You hear the water before you see it — a slight splashing sound happening somewhere outside the frame, the camera trained on a floor. Then it rushes in, covering the tiles like the tide. A square patch of sunlight is reflected in the soapy puddle; we see a plane, tiny as a toy, pass through it. We don’t know yet that this floor is in a middle-class house in Mexico City, or that the person responsible for this bubbly onslaught is a domestic worker who takes care of its occupants. We don’t know that this image will mirror another scene later on, one with much bigger waves and much, much bigger stakes. We don’t even know how long this mesmerizing sequence will last (it takes up close to three minutes of screen time as the opening credits roll, though it feels longer). All we know is the water, the symbol of life, keeps pouring into the picture, one splash after the next.
Now go back, just a little further — roughly six months or so. A large purple man (technically he’s a god, or actually one of the Eternals, but let’s not split hairs here) snaps his fingers. He disappears, leaving several handsome, bearded men looking very confused. Then a third guy, the one staggering into the midst and calling out to them — he also disappears. “Disintegrates” might be a better word. The same thing is happening throughout the fictional African nation of Wakanda, dozens of folks suddenly reduced to dust in the wind. Ditto those in other cities, countries, planets. One by one they’re going, going, gone. Some are confused, others are pleading. This is what death on a cosmic scale looks like. Ashes to ashes.
Movies talk to each other in the weirdest ways. There was no shortage of memorable-to-meme–able moments you could play back in a 2018 mental montage: the parking-lot duets, the high-altitude plane jumps, the wig-throwing fights and gratuitous five-borough roll calls. But the duo we keep returning to — the pair we continually stopped in their tracks, because we just wanted to take another look at you — was the odd couple that arrived courtesy of, respectively, Roma and Avengers: Infinity War. One comes from a black-and-white Spanish-language movie, directed by an auteur, distributed by a streaming service and positioned as a possible Best Picture Oscar winner next February. The other comes from the second highest-grossing movie of 2018; it would have been a contender for the Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film statuette, had the Academy not scrapped the idea soon after they’d announced it. The personal pet project and the globally recognized corporate product. Death by blockbuster, followed by arthouse rebirth.
It’s never quite that narratively cut-and-dried: You can’t say that 2018 was an annus horribilis for big-budget studio behemoths in a year that gave us Black Panther, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, Annhilation, A Star Is Born and The Incredibles 2. (One of those was a flop, sure, but any cerebral sci-fi flick which features Natalie Portman fighting a faceless whatsit on Paramount’s dime is, by our estimation, an unqualified success.) And there were countless “serious” films, some pretentious as fuck and others merely somber to a fault, that showed up on screens more or less D.O.A. But these are binary times we live in. Everything is the best or the worst, fresh or rotten, which makes evaluating the year in movies a series of consistent either/or situations. Either superhero movies gave us the single most significant example of representation or they are the worst example of franchise-fueled monocultural force-feeding. Either you see Roma on a big screen or you shouldn’t see it at all, you philistines! Either Netflix is the savior of movies or the maker of the medium’s coffin.
That last one has been a serious handwringer, starting with the streaming service and the Cannes Film Festival wrestling over who really loves the moving pictures more back in May. The premier showcase for all things big screened and beautiful balked at showing movies that wouldn’t recognize France’s theatrical window; Netflix then pulled their films from Croisette consideration and saved them for the Lido and TIFF’s Bell Lighthouse. The Roma debate just exacerbated things further. Once Alfonso Cuarón’s immersive, free-form flashback to 1970s Mexico — and the 1960s foreign-film renaissance — was given an exclusive, albeit brief theatrical window in the name of awards campaigning, the debate over whether any option beside grand, communal gatherings in the dark did it a disservice raged on.
It is a big-screen movie. It’s also something that everyone should see, especially give the manner of this particular empathy machine, and if the choice is “it’s not playing in a theater near me because I don’t live in certain markets” vs. “it’s one click away,” let’s maybe lay off the lecturing a tad. There’s also the issue of patronage, especially in the age of Marvel/Disney/Lucasfilm dominance. Netflix did not make Roma; Participant Media did. But per the New York Times, the production company shopped the movie around to a number of potential distributors, who worried about underwriting a black-and-white movie with subtitles. Netflix said yes.
They also said yes to the Coen brothers (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), and Tamara Jenkins (Private Life), and Nicole Holofcener (The Land of Steady Habits), and David Mackenzie (Outlaw King, which was responsible for the year’s single best line reading), and Jeremy Saulnier (Hold the Dark), and the folks responsible for the restoration jigsaw puzzle that was Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind. All of these filmmakers would have found a perch for their midrange movies elsewhere once upon a time. Now, there’s essentially one game in town who, thanks to deep pockets and a need to fill queues, will roll the dice on a $20 million movie. Otherwise, we don’t get these stories at all. “[They’re] making our movies,” Martin Scorsese, keeper of the seventh art’s flame, said about them in the NYT piece, and they’ll also be giving his epic The Irishman a theatrical bow as well next year. Maybe it’s time to let some of the old ways, or at least the old mindsets, die.
Savor the irony, for a second, that the above paraphrased line came from the fourth version of a warhorse showbiz story. For a lot of us, Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born was a knockout from left field — even after the trailer suggested something more lived-in and lyrical than many might have expected. But we’re still talking about a decades-old tale, directed by a first-timer and starring a singer who’d never taken a lead role. Cue: an American-cinema success story, from a company who somehow found room for it between Harry Potter spin-offs and marketing Aquaman. There’s so much film history shoved into its two-hour plus running time — Golden Age of Hollywood hat tips, ’50s melodramas, ’70s New Hollywood grit — and yet it never feels like a TCM reel. There’s so much personal passion in it and yet it never feels like a vanity project, loving close-ups of the director-star’s bearded mug or not. There are so many goosebumps, and so many great shots. There’s so much depth in it, even its occasional treatment of pop music as just more plastic fantastic is, well, a tad shallow. (We’ll show ourselves out.)
Most movies in 2018 gave us dizzying trips down memory lane or the sense that right now, the center simply can’t hold. But some of the best — your Star Is Borns, your First Reformeds, your Death of Stalins, your Cold Wars — managed to give us both at the same time. Death, and rebirth. Cynicism (oh, so you’re going to kill off some of your most popular superheroes, Marvel? Riiiight) and childlike awe (this Spider-Man animated movie is incredible and worth its weight in back issues). 2018 gave us movies that felt like parodies of what a stockholders’ meeting would think fans want, and a slew of indistinguishable films about young men in crisis — we’re hoping that someone is working on a Beautiful Ben Is Erased supercut, because who has the time? It also started off with Black Panther and ended with If Beale Street Could Talk. Try calling that a bad year.
It was such a good 12 months of moviegoing, in fact, that both of those incredible movies were just barely edged off my year-end list, along with a host of other worthwhile gems. (Honorable mentions are also due to: Bisbee ’17; BlacKkKlansman; Blaze; A Bread Factory; Den of Thieves; Double Lover; En El Septimo Dia; Filmworker; First Man; Hale County, This Morning, This Evening; The Incredibles 2; Ishmael’s Ghosts; Let the Sun Shine In; November; Shirkers; Shoplifters; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; Sorry to Bother You; Sweet Country; Upgrade; Widows; Wildlife.) I began cobbling together a potential Top 10 as I was seeing the last of 2018’s movies a few weeks back. I had to stop once I realized I had hit 50 titles. Below is that greatest of year-end compromises, the Top 20 best-of list. Black-and-white romances and bright ‘n’ shiny rom-coms, horror and satire, melodramas and docs, blockbusters and criticbait, a 15-year-old actor’s breakout and an 82-year-old’s possible swan song. They all deserve to be singled out. They all made my year.
My Top 20 Movies of 2018:
It’s the film that forced us (and Netflix) to think differently about how exhibition remains a key part of what we consider “cinema,” as well as launching a gajillion arguments about how to see a movie “properly.” That, however, will not be Roma‘s legacy in the end. Long after the bickering about screens vs. streaming has stopped, Alfonso Cuarón’s time machine/valentine to the domestic worker (Yalitza Aparicio) at the center of a household similar to his own will still be inspiring rapturous sighs. It’s a counterpoint to the notion that they just don’t make ’em like they used to, and that ambitious, personal, shoot-the-moon filmmaking can’t be arty and accessible in 2018. Lots of films get labeled masterpieces. This one genuinely earns the title.
Ari Aster’s debut feature reminds that, when it comes to horror films and family, hell is where the heart is. Toni Collette’s performance is canon-worthy (we still think about the moment where she inadvertently admits something horrible — then tries to shove the words back into her mouth — on a daily basis); no recent movie has balanced slow-burn dread and bowel-draining jump scares as deftly as this supernatural tale; the last 20 minutes are a waking nightmare.
3. First Reformed
Paul Schrader pays tribute to the ghosts of arthouse past — Bergman, Bresson (specifically Diary of a Country Priest), Tarkovsky — and somehow nails the existential free-fall most of us are feeling right here and now. Both he and Ethan Hawke, playing a man of the cloth coming to the end of his rope, deserve every bit of praise that’s being heaped upon them. Wholy holy.
4. Eighth Grade
If you’re an actual 13-year-old, or the parent of one — or simply remember what it was like to be young, awkward and terrified — Bo Burnham’s tales of an eighth-grade nothing may feel less like a comedy and more like a documentary. Regardless, the former standup’s first movie is, quite simply, one of the most painful, poignant and astoundingly empathetic looks at growing up ever. Also, please take a bow, Elsie Fisher.
5. Support the Girls
Welcome to Double Whammies, home of microindie maestro Andrew Bujalski’s Great American Breastaraunt Movie. All hail Regina Hall as a branch manager/mother hen who’s slowly losing her marbles as a bad day at a Texas T&A eatery gets worse. The best Demme-glazed look at life lived one wage-shift at a time in a decade.
6. Amazing Grace
For years, we’d heard about Sydney Pollack documenting Aretha Franklin’s legendary two-night stand at the New Mission Baptist Church in Los Angeles, i.e. the same shows that gave us that whopper of a 1972 live gospel album. After countless lawsuits and bad blood, this concert film finally made its way to theaters — and good lord, it was worth the wait. The chance to actually see the Queen of Soul sing these songs feels like a godsend.
7. The Rider
A character study, a semi-documentary (see: that one-shot horse-breaking sequence), a subcultural deep dive, a regional portrait, an American tragedy — Chloé Zhao’s second film, about a bronc rider (Brady Jandreau) putting the pieces back together after a career-ending injury, is all of these things and more. Just call it a triumph.
8. Cold War
Or: When Wiktor Met Zula. Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawelikowski (Ida) uses the story of his parents’ tempestuous relationship as the basis for his look at a pianist (Tomasz Kot), a singer (Joanna Kulig), a love that won’t die and a Europe stuck in the gears of a violent 20th century. Bleak, brilliant, swooning in both its romanticism and its fatalism, and blessed with the most inspired dance sequence set to “Rock Around the Clock” since teenyboppers roamed the earth.
9. The Old Man & the Gun
The shot of Sissy Spacek sitting in a diner across from Robert Redford, showing us that this elderly bank robber has just stolen her heart, would be enough to earn it a place on this list all by itself. As it is, David Lowery’s throwback-showcase for the former Sundance Kid is a love letter to both movies and movie stars. Should Redford retire, he’d be going out on a high note.
He came, he saw, he was conquered and cast away — Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel turns Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez-Cacho), the protagonist of her anti-colonialist fantasia, into a cursed Job in a tri-cornered hat. It’s the intoxication of her vision, however, that’s the real hero of this curdled history lesson. It ends with a trip down the river nowhere that would make Herzog weep with envy.
For those of us who’ve been crowing about veteran South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong for eons — seriously, someone needs to release a domestic DVD of 1999’s Peppermint Candy ASAP — the reception that’s greeted his tale of warped love-triangles, missing persons and mysterious fires feels like a vindication. Deceptive, deep and still capable of revealing different layers after a dozen viewings. Steven Yeun could have a long, fruitful career playing handsome sociopaths if he so desired.
12. The Death of Stalin
Comrades! Armando Iannucci comes not to bury the Soviet dictator, nor to praise him — just to watch as various apparatchiks hurl varsity-level insults and scramble to fill the gap while avoiding the business end of a gun. Hilarious and sobering. Any resemblance to modern world affairs is not a coincidence.
13. Where Is Kyra?
In lesser hands, the title character of Andrew Dosunmu’s devastating drama might have come off as a class-conscious symbol, a caricature or a complete mess in a dress. Thanks to Michelle Pfeiffer’s career-best performance, she makes us feel every downward spiral of this woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Also cinematographer Bradford Young is God, or at the very least, the second coming of Gordon Willis.
14. Minding the Gap
Bing Liu was just another skaterat with a camera when he started filming his buddies in Rockford, Illinois; what he ended up capturing was a stunning look at growing up, a penetrating exploration of dealing with trauma and a snapshot of American life. And that closing boys-to-men montage is a killer on your tear ducts.
15. The Favourite
The All-About-Eve-in-corsets period piece you didn’t even know you needed, complete with hip-hop dance interludes, duck races and the sort of razor-sharp retorts that leave permanent scars. Greek feel-bad filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos makes his most mainstream movie to date while still getting mondo weird; Olivia Colman takes MVP honors as England’s needy Queen Anne, though not at the expense of her equally wonderful costars Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.
More people should be talking about the balancing act that Jason Mitchell is doing in this extraordinary character study of an African-American man feeling alienated at a toxic guy’s getaway weekend. Chilean director Sebastian Silva gives you something that starts out as a satire on insensitive, entitled bro culture; by the time you figure out that it’s actually a death-by-a-thousand-microaggressions horror movie, you’re already far down the rabbit hole.
17. Set It Up
Anyone can make a decent enough prestige drama or crime thriller. But turning out a stellar romantic comedy — one which delivers the goods to longtime fans without turning off casual viewers, that can pair actors with actual comic chops and chemistry? That’s damned near impossible in 2018, and only makes Claire Scanlon’s stellar addition to the romcom canon that much more impressive. The surprise of the year. Glenn Powell + Zoey Deutch 4-eva.
18. Let the Corpses Tan
The latest from Euro-exploitation remixers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (Amer) gathers a bunch of thieves in a sunny house on the Riviera, watches as things go south after a robbery and intersperses shoot-outs with head trips. Add in some Jodorowsky-esque psychedelic tangents and Hal Hartley regular Elina Löwensohn as the fatalest of femmes, and this is what a midnight movie is supposed to look like.
19. A Star Is Born
In which Bradley Cooper proves he can direct, Lady Gaga proves she can act and the oldest, creakiest story in the book proves it’s right there in the deep end, watch as it dives in. It’s a first-rate melodrama that’s more than just the sum of its memes, and you’ll be singing “Shallow” from now until Armageddon. The first hour is virtually perfect. The last half is merely very, very, very good.
20. Thunder Road
Indie filmmaker/triple-threat Jim Cummings expands on his award-winning 2016 short about a cop with anger issues, turning a one-joke premise into a stunning, deadpan-funny take on bruised masculinity. A raw nerve of a movie, uncomfortable and tender and beautifully empathetic to its a-hole protagonist — and an introduction to a singular talent.