“Some people want to grow in their souls. Film must start to take that seriously. We must stop telling them stories they can understand.” – Howard Barker
There were some great movies released in 2018.
Black Panther managed to break box office records and represent the African (American) experience unlike any film in recent memory.
Isle of Dogs and Game Night were enjoyable diversions.
The Coen Brothers’ foray into Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was terrific. As were American Animals and Roma.
But a surprising number of really good films in 2018 addressed really big themes. Themes like love, injustice, white supremacy, religious faith, hope and despair, death and grief. These are the kinds of things some people go to the theater to avoid. But as film writer Howard Barker notes, some moviegoers like films that expand their souls. They don’t necessarily want easy-to-understand fare, and are willing to watch less mainstream films that address important issues.
So, here’s five of my favorite soul-growing films of the year and the themes they address:
1. SWEET COUNTRY
“Sweet Country is Old Testament cinema, with an almost biblical starkness in its cruelty and mysterious beauty, set in a burning plain where it looks as if the sun-bleached jawbone of an ass could at any moment be picked up and used as a murder weapon.”
So begins Peter Bradshaw’s review for The Guardian. He’s right. Sweet Country is an achingly beautiful Australian film, but the story it tells of racism and injustice is brutal.
When an old Aboriginal farm worker Sam (Hamilton Morris) is forced to shoot a drunken white landowner in self-defence, he and his wife take to the bush (the “sweet country”), chased by a cynical old cop, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and a posse that includes Sam’s only friend, Fred Smith (Sam Neill).
While Sam and his wife Lizzie know the ways of the Outback terrain, Fletcher has to contend with the heat, venomous animals and hostile natives. His party abandons him, the desert becomes too much for him, and he only survives when Sam and Lizzie rescue him.
Later, having turned himself in, Sam submits to white man’s justice and a makeshift trial takes place outdoors in the scrappy frontier village. Your hopes aren’t too high for poor old Sam. The injustices you’ve already witnessed in Sweet Country hang heavily over the trial. You find yourself anticipating an Australian version of To Kill a Mockingbird. But director Warwick Thornton still has a few twists and turns before the credits roll, by which time your frustration with endemic racism and your rage against injustice reach peak levels.
Sweet Country recently won best film at the Australian Oscars and the Special Jury Prize at Venice. It is a must-see movie if you want to increase your thirst for truth and justice.
Foxtrot is set in Tel Aviv and opens with Israeli soldiers informing a couple that their son has died serving his country.
What follows is an excruciatingly real depiction of a family freefalling into grief.
The father Michael listens in stunned acquiescence as the soldiers explain the routine of a military funeral, refusing to answer his questions about how his son died. Soon, his confusion gives way to anger. He tries to take matters into his own hands, but the soldiers keep wrestling his son’s death from his grasp. It’s a macabre dance.
Just when I thought I couldn’t stand the tension any longer, director Samuel Maoz cuts to a flashback of the son doing his national service in an isolated check point in the desert. To explain what happens next would ruin it. Just see it. It’s amazing.
In her review for the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “With a fluent mix of irony and sincerity, Maoz interrogates — gently, but with unwavering insistence — the rituals of a country mired in the moral contradictions of occupation and its own defensive crouch. As the title suggests, the movie’s characters are caught up in a dance only partially of their own making, doomed to repeat steps they didn’t choose and that get them precisely nowhere.”
And at the center of it all is a family torn apart by grief, shocked and shocked again by tragedy, trying desperately to keep dancing. Films like Foxtrot will grow your capacity for empathy.
Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman is bookended with two telling scenes.
The first is a prologue set in the 1950s, with Alec Baldwin, his hair Brylcreemed into place, as a man recording a blatantly racist public service announcement about the insidious “spread of integration and miscegenation” propagated by the “Jewish puppets on the Supreme Court.” This might be enough to turn off most viewers, but Baldwin’s star turn as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, as well as the fact that his character keeps flubbing his lines keeps the scene light. Well, lighter than it could have been.
The second scene is the ending of the film. A series of images flash by from the white nationalist march on Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017, and its aftermath, including Trump’s infamous “on both sides” remarks and footage of the car that plowed into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing Heather Heyer.
Both scenes are meant to put us in mind of the Trump presidency and link the pre-civil rights 1950s with the contemporary rise of tiki-torch-wielding white supremacists.
In the same vein, about halfway through, there’s a powerful scene in which Harry Belafonte, speaking to a meeting of the Black Student Union about the 1916 Waco lynching of Jesse Washington, tells his audience about how the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation contributed to racism and violence. He reminds the students that it lead to the revival of the KKK, and to lynchings, and that Woodrow Wilson even played the film at the White House
That scene is intercut with Duke and the KKK chapter watching The Birth of a Nation, hooting and fist-pumping like they’re at a sporting event cheering on their heroes.
The effect is unmistakable. America is a racist country and residents of the White House, past and present, have contributed to its racism.
The main narrative tells the unlikely story of a black man “joining” the KKK and becoming friendly with Grand Wizard David Duke. This story veers between scenes of high drama and suspense and the out-and-out ludicrous. You alternate between laughing at white supremacy and being disgusted by it.
Blackkklansman isn’t subtle, but neither is the object of its attack.
4. FIRST REFORMED
“Few modern films take spirituality as seriously or as thoughtfully as First Reformed does, and even fewer strive to accomplish one of the great purposes of art: to express the inexpressible, to shine a light where it would otherwise be dark.”
That’s from Kevin Lincoln’s review at the Vulture website. And I agree. In fact, this film left me so swimming in ideas and reactions I’m still not sure where to start.
Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, the priest of a tiny Protestant parish. And he’s in bad shape. Toller has cancer; he’s an alcoholic; he’s struggling with his faith. When a pregnant member of his congregation asks him to speak with her husband about his apocalyptic beliefs about the impending end of the world, Toller’s downward spiral only accelerates.
The husband, Michael, infects Toller with his deep fears about the impending effects of climate change before killing himself. Afterwards, his widow, Mary, shows Toller the suicide-bomb vest that Michael had been keeping in the garage. This triggers something in Toller.
He descends into Michael’s vision of hell, researching climate change obsessively and protesting a big polluting corporation, all the while polluting and destroying his own body. And then there’s that suicide vest
In case all this sounds depressing, we need to wade into Toller’s despair before the promise of hope arrives. And it does appear in the person of the pregnant Mary (get it?).
First Reformed is a parable about hope. It takes as its central question, “Has God forsaken us?” Paul Schrader doesn’t so much attempt to provide an answer as much as a response, one that takes seriously one of the greatest moral dilemmas of our age. This film tries to address the ineffable notion of encountering grace.
And the ending…, well you’ll be talking about that for a while to come.
5. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
I grew up in Australia and we never saw Mr Rogers Neighborhood on our TV sets. In fact, I’d never heard of him until I watched this gorgeous documentary about the life and career of the children’s television presenter, Fred Rogers.
I only mention that because it seemed most Americans came to this film with misty-eyed nostalgia, while I, on the other hand, was blindsided by the warmth and genuine kindness of this most peculiar man.
It’s the story of an awkward Presbyterian minister-cum-TV-host who could only share his deepest feelings through a mangy old sock puppet (he even chastised his own kids using it), and who naively (and apparently genuinely) just wanted everyone to love each other.
At first I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing.
And yet I was sniffling about ten minutes in, and blubbing by the end.
Fred Rogers is so odd, so guileless, so out of step with the norm. He was an ordained minister, conservative Republican, student of Erik Erikson, William Orr, and Benjamin Spock, who read his Bible every day, and who radiated empathy and kindness. It’s like he was from another planet.
Director Morgan Neville has said, “I wanted to make a film to remind people about the value of radical kindness. Fred’s message, when I distill it, was about grace. It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows or something. It’s like oxygen: It is vital, and needs to be nurtured.”
How could such simple kindness be so affecting? Maybe it’s because it’s so rare. And it’s especially rare in a feature film. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is heartwarming and inspirational all at once. Watch it with a box of tissues.