Nate’s Best, Worst, and All the Light Touches of 2018 Film
It’s been a noisy, calamitous year and that includes at the movies as well. While I would say 2018 is an overall step down from the previous two years in film, there were still plenty of engaging, enraging, and fascinating new experiences. In many ways this feels like the first year art has been able to process and respond to the election of Donald Trump, and we got films like Assassination Nation, Fahrenheit 11/9, BlackkKlansman, and even The First Purge, now with renewed political relevance, providing a vocal rebuke. It’s also been a fantastic year for animation with the high-flying Incredibles sequel, a worthy Wreck it Ralph sequel, Wes Anderson’s return to stop-motion animation, and a truly astounding Spider-Man film that might just rival the best of the superhero genre. It’s also been a great year for R-rated comedies, like Game Night, Blockers, Tag, and Deadpool 2. It was also a boon for long overdue representation, with the success of Crazy Rich Asians, Love, Simon, and Black Panther showing that diversity on camera and behind the camera can enliven the oldest of stories. This is the first year there are four African-American directors with $100 million grossing movies. I invite you, dear reader, to follow along as I review the finest films, the lowest lows, and many of the intriguing and mystifying moments that highlighted the world of cinema and the 115+ movies I saw this calendar year.
But before going into all that 2017 had to offer at the theater, let’s turn back the clocks once more as I take another crack at my top ten list from 2017.
2017 Top Ten List 2.0
10) Killing of a Sacred Deer (formerly 9)
9) I, Tonya (formerly not ranked)
8) Molly’s Game (unchanged)
7) The Big Sick (unchanged)
6) Coco (unchanged)
5) War for the Planet of the Apes (formerly 4)
4) Blade Runner 2049 (formerly 5)
3) Spider-Man: Homecoming (unchanged)
2) Get Out (unchanged)
1) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (unchanged)
And now ladies and gentlemen, on with the big show.
PART ONE: BEST/WORST FILMS OF 2018
Thoroughbreds is a dishy, tart little treat that kept me squirming, laughing, and gleefully entertained. Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One) and Ana Taylor-Joy (Split) are outstanding as privileged teenagers trying to resuscitate their former friendship through collaborative murder. Cooke plays Amanda, a sociopath who cannot feel anything, who is incurably honest, and has stopped caring what others think. Taylor-Joy plays Lily, a self-involved young lady that feels overwhelmed by life and is skilled at dissembling. Together, the girls scheme to kill Lily’s boorish stepfather and enlist the aid of a hapless small-time dealer with big plans (Anton Yelchin, in his final performance) through blackmail. The story from writer/director Cory Finley is immediately engaging with how it naturally reveals the complicated histories between Amanda and Lily as well as what makes each questionable. These are two very interesting people and just watching their probing push-and-pull was entertaining enough, especially with such strong performances. Thoroughbreds is more dread-filled and unsettling than a conventional thriller, and while there are some gallows humor to be had from the abnormal characters, this is less a dark comedy. There are drawn out tracking shots and methodical push-in camera movements meant to build audience anticipation, and they’re effective. The stakes are really more personal, which works since the crux is on the relationship between the girls and whether they are being honest or manipulative with one another. By the end, I thought I could argue either way who was manipulative and when. Small irony: the last scene you see of Yelchin is him as a valet parking other people’s cars.
9) First Reformed
Writer/director Paul Schrader is famous for his stories about violent men confronting the wickedness of the world around them. What better canvas then for Schrader than a middle-aged pastor at a small, reclusive church? It’s the slowest of slow burns. You better be prepared to luxuriate in the day-to-day details of Rev. Toller’s simple life, from unclogging toilets to visiting with parishioners in their homes and having long philosophical conversations with them about faith and man’s role in the ecosystem. Toller becomes a late-in-life environmental activist who questions the stewardship of the church body. This sets him on a path that seems destined for bloody violence. He’s going to go out in a fury of righteousness. The abruptness of the ending may inspire some titters, but when you look back at the film, it makes complete sense and calls into question why we would wish for blood and violence over human connection and forgiveness. Schrader is saying that you wanted the wrong kind of movie. We’re expecting a big bang by the end, especially given Schrader’s history of these kinds of stories with these kinds of men. But that doesn’t happen. For an R-rated Paul Schrader movie, it’s far more reserved, subtle, and thoughtful. It left me thinking about Rev. Toller and his messianic mission and our desire for a big bloody finish. The idea of a selfless death directed toward violent retribution is inherently self-involved. It’s not death that provides meaning but life, it’s not how we end but what we do with the days beforehand.
8) Sorry to Bother You
I thought the movie was simply going to be about the modern-day struggles of being black and poor in America, and the movie covers those aspects with aplomb. It’s also sized up ample room to satirize consumer culture, labor exploitation and worker rights, male and female relationships, art and media, cultural appropriation, and even memes. I appreciated that even with all the wackiness of this cracked-mirror version of our universe, Riley puts in the time and effort to make the characters count rather than be expendable to the satirical aims. Because of all the topics, the movie could run the danger of feeling unfocused, but thanks to the remarkably assured vision and handling of writer/director Boots Riley, it all feels connected by its unique voice operating at a risky but exhilarating level. There are a lot of bizarre dips into the absurd that had me howling and on the edge of my seat wondering where we would go next. There are throwaway lines in this movie that any other major comedy would die for. This is a movie that is impossible to fall asleep to because every moment could be different and you won’t want to miss one of them. Sorry to Bother You has many targets, many points, and much to say, exploding with thoughts and cracked comedy
7) The Favourite
This is a movie that does not work without a distinct vision, sure handed direction, and pitch-perfect acting, all seamlessly working in tandem to create such a finely crafted dark comedy that can go in many perversely entertaining directions at a moment’s notice. This is a movie that’s not afraid to be dark, where characters can behave badly, testing our sympathy and allegiance as they fight for supremacy. I love how unapologetic the characters are in their pursuits. I cackled often throughout with the amazingly witty one-liners and curt insults as well as the wonky asides and tonal juxtaposition. It’s a funny movie for offbeat audiences who enjoy offbeat humor. This is a costume drama that is radical amongst the stuffy world of prim and proper Oscar bait involving kings and queens and the ostentatious royal courts. I’d say it reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and how it broke from the long film tradition of costume dramas, but I’ve never watched Barry Lyndon, my lone Kubrick omission (you got three hours to spare?). Yorgos Lanthimos and his cadre of award-worthy actresses have great, prankish fun playing dress up in their fancy locations and making a costume drama with a dash of anarchic farce. The Favourite doesn’t quite rise to the top of my own list of Lanthimos favorites (I’d probably rank it a noble third) but it’s still a razor-sharp, sardonic, unpredictable, and wonderfully, vibrantly weird movie worth celebrating.
This is Lee’s best film since 2000’s Bamboozled and he feels jolted awake by the material. He doesn’t shy away from the film’s relevance and potent power. This is a character-driven suspense film that does so much so well, drawing in thrills and laughs without making either feel cheaper by their inclusion. It’s a story inviting irony and bafflement, and it’s ribald and funny for long stretches, buoyed by Washington’s charismatic and forceful performance (close your eyes and he sounds just like his dad, Denzel). The story is so fascinating that you just want to see where it goes. The movie does a great job of finding new ways to remind you what is at stake, and while the Klansman are set up to be laughed at and ridiculed, they are still seen as dangerous. They still have the direct intent to physically harm others, not just harass and intimidate. BlackkKlansman also can’t help itself with the political parallels to our troublesome 45th president, but I loved every one of them. Lee is a known firebrand and his polemic doesn’t shy from its political relevancy, but it tells a highly engaging story first and foremost, with top acting performances from its cast. BlackkKlansman tells a fascinating, comic, and thrilling story about racism of the past, drawing parallels to the trials of today, in particular under the era of Trump.
5) A Quiet Place
A Quiet Place is a brilliantly simple concept that’s exceptionally well developed and executed. Using the very concept of sound itself as the monster, or the prelude to the monster, is so clever and completely relatable. It trains the audience to fear sound itself. It also serves the role of placing the audience in a hyper aware state of continuous dread. Any little sound we deeply dread, and there are so many ways to make sound in this world above a whisper. Another aspect of what makes the film so worthwhile that won’t get as many headlines is how well developed it is as a drama about a family overcoming grief and guilt. Who knew John Krasinski had this in him? He’s never ventured into genre filmmaking before. But then again, neither had fellow funnyman Jordan Peele, who came out of nowhere in 2017 with Get Out and rode that to box-office riches, critical acclaim, and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Maybe more performers we view simply through the lens of comedy have tremendous potential to be genre virtuosos. A Quiet Place is not an outright silent movie but one where silence is most keenly felt. The simple premise is beautifully realized, the characters and their plights are affecting, the details are fully thought through and the structure is smartly placed and paced. If you’re looking for a suspenseful, intense, and invigorating movie, A Quiet Place feels like a work out for the senses.
4) Mission: Impossible – Fallout
It’s the best Mission: Impossible movie in the series, which, if it hadn’t already, has assumed the peak position of the most consistent, most entertaining, and best action franchise in Hollywood (I’m still waiting for a third Raid film, Gareth Evans). The set pieces are memorable and unique, leading from one into the next with exquisite precision and thought. The action sequences are stunning and shot with stunning photography, highlighting the stunning stunt work by the best death-defying professionals. Mission: Impossible – Fallout could be taught in filmmaking schools about how to properly build action set pieces. They are brilliant. Christopher McQuarrie finds interesting ways to set them up, complicate them, and just keep the escalation going in a manner that still maintains the believability of the moment. While the vertigo-inducing Burj Khalifa sequence is the best set piece in the franchise, Fallout has everything else beat at every level. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a reminder that there are few things in the world of cinema better than a properly orchestrated, properly filmed, and properly developed action movie operating at full throttle. This is one of the reasons why we go to the movies, folks.
3) American Animals
It’s a movie that pulls back the disparity between crime in the movies, so stylized and slick and carefree, and crime in real life, often traumatic, dehumanizing, and with lifelong complications for both victim and perpetrator. It’s a movie that examines a youthful sense of ennui that their lives are missing out on something extraordinary, and a step too far over a very clear moral line thanks to a fantasy given shape by escapist movies and other media. It’s also a slippery I, Tonya-style look at memory and contradiction but this time from the real-life people involved. It’s an entertaining dark comedy, an unexpected true-crime caper, and most resonating of all, a nerve-wracking thriller that left me morally queasy and unwell, but in a good way. American Animals hasn’t been able to leave my thoughts for weeks, which is usually the sign of a pretty good movie. It upset me. It rattled me. It entertained me. I kept thinking about the pain these four men had caused themselves and others and their regrets. I kept thinking about how smartly the writer/director utilizes documentary storytelling techniques to enhance his film. It’s a movie that could have been told as a documentary but excels best as a hybrid of the two, one that challenges our conception. This is a movie that got under my skin but also thrilled me and entertained me from its first minute until its very last.
2) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Into the Spider-Verse is bursting with color, imagination, kinetic energy, and a real celebration of the art form of animation and comics. Besides being a great comic book movie and a great action movie, Into the Spider-Verse is also just a great movie. It’s a spectacular visual feast that manages to be that rare treat of something new yet familiar. The action of Into the Spider-Verse is delightful when it’s comedic and thrilling when it’s serious, but at every turn its fun, well developed, and wonderfully rendered. There are brilliantly conceived and executed jokes but, and this is what separates the professionals, they do not distract from the larger work of the characterization. Often the humor is built through the characters, their personality and motivation differences, and the unique circumstances, so even when its zany it feels connected or grounded. This is a glorious and gloriously entertaining movie replete with humor, heart, surprises, payoffs, and a great creative energy that bursts from the big screen. This really is a movie to see on the big screen as well, to better feast on the eye-popping visuals and pop-art comic book aesthetics that leap from the page to the screen. It’s the second best Spidey movie, after 2017’s impeccably structured solo venture, Homecoming. The film is a wonderful blending of tones and styles, from the different characters and universes to the heartfelt emotions and vicarious thrills of being young and super powered. This is a movie that even Spider novices can climb aboard and fall in love with.
And the best film of 2018 is…..
1) Assassination Nation
It’s a modern “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” for the Age of Trump, exposing the fissures in our society, primarily the elements that prey upon, police, and punish women. Bristling with anger and feminine agency, Assassination Nation is a warning shot, a rallying cry, and a daring artistic statement about the role of women in response to the rise of Trump and his cronies. It’s not subtle but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. It’s blunt and extreme because our times are blunt and extreme, it’s messy because our news cycles are messy, desperate to cover a cascade of catastrophes and scandals, it’s using the language and imagery of exploitation cinema because that is too often the lens with which women are viewed in modern society, as achievements to unlock, as trophies to be won, and as a product for mass consumption. Sam Levinson has put together a movie that has a possibility of being a seminal film, of being a touchstone of the resistance to the Trump Era and all that it stands for, but at its core it opens up with excoriating detail the pressure and punishment women must persevere through on a daily basis as targets of patriarchal entitlement and the dangerously fragile egos of dangerous men. In the fall we watched a possible Supreme Court nominee who might have committed multiple acts of sexual assault, and the response has been to “plow ahead” and appoint the man for a lifetime position ruling on the legality of women’s rights without further inquiry or investigation. The film feels even more charged, relevant, and prophetic with each new allegation of wrongdoing being hand-waved away as mistaken identity, boys-will-be-boys moral relativism (more like rapists-will-be-rapists), and the same kind of nonsense that women have been subjected to since the original Salem and well beyond that. For every woman fed up with the status quo, Assassination Nation is your movie, and for every man whom needs a feminist lesson with an extra dose of Purge-style bloodletting and vengeance, here is a brazen and affecting statement. Assassination Nation is the movie of the moment and it’s a knockout.
Honorable mention: Incredibles 2, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Game Night, If Beale Street Could Talk
10) 50 Shades Freed
I think Fifty Shades Freed as a title works well not just for the audience but also the actors, as everyone is celebrating putting one of Hollywood’s least engaging film franchises well behind them. If you thought the previous film was struggling to stretch enough story to fill a feature-length runtime, then just wait until you watch the new movie where we have such scintillating plotlines like whether Christian’s brother might be cheating on his girlfriend or Christian being mad because Ana hasn’t changed her work email to her new married name. Isn’t the whole purpose of this franchise watching pretty people get naked and do sexy things? For all its whips and chains and BDSM banter, the Fifty Shades sex has been tepidly tame. With bad sex, bad storytelling, and bad pacing, what we’re left with is the closing realization that these two people really shouldn’t be together. Struggling to justify its whole existence for 105 lugubrious minutes, Fifty Shades Freed is the flaccid finale to a boring and underwhelming trilogy. I have no problems with movies whose sole purpose is to turn on their audience. Erotic movies certainly have their place in the landscape. They can even be specifically designed for very specific audiences that do not include me, and the Fifty Shades series is definitely not my kind of smut. Skip the Red Room, these insipid characters, and the high-camp tawdry attempts at sensuality. The final Fifty Shades is a fitting end for a franchise that could never get its mojo going.
9) The Happytime Murders
The Happytime Murders is a one-joke movie that has far too little imagination. For a depressing majority of the running time, the jokes are simply puppets swearing or puppets being randy. Very rarely will there be more thought given to the gags and setups. This reminded me of Seth MacFarlane’s Ted wherein too much of the comedy was centered on a teddy bear doing things we don’t normally associate a teddy bear doing. The lewd vulgarity gets boring and becomes indicative of the lazy writing all around, the mere appearance of anything naughty meant to goose the audience into thinking they’re watching something really transgressive and provocative. The novelty wears off pretty quickly. What they’re really watching is a mediocre cop movie strung together with the flimsiest of genre tropes and a scant chuckle. Without better comedic writing and setups, you’re stuck with the story, and that’s not a good decision. This is a witless movie that doesn’t deserve its premise and is a waste of everyone’s time. At my preview screening, I could hear a child’s voice behind me and thought, “Oh my, a parent actually brought their child to see this movie? Did they not know?” That child never should have been in that theater, and not because of the raunchy content, but because that child deserved a better movie experience from their parent, a figure of trust.
8) The 15:17 to Paris
There are two gigantic miscalculations when it comes to 15:17 to Paris: 1) having the real-life subjects play the adult versions of themselves, and 2) that there was enough material here to fill out an engaging, enlightening, fulfilling film experience. It’s just that these three men lived fairly uneventful, normal lives until finding themselves in a unique situation. We don’t seem to trace any significant, formative moments. Spending time with them as kids, then teens, and finally as adults doesn’t so much provide greater understanding of them as people as it does pad out the running time. These guys just are not actors. I suppose Eastwood felt the real-life figures would best understand the emotions of each scene, in particular the attack, but another approach would be simply teaching actors. The forced verisimilitude feels like a marketing gimmick meant to appeal to a select audience. Making things more difficult is that these guys just aren’t that interesting as subjects. Clint Eastwood is known for being an economical filmmaker but it feels like he should have been even more judicious here. The adherence to strictly the facts strips the film of some of its larger emotional power. There’s far too much filler and not enough substance to balance out 90-plus minutes. You’ll grow restless. If there’s a lesson to be learned from The 15:17 to Paris, let it be that every story needs a reason to exist and, when in doubt, trust actors to deliver that story.
7) Mary Poppins Returns
Mary Poppins Returns is a bizarre artifact of a displaced time, taking great pains to recreate a style but without providing a purpose or sense of feeling beyond emulation. I don’t know whom this movie is for besides the hardcore fans of the original. There are dancing dolphins, talking dogs, bathtub portals, an upside down house, flying balloons, union protests, Angelina Lansbury or an animatronic look-alike, and there’s lots of songs you will be unable to recall and a story that repeatedly removes any stakes or grounding from beneath itself so that the movie never feels firm or purposeful. This movie felt like it was eight hours long and I had no sense of how much time was passing, mostly because of its misshaped structure and general lack of pacing. Mary Poppins Returns feels like it could have been renamed The Tony Awards: The Movie. It’s one unrelated song-and-dance number after another, rarely building from the previous one, and so it feels like an eternal televised awards show that just shuffles from one set piece to the next, never providing a sense of direction or finality. This would be mitigated if the songs were any good. There are over a dozen and not a single one is memorable. It was mere minutes after leaving the theater that I pressed myself into trying to hum any one of them, and I could not. The only way you can remember one of these songs is if you have a traumatic experience forever linked to one of these mediocre, warbling collections. There were several points where I just wanted to throw up my hands and ask, “What am I watching?” Mary Poppins Returns is a movie musical that is nothing short of super-cali-fragil-awful.
6) Breaking In
Breaking In is a mundane, low-budget home invasion thriller that disappears almost instantly from memory. I’m struggling to even come up with enough to say in this review that isn’t just repetitions of the word “boring.” Gabrielle Union (Bring it On) plays a mom who brings her two children to visit the estate of her recently deceased, estranged father. Also visiting is a trio of stupid robbers searching for a hidden stash of money. They take the kids hostage though keep them locked in a room and in little danger. Union’s determined mother must break in and save her children. It’s a thriller without anything genuinely thrilling to experience, as each chase or near miss hums along ineptly and tediously, finding the least interesting conclusion. There are no well-drawn suspense set pieces to quicken the pulse, no clever escapes or near-misses, no intriguing villains with strong personalities, and no entertainment to be had through its strained 88 minutes. There are glaring plot holes, chief among them why doesn’t she just flag down a car and call the police rather than hack it alone. Depressingly, Breaking In is actually directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) who seems to have exhausted any sense of style and excitement he may have had earlier in his directing career. It feels like nobody really cared about the movie they were making, and that lack of enthusiasm and effort translates into one very boring and very poorly written and executed thriller. Union deserved a better showcase but, then again, the audience deserved a better movie too.
5) Truth or Dare
This is a powerfully dumb movie that caused me to yell at the screen several times, shake my head even more, and contemplate my own life choices. The entertainment level is related to every befuddling choice this movie makes, and it makes many of them. Truth or Dare is a thoroughly entertaining and thoroughly bad movie. We must talk about these silly demonically possessed faces. Oh the faces. It looks like a bad Snapchat filter promotion. I am convinced some studio exec saw a Snapchat filter and said, “Hey, we can make a horror movie based on that” (Look out for the upcoming dogface filter horror movie in 2019). The faces are so dumb. They pinch into pained rictuses, big eyes, and triangular, pointy chins. I don’t think we’re supposed to care about any of these characters, including our eventual Final Girl played by Hale. I was rooting for the demon to bump them off in bulk. It’s not a creepy image at all. It’s not scary and it’s not effectively dramatic. It’s confusing and capricious and hilarious. And yet, it does find that ineffable groove to come across as something in the “so bad it’s good” echelon, something I wouldn’t mind watching again with a group of friends and some adult beverages at hand. Truth or Dare is this year’s Bye Bye Man.
4) A Wrinkle in Time
A Wrinkle in Time is simultaneously over complicated and meaninglessly shallow. I was baffled throughout the entirely of its near two-hour running time trying to make sense of anything. The story felt like it was written by computer that had been programmed with the scraps of genre storytelling as an exercise. There is no real internal logic that holds everything together, which makes every moment feel arbitrary. If a fantasy movie doesn’t properly orient the audience to its world and rules, it’s only a matter of time before that same audience checks out, frustrated and uninterested. I think maybe the book was never good but was liked by kids, and then they remembered it being better and passed it along to their kids, and so on and so on, until somebody finally runs screaming through the streets, trying to get everyone to realize the harsh reality. In many ways, this film reminds me of the misguided, flabbergasting, and fascinating failed passion project that was 2014’s A Winter’s Tale. I could dissect that movie and its multitudinous of wrong-ness for hours. With A Wrinkle in Time, I just wanted to leave. I closed my eyes and dreamed of a better movie but it never came to be. My dear father, who had the misfortune of enduring this experience with me, turned to me during the end credits and said, “I am now going to treat you… by taking you far away from this movie.” It’s that bad, folks.
The biggest crime of this movie is that it at no point solidifies a reason why we should find John Gotti interesting. As played by John Travolta, he’s a ruthless leader who beat so many prosecutors that he was nicknamed the “Teflon Don.” He’s also really really boring, spouting stereotypical bromides about the importance of family, never giving an inch, never turning on your family (both capital F and lowercase f). It’s a cock-eyed worldview I’d expect, however, at the very end of the movie, the movie itself adopts this cock-eyed justifications, presenting the federal government as the real villains and inserting interview footage of real people eulogizing Gotti, saying he made their streets clean and cared about his community and was, essentially, a hero. It’s amazingly misguided, like director Kevin Connolly (“E” fro HBO’s Entourage) has suffered Stockholm syndrome. That same sense of misjudgment is never more adamant than in the musical score by pop star Pitbull. Read that again. There’s a sequence where Gotti goes out on furlough and is escorted to kill an associate, and the musical score is jaunty and uptempo. There were several moments where the score just took my breath away, so tonally disjointed was this mostly modern-day musical score. It never provides sufficient evidence why Gotti was interesting at all and worth a big screen biopic. The dialogue feels like it was written with all exclamation points. Nothing is subtle or left to the imagination here, and that extends into the scenery-chewing acting as well from a bunch of unmemorable stock roles. There is also a 1996 TV movie about John Gotti starring Armand Assante. Sight unseen, it must almost assuredly be the better movie and more worth two hours of your precious time.
2) The Strangers: Prey at Night
Coming ten years too late, the inane sequel to The Strangers is a home invasion thriller that was so bad that I had to stop it five separate times to collect myself. It’s about a boring family that takes a vacation (?) to a trailer park (?) and is terrorized by mask-wearing strangers who insist on killing set to diagetic 80s pop music (?). Seriously, the music is part of the scene and these imbecilic killers almost have an OCD-level compulsion to have to listen to their kickin’ tunes when they’re kicking in heads. One killer literally won’t leave a car radio until he gets that exact right soundtrack. This is the only aspect of note in what is otherwise a thoroughly rote slasher film. At one point one of the killers is going to be unmasked and the film plays it up as great reveal? Who could it be? Oh, it’s nobody, because the anonymity is the point but the movie forgot. I paused this movie to give myself a break and only 20 minutes had passed! Here’s another example of the bad plotting: we have a teen girl kicked out of school for some rebellious, disciplinary action. Surely, you would assume, that in the final act, she will make use of this same skill to save herself, you know attaching a payoff to a setup. This never happens. It’s just one poorly executed attack sequence after another with nothing to offer but forced irony. It feels like random scenes that just stretch and stretch and it’s hard to even bother paying attention. The kills are lame, the suspense set pieces are dumb, and the attackers are boring. How the hell do these people get the jump on everybody? It’s like they can choose to make sound or not. Listen for the looming 80s soundtrack as a giveaway, people. The Strangers: Prey at Night is worth burying in the past.
And the worst film of 2018 is….
1) Death of a Nation
Dinesh D’Souza is four-for-four on my worst of the year lists. I could make fun of the stodgy dramatic recreations. I could write an entire essay on the logical fallacy and open insult of comparing Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, let alone smashing their faces together as the key poster art. I could laugh at D’Souza crediting himself as playing some small part for electing Trump. I could complain of D’Souza’s tortured, leaning style with interview subjects, desperately trying to coax them into saying the hidden phrase he’s in search of. The careful way he handles Spencer is bizarre, as if he didn’t want to upset the white nationalists who might buy tickets. The technical merits of this movie are beyond the point, not that there was much merit to them to begin with. A funny thing happened weeks before the release of this movie in the summer of 2018. President Trump officially pardoned Dinesh D’Souza for his federal campaign finance crimes, sparing him a felonious record (though the rub is to accept a pardon one must accept guilt too). Is it possible that this entire film project was conceived as a means of flattering Trump and working forward the possibility of a pardon for its filmmaker? After three movies of disingenuous gambits, I wouldn’t put anything past D’Souza. He is, after all, the same man whose 1995 book declared the end of racism yet he routinely tweets racist missives (try and find some innocent meaning in his reference to Obama as a “grown up Trayvon”). Death of a Nation is what D’Souza plans to do with his mighty megaphone, and it turns out it’s blame others and fall back on the same old bromides for his reactionary base. I’m sure in two more years he’ll be fired up again to warn us all about the dire threat not re-electing Trump will pose to our nation, but hopefully by that time the nation will have tuned him out for good.
Dishonorable mention: Vox Lux, Show Dogs, Venom, The Commuter
PART TWO: VARIOUS AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
Best titles of the year: You Were Never Really Here, Backstabbing for Beginners, Boy Erased, Please Stand By
Worst titles of the year: Blue My Mind, Blockers, Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero, Peppermint, Welcome to Marwen, Hunter Killer, Unsane
Titles that could be confused with porn: Juliet, Naked; The Sisters Brothers, On the Basis of Sex, White Boy Rick, Hot Summer Nights, Disobedience, The Rider
Biggest Disappointment of 2018: Hereditary. With the rapturous critical acclaim that Hereditary has garnered, I was expecting something far more engrossing and far less sloppy. Structurally, this movie is a mess. It feels very directionless from a story standpoint, like the movie is wading around and blindly looking for an escape route into the next scene. Rarely will scenes have lasting impact or connect to the following scene; you could literally rearrange the majority of the scenes in this movie and not affect the understanding whatsoever. I got to thinking that if it wasn’t for two offhand moments you would have no idea why anything is happening. I had a friend whose girlfriend had been bugging him for Hereditary spoilers for months, so I carefully explained the movie to them as precisely as I could. By the end, he told me, “I still don’t get it.” Yeah, I didn’t get it either and I was actively trying.
The Best 10 Minutes of 2018: The titular first segment “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” in the new Coen brothers film. The tonal balancing act on this one is pure Coen, at once inviting an audience to nostalgically recall the Westerns of old while kicking you in the teeth with dark, hilariously violent turns that veer into inspired slapstick. There is a delightful absurdity to the segment thanks to the cheerful sociopath nature of Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), the fastest gun in the West that’s eager to show off at a moment’s notice. I could have watched an entire series following Buster Scruggs but it may have been wise to cut things short and not to overstay its novelty.
Runners-up: the X-Force assault in Deadpool 2; Lady Gaga steps onstage to become a star, A Star is Born; Dinner with Jesse Plemons, Game Night; Inside The Shining sequence, Ready Player One.
Bad Marketing Award: Here’s another example of how confusing this Mortal Engines is – the poster image. Go back to it in this review and study it, then ask yourself why the marketing team decided to put the visual emphasis on a woman’s face covered by a bandanna. It’s a movie about giant cities on wheels attacking each other and it also has a zombie Terminator… and the emphasis is on a bandana? If all you saw about the movie was the title and that key poster image, you would never suspect what kind of movie you were in store for, which seems like the exact opposite purpose of advertising. What’s the hook of this image? What’s underneath that bandanna (spoilers: a second smaller bandanna)? What about the tagline that talks about her scar? Did the marketing team actively try and hide the buzzier genre elements? Is this whole movie a tax scam?
Missed Connections Award: I had no idea Taissa Farmiga was going to be in The Nun let alone the co-lead of the movie. As soon as I saw her face I leaned forward, newly intrigued. My working assumption was that the younger Farmiga was going to be the prequel version of the character played by her older sister, Vera Farmiga (yes, they’re sisters and not mother/daughter). Suddenly this made her character that much more interesting and created a direct connection from the events of the nuns to the larger Conjuring universe, providing a back-story for the Warrens to lean upon. And then I found out Taissa Farmiga’s Sister Irene is a separate character from Lorraine Warren. Huh? Of all the young actresses in the world to select, choosing the literal younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who looks strikingly similar, feels far too intentional to be coincidental. Why isn’t she just the younger version of Lorraine Warren, setting her up for a life of hunting the supernatural after this formative experience? She’s even presented as a nun in training and not a full-fledged bride of Christ. Even the decades in age difference would add up. It’s not like you’re playing that close to the facts of the case when it concerns the Warrens who, by modern accounts, are considered frauds by many. Come on Conjuring universe. What are you doing here? The solution was right within reach.
Still Waiting For Any Ending: Gemini, Vox Lux
Best Time I Had in a Theater in 2018: Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Most Gratuitous Moment of 2018: Mary Poppins is a magical creature without clearly defined rules or limits. At any point she might simply have the solution to a problem that she wasn’t sharing. Take for instance the ending (spoilers but really, who cares?) where the lamp lighters and the Banks family race to ole Big Ben to literally “turn back time” by adjusting the clock hands. The lamp lighters use their ladders to free climb the face of the clock to the very top, only to be undone by not being able to reach the minute hand at it nears twelve. Then all of a sudden Mary Poppins scoffs to herself and flies up to the clock face to adjust it. If she could do this the whole time why did these very mortal men risk their lives in this exercise? I think Mary Poppins may be a cruel god (more on this later). The concluding dash to ensure the Banks family can keep their home involves not one, not two, but three deus ex machinas, a “Turducken of ex machinas” as my pal Ben Bailey termed it. Ultimately all of their actions do not even matter because the film routinely provides an unknown escape route that invalidates their efforts. It turns out, in the end, they weren’t even going to lose their home thanks to (at my best guess) a magical bird head that is best friends with the head of a bank and who never mentioned this before, the same head of the bank who has just been off in what appears to be an adjacent room for whatever reason and that also knows that Michael Banks has accrued a hefty fortune from a childhood investment, and has never mentioned it as well except in this crucial moment. Why, why does Mary Poppins Returns do this? Why does it present stakes or the illusion of stakes only to sabotage them every time?
Runner-up: Decapitated wolf head in Mowgli, sparing the dinosaurs because they’re alive “like me” in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the overall length of atmospheric movies without the plot to compensate such as Suspiria, Annihilation, Mandy, Hereditary, etc.
R.I.P. Franchises: Tomb Raider, Solo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Goosebumps 2, Michael Moore, mainstream documentary filmmaker
“I Should Go Home and Watch ‘Apollo 13’” Award: First Man
“I Should Go Home and Watch ‘Elizabeth’” Award: Mary Queen of Scots
“I Should Go Home and Watch ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’” Award: Fahrenheit 11/9
Kick in the Teeth Award: It’s at its very end where BlackkKlansman reminds you just how sadly relevant it still is today. Just because our characters have foiled a band of racists doesn’t mean racism has been eradicated. Instead, as the film suggests, it evolves, and Spike Lee concludes with an impactful montage of news footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and President Trump contorting to find fault on “both sides” when clearly one side was murderous and racist. You even see real-life David Duke on the premises spewing his re-branded style of hate. The evolution of white supremacy demagoguery has become political, and it has found cover under the guise of a president eager to stoke racial resentments and divisions to his advantage. He’s normalized the abhorrent behavior and given it mainstream cover. It’s a powerful and lasting conclusion (much in the same way as the montage of Hollywood’s harmful depiction of black people in Bamboozled – including the Klan hero worship in Birth of a Nation) that should remind people that the threats of racism and Nazis and the KKK are not a thing of the past. It is very much a staple of the present, and how much it is allowed to remain a staple is up to the moral outrage of voters.
Worst Line of Dialogue: Life Itself has a line it’s so proud of that it makes it a central observation of a doctoral thesis and has multiple characters repeat it over different eras. It’s about the nature of the unreliable narrator in fiction and then Olivia Wilde excitedly posits, “Life is the ultimate unreliable narrator.” What does “life is an unreliable narrator” exactly mean? I understand the implication of unexpected twists and turns, but life is objective, it’s more a medium for events that others will impart differing perceptions…
Best Onscreen Death: The final, bloody, slippery face-off in Revenge. The final act ramps up the bloodletting to an almost comic degree. Characters are literally slipping and sliding on the floor from the copious amount of blood spilled.
Runner’s-up: Zombie bear mauling, Annihilation; the final kill in Mandy; “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good” in Avengers: Infinity War; Charlie’s decapitation of Hereditary.
2018 LGBTQ Representation in Cinema: Love, Simon; Lizzie, The Favourite, Bohemian Rhapsody, Boy Erased, The Miseducation of Cameron Poe, Green Book, Disobedience, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Suspiria, Duck Butter, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Assassination Nation, Colette, A Simple Favor, Tully, Blockers, A Fantastic Woman
2018 LGBTQ Films Starring Rachel Weisz: The Favourite, Disobedience
2018 LGBTQ Films Starring Rachel Weisz Where She Spits into Rachel McAdams’ Mouth: Disobedience. Hey, to each their own.
Most Ridiculous Plot Element of 2018: Show Dogs promoting the grooming of children for abuse. It’s hard to fathom that for two weeks a major release intended for children had an actual, honest-to-God character arc involving a show dog having to learn to simply accept a grown man handling his genitals. Advocates pointed out how this misguided storyline would groom vulnerable children for sexual abuse, teaching them to, like the hero dog, find a happy place to mentally escape to and accept the genital fondling. How did this go through multiple levels of editorial oversight? The scenes have since been cut from the finished film now available, but what in the world were people thinking?
Second Most Ridiculous Plot Element of 2018: autism as super power in The Predator. We need to talk about the film’s views on autism (there will be some spoilers in this paragraph, so skip ahead if desired). Rory McKenna is of that kind of Hollywood Autism, the kind we see on TV (The Good Doctor) or of classic movies (Rain Man). It’s the designation of autism as a gateway to super powers (never mind that having savant abilities only impacts ten percent at best). Whatever, it’s an unrealistic depiction in an age of better, more nuanced depictions of mental health and disabilities. Where The Predator gets crazy is when Dr. Brackett offers this nugget: “You know many people think autism is just the next step in human evolution.” No. Nobody thinks this. As someone who has worked extensively with children with autism, this is not a thing. I’m not saying by any rationale that those with autism are lesser by any means but they’re no more the next stage in human evolution than any other condition. Ask a person with autism if they feel like the next stage in human evolution, like an X-Men mutant. What makes matters worse is that Black confirms this strange notion when the Super Predator, surprise surprise, was most impressed with Rory McKenna and not his big bad dad. The Super Predator plans to take the kid back to, presumably, harvest his autism DNA so the future predators will… know how to fly their spaceships that they already know how to fly? I don’t know.
Runners-up: the last act of Sorry to Bother You; the Snapchat filter demon face of Truth or Dare; the many many plot holes of Venom, chief among them Riz Ahmed as a villain.
Better First Half: Vice, Widows, Bad Times at the El Royale, Cloverfield Paradox
Better Second Half: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Halloween, Suspiria, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Mandy
The Next Yanny/Laurel Test: I invite all readers to re-watch the trailer for Peppermint and apply this simple listening test. It opens with Jennifer Garner repeating the precious nursery rhyme claim about her daughter’s virtues. She has “love in her heart, snow in her eyes,” and the final claim, “peppermint in her blood.” At least I’m certain it’s got to be “blood,” because the first time I watched this trailer and my ears got a hold of that line, it genuinely sounded like Garner was saying “peppermint in her butt.” This flummoxed me and even more so that they would name the movie after this. Try it yourself and see what you hear, then listen for the other word. If I concentrate on either interpretation, I can hear it. Regardless of whether this “butt” vs. “blood” mystery can ever be resolved, the filmmakers decided to cut the entire verbal exchange from the finished version, leaving no reason for Peppermint to be called Peppermint other than the daughter’s passing affinity for the ice cream flavor.
The Biggest Mystery of 2018 Solved: Remarkably, a solid 80 percent of the abysmal trailer for Sherlock Gnomes is not in the finished film. The fart Jacuzzi? Gone. The “no ship Sherlock” bit? Gone? The thong-wearing gnome twerking? Gone. This fascinates me. We’ve long been plagued with trailers that ultimately have moments not in the final product, but I’ve never seen a movie, let alone an animated feature, where the clear majority of its trailer does not exist. Animated films take many years in development and are generally costly. If a live-action film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost those days of work. If an animated film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost months if possible years of toil. How does this happen? Was the trailer an intentional ruse meant to advertise a far more juvenile, base, and dispiriting movie? The trailer features several jokes or references that, I assumed, were never intended for the final product because these scenes involve the other gnomes who were kidnapped. That means they were animated and either radically changed the story or these jokes were cynically constructed to produce a misleading trailer to appeal to children with farts. This truly fascinates me and befuddles me, a worthy mystery for Sherlock Gnomes. After publishing this observation in my review, I actually had somebody involved in this very movie contact me and confirm all my suspicions. I didn’t expect that to happen. The Internet is an amazing place.
The Impossible Mustache: It was a year ago that Justice League re-shoots required Cavill and the Mission: Impossible team refused to allow their actor to shave his mustache, thus leading to that unsettling fake baby lip Superman was sporting in a majority of his scenes in the haphazard Justice League film. I read an AV Club interview with Christopher McQuarrie where he for the first time discusses the whole mustache brouhaha and apparently Paramount estimated that it would have cost them three million for the effects to uphold Cavill’s upper lip continuity. Warner Brothers refused to pay up and so went down that ill-fated CGI mustache-removing route. It was shortly afterwards that Cruise shattered his ankle in a roof-leaping stunt (that is in the finished film and advertisements) and the production had to shut down for a month. If only Warner Brothers had waited, perhaps we all could have avoided this mustache mess.
Best Villain of 2018: Sound itself in A Quiet Place. Have fun trying to unwrap your candy, chew your popcorn, or make any other sound in a theater.
Runner’s-up: Michelle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians, Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther; Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War; Ivan Drago Jr., Creed II.
Favorite Line From a Review in 2018: From Red Sparrow: “Once Dominika is at her spy school, that’s when the movie really starts. I was getting awfully sleepy as the movie just seemed to drift along. I know a high school student who saw the movie and he said, ‘I fell asleep at the beginning, and then I woke up later and it was STILL the beginning!'”
Runners-up: From Ready Player One: “We’re watching a bunch of teenagers fight against The Man taking control of their play space and corporatizing it. That feels like the VR equivalent of, ‘We gotta save the rec center from those evil land developers who just don’t get the communal power of art, man.'”
From Fifty Shades Freed: “Does anybody want to check in with Cinderella and Prince Charming arguing over who has to do the dishes (trick question: it’s the servants)?”
PART THREE: OVERALL MOVIE GRADES
I have reviews and mini-reviews for almost all of the graded movies listed below.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
A Quiet Place
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Sorry to Bother You
Bad Times at the El Royale
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
If Beale Street Could Talk
Mom and Dad
A Star is Born
Three Identical Strangers
Unfriended: Dark Web
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Avengers: Infinity War
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Crazy Rich Asians
Death of Stalin
The First Purge
The House with the Clock in its Walls
Isle of Dogs
Ready Player One
Sicario: Day of the Soldado
A Simple Favor
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
You Were Never Really Here
The Equalizer 2
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald
Mary Queen of Scots
The Miseducation of Cameron Poe
Pacific Rim Uprising
Blue My Mind
The Little Stranger
A Futile and Stupid Gesture
The Girl in the Spider’s Web
The Hurricane Heist
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Super Troopers 2
15:17 to Paris
Fifty Shades Freed
The Happytime Murders
Life of the Party
Welcome to Marwen
Mary Poppins Returns
The Strangers Prey at Night
Truth or Dare
A Wrinkle in Time
Death of a Nation