I didn’t mean to take a year off from this personal blog. There were some personal issues and my column over at PopDose was covering a lot of the same ground.
But the biggest thing was that there wasn’t anything I saw that was worth responding to and, once again, the biggest problems with film and the film industry are still around.
First, MoviePass, which I had high hopes for, crashed and burned due to poor decision making and basically devolved into a scam. Marvel continues its domination and Avengers: Infinity War treated audience with such contempt that I sat with my mouth open in the theater. (I wrote about that experience on PopDose.) Streaming is growing even more splintered, and FilmStruck, the best streaming service available, was shut down for such petty reasons that it felt as disastrous as the 1965 MGM vault fire. AMPAS tried to render itself irrelevant by adding a “Best Popular Film” category to the Oscars in order to make themselves seem relevant to an audience that willingly pays to see Venom.
And the films I did see just didn’t stand out to me as much as my previous year’s picks. Usually I see something that blows me away and sets the standard for the other releases. And that just didn’t happen this year.
It’s not to say that I didn’t have a good time at the theater. It means that we seem to be entering a nadir where no one is trying anymore. Everyone is still coming to terms with 2016 and not able to artistically respond to it. Plus, further media consolidation means we barely need filmmakers anymore and could just use punch cards to make films. Want something that makes you laugh? Here’s Generic Comedy #20187, which features Kate McKinnon acting well below her abilities.
But there were some great films that came out and I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell people about them. And there were some films I had to remove from my list. I liked Hereditary, but I found myself thinking of horror films that were far more effective with their premise. Being another unofficial remake of Rosemary’s Baby isn’t going to score any points with me. I also liked The Hate U Give, and it definitely took an emotional toll on me. But then I realized just how poorly the dialogue was handled. Every actor seemed to be giving a speech rather than conversing with other characters. And I even liked Black Panther for being a superhero movie that had something worthwhile and intelligent to say. But it didn’t change my mind as a whole about Marvel and Panther just didn’t everything I want in a superhero movie. For once, I’d like a filmmaker to use a superhero to tell his or her personal story and not another film designed by committee. But I did end up with ten films that I feel do capture the best of filmmaking in 2018.
(Also, this is limited to the films I actually watched. Cold War and Roma are things I wanted to see but couldn’t in time. So don’t feel personally slighted if your pick isn’t on this list.)
Before I get into my main picks, there is one film I’d like to discuss.
I was not sure if it was fair to include this as one of the best films of 2018. After all, it was shot much earlier than that. But it had never been completed until this year and it’s one of the most amazing things I watched.
Some of you are already guessing which film I’m referring to, but I’ll press on. New Hollywood both revered and condemned classic Hollywood. The filmmakers were very eager to point out their influences as they deconstructed genre pictures. But they were not necessarily eager to learn all they could from them. “Thanks Gramps,” New Hollywood seemed to say, “we’ll take it from here.”
There was one filmmaker from the classic era that wanted to say something equally profound. “You think you’ll on top of the world now, but I’ll show you. You’ll end up just like me.” And for better or for worse, he was right.
The Other Side of the Wind (dir: Orson Welles)
The movie was shot over five years in the 1970s. Welles and his surviving family had to wade through multiple legal battles to get the rights to the incomplete film back. Netflix released it to much fanfare, but I was concerned it would be a piece that was better shrouded in mystery that would seem too dated.
I was wrong. If I didn’t know better, I would have said the quick cuts, the limited space and time frame of the setting, and the obsession with the film business influenced the 80s and 90s independent film boom. But of course, that can’t be. Not when it languished in a vault as Welles begged for money to complete it. But the technique behind it still doesn’t feel dated. Welles rewrote film narrative and predicted shorter attention spans, fast action, and short scenes that fit right in with the streaming age.
But what about the story? It’s amazing how closely it parallels Welles’ life. I would have almost expected that he knew what would happen and what his future held. But I highly doubt Welles looked at Jake Hannaford’s life as something to be envied. Hannaford had his glory days behind him and people were constantly questioning his genius. Indeed, I think the reason Welles never finished it, besides the legal difficulties, was that it was so painfully autobiographical and Welles couldn’t stand it.
I don’t know what would have happened had the film been released in the 1970s. It likely would not have been the big commercial comeback that Welles wanted. But maybe, just maybe, it would have helped cement his legacy before his death as someone who created modern film narrative and as an artist who still had a lot to say.
Now, let’s get onto the list.
As I said, I couldn’t find a movie that fit the “best film of the year” description for me. Nothing seemed to be that exciting or that well made to stand out to me. And then, late in the year, I saw this film.
This film is the most effective costume drama I’ve seen in a very long time. Most costume dramas (like this year’s Mary, Queen of Scots) don’t have anything worthwhile to say. They’re content to regurgitating old drama and using their costumes to hide their lack of things to say.
But not this film. It borrows equally from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Othello, with well rounded characters plotting and scheming to get ahead in the court of the sickly queen. But who is really getting what they want? And what is the queen’s goal in all of this?
The tension from those questions make the film work.
The Favourite (dir: Yorgos Lanthimos)
Lanthimos is a director who is very obsessed with the terrible wreckage people’s desires cause. In the past, it’s lead to some disturbing films. But Lanthimos decided there was something much funnier going on in this story. Yet the funniest thing is how each of the characters are trying to outdo each other. Abigail becomes the hero, but I think everything that happened to Sarah was part of her plan all along. When Abigail realizes this, it’s far too late. The three central characters all have a good chemistry and all embody their roles and archetypes well, from the wise veteran to the smart yet naive new blood. And the film is thankfully not obsessed with once again turning the English nobility into demigods. Queen Anne is almost useless in her duties and cannot function without Sarah behind her. The other characters, despite their powdered wigs, do not embody honor or intelligence. Lanthimos is very eager to show Hollywood why it’s faith in the nobility of the past is so misplaced, and why Shakespearean characters like Iago are more fondly remembered than Prince Hal.
Everyone is eager to invoke Alfred Hitchcock whenever any new thriller comes out. But that’s a misunderstanding of what Hitchcock was about.
Hitchcock films weren’t just thrillers. They were character studies about what people do in “thrilling” situations. They’re also about how people are limited in understanding exactly what is going on in the world around them. Misunderstandings and missing details can be just as dangerous as a murder plot.
This is a film that understands what Hitchcock was trying to convey and I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about it. It’s a thriller that mostly takes place in one room. We don’t see many of the important characters – we only hear their voices over the telephone. Yet this simple set up creates a wild plot with fantastic twists and turns as a man realizes he is far less capable than he realizes.
The Guilty (dir: Gustav Möller)
The Guilty follows a disgraced cop named Asger Holm who was involved in a shooting. Reassigned to desk duty, he’s working as a 911 dispatcher while awaiting his court date. One day, a call comes in from a woman who is crying as her ex-husband kidnaps her. From there, he tries to play the hero and save her, only to realize there’s something much worse happening.
The film works because of its focus on Holm. We feel his desires to “save the day” and then we feel his shock as her learns more and more about the woman’s situation. Even though we only experience the majority of the characters through Holm’s headset, we can picture their desperation and their confusion. And at the end, we feel the same fatigue that Holm feels as he realizes he’s not matching the heroic image that he’s built up for himself.
This film deserves a lot more attention than its received. See it whenever you get the opportunity.
I know my obsession with past filmmakers is quoted in my first last pick. But there’s another film that deserves more praise than it’s getting from a first time director. It’s the most effective satire of the world of 2018.
Imagine a world where the newest business craze is to basically offer slave labor to corporations. Where class warfare is starting to bubble to the surface again. Where minorities are not able to truly be themselves. Although this film is being advertised as taking place in an alternative timeline, it’s not. This is the world that we see whenever we look out the window. Even the “American Dream” of working hard for success and wealth seems to be increasingly bizarre both in our world and in the film’s world.
Sorry to Bother You (dir: Boots Riley)
Sorry to Bother You follows a man named “Cash” Green who gets work as a telemarketer. At first he struggles, but then develops a “white voice” over the phone that turns him into one of the top earners for his company. Yet his ascent is not cause for celebration, especially as he’s forced to cross a picket line and realizes that he’s participating in the trading of slaves. And then the film throws a twist at the end of the second act that really shows why director Boots Riley is so concerned about the state of the world and where we may end up. It seems shocking that people would treated the way the film depicts, but I could almost imagine Amazon offering a similar service as WorryFree proposes.
As is tradition, I present the rest of my list in alphabetical order.
A Quiet Place – (dir: John Krasinski) – Horror films as a whole don’t usually scare me. They’re too fantastical and I can never identify with the characters as they’re being chased by a ghost. Krasinski’s debut also seemed like it would be too much of a gimmick. A film where people can’t make noise? I thought that went out of style in 1927. But A Quiet Place uses that gimmick to tell a familiar story in a new way. At its core, the film is about a man trying to be a good father and having doubts about his ability. This plot can drive some of the best films and some of the worst. But Krasinski, no doubt from his time on The Office, knows how to make his character seem familiar, like a coworker you may bump into in the cafeteria. Also, the new way of living the family has set up for itself to deal with its silent existence is incredibly unique. And the inability to make noise creates some of the tensest horror film moments I’ve ever seen, like when a woman gives birth without being able to scream.
A Star is Born (dir: Bradley Cooper) – This was the third remake of the original story and one that would either be great or crash and burn. Music is incredibly disposable these days and it seems like a more accurate title for a modern remake would be A Star is Bor – Oops, Never Mind. Yet the film plays like an Unplugged rendition of the story. There is no slick choreography or show stopping numbers, even during the concert scenes or the moments at the Grammys. Instead, the film focuses on the dynamic of two opposites trying to figure out what they other means. Soft rock singer Jack (Cooper) discovers Ally/Lady Gaga in a drag bar and they fall in love. As her star rises, he continues to fall into a desperate state. While she is utterly enamored with him, he’s distant and unable to express himself to her. She is building a carefully manufactured image to appeal to a fan base (Ally talks about how she doesn’t like the pop music she’s making) while Jack doesn’t care about his fans. Still, when they come together on stage, you can see the chemistry between both the characters and their performers. Those moments are what makes the film work.
Annihilation (dir: Alex Garland) – Garland is behind some of the smartest, most visually appealing science fiction today. Annihilation will hopefully come to be seen as his masterpiece in due time. The film is about a mysterious area on earth where biology has stopped functioning properly. This leads to mutated animals and, possibly, a creature that could destroy humanity. That could be the plot of an old Roger Corman produced B-movie, but Garland uses the material to discuss man’s place in nature and what the effects man is having on the environment. It’s also the most gorgeous looking film I’ve seen this year. It certainly has the best special effects. They’re used to create something new that stirred my imagination instead of dulling it.
Black Kkklansman (dir: Spike Lee) – Lee staged an incredible comeback with this story of a black police officer who takes charge of an undercover investigation into the local KKK chapter – work that eventually leads to him talking to David Duke in the most satisfying movie scene of the year. But the film also showcases the underlying tension that still exists in our society. The main character Ron Stallworth became a police officer out of a sense of civic pride, but is distrusted by his community and other officers openly use racial slurs in his presence. He takes on the Klan because that’s the easiest target he can find, even though his victory isn’t enough to stop the prejudice against him. And, as we see in the footage from the Charlottesville rally, the people Stallworth took down sadly never went away.
Capernaum (dir: Nadine Labaki) – There have been a lot of great films lately in the past few years about how kids no longer have real childhoods. They have to face the horrors of the world head on, no matter how much the adults around them try to protect their innocence. Last year’s The Florida Project was about that and it was my pick for the best film of the year. Capernaum covers much of the same ground in an even crueler way. The film follows Zain, who sues his parents for giving birth to him. We find out later that he ran away from home after they sold his older sister as a child bride just as she hit puberty. It gets progressively worse from there as Zain tries to carve out a new life with Rahil, a woman he meets that is in Lebanon illegally. It’s a story that feels increasingly desperate, like someone wondering what they have to do to get attention. Zain’s story feels increasingly familiar as we learn about people trying to escape desperate situations in their home.
The Death of Stalin (dir: Armando Iannucci) – It takes a very twisted mind to turn the death of one of the great monsters of history into a Dr. Strangelove-esque satire about a deservedly ruined state where its leaders are more interested in feeding their egos than the public’s best interest. Actually, it doesn’t, but it does take a very smart mind to make a film as funny as this one. The Death of Stalin follows a group of highly dysfunctional people trying to decide who replaces the vacuum left by Stalin. The result is a slow burning chaos that results in a lot of people getting killed. What makes it funny is the subtle reaction people who are suffering from deep anxiety about their futures. They put on absurd faces as they try to go through a traditional funeral while plotting to stab each other in the back. Its treatment of the upper echelon of the Communist Party is like a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar adapted by Luis Bunuel. Also, the casting is spot on.
Shoplifters (dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda) – This film won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and its easy to see why. Its story of a family assembled from scratch trying to find domestic bliss doesn’t just reflect Japanese society. It reflects the entire developed world, as more people are trying to imitate the family life they grew up with while the reality around them is growing increasingly bleaker. Director Kore-eda is seemingly mocking the techniques of Ozu, who used his films to examine how a westernizing Japan was causing people to abandon their roots. Shoplifters shows how, in only a few generations, people don’t have the means to go back to those roots.