Zama: When my ship comes in…
A strange year at the movies for your exceedingly humble correspondent. Only about 100 reviews this time ‘round, and three of my notable ten didn’t even make it into the paper. The first of those is Zama, Lucrecia Martel’s marvelous and malignant comedy of alienation set in a South American Spanish colony. Its titular hero is a man out of place — he imagines himself a sophisticate, bound for the good life at court, but can’t seem shake free of his backwater assignment among the natives who make the good life possible. Yes, it’s scathing social commentary, but it’s so deliciously sly and warmly human about it (as opposed to the hammer-force histrionics of another favorite, Armando Iannucci’s summa of schemery The Death of Stalin). Casting is key: Daniel Giménez Cacho’s noble mug is the perfect canvas for human folly to scrawl its worried lines upon. And if you don’t count end-credits sequences (looking at you, absurdly happy-making Paddington 2), it’s got my favorite final scene of the year.
The second no-show in print was also a no-show on San Diego’s screens: Orson Welles’ posthumously completed final picture, The Other Side of the Wind. I bet I can guess my co-critic Scott Marks’ response to the question, “If a movie releases on Netflix and not in a theater, is it a movie?” But I was so taken with the self-lacerating story and the artful whirlwind of the presentation that I’m putting it on this list anyway, especially when viewed in tandem with the accompanying documentary on Welles and the film, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. Netflix also gave us the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which distilled the Coens’ bleak pessimism to perhaps its purest essence yet. Episode by episode, they dismantle all of humanity’s pleasant dreams: heaven, luck, ideas and art, love…all except money. That you might manage, provided you give it your entire life’s effort, kill the competition, and don’t stop to look at the mess you leave behind. And they get to smear that bleakness all over the gorgeous backdrop of the American west. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s divorce disaster drama Loveless is stuck with modern-day Russia, which is bleak enough to begin with.
Let’s see, what else – ah, the outliers. Not many folks admired Rupert Everett’s passion project on Oscar Wilde’s last days The Happy Prince the way I did, but then, maybe not many people sympathize with Wilde’s take on the value of suffering the way I (sometimes) do. Melodramatic, florid, saturated, sordid? Sure. But also wise and tender in the midst of misery and hardship. Right up my alley. And while we’re on the subject of religion, it’s a pity the faith-based film crowd didn’t turn out for Xavier Giannoli’s The Apparition.
Finishing up: just as Christopher Nolan’s skills as a meshing-moving-parts director were ideally suited to 2017’s Dunkirk, Peter Jackson’s yen for technical innovation proved perfect for his restored WWI footage documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. The result was immediate enough to make me stop taking notes and just watch. And finally, Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch, whose witch truck was easily my favorite (if you can use such a word about such a thing) onscreen image this year.
There was lots of other good stuff — some of which I saw, much of which I didn’t. Hopefully, Mr. Marks will chime in soon with his own assessment.