Daniel Garber talks with fimmaker Laurie Lynd about Killing Patient Zero

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, Canada, Death, Disease, documentary, H.I.V., LGBT, Movies, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s the early 1980s, with gay liberation, culture and sexual freedom at its peak, when an unknown disease infects gay men. It’s called gay cancer, GRID or AIDS. And people start to die in large numbers. Scientists trace its spread across North America by a single, promiscuous Canadian flight attendant, known as Patient Zero. This selfish, sexual predator is to blame for the epidemic. Or is he…?

Killing Patient Zero is a new documentary that traces the origins of the AIDS epidemic while debunking its myths. Through vintage footage and new interviews with scientists and researchers, this film takes a new look at widely-held ideas about the spread of the HIV virus. It also talks with friends and colleagues of Gaetan Dugas – the so-called patient zero – and rescues his undeserved reputation.

It’s written and directed by Toronto’s Laurie Lynd, based on Richard McKay’s book Patient Zero and the Making of the Aids Epidemic. Laurie is an award-wining TV and film director whose work ranges from Degrassi, to Queer as Folk, to Breakfast with Scot.

I spoke with Laurie Lynd in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Killing Patient Zero had its world premier at Hot Docs 19. It’s opening soon in Toronto.

NAFTA movies? Films reviewed: Giant Little Ones, Sólo con Tu Pareja PLUS Sui Generis: An Alternative History of Mexican Cinema

Posted in 1990s, Bullying, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Depression, LGBT, Mexico, Movies, Sex by CulturalMining.com on March 29, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

If you’ve been watching movies over the past few years, you may have noticed a big change. Some of the biggest Oscars are going to directors like Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzales Iñaritu.

When did Mexico start making movies? The answer is: Mexico has been making great movies for a very long time… we just never knew about it. But there is one way to fill in that gap in our collective memories.

Sui Generis refers to unique species or bodies of work. Sui Generis: An Alternative History of Mexican Cinema is a suprising series of films at TIFF Cinematheque. It’s programmed by Diana Sanchez and Guillermo del Toro and includes some really famous movies – like Buñuel’s Avenging Angel – and an equal number I’ve never heard of. Surprises include anti-church satires, political protests, bizarre fantasies and fantastical films that transcend the genres we know. There’s also a sexual frankness largely missing in Hollywood movies under the Hays Code (1930-1968), but legal in Mexico.

Aside from Buñuel’s films and a few others, I had never heard of most of these movies, but Mexican cinephiles weep over the importance and uniqueness of these selections; a staple on late-night Mexican TV  but rarely seen on the big screen. This series features directors like Ripstein, Buñuel, Cuaron, del Toro and many others, from the 1930s up to recent times.

It’s quirky, eclectic and grand. I recommend this series.

This week I’m looking at movies from Canada and Mexico. There’s a Mexican sex farce about a man who bites off more than he can chew; and a Canadian coming-of-age drama about a boy forced to choke back his tears.

Giant Little Ones

Wri/Dir: Keith Behrman

It’s a middle class suburb somewhere in North America Franky (Josh Wiggins) is about to turn 17 at a big party. All his teammates from the swim team will be there, his divorced mom (Maria Bello) will be away that night, lots of alcohol and music, and his beautiful but vapid girlfriend says she’s ready to spend the night with him. And his best friend Ballas (Darren Mann) will be there to cheer him on. They’ve been inseparable since childhood and the two are popular and respected at school. This will be a life changing night for Franky… but not in the way he expects it.

The party ends early when his mom comes home, and his girlfriend decides not to stay. So the two drunk best friends end up crashing in Franky’s bed, and something happens in the dark. Ballis rushes home, and the next day everything’s different. Rumours about Franky start spreading, he’s blanked in the hallways and ghosted on instagram. People say he’s gay and did something to Ballas, who does nothing to defend his former best friend.

Only a few people stick by him. Mouse (Niamh Wilson) his out lesbian lab partner who packs a fake appendage in her jeans teaches him how to live with bullying (but I’m not gay! says Franky. Doesn’t matter says Mouse); and Natasha, Ballas’s sister (Taylor Hickson). She was once popular too, until she was “slut shamed” after something terrible happened to her. They turn to each other, first as pariahs and friends, but it gradually turns into something more.

Adding to the complications is Franky’s divorced gay Dad (Kyle MacLachlan). Franky hasn’t spoken to him since he moved away to live with his lover. He’s ready to offer advice but first Franky has to conquer his own homophobia. What really happened that night with Ballas? Will they ever be friends again? Is he in love with Natasha, or is it something else? And will things ever get better at school?

Giant Little Ones is an excellent coming-of-age drama, well acted, and based on an elegantly symmetrical script. It’s tender, funny and surprising, without leaving you depressed. I’ve seen this Canadian movie twice now, and it was just as moving the second time through.

Sólo con tu pareja (1991) (a.k.a. Love in the Time of Hysteria)

Wri/Dir: Alfonso Cuarón

Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is known for his sexual prowess and enormous ego. He sleeps with a different beautiful woman every night. He’s also fond of challenges and pranks like running naked down the stairwell to the lobby each morning to pick up the morning paper before anyone sees him. He’s handsome and fit, with a successful career as an advertising creative and lives in a swank apartment building in a good Mexico city neighbourhood. He lives two doors away from Dr Mateo Mateos (Luis de Icaza) and his wife, both good friends, who give him the keys to their apartment while they are away for the weekend.

But Tomas’s limits are challenged one night when he is faced with more than even he can handle. Mateo’s statuesque nurse Sylvia (Dobrina Cristeva) is arriving for a date, while his boss Gloria is also dropping by

LOVE IN THE TIME OF HYSTERIA, (aka SOLO CON TU PAREJA), Daniel Gimenez Cacho, 1991. ©IFC Films

to hear his advertising pitch for a brand of canned Jalapeños (and maybe a bit of spicy fun). Soon enough he’s bedding his boss in Mateo’s flat, Sylvia in his own, and is forced to inch his way naked back and forth between the bedroom windows and satisfy both women without letting either one know about the other. To make matters worse, he finds himself infatuated by a new tenant in the flat between

the two rooms. Clarisa is a flight attendant (Claudia Ramírez) and when he sees her robotic miming of seat belts and oxygen masks he sees through her window heid smitten. But can one man keep three women satisfied at one time? Alas, no.

He is fired from his job, and the vengeful nurse falsifies his medical tests telling him he is HIV positive, plunging him into a deep depression. Will Tomas discover the truth and change his ways? Or will he succumb to despair and throw himself off the tallest tower in Mexico City?

Sólo con Tu Pareja is a seldom seen, silly screwball comedy from the early 90s. It’s also Cuaron’s first feature film, long before his big hits like Gravity, Roma and Y Tu Mama Tambien. This is no masterpiece, but it is a fun and interesting look at a totally different era. It reminds me of the 1960s comedy Boeing, Boeing, starring Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis, also about a promiscuous man who juggles three flight attendant gilfriends in one Paris apartment. This one is also dated, but better than Boeing Boeing — the women in this movie have personalities, and Daniel Giménez Cacho is on fire as Tomas. And it adds a pair of Japanese businessmen, some mariachi musicians and a Montezuma lookalike to give it a more Mexican feel.

Giant Little Ones opens today in Toronto; check your local listings; and you can see Sólo con Tu Pareja just tonight at the Tiff Bell Lightbox as part of the fantastic TIFF Cinematheque Mexican film series called Sui Generis: An Alternative History of Mexican Cinema, on now.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Daniel Garber talks with Jia Zhang-ke about his new film Ash is Purest White

Posted in 1990s, 2000s, China, Crime, Migrants, Movies, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 22, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Photo of Jia Zhang-ke (left) by Jeff Harris.

Qiao is the girlfriend of a smalltime hood in a dingy mining city in northern China. She is confident, pretty and fiercely loyal. But after a violent showdown on a downtown street, she ends up taking the fall for him. She serves five years in prison. When she is released she discovers her one-time lover has abandoned her.

Will her journey across China — to find her ex-lover and reestablish her reputation — bring her what she wants?

Ash is Purest White is a new Chinese feature that played at Cannes and TIFF. It’s a passionate melodrama that chronicles China’s changes as it modernizes, as seen by a gangster and his moll. It is written and directed by one of China’s best and most famous filmmakers, Jia Zhang-ke.

I spoke to Jia Zhang-ke in New York City via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Ash is Purest White opens today in Toronto.

Eccentric. Films reviewed: Ruben Brandt Collector, Greta, A Bread Factory

Posted in Animation, Art, Crime, Family, Movies, Mystery, psychedelia, Psychological Thriller, Psychopaths, Theatre, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 1, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s March and Toronto’s spring film festival season has begun. The Irish Film Fest is on this weekend, and the WTF Fest starts showing “eccentric movies” at the Royal Cinema today. In this case, WTF stands for What the Film – great stuff. Also opening is What Walaa Wants, the NFB doc about a young Palestinian woman who wants to be a cop. Also opening is Gaspar Noe’s amazing film Climax, a movie that includes a fantastic dance performance and a stunning title sequence… followed by a horrific panoply of drug-addled sex and violence.

Keeping with the theme of the strange and unusual, this week I’m looking at offbeat movies with eccentric characters. There’s a a French widow with a yen for pocketbooks, a psychotherapist keeps fine art front and centre; and a two older women who want to save their arts centre from falling apart.

Ruben Brandt Collector

Wri/Dir: Milorad Krstic

Dr Ruben Brandt is a psychoanalyst obsessed by art. He lives and works in an isolated alpine chalet where he treats his rich but troubled clients, including a banker with an eating problem, and a former bodyguard.

Meanwhile Mike Kowalsky, a private detective from Washington DC, is in Paris chasing Mimi, a notorious cat burglar down the city streets. She’s carrying a priceless Egyptian artifact. But he can’t catch her; the former circus acrobat is just too fast. Mimi tracks down Dr Brandt and visits his clinic. She wants to get rid of her kleptomania, She can’t stop stealing. But in a strange turn of events, patients turn to doc tors and doctors to patients. You see, Dr Brandt is plagued with halucinations of people in famous paintings. Is Venus in Boticelli’s painting trying to kill him? How about Warhol’s double Elvis? Brandt’s patients, including Mimi, decide the only way to save their doctor is to steal all the paintings that obsess him. They begin a series of elaborate heists of the world’s best known paintings from the most famous galleries. Can Kowalsky solve the puzzle and catch the culprits? Or will Ruben Brandt, the art collector, triumph?

Ruben Brandt Collector is a simple, silly story told with amazing animated images. It feels like a cartoon guide to Janson’s History of Art… on acid. Characters are portrayed as cubists, as two-faced januses, or as two-dimensional pieces of paper. The plot may be flat and inconsequential but the animated art and psychedelic imagery sticks with you.

Greta

Wri/Dir: Neil Jordan (The Crying Game)

Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is depressed. She’s a recent college grad who works as a server in a fancy Manhattan restaurant. She shares a spacious condo with her best friend Erica (Maika Monroe) whose dad gave it to her as a gift. Ever since her mom died, Frances can’t have fun; she never seems to go out anymore. But her attitude changes when she finds a designer purse that someone left on a subway. Finally, she can do a good deed. Using the ID, she takes it to its owner’s home. Greta (Isabelle Huppert), is an older woman, a widow, who lives in an isolated cottage. Her home is like a piece of France right in the middle of NY city. She plays Chopin and bakes cookies.

It’s like at first sight. Greta needs someone to spend time with since her daughter moved away and Frances misses her mother terribly. They go for walks in Central Park, share intimate meals at her home, and even adopt a dog to keep Greta company. Greta worries Frances will go away, just like her daughter. Don’t worry Greta, I’m like chewing gum – I’ll stick around. Imagine, such good friends meeting at random.

But… everything changes when Frances discovers Greta’s secret. That “lost purse” wasn’t actually lost! Greta placed it there so they would meet. Is Greta just desperately lonely? A con artist? Or is she a psychopath? Even when Frances cuts off all contact with her Greta keeps showing up wherever she goes. She’s a stalker who can’t be stopped. Will Frances ever forgive her? And will Greta leave her alone?

Greta starts as a conventional drama but turns into an unexpected psychological thriller. It feels like a classic Grimm’s fairytale, with an innocent girl lured into a witch’s lair. Though not her best performance, Isabelle Huppert is credible as the (potential) villain, though Chloe Grace Moretz is wasted as the victim. It’s hard to picture Moretz as a helpless scaredycat. Greta is OK as a run of the mill, cat-and-mouse thriller, but it could have been so much more.

A Bread Factory

Wri/Dir: Patrick Wang (I interviewed him in 2012)

The Bread Factory is an arts centre in a small town on the Hudson Valley. Formerly an industrial bakery, it’s where the post-industrial townfolks go to see a movie, put on a play or attend a poetry reading. It’s been run by Dorothea and Greta (Tyne Daly, Elizabeth Henry) for more than 40 years. At the moment there are filmmaking lessons for little kids by an auteur (Janeane Garofalo); a greek tragedy starring an elderly shakesperean actor, and a Chekhov-like drama in production. It’s a hotbed of creativity and community life.

But everything is put at risk when a strange new group arrives in town. They are a pair of performers/conceptual artists known as May + Ray (Janet Hsieh, George Young), a sort of a Blue Man Group. They are vaguely associated with China, have a large international following, their videos are on youtube, and they even have a catchy logo on the T-shirts and totebags they sell. The problem is their work is shallow and pointless. And more important, the town school board is thinking of transfering all arts spending from The Bread Factory to May + Ray.

Can the town artists and performers save the bread factory? Or will corporate interests triumph?

A Bread Factory sounds ordinary but it’s actually a great movie. I really liked it. Dozens of characters and a complex, twisted plot manages to keep you interested but not distracted, with each storyline and character carefully constructed and allowed to develop. There’s a teenager (Zachary Sayle) interning at the town paper, a kid who functions as the projectionist (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a critic and an actor who hold a 50 year grudge… and many more. It feels like a great John Sayles movie.

I’ve only seen the first two hours (Part 1) so far but now I can’t wait to see Part 2.

A Bread Factory is a delightful treat.

Greta and Ruben Brandt Collector both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. A Bread Factory is playing this weekend at the WTF Festival at the Royal Cinema.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Daniel Garber talks with director Cristina Gallega about Birds of Passage

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Clash of Cultures, Colombia, Crime, Indigenous, Movies, War by CulturalMining.com on March 1, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Photos of Cristina Gallega by Jeff Harris

It’s the 1960s in the deserts of La Guajira in northern Colombia, where the Waayuu, a fiercely independent  indigenous nation, make their home. A young man, Rapayet who wants to marry Zaida must bring a large dowry of cattle, goats and precious beads. He sets out on a journey with his best friend, to earn the money he needs to pay for it. He finds his answer in the marijuana trade.  Americans are willing to pay good money for sacks of it grown in the hills. But with the cannibis trade comes complications to the clan in the form of riches… but also of violence, rivalries and possible destruction. Will this new wealth destroy the Waayuu people? Or can the old ways coexist with the newfound money?

A dramatic new movie called Birds of Passage follows the characters over two decades as their lives change. It’s a chronical of life over two decades, in the 1960s and 70s, a crime story, and a study of indigenous ways. Its detailed, passionate, and epic units scope.  The film was made by the creators of Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpant, and is co-directed by noted filmmaker Cristina Gallegos.

I spoke with Cristina Gallego on location in September at TIFF 18.

Birds of Passage opens today in Toronto.

Daniel Garber talks about the Oscars with Toronto cinephiles Jeff Harris and Jamil Fiorino-Habib

Posted in Bad Movies, Cultural Mining, Hollywood, Movies by CulturalMining.com on February 8, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Is Hollywood the epitome of the American dream, a place where a small town girl can be discovered at a soda fountain, or an auto mechanic can turn into a movie star overnight? Or is it where an obsolete medium recycles tired ideas, racist norms and sexual exploitation in exchange for the almighty dollar?

However you look at them, the Oscars – with their glamour, flash and controversy – are Hollywood’s sacred temple, where its gods show up annually to pay obeisance.

To help make sense of the Academy Awards I’ve invited two Toronto Cinephiles who really know their stuff to share their opinions on movies, Hollywood, and the Oscars.

Jamil Fiorino-Habib is a recent cinema studies and philosophy grad from UofT, hoping to pursue a Masters in Film Theory at the University of Amsterdam in the fall. He has a soft spot for international cinema, and loves to dive deep into film history and psychoanalysis.

Jeff Harris is a professional photographer with a photo arts degree from Ryerson. His photography has been featured in The Globe and Mail, Time Magazine, and culturalmining and has been nominated for many Webby Awards. He has worked as a photographer and photo editor at Maclean’s magazine and has been covering TIFF since 2002.

I spoke with Jamil and Jeff in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Academy Awards will be broadcast on February 24th, 2019.

Daniel Garber talks with Pugly directors Michael McNamara and Aaron Hancox

Posted in Animals, Canada, documentary, Movies, Toronto, TV by CulturalMining.com on January 11, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

If you’ve ever been to Trinity Bellwoods park on a certain Sunday, you may have noticed dozens of strange animals running rampant in the park’s dog run. They have big round eyes, squashed in faces, and make the oddest squawking sounds. What are they, and where did they come from?

They’re pugs, a popular breed of companion dogs popping up everywhere in this city. Many people devote their lives to these high-maintenance dogs. But it’s harder than it looks. Some have runny noses, birth defects, eating disorders and a host of other emotional and medical difficulties.

Pugly: a Pug’s Life, is a new documentary that follows these strange creatures and looks at some of their problems… and the people who come to their rescue. It’s co-directed by award winners Michael McNamara and Aaron Hancox. Michael is a TV and film writer and director who created The Cockroach that Ate Cincinnati. Aaron’s a producer/director, whose docs have been show on Netflix and other outlets.

I spoke with Michael McNamara & Aaron Hancoxhere in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Pugly premiers tonight at 9:00 pm on CBC Docs POV.

Need help. Films reviewed: Capernaum, The Upside

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Drama, Kids, Lebanon, Migrants, Movies, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on January 11, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

If January has left you broke or in debt, but you still want to see some movies, there are free alternatives out there. Kanopy – free for anyone with a Toronto library card, is an online streaming service with a huge selection of incredible movies and documentaries you can sign out digitally for free. Workman Arts and Rendezvous with Madness is showing a selection of cool movies about mental illness, for free later this month — reserve tickets online. And the Japanese Consulate in Toronto and the Japan Foundation are sponsoring three Japanese movies, first come, first serve. Both of these series are playing at the Hot Docs cinema in January.

This week I’m looking at two movies about people who need help. There’s a homeless kid in Beirut trying to help a motherless toddler, and a homeless ex-con in New York trying to help an extremely rich man who is paraplegic.

Capernaum

Wri/Dir: Nadine Labaki

Beirut, right now.

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is a foul-mouthed, poor kid who doesn’t go to school – his parents never registered him when he was born. He shares a bed with his three sisters, including Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam) the oldest. When she has her first period, Zain senses danger. He’s afraid their parents will marry very young Sahar to their predatory middle aged landlord Assaad. His fears turn out to be true, and she’s carried out of their home kicking and screaming. Zain has had enough… so he runs away. On a bus he meets an elderly man in a knockoff superhero costume – I’m cockroach man – and follows him to a rundown carnival. There he meets Tigest (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian woman fluent in Arabic with a baby named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). She uses a fake ID – she draws a beauty spot on her face each morning, but without she could be deported. She’s poor too, but takes Zain under her wing; he takes care of the baby while she’s at work. Everything’s going fine until… She doesn’t come home one day. What happened to her? Now 12 year old Zain has to serve as 1-year-old Yonas’s dad, searching the streets for milk and diapers for the baby, food and water. Zain is forced to pose as a Syrian refugee to get any help. But how long can a homeless child – taking care of a baby – last in a big cruel city?

Capernaum (the Lebanese word for chaos) is a funny, delightful and fascinating drama that’s also brimming with pathos. It’s a genuine tearjerker, I cried at least three times – couldn’t help it – but despite the tears, surprisingly this is not a depressng movie. It’s told in a series of flashbacks based on testimony in a courtroom. Zain is there suing his own parents for giving birth to him. The trial serves as the backdrop, but it’s mainly about Zain’s journey as an undocumented kid. Most of the characters are played by non-actors, but all of them, especially Zain al Rafeea are superb and real-seeming. It deals with very heavy topics – including human trafficking, refugees, poverty, child neglect and abuse – but this film manages to handle it with just the right degree of sadness, punctuated with enough humour to stop it from sliding into misery

This is only the second film I”ve seen by Nadine Labaki. I still remember Where do We Go Now (2011) a simple story about the women in a village trying to stop the conflict between Christians and Muslims. That was a cute movie, but this one is 100 times more clever, sophisticated, and skillfull.

I liked this film a lot.

The Upside

Dir: Neil Burger

Phillip (Bryan Cranston) is a billionaire widower who lives in a penthouse suite in New York City, He hasn’t large live in staff, including Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), his kind but prudish financial manager. He loves opera, poetry, fine art…, and paragliding. Or at least he did until a terrible accident left him paralyzed except for his neck and head. Now he’s despondent and ready to die. But Yvonne insists on hiring a new caregiver.

Dell (Kevin Hart) is a deadbeat dad with a teenaged son and an ex wife he can’t support. He’s a ne’erdowell on parole with a long prison record, and if he can’t prove he’s looking for work he’ll be back behind bars. Somehow he ends up in Phillip’s penthouse just when they’re hiring. To everyone’s surprise Phillip hires the extremely rude and unqualified Dell, mainly because he wants to die, the sooner the better. Dell is just as shocked to get the job, especially when he sees the first paycheque. But somehow the two hit it off, and little by little, Phillip crawls out of his shell and learns to live again. But how long can it last? Will Dell’s prison record come back to haunt him? And can Phillip ever recover from the loss of his one true love?

The Upside is a Hollywood remake of Intouchables, the French comedy that was a box office smash. I’ve never seen the original – apparently based on a true story – but I doubt this one will be a big hit. It’s very predictable, with some godawful jokes. Faking a tonic-clonic seizure to avoid a speeding ticket? (Please don’t.) Uneducated Dell mispronouncing famous names and three sylable words? Of course he panics at the idea of touching another man’s penis, even inserting a catheter. (Really?) Dell’s black, you see, but don’t worry white people, he likes Aretha Franklin not that newfangled hip hop stuff. (Sigh).

That said, there are some funny scenes; Hart and Cranston are likeable in their roles and together make a good buddy movie, and Nicole Kidman is unusually understated.

Is The Upside a great movie? No, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Capernaum and The Upside both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Best Movies of 2018!

Posted in Cultural Mining, Movies by CulturalMining.com on January 4, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

2018: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

I take it back – it was just the worst of times.

War, famine, with no action on Climate Change. volcanoes erupting, tsunamis, mass killings, ethnic cleansing, child refugees thrown into prisons, and incompetent but vengeful buffoons ruling more than one country. Good, safe Toronto (like many cites) suffered two mass killings by deranged nutbars, and somehow Ontario elected the brother of a man who made this city the laughing stock of the world. Yeah, it was the worst of times.

But at least a lot of people are still making great, original movies. (I’m a movie critic, not a newscaster.) This week I’m talking about the best movies of 2018. Some were made earlier but played this year, some screened at festivals and are opening in 2019, but all of them were open to the public at a movie theatre in this city at some point in 2018. There were way, way too many excellent movies to fit on any short list, so I’ve tried to find not just ones I liked, but also movies that somehow, shocked, surprised or delighted me in unexpected ways. Films that tickled the eye, pleased the ear, warmed the soul… or chilled the heart.

I’m intentionally shying away from Oscar Bait, superhero movies and sequels. And just to keep it within limits, I’m not including animated films or documentaries… but not because I don’t love them. (I do.)

There are also a bunch of movies I just haven’t seen yet, so of course I can’t include them.

So here, in no particular order, are my choices for best movies of 2018.

Let me start with some first movies or first in a long time movies, all from the US.

Hereditary is Ari Aster’s first film, and it goes so far beyond the usual cheap scare scenes I hesitate to call it a horror movie, but it is. It’s about a family – Mom’s an artist who builds doll houses exactly the one they live in; son’s a pothead, and daughter is a bit tetched in the head – who somehow conjure up an evil entity. I wish all horror movies were this well-made.

Leave No Trace is Debra Granik’s latest since the Winters Bone ten years ago. This is a subtlety moving film about a man raising his daughter in a nomadic life in the woods with minimal human contact… until they’re discovered by the authorities and forced to join civilization.

Sorry to Bother You is Boots Riley’s first film. It’s about an everyman in Oakland working as a telemarketer who discovers a secret about the company. It’s a combination political satire, science fiction, comedy drama. Not flawless, but brimming with brilliant new ideas and adventures in an old genre.

With honourable mentions to:

Jeremiah Zagar’s We The Animals

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (a cartoon, so doesn’t qualify on my main list)

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman

Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Robert Redford’s The Old Man and the Gun

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed

Here are four fantastic movies playing right now.

Border directed by Iranian filmmaker Ali Abbasi is a Swedish movie about an unusual looking border guard who discovers she may not be completely human.

The Favourite is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest and most accessible movie, a historical dark comedy about two female rivals fighting for Queen Anne’s attention.

Burning is Korean director Lee Chang-Dong’s mystery drama based on Haruki Murakami’s story about an intense young writer, the holly golightly woman he is obsessed with, and a slick rich guy who may have sinister motives.

Shoplifters is Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s family drama about a makeshift but loving family of petty criminals disrupted by government intervention.

And here are three more films coming in the first few months of 2019.

Cold War is Pawel Pawlikowski’s flawless romance about two musicians in postwar Poland, separated by the Iron Curtain.

Birds of Passage is an epic saga about how an indigenous family in Colombia is affected by the marijuana trade in the 60s and 70s.

The Good Girls is Alejandra Marquez Abella’s scathing look at the uppper class in Mexico City in the 1980s. Of course I loved Cuaron’s Roma, a visually beautiful film, but in my mind The Good Girls gets deeper and closer to the characters.

There are many more I really wanted to include, including Roma:

Lázsló Nemes’s Sunset (Napszállta)

Lucretia Martel’s Zama

Mouly Surya’s Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Gaspar Noe Climax

Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers

Luis Ortega’s El Angel

Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built

…but I decided to stop at 10 this year.

Once again, my favourite films of 2018:

The Good Girls

Birds of Passage

Cold War

Sorry to Bother You

Leave No Trace

Hereditary

Border

The Favourite

Burning

Shoplifters

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

Kinship. Films reviewed: Vox Lux, Shoplifters

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Japan, Movies, Music, Terrorism, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 21, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The holiday season is a time when families get back together, for good or for ill. So this week I’m looking at two movies about family and kinship. There’s a pair of sisters turned pop musicians, where one holds the scars of a terrible incident; and a makeshift family that rescues a small girl with scars.

Vox Lux

Wri/Dir: Brady Corbet

Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a god-fearing high school student in Staten Island, New York. She likes music, church and her big sister Eleanor (Stacey Martin) who always looks out for her. But her world turns upside down when a non-conformist kid pulls out a gun in music class, and starts shooting people down. Celeste tries to reason with him; she ends up wounded but not dead. She recovers with a scar on her neck. At the memorial for the mass shooting she performs a song which soon goes viral.

She and her sister are quickly signed to a major label by their manager (Jude Law) and whisked off to Sweden. There they experience the heady brew of extreme wealth, celebrity and number-one hits. But it also exposes them to the cruel scrutiny of tabloids and paparazzi that accompany celebrity.

Still a teenager, she loses her virginity to another musician, tries drugs and alcohol for the first time, and begins a gradual downward spiral toward addiction and paranoia. But she also establishes herself as an international icon, with her sparkling makeup, severe haircuts, and sequined outfits mimicked by devoted fans. She always wears a band around her neck both to hide and commemorate the scars of the shooting.

Years later Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) plans for a comeback, culminating in a stadium concert back in the hometown she left after the shooting. Now she’s brittle and bitter, addicted to drugs, and full of anger and pain. And she has a daughter (played by Cassidy, the young Celeste) brought up by the more responsible sister Eleanor. As she works toward the ultimate concert, a disturbing incident hits the headlines. Halfway around the world, fans wearing her distinctive makeup and clothing commit a random act of terrorism. Is she to blame? Will her career crash and burn? And if she performs her stadium show in her home town, will this lead to yet another massacre?

My brief description of the film suggests a music biopic crossed with an action movie. It’s neither. It’s actually a visual and audio collage of the impressions of a teenaged girl in the high pressure world of pop music, and the adult who emerges from it. Vox Lux is a short film, and at least a third of it is taken up by music performed on a stage before an actual audience. The music is by SIA and actually sung by Natalie Portman. The plot is mainly a background for the director’s experiments with sound and image filtered through the cruel world of social networks. Recurring shots of endless tunnels and aerial views of cities give it a hypnotic effect, and the music gives it a haunting feel. Though the movie feels incomplete, I liked the look and sound of it.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)

Wri/Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu

It’s present day Tokyo. Shota (Jyo Kairi) is a young boy living in an urban paradise. He’s smart, resourceful and brave. He studies at home – where he learns not just reading and writing, but also essential survival skills and the ways of the world. He lives with his grandma, his mom and dad and his big sister Aki, a family brimming with love. They are always there to rescue him from trouble and help him through bad times. They share responsibilities and eat dinner together. No one tells Shota to clean his room or wash the dishes. This is a life rich in traditions, superstitions, and family lore. And there’s lots of time to tell stories, go to the beach, or go fishing.

Or

Shota lives in a filthy, ramshackle house, a Dickensian den of petty criminals, thieves and con artists. This so-called family of vaguely-related misfits shoplifts their dinners and daily needs to stay alive. Dad (Lily Franky) works as a casual labourer, Grandma (Kiki Kirin) receives payments from an unknown source, teenaged Aki (Matsuoka Mayu) performs behind glass at a peepshow arcade, and mom, sometimes called auntie or Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) makes do with a parttime job pressing garments in a small factory. Even young Shota helps them all by pocketing food and shampoo while dad distracts the clerks.

But homelife takes a subtle shift with the newest family member.

Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is a little waif, horribly abused and neglected by her young parents… they always see her staring whistfully through her balcony bars, like a prisoner hoping to be rescued. They adopt her into their family, after discovering scars and burn marks all over her arms.

She immediately adapts to her new life, especially the love, attention and lack of fear she never experiences at home. They ask her if she wants to go home, but she adamently refuses… she likes it better here. But when her case becomes known as a kidnapping, it spells trouble. Can the family survive this a brush with authority? Or will it all come tumbling down? And would government intervention make their lives better or worse?

Perhaps I’m biased: I’ve interviewed Kore-eda four times, more than any other director, because I love all his films. But in my opinion Shoplifters is a fantastic movie, definitely one of the year’s best. It deals with poverty, nonconformity and precarious lives coexisting within one of the richest cities in the world. It explores what a family really is: is it something designated by law, or could it be a family by choice, where the members designate their own names and roles.

Hirokazu Kore-eda, TIFF17, photo by Jeff Harris

It stars many of his past actors – Lili Franky, and the late Kiki Kirin – and replays some themes from his early films. Our Little Sister was about whether a half-sister can be accepted into a complete family. Like Father, Like Son, where a family discovers their son was switched at birth, explores whether it’s nature or nurture that makes kinship real (Lili Franky plays the “bad dad” in that film.) After the Storm is about a delinquent dad trying to rebuild his family (also co-starring Lili Franky and Kiki Kirin). The Third Murder, a courtroom drama, deals with an accused murderer and his role as a surrogate parent to a high school girl. And in Nobody Knows, there’s a family made up of abandoned kids living in a highrise in central Tokyo.

Shoplifters (or Shoplifter Family, the more accurate Japanese title) is a culmination of all these films, a distillation of all their best elements.

It’s also exquisitely laden with relics of an older Japan – filled with glass bottles, printed cotton, paper calenders, snow men and fishing trips – that impart a soft, glowing light to all the scenes.

Detailed and nuanced, I strongly recommend Shoplifters to all.

Vox Lux and Shoplifters both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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