Reflecting on 2018 I can only admit that for most of the year the box office was a static place for me. Nothing Hollywood released (save one film listed below) moved me for most of the first half of 2018. The thought did cross my mind that maybe I’m just not that into this anymore? Maybe it was this particular cultural climate that was turning me off to film? The American Art Resistance movement (see the unconscionably overrated The BlacKkKlansman for reference) just doesn’t do anything for me. Too many of these protest motion pictures have a shelf life of a single year before being banished onto streaming services to make room for next year’s social justice champion (anyone still watching The Post?) whatever pissy mood the artistic zeitgeist might be in by then.
That’s not the kind of movie fanatic I am.
I can be fairly fanatical about this artistic medium. (I flew to Milwaukee to see The Predator opening night with my friends in September) Not so much when it’s Trojan-horsed with political incentives. In fact, until recently, the best cinema viewing experience I had this last year was curling up on the couch with my daughter (9) and two nieces (10 and 12 respectively) and watching Simon West’s 2006 remake of When a Stranger Calls together. An admittedly minor league PG-13 horror release that I doubt anyone would call a home run, but was, in fact, an impressionable – and highly terrifying – motion picture for three little girls who could immediately identify with the predicament an adult psychopath could devise for a relatively harmless high school babysitter alone at a house in the middle of nowhere. We had the time of our lives that evening. I can still hear their squealing in my ears these many months later – a sort of gateway-horror-movie-induced tinnitus if you will.
I only repeated that illusion of nostalgic euphoria later when my brother and I went to see a late opening night showing of David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel. A film that didn’t seem to care who was president right now, or how diverse the messaging needed to be to tiptoe past the audience unscathed. Halloween was just fun. And sure, fiendishly spooky and violent as well. I soon discovered that whatever questions I had about my loyalty to the medium seemed to dissipate dramatically the second I saw Michael Myers put on that William Shatner fright mask for the first time in 40 years. In that simple conversion from killer to killer-in-mask I realized instantly that I still love going to the movies. Thankfully the cinema crop got better in the final months of 18′ otherwise I doubt I’d have the interest in writing this piece. A piece that I still put a ton of thought, energy, and finance into. A piece I plan on writing every year for as many years as I have left.
One last bit of business before moving on. Can we just take a moment and acknowledge that Netflix upped its streaming game in 2018? The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Black Mirror choose-your-own-adventure feature film Bandersnatch, (honestly the moment that I realized that the evolution of streaming just took a massive leap ahead in one 90-250 minute interactive film experience) and Mike Flannagan’s lavish spook-house mini-series The Haunting of Hill House were all solid candidates for the list below. It was a phenomenal year for the stay-at-home cinemaphile. Especially all 450+ minutes of Hill House. A ten course banquet for horror fans and storytelling aficionados alike. Few movies moved me, few movies held me in their (admittedly icy) grip like these ten episodes did. For my money this was the single best viewing experience anyone created in 2018. It seems like a terrible undersell to call it simply ‘television.’
Here’s the ten films I really loved in 2018:
DEADPOOL 2 – directed by One of the Guys Who Killed John Wick’s Dog
“I just saw the ad and thought it looked fun.” – Peter
I’ll admit it. Deadpool 2 is junkfood. It’s grossly unhealthy for me, for you, for society in general. Still, as I completely ignored everything in comic book cinema last year, (I ducked out of Ant-Man 2, Black Panther, Aquaman, Avengers.… what are we up to now… 3???) I couldn’t ignore the Deadpool sequel. Much like I can’t ignore The X-Men or Batman, whenever it is he returns in whatever form he returns in. For me these are the only provocative properties in the graphic-novel-to-big-screen industry. Bruce Wayne and The X-Men because they’re morally complicated. Deadpool because he’s morally bankrupt. Leave it to David Leitch – hot off of Atomic Blonde – and his company of Hollywood stuntmen to take up the flag of obliterating the scourge of political correctness. With Deadpool he’s discovered the anti-venom to the pop-culture poison of inclusivity. Wade Wilson is a sensitivity training miscarriage. The shitposter incarnate. With enough molten-hot hot takes and testicular references blurring among the hollow points zipping through the air to make both the evangelical and the liberal evangelical communities dramatically uncomfortable. Do people really find this crass, irresponsible, pee-pee talk funny in 2018? Of course they do. There wasn’t a funnier film last year. As an aside it would be tough to choose which movie has the better halo jump sequence – Mission Impossible 6’s single shot sky fall, or the series of unfortunate events jump in Deadpool 2. If it came down to fortuitous Brad Pitt cameos – and perhaps it should – Deadpool 2 takes home the honors.
BLINDSPOTTING – directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada
“Every time you come around here, Miles, you got me feeling like a monster in my own town! I ain’t no killer.” – Collin
The unfortunate side of entertainment being so closely married to politics is that we get inundated with films with similar social messaging. Police shootings and racism were en’ vogue this last year at the movies. And though Estrada’s debut feature film features an unjustified police shooting near its opening, it still manages to wrestle us free from our individual positions on the controversial subject matter, and just be an incredibly fearless tale of friendship and reconciliation during the neighborhood upheaval of gentrification. The gang-bangers of Oakland are being systematically replaced by an infestation on the scale of The Black Plague. Middle management tech-hipsters are buying up property on the cheap in the hood, and the gunshots and crack houses are being replaced by Jello-shots and tract houses. We follow parolee Collin and his white-hop buddy Miles as they load the furniture and incidentals of their neighbors packing up and moving toward a more affordable rent base. At its core Blindspotting is a buddy picture. Much like Trainspotting or even Dazed and Confused. We’re just hanging out with these two guys – two guys with so much hanging over their heads in this transitional period in their lives and relationship with each other. We genuinely want these two to survive these new streets where the old rules have been abandoned for upward mobility. Meanwhile there’s the murder of a young black man by a police officer looming over the events of the film – lending a level of impending threat to what is generally a very charismatic comedy about two guys of different races running the same race together toward the same goal. The better tomorrow. Blindspotting is one of the best debut feature film I’ve seen in years. One of them. Which brings us to our next film…
A QUIET PLACE – directed by John Krasinski
“You’ll be fine. Your father will always protect you. Your father will always protect you. Always. Listen to me, it’s important that you learn these things. He just wants you to be able to take care of yourself, to take care of me, when I’m old, and grey, and I have no teeth.” – Evelyn
John Krasinski’s first motion picture release was so hot it already garnered its first major studio imitation. Of course I’m referring to Netflix’s The Bird Box – more meme now than film. A Quiet Place was easily one of the year’s biggest surprises. We were all stunned to discover that not only can ‘Jim from The Office’ direct and write – but that he seems to be a natural savant at it. I dare anyone to find a family film that packs this much knockout punch and tension so excruciating, I can only offer Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe as its contemporary competition as far as intensity is concerned. Much like when The Sixth Sense knocked the world over back when it was released in 1999, nearly twenty years later we have the arrival of a major hidden talent in thriller entertainment – and he was hiding behind a desk at Dunder Mifflin for nine years. What the filmmaker gets exactly right here – the thing that makes all that tension and intensity dig its talons deeper into our collective nervous systems – is the careful craft of character development. Which had to be a colossal obstacle considering the constraints Krasinski burdened his script with. There is almost no spoken dialogue in (the aptly titled) A Quite Place. When the Abbot family sit down for dinner together, all as quiet as church mice, and hold hands in prayer, Krasinski’s giving us a vision of the end of human existence not extremely fashionable in apocalyptic fetishism. These are people who just lost the most innocent, most beloved member of their family – their youngest taken brutally and swiftly by a creature from our blackest nightmares – and yet they still have a pronounced faith. They still believe that there is some purpose behind this alien(?) holocaust. In this moment Krasinski gives us the miracle of philosophical perseverance despite all available evidence that the game is over for the human race. He gives us good people who believe, and as a consequence we can’t help but believe in as well. Surely God won’t punish a family who’s already given and lost so much? And then John – the creator behind this fiction – spends ninety minutes applying a diabolical amount of weight and stress to this family we’ve invested so much hope in. And in turn he applies the pressure onto us. This is a directing talent that knows how to exploit stress fractures in his players and his audience. I want more.
EIGHTH GRADE – directed by Bo Burnham
“Over the course of these next thirty minutes we will begin to explore and understand these changing bodies of yours. It’s going to be lit.” – Sex Ed Video
It seems unfair to discuss Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade and not talk about another freshman director’s film using the same stripped-of-paint presentation and subject matter – Jonah Hill’s love letter to preteen tribulation and revelation, the exemplary Mid90s. We received two outstanding first films in 2018, both capturing the photo-realistic magic and horrors in the neutral zone between childhood and fledgling adultism. The reason I’m choosing Eighth Grade is that it’s the more fully formed motion picture. Though made by a filmmaker in the pubescent stage of his career, it certainly feels much more grown up. Eighth Grade is also the more charming selection between the two – though I’m positive there are moments here (that scene in the backseat of the car comes to mind) that will have most adults gripping their armrests in terror. In Bo Bournham’s directorial debut he presents the life of a thirteen year old girl – acne and all. The film is hysterical because life at that age is hysterical. Relationships are literally minefields to wade through carefully. Yet at thirteen we’re all crashing over the battleground in a frantic stampede together, tripping into landmine after landmine. Taking wounds but still surging toward something called a stable friendship. Something called High School. My hope is that Burnham will continue to follow this nearly mythological figure – the human girl – throughout different stages of her life. Simply because I’d like to continue observing her development.
UPGRADE – directed by Lee Whannell
“While I am state-of-the-art, Grey, I am not a ninja.” – STEM
Think of Upgrade as a quasi-splatter film with the Philip K Dickiness of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror blended with a transhuman John Wick revenge edge. But somehow more inventive and ambitious than any of that. Considering it’s limited budget (an estimated 3-5 million) this is a small town science fiction film that still carries the density and complexity of any of the monster budget mainstream Hollywood productions. It looks like Blade Runner – feels like Evil Dead. The crossover only makes any sense once you see it for yourself. Keeping with the limited resources blueprint Lee Whannell cast Tom Hardy’s much more affordable clone, Logan Marshall Green, in the central role as a man crippled and left for dead by conspiracies unknown, and whose second chance at life involves an operating system implant that gives him split second reflexes and cognitive abilities. It’s called – or better stated calls itself – STEM. Its addition to Grey Trace doesn’t make him the T-1000 – he’s still flesh and blood and very much manic from the tragedies that put him in the chair. In that respect Grey is the working man’s super-anti-hero. A technologically enhanced killing machine with many reasons to commit wholesale massacre on the people who murdered his wife and put him in a wheelchair – and the capacity to pull it off in stunning acts of brutality – but with a human conscience clinging on along for the ride. And indeed it’s one hell of a ride. So much so that I didn’t miss skipping most of the Marvel and DC Comics releases last year. (sans Deadpool 2 of course) Upgrade satisfied that need for ultra-graphic graphic novel toned entertainment. Much like 2017’s Logan this is exactly my kind of hero film. Wildly creative and determined enough to topple any of its mega-budget genre competition in the quality department. More so than anything else I saw last year this is the one film I firmly believe needs a sequel. And hopefully soon.
A SIMPLE FAVOR – directed by Paul Feig
“She is an enigma, my wife. That’s what drew me to her. It can also make her impossible. She can be so fiercely private.” – Sean
Think of A Simple Favor as if Alfred Hitchcock existed during the YouTube generation. Though I doubt ol’ Hitch was ever this randy. This seemingly benign mystery thriller is structured in a way that we can’t trust anyone on this – upon cursory examination – suburban reservation. With its restrictive scheduling, rote social rituals, general funk of malaise, and early afternoon martinis. We can only trust that the three principle players – single soccer mom and YouTube rookie, wayward sexpot wife and her literary jock husband – wish to escape this habitat using avenues not suitable for middle American morality. A Simple Favor is urbane, and foxy, and frigid with its comedy. It exists in a state of cruel calculus. Totally fearless pressing up against what the audience will find believable as opposed to what they’ll be immediately entertained by. There’s enough grotesque sexual liberation and dysfunction to uncross even Doctor Freud’s legs. A Simple Favor would easily make a terrific B-side to a double feature featuring Todd Field’s criminally underappreciated Little Children. Just pop some Adderall during the intermission and hold on.
FIRST MAN – directed by Damien Chazelle
“We’re planning on the flight being successful.” – Neil
The single most indomitable force propelling mankind forward through history toward futures unknown isn’t greed or love. It’s doubt. Doubt drove us across oceans. It drove us to use – what now certainly feels like antique – technology to punch a hole through the firmament into the last frontier, the foyer of the gods, the seal of space eternal. We don’t know what we’re capable of. But what we’re certain of is that we’re incapable of simply guessing and not finding out for sure. By the time three men walked on the moon NASA had buried triple their number during the trial stages. And when you experience it like this, from their perspective in the cockpit, using equipment that feels two generations up from Guglielmo Del Lorena’s diving bell, you can understand why the price of admission on the moon was so high. The experiences First Man offer are as unnerving as they are exhilarating. You will also feel that doubt we spoke about. Knowing full well that Armstrong made it to the moon and back First Man will actually have you doubting it’s ever going to be a possibility. This is obviously an extravagantly thought through ploy of the filmmaker. Because Damien Chazelle understands that once we conquer doubt we revel in victories beyond comprehension. First Man is a victory. His best film since Whiplash.
MANDY – directed by Panos Cosmatos
“You’re a special one, Mandy. I, too, am a special one. Let us be so very special together.” – Jeremiah
Stumbling into Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy is like stumbling into a nightmare. But definitely not one of our own. The landscape in this place is too unfamiliar and alien to spawn from our mortal subconscious. Surely the demons in our worst nightmares have nightmares themselves. Unimaginable as those may be. So Panos simply reenacts their dark dreams for us on the silver screen in painstaking detail. His artistic strategy is a psychologically lethal cocktail of liquid LSD and diesel fuel. Mandy is the black metal opera Mayhem never recorded. Guttural and obscene and perversely mystical. Cosmatos is stricken with a strain of Filmmaking lunacy that is both gorgeous and genuinely unstable. We don’t know where we are through most of Mandy, let alone where it is this film is taking us. This is simply a place and time that could only exist in the recesses of a brilliant psychopath’s cortex. It’s a territory to get lost in. And still feel lost once Mandy concludes. The actual viewing experience feels like we’re privy to an outlander’s ceremony – a neolithic ritual splashed in technicolor and carnage and rock guitar. Bearing a plot so cool and uncomplicated it can be conveniently transmitted by a few garish images. All of them carrying Nicolas Cage’s face painted in the blood of his hellion enemies. And yet there are gods here. Gods of mythology and horror. And modern gods that manufacture staggering works of art out of sound and celluloid imagery. And the voices and songs of gods added to the thundering heart of a god we all thought we knew as Nicolas Cage. The real standout, however, is Panos Cosmatos. The rarest breed of filmmaker there is. One seemingly uninfluenced by anyone. A creator whose muse just may be the void itself. That terrifying and wanton chasm that few artists pull anything of any value from, but Cosmatos seems to excavate treasures from with great ease. I’m legitimately apprehensive about what this filmmaker will find down there for his next feature. Surely something special. So very special.
TULLY – directed by Jason Reitman
“I don’t want a stranger in my house. That’s like a Lifetime movie where the nanny tries to kill the family and the mom survives and she has to walk with a cane at the end.” – Marlo
Once this dramedy of maternal dysfunction and restoration has finally concluded, and all of its secrets are laid bare, the profundity of Jason Reitman’s Tully really takes shape. This might be one of the most touching (and thanks to Diablo Cody’s deliriously funny script, certainly out of whack) films about motherhood ever made. It captures the doldrums, the magic, the mania of being the caretaker of a newborn infant. Of being the caretaker of a child with severe emotional issues. What a mother must put herself through to do this intensely difficult job with any degree of success. At the core of it all is Mrs. Mad Max, Charlize Theron, giving the most complicated performance in her admittedly complicated career. She sheds Furiosa. Sheds Atomic Blonde. Packs on twenty pounds of post-pregnancy mom-bod, and though domesticated, we can still feel those embers of noble identity – faint now after years of parentage and marriage – are still viable. She shares a bond with her nighttime nanny (played by Blade Runner 2049’s Mackenzie Davis) a gift from her wealthy brother, who desperately wants the sister he grew up with back. Through this pairing between mother and surrogate – named Tully – a transformation happens. And as the transformation happens a revelation occurs that is so profound we find ourselves eager to watch this story again, if only to see it through a dramatically changed perspective.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS – directed by Jacques Audiard
“You do realize that our father was stark raving mad and we got his foul blood in our veins? That was his gift to us.” – Charlie
When you hear the words ‘unconventional’ in front of the word ‘western’ it’s easy to feel a bit of trepidation. Unconventional is just another way to say said western is as dry and dandruff blanketed as the streets of Tombstone Arizona. These are generally forlorn affairs masticated of any fun and heroism that this proud genre has its foundations in. The Sisters Brothers isn’t that at all. It’s a fun motion picture. Though I doubt we’d ever call Eli and Charlie Sisters (of the brothers Sisters) heroes in any capacity, they are a dauntless duo. More black powder peddlers and coffin-fillers than someone, say, like Roy Rogers. Trading thorny words and bullets with badmen and grifters alike. The boys traverse the west in a persistent state of orneriness, drunkenness, and remarkable unkillability. They’re tough sons of bitches. The unfortunate unconventional trademark comes from French filmmaker Jaucques Audiard and his magician’s bag of invention he pulls a consistent gaggle of surprises from. There’s some threads concerning socialism and alchemy – hermetical illusions not mutually exclusive to each other but rare for this era nonetheless. There’s a town ran by the most dangerous drag queen in western cinema. And there’s Jake Gyllenhaal’s John Morris. Talented tracker and scalp-collector, in addition to being a gentleman of some distinction with dreams to be chased – as well as bountymen and murder-barons to run ragged from. The real standouts are, in fact, the two brothers behind this raucous pile-driver of a western. Both Joaqiun Phoenix and John C. Reilly put in yeoman’s work with the material here. They find the right mixture between merciless and mercilessly funny. The best westerns carry a dynamic chemistry between players, and the charisma – although coarse and corrosive – between these two sibling bounty hunters is the stuff of legend. Hollywood hasn’t produced a western this gritty and this compelling in years. The Sisters Brothers is wild in a way that best describes the period, the geography, as well as the genre. Audiard’s introduction to American cinema is nothing short of the very best thing I saw on the big screen in 2018.