Halfway through, it’s obvious that this year has so far been a trove of genre filmmaking. Looking at the list our writers have voted as the Best Movies of 2018 (So Far), it’s clear that things have changed a bit since our last go at this. Gone from our list are the big-budget blockbusters like 2017’s Logan and Kong, or even some of the slicker sequels like Alien: Covenant, and in their place we find a host of small horror films, psychological thrillers, and neo-noir (with maybe a cuddly bear thrown in for sanity’s sake). For a film section dubbed ‘Sordid Cinema,’ this is of course a welcome trend, and one we hope continues through December.
It’s also interesting to note that despite a host of sci-fi and superhero movie fans on our staff, some of the biggest ticket sellers of the last six months didn’t make the cut — no Black Panther, no Avengers: Infinity War. We’ll see if that becomes a trend, but in the meantime, if you haven’t seen any of the gems below, please consider giving them a shot — they’re some of the best of 2018!
Editor’s Note: This list is in alphabetical order. While there are plenty of films we wish we could have included, our rules require each movie to have been released theatrically and/or on VOD in 2018. In other words, many of the great films we have seen at film festivals are not eligible.
Alex Garland’s beautiful, uninviting, cold, pulsing journey into the nature of change and destruction is the sleek, streamlined antidote to recent bloated sci-fi. Like the best of the genre, Annihilation is less concerned with giving answers than asking questions, wisely using its time and technology to explore actual humanity instead of the mere facade of it. As former soldier-turned-biology-professor Lena (Natalie Portman) and her squadmates wander deeper into The Shimmer, a patch of swampy forest strangely encased by an opalescent bubble that is continuously expanding, they discover a mutating world full of dazzling beauty and terrible horror — from which no one has returned. Tasked with finding the source of the disturbance (and beholden to their own motivations for accepting the mission), the five women are forced to confront demons from without and within; but what does it all mean?
Like its protagonist, Annihilation offers few explanations willingly. Characters withhold information, often lie, and due to the nature of the phenomenon on display, even what we see can’t always be trusted. It’s certain that there are real psychological issues being tackled here, but what they are is open to interpretation, inspiring the best sorts of post-viewing conversations. Despite occasionally wallowing in its ambiguity, however, the film never loses focus on what’s important, what the real draw is. It knows that even in a story with suspicious meteors, genetic anomalies, and hybrid monsters, humans can still be the strangest, most fascinating creatures on screen.
The rotten dread permeating every aspect of the screenplay is wonderfully reinforced by mesmerizing visuals, but Garland refuses to get lost in them. His direction is consistently inventive, luring audiences in with imagery that entices as much as repulses, but it’s all in service of the characters — not the setting. Still, it’s hard not to be sucked in by such gloriously cinematic compositions, patient editing, and expert use of effects. Add to that a surging, hypnotic score, and you’ve got something that reminds us what makes movies still so special. Tense, captivating, and bold, Annihilation is proof that there’s still life in the sci-fi movie universe. (Patrick Murphy)
It can be hard to see the beauty and good in this world full of filth and depravity, but with blinders on that becomes an even tougher task. Push the universe away enough, and eventually it will push back. Cold Hell (Die Hölle), a taut thriller from director Stefan Ruzowitzky, recognizes that hell may be other people, but it’s also the absence of them — so you better make some friends.
After spending nights ferrying drunken louts around Prague in her taxi cab, fending off insults from macho pigs and evading the leers of sleazy businessmen, it’s easy to see why a Turkish immigrant wants to retreat a bit from society, to fade into the darkness. She is thrust back into the light, however, upon witnessing the results of a grisly murder in the building across from her bathroom window. She does not see the killer’s face, but he sees hers, and so a taut game of creepy cat-and-mouse begins to play out, giving the first half of Cold Hell the feel of a serial killer story where gloom and death lurks around every shadowy corner.
It won’t stay that way for long. Thanks to extensive kickboxing experience and a chip on her shoulder, this young woman knows how to take care of herself, and the latter half of the film becomes more of a tense thriller, awaiting a vengeful confrontation that will surely determine the fate of its hero’s soul. Along the way viewers can check Prague off their travel list, with Ruzowitzky depicting only the grimiest, neon-lit underbellies the city has to offer. Throw in some gruesome murders, and the Czech Republic’s tourist board must have been nervous. To top it off, Cold Hell offers up one of the more satisfying conclusions the genre is capable of, a catharsis worthy of the masterful ticking bomb that precedes it. (Patrick Murphy)
In 2012, the two-man filmmaking machine of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead shot Resolution, a low-budget brain-teaser that few privileged souls saw. But with The Endless, a film that works entirely on its own merits, Benson and Moorhead return to and expand on the world they previously created — and this time, in addition to directing, writing, producing, lensing, and editing, the two also star.
With so much control and involvement, the amount of love these directors have for the process of indie filmmaking is self-evident, but its also obvious on screen. The Endless feels like a film made by people who have fun making films, and for whatever gripes one can summon about the end-product (pretty hard to do), that’s an infectious and commendable quality. (Emmet Duff)
You will be left feeling cold and alone by the time Paul Schrader’s latest film, First Reformed, ends. It’s a movie that demands you go back into it and mine beneath the surface, as it’s more than just a man having a conflict of faith — it’s a man holding onto a dark past, coming to terms with a dark future, and contending with a dark present. First Reformed is a deeply moving film that wallows in its moodiness; equally atmospheric and thought provoking, there isn’t much room for joy in Schrader’s misery — just a constant sense of personal insignificance.
Ethan Hawke delivers one of his greatest performances ever, and surrounded by a small, dependable cast, he burrows deep into the role of a reverend at odds with his beliefs while hurting himself and trying to guide others through their own troublesome thoughts. Hawke feels barely alive, on the verge of collapse throughout the entirety of First Reformed. Place him up against Amanda Seyfried’s Mary, and there’s a kindness to him that fluctuates between genuine and appeasing to her innocence. Put him next to her significant other, and you feel his powerlessness. Hawke runs the gamut to anchor Schrader’s exploration of despair and eternal sadness.
Schrader tackles heavy subject matter with an importance that could endure for a very long time to come. The damage we do to ourselves can be just as damaging as what we do to our planet, but it takes the love of others to give pause to that damage. And that’s just one of many ways to look at First Reformed — a movie that will undoubtedly reveal more of itself with every viewing. (Christopher Cross)
In a year already brimming with a bevy of solid horror efforts, Hereditary is the film that has garnered the most chatter and discussion by far. Even in a genre as divisive as horror, rarely has there been such a split between audience reaction and critical opinion. Of course, this isn’t necessarily without precedent, as some of A24’s other films (most notably The Witch) have drawn similar divides.
However you view Ari Aster’s directorial debut, one would be hard-pressed to find a more shockingly original horror film in 2018. Focusing on the death of the family matriarch and the ripple effects this event has on her surviving family, Hereditary dives deep almost from the outset. It’s a very deliberately paced film, which can make it frustrating at times, particularly when compared to your average genre fare. Those who are patient will be rewarded with one of the best twists in years and a final half hour so relentless that you’ll find your fingernails digging into your armrest if you’re not careful.
With some truly terrifying analogies to the things that our parents can pass along to us, Hereditary is a deeply unsettling film anchored by some of the best performances of the year, particularly from relative newcomer Alex Wolff and a never-better Toni Collette. You might see a better film in 2018 yet, but this writer doubts you’ll see one that lodges itself so firmly in your mind. (Mike Worby)
Isle of Dogs
Director Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is his second stop-motion animation feature foray, following 2009’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s a dexterous play between dark comedy, perilous action, and the suffering caused by power-hungry politicians. When all of the dogs of Nagasaki, Japan are sentenced to be quarantined on Trash Island following an outbreak of dog flu, a little boy named Atari is separated from his beloved guard dog Spots, and soon launches a solo scheme to rescue him. After crash-landing his small plane, a ragtag group of dogs band together to help him find his pet amongst the trash and disease. In doing so they grow closer, battle government corruption, and learn to care for others from different walks of life.
The sterile, minimalistic interiors of the human world versus the grimy, hazardous landscapes that the dogs must traverse because the humans have cast them aside look technically brilliant, along with the meticulous animation of the dogs’ hair blowing in the wind and the subtle emoting of their faces. The straightforward storytelling distracts from the fact that like most Anderson fare, Isle of Dogs succeeds because of the eccentricities that are allowed into character design and dialogue. These merge with the immense talent of the acting ensemble to create a charmingly powerful collaborative force. It doesn’t feel like a tested product cobbled together to grab the attention of a certain audience, but instead matchless output made by some of the best artists working today.
Anderson’s usual suspects (Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban) are buoyed by the addition of Koyu Rankin, Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, and Courtney B. Vance this time around. This storyline isn’t limited to or made strictly for the minds of children — mass casualties, questioning authority, and friendship enduring extreme trials all factor into this absorbing world. Isle of Dogs also speaks to the abuse of the weak and voiceless under repressive regimes, and how resistance is necessary to effect change. The powerful will not police themselves but take all that they can if not checked. The impressive animation intertwined with an acute attention to complex emotions makes for an emotionally and artistically fulfilling film. (Lane Scarberry)
Lowlife is best described as this generation’s Pulp Fiction. Equal parts absurd comedy and surrealist crime thriller, Lowlife is a shocking and often-hilarious story about a beloved luchador named El Monstruo, employed by vicious crime boss Teddy Haynes, who runs his underground crime facility below his fast-food restaurant, harvesting the organs of undocumented immigrants while pimping out underage women. Lowlife is at times hilarious, but for the most part, it is an extremely bleak film addressing current issues surrounding racism, immigration, and drug addiction. Director Ryan Prows manages to not only create a commentary on the current state of affairs for illegal immigrants under a presidency that continually preaches anti-immigration sentiments, but also addresses the horrifying process behind organ harvesting, human trafficking, and the black market. In this world, the cops are often on the wrong side of the law, and everyone else is desperately trying to survive in a place that seems like it’s falling apart around them.
Lowlife is modern exploitation done right, and a film destined to find a cult following. It’s unbelievably entertaining, outlandishly funny, and sincerely touching — and that is what ultimately separates it from Tarantino’s classic. Lowlife truly has heart, and somehow finds the humanity in situations that go from comedic to horrific to over the top within a few frames. Don’t be surprised if you shed a tear or two in the film’s denouement. (Ricky D)
In a world ridden with meanness and cynicism, Paddington 2 is a breath of fresh air. The best film that Wes Anderson never made, it’s also the best demonstration of the virtues of kindness that you will see all year. While the first Paddington was simply an amusing and well-received origin story, Paddington 2 is a flat-out masterpiece and the surprise of the year, managing to turn its central thesis of goodness into a rollicking, very British adventure.
This sequel improves on the first film because it doesn’t have to explain where Paddington came from, simply setting him free to work his benevolent charm on everyone he comes into contact with. It truly puts into practice Aunt Lucy’s statement that “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right” by placing the Peruvian bear in a prison cell (falsely accused, of course) and somehow turning it into a jolly summer camp. Coming in the wake of the devastating Brexit vote, it is a celebration of the positive forces of immigration, and a rebuke to xenophobia everywhere.
It also gives Hugh Grant the revival we never knew he needed. While the 00s saw him relegated to playing the same romantic comedy lead over and over again, Paddington 2 recasts him as an extremely camp villain. In a self-effacing role that sees him turn into a master of disguise, Grant pokes fun at his own legacy while clearly signalling that his career is far from over. This is a movie you want to stick around until the end for, because its unlikely we will see a better scene all year than his show-stopping rendition of “Listen to the Rain on The Roof” from Sondheim’s Follies.
I’m not the only one who was bowled over. With a 100% rating from 198 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, Paddington 2 is technically the best-received movie of all time. That’s some result for a talking CGI bear. (Redmond Bacon)
A Quiet Place
It’s a rare film that can shut up a modern movie theater audience, with viewers so accustomed to irreverence in the church of cinema; if nothing else, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place deserves thanks for bringing some much-needed silence to the masses. Luckily, this monster movie also succeeds in many other ways, showcasing some masterful scenes of suspense that elevate its Twilight Zone plot above some inconsistent logic.
A Quiet Place keeps things small, and it’s a welcome perspective: A family of four in rural New York has survived some sort of apocalypse brought on by alien invader bugs that have hyper-sensitive ears — the slightest sound, be it the crunch of autumn leaves, or a poorly timed cough, could bring swift death. Life on the farm has required internal vows of silence and strict discipline, with soft sand paths for walking and sign language the only means of communication. It’s almost inhuman to think that anyone — let alone young children — could pull this off without a peep, but Krasinski’s direction is so strong during the first half of the story that it actually seems believable; quite a feat. His camera captures lovely fall images, but never forgets to remind us of the danger lurking in the forest, as his characters’ eyes dart about like prey, searching for a predator that could strike at any moment. These early quiet scenes create a tension unlike that of most horror films. Lulled into accepting the lack of sound themselves, audiences subconsciously bond with the people onscreen, playing into the hands of a director who can then toy with them by unleashing jump scares that feel more organic — not some cheap filmmaker’s tricks.
When things go south for the family in the second half, so too does the effect A Quiet Place may have on those who demand consistency in their logic, but there are still some wonderfully imaginative sequences to be enjoyed, and an ending that while slightly off-tone, still should prove rousing. Its plot may have been better suited to a half-hour TV episode, but A Quiet Place is best enjoyed in the dark, in the quiet — amazingly enough, in a movie theater. (Patrick Murphy)
Revenge is a timely breath of fresh air in a genre that usually results in controversy. While the rape-revenge film is often used just for an excuse to murder a lot of guys, Revenge is perhaps one of the most economical and deeply affecting. Centered around one woman’s violent crusade against three horrible men, director Coralie Fargeat crafts an exercise in tension and style that manages to never feel at odds with itself. The pulp is there (accompanied by buckets of blood), but it’s when the film aims its sights at the male gaze that it breaks incredibly exciting ground.
Smartly keeping things focused on its female protagonist and not getting too wrapped up in its violence until necessary, Revenge burns brightly at almost every turn. From the moment the titular act kicks in, there’s not a single wasted scene. Tension mounts and mounts until each inevitable, bloody outburst. Satisfaction is even more palpable when it arrives because every frame works towards amplifying that feeling.
Revenge is one of the leanest, boldest, and most important films of the year. Fargeat does a lot of what you expect, but does it with such zest that it’s hard not to walk away drained by just how much style is present. Aided by incredible cinematography and a synthwave score ready to pulsate in your head for days, there aren’t many films in recent memory that feel this cool. At its core, however, Revenge is still a revenge film; it just carries itself with an abundance of confidence that it feels like someone near the top of their game doing something new and exciting. That this is Fargeat’s debut feature film means I can’t wait to see what twisted thrill ride she comes up with next. (Christopher Cross)
The Rider isn’t a documentary, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that just from watching it. That’s because the director and writer Chloé Zhao has assembled a cast of non-actors and given them life stories suspiciously close to their own. It’s fictional, and yet it’s as true as any story ever told.
The eponymous rider, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), is an expert on the inner workings of horses, in addition to being a rodeo star. Zhao first met Jandreau after he had suffered a skull injury that had ended his competitive career, and his character deals with that same injury in the film. Brady’s family lives on the edge of poverty on a South Dakota reservation (they’re part Lakota); his father sells horses, and his autistic sister requires significant care. Without his rodeo income, Brady finds work as a horse trainer, but even that relatively mild work threatens to overwork his fragile brain.
Zhao’s fictional version of Brady’s life hits so hard because of how indistinguishable it is from his real life. His disagreements with his father and his loving rapport with his sister are shaded by their real-life experiences. It evokes an almost voyeuristic feeling as if we’re seeing something too painful and honest, something that was never meant to be seen by others. In one of the most masterful scenes of the year, Brady goes to visit a former colleague who has been wracked by a traumatic brain injury that has mostly robbed him of his speech and motor skills. It’s a movingly dramatized scene — except that it’s Brady’s real friend, who was injured in real life and will probably spend the rest of his days in a care facility. The intrusion of reality into the traditionally safe fiction of film is almost overwhelming.
Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker, has lived in the US since the end of high school, but her knowledge and understanding of the lives of rural people is astounding. Not since the early films of David Gordon Green has a director keyed into their dignity so fully. The Rider is only her second film, but it seems sure to herald great things to come. (Brian Marks)
Like another popular horror film released in 2018 (the chilling Hereditary), The Ritual basks in its mystery as it invites its audience to try and piece together what exactly is happening to its central characters.
Centered on a hike undertaken by four friends in order to commemorate their dead comrade, The Ritual sees this quartet face unyielding terror after they choose to take a shortcut through a dense, uninviting forest. While seeking shelter in a cabin for the night, it becomes abundantly clear that they are not alone in these woods, and that there is a force dead set on keeping them there for good.
Taking inspiration from Scandinavian mythology, David Bruckner’s film improves drastically over his previous work (The Signal, V/H/S) by leaving the terror stalking its protagonists to the viewer’s imagination, holding back on anything resembling an explanation of the horrors being unleashed until the final act.
A chilling and evocative horror effort, The Ritual may not be for everyone, but if you find yourself in its target audience, you’re in for a very special treat. (Mike Worby)
The third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody examines the physical and emotional toll that motherhood can exact. Following Juno (2007), a story about a young woman facing imminent responsibility because of accidental pregnancy, and Young Adult (2011), in which a woman returns to her hometown to the relive the promise of youth, Tully explicates the trials that women still face even when they have “settled down.” The thankless whirlwind of raising children while trying to maintain any sense of self is given multifaceted meaning by Charlize Theron, who consistently continues to bring depth to women who behave outside the box. How stigmatized it is for women to ask for help when anything less than perfect enthusiasm and endless energy for one’s kids is met with private or public judgement is taken to task.
When Marlo (Theron) cautiously accepts her brother’s offer to hire night nurse Tully (Mackenzie Davis), reclaiming time for herself gives way to a reinvigoration of purpose and identity into Marlo’s routine. Most of our screen time is primarily spent with women and their concerns, ranging from the degree that they can achieve balance to how they communicate with each other and themselves. Important conversations about self-preservation, the burden of parenting, and the way relationships can be broken by time are had, but not conveyed in a heavy-handed or overly saccharine way. The complete engulfment of time by children and the loss of control over the postpartum body conveys a sense of loneliness within motherhood that is rarely scrutinized.
The script is remarkable for how a woman is the primary evaluator of her changed body, in addition to giving consideration to the strain under which many mothers operate without having time to separate themselves at all from the beings they’ve brought into the world. It’s not a comprehensive story that offers solutions, but the film does take us through much of the menial and often unrewarding work that mothers do without much exaggeration — save for a twist. Reitman and Cody’s Tully renders women as imperfect, strong, and underappreciated while also in need of care, but craving independence — finally represented as fully human and worthy of the cinematic representation that they have historically lacked. (Lane Scarberry)
After the comforting throwback of Logan Lucky, which saw Steven Soderbergh working in a very familiar ballpark, comes Unsane — an abrasive and confrontational thriller that is as viscerally enjoyable as it is terrifying. Shot entirely on an iPhone, it sees Claire Foy changing tack quite dramatically from her regular stately role in The Crown.
She plays Sawyer Valentini, a woman who, despite breaking free of her stalker, still feels his presence everywhere around her. Is he still there, or is she going crazy? Looking for answers to her own mental state, she goes for a consultation at a mental institution. After signing some “boilerplate” papers, she finds herself involuntarily committed to an indefinite stay. The stakes are raised when she believes her stalker has been tasked as one of her caretakers, leading to a desperate scramble for escape.
While it raises interesting questions about the commercialization of mental illness and the wrongful incarceration of otherwise perfectly well people, Unsane does not dwell too much on them, preferring to lay on the schlock with maximum impact. The use of iPhone imagery works perfectly, giving the film a B-movie intensity that might have been dulled by higher-quality lenses. Its great to see Soderbergh trying new things again, providing his most experimental film since The Girlfriend Experience.
Claire Foy, however, brings this movie to life. We can never be sure whether to believe her at face value, forcing the viewer to interpret the film as it goes along. She is a ball of constant rage, railing against her situation and spitting out venomous insults with delicious bite. In a brilliant conclusion, she confronts her stalker in one of the best and most vital moments you will see all year.
With such a simple premise and with such low-grade equipment, Soderbergh has made the most impactful thriller of the year. It should be an inspiration to indie filmmakers everywhere. (Redmond Bacon)
You Were Never Really Here
There are two Taxi Driver-inspired masterpieces so far this year, First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here. They each have their own unique pleasures, but only one comes at you with the force of a ball-peen hammer to the skull. Written and directed by Lynne Ramsey (only her fourth feature since 1999), the film is based on the short novel of the same name by Jonathan Ames.
The famously mercurial Joaquin Phoenix is at his most focused as Joe, the hammer-wielding searcher. He finds and rescues young girls who have been sex trafficked, all while dispatching their captors with his brutal brand of justice. Joe has seen and done things that flash across his brain like searing lightning bolts. He’s also a product of abuse, and part of his need to save the young girls is to spare them the trauma that he deals with on a daily basis.
You Were Never Really Here is a fascinating thriller made in a strangely effective yet disjointed manner. The story is simple: a man who saves young girls sets out to save another who is the object of desire for politically connected perverts. Yet Ramsey constantly muddles that simple story with lightning bolt flashes of Joe’s past traumas and bits of fantasy. Jonny Greenwood’s bracing score adds to our disconnection; it flits between harsh atonality and funky synthesizers at dizzying speed. We stumble through the film just as Joe stumbles through every day of his existence.
Ramsey’s film owes a great debt to classic film noir. She eschews the typical New York landmarks that might pepper an urban crime film, instead luxuriating in the gorgeous neon light that perpetually bathes the city. But more than anything else, the film is a showcase for Phoenix’s gifts. Ever since his pseudo-breakdown in I’m Still Here, Phoenix’s roles have been scrutinized for any signs of madness. He plays up those connections in order to show us a man just barely surviving on the edge. Any performance by Phoenix is electrifying, but here he invigorates the film with his manic energy, pushing it toward its white-hot conclusion. (Brian Marks)
Sundance 2020: ‘The Nowhere Inn’ Is a Toothless Tale of Musical Madness
St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein’s film isn’t committed enough to craziness to make a good midnight movie or funny enough to be worth your time.
The term “midnight movie” is somewhat amorphous; it can include everything from legitimately great films (Eraserhead, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Night of the Living Dead) to utterly terrible films (The Room, a variety of low-budget horror standbys). What brings these high and low cultural artifacts together is a lack of concern about taste. They’re transgressive, extreme, sometimes thought-provoking — by the end, you might feel as if your heart is about to crack through your ribcage, or you’ll be embarrassed at the thought of anyone noticing just how hard you laughed. It’s unlikely that anyone will experience any of these feelings by the end of the St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein–starring The Nowhere Inn, a midnight movie in aspiration only that’s neither extreme enough to shock nor funny enough to delight.
The Nowhere Inn begins earnestly enough as a pseudo-documentary purportedly directed by Brownstein, now expanding her many talents to include directing (she’s also the lead guitarist of the seminal rock band Sleater-Kinney and best known as an actor for her work opposite Fred Armisen on Portlandia). Her subject is her friend, singer and fellow guitar virtuoso St. Vincent (Annie Clark), who’s on tour supporting her critically acclaimed album Masseduction (2017). Early on, Brownstein imagines her documentary to be a mix of concert footage and revealing behind-the-scenes moments, but her dictate to “be yourself” backfires when it turns out that Clark doesn’t do or say anything that exciting off stage. The footage is mostly ab workouts and discussions of how her bandmates like to eat radishes and anything that “tastes like dirt.” It’s only when Brownstein urges her friend to be more interesting off stage that the film begins to take shape — and reveals its biggest failings.
Hoping to please her friend, Clark adopts her St. Vincent persona full-time, becoming a chic rocker ice queen. But it’s not just her practiced aloofness; she hires actors to play her family because she doesn’t want to speak about her real father, who went to prison in 2010 for fraud. She also plays up her relationship with Dakota Johnson, playing a hilarious version of herself, presumably inspired by Clark’s real-life relationship with Kristen Stewart. But all of her deceptions seem designed less to make her seem more interesting in the film than to drive Brownstein insane.
Clark and Brownstein have said their film (which is directed by Brownstein’s Portlandia collaborator Bill Benz) is inspired by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970) about a rocker who begins to influence and warp a gangster who’s holed up with him. It’s not a hard connection to make, but there’s none of Performance’s menace in The Nowhere Inn. Every moment in which it might finally tip into madness is undercut by lukewarm humor that generates modest chuckles at best. Clark is fitfully convincing as an actress, but she pulls back when she needs to go big. Brownstein is a more compelling figure, but she’s stuck playing the straight woman for most of the film, which doesn’t give her comedic talents room to flourish. The two are legitimately hilarious in their few scenes with Johnson, who’s totally committed to the cameo part, but most of The Nowhere Inn feels like a slog. The film was always intended to be fully scripted (written by Clark and Brownstein), but by the end, I wished they would have taken the on-screen Brownstein’s advice and just made it into a concert film. There’s nothing in The Nowhere Inn that lives up to St. Vincent simply rocking out on stage with her guitar.
Remembering My Friend, Sonny Grosso
A Tribute to Sonny Grosso
From this past Thursday’s New York Post:
“Former NYPD detective Sonny Grosso, whose police work with partner Eddie Egan was used as the plot for the classic 1971 cop flick The French Connection, died Wednesday. He was 89…Grosso’s foray into Hollywood began with the The French Connection as he and Egan consulted on the film and served as the real-life inspiration for fictional detectives Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo. He went on to become a prolific producer and consultant for television and movies, working on shows such as Kojak, Night Heat and Baretta.”
It’s always odd reading an obituary piece of someone you know, even odder when it’s of someone you consider a friend. You realize just how much of the person you knew isn’t in those few column inches. There are some biographical facts, a tribute sentence or two, but I look at the obits for Sonny Grosso and I wonder, Where’s Sonny? Because he’s not in those pieces.
I considered Sonny Grosso a friend, but then he was one of those people that after your first meeting which ran long because he couldn’t stop telling stories you felt like you’d been friends a long time. And after you’d known him a long time, you felt like you’d always known him. I got to thinking of him like an uncle who lived far away so you didn’t see him too often but were always happy to hear he was coming to town.
I considered Sonny Grosso a friend which, because we were both Italian, meant there were times that even though I loved him I wanted to strangle him, and even as I wanted to strangle him, I loved him. Unless I miss my guess, there were times I suspect he felt the same way.
I don’t remember exactly when I met Sonny. I believe it was some time in the 1990s. We were introduced by Bill Persky, a TV writer/producer/director with whom I’d done some work and who – God bless him – was always looking for ways to juice what laughably could be considered my “writing career.” He thought because of Sonny’s police background and an affinity for related material, which I shared, we’d make a compatible couple.
It never quite happened; close, but not quite. But it didn’t stop me from coming by to talk about this and that and to quickly become part of Sonny’s huge – and I mean huge – circle of friends, because it seemed to me everybody Sonny came into contact with became a friend. That was him. “All the good people in the business,” Sonny once told me, “are good with people.” You didn’t have to know Sonny long to know he was good people.
He would regularly invite me and my wife to an annual dinner he held down in Little Italy as a commemoration to his mother, and there was the time he invited me to just hang out with him at his table at Rao’s, a culty Italian restaurant in East Harlem (this is why it’s culty; tables are “assigned” to regular customers and whether or not you ever get a table depends on whether or not co-owner Frank “Frankie No” Pelligrino decides you should have a table; Sonny had one, the Clintons didn’t get one).
I would see pictures of a slim, almost gawky Sonny from his days on the police force and always have trouble connecting that to the burly, huggable teddy bearish guy I knew. And he was a hugger; maybe it was the Italian in him. I never saw him more huggably teddy bearish than when he met my daughters. I used to work at HBO, and on one of those bring-your-kids-to-work days, after work, I decided to swing up to Sonny’s office and introduce him to my little girls. He was incredibly sweet to them, and after a few minutes you would’ve thought he was their uncle. He would always ask about them after that, always, and they still talk about him even though that was something like fifteen, sixteen years ago.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it wasn’t always love and kisses between me and Sonny (he was a kisser, too; God love my people!). One long-simmering frustration, shared with me by Bill Persky since this was why he’d brought us together in the first place, was Sonny wouldn’t consider me for writing work. He was supportive of my work, wonderfully complimentary, but because my c.v. was so lightweight (and, yes, it was), he was concerned how network execs would react to me as part of a project.
“Sonny’s not afraid of going into a room where there’s a guy with a gun,” a mutual friend told me, “but get him into a room filled with guys in suits, and he gets nervous.”
He didn’t think much of a lot of the decision-makers on TV. Over the nearly four decades he was involved in the entertainment business, he’d judged it changed, and not for the better. “The guys who used to run it ran the whole show, they knew everybody. The guys who took their place hadn’t been involved at that level. They were like being the coach’s son, assuming they knew the game, but they didn’t…
“I work at a network, and this person here is my assistant. I leave, that person gets elevated. But that person doesn’t have the same talent. There’s been an overall letdown in talent.”
One time I asked him about the difference between his days on the force and working in television. “You’ve got this lieutenant, you hate this guy, he’s a prick, but you know when you go through a door he’s going to be there with you. It’s not like that in TV; nobody’s got your back.”
So why stay in the business? “It’s like a broad. She’s got great tits, a great ass, great legs, but an ugly face. You say to yourself, ‘Ok, I’ll live with it’.”
(For a while there, it seemed like every time I asked Sonny about something, the response was always in the form of how whatever the topic was was “like a broad.” Like when I asked him what it was like working with Eddie Egan. “I loved the guy,” he told me, but Egan – who, I got the impression, could be a bit of a hot dog – rubbed a lot of other cops the wrong way. When Sonny was partnered up with Egan, he’d find dog turds in his station mailbox. “Finally, I had to talk to these guys. I told them, ‘I know you guys got a problem with him, but this is like a broad I’m married to; maybe you don’t like her but she’s my wife so you gotta show respect.”)
One of those times when I wanted to strangle Sonny was over a feature screenplay Bill Pesky and I had written together about the Italian POWs kept in the U.S. during WW II. It was a forgotten historical footnote that struck a chord with Sonny. It was an inspirational story about people overcoming their prejudices, it was about Italians in America, it had a mix of the funny, the sweet, the tragic, and even a touch of romance. He loved it and wanted to try to get it made.
After a possible co-production arrangement with some Italian entities came apart, Sonny called Billy and me up to his office to talk about another possibility. He wanted to pitch it to Hallmark.
Billy and I were not happy. That would mean chopping anywhere from a quarter to one-third out of the script to get it to fit into a TV movie slot, and it being Hallmark, we knew that in that process, the touch of romance would become the main story and in the schmaltziest of ways. We thought the piece deserved better, so we said no. Sonny got pissed. We got pissed. Each side got convinced the other side didn’t “get it” so everybody got more pissed.
End of project.
(To be fair, after years of not being able to find a home for the project and with two kids in college, it occurs to me we should’ve taken Sonny up on his offer; a paycheck for a diabetically sweet and corny Hallmark romance would’ve been better than no paycheck at all.)
The other time I wanted to strangle Sonny was the one time he did send work my way. He was developing a TV movie project, but his writer was sick. Sonny was racing a deadline and needed a draft or the project was dead. He wanted me. The catch was the writer was a Name and his name was one of the reasons a network was interested in the project. The network couldn’t know the Name wasn’t writing the draft; I’d have to be a ghost.
I was ok with that. I’d get to prove my talent for Sonny and that might pay off somewhere down the road, and I’d get the always-desired paycheck. I wound up doing two drafts for Sonny, but then it occurred to me that a film made from those drafts was going to be more me than the Name. I wanted some kind of on-screen credit. Sonny got pissed because I didn’t officially exist as far as the network was concerned. I got pissed. We both got so pissed we didn’t talk for the longest time. A year, maybe. Maybe more.
Then the movie came out. By that time, that particular network was out of the TV movie business and it was clear from the lack of support they gave the airing that they were just burning this thing off. When I watched it, what was also clear was that the script had been run through an awful lot of reworking to the point where, even under WGA standards, I doubt I would’ve rated a credit. So, it’d been a big fight about nothing.
And, I missed him.
I apologized for having been a pain in the ass (after all, technically speaking, I was the one who had welshed on our arrangement), and it seemed almost instantly with Sonny, in that particularly Sonny way of his, as if none of this had ever happened. Sonny understood: “All you fucking writers are crazy.”
Two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman, who once called screenwriting “shit work” – the equivalent of housework in that it was necessary but invisible and disrespected – said he considered himself a novelist who also wrote screenplays (if you’re looking down on me, Mr. Goldman, a little mercy if I don’t quite have it word perfect). In retrospect, I think of Sonny as a cop who worked in entertainment.
He worked in TV and film almost twice as long as he’d been on the force, had won a few awards, and even turned out one bonafide classic: the completely un-Sonnyesque Peewee’s Playhouse. But in his 22 years on the force, he became – and remains – one of the most decorated cops ever to serve in the NYPD, and the famous “French Connection” case made by he and Egan was, at the time, the largest heroin bust in U.S. law enforcement history. He made Detective First Grade faster than anyone in the history of the department. When I would go up to Sonny’s cluttered offices, there were more police memorabilia on the walls and shelves than Hollywood stuff.
My day job is as a college instructor, and as such I’ve taught a number of military service veterans. My one-time Marine students taught me that no one is ever an “ex-Marine.” An ex-Marine is someone who was thrown out of the service. All others who served are former Marines; they’re always going to be part of The Corps. That was Sonny and the cops. He was never an ex-cop; he was a former police officer, and as such, he never lost his cop’s instincts.
A few days before Christmas in 2003, Sonny was at his table at Rao’s, had gone out to his car to get some bottles of wine he had as gifts for his dinner guests, when two mob guys at the bar got into a tiff. As mob tiffs tend to do, this wound up with one guy shooting the other guy. Sonny immediately grabbed one of the ladies at his table who worked with him, pulled her outside to safety before going back into Rao’s; not bad reactions for a seventy-odd-year-old guy with bad knees.
I think of this and I’m reminded of the scene in Ronin (1998) where Robert De Niro deliberately knocks a coffee cup off a table to test one of the other crew of ex-spies recruited for a job. When the other man nabs the cup before it hits the ground, he mutters, “Old instincts die hard.”
Thinking of Sonny, I’m thinking for him they never died.
I may not have gotten much screenwriting work from Sonny, but I did get a lot of material out of him. I have a police novel coming out this summer, and some of it takes place in New York in the early 1960s, and a lot of it in New York in the early 1980s. Sonny was always available for a talk, telling me what it was like to be on the job in those days. And, over the years of hearing his stories, I had a better handle on the policeman’s mindset, even took specific things Sonny had said and put them into the mouths of my characters.
More directly, he was always available for an interview for an essay I was writing. With other people, I could do an email Q & A, but with Sonny, it had to be a phone conversation, because, God love ’im, the man loved to talk. I can’t remember any conversation with Sonny that didn’t digress and wander and would’ve gone on forever if I hadn’t had to be somewhere else at a certain time.
But besides being fun and often funny, those chats were always an education, and they helped make my pieces publishable. Some of those pieces were written for the guys who now edit Goomba Stomp.
Talking about the making of The French Connection, Sonny told me about prepping Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider (playing fictionalized versions of Egan and Sonny respectively) for one of the movie’s most memorable set-pieces; rousting an all-black bar that’s a hangout for low-level dope peddlers.”
“‘Eddie must’ve done the thing in the bar a dozen times in those three weeks (we were with the actors). I’d seen him do it a thousand times before.’ According to Grosso, during the first week, the actors would stand outside the bar while he and Egan went inside; the second week, the actors would be inside with the detectives while they rousted the bar. ‘The third week, we waited outside while Gene and Roy did it!’”
On how the entertainment industry had changed over his years in the business:
“I find it sad that you and I have a conversation where I say, ‘Where’s the place for a Capra?’ and you say maybe we couldn’t even get The French Connection made today. Maybe you could make it today. But Popeye’d have to be way better looking. And they’d give him a girlfriend. And there’d have to be more action. Lots more action…Somebody said to me, is the problem that there are too many cooks spoiling the broth? The problem is, there are too many people in the kitchen who can’t cook.”
On how the heart of any story is a character the audience wants to spend time with:
“The shooting (in The Godfather) and all that bullshit was window dressing. What you cared about was that family, what Michael (Corleone) did for that family, and what the family did to him, his brother betraying him (in The Godfather: Part II). That’s the stuff you cared about. Don’t get me wrong. You need the window dressing! It’s great you got the goods in the story, but nobody comes in because you got Bon Ami (fogging) the window. You gotta have the shooting and the good-looking guy and tits, but, in the end, does (the audience) want to spend time with this guy? You could do a show about a dog catcher and make it work if you get the right guy.”
Interviewing him about Point Blank, the true account of an anti-corruption investigation gone tragically awry he co-wrote with Philip Rosenberg. I asked him, “What can an author learn working with a cop that he/she can’t get from research?”
“Six million fucking things…It could be a tennis player or a bowler or a writer, it doesn’t matter, but the real guys bring so many things that are interesting…”
I lost my friend Sonny Grosso this week. And if he was still alive, I’d want to strangle him for leaving.
Sundance 2020: ‘Kajillionaire’ Finds the Sweet Side of Scamming
Miranda July’s film turns an oddball film about homeless scammers into a deeper meditation on longing and abandonment.
Miranda July is a polarizing director, one whose detractors label her the “epitome of trendy indulgence,” and whose boosters find her doses of magic realism moving and refreshing. I’ve been in the latter category, particularly when it came to July’s second feature, The Future, one of my top films of the past decade. With her third feature, Kajillionaire, she expands her potential as a comic director, while still finding resonant, bittersweet notes.
Kajillionaire stars Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, and Evan Rachel Wood as a trio of barely-homed Angelenos constantly in search of their next buck — and their next scam. Robert and Theresa (Jenkins and Winger) seem like they might have been burnt-out hippies or disillusioned New Agers (they pose as professors at one point), while Wood plays their withdrawn and tomboyish daughter. She dresses in loose-fitting sweats and wears her hair down to her midriff and parted down the middle just enough to reveal a hint of her face, which is all she cares to display. They live next to an absurd bubble factory in a decrepit office building that leaks foam like clockwork, but most of their day is spent on the streets, scamming passerby or stealing packages from the post office in hopes of finding cash, or at least something they can return for money.
Their steady routine seems to work well enough, even if they’re a few months behind on their already astoundingly low rent (at least for LA). But amid another con, they befriend the bubbly Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who’s fascinated by their lives. She has a job and enough money to afford a small apartment, but something about their nomadic lifestyle seems adventurous to her, even if they don’t live that way by choice. There’s an instant conflict between this new surrogate daughter and their real daughter (I won’t spoil Wood’s character’s hilarious name), and it’s not clear until the end if their connections are real, or just a long con.
Unlike The Future, which departed the bounds of time and space to dramatize the heartbreak of a separation, Kajillionaire hews closer to the world as we know it, even if its characters are absurd outliers. Jenkins effortlessly switches from charming curmudgeon mode to lecherous old man, and Winger’s detached mother reveals chilling, if hilarious, depths. But the film belongs to Woods and Rodriguez, who find a wonderful repartee when they’re forced to work together. As in most of July’s work, there’s a moment where it might seem a bit too precious, but there’s a deeper sense of longing hidden beneath. Wood, in particular, seems a bit one-note at first, but Rodriguez eventually breaches her defenses to find what makes her tick. It’s a stunning cinematic transformation to cap off one of the most delightful films of the year.
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