We have not abandoned you!
The nefarious minds behind Mind Control yet exist. Attenuated our existence may be, locked away as we are in this musty basement, tiny biting spiders our only companions. But exist we do. We’ve even managed to see a film or two. Kevin Costner’s The Postman, for example. We have seen films, we have thought about films, we have sat before our computers, fingers poised and aquiver, eager to write about films…only to find ourselves lacking the will to opine.
And yet—another year in movies has come and gone. We should probably try to make something of it. But what? A hat? A brooch? A pterodactyl?
Given the state of my current movie-brain, I imagine I’ll just go ahead and make a big ol’ hash of it. A hash of every 2018 movie I happened to see.
Some were loveable, some hateable, and, as ever, many just kinda sat there, motionless, unless you poked them with a sharp stick. All told, this year’s crop rose to no great heights.
Perhaps the most notable trend this year were the number of movies addressing the African American experience head-on. BlacKkKlansman took us back in time to laugh at the idiocy of the Klan, only to shove us face-first into our very un-funny present the moment we got comfortable. Black Panther imagined a world in which a $200 million comic book movie could star a black cast and bring to life a CGI afro-futurism unimaginable in the days of, say, Sun Ra’s Space is the Place. Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You dropped us into the streets of Oakland, the former with, more or less, realism, the latter with giant, mutant horsecock (spoiler?).
Can’t say I was bowled over by any but BlacKkKlansman (which more about below). Sorry to Bother You impresses with its lunacy and the performance of Lakeith Stanfield, but its basic structure and character arcs are by-the-numbers, and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attempts at humor fall flat as often as they land.
Blindspotting had me until the end. I’m supposed to believe this character held on to the gun? And that he’s suddenly a rapping super-genius? The ending could be seen as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it plays strangely with the real life drama leading up to it. Which for the most part is excellent.
Black Panther I don’t even know how to approach. As a cultural milestone, it’s hugely important. As a movie divorced from its cultural impact, I didn’t see anything in it I haven’t seen in any other Marvel movie. It’s another middling, often boring, CGI whoop-de-do, with lousier than usual effects, and flat direction and editing. But can you divorce it from its cultural impact? I lean towards no. Which make my criticisms feel pointless. It set out to make a specific impact, and did, on a massive scale.
Maybe we can include A Wrinkle in Time in the African American renaissance of 2018? It’s directed by Ava DuVernay, its protagonist was changed from the white kid of the book to an African American one, and it co-stars Oprah Winfrey as a towering space witch (Which?). It is, however, more notable for something else: Being the worst movie of the year. Congratulations, A Wrinkle in Time! You are a disaster on every level! You play like an infomercial for a creepy, Landmark-esque cult, or a self-help program funded by aliens.
As for the rest of the massively budgeted offerings, none took off. The Avengers: Infinity War brings the basic Marvel playbook of no ending, no beginning, and no pacing to an impressive new level. First off, it’s only half a movie. Second, that half consists of only two alternating scenes. In one, some number of superheroes tells some number of other superheroes that there’s this badass named Thanos who’s going to kill every—Wait, sorry, who’s going to kill HALF of everyone—and by gum they’d better watch out. The other scene is Thanos and/or his henchman fighting superheroes. Repeat. Until half of the superheroes are “killed” and the “movie” “ends.” Yawn.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout tired me out. It doesn’t have half the panache of its immediate predecessor. The Predator tries in the tiniest way possible to be fun, but having been written/directed by Shane Black, doesn’t manage it. Incredibles 2 is a movie its creator didn’t want to make, that has nothing whatsoever to say not said the first time out. Ready Player One sets a new low for Spielberg. Rarely has a movie so empty, so desperate for your cash, so hateful of its alleged audience been released. Solo: A Star Wars Story is notable only in that it was written like blockbusters of old (i.e. the ‘80s/’90s), with three act structure and straightforward character arcs. This is a far cry from how Marvel’s movies and the first two movies in the new Star Wars “trilogy” are being written (see above, re: Avengers). Nevertheless, that doesn’t save Solo from being desperate and tiresome. Andy Serkis’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle uses motion-capture to give its CGI animals the power of speech and expression, to the annoyance of many. I rather liked the movie’s look, but the story never quite engaged me. The year wrapped up with Aquaman, the highest grossing DC Comics-based movie of all time. I will kindly say that it has water in its ears and fish in its head. One would not call it good. Is it better than Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad? Sure. But then so is that time I got hit in the spleen by a petrified woodchuck.
Big deal directors made movies this year. None quite connected. The Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs I found pleasant enough in a Coens-taking-it-easy kind of way, but it hasn’t proven memorable. Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs has much to appreciate animation-wise, and any number of funny moments, and a story that never clicks. Steve McQueen’s Widows looked to be a marvelous blending of an artsy director with a genre heist plot and a cast of badass women. It’s dead on arrival. Gus Van Sant turned up with a biopic about weird and hilarious cartoonist John Callahan, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. For a feel-good Hallmark movie, I guess it’s fine. Alfonso Cuarón returned with the very personal Roma, a movie beloved by critics, and sure to win a pile of awards. It’s gorgeously made, but outside of a few notable scenes, I never found the emotional connection others are raving (mad) about. The family at its center, being based on Cuarón’s own, is surely of interest to him. To me, they were wallpaper. Lastly there’s Beirut, notable for its writer, Tony Gilroy, who gave us the likes of Michael Clayton, The Devil’s Advocate, and various Bourne movies. It’s solid, and yet…it feels dated. Like if it had come out ten years ago, it would’ve made a big splash, but today barely registers. Gilroy’s style has been so absorbed by modern political thriller TV shows, it doesn’t have the immediacy it once did.
Moving into the smaller and weirder, we have Annihilation, which might have improved on the book, but instead cuts out its best parts and replaces them with a bunch of garbled nonsense. I recall exactly one scene achieving the sense of weirdness conjured up by its obvious inspiration, Tarkovsky’s Stalker. A Quiet Place was lauded as some kind of genius horror movie. I almost walked out. If you make rules in your movie, then ignore all of them, how am I supposed to care? Then there’s Suspiria, which achieves a new high-water mark for pretentious tedium. How to Talk to Girls at Parties slipped in under most radars. It’s a delight at first, but as the movie wears on, and its weirdness is explained away, its energy dies, and it limps to a forced ending. The Night Eats the World is a compelling first act of a French zombie movie stretched out to 90 minutes. Which is to say, almost nothing happens, until something does, which something marks the end of the movie. Hm.
What else was weird? Summer of 84, by the geniuses who made the magnificent Turbo Kid a few years ago, plays like a solid ‘80s teen thriller until the end, when it turns suprisingly dark. Great idea! Also, too little too late. If only the whole movie had embraced that vibe, it could have been another Turbo Kid. Cam has something heady to do with naked internet cam girls and the loss of identity. I did not find it intellectually titillating. Horror movie Hereditary was praised to the skies, just like A Quiet Place. Luckily it’s actually pretty good. Or anyway the first half is. It lost me along the way. Some great creepy sequences and performances, though.
Revenge was big this year. Mandy and You Were Never Really Here feature righteous, half-crazy, half noble murder-sprees against the bad mean people who done somebody wrong. Both have a lot of style. Both have intense performances by their leads, Nicolas Cage and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively. I liked them all right. But I wish I’d liked them better. The Night Comes for Us, an Indonesian martial arts/horror flick, stars the actor/fight choreographer from the Raid movies, so you know the fight scenes are insane. And because its director comes from the world of horror, he gives his martial artists a shitload of knives. This movie is bloodier than most zombie flicks. If this sounds at all appealing, you will like it. It’s stylishly, garishly over the top in all the right ways.
The revenging doesn’t stop there. Upgrade starts out as a familiar tale of revenge against the killers of a man’s wife, then turns hilarious part-way through. It’s a fun ride. Is Lizzie a revenge flick? Sure. Lizzie Borden revenges herself on her lousy parents for being such jerks. Or so claims the movie. In real life, she was acquited, and nobody knows for sure who hacked up mom and dad. It’s a slow burner of a movie that never goes deep enough into its characters. Soderbergh’s Unsane, about a woman committed against her will, ends with revenge. I think? Not too memorable, that one. Assassination Nation is a cautionary tale of a town thrown into chaos when a hacker starts divulging dirty secrets. Bad people act badly. Hero teenage girls go on a cleansing, righteous murder spree. That sort of thing. It’s so-so. A Simple Favor, Paul Feig’s follow-up to his disasterous Ghostbusters remake, is more of a riff on Diabolique than a revenge flick, but it too features an ending of righteous ass-kicking against an evil-doer. I loved this movie for its first third. Great characters, witty writing. Seemed like a winner. From there it gets twistier and twistier, and soon the characters are lost in a sea of plotting, plotting, and more plotting. Very tiresome by the end. No surprise it’s based on a book meant to be read on an airplane.
Comedy-wise, The Death of Stalin made me laugh. A lot. But also, should I be laughing at that? Vice, too, has its laughs, and a hell of a performance by Christian Bale as the the dark prince, Cheney. A bit glib about its history, though. Considering the magnitude of evil involved. Still, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Eighth Grade gets a lot of details right about youth, and does so in a highly stylized “realism” I found off-putting and, ironically, fake. The Sisters Brothers manages to improve on its source material. It’s funny and pleasantly odd, and by the end I quite liked it, in a low-key kind of way. Not one to rave about, but worth one’s time. Is Game Night supposed to be a comedy? Kinda sorta? I distinctly recall not laughing. But Jesse Plemmons is good. A Futile and Stupid Gesture tries to milk laughs from the story of the National Lampoon magazine. Its funniest moments come from the actual covers and pages of the magazine.
Let us not forget documentaries. We like to be edumacated, don’t we? Heck yeah we do! Three Identical Strangers is creepy and odd, if not, in the end, revelatory. Hal scratches pleasantly at the surface of director Hal Ashby, whose true soul remains hidden beyond what any documentaries have yet to reveal. Won’t You Be My Neighbor proves what we’ve suspected all along: That Fred Rogers is the most sincerely decent human being who ever lived. Still, I expected to be a little more affected by the doc than I was. Filmworker is required viewing for any who love Kubrick, just to see that no matter the intensity of your love, someone loved him more. Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t Michael Moore’s best, but every time I watch one of his movies, I’m reminded how badly we need Michael Moore in this screwed up world. The segment on the Flint water crisis is riveting and terrifying and made my stomach hurt at the sheer magnitude of cruelty and criminality on display. Finally, there was American Animals, a part doc, part-recreation of a very dopey attempt at a library heist. It’s an entertaining little flick worth seeking out.
What’s left? What’s left are the eight best movies of the year.
The most original documentary of the year. Not the story of a life or an event or an era, but an examination of how film itself changes our perceptions of reality, with John McEnroe’s performances at the French Open the case study. It’s a unique, hypnotic movie.
A Swedish romance involving a peculiar pair of, let’s say, people, one of whom must face up to who and what she really is. Strangely powerful in a way that creeps up on you.
Nicole Kidman goes full burned-out cop in this little thriller directed by Karyn Kusama, about a murder investigation tangled up with a compromised past. Intense and powerful.
Spike Lee uses all of the same tricks I so often find off-putting about his films, and all of them work. Funny and moving, Lee tells the (semi) truthful story of a black cop infiltrating the KKK and making them out to be the sad, incompetent assholes they are. Then he jerks you into the present with a reminder that it’s not funny, and it’s far from over.
4. They Shall Not Grow Old
In which Peter Jackson takes 100-year-old film clips of the British going off to fight WWI, settling into the trenches, and rushing across no-man’s land to kill and be killed by the Germans, and restores them to full color, modern-looking images. I spent the whole movie reminding myself that this isn’t a BBC reenactment—it’s real. The narration consists of interviews of WWI servicemen made years ago by the BBC.
3. The Favourite
Everyone seems to love this one, as well they should. Yorgos Lanthimos’s most accessible film, but one still full of the weird. And rabbits. Lots of rabbits. Olivia Colman continues to prove she can do anything. Shot with a strange, wide-angled beauty, and very funny.
2. First Reformed
Paul Schrader is back with what let’s call an unofficial, largely unpremeditated sequel to Taxi Driver. Sort of. Ethan Hawke plays a conflicted reverend on the path to a bad end. Or is it? Schrader pulls a beautifully ambiguous ending out of this controlled, thoughtful film.
Yes, hell has frozen over with delicious ice cream treats, winged hogs fill the skies, and I have named a superhero movie the best of the year. Well, and why not? Spider-Verse may be the best superhero movie in history. It takes a simple comic book story and does what seemed impossible: Tells it with intelligence, wit, and emotion. What a concept! Plus the art is wall to wall brilliant. If we must suffer more comic book superhero stories, please oh please let them be this good.
And that there’s my 2018 movie hash. Not included? Everything I didn’t see (yet). Such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Wife, Shoplifters, Free Solo, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Star is Born, At Eternity’s Gate, Venom, Ocean’s 8, Artemis, The Old Man and the Gun, Halloween, Cold War, The Mule, and no doubt many, many others.