(If 2018 was missing anything, it was a singularly great poster. But this one, from The Favourite, with its lilliputian Weisz and Stone is close.)
“There are people who talk about the American cinema of the ‘70s as some halcyon period… It was to a degree but not because there were any more talented filmmakers. There’s probably, in fact, more talented filmmakers today than there was in the ‘70s. What there was in the ‘70s was better audiences.” – Paul Schrader
“If an essay is something essayed—something hazarded, not definitive, not authoritative; something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience and subjectivity—we might seem to be living in an essayistic golden age. Which party you went to on Friday night, how you were treated by a flight attendant, what your take on the political outrage of the day is: the presumption of social media is that even the tiniest subjective micronarrative is worthy not only of private notation, as in a diary, but of sharing with other people.” – Johnathan Franzen
“Young people, Sartre once said, are nostalgic for the future. Likewise, all good cinephiles, regardless of their age, are nostalgic for a cinema to come.” – Daniel Fairfax
“One year, not too far back, practically every picture seemed to have someone urinating on the side of the road. Right now, having a conversation while sitting on the toilet is big. One year, everyone was throwing up. I think it’s young filmmakers thinking: “Oh, that’s cool. I’ll do that too.” – Joan Graves, head of the MPAA, she’s retiring after 30 years
Wow. 2018 was another bruiser. With the world at large reaching new heights of societal whiplash, you could be forgiven for thinking that 2018 would never end. One minute we’re starting a Space Force, the next all our insects are going extinct. By day we’re unrepentant about our smart phone waste, by night we’re banning straws. The slow rise of fascism across the Western hemisphere, the quick rise of Gritty on the East Coast.
And it was no different in the world of cinema, everything was in a state of flux. The demise of Moviepass and the rise of Alamo Drafthouse. The expansion of streaming services (Jet.com presents Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather XI in IMAX 3D), and the consolidation of the classic studios. One minute Gerard Butler is yucking it up on the Tonight Show, the next Gerard Butler is declining to comment on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Pentagon (yes, really).
Going to the movies in 2018 can be distilled into the experience of seeing Crazy Rich Asians on a Saturday, and Madeline’s Madeline on a Monday. One a confected, unapologetically generic pop song, the other an inexplicable, micro budget art film. The former designed for passivity/comfort (a film you can text to) — the latter, activity/discomfort (a film you’ll text about).
YET, despite all the see-sawing of tone and subject and quality, “the movies” continued to flex their power. No matter how many CGI-Barf-O-Ramas Hollywood whips up, movies can still turn it on when they want to.
And there was at least one strong thematic tie among a lot of the best films of 2018, everything from A Star is Born to Vice: “performance”. The interrogation and capitulation to performance; its necessity across all aspects of modern (and occasionally historical) life.
Of course, there’s A Star is Born, the fourth iteration of the street-to-stage story that’s explicitly about the sacrifice and emotional toll performance takes. In Eighth Grade, again, performance wasn’t subtext, it was the text. The examination of Kayla’s daily life begins and end with her performing for a YouTube channel. In Madeline’s Madeline, the central question posed was “where does theatrical performance begin and end?”, especially when a person doesn’t seem in control of their own mind. Even in Museo, one of the most impactful sequences, involved the protagonist traveling to southern Mexico and performing as a professional art thief. Not to mention the explicitness of performance in Suspiria (dance), Can You Ever Forgive Me (fraud), even Vice (where Cheney explicitly tells Bush “You perform as the President, I’ll actually do it”). Basically everywhere a viewer turned in 2018 they were being asked to care about a character trying to maintain a performance despite their true self.
Even outside the film frame, discussions of performance carried the day. Whether it was awe at Tilda Swinton wearing prosthetic genitals, or scorn at Scarlett Johansson for taking (and then backing out of) a role as a transgender person, all of our debates and discussions came back to performance. Who’s allowed to do it? How are they going to do it? And when? And how soon? Even in film criticism, heightened levels of performance became the norm. Contrarians read things in the tea leaves that didn’t really exist. Conservatives slammed movies they hadn’t seen. Progressives turned on filmmakers in response to their subject matter. No side was safe from a performative gesture.
And this makes sense, right? Considering performance has come to dominate our daily lives. Our pop-stars perform their grief. Our politicians perform for the cameras. The things we used to do in private — care for our children, put on makeup, eat a meal — now, we do with the world watching. What does it mean when our technology makes our formerly private life, a public performance? What does it mean when the line between what’s being performed and what’s “real” blurs beyond recognition? Do you frame that meal before you eat it? Do you censor your thoughts before you speak them? Do you have what it takes to maintain a performance that lives up to OUR ricocheting standards? Performance defined the films of 2018 because it’s the defining characteristic of being alive in this world, right now. So time and time again the films of 2018 asked, and then answered: Are you convincing enough as the thing you so desperately want to be?
*Note* – Not to get too down on my previous lists, but here’s the truth: every year I look back and at least one or two films are filler. It’s rare that a mere 12 months is going to produce ten masterpieces. Going back through, I realize that something like Trainwreck, while still hilarious, probably won’t be archived in the library of congress anytime soon (…unless Chuck Schumer pulls some strings). But I gotta say, this year, with all its bombast and disappointment, tuned out some real stone cold classics. I can’t imagine a world where every single one of these films (okay, maybe one) isn’t being watched in the future, whether they’re post-converted to interactive hologram or not.
11) Solo: A Star Wars Story – Why the hell not?! Brilliant cinematography and a droid with ideas. Yes, there are a couple moments of lame-ass tie-ins to the the other films (is there anything more boring than a cinematic universe?). But for the most part, Solo felt unencumbered by the weight of Star Wars suffocating mythology. No Jedis, no problem. Solo blasts some people, his crew makes some jokes, there’s a double cross, you eat some popcorn and get on with your life. Love it.
10) The Old Man and The Gun – Redford is on cinema’s Mount Rushmore (and not just because with every passing year his face ages like weathered granite). The mark of true icon is that they can make a simple action transcend the moment and show you the entirety of a character. For Redford (playing a septuagenarian bank robber), that moment comes when he sits on a front porch beside Sissy Spacek. Both are sitting in four legged chairs. All four legs of Spacek’s chair are on the ground. But Redford is leaned ever-so-slightly back. He’s got a looseness, a lightness, with only two of his chair legs touching the deck. Like a ten year old kid crouched on the starting line, waiting for a chance to take off.
9) Isle of Dogs – Worth it for the sushi making scene alone. Every single frame is a treasure. Like the best short stories by Roald Dahl, Isle of Dogs grounds its fantasy in very real feeling. And while it’s been said before, there’s a profound emotion that only lo-fi effects can illicit. There’s something fundamentally cold about the gloss and shine of so many current “kids” movies. The messiness, the texture, Isle of Dogs has it, and its pang hits harder because of the imperfections.
8) The Favourite – Who doesn’t love conniving in castles? Especially when it’s legitimately funny, not just Little Miss Sunshine-golf clap funny. The cluelessness of the footmen was my favorite recurring punchline of the year. And what more can be said about the brilliant acting tripod at the center. Kinda like everyone has their favourite Beatle, I’ve found everyone has their favourite of the triumvirate. I want to be more of an Abigail, but I’m probably more of an Anne.
7) Blackkklansman – Spike Lee understands that one of cinema’s purest powers is in juxtaposition. The immaculately dressed black man in a leather jacket stalking through a field of long dusty grass. The white power chants of a Klan meeting intercut with the black power chants of a student meeting. The vicious confrontation of a police pull over immediately turning into a disco scene set to “Too Late to Turn Back Now” (a sequence I could watch on a loop). One minute you’re laughing at crank calls to David Duke, the next you’re floored by real footage from the clash in Charlottesville. Lee is never afraid to be direct in his direction, and it’s brilliant.
6) Madeline’s Madeline – So many films came and went, in one eye and out the other. Madelines Madeline rattled around for days, weeks, months. The more distance I got from it, the more powerful it became.
Two scenes define the film. 1) A date: roller skates, an awkward kiss, the small talk teenagers make when they want to keep talking but have nothing to say. 2) A hobo: another kind of performance from Madeline, she stalks the streets grunting and confronting random people, the nervy undercurrent of danger tensing up everyone it comes into contact with.
The filmmaking in Madeline’s Madeline rewires your perspective. Walking out into a drizzly, radiating New York, after the screening, suddenly every blink became a cut, every person an extra, the colors more saturated, the sounds more primal. Truly, it’s a film that heightens your awareness.
It’s the narrative equivalent to riding in a boat that’s just a bit too small for the size of the waves. You’re never going to capsize, but the entire time you’re wishing for just a moment of stability and calm. And they come, every once in a while, but then it’s back tossing. Pitching between emotions, and relationships. Never good or bad, just out there, on the open ocean, indifferent to all the people watching from the shore.
5) Suspiria – From the opening scene where the labored breaths of a dying mother create a sound bridge to Dakota Johnson arriving in Berlin, you know you’re in the hands of the best. Guadagnino’s camera has a life of its own. Somehow it’s exactly where your eye wants to be, and yet, always surprises you with what it sees. In any other film I would’ve been rolling my eyes at the final go-for-broke set piece — it’s aggressive, and gory, and almost camp — but somehow Guadagnino pulls it off.
It’s tough to describe, but the texture of this movie just feels cinematic. Maybe it’s because Guadagnino understands color more than any other filmmaker working. The ocean blues of A Bigger Splash, the summer greens of Call Me By Your Name, and here, the industrial yellows and browns of Berlin mixed with the blood red of the witches.
Werner Herzog once said he saw the image of a piece of bacon taped to a bathtub wall in Gummo and knew Harmony Korine was the real deal. I had that feeling in Suspiria every three or four minutes. Undulating shoulder blades. A scaly black hand. The red rope dance sequence. Even a simple moment, Johnson passing beneath a bridge, catching the light and slightly flipping her hair, unreal.
4) A Star is Born – An old-fashioned, Hollywood melodrama. Complete with smashing things in a hallway, teary-eyed embraces, and a curly haired dog to hammer home the emotional wallop (These are the good times: the dog jumps. These are the bad times: the dog sits). Lady Gaga is a revelation. Not so much because the role is a stretch, but because it manages that intangible thing that stars can do, where they feel real enough to touch but far enough away that you never will.
Lubitique’s cinematography does a lot of the heavy lifting. Every actor gets a scene for their reel. Bradley Cooper, wisely in my estimation, is following the career arc of one of his mentors: Clint Eastwood. He’s currently at the part in his career where he directs Unforgiven one year, and Bridges of Madison County the next. Savor it while you can. In 2045 he’ll be chewing out a chair.
3) Widows – Widows is the best movie of 1998. And I mean that as the highest compliment. It’s increasingly rare to get an ADULT movie. One that’s made by adults, featuring adults, for an exclusively adult audience. And not the kind of adults who dress up their dogs, and wear gym clothes into restaurants. But checkbook, child-rearing, tucked in shirt, shoulder padded, 9-5 adults. Widows is a film that isn’t trying to win awards. Or service someone’s vanity. It isn’t ironic. It isn’t condescending. It’s the kind of movie your parents would go see while you were at a sleepover. It’s a movie that harkens back to a sweet spot when grown-up films drew big stars and high production values, and they were completely self-contained (like a more politically minded Heat or a Michael Douglas movie from the 90s).
I was so afraid going in that Steve McQueen would use too much of his self-conscious remove. Instead he gives you exactly what you want. Widows proves that when you give an audience something complex and challenging and smart, they invest. When Neeson shows back up in the final moments, a woman behind me shouted to Viola Davis on screen “kill him”, and she did, and people cheered.
Little details too, Michelle Rodriguez picking up a bag of discarded weed at the end of a scene. Cynthia Erivo running past a group of catcallers on her way to the bus. Debeki’s date ordering a ginger ale (maybe, because through context clues, you get that he’s in recovery from a habit that ruined his marriage.) Credit to a tight screenplay with all the heist film flourishes: crooked politicians, multiple twists, that final diner scene. All the pieces have a place, and it’s a joy to put them together.
2) Cold War – Kicking off like a Polish version of Fame, with fresh-faced teenagers showing up for an audition to a traveling musical review. But these aren’t teens in cool, 80’s NYC, they’re in the countryside at the beginning stages of the Cold War. What follows is a black and white romance on a Casablancaian level.
Cold War is masterpiece of tone and craft. The layering and stacking of actors within a frame. The feeling that every side character is completely inhabited, with a full interior life. And perhaps, the single best shot of the year — when Zula jumps in the river and floats along, face out of the water, singing. (Special mention to Joanna Kulig who plays Zula — Jessica Chastain’s verve mixed with Ellen Barkin’s seductiveness. Every time she’s on screen a little piece of me broke).
Reviews of Cold War made it sound so bleak, it’s that, but so much more. The three descriptors critics hung on this movie were Polish, political, and tragedy – but they could just as easily be Parisian, jazz, and heartache. And yes, it’s black and white, but this isn’t the black and white of propaganda films and newsreels, it’s the black and white of Sweet Smell of Success and Bruce Webber. Like La La Land, soaked in gin, with sharper edges.
I saw Cold War at NYFF and an audience member compared it to Doctor Zhivago. Fair enough. It’s a romance under communism — all borders and trains and physical barriers. But there’s a knowingness to these characters that the ones in Zhivago lack. In Cold War, Zula and Wiktor understand they’re fated to end up with one another. And that’s the real tragedy: when winding up together is as hard as being apart.
1) Museo – The best films have a way of sneaking up on you. Museo came and went quickly in late October. It was released into only a handful of theaters, where it got some good reviews, and then, before you knew it, the world had moved on (that whiplash I was talking about earlier). And especially in a year when there’s a much more awards-ready Mexican film (ROMA) — there just didn’t seem to be much desire among the film world for a Mexican heist film with only one semi-recognizable star.
That’s too bad. Because, especially now, with the dividing line between “art” and commerce as stark as ever, the public was cheated out of a film that’s as inventive and evocative as an art film, and yet, as accessible as cable TV.
Ostensibly the story of the largest art heist in Mexican history, Museo is a seamless mix of Y Tu Mama Tambien’s humanity and Raiders of the Lost Ark’s electricity. It’s a film that crisscrosses Mexico, from ancient Mayan ruins, to the beaches of Acapulco, to a family dinner table at Thanksgiving, capturing every inch of the country with the same deeply felt lens. A film that cares as much about the dashboard of a car as it does about cliff divers.
Ruizpalcios, the director, can make the simplest actions feel dramatic. Museo is Wellsian in its approach to framing and depth of field. Characters moves in and out of focus. Settings blur and radiate, depending on mood. There’s a shot of Julio and his friend tossing their supplies over the museum fence that took my breath away.
This is Ruizpalacios’s Boogie Nights, the kind of movie that only a young filmmaker, at the height of their power can make. Uneven, experimental, with too many ideas and not enough time. It’s the film of a director who hasn’t been dulled by deadlines and praise. Museo doesn’t know how great it is. Like the character at its center, Julio, the film is naive to its own power. It just broke into the Museum of Anthropology and is holding an invaluable jade mask, knowing it’s done something big, blind to just how much so.
Superlatives / Random Thoughts / Rants:
Affirmation that Spielberg endures: The scene where Wade Watts jumps down through the Stacks from Ready Player One – The rest of the movie has its problems, but mannnnnnn that sequence is so elegant. In less than a minute, with almost no dialogue, you understand an entire world.
Trending Trope: Manic Pixie Dream Niece – The new tool screenwriters are using to give their urbane, navel gazing stories some spunk. Last year, Ben Stiller’s niece was the charming, quirky girl that brought his family together in The Meyerowitz Stories. This year, Paul Giamatti and Kathern Hahn’s niece is the quirky, free thinking girl who will make their dreams come true in Private Lives. I’m predicting next year it’ll be Stanley Tucci and Viola Davis who get a visit from their quirky, social media savvy niece who’ll help them covert their old bookstore into a paint and sip.
Fruit Cart award for lazy screenwriting: Blake Lively getting hit by a car in A Simple Favor – hitting a character with a car is the equivalent of slipping on a banana peel or uttering the phrase “not in my house”. From Meet Joe Black to Margaret, at this point, we’ve had enough random car accidents for a lifetime. C’mon writers, you’re better than this.
Spirit of the Blair Witch Award: Searching – Searching is a generic story reliant on deus ex machina, cringey dialogue, and soapy characterizations. But the actual storytelling technique is a revelation. Some will it call it gimmick, and they won’t be wrong. But remember that today’s gimmick, often becomes tomorrow’s ubiquity.
Character Actor of the year: Richard E. Grant – After a brilliant turn in last year’s Logan, Richard E. Grant solidified his late career ascent with a loose-tongued, tightly controlled, performance as the drunken, kinda sleazy, but ultimately, sympathetic friend to Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me. Nobody can turn on the wet-eyed charm quite like him.
Best / Worst place to see a movie: Alamo Drafthouse – Somewhere deep in the heart of Texas, a film fan had an idea: “You know what this screening of Seabiscuit needs? More dudes eating hot wings.” And thus, the Alamo Drafthouse experience was born. Equal parts cinematic sanctuary and shopping mall snack bar, Drafthouse seems poised to take over the world. Their strictly enforced no talking, no texting policy is a godsend. But devoting the first 20 minutes of every film to flustered servers rushing back and forth carrying plates of smelly meats…not so much.
Nightmare Fuel: Annihilation – The movie itself, solid. The random horror show of bizzaro animals, genius. A killer bear with a human scream, a giant shark/croc hybrid, even that all black bodysuit thing — nightmares for days.
Worst Film of The Year: Non-Fiction – Want to watch a two hours of late-middle-aged French people discuss the publishing industry? Me neither. The jokes feel recycled from sitcoms and then put through an “art-house” mad lib (Remember when Seinfeld made out during Schindler’s List? Well, here, Juliette Binoche gives a bj during White Ribbon —hardy-har-har).
Assayas is one of the best filmmakers working, but Non-Fiction is a sopping wet blanket. The insights his characters have, about Twitter or blogging or memoir, feel like the cutting edge of 2006. It’s a film where characters just sit around and wait for their turn to talk. Like attending a party full of people who only half-read the article but reallyyyyy want you to know they have an opinion on it. A film so tedious and maddening and droning that after an hour and half, you’re most pressing question isn’t “when will this end?”, but “when will it start?”
Best Theater Experience: Amazing Grace – It was a long, strange journey to release for the Sydney Pollack concert film documenting Aretha Franklin’s monumental album. But damn, was it worth the wait. It broke records at Film Forum, and Neon is releasing it wider soon. From the moment she belts out her first note, a psychic hush falls over all in attendance. Proof that witnessing a miracle is better with a crowd.
Wanted: Auteur for Shailene Woodley. Kristen Stewart did The Twilight trilogy and then teamed up with Olivier Assayas. Jennifer Lawrence did the Hunger Games series and then teamed up with David O. Russell. Dakota Johnson did the Fifty Shades trilogy and has now teamed up with Luca Guargadino.
It’s Shailene Woodley’s turn.
She paid her dues with the mediocre Divergent series, and she’s proven time and time again she’s a great actress (The Descendants, Spectacular Now, Big Little Lies), but we need the kind of creative partnership that lasts for more than one film. Fingers crossed it’s Park Chan-Wook.
Meryl Streep 2.0: Amy Adams – America’s greatest living actress. A career of unparalleled depth and conviction. Amy Adams is foundational text for anyone who loves movies. JuneBug, Doubt, Enchanted, American Hustle, The Fighter, The Master, Arrival, Nocturnal Animals, Her, Vice, the list goes on. Five Oscar nominations is only the beginning. When she accepts a lifetime achievement award in 2034, remember you heard it here first.
So there you have it, 2018 in all its cinematic glory. I’ll end with the same plea I have every year: keep going to the movies in 2019 — by yourself, with a group, in a daze, on a whim, however you want to do it. Movies are the closest thing we have to a shared church, and as 2018 proved, they always reward the faithful.