Film Review: WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? (Canada 2018) ***1/2

What Is Democracy? Poster

The National Film Board of Canada (NFB)’s WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? just nominated for Best Canadian Documentary by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle is the kind of educational film made for students to watch in schools where lots of information is provided on the subject as if coming directly from a textbook on democracy.  The origin of the word is also explained in the film, to illustrate the amount of detail going into its research.

The film questions what it means to want to live in democracy.  Therefore the question asked is what the word even means.  WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? is an idiosyncratic, philosophical journey spanning millennia and continents: from ancient Athens’ groundbreaking experiment in self-government to capitalism’s roots in medieval Italy; from modern-day Greece grappling with financial collapse and a mounting refugee crisis to the United States reckoning with its racist past and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Celebrated theorists Silvia Federici, Cornel West, Wendy Brown, and Angela Davis are joined by trauma surgeons, activists, factory workers, asylum seekers, former prime ministers and others, in a film speaking to the camera or interviewed by Taylor, that connects past and present, the emotional and the intellectual, the personal and the political, to provoke critical dialogue about our future.

Though not really a feminist film, it should be noted (not a bad thing) that most of the interviewees and those involved in the making of the film including the director (who doubles her function as interviewer) are women.

  Trump is given screen time. Surprisingly Trump is not dismissed as a bad President but given due respect as well as reasons he got elected.  An identical situation can be applied to Brexit.  The masses are fed up with the elected who have forgotten the people. The Democrats have forgotten the people, says one American.  So when Trump goes down to the people at their level, he won their confidence.

An eye-opener is also revealed on how Americans are cheated on democracy in voting, especially the poorer and black parts of the United States.

Also interesting is the segment on Greece.  Greece has been in financial crisis and has to be bailed out by the other European Union countries that claim that Greece have lived beyond their means and now they have to pay. The film reveals another side that does not reflect well on the banks and the authorities.

There are lots in the film that will titillate the mind.  After all, it is the philosophers who had a big deal to do with the concept of democracy, as the film implies.  The film’s best segment has young students talking about democracy.  They talk about the results of their complaints in school, one in articular that resulted in the school taking away the vending machines.  They claim that the teachers say that they get paid regardless what they do and that the students need to go to college to success and be happy.  Yet they do not set the example.  It is a very moving and realistic situation that touches the heart.

The film summarizes democracy simply as justice – the right to self rule.  The film also demonstrates selective democracy and that real democracy is practically unattainable.  

The film will be back in the city on January 26 at Ryerson University at the DemocracyXChange Summit—a new annual event co-founded by the Open Democracy Project and the Ryerson Leadership Lab—where Taylor will deliver a keynote address, followed by an evening screening of her film.



Film Review: PUGLI: A PUG’S LIFE (Canada 2018) ***

Pugly follows the triumphs and struggles of 3 rescue pugs, and explores the current craze for flat-faced dogs.

For dog lovers, especially pug lovers, arrives this lovable documentary of the lives of 3 rescue pugs together with some insight on the world of pugs.  Even for those who are unamused by pugs, PUGLI is an enjoyable if not educational doc on the subject.

The film explores the current craze for flat-faced dogs and follows the trials, tribulations and triumphs of three pug dogs as they journey from rescue, to foster care, to their forever homes.

The first pug is Gunner.  Gunner is a two-year-old pug in the care of Pugalug, Toronto’s pug rescue network led by self-professed “Crazy Dog Lady” Blanche Axton.  As she prepares Gunner for adoption, we meet a growing community of “squishy-faced dog” devotees with big personalities, and follow their stories of heroism, humour and heartbreak.  Dogs are not allowed for adoption until they are at least well and adopters are made aware of the new pet’s ailments as pets medical bills can come out to the thousands.  Gunner is adorable and his medical problems do not show.

Next, the audience sees the glamorous side of the pug life, as cover girl Miss Pickles the Pug wins the Now Magazine (the Toronto few news and events weekly) prize for Best Instagram account.   

There is Helmut, superstar of the monthly “Pug Grumble” at Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park, as he takes a break in his busy schedule for a photo shoot for the Canada Pooch clothing company. 

Other minor pug stars include red-carpet movie star Igor Pugdog and his little brother Zombie are featured in their very own yearly calendar – a Pugalug Pug Rescue fundraising initiative driven by motorcycle-riding pug-lover Tracey Silverthorn.

The film also pays special attention to the owners.  Yes, there are dog ladies as well – but with supportive husbands.  These people are revealed to be committed owners who must nurse their pugs through the myriad medical problems that can plague flat-faced dogs.  Titus is a half-blind pug crippled by a congenital condition but he will not give up barking and chasing after speeding trains.  His doting owner Erin carries him everywhere he goes, and ensures that he gets his meds and his thrice-daily catheterization. As a result, for the past three years, these two have never been apart. And then there’s Tawnie, the “sassy bitch” with a lengthy list of maladies, beloved by Blanche, Sigrid and the rest of the Pugalug team, but whose continual (and costly) vet visits have made her adoption prospects doubtful.

Movie pieces frequently feature villains.  What is a good movie without one?  In this case the villains are the breeders.  The breeders are shown to be obsessed with breeding the perfect pug – which means a smashed nose and a curly, short tail.  The nose means difficulty breeding with lots of pugs with respiratory problems.  The shot tail entails spinal problems as well.  As they keep breeding those with short tail or pug noses, the pups face medical problems on growing up.

The audience sees Jessica Kelly, dog behaviourist and Todd Kaufman, a psychotherapist who works with emotional support animals who both express their dislike for breeders who aim for the “smushiest face”, the highest tail, and other extreme features.   The film shows Jim and Mary Lou Dymond, an older couple who have spent 30 years trying to breed the healthy “perfect pug.”

  The film has a especial screening on on Sunday, January 6, 2019 at 1:00pm- Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema before opening on different platforms.

Assorted clips:

Film Review: OUT ON STAGE (USA 2018) ***

Out On Stage (Movie Version) Poster

Something different for the New Year?  The stand-up comedy “OUT on Stage: The Series” hosted by Zach Noe Towers, releases Jan. 17th on the usual streaming platforms.  Produced by Comedy Dynamics and Dekkoo, “OUT on Stage: The Series” features an eclectic lineup of renowned LGBTQ stand-up comedians.  

It is so rare that a grouping, let alone a series of all queer stand-up comics even exists.  The host is Zach Noe Towers, an LA-based comedian, actor, and writer who was recently named one of Time Out Magazine’s “2018 Comedians to Watch.”

OUT ON STAGE is comprised of 6 episodes, each episode with 3 gay stand-up comics, all introduced by Towers.  Towers gets to do his routine in Episode 2.  Needless to say, not all episodes are of the same standard.  A few are funnier, just as a few others are better than others.

Host Towers can get a bit annoying with his infectious laughter, but one has to give him credit for trying.   He does even give the worst jokes (the trans-ginger joke and the corny ‘all the comedians here suck’) a go.

All the comics share a few things in common.  They all make fun of themselves being gay.  The jokes also get dirty and the language occasionally foul, though one may argue there is no need to be.  As with all comics, timing is of the essence.  As all the comics come on stage one after the other, one would automatically make a list of the favourite ones and the ones who really suck, and not in the sexual way.

Here are the episodes:

Episode 1:

The first episode is quite hilarious, setting the tone for the other 5 to be watched.  The first is Jared Goldstein who demonstrates expert timing in the delivery of the material.  The second one, Ranier Pollard is the best of the three.  He is black, muscular and comes on stage with super-tight pants.  These muscles are just for show, he quips, they are for my ‘instagram’ followers.

Episode 2:  This, to me is one of the most mediocre of the episodes.  The host Towers is the first comic in this episode.

Episode 3:  The first comic Gloria Bigelow is the best of the lot, generating the most laughs of the episodes.  She, the first one one, makes fun of being gay, black and a woman while tackling topics like hairy bears.  The third comic is a butch lesbian, A.B. Cassidy, who could have been funnier.

Episode 4: The first comic in this episode cracks jokes mostly on drugs, completely omitting gay humour.  He could very well be a straight comic for all that matters.  The drug jokes come out awkward and are not really funny.  Funny however is the second comic, Chris Bryant, whose infectious good nature helps the audience love him.  He demonstrates expect comic timing.  He is the one who cracks the dirtiest of all the jokes and gets a good laugh from it.  Joe Dosch, the third comic does more jokes on South Dakota where he is from than gay jokes, but the South Dakota jokes are funny.

Episode 5:  Julian Michaels, the second comic proves again the black comics are the funniest.  The majority of his jokes are ‘coloured’ ones.

Episode 6:  The final episode leaves one wanting for more.  The last 2 comics are quite funny, particularly Eric Hahn who makes fun that he is now middle-aged and no longer looks gay.  The last one in contrast is a flaming queen making his delivery all the more flamboyant!


Film Review: NANCY (USA 2017) ***1/2

Nancy Poster

Nancy becomes increasingly convinced she was kidnapped as a child. When she meets a couple whose daughter went missing thirty years ago, reasonable doubts give way to willful belief.


Christina Choe

NANCY opens with the title character, Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) looking after her ill-tempered mother, Betty (Ann Dowd, last seen in HEREDITARY).  The mother is ungrateful, nasty, impatient and rude making Nancy wonder the reason she is that way, as she has always been pleasant towards her mother.  The two watch OLIVER TWIST on  television, the Charles Dicken’s story of an orphan.

When the mother dies, 15 minutes into the film, Nancy watches on television the news of a mother who has had lost her daughter about 30 years ago.  Nancy thinks she might be the missing daughter and contacts Ellen (J, Smith-Cameron) and her husband (Steve Buschemi).  Nancy heads out to meet them, the meeting being the rest of he film.  Revealing more of the plot would definitely spoil the film’s effectiveness.  All that needs be said is that writer/director Choe has made an effective psychological mystery drama.

The film is set in winter in the country where Ellen and her husband live.  The falling snow and snow covered woods are beautifully shot by cinematography her Zoe White, who went on to shoot THE HANDSMAID TALE after being noticed for her work in this film.

NANCY speaks to a lot of Americans for reason of the main character’s demise.  

NANCY gives voice to and represents the many disappointed, disconnected twenty-

first-century millennials making up the first-world.   These are adults struggling to grow up, yet

unable to identify where boredom ends and untreated mental health issues begin.   Nancy is a confused grown-up kid, unable to really function socially, unable to afford to fly the coop, their 

youth saturated by inflation, aware of the dream that capitalism promises, yet living on the 

outskirts of its failings. 

Longing for physical connection, and attempting to find it through online self-

misrepresentation, Nancy has a short meeting with a well-meaning Jeb played by John Leguizamo.  Nancy wrestles with unemployment, only able to obtain a temporary job with insufficient hours.  The character also, when the film opens, has returned from a visit to Korea – not South but North Korea, to the surprise of the person Nancy was speaking to.  Nancy claims that it was easy to go there.  The choice of North Korea depicts the kind of vacation Nancy would be interested with – going to a country with dispirited and oppressed people. Director Choe herself has visited North Korea.

The film’s message comes across loud and clear as voiced by Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron, who delivers the film’s best performance): “We have to appreciate what we have now.  It is the only thing that matters.”

NANCY belongs to the category of low budget films that often struggle at the box-office but is worth a look for effort and result.  The film has already received accolades having been nominated for the following two categories of ‘Best First Screenplay’ and ‘Best Supporting Female’ for the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards.  In addition, the film won the ‘Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award’ at Sundance this year.


Film Review: THE RESISTANCE BANKER (Bankier van het Verzet) (Netherlands/Belgium 2018) ***1/2

The Resistance Banker Poster

In Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, banker brothers Walraven and Gijs van Hall face their greatest challenge yet when they decide to help fund the Dutch resistance.


Joram Lürsen

THE RESISTANCE BANKER is a Netflix original film and perhaps the first one from the Netherlands.

THE RESISTANCE BANKER is World War II banker Walraven van Hall, the hero who financed the Dutch Resistance against the German war machine.  Not many outside the Netherlands might have heard of him.  Therefore it is a story that needs be told, which translates into a film that needs to be seen.  It is of no surprise that the country has proudly submitted the film for the 91st Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.  Unfortunately, the film did not make the December Best Foreign Film Nominee short list.  But the film did become the most visited Dutch film of 2018 and was nominated for eleven Golden Calves, the first time a film received so many nominations for the award.  It went on to win four Golden Calves, among them the prize for Best Film and Best Actor.

THE RESISTANCE BANKER is the true story of the Dutch banker Walraven van Hall (Barry Atsma), a man who, witnessing the holocaust together with the Nazi occupation of his homeland, decided to finance the Dutch resistance with the creation of a shadow bank.  Walraven van Hall used the guise of a charitable fund to help Dutch sailors stranded abroad by the war to launder money into his shadow bank.  As the war continued, the needs of the resistance increased. Nazi leaders grew closer to catching van Hall.  At great risk, Van Hall decided to forge war bonds, secretly exchanging them for the real bonds at a major bank, and then redeeming them for cash at this same bank.

The film is not a bad one, being full of good intentions,  But it is not perfect with a lot of choppy parts.  For example, characters appear from nowhere like the girl on a bicycle carrying anti-German papers, then later explained in the story who she is.  Incidents are also inserted into the story before some crisis following it occurs.  A torture scene (and quite a nasty one at that) appears out of nowhere and a following scene shows van Hall sitting in a train that has German around checking for suspicious characters.

The film does play it safe in its storytelling.  The first third, which is quite slow moving, establishes the characters of van Hall.  He is shown to be a man who loves his wife, who sticks to his beliefs despite the danger he puts himself into.  He loves his children, even sacrificing his life for doing what is right.

The film spends quite a bit of time going through the mechanics of forging the Treasury Bills. Though some might find these sequences boring, they are necessary to show the difficulty of forging especially during war times when materials like ink and special paper are almost impossible to obtain.  At its best, the film contains a few genuinely suspenseful moments, though the one played at the bank is cliched-ridden.

THE RESISTANCE BANKER is currently playing on Netflix.  It is the story of a different kind of hero, but one outstanding one who knows sacrifice of family and love ones is necessary to do what is right.


Film Review: INVENTING TOMORROW (USA 2018) ***

Inventing Tomorrow Poster

Meet passionate teenage innovators from around the globe who are creating cutting-edge solutions to confront the world’s environmental threats – found right in their own backyards – while … See full summary »

Director: Laura Nix

INVENTING TOMORROW follows 6 youth groups that enter their science projects for ISEF (the International Science and Engineering Fair)n- right up tot he winning announcement.  The robe with docs like this is that the director choses her groups.  It would be fortunate that the group the director choses wins, but often than not, it is hit and miss and intros one.  Not all the 6 group come off as winners.  A few do of course.  But audience might learn a thing or tow about competitive – fair or unfair the process.

The 6 young groups of scientists hail from Indonesia, Hawaii, India and Mexico as they tackle some of the most complex environmental issues facing humanity today – right in their own backyards.  Each student is preparing original scientific research that he or she will defend at ISEF.  Framed against the backdrop of the severe environmental threats humans  now face,the audience is immersed in a global view of the planetary crisis, through the eyes of the generation that will be affected by it most.

Considered the Olympics of high school science fairs, ISEF is the largest gathering of high school scientists in the world, attracting approximately 1,800 finalists from over 75 countries, regions and territories.  All the finalists want to do a good job, but the heart of the story isn’t about whether they go home with an award.  As they take water samples from contaminated lakes (Hawaii), dig up the dirt in public parks (Hawaii), board illegal pirate mining ships (Indonesia), and test their experiments in a lab, we see each student display a tenacious curiosity, and a determination to build a better future.  Motivated by the desire to protect their homes, these young people are asking questions about the issues they observe in their communities, and proposing innovative solutions to fix them.

The students spend close to 600 hours each on their projects, guided in their scientific quest by dedicated university mentors.   At home with their parents, grandparents, and siblings, they compare the world their elders knew with the stark reality of the one they’re inheriting.

Director Nix brings the personal issues into the equation.  The audience sees, in an emotional moment the proud tears of a grandmother as her grandson wins the prize.

One must admire the young contestants for their diligence and brilliance.   Most of the terms they use are newt many.  The film should spend more time explaining each project to the audience so that the audience can connect more with the characters.  At bets, these projects appear difficult to understand.

The judges judge hard too.  The Mexicans likely did not win as they have difficulties explaining their project to the judges.  The Indian also has difficulty having the audience understand her project, as she speaks a little too fast.

The film shows that it is not the winning that counts.  It is the beauty of competition and meeting other contemporaries in the field.  The film soars when the camera shows young strangers from different countries making friends, hugging each other for the purpose of saving the environment.


Film Review: ON THE BASIS OF SEX (USA 2018) ***

On the Basis of Sex Poster

The story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her struggles for equal rights, and what she had to overcome in order to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.


Mimi Leder

Mimi Leder (director of the little seen PAY IT FORWARD and made-for-TV, THICK AS THIEVES) tackles a female issue film, ON THE BASIS OF SEX,  an American biographical legal drama film based on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The film is written by Daniel Stiepleman, with an impressive cat that includes Felicity Jones as Ginsburg, with Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, and Kathy Bates in supporting roles.

If when watching the film, everything looks familiar, perhaps you might have seen a documentary released early this year called RBG, the letters stand for Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the subject of ON THE BASIS OF SEX.  The doc concentrates more on her career and what she has done to promote progressive change in the legal America system.  Leder ON THE BASIS OF SEX, opening during Christmas plays like feel-good stand up and cheer move while trying to keep to the spirit and truth of RBG, a legend in our times.  (One can imagine director Leder herself trying hard o get work as a female director as one notices her dry spell of films after PAY IT FORWARD.)  

The film covers the full life of Ruth Ginsburg.  The first third shows her struggle in an almost all-male (she was one of only 10 females) Harvard Law School.  The film is quick to emphasize that Ruth had more on her plate than her fellow undergraduates.  She was not only married with a kid, but her husband (Armie Hammer) suffered from cancer with hospitalization.  Ruth looked after him, their kid while attending his classes and her own the same time.  She came up top of her class.  The second part shows her at her job after graduation.  She teaches while inspiring her students to change the world.  Her subject was “Sex discrimination and the Law”.

Leder’s film reveals important truths.  The success of a woman depends on the support of her husband.  Clearly Ruth’s husband was always behind her, giving in and urging her to strive on.  The same can be likely said for husband of Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Teresa May. However, Ruth and her husband’s relationship appears too perfect.  “You are ready for this.  You have been ready for this your whole life.  Go in there and let the judges see the real Ruth Ginsburg I know,” is the husband’s best advice, obviously spiced up int he script for artistic purposes.  Despite the husband’s support, it must be certain that they must have had huge arguments that would have rocked their marriage.  No major disagreements are on display except for one minor argument which involves their daughter, now grown up.

English actress Felicity Jones is winning as Ruth Ginsburg.  Armie Hammer, also delivers a remarkable performance in a little written role.  But the best performance comes from little known Charles Milky who plays Charles Moritz, Ruth’s caregiver client denied his tax benefits for looking after his ailing mother based on his gender.

It is clear that more cane learnt about Ruth Ginsburg by watching the doc RBG than this Hollywood dramatization.  Audiences have seen similar films before, like MADE IN DAGENHAM and even the lighter and more hilarious LEGALLY BLONDE.   What is clear is that Ruth Ginsburg is still recognized as a major force in changing sex discrimination in America.  Her story needs be told in one form or another.

So the ultimate question is whether Ruth Ginsburg’s achievement in life can be trivialized into a 2-hour feel good movie?  Surprisingly, the answer is yes, judging that the real Ruth Ginsburg appeared the end of the film implying her endorsement of the film which was written by her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman.  At least the words at the start of the film declared the film ‘inspired’ rather than ‘based’ on a true story.  But as far as feel-good movies go, Leder’s film is a textbook example of how to achieve the task


Film Review: PRIVATE LIFE (USA 2018) ***

An author (Hahn) is undergoing multiple fertility therapies to get pregnant, putting her relationship with her husband (Giamatti) on edge.


Tamara Jenkins

PRIVATE LIFE is a Netflix original movie which normally means that the main studios will not touch the film.  The likely reason is the ‘difficult’ theme of the film, about the trauma a couple goes through in order to have a child of their own.  So desperate they are, that they try two options simultaneously – adoption and getting an egg donor.

Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, her film begins as a comedy and a very sly and deadpan one at that.  As the film progresses and fertilization attempts fail, drama sets in and the comedy slowly gives way to a more serious film.

Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) are a childless middle-aged couple desperately trying to have a child.  After multiple failed attempts at artificial insemination they attempt in vitro fertilization where they learn that Richard has a blockage that is not letting him produce sperm forcing him to choose a quick surgery and go $10,000 dollars in debt to his brother Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) and Charlie’s wife Cynthia (Molly Shannon).  At the same time they are also attempting to adopt a child after having previously being matched with a pregnant teenager from Little Rock who was looking to give up her child and then stopped contacting them.

The drama continues as the plot thickens.  While still  maintaining a it of humour, the funny bits slowly fade away.  The IVF fails.  Their doctor, Dr. Dordick (Denis O’Hare who can be quite hilarious as well)  floats the idea of using a donor egg to inseminate Rachel which would raise their chances of success from 4 to 65 percent.  Rachel is initially vehemently against the idea, but slowly begins to contemplate it with Richard’s encouragement.

Into the picture arrives Cynthia’s 25 year old daughter, Sadie (beautifully played by Kayli Carter), who meanwhile decides to leave her college writing program to finish in absentia.  Sadie goes to live with Richard and Rachel, with whom she is already very close.  Rachel, who struggled with the idea of an unknown egg donor, decides that she wants to ask Sadie for her eggs. To their surprise Sadie quickly agrees, both because she loves Richard and Rachel and because she thinks the egg donation will bring meaning to her life.

Giamatti and Hahn are two actors that are comfortable with both comedy and drama.  Their transition to drama is therefore credible.  Comedienne Molly Shannon ditches her funny personality playing a dislikable opinionated mother,  Teen actress Kayli Carter who seems to be doing Saoirse Ronan is not half bad either.

Jenkins’ film at the end, the film clocking a full 120 minutes, is quite different from what is expected at the start.  In the same way, her characters change as well, i.e. there is quite a bit of character development.  Many of the characters develop for the better, which makes for one of the film’s greater pleasures.

Jenkins loves to poke fun at males.  Richard has one testicle.  Richard has a sperm blockage.  Still PRIVATE LIFE is an intelligent though more female oriented drama.


Full Review: CAPERNAUM (Lebanon 2018) Top 10 *****

Capernaum Poster

While serving a five-year sentence for a violent crime, a 12-year-old boy sues his parents for neglect.


Nadine Labaki


Nadine Labaki (screenplay), Jihad Hojeily (screenwriter) | 3 more credits »

CAPERNAUM is the place around the Sea of Galilee where Jesus of Nazareth preached during Biblical times.  According to the film title appearing on screen, it also means chaos – a word that accurately describes director Nadine Labaki’s gut-wrenching story of poverty as seen from the eyes of a young boy in Lebanon.  CAPERNAUM is guerrilla filmmaking at its best winning at Cannes 2018, both the Jury Prize and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.  Filmed in Arabic.

The film opens with a young handcuffed boy brought to court where he is being tried for murder.  He has stabbed a man several times.  His parents are there and the boy wishes to sue his parents for giving birth to him.  The camera shifts to the face of the boy’s attorney, who is splayed by director Labaki herself.  He claims his parents have no right to bring children into the world when they are unable to feed or care for them.  The film then rolls back in flashbacks to reveal the incidents leading to this awkward yet sad state of affairs.

Zain (Zain al Rafeea) is 12 years, or thereabouts, given that he has no papers or birth certificate.  He is mounting his case from jail, where he is serving five years. The story then flashes back – to tell why he ran away from home and ended up caring for a toddler (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) after meeting an Ethiopian illegal (Yordanos Shiferaw) who, like Zain, is without documents.  It turns out that Zain is in jail as he stabbed a man who married his 14-year old daughter, impregnating her and then causing her death.  Zain had loved his sister and tried his best at preventing her from being sold by her parents.  The scene with Zain and his sister sleeping arm in arm is the perfect image the audience needs to see for director Labaki to make her point.

The performances from the non-actors, who according to the press notes live lives similar to that depicted on screen are terrific.  Zain al Rafael as Zain the boy is nothing short of terrific.  The film has two best scenes, one where he discards his mother’s affections when visited in juvenile detention and the other in court where the mother tells the judge off, that no one should be judging her as they do not know how desperate her situation is.

The situation in Lebanon is no better either.  Labaki’s camera reveals the overcrowded prison conditions, where cells are packed with people, women and children.  The streets are filthy and goods are bartered in the makeshift marketplace.  Taps in Zain’s abode flush rust coloured water.  Lebanon would likely be the last place on your tourist list after seeing this film.

CAPERNAUM is a 2019 Golden Globe nominee and Lebanon’s 2019 Oscar submission in the best foreign language film category.  It is also on my Top 10 list for Best films in 2019, as it opens in January 2019.  CAPERNAUM is a film that demands to be seen to appreciate the poverty in the world.


BEST 10 FILMS of 2018 by Gilbert Seah

Of the 400 or so films I have watched in 2018, these are the 10 best of the year.  The list has been made from films that have been released commercially from January 218 to December of 2018.  So, a film like CAPERNAUM, which is to be released in January of 2019 will be on the 2019 list. 

Of the list, there are a few that many would have missed or not heard of, the ones I called hidden gems.  Two of these are in the list as marked by asterisks.

The list of films are in order of preference, with short descriptions.  Full reviews of the films can be found at the site;

with the title of the film in the ‘SEARCH’ 


1. ROMA (Mexico 2018) Directed by Alfonso Cuaron 


Made as a Netflix original, ROMA is the stand out film that that has been on many film critic’s best 10 lists.  It is also the number 1 film polled by Sight & Sound International Film magazine.  Roma is a suburb in Mexico City where the director grew up.  The film pays tribute to the women who influenced him on as a child.  Like many films made by great directors on their growing up, Francois Truffaut’s 400 BLOWS and Federico Fellini’s AMARCORD, ROMA is Cuaron’s near masterpiece.

2. Angels Wear White (China 2018) Directed by Vivian Qu    **hidden gem

Little seen film that won lots of awards in Asia, ANGELS WEAR WHITE proves its excellence on second viewing.  This is writer/director Vivian Qu at her best, with her tense, relevant and powerful film of young female abuse.  The theme is young women under pressure in a corrupt seaside town.  The question in Qu’s excellent study is whether one can hold on to ones dignity in the midst of such over-powering adversity.  The metaphor is the giant Marilyn Monroe statue that is finally taken down at the end of the film.  The only unblemished hero arising from the muck who does not succumb to the corruption and temptation is female attorney Hao (a brilliant portrayal by Shi Ke) whose only reward is the local police chief, himself corrupted, telling her that she has his respect.

3. They Shall Not Grow Old (UK 2018) Directed by Peter Jackson   **hidden gem


The film (in 3-D)was created using original footage of World War I from the Imperial War Museums’ archives, most of it previously unseen, alongside audio from BBC and IWM interviews of British servicemen who fought in the conflict.  But the film is clearly not a recounting of events but a revelation of the unforgettable riveting experiences of the common soldier as seen from the eye of the common soldier.  Many were not old enough to be recruited to fight but were passed through the enlistment lines anyway, as the British had a duty to perform.  Jackson’s crew reviewed 600 hours of interviews from 200 veterans, and 100 hours of original film footage to make the film.  But it is not one man’s or a few men’s stories.  It is the story of all the men as the footage covers the all the infantrymen in the front lines of the Western Front. 

4. Isle of Dogs (USA 2017) Directed by Wes Anderson


In a dystopian futuristic Japan, dogs have been quarantined and banished to a remote island due to a “canine flu”.  Major Kobayashihas (Kunichi Nomura) who has won the election and has convinced all his voters that this is the best idea.  The all-important question is then posed; “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?”   There is hope for the dogs.  A boy, ironically the major’s nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), ventures to the island to search for his dog, Spots (Liev Screiber).  The film is shot in both English and Japanese.  The dogs speak English which English audiences understand while the humans speak Japanese which the dogs (and audiences do not understand).  This is a brilliant concept which is even more brilliant when one considers the reverse effect when Japanese watch the film.  The film is extremely funny with Anderson’s humour mostly tongue-in-cheek.  On originality alone, ISLE OF DOGS scores 100%.

5. Mary Poppins Returns (USA 2018) Directed by Rob Marshall

It took 54 years for this sequel but the wait well worth it.  Emily Blunt plays the Julie Andrews character with Dick Van Dyke performing a grand cameo.  Mary Poppins returns to the Banks children now all grown up.  Lots of spoonful sugar sweet songs and musical numbers with lots of magic and wonder thrown in.  Watching the film makes one feels like a child again.

6. HEREDITARY (USA 2018)  Directed by Ari Aster


HEREDITARY is a psychological supernatural horror film that has a simple, straight forward premise but unfolds brilliantly in all departments.When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry.  “My mother was a very private person.  She wasn’t always there, especially at the end.”  Annie says of her mother at the eulogy.   The more the family discover, the more they find themselves trying to outrun the sinister fate they seem to have inherited.  Toni Collette delivers an Oscar winning performance.  Aster manipulates the audience in wanting to believe that the supernatural exists.  The sense of audience anticipation is brilliantly created, keeping the audience full attention to the proceedings.  Horror films seldom get on the Best 10 film list, HEREDITARY clearly deserves to be.

7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (USA 2018) Directed by the Coen Brothers

The Coen Brothers have already twice won the Best Film Oscar with FARGO and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.  But I personally love their comedies like BURN AFTER READING and this one, an anthology of 6 stories set in the wild west frontier beautifully shot by  their cinematographer.  The common tread is that every one is violent and has a main star in it.  The best of the 6 is the first one starring Tim Blake Nelson as a singing cowboy that will have you falling over with laughter.  Every story is a prized watch.  One can only hope for more.

8. BURNING (South Korea 2018)  Directed by Lee Chang-dong

This surprise mystery sleeper that took Cannes by storm is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami about a young man who grows suspicious about the motives of a deceptive interloper who is hanging around with his childhood friend and love interest.  While jumping from job to job to support himself, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a sort of country bumpkin.  He runs into Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), the childhood friend from his hometown.  The two start to grow fond of each other, and Jon-su wonders if he has found someone he can maybe one day fall in love with.  He looks after her cat when she goes away to Africa but in return finds her changed, arriving with a wealthy stranger, Ben (Steven Yeun).  Ben is likened at one point to THE GREAT GATSBY (Jong-su being a writer), a wealthy mystery man.  Lee’s film stands out for his excellent pacing, attention to detail (audiences  have to be fully attentive) and his creation of mystery and longing around his characters. 

9.     GREEN BOOK (USA 2018)  Directed by Peter Farrelly

GREEN BOOK, the film is named from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a segregation-era road travel guidebook to help African-Americans dealing with racial discrimination issues and Jim Crow laws, such as whites-only garages, restaurants and hotels refusing services.  The film follows the protagonist, Italian, Tony Lip as he takes a difficult new job in order to support his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and his two kids.  The job is to chauffeur and protect Dr. Shirley as he tours the racial prejudiced deep south.  It is a pretty country but not for the coloured folk there.  It is a simple story but one is both extremely moving and relevant in today’s times.  What makes the film totally winning is that it is a film about discovery, as each of the two main characters Tony and Dr. Shirley learn about each other, the people and ultimately about themselves.  GREEN BOOK also contains Top 10 of the year performances by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT).  GREEN BOOK won the Toronto International Film Festival’s most coveted prize of the People’s Audience Choice Award.

10. You Were Never Really Here (UK/USA/France 2017)  Directed by Lynne Ramsay


A dramatic thriller written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, based on the novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, the film follows Joe (Phoenix), a combat veteran and former FBI agent with post-traumatic stress disorder, is a hired gun who rescues trafficked girls.  He cares for his elderly mother in his childhood home in New York City.  Joe has graphic flashbacks to his childhood and past in the military and FBI.   The plot thickens with a lot of people getting violently killed.  This is director Ramsay’s first thriller though death, killing and the psychology of killing has been dealt with in her previous films particularly in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN.   But she treats this film with dead seriousness.   Her fascination with themes of grief, guilt and death is present here as in her other films – a strength in her filmmaking.  YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE contains a remarkable ending and a bright one.