Top 20 Films of 2018: #15- Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap is a powerful, poetic piece of non-fiction filmmaking, but it’s the kind whose elemental force sneaks up on you. For example, the first time I saw Bing Liu’s aching coming-of-adulthood documentary, I basically didn’t even notice that it uses the same ambitious temporal framework as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Here is a movie that quietly covers twelve years in the lives of its three major characters (one of whom is Bing Liu himself) and never outwardly calls attention to it. It gives off the illusion that we are watching things happen slowly, but every now and then time will surge forward like a sudden patch of rapids in a gentle stream. We get to see our characters when they are mere children (two of them 16 and one of them only 11) and we leave them some 90 minutes later as young adult men with the pain, wisdom and personal growth of more than a decade etched into their faces. Time rushes all about Minding the Gap. The great weight of the past, the anxious immediacy of the post-adolescent present, and the trembling enigma of the future. A couple speaks with excitement and trepidation about the impending arrival of their first child, and a scene later their infant son has already been there for months. One friend, a black teenager, speaks about wanting to be like his older white friend but, thirty minutes later, two years have gone by and he has an entirely different understanding of who his friend is and of who he now wants to be. It’s not that I didn’t know that time was passing the first time I watched Minding the Gap. But the film flows with such grace that I marked the movie in emotional beats, not temporal ones. It was only late in the film when we see the characters flash back through their entire story once more, that I realized I had watched three people struggle and grow up right in front of my eyes. Like Boyhood, Bing Liu’s film has its eye fixated on the subtle and sometimes seismically sudden growth of its characters. Its leaps forward in time, as impressive as they are, are more impressive for how organically they are tailored to the film’s story rhythms. The wide span of time the film covers is not there to call attention to itself. It is there to make a seemingly small story about skateboarding and growing up in recession-addled America feel as overwhelming as some great epic. Minding the Gap is about three small lives in an unassuming Midwest city, but it contains oceans of insight and emotion. This babbling brook hides tidal  waves.


Minding the Gap’s tiny, forgotten corner of the world is Rockford , Illinois, an economically ravaged industrial city in America’s Rust Belt. It is the hometown of 30 year-old filmmaker Bing Liu and his friends, Zack and Keire. Zack is white and the same age as Bing. Keire is black and five years younger than Zack and Bing. All three friends grew up in dysfunctional homes with varying levels of abuse. As many a confused, hurting American adolescent has done, Bing and his friends turned to each other and to a community of skateboarders to find some sense of stability and understanding. And, without cheapening the poverty and crime that exists there, I must say that the rundown, brick-and-iron aesthetic of Rockford, Illinois makes a stunning backdrop for this tale of frustration, stalled dreams, and worn out spirits. While Minding the Gap is mostly the intimate story of three friends grappling with becoming men and reckoning with abusive pasts, the beautifully dilapidated skyline of Rockford lends a sense of something larger to their stories; the sense of an America full of stories and cities just like this. Rockford carries a lot of heavy psychic weight for Bing, Keire, and Zack, but the film’s aim is to make some kind of tenuous peace with the misery and hardship, not to be destroyed by it. Liu films his travels through these crumbling streets with a complicated feeling of affection, and the result is that a kind of weathered halo seems to hang over all the heartache and ruin. Those old red buildings and wooden townhouses really do look beautiful, never more so than when Bing and his surrogate skater family is whipping past them on skateboards, the closest things they have found to deliverance. Late in the film, Zack sadly observes that he may not be capable of turning his past trauma into something worthwhile. Turning ugly truth into beautiful poetry is not an ability everyone has, but Bing Liu has that talent in spades. Minding the Gap is all about dealing with the painful past and trying to make something good and beautiful out of the scars. In the way it views its desperate city and its wounded subjects, it is a prayer for the broken down and bruised things in this tough world.


What makes Bing Liu’s stunning debut so organically beautiful is how it almost seems to stumble on its own deep well of hurt by accident. From its early frames, it is about hardscrabble upbringings and familial tensions, but it is not immediately clear how important the subject of fraught family histories will be. In its opening moments, it promises to be an empathetic view of young men skating and stumbling toward maturity, but it is not initially evident that this will also be a film about abuse. I tend to believe that this maybe wasn’t even Bing Liu’s immediate intention. At least not when he first started filming his skater friends as a troubled sixteen year-old. What I do know is that Bing Liu was living in a house with a very physically abusive stepfather when he first began to collect footage of his friends. It would not surprise me a bit to learn that the instinct to start filming that time period was, just like skating itself, a subconscious release valve for his suffering. But, part of what makes Minding the Gap marvelously moving and authentic is how the story of Bing Liu’s abuse, the story he may have always wanted to tell deep down, seems to find him over the course of filming. The film has a natural curiosity about its subjects. At the beginning, it is content to just observe Zack and Keire and learn about them. We bear witness to the trials of adulthood that Zack and Keire are just beginning to face. Both have reached ages where they need to go to work and pay bills. Moreover, the Peter Pan-like Zack is also figuring out how to provide a stable home life for his girlfriend, Nina, and their infant son. All of this is is poignant and absorbing enough. And then a bomb drops. One night, Bing sees cell phone footage of Zack and Nina having a drunken shouting match. Nina sounds livid, warning Zack that she will kill him. Bing is concerned for his friends. He starts to gingerly kick at the dirt, to get a better sense of what is going on. In the process, he learns that Zack may sometimes hit and throw Nina when he gets intoxicated. And, as much as he may have felt hesitant to confront his own abuse before, Bing Liu now feels a duty to lean in closer; to investigate his friends and himself. Minding the Gap becomes the story of Bing Liu walking down a dark and haunted path of trauma and familial dysfunction. If only for Nina’s sake, he now feels an obligation to stare down the cycles of abuse in his own backyard. And, as it turns out, economically depressed Rockford has a grave history of abuse. At the time of filming, domestic incidents accounted for 25% of the city’s significant violent crime statistics. Bing starts asking questions about his friends’ own experiences with abusive fathers. He learns Keire was often physically disciplined very harshly as a child. Zack tells stories of a father who was kind and permissive when he was very young, but who took a sharp turn into sternness and emotional distance when Zack reached adolescence. The hardest part of all this is that Bing Liu must come to terms with his own experience being abused. His abuse story appears to be the most scarring of all. Bing’s half-brother recalls hearing Bing’s screams from the regular beatings he received and still feels haunted by it. The hard choice Bing must make is to gracefully but firmly reopen the past; to turn the most horrific memories around in his fingers and gaze at them without fear. He must shine a light on his own demons and he must interview his soft-spoken immigrant mother, who was also abused and who felt powerless to protect her child. Minding the Gap is about the difficult moral choice not to shield ourselves or the world around us from bitter truths. When it comes to something as ugly and pervasively toxic as domestic abuse, truth must be dragged screaming into the light.


Minding the Gap is a brave, unflinchingly compassionate exhumation of the painful past. It could not have been easy to make a film that indicts domestic abuse so thoroughly, especially when that abuse was something you suffered through personally. But if there’s one thing that may (and I stress the word “may” here) be harder than interviewing your own weeping mother about long-buried traumatic memories, it’s trying to approach a friend who has now become an abuser. The sudden revelation that Zack is beating Nina is a painful shock to Bing Liu and to any viewer who has been listening to him and empathizing with him for the first thirty minutes of the film. It crystallizes the film’s true raison d’etre and sends Bing Liu, dismayed but intrepid, off on his journey to uncover the past. We register the hurt and disbelief on Bing’s face when he learns that someone he loves and calls a friend is now enacting the same kind of terrible behavior Bing suffered through as a child. The scenes where Bing interviews his mother may throb with the most raw, cathartic anguish, but the longer path toward bringing up the subject of abuse with Zack may be what the film is really building to. Calling out abuse when it comes from one of our own is the true test of conscience. Up to this point in the film, we have spent substantial time with Zack. He is a flighty, boozy, sometimes ridiculous figure, but he seems to also be a generally thoughtful and self-aware person. We have viewed him through Bing’s eyes and come to understand him, and then we learn something that completely alters everything we thought we were seeing. Zack does not come off as some easy monster, and that may be the scariest truth of all. His frailties, his fears of adulthood and fatherhood, and his need to escape from his own hurt are relatable and resonant. Minding the Gap is an endlessly rich character study and I left feeling deeply connected to all of its characters, even this immature, abusive flounderer. I found myself caring a great deal about Zack. And I say that not to excuse his galling conduct, but to zero in on how difficult it must have been for Bing to confront him. Bing, who has known Zack almost his entire life. How gutting and hard it must be for anyone with friends who have engaged in toxic and violent behavior to call those friends on their bullshit. But, of course, you must! The fear of seeing the monster of abuse in the eyes of someone you love and the reflex to turn away from it or rationalize it; that is where the cycle of abuse lives. Bing Liu knows this all too well and he receives repeated signals from family and friends to maybe leave it all alone. Nina worries that confronting Zack will forever sabotage any hope of a peaceful home situation for her child. Bing’s mother prays through tears that he will one day be able to leave the past behind, and Bing even agrees that this may be the end goal. But abuse cannot just be left well enough alone, in the vain hope that it will resolve itself. If the traumatic past is to be buried for good, it cannot be in some shallow, forgotten grave. To move on from something like that, you have to fully come to terms with it, glean everything you can from it, and lay it honorably to rest. Minding the Gap is a film that courageously refuses to use any half-measures when it comes to exploring domestic violence.

This makes Minding the Gap a film that is serenely thunderous. It is as damning about abuse and toxic masculinity as any film I can name, but it refuses to scream itself hoarse or flail its fists. The kinds of abuse the film examines should make us angry, but anger is not the approach the film takes. I think Bing Liu must figure that a reactionary response to hurt is probably what caused all this trouble in the first place. Angry men under pressure keep passing their pain along and nothing gets resolved. The last thing Bing Liu wants is to turn his anguish into more confusion and torment. Instead, he wants to find male rage where it lives and understand it. The film’s critique of toxic masculinity is withering, but its strategy is to talk the beast down rather than hurl invective at it. It brings focus and tranquility to subject matter that would make the average person feel dizzy with rage and sorrow. Minding the Gap is simply one of the most superb essays ever crafted on what it means to be a man; what too many men wrongly think it means and what it should mean. In a year full of beautiful and trenchant works on the subject of masculinity, Minding the Gap is one of the most fearlessly truthful. Bing Liu reveals himself to be that most welcome kind of documentarian. He is the kind who is more eager to bear witness than to speak; quicker to coax out his subject’s deepest thoughts than to hammer his own point. He is on a journey to process his own hurt and what he wants is to understand why cycles of male violence keep repeating. Where rage, depression, and abuse are concerned, his wish is to better see what the point is; why these old, bitter ghosts cling to American men from generation to generation. The desperate, embittered places some men go when they feel slighted, cornered, confused, or out of options is a terrible and pervasive blight on our society. It makes one’s blood boil to think about it and I don’t think we can coddle it or rationalize it one minute longer. We can never accommodate domestic abuse. What we can do is dismantle this terrible behavior in healthy ways. What Bing Liu has managed here is a kind of resistance that draws immeasurable strength from a sense of serenity. Its mode is one of deeply empathetic concern. To put it another way, Minding the Gap is Paddington’s hard stare in documentary form: unyielding, unafraid, and powerful in its peaceful refusal to meet hostility with more hostility.

Minding the Gap becomes one of the most moving examinations of abuse ever made partly because it invests in character. It seems doubtful that Bing Liu will ever make another film where he is this close to his human subjects, but, my God, does he ever make that sense of intimacy and familiarity count here. He has a gift for listening closely and calmly asking the right questions. The confessions that his friends and family make to him contain some of the most wrenching and poignant truth that you’ll find in any 2018 film. Bing Liu also has a keen awareness of where he fits into this tapestry of American dreams and discontent. In a greatly moving scene late in the film, Bing tells Keire that he wanted to learn more about his friends’ experiences with abuse because he sees himself in their stories. I’ve written before about the notion of walking with the subject. That’s the theory of studying a person or culture that says the observer must take their own presence into account. When you write a study or make a documentary, you inevitably become a character in the story you are crafting because you are interacting with your subject. Instead of trying to stay out of the frame and pretend like you are not there, the more honest approach is to just admit that you are a part of the documentary. By choosing to explore a subject, you enter that world and become a subject yourself. You don’t pretend to be observing from a remove, as if hidden behind the duck blind. You join your subject and walk beside them. In the case of Minding the Gap, Bing Liu participates in what you might call “skating with the subject”. Skating is one of the only unshakable sources of joy and liberation for these earnest, haunted young men, and that feeling really shows in the film’s numerous skateboarding scenes. Those scenes move with an unmistakable kind of elation. Bing and his friends tear through the battered brick blocks of their weary city, and their very act of moving says volumes about the pain they have endured and the hope they are grasping toward. And when you finish dabbing your dewy eyes, you might suddenly come to and realize that this is, after all is said and done, a skateboarding movie. Here’s something I can add to 2018’s list of unexpected cinematic achievements: a film about skating moved me to tears. It’s really just par for the course for a film that finds poetry, heartache, and frayed beauty tucked away in the most forgotten and unassuming places.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #16- First Man

If 2018 was a crash course in how to make familiar stories feel dynamic and new, Damian Chazelle’s First Man may deserve credit for doing that in the most subtly inventive way. With a lot of the year’s great reboots and reimaginings, like A Star Is Born and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the secret ingredient was a certain joie de vivre. Among the innovative things those films do formally, I think what sticks with me is that they move with passion and elated purpose. Joi de vivre and elation are the last words I would apply to First Man. First Man is different. In lending its voice to the chorus of astronaut films like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff, it creates a more outwardly radical reimagining of the kind of film we expect it to be. It is not content to simply tell its type of narrative with more conviction and exuberance than its predecessors, for it is defiantly not an exuberant piece of work. Its way is less the enthusiastic embrace of tropes than the recontextualizing of trope through tone and through adding beats that are not often dwelled on in stories about space exploration. It is very much a kindred spirit to 2017’s Dunkirk. Both films are about Great Moments In History that are often thought of as unequivocal triumphs. Thousands are rescued from the beaches of France in the Miracle at Dunkirk. A rapt world huddles around televisions and radios as Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to walk on the moon. Both films build to those moments that most human beings think of, but they expand the narrative in unexpected ways. They ask us to consider what it was like to live in the moments before the Big Moment; before posterity, when triumph was still far from a certain thing. They ask us to view historical highlights in a fuller context and to reflect on the sacrifice and cost of those triumphs. If a film like A Star Is Born is about digging deeper into an old narrative well, First Man argues that the well of a story can also be widened. By considering more of the surrounding narrative. By including details that get left by the wayside in other tellings of the story, an old narrative can suddenly look radically different. Even the moments we already know about can take on new shapes as a result of new emotional context.

Part of that new context is an astonishing level of technical detail. And to be clear, it’s not as if The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 lack for stunning technical crat. But it becomes clear in the very first shot that this will be a different kind of astronaut film. We open on Neil Armstrong hurtling toward the ceiling of Earth’s atmosphere, more than 100,000 feet above California’s Mojave Desert. In the prestige film version of this sequence, we would see Armstrong’s rugged profile, his powerful aircraft gleaming in the sunlight, and maybe even hear a rousing French horn or two. Instead, First Man’s opening moments have us utterly disoriented. The plane is completely cloaked in shadow and we can just make out that we are looking at one of its wings. Inside the cockpit, it’s dark as a tomb and we can barely see the outline of Armstrong’s stoic face. And forget symphonic fanfare. The only music to speak of is the deafening banshee wail of wind and the frenzied rattling of machine parts. It is 1961, more than eight years before the moon landing, and Neil Armstrong nearly kills himself horribly in a flight test, by bouncing off the atmosphere and into the void of space. It will not be the last time his profession tries to kill him. First Man follows the years leading up to the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing and the various training programs and test missions NASA ran to prepare for that lofty goal. This included desert flight tests, a nearly fatal outer space docking mission, and the tragic cabin fire that claimed the lives of the first Apollo 11 crew. It is the story of the tribulation and loss of life that had to take place before a man could take that fabled giant leap into history. It is also about Neil Armstrong’s own personal tragedy. The Armstrongs lost their 2 year-old daughter to a malignant brain tumor in 1962, and that gutting loss casts its long shadow over the entire film, even as Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, in a performance that makes deft use of his gift for playing taciturn figures) refuses to speak openly about it. It falls mostly to his wife, Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy, doing an exceptional job of shading and subverting the archetype of Great Man’s supportive wife) to keep the family happy and functional, and to be the one member of her family who can communicate openly and honestly with the other astronaut families in their planned neighborhood. Damian Chazelle wants us to see how the journey to the moon was not just a simple, uncomplicated bit of American heroism. He respects the story of Apollo 11 as a great human achievement, but he also wants us to consider how that triumphant arc was borne out of death and tinted by grief.

First Man is thrillingly original in how it paints a rousing bit of history in muted mournful tones. Part of that new, more conflicted, less simplistically inspiring perspective has to do with the film’s stunning and jarring cinematography and production design. The opening sequence of Neil’s test flight is telling of what space travel will feel like for the rest of First Man.  We are looking at spectacular planes and spacecraft, ingenious works of technology designed by some of history’s most dazzling mathematicians and engineers. But they are still just human machines, prone to error and built out of parts that can break down. These machines may represent the apex of scientific innovation at that time, but the nuts and bolts holding everything together still rattle in their casings. You could be forgiven for momentarily thinking you were driving a rundown Ford Pinto. And that perspective is not only technically brilliant, but also pays emotional dividends. If, like Dunkirk, First Man is about the claustrophobia of being stuck in your tiny moment of history without the context of hindsight, then the cramped, cluttered design of these spacecraft makes you share that claustrophobia. You share the heightened, nervous feeling these astronauts must have felt in those crafts. When you’re blasting from firm ground to the limitless expanse of space on a plume of white hot rocket fuel, can any human machine help but feel a little inadequate for such an endeavor? Chazelle’s stroke of genius is to mirror the emotional claustrophobia of this historical moment with the actual, physical claustrophobia of being in these rattling machines. Just as the astronauts sat in these clattering contraptions not knowing what might happen to them, hoping not to die in their insane pursuit of new frontiers, NASA and the team assisting them from the ground must have felt the same trembling confusion about the Moon mission and the entire space program. Great milestones had already been reached, but significant blood had been shed in reaching those heights. Chazelle knows that the Moon landing is now a hyperlink in the American consciousness to swelling pride and easy platitudes about the unquenchable human spirit. But that is after the fact. Before Apollo 11 and the Moon landing was a mainstay of documentaries, Smithsonian exhibits, and postage stamps, it was a bloody and deeply costly endeavor whose merits were questioned by wide swaths of the American public. Chazelle wants to cast some essential, truthful shadows on the Technicolor hues that typically color this accomplishment. He wants us to see the Apollo 11 mission as something haunting as well as rousing. And even with the feat now capture and the outcome certain, he wants us to ask an important question about this moment in American history. “Is this worth the cost?” a reporter asks Neil Armstrong. “In money and in lives?”

The early complaints from detractors of the film took issue with it for being too cold and cerebral. I went in ready to wrestle with that criticism, but what I found was not the dry, clinical film I had expected. To be sure, an unmistakable chill runs through First Man, but that is not an accident or a failing. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) did not misread the recipe and forget to add two teaspoons of pathos. The viewer just needs to realize that First Man is about grappling with grief and death. It is about those things every bit as much as it is about Neil Armstrong or the 1960s or going to outer space. One of the ways in which First Man finds a new perspective on a very public event is by viewing it as Neil Armstrong’s own private ordeal. History may boil Apollo 11 down to the Moon landing and the “one small step” quote, but for Neil Armstrong, this was also the stretch of time when he lost a toddler to cancer, buried numerous friends, and was almost incinerated or sucked into outer space at least three times. There is a darkness in this story that has rarely been fully glimpsed. First Man finds more melancholy in the story of a successful mission than the estimable Apollo 13 found in the story of a failed mission. Even the horrifying Apollo 11 cabin fire, which was briefly shown in Apollo 13, feels much more upsetting here for how matter-of-factly it is presented. And, right wing pundits be damned, none of that sadness and subdued malaise is presented to nullify the genius, the daring, and the gobsmacking accomplishment of what Armstrong and his colleagues did. If anything, the full emotional wallop of Neil Armstrong finally making that first footprint in the soft lunar dust is amplified tenfold. Because we know how much heartache has gone into this project and we better understand the costly, arduous subtext. First Man is about a man who went to the Moon with a procession of ghosts in tow. Historical achievement is complicated. It is not just about the grand moments of success. Every victory like Apollo 11 probably has a ledger of setbacks, compromises and painful costs. Chazelle is keen on reminding us that these things are in the back pages of the true feel good stories we take for granted.

First Man is also about grappling with a certain kind of stoic American masculinity. And this is not to be too reductive. Human beings are diverse and different men process emotion, and grief specifically, in different ways. But First Man is interested in a very classically masculine response to sorrow and trauma. And that response is essentially not much response at all; sitting quietly with your pain and trying to convince those around you that nothing is wrong. It is, to be clear, not one of the healthiest aspects of masculine behavior, and First Man is very critical of it up to a point. Janet Armstrong’s face tells us that she understands her husband’s almost pathological reticence, his stubborn unwillingness to talk openly about his bereavement or put any of his emotions on display. She knows this simple, quiet man and loves him. But she also knows full well the absurdity of his ridiculous reserve. And we sense that it has not been easy for her to lose a child, bury numerous friends, console their widows, and repeatedly almost lose her husband, only to have that same husband be defiantly unwilling to acknowledge that a damn thing is wrong. Chazelle punctures Neil Armstrong’s manly dispassion, but he is also curious about that kind of very male disposition. The impulse to bury what is painful or uncomfortable and just get on with it. With what? Something. First Man reframes the Apollo 11 story as a classic example of men coping with grief through action. Armstrong doesn’t want to talk publicly of his suffering (though we do see him wail like a baby when he feels sure that no one can see him). He just needs to get back to work; to wrangle his unimaginable anguish by way of toil and action. He needs a project, and that project just happens to be going to the Moon. A lot of painful stuff happened to Neil Armstrong in the 1960s on Earth. And, well, he just needed to get off the planet for a week or so. No big deal. I think First Man is also implicitly about how an entire country was going through a similar grieving process during that time. While NASA was planning Apollo 11, America lost Medger Evers and John F. Kennedy to sickening acts of murder. Kennedy had proposed the idea of going to the Moon when he was still alive. Suddenly, he was gone and America needed that silly dream goal more than ever. The 1960s were exciting but they were also excruciatingly sad. We lost more leaders along the way: Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. America was in pain, maybe too much to process all at once. Right or wrong, people felt the need to bury themselves in some bit of business. Whether it would make us whole again or not, we needed a project. We just needed to get a job done. We needed to get to the damned Moon. The beauty of First Man is that it honors the marvelous achievement of Apollo 11 while also deepening its place in American history. It posits that the Moon landing may well have been a Band-Aid for deeper national wounds.

For all its technical merits, strong performances, and heady ideas, First Man is also just a tremendous sign of growth for Damian Chazelle. I refuse to use the words “return to form” here because I don’t think Chazelle has faltered yet in his young career. We can poke at La La Land all day long for being ideologically slight or for just being a very white and bourgeois piece of art, but it is still a fairly immaculate pop object. If that fizzy Technicolor jewel is to be Chazelle’s low, then his low is an exceedingly well-directed, sumptuously crafted thing of beauty. The work of a director with a ravishing sense of scope and a terrific eye for performances. Chazelle became history’s youngest Best Director winner with La La Land and almost took home Best Picture. He did not have to prove a solitary thing with his follow-up. He had every right to go make the safe, prestige-courting space biopic that First Man could have been. He could have made Apollo 13 with a stronger directorial stamp. He didn’t. He opted not to play it safe. On evidence of First Man, Oscar success has not boxed Chazelle into stiff notions of prestige filmmaking or made him compromise in the name of winning more trophies. Instead, he continues to be an ingeniously kinetic craftsman and a shrewd chronicler of art, success, perfection, and obsession. Success has not hobbled him because Chazelle is too canny about seeing what a conflicted thing success is. He seems to understand better than any director alive that perfection has its price and that there are no easy victories. And, by staying true to his own cerebral muse, he has turned what looked like an old fashioned, patriotic crowd-pleaser into one of the most moody, haunting films of the decade. Naturally, First Man was almost completely ignored at the Academy Awards. I like to think that Damian Chazelle is at peace with that. Like his driven characters, from Whiplash to First Man, I think Damian Chazelle knows the very specific kind of posterity he wants to chase.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #17- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


Coming into 2018, reboots and sequels felt like the last things we needed. After two crisis-packed years full of rape scandals and xenophobic uproar, the culture was in dire need of something original and fresh to wash the acridness out of its mouth. We needed exciting, new stories. We needed to find in the movies the joyful, creative enthusiasm that felt so scarce in the outside world. The last thing filmgoers needed was more of the same. And, dear God, if you had asked me on January 1, 2018 to name the single thing American cinema needed least, I probably would have said, “Another Spider-Man movie.” With no disrespect intended to 2017’s very good Spider-Man: Homecoming, our culture has hit peak Spider-Man fatigue. Since 2001, the popular comic book hero has had no fewer than eight films to himself. If you throw in the two Avengers films he appears in, that figure climbs into the double digits. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse really should have been the absolute last thing we needed. But, as I noted in my review of Paddington 2, sometimes we can be bad judges of what we need in films. And, as I noted in my review of A Star Is Born, 2018 had a way of taking old, overplayed stories and making them feel new again. So, for the record, this is my third 2018 film review to double as a mea culpa for my faulty film assumptions and the year’s third reminder that even the most tried and true properties can be vital, energetic, and essential when approached with wit, insight, and a palpable love for the story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not just an astonishingly wonderful animated reboot of this old franchise, but also a lively, intelligent meta discourse about why we like to reboot things. Why societies like to take certain stories, revise them, and retell them. I still maintain that we are nearing critical levels of super hero saturation, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the exception that recontextualizes the rule. It is about why we love to think about heroes and where we see ourselves in those narratives.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse starts with what will become a recurring bit. A version of Spider-Man catches us up on the essentials of the Spider-Man mythos. The opening narration comes courtesy of the Spider-Man we all know and love, Peter Parker. A bookish teenager, in love with his friend Mary Jane Watson, who attains super powers from a spider bite, loses his Uncle Ben, and dedicates himself to a life keeping New York City safe from criminals. Peter Parker is the official Spider-Man of this universe; what appears to be our universe. However, while Peter Parker takes us into the film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not his story. The film is instead the story of young Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager living in New York City. Miles’ father Jeff (Bryan Tyree Henry, who had a banner year with brilliant work in If Beale Street Could Talk, Widows, and television’s Atlanta) is a brusquely endearing police officer with some strong negative opinions on Spider-Man, who he regards as a reckless vigilante. Miles has a loving but testy relationship with his father. Some of that testiness can be chalked up to general teenage malaise and some of it is the fact that Jeff is forcing Miles to attend a ritzy boarding school uptown instead of the public school in his own neighborhood. Like most teenagers, Miles is wrestling with his identity as an adolescent. He is also figuring out who he is as a member of two different minority cultures. Miles feels most at ease with his father’s estranged brother, Aaron (Mahershala Ali, having a very good year), who places less pressure on him and who is more encouraging of Miles’ true passion: street art. One night, Uncle Aaron takes Miles to an abandoned subway station to throw up some graffiti. As he is finishing his art, Miles is bitten by the fated spider, which gives him superpowers. At this point, we think we know the rest, but this is where the film expands in unexpected directions. When Miles returns to the subway station to look around, he finds Peter Parker engaged in a heated battle with Kingpin (voiced with deadpan Brooklyn brutishness by Live Schreiber), a wealthy businessman and supervillain who wants to open a portal to other dimensions so he can be reunited with his tragically deceased wife and child. In the first of many breaks from the standard narrative track we think we are on, Peter Parker is killed by Kingpin and Miles flees in terror. Before he dies, he tasks Miles with making sure Kingpin does not complete his mission, which would annihilate all of New York City. For better or worse, Miles is now his universe’s Spider-Man and he is confused and terrified about how to assume the mantle. As luck would have it, the opening of all those dimensions has sucked other versions of Spider-Man into Miles’ version of New York City, which allows Miles to seek help from an alternate Spider-Man, Peter B. Parker (a hilarious and surprisingly poignant voice performance from New Girl’s Jake Johnson). As misfortune would have it, Peter B. Parker is something of a trainwreck. Saggy, broke, and recently divorced from his universe’s Mary Jane, he is truly the John Q. Adams to Peter Parker’s John Adams. However, in spite of his paunchy appearance, Peter B. Parker gradually becomes an engaged and capable mentor to Miles and Miles helps Peter remember the motivated, inspiring man he used to be. Together with four other versions of the character, including Spider-Girl and an incorrigible cartoon pig named Spider-Ham (the always very funny John Mulaney), they must prevent Kingpin and a female Doc Ock (a marvelously fun and  nuanced turn from the indispensable Kathryn Hahn) from reopening the portal and sucking New York City into nothingness. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey (Rise of the Guardians), and Rodney Rothman, three relatively young animation directors. They deserve all the credit in the world for this tremendous work, but the big celebrity of this creative team is co-writer Phil Lord, one half of the terrific Lord-Miller directing team. Lord and his partner, Chris Miller, brought us The Lego Movie and the 21 Jump Street cinematic reboot, two films that could have been lazy and overly commercial but turned out to be vivacious and irrepressibly funny instead. What Lord understands is how to lean into formula in ways that both mine it for comedy and lovingly own the tropes. The typical Lord-Miller film puts familiar cinematic stereotype in a fond headlock. As a film that flies fearlessly in the face of the overly familiar, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has Phil Lord’s comedic stamp all over it. It is one of the most consistently hilarious films of 2018 or any other year. However, what makes it better than anything he has done before, even the fantastic Lego Movie, is the dexterity Lord shows for balancing humor with rich pathos. Spider-Verse turns the 21st century’s seventh Spider-Man film into one of the most perfectly complete, emotionally fulfilling movie experiences of the year.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s script has all the beautifully zippy confidence of Spidey himself, but that only accounts for a portion of what makes it so winning and exhilarating. It is also a kaleidoscope of delirious, discombobulating color. I don’t know that I can name a single film from 2018 that was more delightful to just sit and look at. Scenes are painted in dazzlingly bold primary colors. The film’s version of New York City vibrates and twitches with nervous energy and possibility, like a hundred different dream versions of itself. Even that most troubled element of most Marvel-based films, the final climactic battle, feels gripping here. All of Spider-Verse’s many inspired elements are enriched and complemented by its ecstatically innovative animation. It cycles through a dizzying array of styles, as if to underline the film’s idea that there are hundreds of personal, idiosyncratic ways to tell the same story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also sets a new high watermark in making a comic book film that feels like a comic book in all the best ways. The look of the film shifts with the tone and stakes of individual scenes. Characters appear in panels. Words flash across the screen. And all of it looks fun and glorious The upside down shot of Miles Morales seeming to dive upward toward the New York City skyline is one of 2018’s most arresting and instantly iconic images. More than just evoking the look of comics, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the one film in its franchise to fully capture how disorienting, liberating and thrilling it would feel to actually be Spider-Man. That’s true during blisteringly energetic fight scenes, but it’s just as true in moments of calm. In one scene, Peter Parker has walked up the side of a building to the roof and Miles is standing sideways on the building’s façade, looking up at him. We cut to Miles’ point of view and we see the roof ledge and the sky above it and I gasped. It’s an intimate dialogue scene, but that shot thrilled me. When you’re Spider-Man, even your downtime involves defying gravity. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an impossibly fun, kinetic whirlwind of a film; the rare example of a comic book movie utilizing the full possibilities of cinema to tell its story. At the end of the day, it forces me to use a word that the truly sober-minded critic would resist. But, when I reflect on how I felt watching it, the most accurate word is just “cool”. Because holding your breath while grinning from ear to ear is cool. Because riding the world’s most hilarious, poignant, and socially conscious rollercoaster is cool. Because I know cool when it sends me hurtling from the tops of skyscrapers with wide eyes and a giggle fit.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse addresses the notion that the comic book movie has become predictable and stale and it reminds us that this genre still has boundless creative avenues to explore. It sees comics as a form with a distinctly communal kind of creative spirit. The beauty of comics and of animation in general is how much they allow for and encourage wild, limitless artistic expression. The style varies based on the artist interpreting the material and the familiar tropes and formulas serve as challenges to the artist’s imagination. The comic book has long been an art form where a wide variety of artists take turns telling the same story and the comic book film has become its own very collective cultural phenomenon. At this point, there can be little argument that it is the kind of movie seen and shared by the widest cross-section of the population. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is about the act of taking a very widely known, communal piece of art and reinvigorating it by making it your own. In that way, comics are also a lot like hip hop, a musical tradition that richly informs the film’s aesthetic and soundtracks its most pivotal scenes. In hip hop, as in comics, there is a joy that comes from taking old lines and classic beats (story and musical) and bringing them back in new forms. Old material recycled into new patterns and permutations. There is an art to taking something familiar and allowing it to mutate. Hip hop and comics can both be like a big cultural game of Telephone. In taking one of the most covered super hero origin stories out for another spin, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is accepting the noble challenge issued to every comic and hip hop artist. Many have played in this art form before you, but the good news is you have a wealth of tradition to draw on. What will you do with it? We get reboots and sequels every year, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is something special: the super hero movie’s first remix.

The film is all about how many new directions and angles still remain in one of comics’ oldest narratives. But Spider-Verse also attains an extra level of pathos because it is about allowing new types of characters into those old narratives. For as long as we’ve had Spider-Man movies, we have never seen someone like Miles wear the mask before. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse gives cinema its first non-white Spider-Man (not to mention its first Spider-Girl in the same film) and the decision pays off splendidly. Miles Morales is simply one of 2018’s richest characters: funny, kind, conflicted, and complex. In a film where picking the best voice performance could easily result in a six-way tie (a tie that doesn’t even include John Mulaney’s riotously funny, ahem, hamming), special notice has to go to Shameik Moore’s sensitive, note-perfect work as Miles. Representation for people of color on screen is an inherent good, regardless of the given film’s quality. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the kind of victory for diverse screen casting one really hopes to see. Forget my ever thinking this Spider-Man arc was too familiar. The addition of this nuanced, young Afro-Latino man into the narrative makes all the difference. I have swung through the air with a lot of Spider-Men. But swinging with Miles Morales was an honor and a genuine pleasure. This is an exciting, interesting, soulful character journey by any metric. A primetime role for a talented black actor that he proceeds to knock the ever-loving stuffing out of. I am happy and curious to follow this hero’s journey wherever it may go in the future. The most pleasantly surprising facet of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is that, for the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like I know where Spider-Man will go next.

To its list of accomplishments, there is one more we can add. Spider-Verse has what is, for me, far and away the best Stan Lee cameo in any Marvel film. The film isn’t even part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the compliment stands. The cameo occurs when a distraught Miles Morales goes to a costume shop to buy a Spider-Man mask to wear in solidarity at Peter Parker’s funeral. He goes to pay and the cashier is Stan Lee. Miles asks what he should do if the mask doesn’t fit and Stan Lee gives him this inspiring bit of reassurance. “The mask always fits eventually.” It’s a great line about self-acceptance, coming of age, and learning to take personal responsibility, themes that are pivotal to the Spider-Man narrative. But then, having uttered this bit of wisdom, the old man points to the “No Refunds” sign behind him and flashes a toothy huckster’s grin. It’s everything to love and hate about these super hero movies all captured in one moment. Can comic book films be inspiring and inspired, capable of speaking eloquently to our loftiest aspirations and deepest fears? Yes, they can. Are they also an insanely profitable racket, a cunning ploy for our wallets that mercilessly mine our most fragile desires and insecurities? Yes, they are. My goodness though, the last thing we need is another comic book movie. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is just plainly a great, great film. And those, we can never have enough of. Besides, there is a reason people are so drawn to these kinds of stories. And the chance to ponder those reasons, while backflipping over the Empire State Building, is pretty damned cool. There’s just no fighting it.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #18- Zama

2018 marked our first full year in the Me Too era and masculinity’s grand inquisition is going strong. The conversation has not only been about issues of consent, abuse of power, and sexual harassment. We are also in the midst of a deeper discourse about the drawbacks and complications of manhood itself; about what masculinity means and how it can aspire to be something better and healthier than it has been in its past. 2018 saw a number of films wrestle with the issue of toxic masculinity, male ego, and the way men process emotion. Damian Chazelle’s First Man did it with moody curiosity. Chloe Zhao’s The Rider took on standards of masculinity with gently heqrtbreaking empathy. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning examined male jealousy with enigmatic intensity. But of all these, Argentinian director Lucretia Martel’s 18th century period film Zama may have given manhood its most thoroughly merciless autopsy. Zama is a historical film and a bone dry satire of Spanish Colonialism and all the prideful, insecure chauvinism that imposing your will on an entire country entails. In a sense, it is also the year’s most sweeping takedown of toxic masculinity, for it is not just about the entitled posturing of its title character, but of an entire nation. With surgical remove, Lucretia Martel uses her camera to puncture and eviscerate the notions of what makes a strong, respectable man, individually and as a larger society. In the story of a 1700s Spanish magistrate abroad in Uruguay striving and failing to get a transfer out a rural backwater village, Martel is using the lens of Spanish Colonialism, one of history’s most egregious acts of patriarchal aggression, to fashion a rigorous critique of male peacocking. These officious men of the Spanish Crown, made up in their finery and appointed with important titles, are impotent and lost in a Hell of patriarchal society’s own making. They have been summoned to forcefully impose Europe’s laws and ideals on a country that never asked for them and they are inevitably doomed to fall short of the imperial expectations foisted upon them.

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Our first look at our protagonist, Don Diego de Zama, winks at more romantic visions of colonialism and the Age of Exploration. Zama is standing on some shore, sharply dressed in a burgundy coat and tricorne hat, gazing out across the water, waiting for a ship to come in. He seems almost proudly posed, like some statue or Renaissance painting of a famous explorer. What we soon learn is that he has been awaiting this ship’s arrival for years. It is the ship that will take him away from the remote jungle boondocks where he serves his function. For years and years, Zama has acted as the local magistrate for a small colonial outpost, somewhere deep in the muggy jungles of Uruguay. He has long since stopped feeling any particular sense of swelling pride for his position. He goes about his duties with rote, bored resignation. “A functionary,” he dubs himself with weary self-loathing. Whatever ego he may have initially had about serving Spain has long since evaporated in the stifling heat, and what remains is an exhausted feeling of Sisyphean obligation. His days are taken up with the drudgery of petty theft cases, property (read: slavery) disputes, and sometimes making burial arrangements for the odd cholera death. He feels no greater purpose. All he wants is to finally be transferred to a city, where can be with his wife and child and where he can experience some modest portion of the trappings of Western civilization. Zama is not what you would call a plot-driven film. It is quite crucial that not much happens, that Zama remain forever stuck in place. Zama is a satirical character study and the very essence of Zama’s arc is that nothing ever moves forward for him. In the rare occasions where it looks like he might come closer to getting something he wants, it is always quickly yanked away from him. Nothing happens in this sweltering river town where his own country has buried him. He is consistently thwarted, not only in his futile attempts to be freed from this miserable post, but in every other effort to feel like a dignified, self-actualized man. His attempts to become intimate with one of the only Spanish women in town come to nothing. His young assistant undermines him and mocks his lame attempts at gravitas. Having just been choked by Zama for being impudent, the underling smiles and sarcastically exclaims, “Such bravura!” The superiors Zama appeals to ignore his requests. Instead, he gets moved from his relatively nice house to a dilapidated, termite-ridden hovel. Finally, after many more years of limbo, Zama volunteers himself for a bounty mission, hoping to earn some brownie points to support his transfer. The mission is to hunt down an infamous, murderous outlaw named Vicuna Porto, a man the Spanish government claims to have already executed but who seems to always come back to life. Like the rest of the film, this final act is about grappling with the myths of manly strength and coming to see how fundamentally hollow they are. The courageous band of colonial conquerors set out to kill the most feared man in South America and bring glory to Spain. In the end, what dies out there in the jungle is the myth of machismo; of bending the world to your whim with a sword and an adventurer’s spirit. Lucretia Martel is declaring that this is not how the world works, though it may sadly be how men work.

Martel’s meticulously observant historical film is a razor sharp dissection of the folly of Colonialism and all its dubious lore. In his tricorne and tailored coat, looking out over the water, Zama momentarily assumes the image of Columbus, Cortez, or Pizarro. Brazen men of action, eager to find what is just over the horizon. The cruel joke is that Zama is not called to any bold action and he knows he is not going anywhere. Hell, this isn’t even the sea. It’s just some anonymous river. Zama’s horizon will never change. In drawing a sharp dagger on white exploration and exploitation, Martel keenly grasps something crucial to the whole explorer mythos: forward motion. Relentless forward motion. Martel uses Zama to judge centuries of colonial rape and she comes up with a devilishly ironic sentence for her hapless colonial surrogate. In selecting Zama as Colonialism’s whipping boy, she condemns him to the thing that is most anathema to exploration: perpetual stasis. If the key narrative elements of empire-building are bravery and adventure, Martel replaces them with ineffectual cowardice and drudgery. Martel attacks Colonialism but she also reserves a muted, sad kind of feeling for Zama. I am unsure what to call that feeling. It is definitely not sympathy. It is not really empathy either. It is simply that Martel allows a kind of pathos to hang over Zama like a tattered, muddy coat. Zama is justifiably punished for his acquiescence to, and participation in, an immoral system. But the sad thing is that he no longer believes in any of it. Clearly, he ignorantly bought into colonial conquest when he was an opportunistic young man, but those days are far away. Now he hears the termites in the walls. That pathos enriches the film, but Martel also refuses to let her protagonist off the hook. It is the very point of the film that this ineffectual, frustrated bureaucrat be eternally on the hook. Zama is the hook. Martel’s film is divine retribution for the sins of European exploration, all of it heaped upon one unfortunate man. Don Diego de Zama has learned too late that being the oppressor’s errand boy is hard work. Tedious, fruitless, soul-sucking work.

I am cautious to say this but Zama is, at its heart, a kind of comedy. I do not want to create a false expectation here. It is quite unlikely that you will laugh during Zama. I do not believe that I ever did, at least not audibly. But the film is darkly, absurdly humorous for how feeble and trapped this emasculated fool is. Much of that humor comes from Daniel Gimenez Cacho’s sharp, subtle performance. His every weary, embarrassed facial expression betrays the losing battle he is fighting in his soul. The gleaming legacy he thought he signed up to defend and the steaming pile of bureaucratic llama dung he has found in its place. Zama’s eyes wince with the struggle of holding onto some shred of self-worth, but the universe just laughs and cocks its fist back again. There is a pained expression on his face whenever someone mistakenly thinks he can protect them, vindicate them, or make them whole in any way. When he is somehow mistaken for that great man from the film’s first shot. It would be one thing if he could just call his dignity dead forever and move on. But the slow death of his pride is never over because he is never done meeting people who haven’t yet learned how impotent he is. He never runs out of new faces to disappoint. Spain has sold Zama a tremendous bill of goods, and now they won’t even let him do his pointless, unfulfilling job in an actual city. When I call Zama a comedy, I mean the humiliating kind; the comedy of watching someone have dignity continually stripped away from them. Zama is really only a few centuries and a Spanish accent removed from Milton in Office Space. If staplers existed in the 1700s, you can bet Zama would be the one man in the whole Spanish government who never got to have one. Beyond its pointed critiques of Colonialism,!Zama is also just about the timeless ordeal of having a shitty, thankless job. Some of us work retail and have to deal with obnoxious customers and some of us have to live on the muggy outskirts of civilization performing mundane administrative work for brutal hegemonies. It’s a living! Zama is something rather novel and ingenious: the period piece as deadpan workplace satire.

What makes Zama such a fine cinematic achievement isn’t just its subdued wit or its gift for subtle social critique. Lucretia Martel has also made something impressively sensory to complement her ideas. Zama’s score is a mélange of traditional Spanish guitar songs and low, sinister drones that convey the sweaty, dusty, malingering tedium of Zama’s sedentary plight. Her visuals wryly underline the absurdity of these Spaniards imposing their will on this place that does not want them. Spaces feel hot and claustrophobic. Zama moves through them like a shiftless, irritated ghost. These faces all look bored and sticky. The hot days feel like they go on forever. The only cool place in the entire outpost is the room where they store corpses before burial, for understandable reasons. Zama speaks in hushed, romantic tones about one day seeing snow again. The humid, fetid natural world threatens to swallow up these vain little wooden dwellings. For all of Spain’s pomp and circumstance, they have no real control over this place. Horses and llamas wander nonchalantly through sitting rooms and government offices. At a critical moment of cowardice, a horse turns to Zama and looks at him with what can only be judgmental disappointment. Nature has no regard for these pathetic colonial interlopers. Zama presents Colonialism less as a blight on the land than as something absurd, ephemeral and doomed. Martel is not weeping for Uruguay. Uruguay will be fine. Instead, she is cackling in righteous fury at the folly of a society that thinks it can force itself upon another land. The land is eternal and it has sucked Don Diego de Zama in like quicksand. It does not want him but it also doesn’t feel like releasing him yet. The only cool place is the crypt. Zama’s only release may be death.

And after a second viewing, I think death is maybe what Zama longs for. If not for himself, he at least wants everything he represents to breathe its last, Colonialism, manifest destiny, Spain, the arbitrary modes of masculine decorum, this cursed magistrate job. The very idea that any of this is doing any good for anyone. Zama is a coward. He fears death coming to him. But at an abstract level, I think he realizes what a relief it would if this toxic patriarchal system and his role within it just went away. If nobody, oppressor or oppressed, had to act out this tired play ever again. His tired eyes finally see the inane artifice of it all. Face to face with the fearsome Vicuna Porto, Zama recants all of it. Porto mockingly calls him “corregidor”, a reference to his title. It also literally means one who makes things correct. Zama flatly replies back, “I’m not the corregidor.” The title, with its evocations of justice, righteousness and strength, is a hollow lie. Sometimes myths outlive their purpose and need to die. Lucretia Martel gives Colonialism, noble conquest, and toxic masculinity the ego death they deserve. She condemns them, carries out the sentence, and buries them in a shared grave. It doesn’t matter what takes their place. When chauvinism, exploitation and greed are your societal foundations, tearing that system down is the most merciful course of action. For everyone involved.