There’s a near-consensus among critics that 2018 was an unusually strong year for film, and I can’t disagree. My list for the year is heavily tilted to the 4-star and above, even with some glaring gaps in the mix – I missed BlacKKKlansman, for instance; I’m waiting to see Roma screened at the Castro in 70 mm, like the cinephile tool I am; I didn’t see the new Claire Denis, or the new Andrew Bujalski, or the new Hang Sang-soo, or the new Frederick Wiseman.
Josephine Decker‘s work carries with it a high-wire sense of danger, an aesthetic of possibility and collapse. Whether in the costumed genre trappings of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, the shifting and uneasy ambivalence of Butter on the Latch‘s just-this-side-of-horror stay at a Balkan folk gathering, or (especially) the self-immolation of Flames, in which Decker’s camera focused with supreme discomfort on her own relationship, the viewer is simultaneously at a remove and much, much too close, piecing together fragments with a mounting sense that the whole edifice could topple.
When we talk about “chosen families,” we usually mean close-knit circles which, through our agency in their construction, stand as more authentic than the biological ones we were born into. They might be safe havens from the abusive homes to which fate has assigned us, but even when they’re not, the simple act of selecting them grants them a different, truer status.
“The world is a mystery to me,” the awkward, aspiring writer Lee Jong-su tells his new “Gatsby-like” acquaintance Ben, at a moment of a maximum queasiness in Chang-dong Lee‘s Burning. The film is a mystery to us, not just in its genre mechanics but in terms of how we are supposed to engage with it: Burning talks and moves like a mystery, lingering on images in ways we’ve been trained to recognize as meaningful, before trailing away like smoke.