The Best Movies of 2018

support the girls top 10

I’m pretty sure none of you will read this introduction, so I’ll make it brief. I don’t like it when people say “this was a weak year for movies.” For similar reasons, I don’t like when people say “movies are bad now” or “television is better than the movies.” The truth is more movies are being made today than ever before. So, sure, if you limit your movie-watching to the big releases in the theater, then it’s no surprise you think movies suck. But you should know great movies are out there. If you live in a big city with repertory theaters, museums, arthouse cinemas, then you can take advantage of that. If you have a library card, you may be able to access a number of online streaming services (such as Kanopy) for free, not to mention you can use your library card to borrow DVDs the old-fashioned way. And if you have no other option (because of geographic location or lack of economic means), well, I’m not going to tell you to go on the internet and download movies illegally, but it is an option. I write all of this hoping you’ll look at the list below as a list of recommendations of where to start when trying to discover the great movies of 2018. I feel like it’s a pretty diverse list with a little bit of everything, so I hope you’ll end up loving at least one of the movies below.

Was that a brief introduction? I guess not. I’ll make it briefer: There are great movies out there waiting for you. Who cares what you have to do to get your hands on them, as long as you watch them.

StG11. Support the Girls
(dir. Andrew Bujalski / 90 min. / USA)

I hadn’t written a full-length review in a good while, but I was so enamored by Andrew Bujalski’s
Support the Girls that I had no other choice. Like the old grizzled cowboy who comes out of retirement for one last job, I had a mission: to let the world know how great this movie was. Even if it would only reach the small (but hugely appreciated) readership of this blog, even if it would mean that only one of two people would decide to check it out, I had to do it. One more person being exposed to this beautiful movie would be enough. I was glad to hear that a number of people took my recommendation and saw the movie. I was a little disappointment, however, when some of these people’s main takeaway was something along the lines of “I enjoyed it, but I don’t think this is the movie you think it is.”

I will forever stump for Support the Girls. I firmly believe it is one of the Great American Movies of my lifetime, but I must also recognize that it’s easy to overhype a movie like this. Because it is a thoroughly independent production, because it is seemingly so slight, because it’s about a day in the life of regular people, because it’s funny, because it’s about women. Culture has conditioned us to identify greatness in very specific ways -greatness has male energy, is dramatic, obvious and underlined- so that anyone who goes into Support the Girls expecting a great movie will be disappointed. That’s the curse of a movie so in-tune with the honest life of its characters. In life, it’s hard to appreciate something (or someone) unless you stop for a moment and truly consider them. I know that people who seek out this movie will enjoy it, and if you want to know what I saw in it that makes me love it so much, just take a moment to consider it.

Support the Girls is available to stream on Hulu. 

Yalitza22. “Portrait of Latin America” Double-Feature:

Zama
(dir. Lucrecia Martel / 115 min. / Argentina)

Roma
(dir. Alfonso Cuarón / 135 min. / Mexico)

You couldn’t come up with a more perfect double feature if your intention is to address the foundational essence of Latin American identity using the most exciting cinematic techniques imaginable. Each of these movies focuses on the opposite end of the continent’s social hierarchy.
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning megahit Gravity, has been much more talked about than Lucrecia Martel’s almost abstract adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s Zama, but if we’re talking about artistic achievements, they stand side to side as unquestionable masterpieces.

The movies couldn’t be more different in their main characters and cinematic approach, but get at something similarly truthful. Cuarón draws from memories of his childhood maid to paint a portrait of Cleo (mesmerizingly played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), lovingly placing a seemingly disenfranchised woman at the center of an epic narrative. Roma, despite focusing on the small dramas of daily life, feels gigantic. Cuarón (who served as his own cinematographer) quite literally places his main character in the foreground of enormous landscapes, be they the Mexican countryside of an expanding metropolis. His scenes are like paintings that require multiple panels.

Meanwhile, Martel uses fragmentary editing and inventive sound design to turn a would-be historical epic into an absurd comedy centered on a stuck-up upper class that is as ridiculous as it is destructive. Don Diego de Zama is a colonial functionary who foolishly awaits a promotion for the Spanish Crown, wishing desperately to get closer to Europe, not recognizing how he is fundamentally Latin American. This sort of white upper class, which see more in common with foreigners of their race than their own countrymen still exists and dominates Latin American power. As do people like Cleo, who through generations have tried to resist exploitation, which has transformed from slavery into something much more pliable.

Zama is available to stream on Amazon Prime, and Roma is available on Netflix (and still playing in a few movie theaters). 

BlacKkKlansman3. BlacKkKlansman
(dir. Spike Lee / 135 min. / USA)

The reaction to the release of Spike Lee’s
BlacKkKlansman, a dramatization of black police officer Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan, revolved as much around the movie as it did around Boots Riley’s comments about it. Riley, whose surreal anti-capitalist screed Sorry to Bother You also opened this summer, had serious issues with Lee’s movie. He objected to the very idea of making a movie in which the police are the heroes in a story about racism (a totally fair complaint in my opinion), as well as to Lee’s re-shaping of Stallworth’s account in order to transpose it into a neat cinematic narrative. It’s this last point in which I find myself disagreeing with Riley most vehemently, for even if he’s right to point out that the historical goal of police infiltration of the KKK had more to do with suppressing black activists than with protecting them, he doesn’t see (or isn’t interested in seeing) the ways in which BlacKkKlansman is essentially all about the conflicted relationship between history and Hollywood’s recreation thereof.

The movie opens with one of the most iconic shots in Gone with the Wind, still (and probably forever) the most commercially successful movie in Hollywood’s history, which encapsulates the romantic narrative about the losing South that emerged in the years after the Civil War and is so fully embraced by that movie. With the opening shot, Lee announces that his movie is as much a narrative in itself as it is an interrogation of the way narratives are repeated and mythologized in film. In one of the movie’s most incredible sequences, Lee cuts between a KKK screening of D.W. Griffith’s incredibly racist (and incredibly successful) The Birth of a Nation and a monologue about historical violence and black power, thus taking cross-cutting -the technique most responsible for The Birth of a Nation’s reputation as a cinematic milestone- and using it to strip Griffith’s hateful movie of its power.

But it’s in its much-discussed final moments that the full extent of BlacKkKlansman’s power becomes clear. The story of Ron Stallworth, as told by Lee, is a very effective police procedural, but the closing shots of the movie suggest a rift between cinematic fantasy and documentary reality that colors history, its representation, and our own understanding of both those concepts. I wouldn’t say BlacKkKlansman is a flawless movie (there is a scene near the end that I find fundamentally objectionable), but it reaches heights that I would have deemed unreachable. I am thankful. Not only to Spike Lee and the makers of this movie, but to the dissenting voices (such as Boots Riley’s) who gave me so much to think about.

burning44. Burning
(dir. Lee Chang-dong / 148 min. / South Korea)

Haruki Murakami’s
Barn Burning is a short story about what is not on the page; about what the narrator (and the reader) imagines might have happened. In adapting this story to the big screen, Lee Chang-dong keeps the uncertainty while adding a whole new layer of his own making. In Murakami’s story, the protagonist befriends a younger woman and wonders about her sudden disappearance. For his adaptation, Lee turns the protagonist from distant observer to active participant in the riddle that surrounds the young woman, who is no longer just an acquaintance, but the object of this young man’s obsession. This set-up gives place to a love triangle, in which genre conventions and psychological details complicate the audience’s willingness to sympathize with any of the players. Changes like this are what make Burning a masterpiece of adaptation. This is a movie in which every detail morphs your understanding of what is happening in the film. What exactly is going only becomes apparent after the credits roll. Once you’ve pieced together the puzzle, you can go back to any other moment in the movie and discover that everything you needed to know was there from the beginning. Then the doubts start to creep in: Did what I think happened actually happen? And if it did, why did it take me this long to realize it?

firstreformed55. First Reformed
(dir. Paul Schrader / 113 min. / USA)

It feels almost like a prank that a movie about a middle-aged white priest’s crisis of faith should be one of the most relevant movies of the year and yet, few movies elicited a more visceral response from me than First Reformed. The dilemma for Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, never better) is how to counsel a young man who insists his wife should have an abortion because there is no point in bringing a new life into a world that is bound to be destroyed by the horrors of climate change. This is a dilemma not just because Toller can’t think of what to say to this young man, but because the more he listens to him, and the more he examines the world around him, Toller starts to think… maybe this guys has a point? Hard to believe that Paul Schrader, the man who goes on a Facebook rant about not being able to cast Kevin Spacey in his next movie could make a movie that so perfectly captures the spirit of our time, but here we are. Schrader is probably most well-known for writing Taxi Driver, and while I’ve always questioned the significance of that movie’s bloody climax, I feel like Schrader’s updated version of a very similar climax helps First Reformed capture the feeling of absolute hopelessness, emptiness, and fury that has been living inside of me -and a lot of people around me- for the last couple of years. Watching First Reformed is both a deeply unsettling and surprisingly profound experience. You shouldn’t pass it up.

First Reformed is available to stream on Amazon Prime, but if you live in the U.S. and have a library card, chances are you can stream it for free using Kanopy.com

paddington66. “Slapstick Heroes” Double-Feature:

Paddington 2
(dir. Paul King / 103 min. / UK)

Mission: Impossible – Fallout
(dir. Christopher McQuarrie / 147 min. / USA)

In terms of big studio productions, 2018 turned to the year of the slapstick revival. The two most memorable (and enjoyable) examples of good ol’ popcorn filmmaking I saw this year shared an immense debt to the comedians of the silent years. The Paddington sequel is just as adorable as its predecessor, but it surpasses it when it comes to comedic set-pieces that see the immigrant bear get into all sorts of trouble. A scene in which Paddington attempts to become a barber could as well doble as a Chaplin routine, and the grand finale -set on a speeding train- can draw a line right back to Buster Keaton’s The General. Above all, however, Paddington 2 has been praised for its immense heart and lovely attitude toward kindness, generosity, and decency. I agree with all of those who have praised the movie’s heart, but also wanted to point out the incredible filmmaking that makes it stand above most movies geared at children.

This brings us to our other slapstick comedian, the incredible Tom Cruise, who in the last decade has reinvented himself into some sort of death-defying immortal. The Mission: Impossible movies have become his playground, and even if this one is bogged down but unnecessary amounts of plot, it more than makes up for it with sublime action sequences. Spectics could say the amount of publicity generated by stories of Cruise hurting himself on set point toward an audience whose thirst for blood is becoming too real, but what makes Cruise and his enterprise so memorable is that he -like Evel Knievel, Jackie Chan, and the silent greats before him- thoroughly understands how to put on a show. In a time when computers make anything possible, Cruise’s all too real stunts seem like a miracle. Daring jumps that will wow an audience, just when we thought there were no more wows left.  

Film/ Western7. Western
(dir. Valeska Grisebach / 121 min. / Germany)

Valeska Grisebach’s exploration of the most American of genres resulted in a thoroughly European movie. She interrogates contemporary Europe, most specifically Germany’s role as the spearhead (and glue) of the continent’s delicate union, and comes up with a wonderful story all about communication (something that was surely lacking in the American frontier). The subject of the film is a group of German construction workers who travel to build a power plant in remote Bulgaria. These Germans don’t speak the language, but they insist their presence will finally bring modernity to this forgotten land. They are the “civilizing” force, only instead of taming the Old West, they are dealing with the New East that has emerged from behind the fallen Iron Curtain. Among the German ranks is a loner (played by a brilliant Meinhard Neumann), a rugged cowboy-type who sees this journey as something more spiritual than a simple job.
Western is a total deconstruction, disassembling everything we know about the genre and putting it together in a thoroughly original and unexpected package. 

Western is available to stream on Amazon Prime.  

8. Minding the Gap
(dir. Bing Liu / 93 min. / USA)

Bing Liu grew up in a small rust belt town. It was through skateboarding that he and his friends found escape from the oppressive, often violent life they experienced in their homes. Liu, who’s been making skateboarding videos since he was a kid, chronicles the lives of two friends who, like him, found escape in skateboarding. Only these friends are not documentarians. They are still trying to make it work, to build a life, to keep a job in this dying town. Not unlike First Reformed, which captures the overwhelming rage of living in a dying world that cannot be saved, Minding the Gap captures the profound tragedy of the young people who have to live with the repercussions of decades of amoral wrong-doing. This is not only one of the most moving and humane movies I saw all years, it’s also a remarkable document. It captures a moment in American history with the power and specificity of non-fiction masterpieces such as Paris is Burning and Hoop Dreams. 

Minding the Gap is available to stream on Hulu. 

spiderman99. Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse
(dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman / 117 min. / USA)

I can’t remember the last time a movie made me this excited for the future of animation. Computer generated animation finally breaks out of the Pixar mold by denying photorealism in favor of a mixed-media aesthetic that pulls from Spider-Man’s comic book origins, hand-drawn animation, and contemporary graphic design resulting in one of the most original-looking movies of the year. That would be enough to make me fall head over heels for Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse, and yet, the movie tops itself off by being a truly great superhero movie. The key to its success relies on the movie being both an exploration of society’s relationship to the character of Spider-Man (and superheroes in general) and a sweet story about a kid having to step up to the plate simply because that’s the way life goes sometimes. It takes the idea that anyone could be the hero behind the mask literally, and brings back meaning to the axiom that “with great power comes great responsibility.” This movie honors the primal melodrama of the superhero genre, something those interlocking cinematic universes have simply forgotten how to do.

lazzaro1010. Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice)
(dir. Alice Rohrwacher / 125 min. / Italy)

What does it mean to be exploited, and what does it mean to exploit someone? Those are some of the questions raised by Alice Rohrwacher’s  mercurial
Lazzaro Felice, in which the holy idiot trope is taken to new metaphysical dimensions. Lazzaro is the lowest of the low ranking workers at a remote Italian farm. Everyone -from the owner to the foreman to the worker’s children- bosses him around. As a servant he is loyal to a fault; a man who sees no cruelty behind people’s demands, only love. What happens is that the world around Lazzaro changes, characters shift paths and fortunes, slaves are freed and oppressors brought to justice… but nothing really gets better. One imperfect world is replaced by another. Only Lazzaro remains the same. Rohrwacher takes influence from many Italian auteurs who came before her. The social preoccupations of neorealism, the decadent aristocracy of Visconti, and the conflicted religiosity of Pasolini are all present, but mixed in a completely unique concoction that makes Lazzaro unlike any other movie I have ever seen.

Happy as Lazzaro is available to stream on Netflix.

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Talking ‘Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse’ with Rachel Wagner

Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse –great movie- and then the even bigger pleasure of being invited by my dear friend Rachel Wagner to talk about the movie on her podcast. 

In case you don’t know, Rachel is all over the internet writing, podcasting, and making videos for her YouTube channel. You can find most of her stuff on her blog, 54 Disney Reviews. On the podcast, we talk about Spider-Man as a character, what makes a good superhero movie, and why Spider-Verse is the most groundbreaking animated movie in recent memory. 

Below is the SoundCloud link to our conversation, which can also be downloaded through iTunes or whatever other app you use to download podcasts. Just search for “Rachel’s Reviews.” There is also a YouTube version of our conversation, which can be found here. Enjoy!

Notes on ‘Green Book’

Green Book

1. The People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival has, in the last couple years, become the “Privilege Myopia” Award. Four out of the last five years, it has gone to movies that in this day and age one would call “problematic.” Movies that try to tackle “important issues” in a digestible way, and thus end up adopting a simplistic, pre-packaged, sometimes offensive position on the issues. Last year, it was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, where British director Martin McDonagh tried to explain America’s violent heart and failed miserably. In 2014, The Imitation Game took the story of queer scientist Alan Turing and ignored the man’s sexual history, turning a fascinating man into a tragic version of Sheldon Cooper. La La Land had no interest in social issues, which is perhaps why it got criticized for positioning a white dude as the savior of jazz. This year, the winner was Green Book, which follows perfectly in that tradition.

2. Green Book is a movie co-written and directed by Peter Farrelly (half of the Farrelly Brothers who famously made There’s Something About Mary) in which an Italian American guy from The Bronx (Viggo Mortensen) works as driver and bodyguard for a famous concert pianist (Mahershala Ali) on tour through the Deep South. In 1962. Based on the premise alone, one would immediately call this a “reverse” version of Driving Miss DaisyWhat you wouldn’t expect, however, is for the movie’s political discourse to not be much more nuanced than that of a movie that came out almost thirty years ago. It’s depressing that the fact that Green Book has gotten a lot of awards attention (most recently five Golden Globe nominations) isn’t really all that surprising.

3. Film critic Richard Lawson has described Viggo Mortensen’s performance as “very gabbagool” performance, which is a totally fair assessment. Playing Tony Lipp, Mortensen is sticking out his belly, moving his hands, and putting on an accent, but I saw something else in the performance: I think Mortensen is not just playing a generic Italian-American cartoon but doing a James Gandolfini impression. His facial gestures, shrugs, the cadence in his words… they are weirdly similar of Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. My guess is Mortensen watched a lot of The Sopranos in preparation for this role, but while he replicated Gandolfini’s moves, what made the late actor so great was that he made it seem effortless.

4. Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a musician so fancy he lives on top of Carnegie Hall. You know Dr. Shirley is supposed to be fancy because he speaks like no other person has ever talked before. There is a reason for the character to speak this way, since he is choosing to present himself as as elevated as possible in order to escape racism, but his dialogue is so incredibly laborious and formal that you couldn’t expect a single person -no matter how dumb- to not think this guy is completely ridiculous, and I’m not sure that’s the movie’s intent. Shirley’s dialogue reminded me most of when high schoolers try to write a character who speaks very eloquently, and end up using archaic words and awkward phrasing that reveal much more about the writer’s lack of experience than the character.

5. There is a false equivalency at the root of this type of movie, which presents an exchange in which white and black characters learn from each other in equal manner. You could argue that it’s a better situation than that other trope in which the white protagonist is the only one who learns from the black characters around them, but is it really, when you think about it? In order to make Dr. Shirley learn from Tony, the Doctor is presented as so self-exiled from black culture that he doesn’t know who Little Richard is, and has never eaten fried chicken until Tony dangles a piece in front of his face. It is of note that Dr. Shirley’s family claims these details are inaccurate.

6. As I mentioned before, the movie has gotten five Golden Globe nominations including one for Best Comedy. The positioning of a movie about racism in the Jim Crow south as a comedy speaks to the filmmaker’s intent of making a light and digestible story, which leaves me wondering about the purpose of this whole enterprise. Who will benefit from laughing about an odd couple trying to maneuver around racism? Doesn’t Green Book‘s feel-good message ring hollow in the year of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansmanwhich uses comedy to intentionally deflate myths of harmonious collaboration and unanimous progress in race relations?

7. Speaking of comedy, there is a scene in which Viggo Mortensen eats a whole pizza that is clearly the funniest (and best) part of this movie.

8. About my theatre experience: Tony Lipp starts out as a racist character (otherwise there’d be no arc to this movie), so he says and does a  bunch of racist things in the first twenty or so minutes. A lot of these racist hijinks were met with audience laughter, which made me wonder… what were they laughing about? Are they laughing because they know that Tony will have a change of heart by the end of the movie? Pointedly, I wouldn’t describe the moments that were met with laughter as jokes. It seemed to me that something about the movie’s set-up made the audience feel it was ok to laugh at racism (again, not unlike my experience in certain moments of BlacKkKlansman, except in that case, I believe discomfort was the point).

9. About the cathartic element of the movie: Tony comes to appreciate Dr. Shirley, thus becoming less racist. One of the things that make Tony change his mind is the fact that Dr. Shirley is so damn good at playing the piano. I don’t need to tell you there is a long history of white people appreciating black musical talent. There is also a history of making racist exceptions for certain people within a minority group. “He’s not like other black people”, is something that you would realistically expect to come out of a person who has gone through Tony’s journey. Now, an exploration of that kind of racism would have been much more interesting and relevant to our current moment, but Hollywood does not allow for complicated character arcs when it comes to racism, so Green Book ends where that conversation begins.

10. The most frustrating moment in the movie is a scene near the end in which the travelers are stopped by a police officer. The scene is meant to echo an earlier police stop, while featuring a different (unexpected but not really) result. The scene is completely myopic about the racial injustice that still exists in America, and this is in a movie that takes a moment for Dr. Shirley to pointedly ask Tony if he would be welcomed by his white friends and neighbors in the Bronx. The movie’s answer is to ask Dr. Shirley to relax, to remember that we’re all decent humans up here in the North. As usual with this type of movie, the institutional elements of racism and its more insidious and covert expressions are forgotten in favor of uplift.

11. On the Film Experience podcast, Murtada Elfadi pointed out that, despite being called Green Book, the movie had little to do with the historical green books, which were designed to help black travelers navigate segregation by suggesting safe restaurants and hotels. It’s a shame the title is now taken, since there is probably a good movie to be made about this subject and Green Book’s main interest is certainly not in the relationship between black people and the book of its title.