibility Best Actor Oscar to Bale (with, hopefully, another one as the slam-dunk-choice for Makeup and Hair), although in my opinion wins for Best Director and/or Best Original Screenplayalong with Best Film Editing for Hank Corwinwould also be well-deserved.

 Of course, I don’t always synchronize very well with the Academy, as for the last 7 years I’ve been doing these blog reviews we’ve only agreed 3 times on my #1 and their Best Picture choice (12 Years a Slave [Steve McQueen, 2013; review in our November 14, 2013 posting], Birdman or (The Unexpected Value of Ignorance) [Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, 2014; review in our November 6, 2014 posting], Spotlight [Tom McCarthy, 2015; review in our November 19, 2015 posting]), while my initial 2 top choices (Melancholia [Lars von Trier, 2011; review in our December 12, 2011 posting—the first review we ever did, which in retrospect is probably worth 4½ stars {the film, not the poorly-laid-out-review}, but I didn’t want to start out being too generous], The Master [Thomas Paul Anderson, 2012; review in our September 27, 2012 posting]) weren't even Best Picture nominees as was the case last year when my #1, Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman; review in our October 26, 2017 posting), didn’t make their Best Picture list (however, it was nominated for Best Animated Feature, but lost)—my other #1, Fences (Denzel Washington, 2016; review in our January 4 and January 12, 2017 postings), did get a Best Picture nom but lost to Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016; review in our November 10, 2016 posting—my predicted winner that year, La La Land [Damien Chazell, 2016; review in our December 21, 2016 posting] had the Oscar for a couple of minutes before the snafu arose over the botched, wrong announcement), but variety, especially concerning aesthetic debates, is always the spice of life in and about the arts.  However, in my opinion of Oscar’s 2018 Best Picture variety, I’m not on the bandwagon for Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018; review in our January 2, 2019 posting), The Favorite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018; review in our December 12, 2018 posting), or Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer, 2018; review in our November 7, 2018 posting) as Best Picture nominees, even as I’m glad to see Black Panther in that group—even if It’s not  in my Top 10—just to see it get such recognition for its wealth of strong onscreen African characters/Black actors.  One other film that’s gotten a lot of talk among the best of the year (not in Oscar’s Best Picture opinion, although it is up for Best Director [interesting that distinction doesn’t also lead to a Best Picture nod], Best Foreign Language Feature, Best Cinematography [OK with me if it wins either of the latter 2]) is Poland's Cold War, so let’s see what I can tell you about it.
                     Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski)   rated R
Unlike with the re-formatting I usually use with these illustrations I've kept all of the
Cold War images in their original 4x3 ratio as intended by the director.
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): In a story that moves from late 1940s Poland to mid-and-late 1950s Paris, then returns to Poland through the mid-1960s the backdrop of the actual Cold War conflict between the West and Russian-dominated Soviet Union/Eastern Europe is present (especially in the restrictive public lives of the protagonists who meet as older male teacher, younger female student), but these intense lovers also find themselves in frequent situations of restrictive private lives as well given their various conflicting allegiances and barriers.  While told in a chronological fashion, this film has some nuance of French New Wave jump-cutting, not so much within individual scenes but instead between the various time periods depicted so we have to work a bit to follow the major aspects of the narrative until they’re finally explained (if at all).  Shot in gorgeous black & white in the old cinema ratio of 4x3 (both aspects contributing effectively to the time period depicted as well as highlighting destitute aspects of postwar Europe) this film is a marvel to look at (Oscar-nominated cinematography), a thoughtful rendering of its differing cultural milieus (also rightfully-nominated for Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film), and a romantic tale alternately steamy (but not in a graphic Last Tango in Paris [Bernardo Bertolucci, 1973] manner) or confounding, Cold War’s found great levels of critical praise (although followed by a very restrictive rollout to theaters thus far; maybe that’ll change with the recent Oscar nods—including for Best Director [oddly enough, not correspondingly for Best Picture]).  Yet, Cold War may easily be more embraced by you than it was by me (Surprisingly! I was all set to love it based on trailers and reviews) so read on for as much of what you want to learn from my comments below, see it if you can find the film, then let me know if how it appeals to you may have eluded how I experienced it.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: You really have to pay attention to this one (made marginally difficult if you have to read the subtitles translating Polish [plus some French], even more so if—like me—you’re also trying to take notes in the dark while you’re watching [someday I may have to admit streaming works better for that combination, although my experience of Roma in that manner didn’t leave me as enthused about it as so many others are, possibly because screen-size often does make a difference in overall impact; for the life of me, I can’t understand how anyone can appreciate any film of better-than-average-quality on a cellphone]) because the various chronological segments jump quickly from one year to the next, often with no direct explanations of what’s happened during the intervening months, as events in the new time frame don’t easily follow at first from what’s just been shown.  With that in mind, I’ll try to streamline it a bit, filling in some gaps as we go.  Beginning in 1949 Poland (where the physical devastation of WW II is ever-evident, especially in a early scene of a church where the dome’s been blown away leaving the interior at the mercy of the elements) we find Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) and his associate, Irena Bielecka (Agata Kulesza), traveling around the countryside recording local musicians, traditional folksongs.  Their goal is to gather native Polish music and dance, as well as recruit potential young performers, for a school being set up under government support to preserve, perform, export this aspect of national heritage (as long as it also promotes the ideology of Poland’s unofficial-but-absolute-overlord, the Soviet Union, with the school’s musical and dance direction left to Wiktor and Irena but ultimate control in the hands of Communist Party apparatchik Lech Kaczmarek [Borys Szyc], so once the chosen, intensely-rehearsed students begin finding audiences they’re performing before a huge backdrop of Joseph Stalin).  Despite their roughly 10-year-age-difference Wiktor’s student, teenage Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig), begins a clandestine affair with him (even though she’s on parole from stabbing her father; she claims he molested her) which continues to dominate this filmic narrative.

 Warsaw, 1951: Their affair’s in earnest by now even though Lech frequently questions Zula about Wiktor; she admits to Wiktor she’s “tattling” on him but not about their sexual encounters because Lech’s more interested in whether his comrade’s being faithful to Stalinist dictates than whether he’s fooling around with a member of this increasingly-successful-troupe.  East Berlin, 1952: Lech was right to keep an eye on Wiktor’s non-romantic-actions because while the group’s performing in Germany (with the subtle irony noted that Poles and East Germans are now supposed to be colleagues because of their shared domination by the Russian-ruled-U.S.S.R. despite the cruel destruction of Poland by German Nazis during WW II [East Berlin’s also littered with rubble from the war, emphasizing the grim realities of just about everyone in this story behind the Iron Curtain except for Communist Party honchos]) he’s made plans for himself and Zula to slip away during the reception following their latest stage triumph, exiting the Russian sector of Berlin into the West; however, she doesn’t show up, so he seems to walk back to the troupe’s hotel.  Paris, 1954: Wiktor’s now playing piano with a jazz group at a club called L’Eclipse, has a not-so-intense-affair going with local poet Juliette (Jeanne Balibar)—it’s never explained how he left Poland—when he’s visited one night by Zula, in the city to perform with the Polish folk company; they talk later, she explains she was scared to attempt escape in Berlin, not knowing what might become of that crime or her future life with him.  Yugoslavia, 1955: Wiktor comes to see Zula’s troupe perform, wants to meet up with her again; however, 2 guys whisk him away after the show, tell him their assignment’s to send him back to Warsaw but instead (for reasons I didn’t follow) they put him on a train to elsewhere so he can escape back into the West.  Paris, 1957: Now Zula’s singing at the club where Wiktor works; they’ve resumed their torrid affair, even though she’s married to an Italian, which is how she legally left Poland.  They quarrel but reconcile (somewhat), she records an album with producer Michel (Cédric Kahn), claims she also had lots of sex with him (not clear if she did or was just trying to goad Wiktor), then suddenly (for no reason anyone knows) she returns to Poland.  Wiktor desperately wants to be with her, so an official at the Polish consulate comes up with a plan.

 Poland, 1959: Apparently, the “plan” was for Wiktor to admit he'd committed crimes against the state (including spying for Great Britain, I think—even though he apparently never did that) so he’s now serving a 15-year-prison-sentence (some plan!) when he’s visited by Zula, who’s now married to Lech (remember him?); she promises to use her husband’s governmental influence to get Wiktor released.  Poland, 1964: Wiktor’s now free, Zula’s a pop entertainer (wearing a brunette wig, over her increasingly-shorter-blonde-hair as the years go on; this takes on some unintended significance when I get to my closing Musical Metaphor) with a young child by Lech, yet she shows little interest in either husband or son, pushing past both of them one night after a successful performance to pull of her wig, make a secret plan with Wiktor.  When next we see them they’ve traveled by bus back to that war-damaged-church in the countryside we saw in the early scenes where they kneel before what’s left of the altar, exchange “marriage” vows, then line up some pills on the altar railing, which we assume to be taken for their mutual suicide.  Back at the bus-stop-bench as twilight approaches (with lighting now at low key), Zula suggests they change location for a better view so they walk out of the frame, bringing the film to a somber close.  ⇐  (Although you can practically hear the worldwide-applause as the houselights go up on this concise 88-min. experience, given how much award response [so far], pending nominations have accrued to this film—except in my seat in the theater, where only 1 of 4 in my regular viewing group was all that impressed with what we saw, possibly let down a bit by all the hype as well as lingering accolades for Pawlikowski’s Ida [review in our June 3, 2014 posting; layout a bit ugly from those earlier Two Guys days, though], my #3 for 2014, won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, also nominated for Best Cinematography.)

So What? While I’d have included Ida as a Best Picture Oscar contender for 2014 releases, I’m not among those who feel it’s an oversight Cold War's not a finalist for that trophy to be awarded about a month from now, although it does join its predecessor in being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography, a Best Director nom included this time (again, how that doesn’t lead to a Best Picture consideration—even though I’m not really disappointed about these exclusions—seems like an anomaly, as you’d think the 2 normally go together, although the explanation is simply the director choices come from that specific branch of the Academy while all members can vote for potential Best Picture finalists, with some formula I’m not completely sure of determining how many of a possible 10 are chosen, so it’s clear the actual directors were quite impressed with Cold War even if the 8,000 or so overall voting members weren’t that interested—or may not have been all that aware of it, given their hints of what to see on DVD from the Golden Globe nominations didn’t mention Cold War while its many wins/nominations from festivals/critics groups probably didn’t make much impact either even as it won Best Director at Cannes [likely noted by just the Academy’s directors guild]).  The acting in Cold War's quite strong, especially the 2 leads (both of them as serious considerations but ultimately not among my Top 5), with the overall story intriguing (especially when I learned after-the-fact that it’s loosely based on the director's parents)—giving me reason to put it on my final list for Best Original Script (bumping off A Quiet Place if I should make that decision [as if anyone cares])—what intrigues me the most about Cold War is its exquisite black & white cinematography, about equal in my estimation with Roma, so if Cuarón’s work should triumph in the Best Picture and/or Best Director races (where it looms as the favorite at present for both) then I hope Cold War can at least capture Best Foreign Language Film and/or Best Cinematography—or maybe spilt those with Roma if Cuarón’s upset in the loftier categories—because both of these films have value as concepts and executions, just not enough of either for me when compared to other contenders where Best Picture and Director are concerned.

Bottom Line Final Comments: So, if Cold War’s such a critical delight (right at 100 wins/nominations, with a lofty 94% RT positive reviews, an astounding 90% average score from the normally-more-cautious MC folks)—although it’s not setting any records at the box office with a domestic take after 6 weeks in release of only about $1.4 million (due largely, though, to now playing in only 111 theaters [72 of them just added last weekend], so maybe that’ll change since the Oscar noms are known)—then what’s my problem with it?  Going against the grain as much as I am on Cold War, all I can try to articulate is that beyond the solid acting and cinematography I just didn’t find myself captivated by what was on screen (sorry, Pawel; I mean no disrespect to the memory and lived-experiences of your parents, as I’m sure this film means a hell of a lot to you).  The passion between Zula and Wiktor is clear and sincere, their inability to stay connected is intriguing from the sense of a viewer’s assumed-embrace of the romantic narrative even as we must acknowledge passion’s not always enough to keep a relationship functional (sometimes it’s not healthy when passion does win out over reason, prolonging connections better off broken), yet despite my cognitive rationale that what pulls these lovers together, pushes them apart, ultimately brings them to a tragic conclusion all makes sense for the episodes in these lives Pawlikowski’s revealed to us, for me the ultimate encounter just seemed to wander too much into the realm of Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982) without that gut-wrenching-film’s level of ultimate choices.  The story of Zula and Wiktor is a sad situation for them, surrounded by a stifling atmosphere in the Polish scenes where an entire nation’s used as a prop for Soviet propaganda (however, the Parisian scenes feel heavy also, given the torch-singer-attitude of Zula’s songs along with the self-imposed-misery of our protagonists), but ultimately I just wasn’t as moved as I’d been primed to be by this modern riff evoking aspects of Romeo and Juliet's tragedy (or even the death of Mimi in opera's La bohème, its spin-off into Angel's sad demise in the playthen film [Chris Columbus, 2005]Rent). 

 As always, I’ll conclude with a Musical Metaphor, bringing closure with due consideration for what’s gone before, although Pawlikowski might find my choice a bit flippant considering the serious family history he’s explored here (so, to satisfy him—in the off-chance he’d ever read this blog—as well as maybe some of you who’d prefer a more-contemplative-tone for this ending-aural-statement, I’ll also leave you with Zula singing "Two Hearts Four Eyes" in that Paris jazz club, a melancholy song about unrequited love [if, like me, you don’t speak Polish—at least I assume that’s the language here; it’s certainly not French—you can find an English translation of the lyrics just below the YouTube screen]); still, I think a couple of marvelous pop songs get to the heart of what’s being explored in Cold War: The Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No” (from their 1966 Pet Sounds album, complete with the odd finale of barking dogs and the Doppler-effect of a train passing by  [reflecting Wiktor's various train rides trying to reconnect with Zula], bringing the album to an end [the song was also released as a single that year credited only to Brian Wilson]) at com/watch?v=SoqYQdregRI paired up with “Long, Long, Long” at ?v=e9vUCdfwlgw (from the 1968 album simply titled The Beatles but more often referred to as “the White Album” because of its stark cover; it’s a bit similar to Wilson’s tune in which the rest of his group’s replaced by studio musicians for this recording while George Harrison’s song largely features just him, with some contributions from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, none from John Lennon).  In the case of Wilson’s lament I can easily see Wiktor finding his life empty without Zula no matter what country they’re in (“Where did your long hair go Where is the girl I used to know How could you lose that happy glow […] Could I ever find in you again The things that made me love you so much then Could we ever bring ‘em back once they have gone”) to which Zula can finally reply in their last days back in Poland (“It’s been a long long long time How could I ever have lost you […] So many tears I was searching So many tears I was wasting […] Now I can see you, be you How can I ever misplace you How I want you”), even though their union will now truly be final.  I just wish I could say I fully enjoyed this film as much as I do hearing these pop masterpieces again. 
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2018’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 24, 2019 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2018 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards 
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the current Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2018 along with the Oscar nominees for 2018 films.

Here’s more information about Cold War: (12:09 interview with director Pawel Pawlikowski)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come. 
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 30,523 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

No comments:

Post a Comment