For the film industry, 2018 was, in many ways, a turning point — a moment in which the combination of years-long calls for proportionate representation, the rolling aftershocks of #MeToo and #TimesUp, and the increased availability of inclusive storytelling resulted in a rich assortment of movies and moviemakers, painting on canvasses as vast as the IMAX screen and as small as the iPhone screen. If you go to the trouble of reading about movies in this space, I thank you sincerely. May I repay your kindness by recommending a film or two (or 30) from the past 12 months that are worth your time and trouble, along with where you can see them most easily?
SPECIAL JURY PRIZE
The Other Side of the Wind / Amazing Grace
I’ve never swiped this film festival–friendly consolation prize designation (Roger Ebert used to do it, but some things only Ebert could do), and yet it seems like the only way to properly recognize these two films, both of which are easily among the top 10 films of their respective categories — but both are long-delayed assemblies of works shot in the 1970s (the first by Orson Welles, the second by Sydney Pollack), so to rank them among contemporaries seems like cheating. I mean, let’s face it, popular art was generally better back then, and both feel like works that are just impossible now (even if their creators were still with us). Or, to look at it from the opposite direction, maybe they seem better than they are because of the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, to say nothing of the delicious flavor of unavailability for decades? Better just to put them here, to mark them as great, and to move on to the business at hand. [On Netflix / back in theaters, early 2019]
DOCUMENTARY TOP 10
10 (tie). Elvis Presley: The Searcher / The Zen Diaries of Gary Shandling
Maybe I’m already cheating by making tenth place a tie so this can be a list of 11; maybe I’m already cheating by including a pair of four-hour, two-part documentaries that played on HBO, so they should probably be on a TV list I didn’t do. I don’t care — I make the rules, and I want to recognize both of these considerable achievements, loving and in-depth tributes to true innovators of their fields, told with the proper mixture of reverence and candor, augmented by impressive nonfiction craft. [On HBO Go/Now]
- Crime + Punishment
A sprawling and intricate look at corruption and intimidation in the NYPD from director Stephen Maing, expertly using the issue of collar and citation quotas as an entry point to investigate the general culture of inequality that infests the department (and has, it seems, forever). Maing directs with the proper mixture of reporter’s doggedness and activist’s anger. [On Hulu]
- Bathtubs Over Broadway
An exercise in pure joy, this witty and winking picture begins as a profile of Steve Young, a Late Show with David Letterman writer who discovered, via his work for the show, the forgotten sub-genre of “industrial musicals”: elaborately composed and staged Broadway-style extravaganzas, mounted for corporate events, and immortalized on rare collector’s albums. Director Dava Whisenant is first content to look over Young’s shoulder as his smarmy detachment turns into genuine affection. But somewhere along the way, we become just as attached and fascinated — because the movie ultimately is less about industrial musicals than it is about the weird obsessions that take us all over. [In theaters]
- Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
“This isn’t another white savior story,” Travis Wilkerson explains, early in this searing, insightful essay film. “This is a white nightmare story.” Inspired by the Zimmerman verdict and BLM protests, the filmmaker investigates “a family legend,” his great-grandfather’s October 1946 murder of an unarmed black man, turning over rocks and digging up graves, indulging in long, searching monologues in a quiet, almost conspiratorial voice-over. It’s a tough film, with no easy answers. But these questions must be asked. [On Amazon, DVD]
- Bisbee ‘17
Robert Greene’s latest, boundary-breaking fusion of documentary and narrative — following Actress and Kate Plays Christine — is also his most ambitious, dramatizing the 1917 Bisbee Deportation (in which thousands of strikers, most of them immigrants, from the local copper mine were taken from the city of Bisbee, Arizona by gunpoint, loaded onto trains, and sent into the New Mexico desert). As with Did You Wonder, Bisbee is a story about stirring up ghosts, not just to tell a story or cause trouble, but to peer with clear eyes into the past, and try to use it to understand the present.
- Three Identical Strangers
A stranger-than-fiction story, masterfully told, of three young men who meet in college, discover they were triplets separated at birth, and then… well, that’s where one should stop. The degree to which director Tim Wardle controls information, what he reveals and what he hides, has stricken some critics (fairly, perhaps) as manipulative. But he’s working in a specific style here, similar to that of Dear Zachary, in which the tools of documentary are comported into a shock-twist construction, to devastating effect. This one blindsided me; your mileage may vary. [On Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, DVD, Blu-ray]
Like Bathtubs, Sandy Tan’s memory doc begins with a subject so specific as to seem insular — the story of how she and her friends, fresh out of high school, tried (and failed) to make their own low-budget movie — and slowly, subtly expands into something much more. It’s a movie about being a weirdo, finding your flock, and in them, finding yourself; it’s also a gripping mystery, about the enigmatic figure who encouraged and assisted them, and then… didn’t. Sharp, elegiac, thought-provoking filmmaking. [On Netflix]
- Hale County This Morning, This Evening
RaMell Ross’ observational documentary is so offhand — impressionistic and expressionistic, full of everyday moments grabbed and exploded — that it’s easy to overlook the skill of what he’s doing, and the emotions packed therein. But this is a work of overwhelming power and potent lyricism, the kind of movie that sneaks up when you’re not looking, and invades your psyche. A marvelous movie.
- Minding the Gap
Bing Liu has such a great eye, and captures the energy and movement of skateboarding so masterfully, he clearly could’ve taken all of his great footage of he and his friends riding and hanging and made a great little movie about skateboarding. He did much more. The years he spent with that camera in his palm clearly disarmed his circle of friends, who allowed him to craft a portrait of young adulthood that’s startling in its intimacy and insight – as potent a portrait of toxic masculinity and the cycles of abuse as I’ve ever seen. [On Hulu]
- Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
Real talk: there were probably documentaries of tighter craft or greater emotional heft this year, but I can’t escape the idea that Alexis Bloom’s bio-doc is the non-fiction film of 2018, because it so keenly understands and explains how we got into this giant, flaming toilet fire. Ailes was a sexual harasser, a propagandist, a bully, and arguably the most important, influential media and political figure of the 21st century; Bloom sees him as a skeleton key that unlocks our climate of belligerent ignorance, blind narcissism, partisanship as sportsmanship, and preening “masculinity.” She figures him all the way out, and watching her do so is both thrilling and informative. And, of course, infuriating. [In theaters]
HONORABLE MENTION: Charm City, The Gospel According to Andre, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, Studio 54, Hal, Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, The Rape of Recy Taylor, and Monrovia, Indiana.
NARRATIVE TOP 20
Some quick thoughts on 20-11, and then a bit more on the top 10.
- Game Night: Because first-rate studio comedy is harder than it looks; because making a studio comedy that’s visually stylish is damn near a miracle; because Rachel McAdams is a frigging gift. [On HBO GO/Now, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, DVD, Blu-ray]
- Mission: Impossible – Fallout: Because if we’re going to have this many godforsaken franchises, we may as well have a good one. [On Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, DVD, Blu-ray]
- The Endless: A Primer-style micro-budget indie science fiction movie of ideas over effects (though there are some good ones), full of rich characterizations, unexpected turns, and copious amounts of dread. [On Netflix, DVD, Blu-ray]
- The Miseducation of Cameron Post: Desiree Akhavan’s sophomore feature has a premise that could’ve gone sideways a million ways, into maudlin and/or mawkish territory, which is why she was the right director for it — her idiosyncratic style and sharp wit keeps the whole thing above-board. (And Variety’s kneecapping of the picture in their year’s-worst list is another shameful critical misstep in a year full of them.) [On Amazon, DVD]
- Nico, 1988: In a year of drearily rote musical biopics, allow me to direct you to the anti-Bohemian Rhapsody, a crisply-drawn character study of a legend’s sunset, with Trine Dyrholm a revelation in the title role. [On Hulu, DVD, Blu-ray]
- The Rider: Chloé Zhao has a gift for capturing the listlessness of her subjects, directing in an uncluttered, no-nonsense style that fuses the naturalism of documentary with the beauty of a good Western. [On DirecTV, Starz, DVD, Blu-ray]
- Cold War: A shattering anti-romance in gorgeous black and white, delivered in less than 90 minutes. What God have I pleased? [In theaters]
- Tully: Somehow or another, the creative team behind Young Adult reunited for another story of pre-midlife crisis that was equally painful and unnervingly real, and it felt like nobody noticed. What the hell? [On Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, DVD, Blu-ray]
- Eighth Grade: Elsie Fisher is tremendous, Josh Hamilton is a mensch, and Bo Burnham’s direction is astonishingly sensitive — he knows exactly when to keep his distance, and when to come in close enough for a hug. [On Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, DVD, Blu-ray]
- Madeline’s Madeline: An ideal double-feature with Eight Grade, featuring another bravura performance by its young lead and another achingly uncomfortable portrait of the woes of teenage-hood, augmented by a fascinating uber-text about the blurry line between representation and exploitation. [On Amazon Prime Video]
NARRATIVE TOP 10
Even the best of Spike Lee’s recent output has suffered from mild whiplash of content and tone, a sense that the filmmaker has so much to say and so many ways to say it and it’s all going in, consistency by damned. And it’s not that this approach shifted in his latest feature; it’s that he’s tackling a subject at a cultural moment where it not only feels acceptable, but necessary. The current, flaming-tire-rolling-through-the-town-square iteration of America is one that’s finally moving at Spike Lee’s speed, and at that of his attention span. And BlacKkKlansman pulses with the urgency, anger, and take-no-prisoners humor of his very best works. [On Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, DVD, Blu-ray]
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
James Franco’s horse stretching to eat the crabgrass. Tom Waits in trees, muttering to himself. The way Bill Heck looks at Zoe Kazan, and how she begins to see him the same way. Tyne Daly’s naked contempt for every other person in her stagecoach. Liam Neeson’s long, slow walk back to the cart. This Western anthology from the Coen Brothers could have crumpled in any number of ways — it’s a traditionally tricky form — but it’s so loaded with unforgettable images, unexpected moments, and unforced symmetry, it just plain sings. (Sometimes literally.) [On Netflix]
Director Lee Chang-dong performs one of the year’s most graceful pivots, moving seamlessly from character-driven relationship drama (about a boy, a girl, and the boy who takes her away) to obsessive mystery (the girl disappears, and the first boy becomes convinced it’s the second’s doing). He pulls off the switch by anchoring it in feeling rather than plotting; there’s a specific, horrible sensation of just knowing that someone’s up to no good, and also being aware that knowing isn’t enough. But none of that would’ve mattered without the perfect notes sounded by co-star Steven Yeun, who manages to make his “other man” character both an utter enigma and a guy we’ve all met a million times. [In theaters]
Alfonso Cuarón’s latest cements, for this viewer at least, his most striking quality: few filmmakers working today are as skilled at summoning up empathy for their characters, for making their struggles not only real, but wrenching. Two scenes in Roma — both done, as has become his style, in long, unbroken takes — take protagonist Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) to the precipice of life and death, and it’s hard to imagine being more involved with a character than we are with her, in those moments. And that, in many ways, is what good cinema is all about. [On Netflix]
- First Reformed
Paul Schrader’s previous picture, Dog Eat Dog, was so bug-eyed gonzo, it sort of goes without saying that he’d try something a bit more austere in its wake; practically anything would be. But I don’t think anyone was expecting him to come up with one of his finest pictures, functioning both as a collection and summary of his career-long preoccupations and the presentation of a vital, urgent new approach to said concerns. And all the praise that’s been heaped upon Ethan Hawke’s deeply felt leading turn is earned — and then some. [On Prime Video, DVD, Blu-ray]
If we’re all agreed that Green Book is this year’s Driving Miss Daisy (and it is), then it seems fair to position this as the corollary to Do the Right Thing — a full-volume blast of timely commentary, earthy humor, and inventive filmmaking, as proudly provocative as it is fiercely entertaining. And as with DTRT, its ending has proven particularly divisive, but it requires a similar leap of faith; if we’re doing this thing, we’re going all the way with it. Your mileage may vary, but this viewer found Blindspotting to be both uproariously funny and thrillingly alive. [On Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, DVD, Blu-ray]
- Private Life
Late in Private Life, there’s a scene where its protagonists (played with prickly perfection by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) receive the latest of several pieces of bad news. As they try to process it, the husband tells his wife, simply, “I just don’t have it in me” — i.e., the ability, at that moment, to sympathize, be there for her, and do the things he’s supposed to do. It’s a moment of naked imperfection and honest weakness, and the way it’s played, both the simplicity with which it’s delivered and the heartbreak with which it’s received, that gets at the power of Tamara Jenkins’ third feature. It’s one of those miracle screenplays — Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond used to write them — where every line is a perfectly polished gem, yet it doesn’t feel overwritten; it’s still offhand and authentic and grounded in this very particular reality. (The lives of these again New York writers are pitched with such accuracy, I all but ducked.) And Giamatti and Hahn have never been better — which is, yes, quite a bold statement. [On Netflix]
- Leave No Trace
Debra Granik took eight years to make her narrative follow-up to Winter’s Bone, and I’d complain louder if it wasn’t worth the wait. In telling the story of a tightly-bound father and daughter (a terse Ben Foster and the remarkable Thomasin McKenzie) whose off-the-grid existence is turned inside out, Granick wisely tunes in to their wavelength — these two know each other so well, they speak in silences, and the movie does the same. This is the kind of thing it’s so easy to do badly, to sensationalize or condescend, and Granik never steps wrong. [On Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, DVD, Blu-ray; on Prime Video 1/3]
- If Beale Street Could Talk
Moonlight is so exceptional, so note-perfect in its aesthetics and heartfelt in its storytelling, that it would seem impossible that director Barry Jenkins could possibly match it. And then he went off and matched it. [In theaters]
- You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ novella runs a lean, mean 89 minutes, which I mention not as a selling point for busy folks (although, hey, bonus), but to illustrate its methodology. It’s easy to imagine any number of filmmakers filling out a good two-and-a-quarter-hours with this story of a for-hire vigilante and the job that gets away from him; Ramsay instead strips it down, squeezing out all the bloat, shearing off every scene you’ve seen before, and concentrating on the tiny, telling moments before and after them. The result is a film both brutal and intimate, both upsetting and sublime, with yet another barnburner of a Joaquin Phoenix performance at its center. I saw this one at Sundance, clear back in January, and it’s been rattling around in my head ever since. [On Prime Video, DVD, Blu-ray]
HONORABLE MENTION: Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Shoplifters, Thunder Road, The Guilty, Paddington 2, We the Animals, Wildlife, The Sisters Brothers, The Old Man & The Gun, The Party’s Just Beginning, Small Town Crime, Blaze, The Favourite, Suspiria, Hereditary, Mandy, Lean on Pete, Halloween, Colette, CAM, A Star is Born, Bikini Moon, and Annihilation.