I think I can best characterize my favorite cinema of 2018 in two words: Quiet Desperation. Here's my Top 10. What are yours?
1) Leave No Trace -- Ben Foster plays a PTSD-stricken vet who lives with his teenage daughter in the woods outside of Portland, until he's forced to vacate and falls into the hands of social services. One of the rare films that truly has no villains; almost everyone the pair meets is trying to help and do right by them in some way, but Foster's unspoken past won't let him re-integrate with society. His daughter (Thomasin McKenzie in a brilliant performance), however, isn't bound by those same constraints, and doesn't understand why they can't be part of a community.
2) The Rider -- Chinese director Chloé Zhao turned her camera on the world of horse farming and rodeo riding in South Dakota, and essentially posed the question, "What if you knew you were put on Earth to do one thing... and then were no longer able to do it?" Enter rodeo rider Brady, who has just suffered a severe injury at the start of the film, and finds himself facing this very dilemma. When I first saw the film, I was astounded at the level of authenticity, and then I learned that Zhao's cast was comprised entirely of non-actors. Brady Jandreau really is a horse trainer, and the people playing his father and sister are in fact his real family.
3) Roma -- Another first-time actor, Yalitza Aparicio, stars as a maid for a well-to-do family in 1970s Mexico, during a time of political unrest. "Quiet desperation" is the name of the game for many of the films on this list, and especially so for Aparacio's Cleo, whose navigation through socioeconomic spheres brings to mind a (much) less-stuffy version of British "upstairs/downstairs" tales like Gosford Park. Shot in B&W by Alfonso Cuarón, who also wrote the screenplay -- it's a semi-autobiographical depiction of his own upbringing.
4) Wildlife -- What happens to the women who tend to the homesteads while the men are off fighting war? Carey Mulligan is a wife whose aimless husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) splits town to join the forces waging battle against forest fires in 1960s Montana. She's got rent to pay, a teenage son to feed, and no money coming in from her spouse... so what's her play? And how does that mesh with the newfound attention from an automobile dealer (Bill Camp), the wealthiest man in town? At what point does pragmatism take over? Stunning performance by Mulligan here -- this is her film to carry.
5) They Shall Not Grow Old -- I've grown wary of documentaries in recent years due to oversaturation of the genre, but this World War I film from director Peter Jackson is a stunning achievement on both technical and storytelling levels. Jackson and his team of studio wizards have resurrected the grainy archival footage of the war with stunning clarity. And this ain't Ted Turner colorizing classic movies to the horrors of cinephiles; as Jackson explained in the post-film "Making Of" feature, the original cameramen would've loved to have had color and consistent frame rates if such a thing were possible at the time. Did I also mention the sound? When the audio accounts of the soldiers are meshed with recreated artillery blasts and gunfire, you are there in the thick of the action. For better or worse.
6) Ava -- Along with Wadjda (2012, Saudi Arabia) and Mustang (2015, Turkey), this Iranian film is another gut-wrenching look at life for young girls growing up in conservative Muslim societies -- and the consequences of even appearing to step outside of the rigid expectations for females. High-school student Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is an exemplary student and musician... but what will people think if word spreads that (gasp!) she's been seen with a boy? All three films mentioned above were written and directed by women of Middle Eastern descent, and in particular, Wadjda was the first movie made by a Saudi Arabian woman in Saudi Arabia. The times-they-are-a-(finally)-changin'.
7) First Reformed -- Where does Ethan Hawke rank among Gen X actors? Is there a better Everyman out there right now? Writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) tells a tale of a pastor (Hawke) who counsels a pregnant woman who's pressured by her husband to have an abortion; the husband thinks that mankind's mistreatment of the planet will render the world inhospitable for future generations. And it seems that the pastor begins to agree. Should he be compelled to act, even violently, in the name of environmental justice? We're privy to his thoughts and internal debate via a journal-turned-inner monologue. The ending is a bit polarizing, but this was a thoroughly engrossing, Slow Burn tale.
8) Loveless -- Remember Kramer Vs. Kramer, where Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play parents who are both fighting for custody of their son? In the Russian film Loveless, it's apparent that neither of the separated couple want to be saddled with their 10-year-old boy. Ugh. The soon-to-be-divorced parents have yet to sell their condo, but have already settled into new relationships, and one night, neither of them return home to keep an eye on their kid. By the next morning... he's gone. And so begins a manhunt that re-opens many of the wounds between the two along the way. When combined with the backdrop of a Russian winter, Loveless is as bleak as a film you'll find all year. (What a tagline for the movie poster! Trust me, it's also rather cathartic.)
9) Madeline's Madeline -- What price art? This film brought to mind the notorious wars waged between director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, where Herzog often drove the mercurial Kinski to the brink of insanity (and then some) in the hopes of securing superlative performances. In Madeline's Madeline, theater director Evangeline (Molly Parker) showers young actress Madeline (Helena Howard, in a fantastic debut) with the sort of praise and attention that Madeline has a much tougher time eliciting from her mom (Miranda July). Along the way, Evangeline keeps pushing and pushing her protégé to bring dark secrets to the fore during rehearsals, and... did I mention that Madeline was taking medication for mental illness? Enter the Unreliable Narrator. Standout performances from all three leads here.
10) Summer 1993 -- The second of two autobiographical tales on the list, Summer 1993 is Spanish director Carla Simón's recollection of her childhood at age 7 -- when her mother died and she moved to the Catalan countryside to live with her uncle and his family. Young Frida (Laia Artigas) is confused and upset, and doesn't quite know how to express her anxiety at the situation. Probably the best performance I've seen from a child actress since Onata Aprile in 2012's What Maisie Knew (another one of my favorites).
Honorable Mention: Border, Three Identical Strangers, Eighth Grade, Free Solo
Most Disappointing: The Favourite
Kevin, when it comes to a definitive personal list of movies from 2018, after banging my head against the wall (figuratively speaking), I must come to the conclusion that… I don’t have one!
Between the theater, cable TV, pay-per-view, and Netflix, I could not come up with a list of films that I can say “Wow, these really impressed me this year. I have to go back and watch them again!” Looking back on the movies the two of us reviewed last year, I couldn’t help but notice that the ones I liked generally weren’t made in 2018. I'm not yet ready to say that this is indicative of an overall lack of quality in films in general, but I'm not not saying it either. More reflection is needed...
That’s not to say every movie I saw last year was bad, but even the ones I enjoyed didn't represent the best cinema has to offer. When I think back on 2018, the two movies that stick out most in my mind are <>Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, the former for its massive cultural impact on African-Americans, and the latter because, to me, it is the current apex of the string of superhero franchise films that will go on for the foreseeable future. Marvel Studios, Stan Lee’s billion-dollar baby, continues to get unquestionably better at making comic book movies.
That being said, a Best of 2018 list that has those two movies at the top just didn’t feel accurate to me. It also doesn’t help that I just flat-out missed seeing a lot of the major releases cited by critics (for example, I’ve seen none of the movies on your list).
This is the first time in at least ten years that I don’t have a summary of my favorite films of the year, which to me speaks to changes in my viewing habits. I’m hoping to get back on track this year (OMG, is it February ALREADY!?!?) but in order to do it I need to re-organize my movie-watching routine.
Obviously, Kevin, you have kept up your movie-watching. In terms of what films you pick to watch or your likes/dislikes, have you found that you’ve had to change your watching habits in the current environment? Also, of the films you listed, what are the ones you think will be discussed ten years from now? Or is that even a question that can be addressed today?
Clarence, we're mighty lucky to have not one but three independent theaters in our town: Music Box, Facets, and Siskel. And perhaps I'm a strange bird in this day and age, but I scour theater calendars weeks in advance to make notes of what's coming to town -- much the same way I used to do for bands! In fact, my increase in movie-watching is probably inversely proportional to the number of live music performances I catch? My concertgoing took a serious hit when I stopped DJing a decade ago, as I'm simply no longer on top of all the music coming out each week. You've got a regular show on CHIRP, though, and I have to imagine that keeping up with new releases gobbles up a fair amount of time. There are only so many hours in the day.
As far as my cinema habits, I wasn't sure if you meant the current environment for cinema or the external environment in general? I don't think either has had much impact, but my tastes have evolved a great deal regardless. As far as why? That's a great question, and one I had to reflect on for some time.
* The bottom line is that I've become hooked on the uncertainty that comes with indie cinema narratives. Maybe things will turn out OK. Maybe they won't. All films require conflict, but it's one thing to feel uncomfortable while knowing that there's a positive resolution on the horizon in Act Three. Well... what if there isn't one? That raises the stakes for me, and gets me invested in a way that I wouldn't be for an Aquaman film. It largely comes down to Executive Meddling, as studios are understandably reluctant to fund super-expensive movies where the audience is shell-shocked at the end*. Tends to cut down on the word-of-mouth business, I imagine? You can take more chances when you've sunk $2 million into a picture instead of $200 million.
[*And yes, I did hear about the end of the last Avengers film, but nobody really believes that all those characters will stay dead, right? Hell, the departed heroes are listed as part of the cast for the follow-up!]
* I've also pretty much sworn off two genres: comedy (the humor has to be really dry to get me to buy in), and rock 'em, sock 'em action flicks.
With the latter, if there was a pivotal moment when I gave up on Hollywood blockbusters, it was the 2009 reboot of Star Trek. It exemplified everything I disliked about the modern action movie -- CGI overload, dizzying cuts, and lack of a sense of physical space and perspective. And that's without getting into the issue that Star Trek was never designed to be an action franchise at all! The reboot was especially insulting when contrasted with the incredible Wrath of Khan, which we've discussed in great length -- and I wonder whether it's even possible to get a studio to make a franchise film with that sort of pacing today.
I recall somewhat enjoying the early Spider-Man and X-Men superhero films, though none of them have stuck with me, and I really should check out Black Panther for, as you mentioned, its cultural significance. But my hunch is that I'd probably leave the theater feeling a bit numb and likely in need of some Serious Quiet Time? (Another characteristic of modern action films: the volume tends to be Turned Up To Eleven.) As an aside, I was a big Marvel Comics fan in the '80s, and with comics, you almost always have a great sense of space because you're digesting battles one panel at a time. But I'll stop here before I sound even more like an octogenarian. One thing is certain -- these films are immensely popular with audiences, much of whom have been weaned on the sort of chaotic video games that resemble the action on screen.
[Hey, I still do love a good popcorn film, but for me these days, that tends to be along the order of a found-footage horror tale.]
* Which of the films on my list might be discussed a decade from now? They Shall Not Grow Old, because it's a landmark technical achievement. Perhaps Roma, because of the Oscar nominations? If I had to pick a sleeper from the rest, I'd go with First Reformed, both because of the moderate star power of the director and lead, as well as the timely subject matter? But these things are really a crapshoot. Nobody thought Moby Dick would ever be remembered, right?
* Also, I wouldn't say that most of the films on my list are "major" releases, as only a handful moved beyond the arthouse theater circuit. But there's always life for cinema via streaming... and I really hope you are able to at least check out my two favorite films, Leave No Trace and The Rider. I'd like to point out as well that half the films on my list (including those two) were from female directors; it's heartening that we're seeing so many more women behind the camera.
* You mentioned that you didn't dive much into 2018 cinema, but did you wind up discovering any older classics for the first time? If so, what do you think that cinema does better/worse today than it did 25/50/75 years ago? While I railed against modern action films, I have a great deal of praise for the state of cinema today in general. The barrier to entry in the industry has been sharply reduced, which means that we're seeing many more voices out there. However, the competition for marketing space and attention? That's the main battle these days. It's become much easier to make a quality film, but much harder to get one noticed.
I feel that the movie and music industries are the same in that regard. In both mediums, a handful of powerful, diversified corporations own the majority of the public’s attention, which they hold by serving up mediocrity, cliches, and titillation. Too often, in my opinion, the good stuff has to work extra hard to get noticed, and that’s a shame.
Over the past couple of months I have been able to watch a bunch of random films from decades past, including a sweaty yet groovy Western produced in the swingin’ ‘60s (There Was a Crooked Man, 1970), a quirky biopic of ‘30s starlet Ruth Etting (Love Me or Leave Me, 1955), and a gritty prison drama produced not long after film location sound equipment was invented (20,000 Years in Sing Sing, 1932).
I’ve recently seen two of Sidney Poitier’s classics, In the Heat of the Night (1967), which I enjoyed, and The Defiant Ones (1958), which I did not. A little Tony Curtis goes a long way, Sweet Smell of Success notwithstanding. I also saw the original version of A Star Is Born (1937). I liked it, but it did not make me any more interested in watching the latest version that’s up for a bunch of awards this weekend. I can’t help but feel that paying attention to anything Lady Gaga does makes me part of the con.
One thing filmmakers did much better Back In My Day than they do now is elicit strong acting performances. I feel like writers and directors of older movies were, as a whole, better at setting actors up to succeed. Over the last 50 years, there’s been a lot of emphasis on actors being as “natural” as possible by using various techniques from Method Acting to Mumblecore. A lot of it is great, but there’s also an art to reading, interpreting, and delivering lines in a non-improvisational way. You can really tell, fore example, in too many post-2000 comedies when a director is just letting the actors riff, hoping for enough funny bits to stitch together. That kind of laziness would have been harder to pull off in an earlier time.
You are so right that it’s sometimes gets hectic trying to juggle all the available music and film that deserves praise. It’s important to structure one’s time to take maximum advantage of it all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. As you point out, outlets that provide curated, quality fare are out there, and there’s a whole community of like-minded people to exchange ideas with. Even at a time when comic book franchises rule, we’re living in our own kind of Golden Age of movies.
Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!