Welcome to the midpoint for The 300
Hello, users, and welcome back to The 300, a recurring feature on my quixotic attempt to watch 300 movies in theaters in the year 2018. I’ll be watching new releases, classics, and hidden gems to experience the wide world of cinema in all its forms. With so much being watched, there ought to be something each week that you can enjoy.
As always, there are three rules for The 300:
- The movie must be at least 40 minutes long, meeting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ definition of a feature film.
- I must watch the movie at a movie theater, screening room, or outdoor screening venue.
- While I can watch movies I’ve seen before 2018, I cannot count repeated viewings of the same film in 2018 multiple times.
The New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) is underway, and I was able to catch one film there during the opening weekend (and it is a doozy). I’ll be seeing a few more for the next installment of The 300, and will catch some films at the Japan Cuts Film Festival later this month. As previously mentioned, the two festivals running almost back-to-back comprise a massive showcase of new and classic Asian cinema.
Since this is the midway point week-wise for The 300, I’ve included by current picks for the 20 best movies of 2018. It’s been a darn good year so far, gang.
And so, onward.
174 of 300: Three Identical Strangers (2018)
Director: Tim Wardle
Seen at Angelika Film Center (New York, NY)
Friday, June 29th
It’s best to head into Three Identical Strangers knowing only the basics in order for the surprises to engross and alarm you. This is a documentary about triplets separated at birth miraculously reunited. It’s also about everything that happens afterward, particularly the circumstances of their separation and its impact on their lives. You know something bad has happened not just from implications of tone, but the absence of a certain interview subject. Using a mix of talking-head interviews and recreation footage, Wardle explores the age-old question of nature vs. nurture, as well as the human costs of this sort of research.
There’s apparently another documentary by Lori Shinseki called The Twinning Effect that covers these triplets and other identical siblings who experienced a similar situation. I haven’t seen it, but the film was on the festival circuit last year. I’m curious how Shinseki’s film deals with this tragic story.
175 of 300: Tron (1982)
Director: Steven Lisberger
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan, David Warner
Seen at Roxy Hotel Cinema (New York, NY)
Saturday, June 30th
I haven’t seen Tron since I was six years old, and I didn’t remember much about it save for the light cycles and Frisbee combat. Watching it again, I assumed kid-me zoned out during the real-world prologue as Bridges, Morgan, and Boxleitner spar over old relationships and corporate oversight. Once the film enters the computer world, it’s an enjoyable, rollicking adventure propelled by Moebius’ iconic designs. I was surprised how Bridges mostly plays a slacker sidekick while Boxleitner and Morgan are the primary heroes of the film. I guess I should finally check out Tron: Legacy, but I am in no rush.
176 of 300: Operation Red Sea (2018)
Director: Dante Lam
Starring: Zhang Yi, Huang Jingyu, Hai Qing
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Asian Film Festival
Saturday, June 30th
I’m so conflicted about Operation Red Sea, which is both an incredibly done blockbuster action movie and an unabashed piece of Chinese military propaganda. There’s a peculiar combination of sensibilities throughout the film. There’s the scope of a patriotic Hollywood blockbuster that’s a little bit Michael Bay, a little bit Black Hawk Down, and a lot of G.I. Joe. There’s the strong flavor of Chinese nationalism; the movie even closes with China essentially yelling “Come at me, bro!” at the United States. Yet there’s also a pathos and heroic melancholy about these soldiers that reminds me of John Woo’s best work in Hong Kong. That bloody, lachrymose Woo-like camaraderie might be a means of subtly undercutting the army recruitment video vibe, or maybe the melodrama makes the jingoism more palatable.
The Chinese navy takes on an ISIS analog on the Arabian Peninsula, and mayhem ensues. Many of these action set pieces are incredibly crafted, and unfold over 10-minute or 15-minute stretches before the audience has a chance to breathe. Operation Red Sea is much gorier and uglier than I’d anticipated, with civilians being dismembered, burned alive, and grievously harmed rather than suffering fates off camera. One of our heroes has his jaw partially shot off. He gutturally screams through a mouth that no longer works with his guns blazing. Amid this gruesome mayhem, the film slips in footage of the 7/7 terrorist attack in London, trying to tie together the real horror of terrorism to their cartoony analog.
In short, my inner 16-year-old thinks this movie is an in-f**king-credible spectacle of badassery, while finger-wagging adult me is troubled by the subtext of this violence because the spectacle is so effective. I wonder if this is what it feels like for people in other countries to watch an American blockbuster.
177 of 300: Leave No Trace (2018)
Director: Debra Granik
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie
Seen at Angelika Film Center (New York, NY)
Sunday, July 1st
It’s been eight years since Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik’s critically acclaimed film that launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence and raised the profile of character actor John Hawkes. Leave No Trace is worth the wait, so deeply sympathetic and heartfelt as it follows Will (Foster), a veteran with PTSD, and Tom (McKenzie), his teenage daughter, living off the grid and in the Oregon woods. Like Winter’s Bone, I can see Leave No Trace similarly launching the career of young star Thomasin McKenzie and raising the profile of Ben Foster. I admit that the recency effect is in full effect at the moment, but right now, Leave No Trace is my favorite movie of 2018.
So much about Leave No Trace is understated, told in the performances and the color palate. There are lush greens and warm sunlight when it’s just Will and Tom alone, and these eventually give way to the muted hues and flat textures when they enter the city to stock up on supplies in the city. When color isn’t enough, Granik finds striking metaphors in a Christmas tree farm, a hive, and the idea of seahorses. What happens when trees are not allowed to take root? All the while, that seems like the quiet implication in McKenzie’ performance. The questions she asks of Will seem bolder as she begins to realize what is best for her may not be what is best for her father.
While the film drifts—the plot, like the characters, is nomadic and worries only about present needs—the tension throughout Leave No Trace is centered on this straining relationship between a damaged, possessive father who wants to check out of the world (a world that has forgotten and discarded him) and a daughter who wants to develop a sense of home and, more importantly, a sense of self in the world. Despite their love for one another, it cannot end well. Leave No Trace ends the only way it possibly could; it ends beautifully.
178 of 300: In the Soup (1992)
Director: Alexandre Rockwell
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Seymour Cassel, Jennifer Beals
Seen at IFC Center (New York, NY)
Monday, July 2nd
In the Soup is a bit like a time capsule of 1990s indie film. So many elements of ’90s Indies are present—crime, idealized love interest, namedropping artsy filmmakers—and there even seems to be a nod to Woody Allen (in a time before his first scandals broke). Buscemi is a sadsack writer of the Arturo Bandini mode. He befriends a rich criminal oddball (Cassel) who wants to fund his self-indulgent film. In the Soup is at its best when it embraces its weirdness rather than retelling a story that doesn’t need to be told again. (We get it, sad writer guys. It’s tough, and that really beautiful woman isn’t into you. There is more to life than that.) I wish it was stranger overall, and just leaned into its singing landlords and hemophiliac siblings and criminal libertines and chance encounters with character actors.
My Top 20 Movies of 2018 So Far
1. Leave No Trace
2. Scary Mother
3. You Were Never Really Here
4. Summer 1993
5. When Lambs Become Lions
7. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts
8. A Fantastic Woman
10. Black Panther
11. Angels Wear White
12. Sweet Country
13. Lu Over the Wall
14. Won’t You Be My Neighbor
16. Island of the Hungry Ghosts
17. Let the Sunshine In
18. A Quiet Place
19. Avengers: Infinity War
20. Paddington 2
Special shout-out to Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, which came out in the United States earlier this year and was my favorite movie of 2017.
And before anyone gets cranky, I liked or admired First Reformed, Annihilation, The Death of Stalin, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and Isle of Dogs, but they just didn’t click with me enough to make it into my top 20.