Yeah, I know we’re already more than halfway through January and we have all read our fill of top ten lists. I also know that many of the films I would have liked to consider for inclusion on this list – Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Shoplifters, If Beale Street Could Talk, Burning, Can You Ever Forgive Me? – aren’t yet available outside of select theaters. Nonetheless, the end of another year offers a wonderful opportunity to look at the themes and trends which have dominated the last twelve months of film releases. For 2018 one of the most dominant statements has been that great cinema is not limited by genre, personnel, distribution, or any other such qualifier.
The trouble with this spread of great films is that keeping up with every buzzworthy movie has become harder and harder. In the past one didn’t look at the horror genre, for example, to produce some of the most worthwhile watching of the year (with exceptions of course), or at superhero movies to produce smart, ambitious, and relevant work, or at a fairly standard romantic comedy such as Crazy Rich Asians to be make a statement about representation in film. As well, smaller productions on niche topics from unknown or first-time directors rarely received the distribution needed to reach a large audience. And while online distributors such as Netflix have made it easier for these smaller films to have a worldwide presence, or even produce its own contributions such as Roma and this year’s highly anticipated The Irishman, the sheer glut of material makes it near impossible to follow everything vital and moving in cinema at any given time.
However, if there is one trend which is very clear from 2018’s cinematic achievements, it’s the arrival of a new hotbed for filmmakers: Oakland, California. While New York and Los Angeles, and even neighboring San Francisco, are obviously central to many films in both narrative and production, Oakland proved the freshest, most energetic, most important location in all of 2018. The history of the city as overlooked and underprivileged made it the perfect backdrop for examinations on culture, identity and several other contemporary societal ills with the city itself acting as stand-in for the past, present, and future of social development. It may not be realistic to demand that Oakland filmmakers sustain such momentum but if nothing else the emergence of an often marginalized location as a voice in modern cinema demonstrates that great art can indeed come from anywhere. …Which will only make it more difficult to make lists like this one in time for the end of the year.
And here we go…
Beginning as a novelist and then a screenwriter for such films as Sunshine and 28 Days Later, 2014’s Ex Machina marked Alex Garland as an exciting new voice in thought-provoking science fiction. Last year’s Annihilation thoroughly established Garland as a master of intimate stories touching on universal themes by using the tapestry of sci-fi/horror to examine such topics as depression and humanity’s propensity for self-destruction. While not quite to the level of Denis Villenevue’s cinematic prowess, Garland’s eye for sharp compositions and stark contrasts has produced two of the decade’s most intellectually stimulating works of sci-fi cinema. Even if the ending isn’t nearly as confusing as most people claim it to be, Annihilation‘s brand of abstract storytelling remains as compelling as ever, even more so now as visuals make what had been previously impossible entirely too real.
In many ways, Black Panther is the most important movie of the entire year. Sure, some of the effects aren’t great, the lead character is a bit flat, and it isn’t the best in terms of a superhero movie, but the cultural and political statement made by Black Panther as a big budget, mainstream genre film directed, written, and starring almost an entirely black cast are impossible to ignore. By framing Black Panther‘s narrative in his hometown of Oakland, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler was able to do with the superhero genre what Jordan Peele’s Get Out did for horror: use the conventions of genre filmmaking as a platform to address the struggles of African Americans and black people all over the world. In Erik Killmonger, Coogler and frequent collaborator Michael B. Jordan created a character which serves as not only a mirror to Chadwick Bosman’s hero but also to America’s history of using underprivileged populations as tools for its own interests and then destroying them once the tool threatens to turn against the user. The relationship between hero and villain becomes less a battle of good and evil than one of establishment versus disruption, dignity versus fear, being the one who suffers versus being the one who causes others to suffer, and of two forms of isolation, one by choice and one by force. Black Panther is Marvel offering its worldwide influence to a filmmaker interested not only in entertaining but also in questioning and, hopefully, enlightening.
Somewhere over the course of the last ten years Joaquin Phoenix emerged as one of the most compelling lead actors of this generation. This streak continues in You Were Never Really Here. Running at exactly 90 minutes the film takes the elements of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and rips away the narration and occasional meandering leaving almost nothing but grit and intensity. As Joe, Phoenix marches forth like a force of nature, unstoppable in his mission to save young girls from the sick men who abduct them, even as the world around him becomes increasingly twisted, disgusting, and dangerous. The film challenges the viewer not only with brutal imagery but with a story more often told through implication than explanation, with its one possibly extraneous scene being the most quietly impactful of the entire film. You Were Never Really Here is nothing but bone and muscle, both hardened to the point that even steel can’t break it.
Produced on a budget lower than that of catering for most studio movies, The Endless falls into the Primer/Moon category of tiny films with huge ideas. Focusing on two brothers who escaped a so-called UFO death cult, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, who between themselves wrote, directed, edited, filmed, produced and starred in the movie, intricately weave together a narrative which slowly unravels into ever increasing levels of terror as they reveal the secrets of a seemingly utopian approach to society. While the constant sense of foreboding undercuts many surprises, the payoff of each individual thread and setup highlights the amount of care given to the overall structure of the narrative. The Endless is another example that all the money, style, and star power in the world can’t buy a great movie, but story, care, and character can make one.
Upgrade is the story of a man who shares his body with a separate intelligence giving him enhanced strength, speed, endurance, fighting abilities, and healing, and whose acerbic sense of humor comes through in conversations only he hears. In short, Upgrade is the movie Venom should have been. Yet beyond these obvious parallels, Upgrade has the advantage of a too-relevant theme of humanity’s dependence on technology and the consequences of its slow infiltration of every aspects of human existence. The film examines the benefits of such technological breakthroughs as allowing paraplegics the ability to walk against the possibility of those same healed people losing the ability to control where they go. Yet outside of the serious themes, Upgrade is a body horror science fiction action movie with brutal fight scenes, amazing camera work, and an often hilariously dark sense of humor as Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) watches his own actions in cringing terror. As with its lead character, Upgrade has an innovative core stuck in a familiar, even decaying, husk, and this contrast makes it extraordinary.
Twenty years ago, when I used to misquote the lyrics to “Cars and Shoes,” I never could have imagined that The Coup’s frontman Boots Riley would go on to write and direct one of the year’s most bizarre and biting social satires. Beginning in an alternative, semi-dystopian Oakland where people sell their freedom for a lifetime of housing and employment (in an extremely obvious send-up of both slavery and the American penal system), Sorry to Bother You branches into wild diatribes with scattershot satire, striking corporate culture, labor practices, materialism, racial identity, game shows, art, and fashion, with all of the anti-capitalist fervor and cleverness familiar from Riley’s 90’s hip-hop collective. With an aesthetic similar to Michel Gondry and Terry Gilliam (and obvious parallels to Gilliam’s own wild farce Brazil), Riley turns a ramshackle production, even down to pull-string windshield wipers and over-the-top parodies, into a startlingly cohesive, relevant, and energetic funhouse reflection of modern American society. A stellar performance by Lakieth Stanfield guides us through what would be an absolutely horrific descent into madness if not for the type of dark humor which states that even after you’ve been driven to the edge of humanity, there is still satisfaction in delivering a good old fashion a$$ whooping to the corporate master who drove you there.
It’s serendipitous that Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting were released in the same year as both are films from first time directors set in the city of Oakland touching on similar themes. However, unlike Sorry, Blindspotting is firmly set in our real present day using the city’s contemporary issues to illustrate American society as a whole. Writers and stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal spent nine years crafting a script that, outside of the obvious polish and refinement, feels as though it could have been feverishly scribbled down last week. While Carlos Lopez Estrada’s theatrical roots show through some awkward staging decisions, Diggs’s talent in particular, as displayed most prominently during his time in the Broadway production of Hamilton, is obvious in every second on screen. Meanwhile Casal, in a less showy role, serves as the perfect counterpart in both performance and character, as Diggs’s best friend/exact contrast. The film shifts between humor and heartbreak as deftly and organically as it does its themes of racism, gentrification, police brutality, personal responsibility, and the search of individual identity in a society where pre-judgment is standard. The opening scene alone is possibly the funniest yet most astute observation of modern American life made in any film in the last year. Blindspotting is a movie that people should be talking about. The world would be better if we were.
Contrary to its title, it’s impossible for Leave No Trace to not make a mark on the audience, which it does with the quiet, restrained humanity of people for whom life has been based on being unnoticed. After discovering Jennifer Lawrence in 2010’s Winter Bone, director Debra Granik makes another star in Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, who portrays Tom with a wisdom and steadiness far beyond her contemporaries and yet entirely fitting of a young woman raised by a war veteran father (Ben Foster, equally astonishing) who rejects social constraints by living in the woods of a public park. While the stakes (and volume) of Leave No Trace may be low compared to others films, the connection we see between the characters, and the nature in which they live, amplify the simple need for independence to a life or death struggle, and the unspoken separation which begins between father and daughter is as crushing as it is tender. Leave No Trace is a beautifully realized look at human relationships, society, and the effects of war which shows that what we do in life is often less important than how we do it. Or it might be a film about how social labels limit the possibilities of human existence. Or about humanity’s natural inclination toward social habits. That’s what makes Leave No Trace so wonderful, it doesn’t tell you what it’s about. It doesn’t have to. You feel it. You experience it. And when it’s over, you know its trace has been left.
What can be said about Avengers: Infinity War which hasn’t already been said (other than it is in every way the diametric opposite of Leave No Trace)? While Black Panther was the most important film of 2018, Infinity War was the defining one if for no other reason than it succeeded in ways it never should have. No film with this much build up, these many narrative threads, so many characters, and such hype should have ever been so incredibly good. Yet somehow writers and directors Joe and Anthony Russo managed to take a story which has been developing over twenty films in the last ten years and create an absolute landmark in spectacle cinema. While some criticism can be made in how certain characters were offered limited screen time no argument can be made that those characters weren’t well portrayed, and the grouping of various heroes absolutely perfect throughout. The shocking end may be quickly undone with Avengers: Endgame but the fact that Marvel and the Russo brothers had the fortitude to allow their biggest movie yet, the one all others had been building toward, to conclude in such a manner is a testament to how bold the studio’s ideas have become. If nothing else, Infinity War is an achievement on its ambition alone, and a great film in how it turned that ambition into an exciting, funny, heartbreaking piece of work, topping what has already been a stellar run of films which far exceed their comic book movie origin. It may not be a loaded with resonant themes or other elements of prestige cinema, but Infinity War is a masterpiece of storytelling which few works, be they film, music, television, or literature, have ever equaled.
At their best movies offer a sensory experience which matches their emotional and intellectual one. Their execution leaves us in awe and their characters and stories leave us inspired. They make us laugh and cry. They make us look at ourselves and the world around us in new ways. And, in the end, they make us wish that we were a part of the world we see on screen before reminding us that, in our way, we can be. Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse does all of these things. It is a perfectly produced whole where innovative, stylish visuals flawlessly match a humorous, action-packed story built on a simplified but not dumbed-down version of complex scientific theory. It takes a well known figure of modern culture and offers a new, expansive version of that character’s mythos. It is an embrace of intelligence, not only in its smart characters and use of multi-dimensional theory, but in its design, incorporating everything from parallel imagery, word balloons, color blends, and Ben Day dots, and in its clever humor the extent of which becomes apparent only with multiple viewings. It is the type of movie that leaves both children and adults inspired. It even has a heartbreaking yet uplifting send-off to one of the most influential creators in modern popular culture. Like the best films of 2018, Spider Verse shows that greatness can come from anywhere or anyone. There is simply so much happening in Spider Verse both on screen and in how our minds receive what is happening on screen. Entire papers could be filled with breakdowns on its use of art techniques, the validity of its science, the importance of its characters, its approach to a teenage protagonist, but intellectualism falls away when the crescendo of “What’s Up Danger” hits and Miles takes that leap of faith leaving us with the pure enjoyment of an art form which at its best makes us want to be better versions of ourselves. That’s what Into the Spider Verse is: an invitation.
And with that, I also invite you to share your own picks for the best films of 2018, however you choose to define them. As long as you left the theater inspired, happy, heartbroken, angry, giddy, or in any other way moved, then the experience was worth taking. Here’s to many, many more wonderful experiences in 2019 and beyond.