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The Best Films of 2018

Still from “Angels Wear White.”

Up until a few years ago—I really can’t say exactly when—all of the “art-house” movies I reviewed for CounterPunch or my blog were out of the reach of most readers unless you lived in New York or other cities where theaters like the Film Forum or the Laemmle could be found. Some eventually made their way to art-house versions of Netflix like Fandor or Mubi but they entailed a monthly subscription fee.

Despite my hostility to Jeff Bezos and everything he stands for, Amazon Prime Video is a reliable outlet for such films. So is iTunes, Starz, Hulu and other VOD venues that have helped to keep art-house cinema alive. Along with the digital camera, another breakthrough benefiting independent film makers, such venues ensure that an envelope-pushing film shown at an art-house will have a good shot at reaching a broader audience. As I did last year, I worked my way through the films I reviewed in 2018 to determine which are now available on Amazon (and likely other VOD sites) in order to come up with my decidedly non-Hollywood recommendations.

I should state, however, that the best film of 2018 listed below is a Hollywood film: Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed”. Rumor has it, however, that the film will be snubbed at next month’s Academy Awards because Schrader Tweeted that he would like to work with the disgraced Kevin Spacey. It is worth mentioning that Ethan Hawke, who played the tortured minister in Schrader’s film, has addressed these issues in a Vanity Fair article titled “Ethan Hawke: “There’s a Whole Generation That’s on Trial Right Now” that is in keeping with the actor’s shrewd understanding of the film industry. I particularly liked this quip:

The real problem, Hawke says, is concepts like the best-popular-film Oscar, which would have detracted from awards season’s true goal: to boost the signal on under-seen, artistically challenging films. “There already is a popular Oscar. It’s such a dumb thing to say. The popular Oscar is called the box office,” he said. “They’re mad they don’t get prizes. You know, well—guess what, dude? Your car is your prize. Those of us who don’t have a car need a prize.”

As for the films that will walk away with a wheelbarrow of Oscars, I found that most were unbearable to watch. After 15 minutes, I ejected the following from my DVD player: “The Favourite”, “A Star is Born”, and “Crazy Rich Asians”. Of course, I haven’t gotten around to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “First Man” yet.

Below are my recommended films. Since the idea of rating anything is abhorrent to me in the first place, they appear in alphabetical order. I will excerpt from my review and provide a link to the original. As stated before, the list was culled from Amazon Prime Video but if your hatred for Jeff Bezos understandably keeps you from spending a few dollars there, you can try iTunes, et al. (Not that Apple is any bargain, either.)

Narrative films

Angels Wear White

Purely by coincidence, “Angels Wear White” bears a striking resemblance to last year’s “The Florida Project”, a film I nominated for best of 2017. Like “The Florida Project”, most of the action in “Angels Wear White” takes place in a motel—in this instance on a seaside resort in southwest China’s that is bathed in sunlight. Like Sean Baker, the director of “Florida Project”, Vivian Qu’s film revolves around two women dealing with class and sexual oppression. Baker’s characters were a single mother forced into becoming a hooker out of economic desperation and her six-year old daughter who is the charismatic gang leader of the motel’s bored and restless children. Finally, like the “Florida Project”, “Angels Wear White” is an outstanding film that has the inside track for my nomination of best foreign language film of 2018.

Full review: https://louisproyect.org/2018/05/04/angels-wear-white/

First Reformed

Made forty-two years after “Taxi Driver”, “First Reformed” depicts the inner turmoil of men upset with the state of the world, at least the world that confronts them respectively. For Travis Bickle, New York was a Sodom and Gomorrah that impelled him to rain down destruction on its sinners since it was clear that no supernatural being could do much about 13-year old girls working as prostitutes. For Father Toller, it a different kind of degradation that must be confronted. At one point, we see him looking balefully at a lake polluted by the toxic waste flowing from Balq Industries, the largest donor to Abundant Life. The incestuous ties between corporate mammon and the prosperity gospel are staring Toller in the face.

Full Review: https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/05/18/faith-or-action-in-a-world-hurtling-toward-oblivion/

In Between

Opening at both Landmark Theaters in N.Y. (57th and East Houston) today, “In Between” is a compelling drama about three Arab women sharing and apartment as well as the struggle against patriarchy. Comparable in some ways to women in hipster Brooklyn, they are intelligent, resourceful, and bold. They fall along a spectrum of feminism, however.

Leila, an attorney, (Mouna Hawa) is the most willing to challenge sexism outright. She meets a man at a wedding party who invites her out to a terrace to smoke a joint, which she accepts eagerly. After they smoke, he makes a pass at her only to hear her laugh and say, “Are you kidding?”

Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is a lesbian who works different jobs endemic to the gig economy. Her preference is for DJ’ing but she is not above bartending or working in a kitchen. Still in the closet to her traditional-minded family, she likes to hang out with Leila. Every night is a party. They go to dance clubs, score weed, drink beer out of a bottle and pal around with male buddies including a gay man.

Full review: https://louisproyect.org/2018/01/05/in-between/

Tehran Taboo

The woman is named Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) and her son is Elias, a mute despite being able to hear everything. Witness to almost every inhuman behavior in the story, he remains mysteriously unmoved by them—a technique for survival. Not long after getting done with her transaction, she takes Elias to visit her husband in prison who is serving time for a drug offense—just one of the casualties of Iran’s drug addiction rate that has doubled in the past six years.

Anxious to be done with her husband who is a repeat and hopeless offender, she makes an appointment with a judge, who like all others operating under the system’s sharia-based courts, is a robed and bearded cleric. He tells her that he will only sign the divorce papers if she agrees to become his kept woman.

Full review: https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/02/14/an-iranian-tragedy/

The Young Karl Marx

Much of the two hours of “The Young Karl Marx” entails events that will not be familiar to most people, including even someone like me who has been involved with Marxist politics since 1967. Adhering to the highest standards of historical accuracy, Peck and co-screenplay writer Pascal Bonitzer, who was the editor of Cahier du Cinema from 1969-1985 during its most rigorously Marxist phase, created an ensemble case that included characters such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Wilhelm Weitling, Arnold Ruge, Moses Hess, et al. Except for Proudhon, who perhaps some CounterPunch readers might recognize as a founding father of anarchism, these men are cloaked in obscurity today even though they were major political figures in the 1840s.

Full review: https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/02/23/marx-at-the-movies/

Documentaries

Beuys

In the 1970s, Beuys became a conceptual artist often using himself as the focus of what might also be described as performance art. The documentary has startling footage of “I Like America and America Likes Me”, a 1974 work that brought together the artist and a live coyote in an enclosed New York gallery space. Beuys, who is enclosed rather precariously in a cloth tarpaulin, allows the animal to bite off pieces from the costume, while holding it back rather gently with a cane. The piece called for overcoming the rift between humanity and the natural world, a need that would seem to apply in spades to the invasion of Central Park recently by coyotes and the panic it has engendered. I would have given anything to see what Beuys had to say about this trend, who dying in 1986 was spared the depravity of a Trump administration bent on turning the entire country into a combination strip mall and golf course.

Not long after he began making explicitly political art and until his death, Beuys was a passionate supporter and member of the Green Party in Germany. He was part of the party’s leftwing and eventually became marginalized because the leadership feared that the German voter would not identify with someone as eccentric as Beuys. To connect his artwork with his political beliefs, he embarked on his most important project in 1982, the 7000 Oaks. This was an ambitious reforestation project that finally resulted in the planting of seven thousand trees throughout Germany, especially in areas destroyed by bombing during World War II.

Full review: https://louisproyect.org/2018/01/17/beuys-david-hockney-at-the-royal-academy/

Dark Money

The idea of a typically red state like Montana with its gun-toting ranchers and farmers resisting corporate campaign contributions made legal by Citizens United might strike you as an anomaly. However, a look at the state’s history would reveal a deep-seated hostility to the copper mining industry that had poisoned the waters of Montana to such a degree that even the ranchers and farmers would not put up with it.

Anaconda Copper was the worst of them. In its open pit excavations in Butte, the company allowed copper-infused soil and rocks to seep into the Berkeley Pit, a lake formed by underground water. The combination of mineral waste and water produced an acid pool so toxic that when a flock of 3,000 Snow Geese touched down during a migration, every bird died. In the early 1900s, Anaconda did not just rule over a company town. It was more accurate to call Montana a company state under its thumb.

As part of the progressivist and socialist movements sweeping the country back then, Montana’s legislators passed a bill in 1912 that made corporate funding of election campaigns illegal. However, when the Supreme Court decided in 2010 that corporations were permitted to make campaign contributions without limits, Montana’s law was superseded to the dismay of Democrats and Republicans alike. The documentary points out that Republican state legislators were by no means happy about Koch’s network of shadowy 501(c)(4) tax-exempt groups like Americans for Prosperity and Western Tradition Partnership meddling in the electoral process.

Full review: https://louisproyect.org/2018/11/27/dark-money-the-panama-papers/

Fail State

For-profit colleges were supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. For the Republicans, John Boehner used his leverage in Congress to eliminate any regulations that could get in the way of their expansion.

With their ties to Wall Street, naturally the Democratic Party would see for-profits as a neat idea just like ending Glass-Steagall. Lobbying on behalf of the for-profits included Anita Dunn, a former Obama communications director and his close friend, as well as former House majority leader Dick Gephardt. For-profit college companies spent more than $16 million on such unscrupulous shills.

When Tom Harkin tried to rein in the for-profits, he ran into stiff resistance from the Congressional Black Caucus that regarded regulation as racist. CBC members Alcee Hastings, Donald Payne, Ed Towns, Andre Carson, Bobby Scott, and Charlie Rangel voted for an amendment that made it impossible for the Department of Education to regulate the very schools that were leaving their constituents with massive debts and zero chances of landing a job.

Full Review: https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/10/19/the-education-business/

Piripkura

The Piripkura are a nomadic tribe that lived in Mato Grosso region of Brazil and like many such hunting-and-gathering societies fell victim to prospectors, ranchers, lumberjacks and other capitalist predators who viewed indigenous people as a nuisance standing in the way of “development”. Rita, a Piripkura woman who has left the forest to live in a settlement for indigenous peoples protected by FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation. Except for her, the only surviving Piripkuras are her brother Pakyî and her nephew Tamandua who have remained deep within the forest successfully avoiding the genocidal intruders who do not respect the government’s protection of tribal land just as India protected the Sentinelese islanders who killed the missionary who had entered the island illegally to preach the Gospel. On first blush, the Bible might not seem as inimical to indigenous people’s survival as a shotgun but colonialism tends to use them in tandem.

The first half of the film shows FUNAI official Jair Candor penetrating the forest in search of the two remaining Piripkura. If he can document their survival, their territory will remain protected. Suffice it to say that their discovery is a bittersweet experience. You smile because these diminutive and angelic men, naked as the day they were born, are still alive. You also shed a tear because, like Nishi in California, they are the sole survivors of a tribe that once numbered hundreds in their rainforest sanctuary.

Full review: https://louisproyect.org/2018/11/28/kinshasa-makambo-piripkura/

The Price of Everything

Unlike the heavy-handedness of the typical Michael Moore documentary, “The Price of Everything” allows auction house executives to hang themselves on their own petard. I strongly suspect that director Nathaniel Kahn, who is a Yale graduate and the 55-year old son of famous architect Louis Kahn, knows this world inside out and as such was able to put someone like Amy Cappellazzo, the Chairman of Global Fine Arts at Sotheby, at ease. When asked by Kahn why art is so expensive, she smiles and answers that it reflects supply and demand. In other words, it is defined by its commodity price more than by its use value—to draw from the Marxist vocabulary. No greater proof of that is that many paintings being sold at the Sotheby’s/Christie’s circuit never end up on a buyer’s wall. They are hoarded in crates in the expectation that the commodity price will rise as if they were Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982. Even though Cappellazzo espouses warped values, she is a compelling interviewee who obviously knows how to judge art.

Full review: https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/10/10/art-bastards/

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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