Monday, December 31, 2018

The 50 best films of 2018 in the UK / No 5 / Private Life

The 50 best films of 2018: No 5 – Private Life

Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti were excellent as a sympathetic New York couple struggling to have a baby in Tamara Jenkins’s intensely personal drama

After her intriguing, if flawed, sibling drama The Savages in 2007, Tamara Jenkins has returned with another intensely personal film. It is a triumph. She shows an uncanny knack of absorbing and transforming her own experiences into a compelling movie. Private Life is superbly acted and written, giving the audience vivid access to a painful yet funny human drama.
Kathryn Hahn, a seasoned comedy-character turn, is an absolute revelation in the demanding role of Rachel, a New York literary author who has critical prestige but not much in the way of sales. Her partner is Richard, a former off-Broadway theatre director who has retired from this business, without much regret, and now makes a living selling his pickles at artisanal markets. This is a role made for Paul Giamatti, and it is a pleasure to see him in a challenging part to be compared with those in the movies that made his name: American Splendor and Sideways.
Rachel and Richard are trying to have a baby, either by fertility treatment or by adoption. We can see how they have reached the autumn of their lives, taken stock of their careers, and now want their relationship to mean something – with a baby. But they have left it very late. The adoption process means making online contact with a likely young pregnant woman and arranging to take her baby, and it is a minefield – the mother can change her mind or she can reveal that for various reasons she was never serious about adoption. As for IVF, that is a brutally punishing, intimately upsetting, financially ruinous business to have to go through over and over again. But just when Rachel’s eggs look as if they are not viable, it seems they have found an egg donor. Richard’s stepniece Sadie – his brother’s stepdaughter by marriage and a longtime family friend – offers to donate one of hers, in return for lodging with her cool uncle and aunt in their New York apartment while she tries to establish herself as a writer. It’s a great role for relative newcomer Kayli Carter.

Giamatti and Hahn are excellent at portraying an intelligent, sympathetic couple who are going through denial. They are submitting to a kind of agony. It is horrible, but they have to endure it, and behave as if everything is normal. And so they are pathetically grateful to this impulsive, sweet-natured, generous if scatterbrained young woman who is prepared to make a remarkable gesture of love and friendship to them. But of course it is fraught with difficulty. She should not have sex while she is having the hormone treatment, and for Richard and Rachel to police this rule is horribly embarrassing. Could it be that they have, in fact, already acquired a child – Sadie?
A hostile approach to this film would be to dismiss it with the boorish phrase “first world problems”, and a different type of film would satirise all three principal players in an attempt to forestall that objection. But Jenkins’s script is funny, smart and sweet without ironising anyone. Sadie in particular isn’t the brat that you might expect her to be. Richard and Rachel are creatures of their time and of their background of course, but their humanity is so persuasive. It’s a richly satisfying film.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The 50 best films of 2018 in the UK / No 4 / Loveless

The 50 best films of 2018 in the UK: No 4 – Loveless

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s stark drama about a couple’s toxic relationship – and its catastrophic fallout – was a passionate dissenting cry from within Russia

Peter Bradshaw
Tue 18 Dec 2018

ndrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless is a film with a brutally informative adjective for a title. It’s something which applies to the toxic, failed relationship which is at the heart of the drama, but also to everything around the unhappy man and woman, to the very air that they breathe. Modern, aspirational Russia seems in this film to be grasping, unforgiving, a spiritual wasteland of materialism and selfie narcissism, like a distant planet which has lost the means to support life. It is a stark, mysterious, painful film in the high European tradition of Bergman, Antonioni and Haneke.

Boris (Alexei Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are a couple who are splitting up, but must for the time being share the cramped apartment which they are selling; both have found new partners and now quarrel endlessly. It is a truly horrible atmosphere for their 12-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) who at some level realises that he is somehow at fault – by having a child too early, the couple effectively destroyed their chances of happiness together. This boy is in agony. One day he goes missing. But it is clear that he has vanished spiritually long before.

And what can the couple do about it? Does this terrible emergency bring them closer together? Does this traumatic psychological impact at least dislodge them from their moral stagnancy and paralysis? Well, not obviously. In fact, it only seems to intensify and diversify their rage and fear and hate, giving it a kind of dramatic expression. There is an unforgettably strange and eerie sense when a search party organised by local well-wishers – the police being far too jaded and bureaucratic to set up anything of the kind – goes through some woodland looking for Alyosha and comes across an abandoned, wrecked building, which looks as if it might have been the kind of upscale property that Boris and Zhenya once individually dreamed of inhabiting, after they had disencumbered themselves of their current marriage. The endgame for this nightmare comes when the police discover bodies of various 12-year-old boys and the couple are called upon to make an identification. Him? Not him? These scenes themselves, which appear to have a gutwrenching ambiguity, are almost unwatchable.
Since this film first appeared at Cannes in 2017 and was released here this year, modern Russia has hardly been out of the headlines: Trump, kompromat, novichok, Ukraine. But it is not just a question of western dislike. There are passionate, engaged, dissenting voices within Russia. Zvyagintsev is one of them.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The 50 best films of 2018 in the UK / No 3 / Leave No Trace

The 50 best films of 2018 in the UK: No 3 – Leave No Trace

Debra Granik delivered a reminder of her greatness with this superlative drama about a father and daughter living off-grid

Peter Bradshaw
Wednesday 19 December 2018

he appearance of Leave No Trace reminded us what a great film-maker Debra Granik is, and what a long time it has been since her last feature, Winter’s Bone, the film in 2010 that made a star of Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence has hardly been out of the spotlight while Granik has been a little forgotten. Well, this superlative film has brought her back. Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie play Will and Tom, a military veteran and his 13-year-old daughter who are living a Thoreau-type guerrilla existence in a huge national park near Portland, Oregon. They are trained and disciplined: they have a secret camp with tarps and cooking implements and they know how to avoid the authorities. Periodically, Will sneaks into the city to pick up his free prescription for painkiller meds, which he sells on the black market in order to buy food and supplies. It seems like the ideal setup, but one day they are spotted, and things come to a crisis.

Will and Tom’s apparent belief in an eternal, Edenic present is striking. There is no sense that either have thought about what it is going to mean when Tom gets too old to share a tent with her dad (surely that moment has already arrived?) or when she wants to meet people her own age. And that question is brought into sharp focus when they are captured – there is hardly any other word for it – and subjected to psychiatric assessment. In some ways, the clinical coldness of this assessment is exactly the kind of soullessness that they were trying to get away from. And yet the assessment is asking them to think about their lives in ways they had perhaps avoided.
In any case, being caught is evidently an occupational hazard: they know how to fake being compliant, going along with the idea of being rehabilitated into society, before discreetly slipping away. It’s a film with things to say about nature and our relationship to it, and how people who do not want to consume, to produce, to surf the waste-byproducts of economic growth that despoil the natural world, should not be labelled as eccentrics or dropouts or tramps. Yet neither is it sentimental about what the father is putting his daughter through. The performances from Foster and McKenzie are wonderful.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps 
in Phantom Thread

The 50 best films of 2018 in the UK / No 2 / Phantom Thread

The 50 best films of 2018 in the UK: No 2 – Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s swansong, could have been a self-indulgent apologia for tortured male genius – but instead turned its rich observational powers on the trials of new relationships 

Benjamin Lee
Thu 20 December 2018
e allow suspension of disbelief for films in genres that would collapse without it, but there’s less room for fantasy in movies about relationships. There’s a reason the romantic comedy has become a dead genre, and it’s not entirely Katherine Heigl’s fault. We can’t help but pick holes in any element of a big-screen courtship that doesn’t ring true. We might forgive some of the more swoon-worthy grand gestures of a story, but we need to believe what we see when we’ve all got at least a modicum of real-world experience with romance.

It has become increasingly difficult to break through this barrier, and romcoms have retreated to the small screen, where expansive storytelling makes them feel more fully realised. But this year has thrown forward an unlikely saviour of big-screen romance: writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose unusual filmography – from Boogie Nights to There Will Be Blood and The Master – is mostly inhabited by traditionally weighty or opaque work. A clue to his affection for the genre, however, lies in his 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love, which paired a socially inept Adam Sandler with a charming Emily Watson. It was woozily romantic and darkly funny; a forefather to his latest – and quite possibly best – film, Phantom Thread.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread

In 1950s London, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) presides over a boutique fashion house, making costly dresses for elite women. He works with his strong-willed sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), whose power also extends to his romantic life, helping to remove each new love interest once Reynolds inevitably tires of her. But he becomes spellbound by waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), taking her on as lover and muse, moving her into his apartment and easing her into his life, regardless of fit. When Alma rebels against his strict routine, the pair find themselves in dark, uncharted waters.
Released so soon after Darren Aronofsky’s self-indulgent Mother!, red flags were raised by the thought of another story from a tortured male genius about just how difficult it is to be a tortured male genius. But Phantom Thread is a fascinatingly unexpected and wildly subversive treat, a film about far more than initially expected; a piercingly sharp study of a relationship that turns into a pitch-black romantic comedy.
It is also a remarkably female story, essentially about two women forced to find ways to deal with the brattish immaturity of a man they both love. Day-Lewis has stated this is his last film, and it’s an intriguing swansong. His performance is excellent, but those around him make longer-lasting impressions. The Luxembourg-born Krieps is bewitching as the woman who challenges him, while Manville is sensational as the one who keeps him in check. All three are introduced as types we think we’re familiar with, but by the end we’re floored by what lies beneath, as Anderson gleefully plays with our preconceptions.
Despite the gloriously constructed period setting, there is a keenly observed messy pettiness in many of scenes, particularly in a horribly familiar dinner date gone wrong. It’s about the battle between independence and co-dependence we all face in new relationships. Reynolds is a confirmed bachelor who has avoided marriage because it would make him deceitful. With age he has built a fortress, ruled by his likes and dislikes, and when Alma dares to prod at its structure, his instinct is to shut her out. How much compromise should you make when sharing your life with someone else? How dangerous is it to let someone in? How much damage can be done?
Phantom Thread will resonate in different ways with people, depending on their relationship status and history. Regardless, it remains a richly, often brutally well-observed wonder, perverse and compelling throughout.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The 50 best films of 2018 / No 1 / Roma


The 50 best films of 2018: 

No 1 – Roma

Topping both our US and UK critics’ polls, this is a great piece of storytelling with inspired and surreal setpieces and electrifying sequences in the teeming streets of Mexico City

Peter Bradshaw
21 December 2018

s this the film that Alfonso Cuarón has been yearning to make all his career, or all his life? It certainly looks like the apparently difficult, non-commercial, personal work that only someone with a vast accumulation of prestige could get made. Every richly considered detail looks as if he spent a great deal of time honing it. Roma, based on his own childhood and set in a well-to-do household in early 70s Mexico City, is Cuarón’s return to his roots after high-profile English-language movies such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the dystopian nightmare Children of Men and most recently his glorious outer space adventure Gravity. In fact, Cuarón gives a hint in Roma of what might have inspired this previous film when some characters go to a cinema in Mexico City to see the 1969 sci-fi adventure Marooned, with astronauts floating off into deep space.

It is a great piece of storytelling, sympathetic and intelligent, with inspired and surreal setpieces and electrifying sequences in the teeming streets of Mexico City, in which I think the beautiful black-and-white cinematography has facilitated digital work visually, modifying and fabricating the period details. It is a very involving story, in which there are these extraordinary moments of excitement. And then, just when you think you have got the measure of its tone, Roma blindsides you with something desperately sad, and an aftermath that gives a catharsis for this sadness.

Alfonso Cuarón and actress Yalitza Aparicio on the set of Roma. Photograph: Carlos Somonte

Non-professional newcomer Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, the live-in maid who is of Mixteco heritage and occasionally speaks her own language and not Spanish – about which one of the children complains: “Stop talking like that.” Her private life begins to unravel in tandem with that of her employer, Sofía (Marina De Tavira) whose husband has abandoned her and the kids – and she is in denial, a process with which Cleo is effectively expected to help, along with all other domestic duties. For her part, Cleo has to inform her boyfriend, a dodgy martial-arts enthusiast, that she has missed her period.
Cleo is much loved within the family. Even when Sofía loses her temper with her, or treats her harshly, it is obviously just a symptom of her own marital breakdown and she will apologise immediately, and emotionally. The truth is that in being such a rock, Cleo is being the responsible figure that the children’s father is not. Both Cleo and Sofía know what it is like to have men who let them down. The difference is that Cleo has an extra load to bear: a secret pregnancy, as well being a quasi-parent to these children. This is the powerful narrative which licenses byways into wonderful incidental moments, such as the family’s Christmas trip to some relatives who are into guns, and treat everyone to an uproarious shooting party out in the country – and then a New Year’s Eve trip to some other in-laws, including a Scandinavian family called the Larssons, where there is a bizarre, almost dreamlike forest fire. Only a storyteller of enormous confidence could handle what might otherwise feel like pointless digressions. But they are dazzling visually, and every moment reveals something in both Sofía and Cleo.
The distinctions of race and class are everywhere in Roma, not in fact in the dramatically overt snobbery and racism that Cleo might face in another sort of film, but rather in a thousand tiny assumptions about her servitude, which are there even in her employers’ quite genuine kindliness and concern. The point is that her own innate dignity and moral generosity make her equal to anyone with whom she is in contact. This is her heroism.

Get involved

What have we missed? Tell us about your favourite film of 2018 and why you are voting for it in the form here, including the moment or plot point you think was most memorable. We’ll publish a selection of readers’ contributions before the end of the year.

Alejandro González Iñárritu / Mi amigo Alfonso Cuarón
Por qué la portada de ‘Vogue’ México con Yalitza Aparicio es histórica
No entenderá "Roma" quien conozca Ciudad de México
Alfonso Cuarón / “En México existe un profundo racismo, pero las cosas están cambiando”
Alfonso Cuarón / "Roma", cine puro al servicio de la memoria

The 10 best films of 2013 / Gravity
The Oscars 2014 / Gradding the Speeches
Alfonso Cuarón by J.J. Abrams
The 50 best films of 2018 / No 1 / Roma

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The 100 best novels / No 91 / Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)

The 100 best novel

No. 91

Midnight’s Children 

by Salman Rushdie 


The personal and the historical merge in Salman Rushdie’s dazzling, game-changing Indian English novel of a young man born at the very moment of Indian independence

Robert McCrum
Monday 15 June 2015 05.45 BST

mong the many turning points in the constant remaking of the English novel – the dazzle of Sterne (No 6 in this series); the quieter, witty genius of Austen (No 7); the polyvalent brio of Dickens (No 15); the vernacularbrilliance of Twain (No 23), and so on – the appearance of Midnight’s Children in 1981 now stands out as a particularly significant milestone. Salman Rushdie’s second novel took the Indian English novel, revolutionised it by marrying the fiction of Austen and Dickens with the oral narrative tradition of India, and made a “magical realist” (the label was still in its infancy) novel for a new generation. This emergent global readership would find, in a story set in Bombay, a work of contemporary fiction that mashed up tales of east and west into a self-confessed fabrication narrated by the highly symbolic figure of Saleem Sinai, an Indian boy born on the stroke of midnight, 15 August 1947, a boy whose distinctive nose seems like a miniature embodiment of the sub-continent whose history has just taken him prisoner.
Saleem sets out his stall as the narrator in the novel’s third paragraph: “I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow a lot as well. Consumed multitudes are jostling and shoving inside me…” And so, off we go.

Saleem, whom Rushdie inhabits for his own purposes, is a character with many unusual powers, especially a psychic connection to all the other children born as he was, at the very moment of modern India’s birth. An equally important, and sometimes neglected, element of the novel is Rushdie’s angry response to the repressions of the 1970s “Emergency”. With Saleem, the personal and the historical become indistinguishable, and Rushdie makes a further duality when he exchanges his narrator for a second baby, an alter ego who expresses Saleem’s dark side. All this is described in Indian English prose that pulsates between the tumultuous and the fantastic.
A page of Rushdie is a rich, jewel-encrusted tapestry of allusions, puns, in-jokes, asides, and the unconsidered trifles of popular culture. Some readers may find this diet close to indigestible, but Rushdie’s charm, energy and brilliance, with his sheer joie de vivre, justify the critic VS Pritchett’s verdict (in the New Yorker) that, with Midnight’s Children, “India has produced a great novelist… a master of perpetual storytelling”.

A note on the text

The making of Midnight’s Childrenbegan, by Rushdie’s own account, when he travelled to India in 1975, a return home sponsored by a £700 advance for his first novel Grimus, a quasi-science fantasy experiment that flopped badly. But his next novel would be different. “I had wanted for some time to write a novel of childhood,” he said in 2005. But it was not until this trip that he began to conceive “a more ambitious plan”. He would take Saleem Sinai, a minor character from an abandoned novel entitled The Antagonist, and link him to the totality of Indian independence by somehow making the history of modern India “all his fault”.
The idea was one thing; the writing would be something else. “I was broke,” recalls Rushdie. “The novel in my head was clearly going to be long and strange and take quite a while to write and in the meanwhile I had no money.” Having briefly been a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather, he now rejoined the agency on a part-time basis, and settled down to write the book he was beginning to callMidnight’s Children, having rejected Children of Midnight as “banal”.
By mid-1979, he was done. The typescript was sent to his friend and editor Liz Calder at Jonathan Cape where, in the best publishing tradition, the first reader’s report was brief, hostile and dismissive: “The author should concentrate on short stories until he has mastered the novel form.”
Thereafter, wiser readings prevailed. The novel was bought by both Cape in the UK and Alfred Knopf in the US. Calder, says Rushdie, saved him from “two bad mistakes”. There was an offstage “audience” character who was “redundant”; and there was a knot in the novel’s time line. Rushdie was persuaded to drop the character, and restructure the story chronologically.
On publication in the spring of 1981, the reviews were good, and the novel’s reception generally enthuiastic. But then, once the book appeared in India, there came the first of the political controversies that have tormented Rushdie throughout his literary career: Mrs Gandhi sued him for a single defamatory sentence about her relationship with her younger son Sanjay. The case never came to court; and eventually the offending sentence was dropped. Now that Mrs Gandhi and her “Emergency” are history, the text becomes less topical, but more timeless. Rushdie himself says that “Midnight’s Children is a product of its moment in history, touched and shaped by its time in ways which its author cannot wholly know.”
In its own time, it has been an acclaimed prizewinner, winning both the Booker prize in 1981, and “the Booker of Bookers” in 1993 and again in 2008. Chosen for the BBCs “Big Read” in 2003, its status as a contemporary classic seems assured. Rushdie himself has written, with appropriate modesty, that “if it can pass the test of another generation or two, it may endure”. Posterity awaits.

Three more from Salman Rushdie

Shame (1983); The Satanic Verses (1988); Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990).


007 Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
014 Fair by William Thackeray (1848)