The year was 2018

. . . and it was a very long one. 

Oh, Top Ten season. A body can only work with what the year gave it and sometimes, sure, that produces a pretty clear hierarchy and the list just comes together. But sometimes the year is so rich in cinematic excellence that it mocks the very concept of a Top Ten list, they just scoff at your cultural obsession with arbitrary, yet psychologically satisfying numeric cut offs. That’s 2018 for me, so . . . Forget a list with just ten movies on it that I can’t even make up my mind about (you can check out Letterbox’d for my attempt to do so). Instead, I will talk about the 10 Things I Don’t Hate About 2018 . . . (forgive me)

10. Superhero movies.

Ok, but first, one quick thing I do hate here: when people conflate comic book movies with superhero movies. Atomic Blonde is a comic book movie, show some respect, or Charlize might have something to do about it. And you can’t tell me The Matrix isn’t a superhero movie. See, that’s not so hard!

Seriously, she will kick your ass.

Seriously, she will kick your ass.

Anyway, Marvel’s money machine is going gangbusters, so between Marvel and the many imitators, there were a lot of superhero movies In 2018. That’s fine, they are often the kind of bombastic spectacles that make us want to plop down some cash and have a communal experience. I liked Mission: Impossible Fallout a lot, more Rebecca Ferguson is always the right answer for me (Ethan Hunt is a superhero, it me). I respect Infinity War for its ambition and for its glorious middle finger of a cliff-hanger ending, even if it’s an incomplete film until we get the second part in the spring of 2019.

Black Panther came out ages ago (but it really is a 2018 movie, I promise, I looked it up) and made enough money that my guess is you already have an opinion on it, so I won’t waste too many words here, but I remain impressed as hell with the depth and breadth of the production design and the story and the acting and the script. Black Panther takes African excellence seriously and it’s pretty glorious (especially that Busan sequence, yoooooo).

Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

The standout superhero film this year for me though was Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. I’ve seen comics heads in my Twitter timeline screaming for Miles Morales to be in a Spiderman movie forever, and shows us why: WE KNOW WHO TF PETER PARKER IS and YAWN but stories of growing up and coming to grips with tragedy and responsibility are not and it can still be refreshing and great when we come at a story we know cold from another angle, especially when the filmmakers know that we know what we know that they know we know. Or something like that.

9. Rom Coms

Regardless of whether or not rom-coms are and/or were dead (ugh, no links for you), we had a bunch of original, inventive rom-coms where the purpose of people’s lives went well beyond becoming a couple and the romance was a byproduct of the shared stakes of a common goal, the best kind of rom-com formula.

Set It Up is smartly directed and written, set in a completely believable world, the world of sports and sports blogging that I happen to have lots of experience reading, while also creating a relatable, understandable fantasy. It’s breezy, fresh, unabashedly itself and I can’t wait for more from director Claire Scanlon and writer Katie Silberman.

I loved To All the Boys I Loved Before

I loved To All the Boys I Loved Before

There was also To All the Boys I Loved Before, which was mindblowingly charming and inventive. It was great to see Mona, sorry, Janel Parrish again and John Corbett is still smooth and reassuring, even when he’s struggling with the parent thing. I wish this was fresher in my mind so I could talk about it more in depth, but the glow I felt when I watched lives with me still. It’s a rich world and I was happy to spend my time in it. 

Juliet, Naked is more my lane, a movie for the olds, based on a book by Nick Hornby. This movie features characters that feel lived in and very real - people with lots of experience under their belt, wondering if this is all there is or could be, and fumbling their way toward the idea that maybe the weight of the past isn’t too much for us to do something better with our futures. It’s low key, but not low stakes. I’ve had conversations like the ones Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke have in this movie. They weren’t as articulate or funny when I had them, but I recognized them, their essence, which is rare in romantic comedies, so often pale shadows of the emotional complexity of our real lives (cf the Hallmark channel).

8. Ruthless Self Examination

Minding the Gap is blisteringly good

Minding the Gap is blisteringly good

This has been an amazing year for documentaries or dramatizations of real life events that managed to hold their gaze on the past and the filmmakers own flawed parts of that past. Bing Liu’s Minding The Gap might have begun its life as a skater documentary, but I was blown away by Liu’s ability to recognize the personal trajectories of himself and his friends and to keep his camera rolling on their profoundly existential struggles and to articulate to them why he did it. The cinematography is also stunning (skaters make great docs, what can I say),

Sandi Tan has had more time to reflect on her past in Shirkers, a documentary of the same name as the avant garde movie she made with her friends in the 1990s. Shirkers would be a great doc if it was just about the batshit story of how their footage was stolen from them and how it came to be found again, but Tan goes the extra-meta-mile and interrogates herself and how she is implicated in that artistic crime. She does not spare her past or present self the (probably deserved) criticism of her friends and peers.

Jennifer Fox’s The Tale adds some distance by dramatizing her experience of realizing that she had been sexually abused growing up, with Laura Dern standing in for Fox in the film (Dern is brilliant, as you would expect by now). Fox was a young female athlete whose abuse was enabled by her athletic trainers, soThe Tale feels startlingly resonant in the year when Larry Nasser’s victims finally received some measure of justice. I cannot even imagine how you make a movie about your own sexual abuse, but Jennifer Fox not only managed it, she managed to make it amazing.

7. The Avant Garde Getting Through to the Squares

OK, you might not enjoy going to the weird theaters or the crazy cinemas in converted basements to watch the latest black and white thing from Europe or the weird documentary from Singapore, but those experimental instincts made a serious impact on the movies that I loved in 2018. 

More movies from all these people please . . .

More movies from all these people please . . .

A stand out here that I haven’t mentioned yet is Boots Riley’s outrageous social satire Sorry to Bother You where the darkest waking nightmares of near-future dystopia gets full expression along with the political ambitious of avant garde art that will fuck with you . . . that’s all before it gets extremely weird. If you are at all sensitive to the conditions of the labor market, Sorry to Bother You sings a song of furious anger that I think you will appreciate and then dares to dream of how much worse things it could get (news flash: Silicon Valley is not here to save you).

Madeline’s Madeline is a searing look at what art can do and the dangerous places that seriously pursuing it can take you and your relationships. And that’s before you can figure out whether or not it’s happening in your head or her head, or wait,  who just had the worst experience of their lives? This is an amazing story about a young woman discovering the possibilities of performance, her powers as a performer, the limits of trust she should place in adults, and maybe the limits of her ability to distinguish between performance and reality.

6. Won’t You Be My Neighbor

5. Horror That Is Not (just) About Scares

Cam is a body horror tale about what happens when the AI overlords can steal our digital representations. It’s terrifying because it’s so close to being true. Mandy is just about the only movie that could take Nic Cage and make him the normal one . . . and then inflict the worst week of anyone’s life on them and well, then he goes full Nic Cage in this goth fantasia of gnarly spiritual and physical violence with a score that just will not quit. Hereditary is definitely terrifying (tho not at all in the way the marketing made it seem), I don’t even want to spoil the ways in which existential angst gets turned in on itself, but if the ending lands for you, you are looking at a yawning pit of despair. I don’t know that it sticks the landing, but it’s definitely thinking beyond the scares. And I probably don’t need to tell you about A Quiet Place, which also made all the monies (and maybe a sequel - boooooo). If not, it’s a thriller that is the most potent metaphor for the existential freakout that accompanies all parenthood, not that I would know (or would want to know? Because this movie makes it look TERRIFYING).

Tilda Swinton in Suspiria

Tilda Swinton in Suspiria

The horror film that stuck with me the most this year was Suspiria (you can expect nice long essay on that film in the near future). Suspiria takes as its background the insane horror show of the German Autumn (seriously, dat history tho) and then dives into a power play among witches that manifests itself in grotesque ways among a dance troupe while a German psychologist wrestles with the heinous scars of the recent past. It’s a fucking busy movie. I go back and forth as to whether Suspiria succeeds at the many tasks that it has set itself, but there is no questioning the sheer ambition of this film in turning a creepy horror story into something much much more potent. It is also extremely my shit.

4. GRIEF

If you’re like me, it’s not at all inappropriate that so many films of 2018 are wrestling with grief and despair, a reflection of the death of sincerity, truthfulness, and competence in politics. Culturally it just seems like we are unsettled and angry, the first stage of mourning we don’t even know what yet.

So you have a year that begins with Annihilation, a movie that is steeped in the bitter herbs of grief. One of the main characters speaks openly about the trauma of losing a child and having to mourn both the child and who she once was before that child’s death. Natalie Portman’s character is barely holding it together as she goes out in the world trying to figure out if she should mourn her husband or not, a problem that the film itself doesn’t actually help us resolve. Every character in this film is wracked and haunted by regret and grief and it’s that degree of despair that puts them in the mind to venture into the Shimmer (and for several of them, to definitely not venture back out). It’s wildly haunting. 

Brady Jandreau in Chloe Zhao’s  The Rider

Brady Jandreau in Chloe Zhao’s The Rider

The Rider from Chloe Zhao is also primarily a story about grief, but of a different kind. The lead in the film was a rodeo rider and plays a rodeo rider, and his real life family plays his family in the movie, so Zhao has the extra level of formal invention that makes her characters feel truly lived in (I could just as easily have talked about this in the Avant Garde section or the section on ruthless examination). Brady has experienced a pretty bad injury, something common in the rodeo and driven home by Brady’s visits to a bull rider friend whose spinal injury put him in a nursing home for life. Brady’s body and mind remember the ride and The Rider is the story of how he comes to grips with the fact that his present is different than his memory.  

And then there’s Steve McQueen’s Widows, written with vigor by Gillian Flynn. Widows is a great thriller about the dirtiness of Chicago politics (and maybe all politics) and the desperate measures a few women take to get clear from the heinous damage done by their dumbass men. It’s also, low key, a devastating film the disorientation and pain that comes from surviving the death of a loved one. McQueen manages to create a political thriller, a heist film, and a weepy all rolled into one package. Which sums up the ever present sadness that clung to 2018 like beloved memory of a loved one long past, IMO. Who might try to kill you, if you don’t get them first.

3. Music

This. Score. Kicks. Ass.

This. Score. Kicks. Ass.

What a fucking great year for film scores. Eighth Grade s astonishing score is a pop art masterpiece from Anna Meredith that I just want to devour all the time. Nathan Halpern’s score for The Rider absolutely wrecked me, it was as haunting as the rest of that magical film. I was utterly sold on Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse on all levels, but the score is joyous and great. If you want baroque, moody, masterworks, then Mandy’s score is definitely for you, it’s like a concept album from the synth happy 80s, but in the darkest way possible. If Beale Street Could Talk also features a stunning score.

*I haven’t seen Cold War yet (the wait for it to open on DC screens feels as interminable, but the rumors are the musical performances in this film will blow you away (and so will Joanna Kulig).

2. Representation

If you are a dramaturgical nerd like me, then you know that aesthetics is never divorced from ethics and therefore from politics. It’s hard for me to identify my personal political journey, though I’ve wrestled with the story in the past. Talking about politics as ideas and principles that become policies can be . . . distancing. There’s something about our brains in America that we just get fucked up when we talk politics. It’s much easier for me to explain diversity in the world of movies though, in a way that I think can be heard. Because in terms of experiencing stories that either affirm your faith in humanity or are just so brilliant in unexpected ways, there is no substitute for seeking out people whose own life experiences are different from your own. Diversity is not a buzzword; it’s another way of saying that I don’t want just listen to the same people tell the same stories over and over again. I know that there is more in heaven and earth than I have dreamt of and I want to hear it, see it, feel it. And I could do that at the movies in 2018. 

Holy crap, this film and these people are beautiful

Holy crap, this film and these people are beautiful

Barry Jenkin’s adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, though, is a remarkable film in a remarkable year. It is a lush film that lingers over young lovers and just basks in the beauty of black skin. It is also an incisive look at how systemic racism in America degrades and punishes those beautiful lovers. It sheds light on monstrous unfairness and injustice by allowing us to be part of a love story interrupted repeatedly by that injustice. It’s beautiful and crushing and ain’t no white folk who can make a movie like this.

Real talk though, so many of my favorite films of this year were about telling different stories differently: If Beale Street Could Talk, The Rider, Eight Grade, Roma, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Minding the Gap Shirkers, Widows, Sorry to Bother You, Black Panther, Searching, Support the Girls, BlacKKlansman, Tully, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and Crazy Rich Asians. That’s most of my Top Ten and over half of my top 30 that are richly observed stories that come from people with real lived experience in the communities where their stories exist, experiences unlike my own. This is the kind of cinema that jolts me awake, brings me to tears, shakes me, and rocks me. 

 1. Movies

This. year. kicked. ass. 

The New World

Filmspotting Homework No. 2

This exercise in preparing for Filmspotting Madness lo these many months away (seriously not until March of 2019, it’ll be here before you know it, shut up) started off very poorly with Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her. That film has not aged well. Hell, it’s a strong argument for takes like “Why the eff did we let it age at all?! Burn that trash!” Naturally, I followed that up with a film that a white man made about a certain Native American princess and English colonialists because if we’re gonna get all problematic, let’s get problematic.

The homework I’m talking about is Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World. Malick, ever one to surround himself with some friggin’ talent, got himself a remarkable set of actors and a totally amazing creative team for this film. James Horner scores this film beautifully, and, crucially, sparingly. Malick hired a new cinematographer, some dude named, let me see . . . Emmanuel, uh, Lubezki (you may have seen his work). Notable cast members include Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, Colin Farrell (and his actual tattoos), John Savage, Eddie Marsan, Noah Taylor for the English folk and Wes Studi, Kalani Queypo (recently seen at Arena in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty), and stunning newcomer (back in 2005), Q’orianka Kilcher for the Native Americans.

Q’orianka Kilcher makes Raoul Trujillo’s choreography a gorgeous reality

Q’orianka Kilcher makes Raoul Trujillo’s choreography a gorgeous reality

In one sign that we are dealing with an actually sophisticated take on when Plymouth Rock went and landed on the New World (in a manner of speaking, this is actually a movie about Jamestown, roll with me) no one in the film ever utters the syllables “Pocahontas.” We are well over an hour into the movie before anyone tries to name her and even then it’s to indicate that her past name is dead. After that, she is referred to by her new name Rebekah only a handful of times. Given how much has been said of the importance of naming things in order to exert dominion and ownership over those things, I think it is telling that Malick deliberately avoids the name, to let her exist before us as this luminous, graceful, expressive, forceful, loving person without resorting to the lazy short hand of applying the name tied to so many colonial myths.

Telling and really damn awkward for the purposes of this inexperienced reviewer. But bear with more for like 900 more words, I’m just going to refer to Kilcher’s character as “her” or “Rebekah” (ugh, if I have to). At any rate, she falls in love with Colin Farrell’s John Smith when he is a prisoner. The sequence where we can really tell that they are falling for each other, is when Smith absorbs her requests for English words for things. She moves and Smith puzzles out her meaning, always successfully, and then giving her the English translations for her movement. It’s a scene full of genuine personal connection but it’s also a clear demonstration of the colonizer’s worldview . . . Smith is constantly and happily telling her the English words for the concepts she demonstrates, but he never ever asks for or learns her word for these things. He is happy to bring her into his linguistic world, but he does not explore hers. Malick is giving one particular Englishman as much benefit of the doubt as he can and he still looks like an asshole, even at the peak of the love story. 

Can’t see Farrell’s chest tattoo in this shot . . .

Can’t see Farrell’s chest tattoo in this shot . . .

Malick takes his time to establish it, but The New World is ultimately her film. This is only, and by then exquisitely, clear after she is abandoned by Smith and by her own people (for, well, aiding their enemy, which . . . fair). John Smith leaves her alone, destitute, and in absolute mourning, thinking that her lover is dead (a total lie). In her despair, and under the care of a well-meaning English woman who transforms her from a self-possessed mistress of the world around her into a struggling girl (and yo books could be written about this, wow), she encounters another Englishman, Christian Bale’s tobacco farming John Rolfe, who recognizes her strength, but not her . . . not all of her. But, she feels seen enough by Rolfe to marry him, have his child and go off to England . . . never to return to her native shores. Q’orianka Kilcher holds us transfixed through it all, through being in total harmony and at home with her surroundings, falling for the invader, being cast aside by her family for it and then forging herself a new family, not settling for the shit and dregs of the new folk, and always, always, always remembering the land she was from. 

In the manicured and tamed gardens of the English . . .

In the manicured and tamed gardens of the English . . .

It’s easy to lose sight of this as she learns to walk in heels, sheds her name, learns to survive in the English camp, and is generally colonized by the English but, at the very end, there is a moment, it does not last long at all, where a Native American warrior suddenly occupies a seat that she used to sit in before bursting forth from this seat out into the grounds. It’s so brief, but so telling and evocative. Malick fills the last few minutes of the film with such strange juxtapositions, “Rebekah” in a dress climbing trees on the Rolfe estate, “Rebekah” relishing the feel of the water beneath her feet, utterly reveling in the water, and disregarding the state of her dress. She has succeeded at playing English but is still connected to the earth and to the water in a very non-English way (oh my gosh, Malick and Lubezki’s exquisite use of water in this film, both as source of stunning beauty, but also as an inspiration for the movement of the camera . . . you could write a book on this film alone, damn).

With The New World, Malick chose an enormously difficult task. He understood that the narrative of English survival at Jamestown is compelling for his audience, though it is entirely likely that his audience will view them as the “good guys.” He does so much to combat this. The English are backbiting and lack unity, they are nearly always starving, almost always driven to the point of insanity (John Savage and Eddie Marsan are spectacularly evocative of the doomsaying insanity that filled the heart of every settler). They survive only because of an extraordinary act of mercy from her and that costs her dearly. We appreciate that John Smith is a maverick but he tells her not to trust him . . . and he’s right. He experiences profound truths in the woods, alone with her as they fall in love, but all of the trappings of the culture that brought him to this land will lead him to betray her and her people and to be unkind and untrue to her in public, not through infidelity to her, but through brutality to her people. Farrell is expressive and his face is an absolutely crystal clear window to his torn soul as he does his gorram English duty and tears himself from love, not entirely understanding why even as he does it. He is certainly regretful at his choices later in an extraordinary meeting with her where she comes to appreciate what an interesting person Rolfe is: “You are the man I thought you were,” the ultimate contrast with John Smith, who never could manage to be the man she thought he was. 

And that’s The New World in a nutshell really. It’s a film that grasps the importance of melodrama to history, that takes the emotion of it seriously. We witness her despair at losing Smith, we know and experience her trip back from despair with Rolfe, himself a widower. offers melodrama weighed down by the seriousness of history, which is to say, cultural history explored through the smaller more intimate emotional journeys of the players. It’s very effective, especially since it’s quite conscious of the toxicity of some of these historical happenings. It’s probably too generous to the English and certainly this princess who marries an influential tobacco farmer ends up a little lost in the trappings of England and the life of the Old World, so I will not go so far as to call it woke history, but it is not ignorant of injustice nor does it entirely shed the guilt of being borne of that injustice. 

Far from being as problematic as Talk to Her, The New World shows itself to be thoughtful, studied, and steeped in the pursuit of both history and beauty in profoundly meaningful ways. It may not entirely succeed with the very problematic story it seeks to tell, but it doesn’t utterly lose the plot either. I’m guessing that The New World gets bounced in the first round, but everyone who takes the time to do the homework will be richly rewarded.