Things have changed.
Many of last year’s best films hit on themes that were relevant at the time. Get Out and Detroit confronted American racism in very direct — but very different — ways, just as we saw a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville become one of the year’s biggest news stories. Movies like Phantom Thread, mother!, and I, Tonya all had something to say about toxic masculinity, just when Harvey Weinstein was outed as the entertainment industry’s premiere villain. But these films were conceived and, in some cases, completed before we knew what we’d be facing. The Post was the only major film of 2017 that provided a direct response to the political changes we’d seen, and for better or worse, it was rushed into production and then into theaters just in time for awards season.
Of course, good stories take a long time to gestate. Many of 2018’s films were in various stages of development before November 2016. It would not be accurate to say that the year’s movies were a response to the current political climate. But 2018 is the year that filmmakers and moviegoers sent a message to the man in the White House — and what he stands for. White nationalism. Objectifying and assaulting women. Obfuscating the truth. Punching down at the vulnerable, the “other”… basically, anyone who reminds him why he should (and probably does) hate himself.
This one small-minded man is only a conduit for systemic injustices that have existed for decades. He brought to a boil what was before only simmering. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, and all sorts of other terrible things have never had a louder megaphone. And so, neither has the resistance. America responded to the strife of 2018 by making Black Panther its highest-grossing film of the year; by making a major box office hit out of a film with an all-Asian cast (Crazy Rich Asians, #16 at the domestic box office, now the #6 rom-com of all time); by fully embracing a story about a gay man with AIDS (Bohemian Rhapsody, which won the Golden Globe for Best Drama, and just surpassed Star Wars at the global box office). Multiple acclaimed films deal directly with institutional racism (If Beale Street Could Talk, BlacKkKlansman, Blindspotting, The Hate U Give, Monsters And Men, Widows, and Sorry To Bother You). Even Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther, plans to use his plundered throne to empower people of color around the world — a far cry from other Marvel villain motives. What’s notable is not that these films were made — it’s that none of them were directed by white people.
Meanwhile, Hollywood has been busy exorcizing its own demons — Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, Louis CK, Kevin Spacey (to name only a few). But 2018 also marked a high point for female filmmakers, with many of the year’s most acclaimed and discussed films directed by women: Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Debra Granik (Leave No Trace), Lynn Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here), Tamara Jenkins (Private Life), Karyn Kusama (Destroyer), Chloe Zhao (The Rider), Christina Choe (Nancy), Kay Cannon (Blockers), Nadine Labaki (Capernaum), Sally Potter (The Party), Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation Of Cameron Post), Alice Rohrwacher (Happy As Lazzaro), Coralie Fargeat (Revenge), Augustine Frizzell (Never Goin’ Back), Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), Josie Rourke (Mary Queen Of Scots), Claire Denis (Let The Sunshine In), Mimi Leder (On The Basis Of Sex), Nicole Holofcener (The Land Of Steady Habits), Lucrecia Martel (Zama), Sara Colangelo (The Kindergarten Teacher), Ava Duvernay (A Wrinkle In Time), and Susanne Bier (Bird Box).
Hollywood has a long way to go before the straight white male stranglehold really loosens its grip on the business. Two of the most discussed films by African American filmmakers had their race in the title; ditto for Crazy Rich Asians. Only a handful of films directed by women were widely released. And let’s not even talk about how Bohemian Rhapsody mishandles Freddie Mercury’s sexuality. Someday, perhaps, we’ll get to a point where films with predominantly non-white casts don’t have to call that out, and we won’t need to count how many of the top-grossing films were directed by women, and biopics won’t need to tread so carefully around the truth to be palatable for mainstream audiences.
No, 2018 wasn’t the year that Hollywood solved the problem — but it was the year that proved it got the message.
Change was in the air this year, and it wasn’t just the content. 2018 saw the rise and fall of MoviePass, which changed the public’s perceptions and practices about going to the movies (while also defrauding us). It marked Netflix’s breakthrough as a major awards contender — Roma has serious potential in the Best Picture and Best Director races, amongst others. If 2018 wasn’t the best year for movies in the last decade, it was the most game-changing.
As usual, my favorite films were the ones that most moved, perplexed, disturbed, and enthralled me. They don’t play it safe. They weren’t easy to make. They reflect the past year, as I experienced it. (Maybe someday I’ll have a Paddington 2 kind of year, but 2018 wasn’t it.) We’ve got sexual violence, domestic abuse, PTSD, dead husbands, school shootings, global warming, bears, and the Holocaust. Are you ready for this?
10. VOX LUX
“This is a culmination of my life’s work so far. I was under a lot of stress after my accident, but that’s what this show is about. It’s about rebirth.”
In a strong year for movies, it was difficult to settle on a single title to take this final slot. Ten films fought for it, including some of the year’s most acclaimed work. In the end, I had to go with Vox Lux, a savage music industry fable that doubles as an allegory for the American news cycle. It’s prickly, darkly funny, topical, and utterly one-of-a-kind — and it also has a soundtrack by Sia! No other 2018 movie had quite as much moxie as Vox Lux.
The year is 1999. Vox Lux begins with a massacre at a high school. Celeste is a wounded survivor who witnessed her teacher and peers gunned down by a fellow student. Her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) writes a song for Celeste to perform at a memorial. It becomes a sensation, catapulting Celeste into the spotlight. A star is born.
Celeste’s parents are scarcely seen; she is essentially “raised” by her unnamed manager (Jude Law) and a record exec (Jennifer Ehle). The first half of Vox Lux follows Celeste as a teenager, played by Raffey Cassidy, as she learns to take charge of her tentative star power. In the second half, Natalie Portman assumes the role, playing Celeste as a dynamo diva who more than understands the control she has over others, yet is always moments away from spiraling out of control herself.
A more cynical film might portray Celeste as a talentless opportunist. We’ve seen similar stories, where the ingenue comes off as a total naif. Ally, the rising chanteuse in A Star Is Born, is a far less charismatic pop performer than the actress who plays her — which may have been necessary for that movie to work, but rings a bit false given Lady Gaga’s real-life trajectory. The shimmery pop tart at the center of Vox Lux bears more in common with Gaga on an aesthetic level — covered in glitter, clad in outrageous costumes, she paints herself as a survivor who empowers her fans — and she’d blow Ally out of the water. For Celeste, pop music is a necessary escape from the harsh realities of the 21st century. She’s a role model for women who wouldn’t take Jackson Maine’s shit’s lying down.
Behind the curtain, Celeste is not exactly her best self. She’s an addict with a scandal or two in her recent past, and she’s letting her sister raise her teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Cassidy, creating a weird mirroring effect on the film’s twin halves). Does surviving a shooting form Celeste into the fame monster she becomes, or have the pressures of pop stardom made her such a needy wreck of a human? Director Brady Corbet just tosses all that glitz and gore in a blender, portraying Celeste’s entire trajectory as one long, sensational trauma.
It’s no accident that Vox Lux starts in 1999, a crucial year for both young women in pop — with the ascent of Britney Spears and her blonde wannabe chorus — and a pivotal moment for high school shootings in America. There’s no correlation between mass murder and bubblegum pop, but they do intersect sometimes. That’s how The Matrix and Marilyn Manson became part of the Columbine mythos, and how more recent pop culture touchstones — like Ariana Grande and The Dark Knight Returns — also set the stage for acts of terror. Vox Lux isn’t didactic about it, but throughout Corbet’s film, celebrity and tragedy co-exist the way they do in real life… and occasionally feed off each other.
The shooter in the film’s opening wears glam rock eye makeup. A second mass casualty kicks off the film’s second half — an ISIS-style attack with a tenuous connection to one of Celeste’s music videos. Mass killers already share airtime with rock stars on the nightly news; Vox Lux takes that one step further, with murderers who don rock star garb as they commit their unthinkable crimes. The media makes stars out of psychopaths — we know their names, we know their backgrounds, we even know those debunked myths (like that whole “Trenchcoat Mafia” thing). We know them better than we know their victims, that’s for sure. The parallels between Celeste and these violent offenders are never made explicit, but at the end of the day, they’re all part of the same media machine.
Vox Lux is more a stew of ideas than a story. It merely provides the dots — connect them, if you want. I like to read Celeste’s journey as an allegory for our own over that same time period. The adult Celeste is both brittle and hardened, incapable of seeing beyond the stormy swirl of stimuli her stardom stirs up. She’s more of a child at 37 than she is as an actual teenager. And, with the rise of social media in the 21st century, haven’t we all become more shallow and self-obsessed? In the wake of Columbine and 9/11 and all the horrific headlines since, haven’t we all gone number than we used to be, if only to make it through each day? In 2018, we’re all public figures — managing our brands, shaping the way we’re seen by friends and strangers. Celeste’s sparkly stage persona stands in for our collective narcissistic journey: perfect on the outside, a little hollow underneath.
I enjoyed A Star Is Born, but I was let down by its second half, which belittles pop music and skimps on Ally’s side of the story. She is saintly throughout; it’s Jackson with the demons, causing all the problems in her life. Vox Lux, on the other hand, takes a big, juicy bite out of female fame, letting its pop diva be her own worst enemy. She’s a live wire we can’t look away from, but we’re afraid to watch.
A Star Is Born is a throwback, a story that has been told for decades the exact same way. It’s fun to see it play out again in 2018, but Bradley Cooper’s film is less truthful than Brady Corbet’s — because, like it or not, this is the way stars are born in the 21st century.
“You’re confusing suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct.”
Stick around, Natalie Portman.
In 2018, movies like Blindspotting, Eighth Grade, The Hate U Give, and Sorry To Bother You spoke freshly to the modern moment. They couldn’t have been made in any other era. Others tackled some of the year’s biggest topics — systemic racism, sexual violence, climate change — in ways that felt newly relevant. But as for what it truly felt like to live through 2018? Let’s look to science fiction.
The first film I saw after the 2016 presidential election was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. Of course, it was not intended to be a response to that political moment, but it captured the feeling — our once orderly world had been invaded by something incomprehensible and unknown, something that would throw our lives into chaos (if not utter catastrophe). I couldn’t believe what was happening was real — it felt like science fiction.
This year, the honor falls on Annihilation.
Arrival ended up being a hopeful film. There’s less comfort to be found in Alex Garland’s Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, and Tessa Thompson, all bringing their A-game. Garland’s follow-up to 2015’s excellent Ex Machina, which cross-bred familiar sci-fi tropes with ice cold apocalyptic feminism, is totally on brand. This time, Garland does away with male protagonists completely, focusing on five strong, brilliant, deeply damaged women who embark on a likely suicide mission: stepping into an extraterrestrial force field known as “The Shimmer” that threatens to consume the Earth.
Nothing in the story necessitates that they be women rather than men, but that does add novelty that works symbiotically with the sci-fi setting, where things we know from the real world are mutated to increasingly macabre effect. The Shimmer distorts and doubles our DNA; Annihilation itself is like an unholy genetic fusion of Alien and Girls Trip. It’s enticing enough just to see so many intriguing, intelligent women together on screen, but Garland also takes the time to dive into each woman’s aching psyche, unpacking the traumas that led them to this doomed path. Lots of sci-fi horror stories pick off characters one by one, but Annihilation pauses to really think about death, and mourn the fallen. It’s hard to imagine an all-male lineup digging quite this deep.
Annihilation also exhibits some of the year’s most arresting visual effects: plants shaped like people, an alligator-shark hybrid, a bear that emits a human scream. (That is, by far, the year’s most nightmarish scene.) And then there’s the otherworldly climax, pairing extraterrestrial doppelgangers with something like interpretative dance. Everything here feels like the mutation of a genre we thought we knew. We’ve never seen sci-fi like this.
Annihilation touches on many themes — mortality, self-destruction, grief. Every new development is more mind-blowing than the last, but all are violations of “the rules” science and nature abide by, at least as we know them so far. Annihilation gets under our skin, and not because it’s freaky, but because it’s eerily familiar. Recently, we’ve seen catastrophic effects of climate change — deep freezes, fires, floods. 2018 is prime time for a horror story about an environment that will slowly but surely kill us. The world within The Shimmer is changing, just as ours is; it may kill every person inside, or they may kill each other. (There probably isn’t a third option.)
In 2016, I was rattled and in disbelief; Arrival captured that moment perfectly. In 2018, I’m weary, filled with apocalyptic dread, and more or less resigned to my fate. In that sense, Annihilation is the film of the year, reckoning with a world that’s no longer playing by its own rules. This is The Wizard Of Oz From Hell.
8. A PRIVATE WAR
“I hate being in a war zone, but I also feel compelled… compelled to see it for myself.”
Marie Colvin lost vision in one eye in 2001 and was killed by an explosive in 2012. In the time between, she had plenty of chances — and plenty of warnings — to stay out of harm’s way, but a higher calling superseded her own survival. (It’s not hard to imagine her signing up for Annihilation‘s deadly expedition.) Colvin was compelled to seek out the world’s most brutal truths, again and again, no matter the cost to her own safety or sanity — because without her, these stories would be lost in the rubble.
Rosamund Pike turns in the year’s most commanding lead performance as the husky-voiced, world-weary Colvin, a foreign affairs journalist who bears witness to countless atrocities and spins the stories for Western civilians who would otherwise know nothing of suffering across the globe. She is well aware that many people don’t want to know what happens to strangers in strange lands — that we numb ourselves to the body counts reported in far-away wars. Her mission is to locate the human interest in a global tragedy, to find a way for her readers to stop, think, and care about what’s happening. She finds the angle we can’t ignore, dredging up our empathy no matter how deeply it’s mired in our own First World Problems.
Director Matthew Heineman is no stranger to Marie’s mission, having explored deadly territory in documentaries like Cartel Land and City Of Ghosts. That authenticity finds its way into this narrative film, too. Heineman’s camera often feels like another journalist, as jarred by the barrage of gunfire and explosions as Marie is. Some of the people Marie meets on her war-torn journey are played by real survivors of real horrors. There’s a lot of room for Hollywood bullshit in a movie like this, but Arash Amel’s screenplay has none of it, earning each and every lump in our throats.
Even before the PTSD sets in, Colvin is the sort of “warts and all” female protagonist we almost never see on screen. She claims that only a quart of vodka can quiet her mind, and she’s never not smoking. Her mental and physical health deteriorate further over the years, witnessed mostly by Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), a photographer who joins Marie on some of her most harrowing missions. She’s more damaged than he is, but he gets her in a way few others ever could. The understated friendship between these two is one of the strongest screen relationships this year.
As magnetic as Colvin is as a character, and Pike is in the role, A Private War resists the urge to glorify her tragedy. Yes, this is a film about a white Westerner dying in the Middle East. But it happens because she cares so deeply about civilians in Fallujah or Homs. It’s the destruction of entire cities, the elimination of entire families, that’s the real injustice here. Heineman never loses sight of that, and neither did Colvin.
Did Marie Colvin become a conflict journalist because she was fucked up, or was she fucked up because she was a conflict journalist? A Private War doesn’t try to “explain” her career with a trite flashback to childhood or pop psychology insight. Her preoccupation with global strife is some combination of destiny and choice. She self-destructs, the way screen characters sometimes do — but unlike most, does so with a sense of purpose, for the greater good. We see enough of Marie at home in London to suggest that she’d probably be volatile and doomed there, too. There’s a looming inevitability to Marie Colvin dying young. But is she drinking and smoking herself to death, or is she reckless with her health because she knows she’ll be killed anyway? Colvin turns her self-flagellation into a net positive, a Christ-like figure who nails herself to that cross. And, as we bear witness to the atrocities she’s seen, it’s hard to blame her. Marie is truly tough, the way male action heroes are often written to be. But that’s fiction, and Marie Colvin is real, which makes her grit all the more astonishing. Most of us wouldn’t last five minutes in her shoes.
Colvin’s brushes with death in places like Sri Lanka and Syria are exhilarating and suspenseful, but her story wouldn’t add up to much unless we knew what she was giving up. A Private War spends just enough time with Marie Colvin back home, taking stabs at a safe and comfortable life, with friendships and relationships that could provide a reason to stay. Colvin doesn’t go into the fray because she has nothing back home; the fact that she goes anyway makes her fate that much more tragic.
In the era of “fake news,” Marie Colvin’s pursuit of deep, dark truth feels all the more urgent. Like most Americans, I spent 2018 absorbed in domestic politics, thinking and worrying about what was going wrong right here at home. And a lot of it is terrible, but it’s also a privilege that this is as bad as it gets in America. A Private War focuses more on Marie’s resilience and drive than the horrors she unearths, but still serves as a sobering reminder of what else is happening in this senselessly violent world. We don’t want to be burdened by wars we can’t stop and pain we can’t heal. But Colvin believed we must be, as inhabitants of the same globe. We need people like Marie Colvin to bear witness to the world’s greatest atrocities, and to force us all to look at them every now and then.
7. THE TALE
“I’d like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful…”
A landmark year in many ways, 2018 might be best remembered as the year I finally gave up on trying to tell the difference between TV and movies.
Back in 2016, OJ: Made In America wound up as my #3 film of the year, despite three facts that could have disqualified it: 1) it was nearly eight hours long, and thus very difficult to watch in one sitting; 2) it aired on ESPN in five parts — some would call them “episodes”; 3) it was a documentary, and I don’t usually rank documentary films amongst narrative films. (I wasn’t the only one with this problem. Ezra Edelman’s film won both an Oscar and an Emmy.) Early versions of my 2016 had 20th Century Women in my Top 10, but ultimately, I couldn’t shake the feeling that watching OJ: Made In America was a cinematic experience. It was one story, epic in scope, and though each “episode” had its own focus, they didn’t feel any more complete than the first or second VHS tape of Titanic on their own. Plus, it played at the Sundance Film Festival before it aired on TV. I may not have watched it in one sitting, but I experienced it as a whole.
Two years later, it’s only getting harder to tell the difference. There’s no question that Jennifer Fox’s The Tale is a film, not a series — it clocks in at 114 minutes. But it was first made available to audiences on HBO — so that makes it a TV movie, right? But The Tale also premiered at Sundance as a film before being acquired by HBO. That’s also true of several Netflix titles, including The Kindergarten Teacher and Private Life, both of which are considered movies, even though they got no theatrical release. I watched them the same way I watched The Tale. Streaming. At home. The only way I could.
To disqualify The Tale as a “TV movie” just because it was acquired by HBO instead of Netflix is absurd. Big screen auteurs like Steven Spielberg have dismissed even Netflix titles that do get theatrical releases as “TV movies,” and thus ineligible for Academy Awards. I agree that a theatrical window is essential for a movie to be a movie; material made for the small screen has a different place in pop culture. But the most cinematic “movie” of the year is Roma, made by Netflix, so what the hell? In 2018, there’s no definitive answer to what a “movie” is. I’ll just go with my gut.
That’s a lengthy preamble for a movie that is a discussion piece in its own right. Jennifer Fox rediscovered a short story she wrote as a young teen, detailing a “relationship” she had with her adult running coach. Gradually, what she always felt was a consensual summer romance was cast in a new light, revealing it for what it truly was: criminal sexual abuse. In The Tale, Fox dramatizes not only that childhood seduction, but also her adult self reluctantly coming to grips with the truth. This may be a narrative film, but Fox isn’t hiding behind fiction — both the character and filmmaker are named Jennifer Fox, and this is her story.
In the midst of the #MeToo movement, it’s prime time for a woman to speak up about the sexual misdeeds of an older man. The Tale is appropriately angry about this unconscionable act, but Fox isn’t interested in what drives men to prey upon young girls. She’s interested in what makes the young girl go along with it, and keep it secret for years. And what leads an adult woman to deny that it was wrong, even to herself.
The “monster” is played with the utmost charm by Jason Ritter. It’s a difficult task, because Coach Bill never shows us even a shred of hesitance or guilt. Ritter plays the role as he would the romantic lead in a Nicholas Sparks film. It’s only context that makes him a villain. Elizabeth Debicki plays another key role as Jenny’s riding instructor, Mrs. G, who is complicit in her abuse. Ellen Burstyn, as Jenny’s mother, grapples with shock and guilt in every scene she’s in. But the central performances are the most daring. Isabelle Nélisse, as young Jenny, convinces herself that the abuse is an act of teenage rebellion, a rite of passage she chose for herself. Laura Dern, as the adult Jennifer, spends more time defending Bill than condemning him, because this is the way this tale has been told for generations.
The real Jennifer Fox is a documentary filmmaker. She spent years telling tales of violence against women, never realizing that her fascination stemmed from her own abuse. But in The Tale, she’s more honest with herself than any other filmmaker could possibly be. Only Fox herself could portray young Jenny as a silent partner in her own abuse. And only Fox could let adult Jenny be so incensed by the suggestion that she’s a victim in all this. Her deep denial might ring false if it weren’t coming to us direct from the source.
Young Jenny refashions her abuse as a love story. That’s the lie she tells herself over the next thirty years. But in The Tale, Fox is blazingly honest. She blends the best aspects of narrative fiction and documentary, scratching at real, unbearably intimate truths with the sweep of a melodrama. Fact and fiction blurred in several 2018 releases, but no storyteller bared it all like Jennifer Fox did. She’s the bravest filmmaker of the year.
“No one thinks we have the balls to pull it off.”
The back half my Top 10 list is devoted to tough, traumatized women — Vox Lux, A Private War, The Tale, Annihilation. Widows is the icing on that cake, with female trauma right there in the title, conjuring an image we’ve seen in so many movies — the grieving wife, dressed in black, tears streaming down her face. That’s usually the end of her story, but here, it’s a jumping off point. Misery is motivation.
Despite its funereal title, Widows is more “fun” than any other film on my list. Co-written by Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn, it’s another piece of thoughtful pulp elevated by one of the best directors in the business. Our heroine is Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), still mourning her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), when one of her hubby’s rivals comes to collect the money he owed. She enlists fellow widows Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) to pull off a score their husbands planned but never executed. The heist involves politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Ferrel), who happens to be running for alderman of a South Side Chicago precinct against Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), the very criminal who has threatened Veronica… and the story only grows more twisted from there.
Widows is based on a British miniseries. You can tell. It runs a little over two hours, but could probably benefit from another hour or two. (Director’s cut, please?) The cast is insanely stacked with terrific actors chomping into juicy roles despite limited screen time. There’s Cynthia Erivo as the side-hustling Belle, the final member of Veronica’s crew; Carrie Coon as Amanda, the elusive fourth widow, who has something to hide; Robert Duvall as Jack’s blowhard politician father; Jacki Weaver as Alice’s manipulative mom; Garret Dillahunt as Harry’s loyal chauffeur; Lukas Haas as Alice’s wealthy paramour; and Daniel Kaluuya, as Jamal’s vicious brother, who rackets up tension every moment he’s on screen.
That cast would be wasted if the script didn’t dig into so many powerful themes. In just a couple of hours, Widows manages to touch on race, economic disparity, political corruption, gun control, adultery, single motherhood, domestic abuse, prostitution, and a police shooting. 2018 was a banner year for fiction films about being black in America; what does it mean that the most insightful one of all comes from Britain’s Steve McQueen? Without really being “about” any of these issues, Widows says more about the problems plaguing modern-day America than any other film this year.
That may make Widows sound self-serious and sober. It has moments like that — one single shot in particular makes a very noticeable statement about the proximity of poverty and privilege in urban America. But above all, Widows is a slick, entertaining thriller aimed at intelligent adults, the kind of film studios rarely make anymore. This year, Warner Bros. gave us the equally stacked Ocean’s 8, which should have been a clever caper, but instead wasted a whole lot of fabulous female talent. Widows picks up the slack in a handful of comedic moments. The standout is Debicki as Alice, the most naive and helpless of the widows, who becomes an escort to make ends meet following the death of her husband. At one point, she goes undercover as a Russian bimbo trying to procure firearms for the team, in one of the savviest, funniest scenes in any movie this year.
Some critics have said Widows is overstuffed, and I agree — but everything it’s stuffed with is so good. McQueen’s film has the substance and sophistication of any Oscar contender, but the entertainment value is sky-high, too. In a just world, it would be one of the knockout hits of the year and a major player in awards season… but I kind of don’t mind having it all to myself.
5. WE THE ANIMALS
“Promise me you’ll stay nine forever.”
Several of 2018’s strongest films took a stark look back at childhood and adolescence. The painfully believable indie breakout Eighth Grade dredges up the most uncomfortable memories of our pubescent years. The Tale exposes the intimate (and illegal) details of its author’s sexual abuse as a young teenager. Jonah Hill’s nostalgic throwback Mid90s revisits the halcyon days of his bratty skater youth. Minding The Gap used footage from its maker’s past to reveal intimate human drama. And then there’s Alfonso Cuarón’s awards darling Roma, which painstakingly recreates the filmmaker’s childhood home in service of a tribute to his childhood nanny. Netflix spent $30 million to indulge Cuarón in a filmmaking exercise only he could ever truly appreciate.
In many ways, We The Animals is the anti-Roma — subjective and sensory, bursting with sound and color and manic energy, immersing us in the sights and sounds of one boy’s youth. Jeremiah Zachar’s We The Animals translates Justin Torres’ spare, lyrical novella for the big screen, managing to convey the intimacy of his prose as few adaptations do. It’s like being a kid again.
The opening act follows Jonah and his two older brothers on adventures and misadventures, roughhousing and running wild through a small, nondescript town in upstate New York. The boys are as feral and ferocious as the title suggests. In early scenes, it’s hard to even tell these boys apart — they are one unit, like a pack of wolves.
Gradually, though, Zachar introduces the wisps of plot that carry us through Jonah’s journey, focused first on domestic conflicts between husband and wife, then on a rift between the brothers. “Ma” (Sheila Vand) and “Paps” (Raúl Castillo) married young. Jonah, their youngest, is about to turn ten, but they still behave like teenagers themselves. She’s Italian-American, he is Puerto Rican-American; they love and hate each other with all the passion their backgrounds might suggest. They’re one of those couples that can’t stay together, can’t be apart. There’s fighting all around, but also genuine love for one another, and their boys.
Paps struggles to hold down a job. At one point, he loses his cool — the odds are so stacked against a working class Latino with three kids to feed. He is capable of appalling behavior toward his wife and sons, but Castillo and Zachar make it impossible not to feel for the guy, too. The same goes for Vand, who at one point lets her kids starve while nursing a broken heart. She’s prone to lashing out verbally and physically, but also provides Jonah with some of his tenderest moment. These are not parents you’d like to have, but they’re all too believable as human beings.
As a family drama filmed with striking, documentary-like realism, We The Animals is compelling enough. But Jonah’s story only begins here. When his brothers are asleep, he hides under the bed and sketches by flashlight, populating notebooks with imaginative drawings. Sometimes we see Jonah’s art come to life, adding a magical realist element to his otherwise unremarkable world. (Along with First Reformed, We The Animals is one of two movies on this list in which the lead character spontaneously takes flight.) Jonah’s hidden talents are tied to another secret — he’s attracted to boys.
When we meet Jonah and his brothers, they’re inseparable. We The Animals spends roughly half its time on the bonds that bind families together, and half on the factors that can break them apart. On his tenth birthday, Ma makes Jonah promise not to get any older. She wants to keep her baby boy. That’s cute, but also cruel — she’s asking him not to become his own person, to remain an extension of her. Nothing in Jonah’s world invites him to become the man he’ll be — but he emerges anyway, first in art, then in the film’s closing moments, which leave his future as open-ended as could be. The answer, of course, is We The Animals itself. Though the movie doesn’t show it, we can take comfort in the story’s existence itself. Jonah becomes a damn good writer.
That may make We The Animals sound blunter than it is. Its celebration of individuality is subtle; it is one of the lightest, nimblest films I’ve seen. In a way, it plays less like a movie, and more like a quick read. If you were to rewrite Where The Wild Things Are as a coming-out story, you might get We The Animals. Yet this impressionistic approach has a quiet power, simultaneously grounding us in a dreary childhood and shoving us off on Jonah’s flights of fancy. That’s the magic of being a kid — no matter how dismal life gets, we’re never far from escape through imagination.
4. MINDING THE GAP
“When you’re a kid, you just do, you just act… and then somewhere along the line, everyone loses that.”
I prefer not to measure documentaries against narrative films. Both aim to enlighten and entertain using similar tools — editing, music, story structure — but the process of getting there is not the same. It’s rare for me to find a documentary that stands up alongside the year’s other stories, demanding to be counted as one of the best. But this year, I’m breaking all the rules, so here is Minding The Gap.
Minding The Gap begins with the kind of amateur filmmaking that, at best, makes for a pretty cool YouTube video. Back when it was filmed, there was little reason to think this would ever be a film. The boy behind the camera is Bing Liu, who aims to make a montage, not a movie. But at some point, without calling attention to itself, Minding The Gap transitions into one of the most striking coming-of-age stories in years.
Many documentaries evolve in the making, but at some point, they alight on a particular subject. But Liu never tells us what this story is “about.” It begins with a bunch of skateboarding teenagers, though skate culture is only the backdrop for a widely accessible film. Liu finds the story beneath the surface, patiently waiting and watching over the course of several years as two of his best friends become men.
The boys grow up in Rockford, Illinois, a troubled town where unemployment and violent crime are high. But Liu’s film is anything but poverty porn. Its subjects are Keir, a black teenager whose father died in recent years, and Zack, a white high school dropout who is about to become a father. On the surface, neither is a particularly compelling anchor for a film. Keir is on the shy side, and is too young to know what he wants out of life. Zack is a goof whose clown act occasionally veers into self-pitying, depressive angst. Zack’s girlfriend Nina becomes another key focal point of the film, tied to Zack for the long haul thanks to the kid they had together. And Liu occasionally turns the camera on himself, examining his own unhappy family history. As unfocused as this all sounds on paper, Liu’s consistent vision binds it all together beautifully.
Minding The Gap is shockingly intimate, in part because Liu is so willing to open up in key moments (though he wisely uses himself sparingly, letting Zack and Keir take center stage). But he also coaxes astonishingly personal confessions from his subjects, as only a trusted friend with a lot of patience could. When Nina divulges a dark truth about Zack, Liu waits months or even years before following up. Most filmmakers would cut to the chase. Liu lets his story unfold at the speed of life, however long that may take. The effect is similar to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, but there’s no artifice here.
I can’t stand most reality television because of its obvious manipulations — misleading cutaways, cartoonish sound effects, manufactured suspense. Minding The Gap is what reality TV purports to be — a window into average strangers’ everyday lives — but it couldn’t feel further away from that garbage. Over the course of its nimble 93 minutes, we watch a handful of young men grow up. By the end, we’re invested like we’d known them for years. Minding The Gap brushes up against some harsh realities, and some of Liu’s friends come off better than others, but he finds humanity in every one of them — including the people we’d be prone to dismiss. Domestic violence is the key connective tissue between the three main subjects, but Minding The Gap isn’t an “issue” film. For a lot of these people, it’s just a part of life. Liu invites us to believe in redemption, or at least the possibility of change.
Like 2018’s Roma, Mid90s, and The Tale, Minding The Gap is a direct examination of the filmmaker’s own childhood — though, ironically, it has a broader scope than any of those films. Just as A Private War and The Tale brought a documentarian’s veracity to narrative films, Minding The Gap plays more like a character-driven drama than a nonfiction film. Bing Liu may continue making documentaries, and they might be very good, but Minding The Gap suggests that narrative might be his true calling, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t try his hand at it someday. He’s one of the most exciting storytellers to emerge this year.
3. FIRST REFORMED
“Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”
A lot of movies are dark. Only a few are pitch black. First Reformed is one of them.
In a year of topical movies, none captured the national mood quite like this one. The year saw raging wildfires in the west and deadly hurricanes in the east — and, inevitably, plenty of mass murder. The government has never been more corrupt, corporate conglomerates have never had more power, and the planet has never been mired deeper in crisis. Is it time to panic yet?
Last year, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! served up an opaque allegory for global warming; this year, Annihilation tackled the subject indirectly, using an extraterrestrial force field as the catalyst for a changing Earth. And then there’s First Reformed, which is as coy about climate change as An Inconvenient Truth — which is to say, not at all. It’s a take-no-prisoners, mad-as-hell screed against corporate greed, religious hypocrisy, and political corruption, delivered with all the subtlety of a knife to the heart. Do not watch it if you’re looking to be reassured about the coming years.
Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, keeper of the historic First Reformed Church in upstate New York, in what is sure to be one of his signature roles. The church is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, but it has only survived as a subsidy of Abundant Life, the sleek megachurch that operates more like a Walmart than a house of worship.
Like the church he oversees, Reverend Toller is on the decline. He’s in poor health, grieving the death of a son and the end of a marriage. He distances himself from the few who attempt to connect with him. He’s also struggling with his faith, a fact he reveals only in his diary.
A new chapter begins when Toller is approached by expectant mother Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) is an environmental activist, deeply disillusioned by alarmist news. He thinks it’s a sin to bring a child into this decaying world. What’s the point, if we’re all going to die anyway? Michael points to scientific consensus as evidence for his despair. Reverend Toller counsels Michael, reminding him that men have always believed the End is Near. But it’s Michael argument that proves more persuasive — he has facts on his side. Toller only has his precarious, well-worn faith — and in the end, it is Reverend Toller who is converted.
In look and tone, First Reformed tips a hat to auteurs like Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, who also explored religious themes in their work. In spirit, though, First Reformed is a successor to Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader, now heralded as one of the all-time greats. This time around, Schrader directs his own screenplay, one-upping Martin Scorsese on existential dread. He uses the austere Academy aspect ratio, keeping nearly every shot stationary in his squarish frame. The first half of the film has no score; what little score there is after that is more groaning soundscape than music. (Schrader also wanted the film to be in black-and-white, which may have been a tad too stylized for its own good.) This a far cry from the big screen snazz we typically see from Scorsese, but as its story unspools, First Reformed becomes just as much an ode to alienation as Taxi Driver was, the portrait of a troubled man grappling with a deeply disturbed world.
And oh, how far we’ve come since 1976, when Travis Bickle took aim at politicians and pimps in the dirty city. In 2018, the villain is not Harvey Keitel’s scuzzy pimp. It’s the smiling CEO of a corporate conglomerate, whose PR team works overtime to make sure you notice his donations to the local church instead of the toxic waste he’s dumping into the river. And the disenfranchised man bent on taking him down? He isn’t blue collar — he wears a clerical collar, and he’s willing to pull some Old Testament tactics to get his point across. In Schrader’s eyes, callousness and corruption are the new norm, in life and at church; they’ve seeped into every aspect of our lives like pollution. Toller knows there’s no undoing that. But he wants the world to know his righteous wrath, and make the 21st century’s complacent corporate crooks feel the burden of his despair.
Both Taxi Driver and First Reformed have ambiguous, uplifting endings that some interpret as fantasies. This one raises a middle finger to the audience, flying in the face of everything we thought Schrader was up to. Is it a cop out? Yes and no. The final scene draws further parallels between Taxi Driver and First Reformed — in both, a saintly blonde seemingly absolves the antihero of his sins. First Reformed plays it tongue-in-cheek, but what other ending could there be? You can’t vanquish this villain. The bad guy is the system itself.
There’s no easy way out of the mess we’re in. Ultimately, even Toller realizes that more death and damage won’t change the way the world works. The good in one woman spares the lives of dozens. It may sound absurd, and it may be absurd, but it’s as good an answer as any: all you need is love.
“It takes less than ten minutes to burn it all down.”
As usual, several of my favorite films from 2018 get political. But only one of them features an appearance by one Donald J. Trump, and that’s Burning.
Lee Chang-dong’s drama follows a trio of twentysomethings. Two come from limited means — he’s a farm boy who scrapes by on odd jobs, she beckons foot traffic into a retail store. The third is a rich boy whose wealth seems to spring out of nowhere, like a God-given gift. The Trump cameo is jarring in a film with an all-Asian cast, set entirely in South Korea. Has Trump superseded his American roots to become a global symbol of intolerance and aggression? (Like Hitler?) Understated and unhurried, Burning is about class envy and economic disparity; South Korea’s middle class is shrinking, too, just like in the United States. In one interpretation of the film, a privileged man uses and discards the poor like trash, so maybe that Trump cameo makes perfect sense. He’s a grotesque embodiment of what’s wrong with the world’s upper class.
In Burning, Yoo Ah-in plays Lee Jong-su, a delivery driver who runs into an old classmate on the job one day. She is Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), and she remembers him best as the boy who once told her she was ugly, unprovoked. Fueled by this old wound, Jong-su and Hae-mi begin a casual romance. But that grows complicated when Hae-mi vacations to Africa; there, she meets and becomes enchanted by Ben (Steven Yeun), a carefree playboy type. This sends Jong-su directly to the friend zone upon their return.
Jong-su is jealous, of course — but both Hae-mi and Ben want to keep him around, for some reason. He becomes a willing third wheel in their romance. Is Hae-mi punishing him for what he said when they were kids? Why does Ben toy with this poor, unlucky boy, who stands no chance up against his own charm, looks, and money? These three are friends, at least on the surface, but surely something more sinister is going on here.
Soon enough, the dynamic between Ben and Jong-su grows more complex than either romance with Hae-mi. Ben baits Jong-su with confessions — or are they just fantasies? — of arson. He says he burns down old greenhouses, merely because they’re there to burn.
From there, Burning plays out like a Korean spin on The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Jong-su as the hopeless outsider looking in at Ben’s charismatic Casanova. Ben seems to enjoy Jong-su’s fascination; at times, we suspect he’s only dating Hae-mi to keep Jong-su around. Meanwhile, she’s too flattered to question what Ben, who probably has his pick of South Korean socialites, is doing with her. She doesn’t know enough about him to see that he’s growing bored. It’s only around Jong-su that Ben lets his mask slip, revealing the playful sadist underneath that winning smile.
And that’s no accident, because Ben knows he can get away with it. What power does a poor farm boy have against a guy like him? Who would take Jong-su’s word over Ben’s? Ben confesses some of his darkest secrets to Jong-su — not because he trusts Jong-su not to tell anyone, but because even if he does, no one would believe a word. When society is built on unfair advantages, the privileged can make any problem simply disappear.
Burning raises a hell of a lot more questions than it answers, which is part of the fun. Midway through, a central mystery develops — there is a disappearance, and suspicion of murder — but Lee’s film works the opposite of most detective stories. The more clues we discover, the less we know. Each puzzle piece contradicts another. The enigmas build up like a cosmic joke on poor Jong-su, pushing him toward desperation. In Burning‘s riveting final sequence, Jong-su makes the ultimate jump to a conclusion — and if he’s wrong, so what? The rich can torment the less fortunate, if they choose, and maybe even get away with murder. But sooner or later, even the most vulnerable of us fight back.
Based on short stories by Haruki Murakami and William Faulkner, Burning is another 2018 film that lingers in the mind like a really great book. Its most haunting scene, set to Miles Davis’ “Générique,” is as unforgettable and indelible as any other this year. Hae-mi tells Jong-su about “the Great Hunger,” a dance performed in Africa to indicate an intense, lifelong yearning, as opposed to the more simply sated “Little Hunger.” Jong-su is an aspiring writer; like Jonah in We The Animals, he hopes that will offer escape from the trappings of a low-class life. He shares that “Great Hunger” with Hae-mi — and yet it’s Ben’s restless appetite for destruction that ends up guiding the course of these young lives. Lee teases illusion throughout the film. Hae-mi pantomimes peeling a clementine at a bar, taking comfort in an every-ready snack; her cat, which Jong-su feeds while she’s in Africa, is never seen. Eventually, there’s a much more confounding vanishing act, and either Ben or Hae-mi is behind it. Only Jong-su suspects foul play; the rest of the world is unbothered when another girl below the poverty line simply evaporates into thin air.
But never underestimate the ones who’ve got nothing to lose.
1. NEVER LOOK AWAY
“Everything true is beautiful.”
It’s a particularly stacked awards season in the foreign film race. I was sad to see Burning, my second-favorite film of the year (in any language), edged out of Best Foreign Language Feature at the Oscars this year. But it’s hard to stay mad, considering that made room for my very favorite film of the year.
Never Look Away‘s surprise nod for Best Cinematography was perhaps the most unexpected of all. It wasn’t on most people’s radars, until today. Never Look Away was released for a one-week awards-qualifying run in 2018, and showed up at a handful of festivals (Venice, Toronto, AFI). It was Germany’s selection for the Academy Awards this year (obviously), and it was also one of the Golden Globe nominees for Best Foreign Language Film (which it inevitably lost to Roma). Most Americans won’t get to see it until its forthcoming wider release (beginning January 25 in New York City and February 8 in Los Angeles). Most Americans won’t see it period because it’s A) German; B) just over three hours long; C) very good. That’s too bad, because if it were in English, it’d be a Best Picture nominee, perhaps even a winner. How can I be so sure? Its two major story threads are: A) the Important of Art; B) the Holocaust. If that isn’t catnip for the Academy, I don’t know what is.
Never Look Away is the long-awaited followup to 2006’s The Lives Of Others, which won a BAFTA, an Independent Spirit Award, and an Oscar — plus a slew of other kudos as one of the best-reviewed films that year. Technically, Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck already has followed up on that success — with 2010’s The Tourist, starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, the winner of 2 Teen Choice Awards and an infamous Golden Globes nominee for Best Musical/Comedy. So let’s pretend that he hasn’t. Never Look Away is Donnersmarck’s return to Germany and return to form, and it’s a marvelous one at that.
It begins in Dresden, in the early days of the Holocaust. Young Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) visits a museum with his young aunt, Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). Kurt is transfixed, seeing the work of Kandinsky for the first time, but their tour guide dismisses the abstract and expressionistic works as vain and silly, a waste of time and resources. Art should serve a propagandistic function, or what good is it to the government?
Elisabeth and her family are aware of Hitler’s mounting evils. But they, like many Germans, are in denial or too afraid to speak out. They have anything to worry about, so they keep calm and carry on, until Elisabeth suffers a schizophrenic breakdown. When the family seeks help, she is put in an asylum, and then a concentration camp. Elisabeth is deemed an “undesirable,” snuffed out to purify the population. Her family never learns what happens to her, but we do, and that truth haunts the rest of the film like a ghost.
Kurt grows up to be an artist, painting government murals that champion socialism because that’s the only work he can get. He falls in love with fellow art student Ellie (Paula Beer) against the wishes of her austere father, Carl (Sebastian Koch). This is, of course, another tumultuous moment in German history. Kurt and Ellie flee from East Germany to the West, where their talents and sensibilities are shared by other young idealists. Elusive art professor Antonius Van Verten (Oliver Masucci) singles Kurt out at his most promising student, but Kurt buckles under the pressure, struggling to find his voice as an artist.
Never Look Away is difficult to summarize. The story spans decades and shifts between a few key points of view. The audience knows more than the characters do at any given time. These characters are connected by past tragedies — but they don’t know that. We do. The question in Never Look Away is not, “What happened?”, because we already know that. The suspense lies in wondering how, and when, and if the truth will come out.
If you’ve seen the rest of this list, you know I’m already in the tank for movies about artists. The frenzied pop diva in Vox Lux; the soul-searching documentarians in The Tale and Minding The Gap; the burgeoning authors of We The Animals and Burning. First Reformed’s Reverend Toller writes a journal he intends to destroy. Marie Colvin’s war zone reporting in A Private War is its own kind of storytelling. Even the all-female crews of Widows and Annihilation, stepping in to do what is typically “man’s work,” make a certain kind of artistic statement. It’s no surprise, then, that I swooned for Never Look Away, which digs deep into the meaning, function, and — yes — earth-shattering power of art.
The film’s German title is Werke Ohne Autor, which translates to “Work Without Author.” That’s a dryer, less poetic title in English, but it better speaks to Donnersmarck’s intent with this movie. Kurt’s story is loosely based on Gerhard Richter, one of Germany’s most celebrated living artists. Richter is famously coy in speaking about his work, preferring to let it speak for himself. Near the end of Never Look Away, Kurt adopts that posture, too, claiming his paintings are about nothing in particular. But Donnersmarck has fashioned a largely fictional backstory for the work, and it’s about everything.
Elisabeth’s tragedy is lost amidst the horrors of the Holocaust, like so many. But then Kurt’s paintings begin to tell a story he himself does not know, as if guided by some unseen hand or fate. Never Look Away is not a ghost story, but it could be. Truth becomes the invisible protagonist of Donnersmarck’s epic. Kurt isn’t driving this story — it’s the truth, determined to come out, forcing its way into Kurt’s work with an almost supernatural fury. Kurt does not out his aunt’s killer, but his painting does. His art confronts her killer, exacting overdue vengeance, and Kurt will never know.
That may sound a bit looney, but Donnersmarck knows what he’s doing. Never Look Away is an old-fashioned historical epic in the vein of The English Patient, or maybe even Titanic. It is unabashedly earnest, and bravely beautiful; it’s the kind of throwback to big, long, sweeping dramas that Hollywood tends to fuck up these days. Tom Schilling’s savory lead performance, Caleb Deschanel’s sumptuous cinematography, Max Richter’s stirring score, and Donnersmarck’s masterfully measured storytelling harmonize in a way that’s rare for a film with this scope. And at just the right moment, they crescendo. For me, Never Look Away offered one of the most extraordinary cinematic experiences I’ve had in years. A testament to truth, and art. An affirmation of why I fell in love with this medium in the first place. Not everyone will have that experience with Never Look Away, but I hope you’ll have it with some movie this year, and for many more years. Hollywood is changing, but what matters about the movies is staying the same. Art tells the truth, and there’s nothing better than finding the one piece in every million that tells your truth.